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Modern criticism isn’t the same as past censorship

Photo: Marta Kierkus

For the last couple of months, intense debate surrounding the GamerGate movement has been carving a destructive path through the Internet. No online forum is spared from its incendiary influence, since even the most constructive, well-reasoned arguments against the movement, which purports to highlight unethical practices in video game journalism, are met with vitriol or harassment.

Countless social critics theorize that this kind of volatile response is a by-product of rampant misogyny and intolerance that’s systemic in the gaming community, since the targets of these attacks are usually women or figures who are sympathetic to modern feminist ideals.

While there is some validity to that idea, this kind of reactionary approach is a symptom of a much bigger problem: Many gamers are still living in the past.

For a period of around 20 years, video game fans (myself included) lived under the legitimate threat of government-sanctioned censorship. Much of this atmosphere stemmed from proactive parent watchdog groups and misguided politicians who were concerned about finding a tangible link between violent video games and violence in real life.

Not only did this superficial analysis effectively condemn much of gaming culture during the 1990s, but it also gave legitimacy to censorship advocates like Florida lawyer Jack Thompson, who spent most of the 2000s trying to ban Rockstar Games properties like Bully, Manhunt, and the Grand Theft Auto franchise.

This prolonged censorship scare largely served as a catalyst for the modern video game community, as gamers from all walks of life were united under the common goal of combating this omnipresent threat.

This strategy seemed to work, since video game censorship advocacy gradually faded from mainstream public discourse. This fact was firmly cemented into U.S. law thanks to the 2011 Supreme Court case of Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, where a 7-2 decision ruled that video games are protected under the First Amendment (the same as movies, books, and other entertainment properties).

Unfortunately, even though the video game censorship wars have been over for several years, some gamers simply will not give up this past combative mentality. To them, any person who says anything remotely negative about the beloved hobby that they fought tooth-and-nail to preserve must be treated as an enemy.

Because of this, vicious attacks against media critics like Anita Sarkeesian seem justified, since she (or people like her) could very well be the next generation of censorship advocates. Of course, that kind of sentiment is utterly ridiculous, since the idea of banning video games has never once entered the lexicon of Sarkeesian or any of her peers.

Still, responding to media criticism with deep animosity seemed like the appropriate method back in the day, when hack politicians like Thompson were running wild and it appeared as if the only thing keeping video games on store shelves was the passionate resilience of the gaming community.

However, now that the U.S. Supreme Court has officially backed the industry and figures like Thompson have been put out to pasture, this kind of sabre-rattling in the video game community is an antiquated and rudimentary response to a non-existent problem.

Going forward, gamers need to move away from this old idea that the media and government are out to get them. All this does is breed paranoia and mistrust that inevitably leads to hatred, threats, and online harassment. Instead, we need to figure out different ways of discussing serious issues like journalism ethics and sexism in the video game industry without this kind of divisive rhetoric.

But since unfiltered passion and online collusion has defined the gaming community for so long, that utopian ideal of rational debate might be a long time coming.