The Hatred That is Gamergate is Legal—The Threat of Violence is Not

It’s kind of weird to see the mainstream media attention about “Gamergate” this week, since I’ve been reading about Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian for months. The fight within the “gaming community” has a lot of different threads, and I could fill multiple blog entries just on the issues in feminism  (which would require multiple posts of background material to put in proper context). But I’m going to focus on a common theme in all of those threads and look at the “discussion” very generally.

The overarching theme of Gamergate is hatred. This is convenient timing because of the recent announcement of a game called “Hatred,” by the studio Destructive Creations. (WARNING: Graphic violence, disturbing content.) “Hatred” and Gamergate have a lot in common: legal justification, cultural ignorance, and poor quality. They’re both about hate and violence, and though they could be an important and useful exploration of serious concepts, they aren’t. Hate is legal; violence is not. I could write about the legal obligations in journalism, but Gamergate is not about game journalism.

The Very Broad Freedom of Speech

The context of the legal justification for saying unpopular and controversial things is important for both of these subjects. Gamergate’s central threads are about the creation of an unpopular, controversial game (Depression Quest), and the unpopular, controversial criticism of games and gamer culture (by Sarkeesian). “Hatred” is already an unpopular and controversial game, and it isn’t even due to be released until next year. Part of all unpopularity and controversy is a response—especially in an age of 2-way media conversations. Under the US Constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court, Quinn, Sarkeesian, and Destructive Creations all have legal protection. Further, anyone who wants to voice that these things are bad and wrong, or great and wonderful, is also protected. Art, art criticism, and criticism of the criticism are all protected. Even this critique of the debate over criticism of the criticism of art is protected from government censorship. (WordPress has no obligation outside of its promulgated policies to host this content, and you have no obligation to read it.) However, this lauded expanse of free speech protection is finite, and both Gamergate and “Hatred” push those boundaries.

  1. The Limits on the Freedom of Speech

Two  limitations of 1st amendment free speech are “incitement” and “threats.” Telling a group of armed militia that “it’s time to take back city hall! Let’s go!” is probably going to fail a 1st amendment defense in court, especially if a gunfight for city hall follows after that speech. Similarly, threatening to shoot up a school if a media critic is allowed to speak there, is not protected speech. Neither are threats against the critic. It makes a lot of sense to limit speech that curtails speech: if the aim is to promote and preserve opportunities for discourse, then at least one limit on speech must be forbidding speech that would limit speech. More simply put (and without deliberately playing on the seeming contradiction), it just makes sense to have a rule that keeps speech alive—and it isn’t actually contradictory to kill speech in order to preserve other speech.

So, criticizing “Depression Quest” for being a bad game is legal. Criticizing it for having a stupid, smelly, dumbface developer is legal (speech doesn’t have to be eloquent, meaningful, valid, or even non-hateful to be protected). But threatening to kill, rape, maim, or torture its developer is illegal. Violating the developer’s privacy by publicly posting personally identifying information with encouragements to assault the developer really undermines any defense that the threats were “obvious hyperbole” and not meant to be taken seriously. A game about senseless murder and mayhem is legally protected, although game stores and platforms have no legal obligation to carry, sell, or promote it. If a court finds that the game incites violent acts through its promotion and glorification of violence, it could find itself outside of 1st amendment protections (though very unlikely). This is extremely difficult to do: while institutions within society consistently ban Mien Kampf or The Anarchist Cookbook, the law does not forbid the sale or possession of these texts. Incitement is a very high and specific standard, and even a game specifically telling players to “go carry out your own Hatred rampage” would be unlikely to meet the historical standard (though it has never been tested against doxing).

  1. Cultural Context

Cultural context matters in our legal system. Laws change around war, legal requirements embrace the development of technology, and law famously alters its own standards over time.

Law only provides a fundamental framework for society. It is a skeleton upon which we layer the flesh of culture, giving specific contours and shape to society. While some speech may be within legal boundaries, it may be culturally problematic. When speech becomes sufficiently toxic or polluted that a media critic has to disable comments on a YouTube video meant to draw out meaningful discussion about an important issue, discourse is impoverished. The purpose is somewhat defeated. This is, of course, a victory for the trolls who wanted to shut down that area of discourse, which is why critics interested in pursuing meaningful discourse need a better strategy.

Similarly, a game might push boundaries of taste or moral mores, but the cultural context of actual events makes a difference as to its reception. There is a somewhat interesting question of whether “Hatred” is fundamentally different from other games that include violence, shooting others with guns, or depictions of hate. I think cultural context helps answer that question, too. The reality of frequent tragic shootings carried out by psychotic men is a relevant backdrop for a game about the same subject. I think Destruction Games places itself on a dangerous edge in producing a game glorifying and promoting the kind of violence that is an active, sensitive, cultural reality. It would be a new exception to protected speech to argue against the legality of such a game, but it would be the kind of exception that has moderately strong cultural pull.

  1. Signs of Weakness

The poor quality of both Gamergate and “Hatred” is reflected in the analysis of legality and culture. If the most compelling response to criticism is “shut up or else I’ll hurt you,” the conversation has reached a sort of rock-bottom (and really, the person who appeals to violence admits defeat by doing so). If the best presentation of a non-art game is a re-creation of 2 decades of angry, psychotic rampages, the project is weak from its inception (and let’s be honest: the gameplay and graphics look pretty weak, too). There are definitely strong, important, and true things to say about games and the criticism of games, and there is room for criticism of critics. There are definitely projects that can explore the non-artistic elements of gameplay and games that can explore and incorporate violence. However, neither of those things is happening here. Just playground bullying and sad, immature efforts at shock-value. And lots of hate.

Waste of Time or Creative Entertainment Medium? Gaming and “Having a Life.”

People approach games differently: Some people want to play games as a means of recreation. Others do it professionally. For some, games are associated with a life spent in parents’ basement eating Cheetos. We ought to be responsible gamers. Games are a creative medium: they provide a framework, but allow a player to create their own story within that setting. Roger Ebert said that for most gamers, “video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.” I want to address three missteps here.

One misguided implication is that people would actually do those positive things if they weren’t playing video games (they would probably be eating fattening foods, watching mindless television, sleeping, or performing boring tasks far beneath their mental capacities in order to get money to keep fueling their fattening foods, mindless television, and videogames). The choice is never seriously “Play Halo or read a great work of literature?” or “Another game of League of Legends or attend a community event in the park?” Those who would choose the latter do so and find themselves free to engage in recreation and videogames another time. Those who are inclined to choose the former are usually looking for ways to avoid the latter choices anyway and will find some other excuse if videogames aren’t available.

The second implication is that video games cannot (or do not) make us cultured, civilized, and empathetic. I think it unlikely that either Saints Row 3 or Call of Duty accomplishes any of these goals, but do games with moral choice systems make us debate ethics? (Deus Ex: Human Revolution still makes my mind reel and has been a good starter for a lot of interesting conversations.) Do MMOs and DOTAs teach us cooperation, coordination, teamwork, planning, and communication? Do Real Time Strategy games teach us resource management and managerial decision making? Well… a lot of the time, maybe not- but I wonder why they do not, because it doesn’t seem to be the game’s fault. I win more League of Legends games when my team communicates and cooperates- the game just rewards that kind of behavior. Many RTS players focus enormously on their resource management and building decisions- again, because the game is more likely to reward you with a win if you manage the resources well. (See: http://www.escapistmagazine.com/videos/view/escapist-expo/6318-Games-in-Non-Gaming-Jobs)

The final implication of Ebert’s statement is that culture and civility is of greater value than whatever videogames do provide. I don’t know what he might mean by “culture,” but I suppose it’s related to positive human expression that accentuates and facilitates the human experience. While toxic behavior abounds in some video games, I maintain games tend to reward civility and positive teamwork more than trolling. But I wonder if he grasps the value of hand-eye coordination and typing practice and user-interface flexibility that videogames train us in.  As our world becomes increasingly digitized and technology becomes increasingly sophisticated and complex, I’m inclined to think that this sort of “play” becomes important for humans the way that “play” is important for animals. Wild animals “play” to sharpen skills (often, either fleeing from predators or chasing prey). Playing videogames may be that sort of practice on technology: learning to cope with different interfaces, making settings and controls work, and figuring out how to best use the parameters of the programming to accomplish a particular goal or task. Maybe Ebert is right that videogames aren’t 19th or early 20th century embodiments of culture- but maybe culture changes.

Why are Video Games Art?

An ongoing debate that interests me is whether video games are art. Some critics feel this debate is meaningless, impossible, or pointless. I disagree on all counts. This requires careful definitions of both “art” and “video game,” and neither side in this debate seems good at defining either. Film critic Roger Ebert has said that video games are not art because they have a point and you can win. Others agree that fine art can’t result from player choices, so the structure of video games precludes them from being art. I argue that most understandings of “art” require involvement by the viewer, and video games only underscore that involvement – but do not deviate from the structure of art.

Art has been defined variously through history: Plato (the forms), Hume (discerned taste), Kant (play between imagination and understanding), Schopenhauer (romanticism), Hegel (expression of universe), Collingwood (emotion), Bell (formalism), Benjamin (art as political), Merleau-Ponty (phenomenology), Sontag (erotics). Under any serious definition that allows architecture, sculpture, painting, poetry, music, and film to be dubbed “art”, video games must also be embraced as art. Note that I speak of potentiality: one may crudely smear paint on a canvas or crack one rock against another, we do not call these artistic paintings or the broken rocks sculptures. Likewise, we are not inclined to call the latest Hollywood summer blockbuster remake of an action film “art like Citizen Kane.” We need not defend Call of Duty or Madden ’12 or pretentious broken indie game #403 as “art.” My argument is not so much that “video games are art” as it is “there are no inherent barriers to prevent video games from consideration as art.” As I present it here, the argument will have two parts.

The first part of the argument is defensive: Why should player choice negate the artistic quality of a game? A good portion of thinkers, artists, and critics (if there is any difference) have valued the interpretation of the artistic piece. Is not a player’s control over the gameplay only a manifestation- a bringing forward- of the interpretations of art? Is it truly an act different in kind to navigate a character through a room than to navigate one’s eyes through a painting? If fine art involves a spectator and interpretation—someone to appreciate the form or interpret the content—there should be no qualm here. I posit that controlling gameplay is aesthetically identical to appreciating and interpreting other art: the viewer makes choices of what to see, where to “go”, and how to approach what is encountered. If there is a complaint about video games, it is that they make clear and obvious the processes that are often hidden from ourselves about our interactions and interpretations with The Aesthetic.

The second part of the argument is affirmative: Video games are art because they meet the requirements of the definition (of art).  I don’t have space here to outline each of even the major theories of art. But many concepts of art center around either the nature of the art itself (“formalism”) or the content it expresses (a focus on emotion). Video games have shown they can excel in either or both of these categories. Kant’s explication of beauty (in Critique of Judgment) relies on a notion of “play” between one’s faculties of imagination and understanding. Certainly, no medium “plays” more with a person than a game. Perhaps, on this view, all other beautiful art- paintings, sculptures, movies, and the rest- are actually games. And what’s more— the better the game is, the more beautiful it is.

If video games are not art, they are “superart:” some new mesh of artist and patron, their combined efforts of creativity and interpretation brought to new levels of involvement and interactivity. Perhaps the complaint that video games are not art is a cry of jealousy that no previous medium has the potential to explore the Aesthetic at this level.

Videogames: The medium that makes you proud.

I saw a video on youtube in which a comedian mocked the point that no medium other than video games denies a part of itself to you if you aren’t good enough at it. I have two responses.

First, most media do deny a part of themselves to you if you aren’t good at comprehending them. This works on two levels: For one thing, you have to actually pay attention to what’s going on. People who try to multitask or lose interest in, say, a film are the ones asking me ¾ of the way through “What’s going on? Why did that character do/not do that thing?” For another thing, if you fail to think critically about the movie, you miss larger messages and ideas and themes the movie has. This goes for other entertainment media as well: my 11th and 12th grade English classes demonstrated to me how much depth there could be in a book, and how devices from syntax to imagery can add substance to the book not explicitly stated on the pages. If you aren’t good at reading, watching, or listening, the medium denies you its full meaning and significance.

Second, Todd Howard (in last year’s D.I.C.E. keynote) pointed out that video games allow players to feel pride. People are rarely “proud” after reading a book (unless it was excessively long or written in a way difficult to get through), or watching a movie or listening to an album. Everyone feels good after beating a hard level or solving a puzzle or overcoming a challenge. Bad video games “deny” themselves to you if you “aren’t good enough.” Good video games help you and motivate you to use the tools you have to overcome a challenge and be rewarded with what you seek (great story, more killing, new puzzles, etc.) If video games did not offer a challenge, there would be no potential for pride.