Hey, so Gamergate’s been a thing recently. You know, that hashtag on Twitter where a bunch of disgruntled stereotypes fancied to fashion themselves as latter day Woodward and Bernsteins in order to shred the reputation of a show that had the gall to explore how maybe the gaming community is a teensy weensy bit less utopian, gender wise, than the party line might’ve stated? And it presently exists as a gold mine for the thick, ropy vein of misogyny and death threats that have always been a latent part of the gamer community, because they’d like videogames to be considered art but not, y’know, the kind that’s open to intellectual criticism? Yeah, that thing (if you’d like an actual breakdown of the who-what-when, Deadspin has a masterstroke of an article).
We’re not actually going to look directly at it, for fear of the blindness caused by 140 character masturbation. However, it did seem like an opportune moment to bump up an essay I’ve been toying with for some time regarding a metaphor of art as cultural reflection and the observance of willful blindness. Plus, I’ve not personally seen Godwin’s Law invoked yet in this short-form mouth foaming, and it seemed the most tonally appropriate way to add to this general discussion topic. And if you’re saying, ‘Vrai, how can an essay you’ve backordered for months possibly have anything to do with such a current event?’ don’t worry – it’s actually about ethics in game journalism.
Pictured: a rare snapshot of the interaction
of triple-A publishers and reviewers
As a quick refresher, Cabaret is a movie musical released in 1972 to a great deal of wholly deserved acclaim, centering more or less on British translator Brian’s move to Germany (in the last days of the Weimar Republic, just before the Nazis had fully taken power) and quick entanglement with would-be star and actual cabaret performer Sally. It made a brilliant move in constricting its songs solely to the on-stage happenings at the Cabaret (clearing the way, more or less, for the fantasy sequences in Chicago), and is one of the only films in recent memory (mine, anyway) that features a liberal background of fascism without being About Nazis. The latter’s the more important detail for the purpose of this analysis: it uses the outline of a conflict everyone’s pretty familiar with, meaning it can skimp on some details for telling iconography, and put its focus instead on how the cabaret itself reflects what’s going on outside its walls.
The film even opens during a cabaret number, forcing us as viewers to use it as prism for viewing the rest of the film. “Leave your troubles outside,” is the call to arms, establishing this seedy little club as a kind of haven from the world. Entertainment, we open with, is an escape from the concerns of the real world, wholly divorced and free to be enjoyed without complication. “It’s just a game/movie/book/etc.” has long been a paper tiger rallying cry for people trying to avoid a critical discussion of That Thing They Like, and the cabaret makes us those people. Politics and inflation and fascism are powerless in the face of a strong desire to go clubbing.
Of course, even with our rose colored glasses on it’s clearly untrue that then-current events have no bearing on what happens on-stage. But even then it comes out in what you could argue as a harmless or even subversive way: a “Hitler ‘stache” made from mud, that sort of thing. They even throw a Nazi supporter out for trying to give out propaganda. So far so good, yeah? It would seem that entertainment can be a bastion against the woes of the world, a means to make them powerless even (and indeed, there’s more than a little merit to Mel Brooks’ idea of humor undermining Hitler and co.).
And were this the story of a down-and-out cabaret speaking truth to power by satirizing it, we could perhaps pursue that line of thought. But there’s no inkling of thought in the numbers, little motive beyond grasping for a popular concept and throwing it before the masses – the Nazis are a distrusted fringe group, so let’s portray them as fumbling quacks and buffoons. It’s not harmful in result (yet) but in process, functioning without thought for how its ideas are swayed by the population’s id. Playing into our extended metaphor, we can have a long and fruitful conversation as to whether Bayonetta constitutes empowering female sexuality, but at the end of the day I’d take a safe bet that thoughtful representation was not forefront in the developers’ minds.
Of course, the Nazis don’t stay unpopular. As the film goes on we have ominous street demonstrations and public rallies, and they start to creep their way into our pop culture representative, the cabaret numbers (and out, too – the film’s one non-cabaret musical number is a nationalistic number led by a young Nazi in a beer garden). Suddenly we have showgirls dressing up as goosestepping soldiers, a surprisingly intense number punctured only at the end by the Emcee revealing himself as one of the girls. Still a joke, but the punchline has shifted – here we have a skit where the public becomes soldiers, and the punchline is at the fact that one of them is dressed in drag. The actual militaristic bit is dead serious. The crown jewel, though, is a comparatively quiet number that numbers as one of the most disturbing reveals in film.
The Emcee sings a soft shoe love ballad about the girl he loves, played by a gorilla suit, and the society that scorns their love. Simple enough as a joke that one waits for the other shoe to drop. And it doesn’t, and it doesn’t, and then…”she wouldn’t look Jewish at all.” Comedy horns, gag face from the Emcee, big applause and uproarious laughter from the audience (the very same audience that railed against the Nazis mere months ago). It’s a bald facedly horrific moment in the cold face of history, the moment that rips us mercilessly free from the bosom of escapism. It’s just a joke, after all. One that’s come from the outside (and the violence that we see that mindset cause around this scene), and one that has now told a few more people that it’s okay to laugh at the ‘nugget of truth’ that’s supposedly in these sorts of jokes. Jews as sub human monkeys, hi-larious (I am reminded of the equally hi-larious portrayals of queer characters on the rare occasion that they show up in games. Those mincing, handsy, borderline rapists, am I right?).
Suddenly Naziiiiiiis, are standing beside you
So with the cabaret an entirely different sort of safe space, so determined not to examine its surroundings, we close on a shot of Nazi officers sitting comfortably in the audience. Not with a bang but with a whimper, as they say.
Right, let’s bring this back around. What I absolutely don’t mean to say is ‘gamers (for the strangulating and narrow definition that now includes) are basically Nazis.’ I do mean to say that the individuums who would term themselves as gamers (which is, again, at the point quite different from the general populace of ‘people who play videogames’) are willfully blind and shortsighted to factors in their surrounding culture that influence their viewpoint, and so determined not to think critically about said viewpoint (straight, white, male, and predominantly middle class) that they allow the most bilious and disgusting of their number to bubble to the top as their voice. That belch of scum is what makes up Gamergate, obscuring any chance of discussing the quite real death of integrity in the field of game journalism (if we can even say it truly lived) and giving those not-so-latent hate cries a platform.
Because here’s the thing: yes, “#notallgamers.” Gaming is such a broad medium now that it’s ludicrous that one image would cover every person who’s ever picked up a controller (or mouse, for the PC master race). The problem is enough gamers, shouting loudly enough, to make themselves heard and believed to be the voice that producers should be marketing toward – a fact that is patently untrue and downright harmful. And all of a sudden those extreme voices, even louder for having been tolerated, begin to influence those who are uninformed and uninterested in getting the story beyond a vague impression. And in doing so they become complicit in the mentality that started Gamergate to begin with: the one sending death threats to female game developers about a rumor that wasn’t even true to begin with, because how dare anyone call for new and open spaces in the world of games. Every laugh that lets those thoughts roll on by, every commenter that says ‘well, they kind of have a point,’ or says ‘well, that’s just how games are,’ lets those harmful views dig their claws deeper into the entrenched mentality of gamers and the game developers looking to make money off of them. And then not only do things fail to change. They get worse.
Never have I been so delighted at the ironic applicability of that background
Or, as Jim Sterling put it (alongside some rather on-point mentions of the importance of being able to critique problematic elements in things that they like), if you type ‘death threats against [female developer] are deplorable and cannot be condoned, however,’ just stop and let that first sentence stand on its own. Because at very best you’ve shown an awareness of your own hypocrisy through that lengthy ass-covering disclaimer.
And frankly, gaming does need to change. It needs to release its death grip on an outmoded, close-minded subgroup trying to cling to a vision of martyrdom in an age where games make more than blockbuster films and geeks have never been more accepted in the cultural sphere; a group that simultaneously makes anyone outside of its narrowly defined parameters test their ‘legitimacy’ at best and shreds them for asking for a vision of their life experience in a medium that is theoretically best suited to allowing individuals to interact with unfamiliar modes of thought and take on new and diverse identities they might not otherwise encounter.
A community that became that way at least partly because of the culture it grew from, one that separated itself from women while also perfecting the interactive version of the male gaze; one that had no films around it showing any kind of diversity of race, gender roles, or sexuality, and has felt no need to grow up; one that called itself to arms over Roger Ebert’s frankly idiotic statement that games are not art…and then falls over itself to be offended at the possibility that, say, selling a headless female torso might be dehumanizing women into little more than sex objects. Gaming has been left alone with these uncontested, troubling ideas for a long time as games percolated their way to legitimacy in the public eye, and it’s going to take a lot of work to dismantle that in the name of making a truly open landscape for future games. An attack on underrepresented gamers disguised by the cowardly smokescreen of ‘ethics in game journalism’ isn’t going to get us a single shuffling step closer.