The Psychology of Gamergate

In the past couple of months, videogame culture — often marginalized or ignored by mainstream media — has become the focus of significant attention. Unfortunately, it is for fairly ugly reasons: those unfamiliar with the events dubbed “Gamergate” can read overviews here and here. To oversimplify matters for the sake of brevity, there is an ongoing conflict — played out largely over social media — between a group self-identified as “hardcore gamers” and a set of progressive game critics and developers, exemplified most by Zoe Quinn (a developer who recently released a game about dealing with depression) and Anita Sarkeesian (a cultural critic who hosts a video series looking at tropes in games from a feminist perspective).

The conflict has involved a small amount of mutual debate, but hardcore gamers have drawn the most attention for their vitriolic and abusive communications and actions, including countless death and rape threats to Quinn and Sarkeesian, as well as the online dissemination of Quinn’s personal information — forcing her to temporarily leave her home as she feared for her safety.

Why, exactly, are these hardcore gamers — a group chiefly consisting of young, white men — so angry? The question has been difficult to approach, as it demands an empathetic stance toward individuals who are not easy to empathize with. Behind their sophomoric (and superficial) argument that Quinn and Sarkeesian’s approach to gaming is “too serious,” and that games should be left as fun diversions not subject to artistic exploration or criticism, the hardcore seem to be fighting tooth-and-nail for the exclusion of women and minorities from the world of video games. As an advocate for social justice, I find this attitude despicable. But as a clinical psychologist, I also feel it is essential that some effort be spent understanding the position of the so-called hardcore — without understanding, there is no escape from the endless feedback loop of hatred and rage on both sides. Once we look thoughtfully at the Gamergate base, it becomes clear that this is less an organized anti-progressivist movement and more a collection of pained and confused young men.

In a paper I recently presented at a psychoanalytic conference (and an article I once posted on inkblot.), I argue that videogames — often misunderstood and dismissed by psychotherapists — are an important art-form that engage in unique and fascinating ways with the psychologies of those who play them. Games facilitate what D. W. Winnicott called potential space — that is, a space between fantasy and reality, the internal and the external. Games are real and yet unreal, and scenarios played out carry an emotional impact but, due to being virtual experiences, are not overwhelming. Fantasies of power, altruism, cruelty, heroism, etc. can all be explored within game-space, with the tacit knowledge that the experience can be turned off or reset at any time. Games have the capacity to serve as psychic playgrounds for players, a unique opportunity to try out ways of being that may feel overly threatening or anxiety-provoking in “real” life.

The highly vocal hardcore contingent represent a group of men who depend on games — which since their inception have largely been made by men, for men — as an outlet to explore their feelings (especially of sexuality and aggression) in ways that seem unavailable elsewhere. They may consciously express wanting games to be “fun,” but there is a deeper need being satisfied: a gratification steeped in the gaming world’s historical designation as a boys’ club, a space where members of the majority can be angry and violent without fear of reprisal, and without consideration for contemporary social values.

This is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. Acknowledging and experiencing one’s unconscious thoughts and feelings, which may be socially taboo, are core components of the psychoanalytic process and an important step toward self-knowledge and change — but it is only one step. Reconciling fantasy with reality and unconscious with conscious (an important part of the “analysis” in psychoanalysis) is the step that the hardcore gamers seem terrified to attempt.

As more minority voices express themselves through the medium of games — and subsequently games tackle more complex and diverse subject matter — the hardcore gamers fear that their potential space is collapsing. If it is no longer acceptable for sexist and misogynistic material to be featured in games, they feel they will lose a chief emotional outlet: “How can I use games to vent my anger toward women now that women are watching?” they might ask. They experience the influx of feminism and social justice into the gaming sphere as the equivalent of finding their indulgent therapist suddenly replaced with a harsh and judgmental one. When previously they could play out aggressive, even sadistic fantasies to their hearts’ content, suddenly they feel every passing thought is being chastised.

Those who have had positive experiences in psychotherapy or psychoanalysis should immediately see the problem with this configuration. Neither the indulgent nor the punitive therapist is ideal; neither attitude toward gaming is accurate or healthy. Unchecked gratification is inherently compulsive — if one only uses games to act out fantasies but is never challenged to consider the meaning behind or consequences of those fantasies, how can the person ever grow? He is stuck in an infinite loop, chasing the next opportunity to vent unprocessed feelings. Conversely, an environment in which fear of punishment prevents any such feelings from being brought to the surface is similarly problematic, as no new ways of being or understanding can be achieved when potentially taboo feelings are perpetually suppressed.

Hardcore gamers are currently failing to see the middle ground between two extremes: the therapist who indulges at times but challenges at others. Games can remain a potential space to explore the feelings these young men (and others) are mired in — issues of rage, sexuality, identity, entitlement, and fear — while shedding the status quo of sexism, misogyny, and racism that has been so historically prevalent in gaming. This demands an openness to change; a willingness to give up compulsive play and perhaps learn something new about one’s inner and outer worlds. Herein lies the heart of the Gamergate conflict. While the hardcore do not have to give up their potential space, their space is changing. They are losing the privileged position as the loudest voice in the gaming community — an unusual experience for members of any majority — and this is generating a tremendous amount of outrage and confusion. If handled properly, however, with a combination of empathy and opposition, such a paradigm shift may actually help lead the hardcore gamers — currently trapped in a world in which certain games are their only source of emotional expression — to a healthier space.

Video games as a medium are expanding, as is the variety of people who play and create them. The heated, often disturbing events of Gamergate stands as a prime example that what was once considered a frivolous hobby for teenagers is in fact a vital source of cultural debate and psychological understanding. The more games are pushed as an art-form, the more they will offer in terms of fun, challenge, and emotional growth — to the hardcore, the marginalized, and everyone in between.

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