Introduction – The Death of the Gamer

Since video games became marketable throughout the 1970s and 1980s, developers have tailored their designs to resonate with the interests of young, heterosexual males – specifically those that have identified as ‘geeks’ (Cassell & Jenkins, 1998, pp. 5–6). As feminist commentator Anita Sarkeesian (2014) has investigated in her web series ‘Tropes vs. Women in Video Games’, this is observable in a large selection of video game media – not only through the representation of females in video games, but also through the gendered character of play that is built into game design itself. For example, a number of popular games from the 1980s – such as Super Mario Bros. (1985) and The Legend of Zelda (1986) – gave the player control of a male hero as they rescued a helpless ‘damsel in distress’ (Cassell & Jenkins, 1998, pp. 5). In later years when video game developers have featured female protagonists, their character designs have frequently been drawn to appeal to heterosexual men, such as that of Lara Croft from the early Tomb Raider games (Huntemann, 2014, pp. 254). In more severe cases, certain adult-oriented games have been known to facilitate acts of violence against women (Bryce & Rutter, 2002, pp. 247). Duke Nukem 3D (1996) rewarded players for murdering female sex workers for example, and contemporary video game franchises such as Grand Theft Auto have been known to continue these violent trends.

Figure 1.   Super Mario Bros. © 1985 Nintendo Co., Ltd.

There is a homological relationship between the representation and performance of aggressive forms of masculinity in video game culture and geek culture more broadly (Kendall, 2000, pp. 271; Kirkland, 2009, pp. 169). Gender scholars have sometimes referred to these exaggerated masculine traits as ‘hypermasculinity’ (Parrot & Zeichner, 2003, pp. 70; Salter & Blodgett, 2012, pp. 402). In recent years, these hyperbolised representations and performances of gender have increasingly become the subject of controversy within online video game communities (Tomkinson & Harper, 2015, pp. 617). Such controversies are often played out by ad hoc publics through social media networks and the specialist news-media outlets servicing video game enthusiasts. Some commentators have loosely divided the factions at either ends of these debates into two counterpublics: one consisting of ‘gamers’ (or alternatively, ‘hardcore gamers’), and another of feminists (more recently and derogatorily referred to as ‘feminazis’, or ‘social justice warriors’) (Baio, 2014). 

In fact, there is an extensive history of gender-based conflicts in video game communities transforming into online social campaigns and even media events. These conflicts are often mobilised by online message boards such as 4chan, in which internalised misogyny runs widespread as a result of these communities’ moral panics over the exclusivity of their ‘niche’ cultures (Manivannan, 2013). During August 2010 for example, Penny Arcade (a popular webcomic that typically focuses on video games) was censured after publishing a series of comics containing ‘dickwolves’, an elaborate rape joke (Salter & Blodgett, 2012, pp. 401). The webcomic’s creators dismissed these criticisms and subsequently established ‘Team Dickwolves’ – a group that was further condemned for its hostility towards women engaging in gendered discourse within video game communities. Another instance of these gender-based conflicts occurred in June 2014 when the creative director of Assassin’s Creed: Unity announced that plans for a female avatar had been scrapped because “it was really a lot of extra production work” (Farokhmanesh, 2014). In response, a collective of Twitter users protested with the sarcastic #WomenAreTooHardToAnimate hashtag, which academics have since cited as an example of feminist media criticism operating inside an anti-feminist subculture (Huntemann, 2015, pp. 165). 

Such gender-based conflicts reached a climax during August and September 2014, and became central to a complex media event known as ‘Gamergate’, as well as a subset event commonly referred to as the ‘death of the gamer’. Briefly, ‘Gamergate’ can be understood as a series of claims and counterclaims made by antagonistic publics over a number of disagreements involving video game journalists, video game developers, feminist commentators and masculine ‘hardcore gamers’. Between news reports of these conflicts and in reference to them, a number of online news-media outlets dedicated to video game journalism – such as GamasutraKotaku and Polygon – published opinion pieces that instigated a discursive shift in the ‘gamer’ identity (Alexander, 2014; Plunkett, 2014; Plante, 2014). These publications referred to this shift as the ‘death of the gamer’, or alternatively, ‘gamers are dead’. Due to its proximity with several other controversies concerning ‘gamers’, the ‘death of the gamer’ became associated with the larger ‘Gamergate’ media event.

This thesis addresses the discursive shift that occurred in the ‘hardcore gamer’ public as a result of the ‘death of the gamer’ in the Gamergate media event. By mapping and analysing ‘gamer’ discourse as it interplayed with feminist discourse in a networked public sphere, this thesis will trace the transformation of the ‘gamer’ identity through this media event. Moreover, by determining how these publics have contested the ‘gamer’ identity, this research will illustrate whether this identity has transformed as a result of this discursive interplay. Two research questions follow from this: 

  1. How have ‘gamer’ publics and feminist counterpublics contested the definition of the ‘gamer’ cultural identity through the ‘death of the gamer’ media event?
  2. If at all, how have these discursive politics represented a reconstruction of the ‘gamer’ identity?

Due to the complexity of Gamergate – and in particular, how its discursive formations have evolved over a series of media events – this research has opted for a Foucauldian approach to analysing these discursive politics. Specifically, the Foucauldian methodology of ‘eventalisation’ was employed in order to situate the ‘death of the gamer’ into the broader spectrum of video game discourse. By analysing opinion articles and their comment threads pertaining to the ‘death of the gamer’, this thesis will first investigate the discourses that circulate and construct a ‘truth’ of gamer identity in the participatory publics of video game communities, and second explore how this discursive ‘truth’ has been challenged by feminist counterpublics as a part of this media event. With this focus on epistemological change, this thesis will also illustrate the social conditions that have facilitated Gamergate’s discursive politics. 

Before engaging in analysis however, the following chapter – Publics and the Eventalisation of the Internet – will demonstrate how this research project measured and represented the ‘death of the gamer’, by determining the body of ‘statements’ that structured its discourse. To do this, large quantities of comments were ‘scraped’ from the 18 opinion pieces that were published during the first week of the ‘death of the gamer’ media event. This study compiled these comments into a database and cross-referenced them so as to conduct a discourse analysis. Common themes were coded in order to build a body of ‘statements’ that describe the contested definitions of the ‘gamer’ identity. Such techniques are often associated with what are called ‘big data’ research methods, and how they can map online or networked publics (Boyd & Crawford, 2012, pp. 663).

The details of ‘Gamergate’ and the ‘death of the gamer’ are explored in Chapter 2 – Documenting the Gamergate Media Event. Specifically, this chapter evaluates the ‘death of the gamer’ opinion pieces that were published between August and September 2014, in which journalists and other commentators attempted to contest and renegotiate meanings associated with the ‘gamer’ identity. These articles were in part a reaction to the sexism and misogyny that pervade video games, their cultures and their communities, as well as the malicious nature with which ‘gamers’ (and by extension, online ‘trolls’) were conducting themselves socially and politically within other publics. But it was also a call to video game developers to recognise and cater to a more holistic demographic of players beyond the young, male, ‘geek’ stereotype. Central to this was the assertion that video games are progressively being normalised into ‘everyday’ media culture, and that the industry should shift to reflect the diverse spectrum of people who play them. 

The third chapter of this thesis – Gamer, Geek and Consumer Identity – will illustrate how ‘hardcore gamers’ articulated the ‘gamer’ identity during the ‘death of the gamer’. In this context, ‘hardcore gamers’ do not encompass all video game players, but specifically the masculine player that has occupied and dominated this cultural formation during its period as a niche, ‘geek’ subculture. This chapter will explore the conditions that have shaped geek culture, and demonstrate how its characteristics have transferred into ‘gamer’ culture and become the subject of contestation in the ‘death of the gamer’ media event. In particular, this chapter will discuss the role of authenticity in geek culture as creating participatory barriers for geeks judged as ‘fake’ or ‘mainstream’. Such barriers are transferred into ‘gamer’ culture through discourse, where they manifest as prejudices towards ‘casual gamers’ and feminists. Chapter 4 – Publics, Counterpublics and Hegemonic Masculinity will investigate the ‘death of the gamer’ as a series of gender-based conflicts that transpired when the hegemonic-masculine hierarchies that structure ‘gamer’ communities were challenged by progressive minorities and their advocates. This chapter will show how Gamergate’s feminist publics mobilised around the purpose of encouraging improved gender representation and diversity in video game design, as well as acceptance and equality for women participating in ‘gamer’-related spaces. This chapter will also cover the widespread anti-feminism, masculinity and sense of victimhood embodied in Gamergate’s ‘gamer’ public. It deduces that the ‘gamer’ public are adamantly reluctant to accept the changes proposed by Gamergate’s feminist counterpublic, as this would involve censoring and ‘sharing’ their pastime outside of their niche demographic in ways that would challenge their identities as ‘gamers’.