GamerGate and the Balkanization of Videogames

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GamerGate and the Balkanization of Videogames

Of all the things brought to our attention by the nebulous online insurgency, GamerGate—which first erupted last August, gained peak media attention in October, and continues to foment unrest and abuse, both in and outside of videogame circles—perhaps the one we have been slowest to grapple with is the Balkanization of videogaming itself. If we’ve long behaved as though there was a community it made sense to talk about in the singular, the divisions sharpened by GamerGate have made it clear that the audience for videogames is far from monolithic.

Even having acknowledged that, though, it pays to tread carefully. When we hear the word Balkanization, we typically think of a state in collapse, a dozen or so of its splinters turning violently one against the other. Listen: that’s only half the story.

Consider the origin of the word. When, over the course of the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire steadily came apart at the seams, its borders receded across the mountainous peninsula known as the Balkans, where Europe leans in to touch Asia Minor. New states quickly surfaced in its wake—Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, etc. Thus: Balkanization.

There had been no clear doctrine of nationalism in the 14th century when the Ottomans established their rule, so the Balkan nation-states of the 19th and 20th centuries were genuinely new political entities, even when they bore old names. Nevertheless, the communities around which they constituted themselves often had comparatively ancient roots. They were the descendants of populations that had been conquered, mingled, galvanized and (to some extent) transformed by empire. Under imperial rule, the political status of most members of those communities had been liminal at best: neither fully citizen nor entirely alien. Afterwards, if they were not exactly the same communities that had been assimilated all those centuries ago, neither were they disenfranchised Ottomans exactly.

The same applies in that more recent Balkanization, which saw the dissolution of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslav. There, too, the breaks were along traditional fault-lines, the Republic’s civil composition having always been conglomerate. For nearly 30 years, Tito had held it all together by the sheer force of his political presence. After his death in 1980, cohesion was maintained by means of a political system that rotated the presidency among each of the federation’s six constituent republics. By 1990, though, that cohesion was nearly exhausted. The nations that emerged from the ensuing war may not have been precisely congruent with the communities that went into the Republic’s formation in 1945, but they represented the evolution of social and cultural threads that had existed prior to the federation and survived its collapse—though not without being reshaped by it.

Balkanization, then, is almost never what it seems from the outside. To accept the crumbling superpower as its initial state is to overlook the depth and complexity of its historical dimension. The apparent unity of that superpower is almost always an artificial imposition, and its removal unleashes social and cultural dynamics that it is the purpose of federations and empires to lash together. When those dynamics emerge, they are often so distorted by their decades in the crucible of hegemony that they find it difficult to resist violence.

That historical dimension is part of what makes Balkanization an apt metaphor for the turmoil currently rattling videogaming. In the 1990s, the industry began to push toward a kind of cultural consolidation. Industry messaging began to focus on a narrowly defined “core gamer.” In American marketing, that core was represented largely by images of young white men. Investment shifted away from genres and companies that had embraced other communities. Even when the underlying diversity of the videogame audience was acknowledged, it was often on the premise that a shared love of videogames transcended other differences.

As a result, a single banner flew over all the identities that participated in videogames for the better part of two decades. Now, the façade is breaking apart, revealing that what is often referred to as “the gaming community” is, in fact, many communities, made up of people with disparate backgrounds and points of view. It has been that way almost from the beginning.

That segmentation is more granular than just the fatuous division of players into “casual,” “core” and “hardcore,” or the growth of specialist communities, like those dedicated to roguelikes or fighting games. There are fault lines in the disintegrating empire of videogames that can be traced back to cultural divisions that predate the earliest electronic game, idiosyncratic reflections of historical divisions as seen through the lens of gaming. Because they have long been practically invisible, many have only recently recognized their own potential as a community.

There are women who enjoy online shooters, but who have learned to project a masculine persona in order to sidestep sexist pandering and harassment. There are persons of color who favor licensed sports sims as one of the few genres that reliably present black men as playable characters. There are trans men and women who invest heavily in open-world adventures for the opportunity to role-play as characters that match their own gender identity. Isolated people of all walks of life turn to games for some sense of connection to a world beyond their own circumstances. Some betray every expectation you might form on the basis of their race, gender or sexuality. Others relish the opportunity to enact prejudices they know would be unacceptable in civil society.

Some have suggested that highlighting those identities is inherently divisive. If making too much of our differences leads to injustice and strife, they argue, then we can eliminate injustice and strife by behaving as though there are no differences between us. But taking ownership of their identities allows the marginalized to build communities, which in turn empowers them to oppose their own marginalization. You can’t clap away the problems of an unjust and unequal society by refusing to acknowledge that differences of identity continue to have social and political ramifications. They must be confronted.

Those ramifications are sometimes too significant to be pasted over by a shared hobby. That’s particularly true when videogames make a habit of throwing them back in our faces in hyperbolic form, depicting women as sex objects, LGTB characters as foppish or butchy villains, and persons of color as so much cannon fodder. The bridges that digital play can build across cultural divides are too often burned by reminding players of where they stand with their flesh-and-blood neighbors. Frustration with those depictions is an extension of outrage over the state of the world; it is rooted in a deep disappointment that a hobby that could do so much to console and repair often contents itself with reinforcing a broken status quo.

So, for the opportunity it gives each of those communities to reshape their relationships, both to videogames and to other players, Balkanization is precisely what videogames needed. But the process is not without hazards.

Presently, the emerging communities are faced with a number of choices, but probably none is so important as the question of how they’ll respond to the uncertain circumstances created by the Balkanization of their hobby. A community is more than just the parts that constitute it, more than just the commonalities that bundle them together. Equally important is the nature of their collective action and the contribution that each member makes toward it.

The mode most suggested by Balkanization is mutual antagonism, each newly liberated community asserting its right to exist by setting itself in opposition to its neighbors. When antagonism is central to the communal identity of one or more of your neighbors, hostility is practically unavoidable. That’s especially the case when it is the aim of those neighbors to preserve the illusion of the unified identity that was lost in the process of Balkanization, along with the potential for hegemony it provided. (That ersatz unity is what’s at stake when supporters claim that GamerGate represents the interests of all “Gamers.”) Direct opposition is sometimes the only resistance to the Borg.

Yet, we cannot afford to let our communities be defined solely by opposition. To do so not only makes their existence contingent on the thing opposed, but also exerts a distorting influence on the community itself. That may be avoided in part by paying close attention to the relations involved.

Those relations are, broadly speaking, of two types: internal and external. Externally—that is, when the members of one community interact with the members of another—good relations depend first of all on mutual respect. Communities undermine that respect when they do not, at least tacitly, acknowledge one another’s right to identify as a community of valid, shared interests. A communal identity predicated on opposition to some other identity (say, a group that bonds over the denial of transgender identity) precludes respect. How, after all, can you respect a community premised on denying your validity, without implicitly denying the very self from which that respect would emanate?

Indeed, the health of a community depends on its attentiveness to the selves that give it substance. That’s why, internally—that is, in the way members of the community relate to one another—one focus must be the provision of care. That need becomes especially acute when other communities are bent on tearing down identities that resist assimilation or control.

Furthermore, it is important to distinguish care from advocacy, as well as behaviors that lend direct aid to individuals from those that merely advocate in support of an identity. It is all too easy to demand respect for an identity in the abstract, while simultaneously neglecting, even harming, people whose traits and experiences constitute that very identity.

If the provision of care is important, so too is an insistence on responsibility. It is, in fact, hazardous to develop the one without the other. A community that is all care, with no responsibility, will inevitably use caring for its own as justification for exploiting its weakest members or lashing out at other communities. The result will be functionally equivalent to outright antagonism, inviting hostility in return. That, ultimately, threatens the integrity not only of the irresponsible party but also that of their neighbors, no matter how well-meaning. Thus, it is imperative that the members of a community demand of one another the same outward respect they expect to receive from other communities.

New publications and more diverse games, while important, likely will not be enough on their own. Sometimes, what’s needed more is personal contact, or the aid of an organization with the resources to lend the right support. In short: a community should both ground and empower its members, so that they are capable of standing before society as neither nemesis nor nullity, but as a person.

It isn’t enough to define your community in relation to other communities, or even by the identities that unite you. The contrasts that distinguish you from others may drive you to look for a community where you feel more at home, just as the identities that connect you may serve as foundation for the community you ultimately join. What matters more, though, are the reserves of dignity and integrity on which your community makes it possible to draw. That should be the standard to which you hold your own community, and by which, when necessary, you work for its reform.

When not writing for a cable television network, L. Rhodes dissects popular media, digital culture and philosophy, and can be found discussing those topics @upstreamism.