The hashtag that took the fun out of games

Recent online debate has put the spotlight on the American Indie and AAA Games Industries. Is it time for Denmark to examine its own gaming culture?

Gender no longer excludes people from being cultural consumers and producers, but it’s still not completely safe to be a woman in the computer game community. Feminist media critics, game developers and tech writers have had their personal details published online and endured sexist slurs on Twitter. Some have even received death threats.

The increasing hostility to women in the computer game community climaxed this summer in a controversy now widely known as ‘Gamergate‘. The sudden eruption of tension arrived at a time when making and using computer games is becoming more and more widespread. Smartphones have made games accessible to those without consoles, and making your own games has never been easier with the development of free-to-use programs.

Danish computer game makers have now been drawn into the debate. IO Interactive, which makes the hugely successful Hitman franchise, has been accused of using sexist themes. Meanwhile, the Digital Games Research Association (DiGRA) – an international association of academics that includes several working in Denmark  – has been accused of having a feminist bias and of trying to influence games with a feminist agenda.

Male dominance
Jesper Krogh Kristiansen, a sound designer, game developer and, most recently, Denmark’s first games industry historian, thinks that the debate could be helpful to the Danish industry, if it was happening in a more constructive way.

“As a game developer and an audio designer, I freelance often and get to see a lot of companies from the inside. Many are almost entirely male, and while they may not be conscious of being sexist, there are certainly questions that aren’t going to be asked,” Kristiansen said.

The main Danish union for computer game developers, Producent Foreningen, takes an annual survey of the industry, and Kristiansen has suggested that they investigate the gender split of employees. While he doesn’t know whether they will act on his suggestion, he acknowledges that feminism and gender are not issues that the industry is discussing.

“We are a Scandinavian country, and we think that we have already fixed gender discrimination, so there is no need to go into it. I also think we like to avoid the conflict because we think we are all friends here, so why bring up this unpleasant topic?” Kristiansen adds.

At the same time, there is no one place for a centralised debate on the Gaming Industry in Denmark.

“There hasn’t really been a central platform for Danish game developers, but there are some things that work together to create a pretty strong identity. For example,Spilhuset, game jams, the Copenhagen Game Collective, Spil Bar and Growing Games all function as an excuse for the Danish games industry to meet each other. If you look at Twitter, there is a commonly used hashtag, #dkgames. This hashtag is not necessarily used to profile Danish games to the outside world, it’s more a way of keeping each other in the loop,” says Kristensen.

One game that has come out of Spilhuset is Machineers by Lohika ApS, a construction puzzle game located in an imaginary world of robots and machines that aims to teach basic coding principles.

“People here are interested if you can do your job, and if you are good at it,” said CEO Henrike Lode, reflecting on how work culture in Denmark was benefiting her startup.

“It isn’t just that people don’t focus on gender, but they don’t focus on hierarchy either. It is accepted that even the intern in a company can disagree with the boss if they can argue their opinion. It’s a healthy attitude that allows people to speak freely.”

The gameplay trailer for ‘Machineers’

Stifled debate
But according to Kristensen, the openness of Danish workplaces hasn’t translated into a public debate about Gamergate by computer games developers. On the contrary, developers have become particularly wary of broadcasting strong views following the online campaigns of harassment that have spilled over into the real world.

“Few developers have reacted to Gamergate. They are waiting for it to blow over because if they address it, they know it could severely backfire. There is a huge amount of fear and anger online ,and while I’m not sure where it comes from, it’s clearly not constructive for discussions. There must be some people who feel really hurt and angry, and we have to accept that they feel like that. Dismissing those feelings will only make it worse.”

Lecturer Torill Mortensen at the IT University of Copenhagen, who has served on the DiGRA board, thinks that while the internet can be a positive force in allowing new voices to be heard and new people to communicate, it has the potential to create echo chambers.

“Echochambers allow a group to talk to each other without listening to anyone else. People in these groups have the same interests, go to the same sites, and have their opinions confirmed by those sites. This creates a spiral of silence where you believe that your minority is the majority, because you never hear anything except what your peers are saying.”

Mortensen, who specialises in digital rhetoric, has not only spent the majority of her career exploring gaming culture, she is a gamer herself. She argues that Gamergate is a clear example of such an echo chamber, but hits back against accusations that DiGRA is itself an echo chamber for a group of feminist academics.

“Part of what academia consistently tries to do through its methods, openness and transparency is to fight the mechanism of the echo chamber. This is what conferences and gathering places like DiGRA are about,” she says.

While the online world plays a role in increasing transparency, some platforms are problematic when trying to establish a sensible discussion, she argues.

“Twitter hashtags aren’t a great way to have a discussion, because the hashtag can be easily co-opted by other groups that want to send their own message.”

Feminist conspiracy
The media discussion of Gamergate has been particularly confused, she argues, as those using the hashtag belong to a diverse set of groups with differing opinions. Some are also incredibly agressive.

“If you talk about gamers as people who play games, the ‘Gamergaters’ are a minority of this group. I’ve played computer games a long time and have been interviewing gamers for 16 years. While I have occasionally met people with that kind of anger and aggression toward women, they are a minority. The majority that I meet are interesting, engaging and fantastic people.”

Mortensen was puzzled as to why online communities have extended their criticism of journalism and feminist writers to DiGRA at all.

“It surprises me so much that Gamergate turned on DiGRA, because it has been protecting and arguing in favour of gaming from the start. Now, suddenly, alleged gamers are attacking the main advocate of gaming as an important pastime.”

One group of Gamergate agitators has decided that DiGRA’s real agenda is to influence and ultimately change the games industry – the fact that the association has published articles by several feminist academics has been enough for some within Gamergate to panic.

“The fear of having games changed is ridiculous, because as long as this particular group of gamers remain a strong demographic and are willing to buy and play games, there is no reason these games will go away,” says Mortensen.

“You can see it in film. Despite a long history of feminist film criticism, we still have sexist and violent male fantasy hero films coming out again and again. So there’s no reasonable basis for this group to be afraid.” M


By Kirsty Gifford

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