An increasing number of video games focus on empathetic identification across difference. Since the mid-2000s, games that encourage catharsis and immersive engagement with trauma range from the personal as in That Dragon, Cancer (2014), in which players experience what it is like to parent a terminally ill child to geopolitical struggles as in Peacemaker (2007) which encourages player empathy for both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. These games are rapidly gaining in popularity and commercial backing. As more games focus on issues of social justice, the backlash against these concerns among a vocal segment of the gaming community is increasing in frequency and intensity. A branch of the men's rights movement has focused on video games aimed at understanding difference, and has attracted attention suggesting that all those advocating for social justice in games (dubbed Social Justice Warriors) should be understood to have narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). We argue that these claims to NPD need to be understood as a form of structural ableism mobilized by the men's rights movement. In doing so, we argue that by situating the mental health labels evoked by current men's rights' activist rhetoric about feminist anti-racist interventions in game culture is a new form of the old practice of attaching mental health labels to people challenging social norms underpinning the dominant culture.
"The moment a feeling enters the body is political"
Video game culture is changing and some gamers are very angry about it. There are an increasing number of scholars, developers, players, and game companies resisting the notion that the default gamer identity is a white, cisgender man. GamerGate (GG) is a violent movement that emerged as a backlash to progressive changes beginning to transform gamer culture. GG began as a personal attack against independent game designer Zoe Quinn. Quinn's game, aimed partially at teaching empathy and titled Depression Quest, attempts to demonstrate to players what it is like to live with depression. Quinn's game received positive reviews from mainstream game critics in forums including the widely read gaming publication Rock, Paper, Shotgun. Following the reviews, Quinn's abusive ex- boyfriend Eron Gonji claimed that Kotaku's Nathan Grayson (with whom Quinn was in a romantic relationship at the time) had given her game a positive review because of nepotism. While this claim was almost immediately disproven (Grayson had in fact never reviewed Depression Quest), the harassment and doxing 1 of Quinn and other women game designers was unleashed by gamers under the guise of championing 'ethics' in videogame journalism. The online harassment campaign occurred under the hashtag #GamerGate. In this way, a personal attack by an abusive ex-partner against one woman designer instigated what was widely referred to as "the most vicious online backlash against feminism in a generation" (Jason, 2015). Antifeminist actor Adam Baldwin launched the GG movement in 2014 when he used the hashtag #GamerGate in a sexualized, harassing Twitter post targeting Zoe Quinn (Kidd & Turner, 2016). Anonymous commenters and gamers enraged at the growing challenges being posed to a white male status quo in the gaming industry repeatedly used this hashtag to threaten, intimidate and demean advocates for social justice.
In this article, we analyze the ways that mental health labels were specifically deployed by proponents of GG to undermine feminist and antiracist activists intervening in mainstream game culture. Specifically, we locate the rhetoric mobilized by the GG movement against those they term 'social justice warriors' (a term used as a derogatory insult) within a broader historical trend of using ableist discourse to undermine the challenges posed by the intersection of women, people of colour and people with disabilities. In doing so, we aim to historicize the practice of using mental health labels to weaken those challenging systemic inequalities. Rather than a coincidence, the recurring references to mental health diagnoses in GG discourse is what disability studies scholars Mitchell and Snyder refer to as a "narrative prosthesis" (2000, p. 47). GG constructions of "social justice warriors" represent them as sick, with a particular emphasis on diagnosing them with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).
As more games center marginalized communities and inequality, the violent resistance to these concerns among a vocal segment of the (largely white and male) gaming community is increasing in frequency and intensity. The widely publicized harassment campaign that targets women and feminists now referred to as GG, and the paratexts surrounding it, form the basis for our case study. The GG movement began as a hashtag on Twitter and its members are active on platforms including Youtube, 4chan, 8chan and boards on Reddit such as Reddit's /r/ KotakuInAction (Massanari, 2017). 2 4chan—an anonymous forum that is described as "a simple image-based bulletin board" on its website (www.4chan.org)—allows users to post images and comments without being identified. Reddit is a pseudo-anonymous news platform that allows users to post news items and vote to determine which stories end up on its front page. We by no means suggest collapsing the misogynistic language employed in public pseudo-anonymous networks online with instances of institutionally state-sanctioned violence against marginalized communities. And yet, detailing this history is important as the discourse of white supremacy perpetuated by GG proponents often has related consequences of violence for those targeted by these campaigns.
The most common label attributed to those concerned with the lack of diversity in games and digital culture — one that is particularly popular on men's rights activists (MRA) blogs and alt-right forums — is that those contesting white male gaming culture suffer from Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) (Kelly, 2017). The term SJW, one that is used in order to undermine those fighting the intersections of racism, ableism and sexism online and in the gaming world, is increasingly a term applied to social justice advocates that come to be accepted in mainstream news outlets. 3 As hate mobs utter a seemingly endless stream of death and rape threats it is increasingly difficult for female, queer, and racialized individuals as well as those that identify as socially progressive to exist in gaming spaces and communities or to express viewpoints online even when being active online is a central part of their profession — as in the case of both journalists and game designers (Solon, 2016, paragraph 7). We briefly examine the history of how mental health labels have historically been used to discourage resistance to oppression before delving into our case study investigating the ways that NPD is used by proponents of the GG movement to label those fighting oppression in video games and gaming culture. From Adrienne Rich's description of how lesbians were labelled mentally ill and incarcerated in psychiatric institutions in an attempt to compel them to be heterosexual (1980) to the labelling of slaves with the psychiatric designation drapetomania (a mental illness stemming from scientific racism described as an illness causing slaves to want to flee enslavement), we show that the language of disability and psychiatry mobilized by GG is not new.
While the field of game studies has moved well beyond the much-rehashed debate between ludology and narratology, the field is still lacking in scholarship that poses diverse alternatives to preoccupations with either formal or representational concerns (Frasca, 2003; Eskelinen, 2001; Juul, 2011). 4 Building on the body of feminist and queer theoretical writings on video games offers a way to contribute to the field of disability game studies (Nakamura & Chow-White, 2013; Ruberg, 2015; Shaw, 2013; Chess & Shaw, 2015). This has become particularly urgent considering the events of GG and the rise of the so-called 'alt right media'. Feminist theory allows us to move beyond solely approaching games as media objects and instead opens a space to tackle the social and discursive practices that circulate around videogames. Our particular emphasis is on the ableist rhetoric that targets game critics focused on social justice. 5
The dominant narrative that has emerged from GG is simple: feminists, people who do not fit the gender binary, racialized individuals and social activists are ruining videogames (Chess & Shaw, 2015; Massanari, 2017; Wingfield, 2014). Sadly, this conflation of a social justice critique with women and feminists 'ruining' not just games but public spaces on the internet is widespread, particularly in social media. It is also becoming rapidly normalized as we saw in the appointment of Stephen "Steve" Bannon of Breitbart News as (now former) chief White House strategist for Donald Trump's administration (Marantz, 2016). Breitbart published a piece suggesting that the solution to the harassment (which he placed in scare quotes) of women online is for women to "log off" (Milo, 2016). Here, we instead focus not on either separating "a videogame's components into distinct spheres" or focusing on representations within games but suggest that we must take a closer look at the toxic elements of game culture itself (Massanari, 2017). Posing the following questions about GG and toxic game culture, we ask: how do the discursive practices of GG construct and define game culture? What is the relationship between GG rhetoric and broader forms of ableist misogyny online? What do alt-right and men's rights targeting of empathy games tell us about the relationship between GG and broader alt-right movements?
We are interested in analyzing how game culture "feeling rules" (Hochschild, 1979 ) as well as the formal rules of the games themselves "come together during play to be embodied by and incorporated with the player" (Keogh, 2014: 7). In documenting the "contests for meaning" (Haraway, 1992) over what constitutes acceptable emotion in relationship to video games, we document that the misogyny and racism spawned by predominantly young white male gamers defending mainstream videogames is not only a political battle or a battle over resources but also an affective struggle. The term affect until recently has been most commonly associated with its use in the field of Psychology to refer to an experience, feeling or emotion and is used to describe an organism's interaction with stimuli (APA 2006). Since the affective turn in Feminist Theory and Cultural Studies, affect theory is now broadly used and applied by scholars across many fields to interrogate issues such as the political nature of emotion (Ahmed, 2004; Berlant, 2011) and the role of the body in social theory (Franklin, 2007). Video games scholar Aubrey Anable argues that video games are places where individuals try on feelings. Rather than an escape from reality, game spaces are thus bound up in existing emotional landscapes (2018). Anable's work offers a productive way to understand the hate campaign launched by GG as bound up in a form of "Internet eugenics" (Schwartz, 2012 quoted in Anable) that undermines the potential for equitable forms of agency for (techno)subjects in digital culture (Anable, 2008). GG rhetoric is markedly bound up with broader discursive practices online that are 'mainstreaming' the notion that social justice critics—particularly those doing feminist and anti-racist work—do not belong in online spaces.
Empathy Games and Affective Labour
Since the development of the first videogame Pong (1972) more than forty years ago (Perez Lattore, 2015), which consisted of a universe made up only of circles and lines, videogames have increased significantly in complexity. Although first person shooters and violent imagery dominate the industry, several independent game developers are designing games referred to collectively as 'empathy games' in which they attempt to build prosocial dynamics into game play (Harrington & O'Connell, 2016). 6 For example, in games such as Super Mario Crossing and Zoo Vet the player must help and cooperate to succeed (Harrington & O'Connell, 2016, p. 650). Since the mid-2000s, games that encourage catharsis and immersed engagement with trauma ranging from the personal as in That Dragon, Cancer (2014), in which players experience what it is like to parent a terminally ill child, to geopolitical struggles as in Peacemaker (2007) which encourages player empathy for both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. These games are rapidly gaining in popularity and commercial backing. For example, in 2012 Sony funded the Montreal indie studio "Minority" in their game Papa & Yo that allows the player to navigate life with an abusive and alcoholic parent (Wells, 2016). The link between the backlash against empathy games (often manifested as anger over the ontology of games —e.g., games are not meant to engage with these issues) and the misogynistic discursive practise of GG that positions women (and minority groups) as the "enemies" of games within game culture inform this article.
Video games engage as affectively (Anable, 2018). In one of the most oft-cited examples of misogyny in video games, in Grand Theft Auto 3 (and onwards), a player's character's health increases (they receive "life points") when they have sex with sex workers as part of gameplay. The fifth incarnation of Grand Theft Auto remains the fastest entertainment product to gross $1 billion—which it did in a mere three days (Rodenberg, 2013). Although you must pay the sex workers initially, the game allows you to murder these women and then take back the money. In this way, the structure of the game encourages players to engage in a persona who takes pleasure in taking part in acts of violence against women. Protagonists also must engage in other forms of violence to succeed in the game, from gang warfare to torturing informants to get the information required to play the game. 7 From sympathetic identification with game protagonists to frustration when a player fails to win the game, videogames are centrally concerned with producing emotional responses in players (Anable, 2018; Richard, 2015). And yet, while certain emotional responses are understood as acceptable in relationship to videogames (pleasure in beating your opponent, pain when your character dies), other forms of affective expressions are represented as narcissistic (pleasure in feminist analysis of what is lacking from a game, pain at systemic discrimination during gameplay). That is, what counts as 'proper' affective alignment or labour is central to ongoing feminist debates about videogames. These "contests for meaning" (Haraway, 1992) as to the affective nature of videogames offer context for the ways that GG violence is symptomatic of a broader structural problem in mainstream gaming culture. Here, further context aimed at unpacking affective labour is helpful to our analysis. In her groundbreaking work The Managed Heart (2005 ), sociologist Arlie Hochschild invented the phrases "emotional labor" and "feeling rules" to describe a category of work that had formerly been invisible: that in which people are compelled to use their emotions as part of their jobs. In her words, emotional labor involves the "management of feeling to create a publicly observable facial and bodily display" and it "requires one to induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others . […] This kind of labor calls for a coordination of mind and feeling, and it sometimes draws on a source of self that we honor as deep and integral to our individuality" (2005 : 7). Describing the work done by labourers from diplomats to flight attendants, Hochschild argues that people are increasingly estranged from their actual emotions as they are compelled to perform acceptable displays of servility, strength and compassion for pay.
More than three decades of research into emotional labour has built upon Hochschild's work. Hardt and Negri's (2000) analysis of the contemporary shift to an economy fueled by "immaterial labor" (including emotional and digital labour) from an economy based on the production of material goods documents the affective impact of the transformation of contemporary North American society to economies centered on information (2000: 290). Johanna Oksala adds to Hardt and Negri's analysis of emotional labour in her article "Affective Labor and Feminist Politics" (2016), arguing that we need to complicate the phrase emotional labour to consider the different types of this form of work. For example, it is problematic to consider the provision of compassionate health care as identical to the affective labour done during the carrying of a surrogate baby. That is, while health care work can result in compassion fatigue and an estrangement from one's own emotions, the care work of surrogacy can be life-threatening as the drugs that surrogates are likely to be asked to take can have devastating health consequences (DasGupta and Dasgupta, 2015). That is, while we might want to problematize both kinds of emotional labour, they take different forms and have different implications for those who perform them. In addition, since the publication of Hochschild's book, the ways that affective labour is gendered, racialized and classed has been further theorized (Oksala, 2016; Cvetcovich, 2012; Ahmed, 2013). More specifically, feminist theorists are paying increased attention to the ways that emotional labour is disproportionately done by "women from subordinated racial-ethnic minorities in most Western countries" (Oksala, 2016). Oksala's call for a typology of affective labour is extremely helpful in that a form of affective labour—one that involves explaining existing forms of ableism, sexism, and racism to outsiders—falls onto the shoulders of feminist critics of videogames, disproportionately composed of queer folks, people of colour, women, people with disabilities and those at the intersection of these categories. Below, we document the ways that we continue to see this gendered and racialized distribution of emotional labour being done by feminist video game critics including those increasingly targeted by those wishing to police the traditional boundaries of gamer identity play including the extreme end of the backlash represented by GG.
Historicizing Feminist Conflicts Concerning Video Games
While the mainstream awareness of harassment against women in the gaming industry has only recently garnered significant press coverage, the number of violent threats against women developers has risen dramatically in the last few years (Berlatsky, 2014; Chess et al., 2014; Chess & Shaw, 2015; Hathaway, 2014; Hess, 2014), including the death and rape threat campaigns that were launched against video game developers Brianna Wu and Zoe Quinn as well as against feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian. And yet, this is not the first moment that feminists and other social justice advocates inside and outside of gaming have been in conflict with the video game industry. Occurrences of misogynistic and racist harassment in gaming are ongoing and well-documented (Chess, 2014; Consalvo, 2012; Huntemann, 2013; Shaw, Stabile & Stromer-Galley, 2014). Although many still think of game studies only in terms of the branch that grew out of computer science and communication studies (Egenfeldt-Nielsen, Smith & Tosca, 2016), there is a long precedent within academic game studies of bringing a social justice lens to issues in the gaming industry. For instance, while the first text widely recognized to be part of the field of feminist game studies text did not appear until Cassell and Jenkins' edited collection From Barbie to Mortal Kombat (2000), the first generation of feminist game studies scholars began by building on the work of Janet Murray (1997), Sherry Turkle (1995) and Brenda Laurel (2001)—carving out a respected body of work amid the machismo of game studies (Kirkland, 2005). Moreover, feminist and queer game scholars (Gajjala, 2013; Nakamura, 2002; 2008; 2012; Ruberg & Shaw, 2017) have modeled ways to shift the focus from ludology and the rules of the game to the ways that games may further entrench systemic forms of discrimination — showing that this intensification is neither natural nor inevitable.
Similar to the ludology vs. narratology debates, the question "what is a gamer?" (Huntemann, 2013) has been central to game studies since its inception as a critical field of study drawing on work from computer science, anthropology, psychology, arts and literature (Jones, 2008). Scholars invested in game studies argue about everything from whether social science methods should be used to measure the impact of games on human beings (Ferguson 2010; Gerber & Price, 2011) to whether games can be properly analyzed using the techniques developed in media studies (Jenkins and Thorburn, 2003). Drawing from the tools of feminist, queer and women of colour critiques of video games studies and culture offer useful ways of understanding how the video game industry and market forces produces a 'natural' gamer identity that is presumed to be male and coded through hegemonic—white, male, (cis)gendered and able bodied — masculinity (Engel, 2017; Malkowski & Russworm, 2017; Ruberg & Shaw, 2017; Shaw, 2015). The recent rage that we have seen expressed in gamer culture "seems to be based on at least two factors: sexist [as well as racist, homophobic and ableist] beliefs about the abilities and proper place of female [racialized, queer] players and fears about the changing nature of the game industry" (Consalvo, 2012). The concept of "narrative prosthesis" (Mitchell & Snyder, 2000) is useful in analyzing the ableist affective rhetoric deployed by GG in their rage against those they refer to as SJWs. That is, GG comment threads and posts continually diagnose those who do not agree with them as having Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) and other mental health issues in a logic that equates social justice with disability: those within the gaming community that advocate for inclusion and systemic change are therefore represented as deviating from normative, white masculinity.
As Chess, Consalvo, Huntemann, Shaw and Stromer-Galley (2014) argue, while the events of GG may seem new, they are actually a continuation of the vicious harassment and outright threats directed towards marginalized individuals critical of the systemically oppressive climate in game development and culture. Numerous incidents reveal the long running tensions between women, feminists and commercial games and there are many moments of rupture when women/people of colour invested in gaming either as players or developers call out the hegemonic power relations normalized through misogyny and racism in the industry. For example, in 2010, Mike Krahulik, who is the cartoonist behind the webcomic Penny Arcade, posted a comic strip involving a character who is raped by "Dickwolves." After an outcry from activists and rape survivors, Krahulik still went on to create merchandise such as t-shirts with "Dickwolves" printed on them that sold at major gaming conventions, and announced at the major gaming expo Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) that "the merchandise had been created as a "'screw you' to rape survivors who had the temerity to complain about a comic strip" (Edidin, 2013). Although the systemic violence towards people of colour/women/queer people/people with disabilities from the gaming community has a long history (Consalvo, 2013), these conflicts came to a head in GG. This conflict was primarily represented in the media as being between two communities: GG proponents and so-called SJWs. GGrs purport to be a group committed to maintaining ethics in games journalism, however, GG is accurately described by Vist as a "concerted harassment campaign masquerading as a consumer protest" (2015: 57). 8 Following video game theorists Andrea Braithwaite (2016), Elise Vist (2015) as well as Shira Chess and Adrienne Shaw (2015), we understand GG as a backlash movement or public launched by gamers who believe that mainstream gaming culture is "threatened by and hostile to games and players who question the supremacy of first person shooters, white male leads, and the assumption of heterosexuality" (2015: 65). We have seen this backlash— frequently carried out through pathologizing ableist rhetoric—increase as independent studios as well as mainstream games have begun to expand the communities represented in games as they begin to recognize the plurality of folks who identify as gamers (Burgess & Matamoros-Fernández, 2016; Massanari, 2017). While GG supporters mean to use the term SJW to demean those who dare to stand up to misogyny and racism in video games, we follow Vist in understanding those labelled as SJWs as a community of "people who believe that there is room for feminist critiques, race awareness, and social activism in games" (2015: 59). Furthermore, we suggest that social justice activists embrace the term SJW as it is only since 2011, when the term was re-branded by GG proponents through a Twitter hashtag, that the term is used pejoratively in popular parlance.
If you include casual games, women make up 74% of gamers (Casual Games Market Report, 2007). Given this statistic, how does hegemonic maleness continue to dominate the videogame industry? Casual games include digital puzzles, word games and card games and generally have simple graphics, require only a short time commitment at any playing and are available for a minimal cost or are free. Although the industry and majority of critics claim to dismiss casual games due to their minimalist aesthetic and easy-to-navigate structure, casual games are clearly also dismissed because of the high number of women who play them (Anable, 2013; Vanderhoef, 2013), and, thus, the emotional pleasures players find in these games are disregarded (Huntemann, 2013). That is, the boundary policing of games (e.g., first person shooter and strategy games are 'real'/'good' games) is gendered (Anable, 2013). Feminist/anti-racist critics working in the game industry or in game studies have continually attempted to broaden the categories of what counts as a video game (largely normalized as linear and success-based). For example, Maureen Engel (2017) developed the mechanic for her prototype game Go Queer around the "principle of queer play" rather than game play to challenge the social and political norms that currently structure game mechanics (2017: 352). Despite feminist interventions, what is understood to count as a game remains deeply contested. For example, Anna Anthropy created the game Dys4ia (2012) to immerse gamers in the frustration and complexity of a trans woman's experiences of trying to gain access to healthcare and hormone therapy within normative gendered contexts of stigma (Kuchera, 2012). Although many conventional gaming rules structure Dys4ia, the player is set up to fail in many instances, unlike in mainstream games, offering an opportunity to experience these specific frustrations. Elise Vist (2015) notes that even non-hostile reactions to Dys4ia suggest that the maker of this game should have posted it as an "art" game rather than as a mainstream game.
Using Disability to Police Resistance: Historical (Institutional) Perspectives
The use of disability in order to undermine those vocalizing resistance to normative societal structures has a long history. In Adrienne Rich's foundational essay "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence," Rich describes how lesbian women were labelled mentally ill and then coerced into psychiatric institutions where they were forcibly subjected to "corrective" rape. For example, Rich cites the case of an Oslo woman who was in a heterosexual marriage in which she was deeply unhappy. She began taking tranquilizers and ultimately "ended up at the health sanatorium for treatment and rehabilitation" (Russell and van de Ven cited in Rich, 1980: 653). During her time at the sanatorium, she asserted that she was a lesbian. At this point, she was incarcerated under the guise that she was mentally ill and sentenced to six months of "corrective" rape by her husband. Here, Rich demonstrates how the label of mental illness was used to undermine the resistance (and threat) that lesbianism poses to a heteronormative social order while it simultaneously facilitated institutionalized violence against queer people. We do not suggest that GG's harassment and eugenic rhetoric directed toward feminists and social activists is the same as historical forms of institutionalized violence and discipline. And yet, looking to a historical context rife with the violent institutionalization and oppression of queer women and people of colour helps us to better understand the stakes of the discourses used to construct GG. Moreover, social media scholars are beginning to recognize and document the increasingly normalized death and rape threats directed at feminists and anti-racist activists that are proliferating in gaming culture as well as in digital culture more broadly (Banet-Weiser & Miltner, 2016; Rubin, 2016). This emerging literature points to the urgency of addressing the sexist racism that is not only attached to a dismissal of indie games that privilege connection and empathy (as opposed to winning and exclusion), but also, the very presence of individuals advocating for social justice concerns in mainstream game culture.
The queer community is not the only community that has been subject to pathologizing labels — ones that reflect what we have been referring to as an affective rhetoric of ableism—wielded in order to suppress challenges to the dominant order. Diagnoses of mental illness have also long been used to police people of colour's resistance to white supremacy. During the 1850s, drapetomania was a label used by psychiatrists to describe a supposed mental health condition that made slaves want to flee their captors (Metzl, 2009: ix). More recently, Jonathan Metzl (2009) has documented how various forms of mental illness have consistently been used to label people of colour's struggles with racism as disordered. As he notes, prior to the Civil Rights movement, schizophrenic patients were assumed to be largely white, and were understood as "generally harmless to society" (2009: xii). Following people of colour's demands for an end to racism in the 1960s, Metzl documents how the diagnosis of schizophrenia began to be disproportionately applied to Black people at the same time as it came to signify the most dangerous mental health disorder. Metzl shows how this diagnosis (given to black men at four times the rate of white men following the Civil Rights movement) continues to be used to justify the incarceration of an untold number of African Americans in institutions from psychiatric facilities to the prison industrial complex (Alexander, 2010). It is critical that we remember the fundamental distinctions between institutionalized and legalized oppression, and yet, these historical examples of institutionalized violence shed light on the ways that diagnostic terms have mobilized ableist affect and been deployed in attempts to silence people challenging hegemonic power structures. In other words, placing GG's rhetoric in historical context from Rich's compulsory heterosexuality to drapetomania underscores how (old) interlocking logics of ableism, sexism and racism persist in the (new) 'culture wars' occurring digital culture. As we will see the terminology and rhetorical strategies employed in GG operate within a broader context of oppression and work to normalize the notion that feminists are ruining games for the real gamers (white, middle-aged, cis-gendered men).
Case Study: Affective policing and Video Games
In her close readings of Dys4ia (2012) and Gone Home (2013), Elise Vist (2015) argues that games aimed at fostering empathy can be disorienting to their players. 9 Drawing on Sara Ahmed's phenomenological theory of dis/orientation, Vist argues that players whose bodies fit normatively within hegemonic spaces expect "to be orientated towards the objects in their reach" (2015: 58). As Vist reminds us, although not real-world spaces, games have avatars and cyberspaces to which we become accustomed. These new game spaces thus permit for new forms of dis/orientation. That is, "When a subject who has always understood the world to center around themselves is placed in a space that refuses that centrality, they must find their way again. They must re-orient themselves. Rather than reaching out to find familiar objects in expected places, they reach out to find that there is nothing where they expected something (or something where they expected nothing)" (Ahmed, 2006: 11 cited in Vist 2015: 59). The hateful and ableist rhetoric of GG does not exist in a vacuum and is rooted in a broader gaming culture that is slow to change when it comes to who is considered a 'real' gamer, which games are considered 'real' games and what it means to have fun. That is, why does a game have to be hegemonically 'fun' to be a game? What is often framed by gamers as a desire to keep politics out of games is a way of maintaining a white, heteronormative gamer identity (Braithwaite, 2016; Condis, 2014). For example, in her study of fans' reactions to BioWare's addition of the option of playing as a gay male character in Star Wars: The Old Republic (2011) and Dragon Age II (2011), Megan Condis (2014) found that the backlash resulted in a reinforcement of the gendered, racialized, sexualized and classed boundaries of gamer and fan identities. It important to note that the disorientation produced by empathy games can be both productive and pleasurable (Vist, 2013): it can give the player a chance to think about what it means to feel out of place as well as a chance to reflect on how privilege might structure who feels they belong and who feels excluded from an environment (whether virtual or real). And yet, it is precisely this moment of disorientation that causes many players to express rage. That is, in response to games that do not make them feel comfortable or that are specifically aimed at making them feel out of place, many players express hostility because they do not find the game fun (as in the case of Depression Quest), or because the game is not a 'traditional' game (as in the case of Dys4ia), or because the game's creator belongs to a hated political community (including feminists, people of colour, queer people, et cetera). Of course, Depression Quest purposefully creates an affective disorientation for the player who is placed inside the protagonist's struggle with depression. GG's reactions of rage seem disproportionate to the experience of not finding a game enjoyable. We next use Robin DiAngelo's concept of "white fragility" (2011) to further unpack gamers' affective reactions to empathy games as well as their designers and players.
Arguing that white people in North America live in an environment that "protects and insulates them from race-based stress" (2011: 54), DiAngelo demonstrates that this protective cocoon results in white people having high expectations of "racial comfort" and a low tolerance for racial embarrassment. These expectations of racial comfort lead them—when they experience even a small amount of discomfort because of their privilege—to display an affective range of emotions that include rage and violent hostility and to engage in "behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium" (Diangelo, 2011: 54). We extend white fragility here to include other markers of privilege that result in male, heterosexual, and able-bodied fragility. Certainly, with respect to videogames, we see many of these behaviours occurring, as those hostile toward empathy games engage in both affective and real-life forms of policing of those who play empathy games or who want to add a feminist critique of commercial games. As we documented above, the harassment and intimidation of women and girls has accelerated in game spaces. Only 5% of mainstream videogames' protagonists are women and the hegemonic gamer identity is predominantly a white, heterosexual, cis-gendered, able-bodied man (Prebble, 2014). While change is slowly beginning to take place (one example is the blog and movement Plz Diversify Your Panel in which many prominent figures in gaming have added their name to a list stating that they will not participate in panels that only consist of "straight white dudes"), the major events including the Game Developers Conference (GDC) and trade shows (which continue to feature "booth babes" to sell games) continue to normalize misogyny and devalue games, mechanics and affects that are aligned with the feminine. The Twitter archive #1ReasonWhy offers a space for women to document the daily struggles they face in the gaming industry.
We combine DiAngelo's notion of the affective impacts of white fragility with the ableist expression of this rage that we see with respect to videogames. In particular, we note that a consistently reoccurring trope for how rage toward feminist or social justice critiques of mainstream games is expressed is through ableist language that argues that people waging critiques of these games must have a mental illness, specifically, Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Before proceeding to our case study of the use of the charge of personality disorders in the context of videogames, we would like to review the history of how charges of mental health disabilities have historically been used to police resistance to oppression.
Toxic Gamer Culture: The use(s) of Mental Health labels in the Normalizing of Racism & Misogyny in GamerGate discourse
The pejorative term SJW used in GG rhetoric to champions of greater diversity in gaming, as well as to games scholars interested in gender, race and their intersections, might be productively re-appropriated by feminist disability game scholars. 10 SJW as a label speaks volumes about the emotional labour required by those working for greater diversity in gaming as demonstrated by ongoing work in feminist and queer game studies — both the labour required to advance a social justice critique as well as the labour required in defending themselves every day from personal, hateful attacks (Chess et al., 2015). For example, it is well-documented that feminist game scholars blazing a trail in this area are surveilled and targeted by GG (Chess & Shaw, 2015, 2016; Todd, 2015). As Leigh Alexander argues, the fight for social justice in games and the resulting massive backlash has somehow been rationalized as a "debate" — as if there could be two reasonable sides as to whether we have a need for greater inclusiveness and less harassment in the videogame world (2014). Although the term SJW is circulated as a criticism by proponents of GG, it also emphasizes the effort that is being put in by many individuals and (particularly independent) game studios to make games and their representations more inclusive. The term SJW could easily be used to describe the emotional labour that is required to simply be a woman, a person of colour, or a queer player given the culture in the gaming world. The affective labour central to naming oppression in game spaces and within the industry writ large continues to fall on the shoulders of the individuals — whether they are developers or gamers—who belong to oppressed and marginalized groups. After the events surrounding GG, when academics studying feminist criticism of toxic gamer culture themselves became the targets of GG vitriol, the emotional burden placed on gamers from oppressed groups came into focus. This is evidenced by the fact that academics that focus on racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia in games and game culture are now regularly harassed online. As videogame theorist Mia Consalvo reminds us in her recent challenge to feminist scholars and their allies to take these threats and harassment seriously: "women, people of colour, LGBTQ scholars, indeed all scholars who are members of marginalized groups, have historically paid a disproportionate price when they engage in public scholarship, social justice advocacy, and political activity" (2014). While it is by no means a new tactic, pro-GG comments from gamers and game critics have employed everything from charging their critics with irrationality and mental illness to organized campaigns of targeted hate propaganda. All of these can become forms of emotional abuse and violence.
We noted above that mental health labels have often been used to discredit those who critique oppressive power structures. Unsurprisingly, this has been a key rhetorical and affective strategy employed in anonymous and pseudo-anonymous bulletin boards devoted to GG such as those on Reddit and 4chan as well as on the social networking platform Twitter. In hateful online communities dedicated explicitly to discrediting and demeaning feminists and activists critical of games, posts routinely tie Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) to feminist activists. A diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) as defined in the DSM-5 requires the presence of a combination of "impairments" regarding both "self-functioning" and "interpersonal functioning" as characterized by traits such as "a grandiose sense of self-importance", "attention seeking" a belief that one is "special", and "a lack of empathy" (American Psychiatry Association, 2012). For example, a blog post on the misogynistic anti-feminist website "Return of Kings" states:
Social justice wankers are characterized by their narcissistic personality disorder. They get mutual validation and reinforcement from other SJWs. They have a hive mind mentality enforced by sessions of groupthink. The majority of these people show disturbing signs of narcissistic personality disorder—anything said is reinterpreted as accusation and attack on them, those accusations are instantly reflected back at the accuser, they are incapable of assuming responsibility for their own actions or their situation, they see themselves as morally perfect, they constantly redefine and invent dismissive language and rhetoric to suit their agenda, and they always underline how they are being unjustly persecuted.
Although the original post (originally published in Penny Arcade and SomethingAwful forums before appearing on 4chan) about Zoe Quinn was written by one individual, its rhetoric reflects misogynistic tropes used widely in alt-right forums such as the blog "Return of Kings" to discredit women developers. The homepage of the blog "Return of Kings" that markets itself as being for "a small but vocal collection of men in America today who believe men should be masculine and women should be feminine" states that "women and homosexuals are strongly discouraged from commenting". Among the community's stated central beliefs is that "socialism, feminism, cultural Marxism and social justice warriorism aim to destroy the family unit, decrease the fertility rate, and impoverish the state through large welfare entitlements" (ROK, 2016). While the hate mob that was mobilized through Gonji's post continues to result in a daily barrage of violent threats for Quinn, it also called on linguistic and affective strategies commonplace in daily gamer culture. For example, As Arthur Chu explained to Boston Magazine, "the 'crazy bitch' story" employed by Gonji in his infamous post in which he attempted to threaten and destroy Quinn's life (personal and professional) […is] a very potent trope to use, it's a very nasty, very calculating train of thought, and it worked" (Chu qtd in Jason, 2015). Of course, we would also note that it also mobilizes the language of sexist ableism ("crazy bitch") to discredit Quinn. One of the most popular strategies used to defame Quinn and her work by posters on such as Reddit is to undermine her work by claiming that her viewpoints and advocacy are structured by Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) or Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)—the clinical diagnosis too often ascribed to women developers, feminists and activists who work from a social justice perspective. That is, in many men's rights movement (MRM) websites sympathetic to #GG, Quinn and others are routinely 'diagnosed' with personality disorders. For example, on the website "A Voice for Men" one blogger Vincent James writes:
So why is all this happening? Why are all these game journalists silencing dissent on Zoe Quinn's behalf? In part 2 of the series, I will look into the political affilitations (sic) of her cronies and show evidence that much of game journalism today is dominated by feminist cliques, by fraudulent "social justice warriors" who have transformed what was once an enjoyable pursuit into an ideological minefield. The chatlog portrays her to be a woman who cheats on her lover on a whim, who engages in reckless activities such as unprotected sex with multiple partners and drinking excessively, and who performs suicidal gestures to keep her from being (rightly) abandoned by her cheated-on lover. These are characteristic traits of Borderline Personality Disorder, a well-documented psychiatric disorder and part of the infamous Cluster B Disorders that abusive individuals usually possess. (http://www.avoiceformen.com/feminism/cronyism-lies-and-censorship-what-zoe-quinn-and-feminism-bring-to-gaming-part-1/)
Quinn now invests countless hours of emotional and physical labour working on the issue of online harassment. For example, she recently testified before the United Nations on its widely critiqued report on cyberviolence against women and girls released by the its Broadband Commission (Jeong, 2015). Quinn, who used to devote most her working hours to game development, is also the co-creator of Crash Override Network which is "a support network and assistance group for victims and targets of unique forms of online harassment, composed entirely of experienced survivors" (crashoverridenetwork.com). Anita Sarkeesian, founder of the videoblog Feminist Frequency, also found herself at the center of a massive harassment campaign after she launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund her web series "Tropes Vs. Women in Video Games." Sarkeesian has devoted many hours and emotional resources to help others combat online harassment. For example, Sarkeesian posted one week's worth of hateful messages she receives on Kickstarter and Feminist Frequency respectively. It becomes clear as one reads through the messages and threats that mental health labels are recurring rhetorical structures in the language mobilized by commentators. The following Twitter posts are representative of the type of comments that Sarkeesian and Quinn receive on an ongoing basis. They also reflect the tweets Sarkeesian received in the thousands in one week of January 2015 on Feminist Frequency's Twitter account:
American game developer Brianna Wu has also stated that "GG has ruined my life" (Jason, 2015). In October 2014, Wu, who co-founded the independent video game development studio Giant SpaceKat, posted comments critical of GG. Within moments she began receiving specific rape and death threats containing her home address and was driven from her home fearing for her life (Hart, 2014). Wu now deals with law enforcement at least once a day and can only attend events with a security detail. Anita Sarkeesian had to cancel a talk at Utah State University after the school received a threat in the form of a letter from an anonymous person that was sent to University staffers and published in USU's newspaper. The letter writer claimed to be a student at the university and declared admiration for the man who targeted and killed 14 female engineering students in 1989 at École Polytechnique in Montreal, Quebec after yelling "I hate women…you're all a bunch of fucking feminists" (Kowaleski-Wallace, 2009, p. 28). 11 The person threatened the "deadliest school shooting in American history" (CTV, 2014). Sarkeesian cancelled the talk after learning that due to Utah's "conceal carry law," despite the death threats against her, the university would not ban concealed weapons at her talk.
At their most benign, pro-GGrs claim that all individuals and journalists calling out misogyny and racism in games and calling for greater diversity are "espous[ing] demonstrably false opinions for attention" (Alexander, 2014). At their worst, individual and hate mobs threaten and incite (often sexual) violence against feminist social justice advocates courageous enough to speak out (Alexander, 2014). The most egregious examples of way that GG mobilizes ableist rhetoric to target 'SJWs' can be found in the original threat against Zoe Quinn that was posted to the anonymous discussion board 4chan in August of 2014: "Next time she shows up at a conference we…give her a crippling injury that's never going to fully heal…a good solid injury to the knees. I'd say a brain damage but we don't want to make it so she ends up too retarded to fear us" (anonymous post quoted in Parkin, 2014).
If GG has any silver lining, it is that it has shone a light on the degree of violence directed at women/queer people/people of colour in gaming. GG also highlighted the ways that the rhetoric itself demonstrates a reliance on ableist tropes that deploy mental health labels as a strategy to undermine a growing resistance to racism and sexism in games and game culture. The issue of harassment against women in gaming has reached the mainstream consciousness and is now often covered in major media outlets such as the New York Times (Ito, 2015; Wingfield 2014). Moreover, GG revealed the extent to which the economic and cultural hegemony of 'traditional' gaming is dwindling (Alexander, 2014). Of course, the normalization of racism, misogyny and threats against women players and developers remain tolerated if not encouraged by most studios in this $70-billion a year industry (Wingfield, 2014), composed of between 80% to 90% male developers (Todd, 2015). The mental health labels, misogynist and racist language used to undermine Zoe Quinn, Brianna Wu and Anita Sarkeesian—all prominent and vocal women targeted in egregious ways by GG—all suggest the ways that affect is mobilized to render advocates of diversity 'irrational', 'emotionally unstable' 'ideologues' who want to ruin games. The pro-#GG channel Sargon of Akkad recently released several Youtube videos detailing a supposed conspiracy between feminist games academics and journalists colluding to ruin games. In other words, this series of videos (which includes "The Feminist Ideological Conquest of Digital Games Research Association DiGRA" and "How DiGRA caused the end of Gamers") is devoted to attempting to discredit DiGRA's members and academics working to reduce harassment and make games more inclusive, diverse and accessible.
Through documenting the "contests for meaning" (Haraway, 1992) over what gets to count as acceptable emotion about gaming and accepted participation in gaming culture we have seen how the events surrounding GG constitute an affective struggle as well as a cultural battle. Although GG began as an interpersonal attack on a feminist developer of the empathy game Depression Quest (2013), it became a movement that employs ableist logic by mobilizing the label of Narcissistic Personality Disorder in the struggle over the meaning of games and gamer identity. In other words, GG uses ableist mental health labels to exclude those interested in social justice from the gamer identity while simultaneously resisting feminist and antiracist critiques of videogames. This ejection of feminists from game spaces might be understood as a phenomenon in which it is worse to call somebody a racist than to be a racist (McIntyre, 2006), and is one way we see the contests for affective meaning being waged concerning systemic forms of discrimination. As we have seen, the rhetoric employed by GG uses sexist, racist and ableist assumptions that are embedded in harmful historical state and non-state legacies of oppression. Policing the meaning of video games and the hegemonic gamer identity, GG deploys rhetoric with the aim to both to shore up the borders of what constitutes 'real' games while harassing those invested in broadening these definitions. At the time of writing, many male gamers are boycotting the new multi-player survival game Rust due to that fact that the game randomly assigns a gender and race to individual player accounts. While initially "every player appeared in game as a bald white guy"—many players are refusing to play the game due to the change that the lead developer says simply adds "diversity" (Newman, 2016).
In this article, we have intervened in the current feminist discourses surrounding GG. Specifically, we have demonstrated that the growing body of feminist and queer game studies offers tools with which we can address how the racist and misogynistic mythos in the GG movement and in dominant gaming culture is structured through disability rhetoric. Moreover, the ableist language and threats mobilized in pro-GG communities can be understood as an extension of the historical relationship between disability rhetoric and institutional oppression. The growing popularly of empathy games and subsequent backlash against these games speaks volumes about the ontological claims of mainstream gamers and the policing that is central to maintaining the boundaries of the hegemonic gamer. As we have demonstrated, far from being a new or isolated phenomenon, GG rhetoric is a dramatic, recent example in which those that reject the normative status quo of inequality are discredited. As we have discussed, there is a long historical tradition of stigmatizing those fighting for social justice. From the incarceration of lesbians in psychiatric institutions (1980) to the labelling of slaves with the psychiatric label drapetomania, the use of mental health labels has a long history in state and institutional violence and was used to justify devastating atrocities. We see that the rhetorical techniques of these earlier examples, while appearing in a very different set of power relations, is being employed by actors in online forums, bulletin boards, social media spaces and now alt-right news to encourage the suppression of resistance, discredit, and silence feminist critiques of video games and digital culture more broadly. Building on the intersectional feminist lenses currently being applied to video games offers a productive set of tools for developing disability game studies. The production of a rigorous disability games studies framework may provide a way to examine how games could become more inclusive and positive spaces for emotional expression and the building of compassion. Perhaps by embracing and re-appropriating the pejorative label Social Justice Warrior we can begin envisioning more inclusive gaming communities.
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- Wells, J. (2016). "From Project Syria to That Dragon, Cancer: The Rise of Empathy Video Games." The Telegraph- Lifestyle. January 20, 2016. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/the-filter/the-surprising-rise-of-empathy-video-games/.
- Wente, M. (2017). "Why Campuses Are Ditching Free Speech." The Globe and Mail—Opinion. March 10, 2017. Accessed at https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/why-campuses-are-ditching-free-speech/article34356708/.
- Wingfield, N. (2014). Feminist Critics of Video Games Facing Threats in "GamerGate" Campaign. The New York Times.
- Yang, R. (2017). "'If You Walk in Someone Else's Shoes, Then You've Taken Their Shoes': Empathy Machines as Appropriation Machines." Accessed January 3, 2018. http://www.blog.radiator.debacle.us/2017/04/if-you-walk-in-someone-elses-shoes-then.html.
Doxing refers to the practice of publishing personal information online. For example, Quinn's abusive ex-boyfriend Gonji published her personal email passwords, home address and professional account passwords on his blog which he circulated through websites known to target Quinn and were used by an anonymous hate mob targeting Quinn with thousands of rape and death threats.
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Reddit is a "social bookmarking site that allows users to link to, aggregate and comment on material that is generally shared from outside sources" (Betteridge, 2016, p. 2). Unlike most social media platforms, the majority of Reddit users identify as men and the site has a reputation for welcoming misogynistic commentary (Zuckerman, 2012). One of the primary sites where GG unfolds is on the subreddit (thread) called Kotaku in Action. 4chan, 8chan and Reddit are pseudo-anonymous message boards that are known to be popular places that are particularly conducive to misogyny. The technologies of these platforms "can promote the instrumental attitudes and exploitative relations that naturalize gendered inequalities and drive mass campaigns of online abuse" (Salter, 2017: 2).
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The term social justice warrior was taken up on Twitter, where it became a mainstream term, by GG supporters in a pejorative sense to refer to anyone promoting social justice values such as feminism and anti-racism (Jeong, 2015) Popularization of the term as a pejorative was also carried out on 4chan and Reddit (Hill, 2014). In November 2016, one of Canada's national newspaper's The Globe and Mail published a cartoon ridiculing a man pointing out cultural appropriation. The man who is rendered as ethnic has a sweater with the acronym SJW clearly visible and stands in front of a crumbling, grey institution bearing the term word "university".
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Although the heated debate between ludologists versus narratologists was declared "over" in 2003 (see Frasca 2003) there is still a marked split in game studies. This division is between scholars who approach games as distinct from other texts such as film and literature arguing that game mechanics, internal rules of play and game design are the subjects worthy of inquiry in game studies versus those that approach games as cultural texts. For proponents of ludology games cannot be analyzed with the tools of cultural analysis because they are distinct from other narrative-based artefacts. Well established ludologists include Gonzalo Frasca (2003) Markku Eskelinen (2001) and Jesper Juul (2011)
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Ludology refers to the study of games where they are imagined to be an examined on their supposed own merits such as by their rules and formal systems. Narratology refers to the school of game studies theorists that draw on the theoretical and methodological tools available to them from cultural studies. Of course, this split is a false binary, and too often means that theorists are attempting to determine what games "should be" rather than what they are (Keogh, 2014: 24).
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The concept of empathy games is being complicated particularity in queer games studies. For example, Robert Yang (2017) rejects the concept of "VR machines" due to the fact that big technology companies sell what he refers to as "appropriation machines" to uncritical consumers. That is, big tech cynically benefits from selling the experience of empathizing with the pain of others. To be sure, this is an important critique. However, our focus on empathy games made by designers striving to create more equitable games spaces is responding to a different set of texts and questions. For example, trans activist Anna Anthropy created the game Dys4ia to simulate the frustrations experienced by a trans women transitioning while struggling to navigate the transphobic and pathologizing mainstream health care system (Kuchera, 2012). Moreover, Zoe Quinn's game Depression Quest resists a 'games must be fun' logic in narrating her own experience of depression. The notion of empathy in games that we draw on focuses on marginalized individuals who are playing and designing different game experiences—experiences that they often frame through the lens of empathy building- while, as Yang urges, questioning the politics of game construction including who profits from it (Yang, 2017). Moreover, while disability scholars embrace aesthetics that allow for nuanced experiences of empathy building (e.g., Birge, 2010), disability studies as a field has also produced important and significant critiques of the empathy training approach to disability studies such as G. Thomas Crouser's Recovering Bodies, Illness, Disability, & Life Writing (1997).
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One example is of a war that is incited between Haitan and Cuban gangs in GTA: Vice City, adding yet another representation to the 'canon' that re-inscribes existing forms of racism.
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Proponents of GG argue that their 'movement' is about ethics in games journalism and protecting (white, male) gamer identity (Hathaway, 2014). Proponents use the phrase ethics in games journalism while carrying out blatantly misogynistic, ableist, transphobic and homophobic harassment.
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Gone Home (2013) is first-person adventure exploration game that presents as a horror game during gameplay but breaks all the horror genre game scripts in that the true horror of the game turns out to be a breakup between two queer girls.
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Sadly, the pejorative term social justice warrior (SJW) is extending beyond alt-right discourse communities and now is gaining traction in mainstream discourses to refer to anti-racist and anti-misogynist advocacy. For example, this term is being used by journalists in Canada's National Post (2017) and The Globe and Mail (2017). GG's preferred term to refer to their enemies is now an entry in the Oxford Dictionary as a derogatory term referring to "a person who expresses or promotes socially progressive views" (Ohlheiser, 2015, paragraph 1).
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On December 6, 1989 Marc Lépine opened fire on 23 women fatally wounding 14 of them. In his suicide note, he blamed feminists for ruining his life. He felt that feminists had "invaded traditional male territory" (Kowaleski-Wallace, 2009, p. 28).
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