#GamerGate, Film Criticism, Sports Reporting, and the Silent Majority

Words hurt much more than light pistols (image via Flickr user Jim Sheaffer)
September 23, 2014

There is a raging storm in the gaming community known as "#GamerGate." If you spend any time on Twitter, especially the politically inclined portion of it, you have likely seen the hashtag pop up once or twice. I lack the authority to explain fully all the ins and outs and what have yous* of this debate, in part because I have more or less stopped playing video games.** But it is worth briefly noting that the complaints we're seeing about the video gaming press—its focus on politically correct notions of gender norms and its heavy coverage of lightly played, relatively unpopular "indie" games—are complaints that we can see echoes of in other segments of the "entertainment" media.

Basically, GamerGaters believe the video gaming press is hopelessly biased and deeply incestuous. Writers at important outlets prop up indie developers with whom they are friendly (and sometimes amorously involved) while using their platform to expound a worldview that is, at best, tangentially related to the actual practice of gaming. Endless essays on gender representations or the fact that women are treated poorly by (some) gamers are drowning out, you know, coverage of games people actually play.

Similar complaints have been leveled against the sports media in recent weeks. Our own Larry O'Connor asked if readers could "remember when ESPN was about sports":

Baseball pennant races getting dramatic. College football already in top form. NFL finally on every channel every other day of the week. And, of course, Fantasy Football in full swing.

It should be a time when Xs and Os are over analyzed and team passions are on full display.

Instead, this weekend was all about substance abuse, spanking, and domestic abuse. And ESPN is loving it. Because addressing these weighty topics makes them feel so very important.

I've seen someone else, maybe Ace, make a similar point. Sports writers know, deep down, that they're writing about grown men wearing silly clothes and playing a children's game. So they try to find a way to imbue their position with political and cultural significance to pump up their sense of self. This is how you go from sports writers having no problem with the term "Redskins" to, all of a sudden, arguing it's the worstest thing in the whole wide world. This is why we're treated to endless think pieces about, and outright celebrations of, Title IX, why the WNBA is still a thing that exists and gets airtime despite its lack of popularity. The social pressures exerted to maintain this facade are quite keen. Consider this riff from Bryan Curtis over at Grantland on the way writers turned on a dime against Roger Goodell:

What happened to the sports press? Two things. The lethal snipers at Deadspin and other sites give covering fire to lefty sportswriters who might leave behind the old nonpartisan tone. There’s no longer a punishment for being liberal, and there’s a lot of potential reward on Twitter. Moreover, writers who don’t toe the line know they’ll be punished for speaking up. I suspect that a lot of semi-political types feign agreement or don’t comment at all. ...

This is a golden age of liberal sports opining. Olbermann ecstatically disrobes Goodell on ESPN as he once did George W. Bush on his old MSNBC Countdown show. Bob Costas stumps for gun control. Here at Grantland, we cover the protests in Ferguson. More on this story, comrade, as it becomes available.

Television recappers are always on the lookout for problematic moments, something for the outrage brigade to jump on—or, at least, something that must be noted lest readers think the writers are insufficiently politicized. I literally laughed out loud when I read the following in Genevieve Valentine's recap of last week's episode of Boardwalk Empire over at the AV Club:

I’ll be honest, I feel like if we never saw a man sexually threaten a woman as proof he’s not morally upstanding ever again it would be too soon, and the added dynamic of having Milton, a man of color, creeping on a white tenth-grade girl makes this a pretty eyebrow-raising beat at a very odd point in the series.

I'm sure eyebrows across the nation shot up in horror at the implications of that scene. Wow. Very offense. So outré. Much problematic. And who can forget this awesome review of The Leftovers at the same site by Sonia Saraiya, in which the recapper lamented, at length, the show's whiteness and how that rendered it "unrelateable" to her.

As Kevin Glass noted in his writeup of #GamerGate, film writers clearly care for smaller indie fare much more than big budget tentpoles and focus their attentions accordingly, leading to something of a disconnect with audiences:

Professional critics are interested in arthouse film, not blockbusters—compare the coverage that Richard Linklater’s quasi-experimental film Boyhood received this summer with Michael Bay’s Transformers movie. We can analogize Call of Duty with Transformers, and Depression Quest with Boyhood. Highbrow indie movies aren’t everyone’s cup of tea; judging by box office receipts, they don’t really hit the mark with wide audiences in general. While some people complain about movie industry journalists, it’s more or less accepted as a fact of the industry: those writers will be much more interested in the highbrow films with a narrow audience than the broad-based films that drive box office receipts.

Critical groupthink is sometimes an issue, certainly, though more so for documentaries than narrative features.*** And I think it's fair to say that film writers will often band together in an effort to help smaller fare find an audience. I'm not convinced that writers giving oxygen to a film they enjoy that can't afford a $30 million advertising campaign is necessarily a horrible thing, but some level of coordination—via listservs, via Twitter, via blog posts—is undeniable. More troubling, at least to me, is the undeniable contempt these writers often have for mainstream audiences.

That contempt—or, perhaps, that perception of contempt—is the connecting thread through all these various contretemps. Gaming journos have contempt for gamers who have no interest in boring quasi-games like Depression Quest. Film writers have contempt for the audiences who make Michael Bay a star. TV writers have contempt for the folks who watch NCIS and CSI and The Big Bang Theory. Sports writers have contempt for those dullards who can't possibly understand why "Redskins" is the most horribly insulting name evah. They want to make their readers better people, to shape their worldview—and they just can't understand why their readers are so damn obstinate.

The question, then, is a simple one: Is there a vast, hidden audience—a silent majority, if you will—ready to patronize an entertainment-media conglomerate that isn't terribly interested in informing you what the politically correct views on the subject matter are and instead focuses on sporting events, video games, and mainstream movies and TV shows? Is #GamerGate a howl of rage from a cohort slowly dying off—the last gasp of the white, male, heterosexual establishment? Or is it a signal that the market could bear an alternative?

*If you really want to go down the rabbit hole, check out Erik Kain or Kevin Glass or Milo Yiannopoulos for center-left, center-right, and very-right-leaning-but-well-reported takes on the controversy, respectively.

**The last game I played to completion was the most recent entry in the Resident Evil franchise. Now that Bioshock Infinite has dipped below $20 I might take a crack at that. But I left behind my "gamer" creds long ago. Only so many hours in the day, you know?

***If you competently produce a documentary that makes the "right" arguments—the military is horrible and corrupt, mankind is killing the planet, religion is dumb and oppressive, etc.—you are basically guaranteed a 90-percent-plus fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, because 100 percent of the critics reviewing those films agree with the filmmaker. Critics are much less susceptible to pedantry when it comes to features, though, a fact that reveals itself when looking at the ratings for the mid-to-late-00s spate of anti-Bush, anti-war films. Reviews were decidedly mixed.