I am afraid to write this story.
I’m afraid to write this story because this story is supposed to be about #Gamergate, the giant online discussion/debate that has spun off a small yet scary minority of folks who’ve harassed and threatened some women in the gaming community.
Note that I said “minority.” And by using that word, I’ve already pissed some people off. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned in researching this essay, it’s that nearly everybody in Gamergate thinks I should take one side and be super-strident about it.
I’m not going to do that.
I’m trying to listen to everybody who is passionate about this topic.
Thus, I’m afraid to write this story.
My fears are not unfounded. Feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian, creator of the video series “Tropes vs Women in Video Games,” recently cancelled an appearance at Utah State University over an email threatening a mass shooting at campus if she were to go ahead with her speech. This came months after game developer Zoe Quinn went into hiding as a result of rape and murder threats. Similarly, game developer Brianna Wu and her husband recently fled their home due to threats including a barrage of tweets, among them one that read, “I’ve got a K-bar and I’m coming to your house so I can shove it up your ugly feminist cunt.” In each case, these women sought assistance from local police and the FBI, and local police and the FBI agreed that their concerns merited investigations. In each case, the crime involved has gotten more and more play in the mainstream press.
I’m afraid to write this story because I don’t want to make anybody mad – the people who say GG is a debate about ethics and culture, and the people who say GG is just about terrifying women. Like many women, I was raised to be nice and make people happy and the thought of confrontation or harassment makes me feel queasy. In my life, as a practice, I generally try to avoid death threats and rape threats, as well as stalking and intimidation and invasion of privacy and anything adjacent to those things.
On the flipside, I also don’t want to piss off any feminist gamers who may think me traitorous if I express understanding or even empathy for some angry male gamers I know what it’s like to cherish a certain pastime and feel threatened by “outsiders.” To put it bluntly, it’s like somebody shit on your cake. And hell, I get why some folks think feminism is a militant monoculture rather than a diversity of voices or a spectrum. Sometimes it’s easier to brand all members of a community with one label than to look for the nuances. People do this to gamers all the time, as if everyone who played board, video, card or computer games had the exact same opinions on everything.
Anyway, call me a scaredy-cat. Call me a nervous Nellie. Call me a dumb cunt. I’ve been called worse. Just don’t call me brave, because I’m not.
I’m afraid to write this story because it reminds me of what I used to love, and what I gave up, and why. And that makes me sad.
When I was six years old, in 1987, my father brought home a computer game called King’s Quest III. Originally released in 1986 for the Apple and PC, it was the third entry in the enormously successful King’s Quest series of games from Sierra On-Line. Sierra itself had been founded back in ’79 by Roberta and Ken Williams (they called it On-Line Systems back then.) A standout in the golden age of graphic adventure games, the King’s Quest series put the player in the familiar position of hero, with various tasks to complete in order to achieve an ultimate end goal and victory. The specific storyline for King’s Quest III involved a young slave boy, Gwydion, who had been stolen away from his family and raised by the evil wizard Manannan high on a mountaintop in the land of Llewdor. Rich with references to fables, fairy tales and popular culture, and with a kickass-for-its-time soundtrack, King’s Quest III was popular among players of all ages.
I thought it was the greatest thing I’d ever seen.
I fell in love with the game. I played it every day after school (and sometimes before school, if I could get away with it). Hunched in front of our brand-new PC, I tapped out commands, directions, and the occasional swear word (you could get a funny response out of the game if you typed something naughty). I consulted the spell guide. I read the manual. I drew maps of the territory. I puzzled over the puzzles.
I “died” endless times at the hands of Manannan, usually when he shot lightening at me from his hands and turned me into a bunch of dust. This was accompanied by a great dramatic flourish in the primitive musical soundtrack. That was some scary shit for a little kid. It gave me nightmares.
But I’d reboot. Start over. Try again. Over and over and over again.
I made hapless friends sit by my side as I played the game, explaining in enthusiastic detail each element of the point system as their eyes glazed over.
King’s Quest III was my gateway drug. I fell in love with gaming, specifically with graphic adventure gaming. I loved going to the game shop at the nearest mall. I can remember the smell of all the plastic cases. Hell, I can remember the smell of the dark blue carpet. Of course I had to chase down King’s Quest I and II. When King’s Quest IV came out, featuring a female lead character, I was absolutely elated. I later went through an obsessive phase regarding Gold Rush, and The Secret of Monkey Island, and Freddy Pharkas, Frontier Pharmacist (anyone? No? Just me? Okay.) There were other games, too, but those are the ones I remember best. And of my favorite games, all but The Secret of Monkey Island (a LucasArts production) came from Sierra On-line, a company co-owned by a woman.
Because my introduction to gaming came via the work of a male-female partnership, it never occurred to me that girls couldn’t or shouldn’t play games.
Then I hit puberty.
I don’t know if anyone ever explicitly said I ought to put away the computer games and focus on baton twirling or beauty pageants or fashion magazines (although I soon came to obsess over those things, albeit with less passion than I’d obsessed over King’s Quest). There was a change in the air, though. I didn’t know any girls who played computer games or video games. I started to notice in the game shop at the mall that I was usually the only girl, and that there weren’t many female employees. I also noticed that none of the beautiful, popular girls in middle school expressed one iota of interest in computer games. I was neither beautiful nor popular, but if I were going to achieve such an elevated status, I would surely need to ditch any element of my lifestyle that did not match up with my ideal. I desperately wanted to fit in.
I stopped playing games.
I can’t blame anyone in particular for my putting away of what I now saw as childish things. I wasn’t bullied out of gaming. It’s more like I poked my head up, surveyed the landscape, and realized that I had to start acting like a “real” girl. And where I lived, in that time and in that place, the “real” girls — the good, pretty, likable girls — didn’t play games. Or read comic books. Or do anything out of the ordinary. Their alluring quality lay in their very ordinariness. They were shiny and pretty and untouched, like a brand new game sitting in its original packaging on the shelf.
I can tell you, however, that the box that contained our old computer games was a cedar hope chest that smelled absolutely wonderful until the day we gave it away.
Speaking of that day: I think I was 13. I hadn’t played a computer game in two or three years. I knew the box of computer games was headed for the hills, so I peeked inside for the first time in a long time. As I went through my old favorites, I happened upon something at the very bottom of the box: a sheaf of pages from an old dot-matrix printer. I pulled them out and squinted at the faded type.
It was the solution to King’s Quest III.
Holy shit. My father had brought the solution home from work years ago, and I’d never found it. And though I suspected this went against some honor code of gaming, I took out the old computer and those old floppy disks and I played King’s Quest III using the cheat sheet. I got to see the end of the game. I got to win! It was so exciting, and so wonderful, and even a bit emotional as I saw my kindergarten dreams realized before my very eyes.
And then I put the solution away along with the game and we passed on the hope chest to somebody who probably threw out the games and replaced them with linens, as should happen with any proper hope chest.
I distanced myself from gaming the way one distances oneself from any former love (you know, feigning that you’re “totally over it.”) I strode past the game shop in the mall on my way to Wet Seal or the Limited, ignoring any gnawing interest in post-IV iterations of King’s Quest. I resisted the urge to explore Myst. I didn’t avail myself of the opportunity to play any (male) friends’ gaming systems. And when the Internet became a thing, I used it for school research and for email and IM but never, ever, ever for gaming.
In the process, gaming passed me by. And though I still occasionally dreamed in the world of King’s Quest III, exploring hidden caves or debating Rumpelstiltskin, I did not attempt to catch up with the enormous advances across the gaming spectrum. It all seemed so overwhelming, so much bigger and more complex than anything I’d experienced as a child. If you’d told me back then that I would one day have the ability to sit in front of a giant screen, wearing a headset, and communicate with fellow players all over the world, I would’ve jumped up and shrieked, “That is AWESOME! Why aren’t you doing that right this second?!”
The answer is, “Because I’m scared.”
Which brings me back to Gamergate.
A few months ago, this Gamergate stuff took over my Twitter timeline. I tried to figure out what it was about, and who it involved, and why (again, this article was of some help). To put it in the simplest possible terms, some men feel that a political element — call it progressivism, call it political correctness, call it inclusivity — has in some way infected or disturbed their online community. Many of these men also object to what they see as unethical coziness between the gaming industry and gaming journalists (I am relatively unfamiliar with either group, although I shared drafts of this article with folks on various sides of this debate). And of this group of dudes, a subset is willing to go to great lengths to humiliate and intimidate these women in public, whether by threatening to rape or murder them, exposing their personal information and private photographs online, or simply engaging in endless name-calling in various forums.
Many people have warned me that Gamergate is entirely about one thing or the other. It’s all about political interference in gaming culture. It’s all about ethics of gaming journalism. It’s all about scaring women away from gaming. It’s all about this or it’s all about that.
As far as I can tell, it’s all about a lot of things. Characterized in the mainstream media by a few terrible events (read: crimes), it has evolved to become an eruption of general discontent, unrest, and dissatisfaction. Many women in gaming are scared, and rightly so. A few folks (some pro-GG, some anti-GG, some GG-netural) told me not to even attempt this article because of threats I might experience if I kicked the hornet’s nest.
Perhaps the most controversial thing I can say about Gamergate is that I disagree with Joss Whedon, who recently tweeted:
I think it’s more complicated that that.
My memories of gaming are exclusively about fun and joy and excitement, childlike wonder and awe and delight. I can’t get straight the idea that my childhood pastime has somehow been poisoned, made unfriendly or hostile to participants.
One of the most disheartening things I have thus far taken from Gamergate is the idea that there is no place for me, the liberal pro-LGBTQ rights feminist, in various corners of the gaming world. It’s the idea that I cannot regain what I lost when I digested the message that gaming was not for little girls.
Is that true?
You tell me.
Because I want to play again. I’ve read that nearly half of all active gamers are women. People tell me that there is a vibrant, active LGBTQ community involved in gaming. They say I should try again. They say I’ll have fun. And after all, I’m friends with conservative folks and religious folks and liberal folks and atheists and moderate folks and agnostics and hell, all types of folks in real life. Hell, my best friend in life is a Christian Republican and I’m some kinda hippie weirdo. Why shouldn’t I be able to move in the diverse world of gaming? (Also, can we please retire the insult that gamers “live in their mom’s basements”? Shit is expensive these days and plenty of us have moved back in with mom and dad for a time. Plus, sometimes those basements are hella nice.)
But I read the conversation around Gamergate, and it makes me want to back away slowly and carefully. It’s not that my presence as a player would be offensive. I doubt anyone would really care, particularly if I were actually good – because I suspect that if you’re a good player, gamers don’t give a shit if you’re a lady, a dude or a purple unicorn.
But as an author, an essayist and a comedian, I often write about my actual life. And if my actual life were to include gaming, I would undoubtedly form strong opinions about gaming. And I would express those opinions in writing – an act that might bring some very real consequences down on me. The promise of fun and friendship doesn’t outweigh the fear of hurt and damage.
The whole thing just makes me feel like a coward. And I guess that’s what I am: a big fucking coward.
Twenty years ago, I opted out of gaming. And because of Gamergate, I’m afraid that if I try to rejoin, with all my lady-opinions and dork-thoughts and maybe-not-the-right-kind-of-ideas, some monstrous force will again strike me down with a bolt of lightening, leaving only a smoldering pile of ash.
Maybe I’m not educated enough about all this stuff. But I tried, I really tried.
And I still don’t play.
I guess that means somebody won, but it sure as hell ain’t me.
Sara Benincasa is a comedian and the author of Great and Agorafabulous!: Dispatches From My Bedroom. She tweets @sarajbenincasa and is currently on tour: dates are at SaraBenincasa.com/shows.