Indie games scene looks for silver lining in the cloud of Gamergate

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There was a ghost at IndieCade, the annual gathering of independent game developers in Los Angeles. You couldn't see Gamergate, a ghoulish presence that has haunted the video game community for the past two months, but you could sense it. Its specter inhabited talks on diversity and community management. It trailed conversations, bled into nervous jokes, and wormed into interactions between developers and the press. It stood behind smiling figures as they discussed solidarity and ways to endure in these complicated times.

But despite the recent maelstrom of controversies and vitriolic exchanges, few at IndieCade spoke of Gamergate with hate. Grief, perhaps. A dulled anger with its edges worn down by constant exposure, maybe. But not hate. If anything, it was primarily with a baffled exhaustion.

"It’s obviously a complicated issue," says Toni Rocca as we sit curled on one of the plush red sofas dotting the antechamber in the Ivy Theatre. "It’s very sad to see from an outside perspective, how very clearly and visibly a lot of people in the Gamergate group are being manipulated by their peers."

Rocca is a game developer and the president of GaymerX, an annual video game convention that aims to promote both video games and safe spaces. When I contacted her after a panel on Friday where she outlined the problematic nature of call-out culture, I had expected rejection or, at best, guarded assent. Instead, Rocca accepted with the same unflinching openness that would underline our subsequent conversation.

"[The Gamergate movement is] taking advantage of the fact that a lot of these people are gamers and they might not be people with strong social communities, strong social ties, strong friendships and things like that," says Rocca. "They are giving them this community that they have never had before, and so a lot of these people feel so attached to Gamergate because they feel like they’ve never had this social family before."

She believes that Gamergate proponents are being misled by what she describes as "more powerful voices," listing evidence such as screenshots, IRC logs, 4chan forum posts, and so on. Rocca doesn't believe that a majority of people who join the cause do so out of malice.

"I don’t think that people are evil from the start or anything like that," says Rocca with a frown. "But I think that it’s very easy to make someone believe that what you might be doing right now might seem evil, but it’s for a greater good."

Toni Rocca

GaymerX President Toni Rocca

"I think that it's very easy to make someone believe that what you might be doing right now might seem evil, but it's for a greater good."

The greater good in question is ostensibly a campaign for transparency, ethical behavior, and an end to corruption in video games journalism — issues that people like culture maven Mattie Brice and game developer Rami Ismail have challenged and discussed in the past. But there’s a reason as to why Gamergate is not being embraced by the industry as a whole. Although its moderate members are ardently proselytizing against harassment, there are those who use the hashtag as an avenue for abuse, creating an environment toxic enough to drive people from the gaming scene.

Brice is one such individual. Several weeks before IndieCade, and shortly after the explosion of hate speech that followed The Guardian’s publication of an opinion piece by Jenn Frank, both Brice and Frank left the field of games criticism. Despite the circumstances of her exit, however, the Mattie Brice that I encounter at IndieCade was neither an avenging crusader nor a battered victim.

As we talk in a tent where a session of Coffee: A Misunderstanding is playing out to a giggling audience, it’s clear that the distance had helped. When I ask her about the transformation, she smiles tautly and tells me she has learned to take care of herself in the interim.

"We should be talking to the people who matter," Brice tells me when I ask about how we should be moving forward. "People feel like it’s very appropriate to vent at Gamergate people and maybe it is in a certain way, but I don’t think that they’re doing it for any sort of actual change."

"What is talking to a random troll on any site actually going to do for you?" she asks. "The people who actually matter, who can actually make a difference — are those people being talked to? Are those people having conversations? Are those people actually being pulled to action?"

She shrugs. "I think you’re only going to keep things in this kind of cyclone of the same unless you actually do an active thing."

Along with a handful of others, she helped bring the IndieCade Award to life, a "peer-to-peer award-giving game" that allowed festival attendees to show recognition to those who deserved it. Brice believes that the community needs more positivity, and genuine ways to recognize people, including those that might exist outside of a person’s immediate circles. "It’s very important that we remind people that they’re not alone," says Brice.

Cactus at IndieCade

You are not alone. It is a mantra that has taken root in the gaming community, growing even as new ideological arguments break loose on Twitter, and worried individuals check and re-check to see if their lives are guarded by two-factor authentication. People are reaching out to one another, quietly and publicly, armed with love and admiration. Communities are looking for answers too. IndieCade itself organized a "town hall" meeting on misogyny, misinformation, and misunderstanding.

Brice says that we need to petition to have our social spaces made safe, citing Twitter’s less-than-exemplary report function. Similarly, she believes that publications should consider evaluating their own comment sections and even the slant of their editorials. "If people are not safe on social media and social forums, then we’re never going to have that peace."

"If people are not safe on social media and social forums, then we’re never going to have that peace."

"It’s been a lot of people reaching out to one another and telling each other, ‘I’m really sorry this is happening to you, you can always talk to me.’ I mean basically, that’s really all you can do," Rocca tells me wistfully.

"Like, women are being hit so hard so often that it’s almost hard to keep track of how many people are being hit by this. But I think it’s important to talk to one another. Share with one another your experiences. Be able to commiserate, and talk to people and encourage them to understand what’s going on, understand your side. I think for the most part, it’s basically just trying to stay together and to try to understand one another and to try to get through this and…"

"Weather the storm?" I ask, as a breeze carries laughter from the IndieCade village, a cluster of white tents inhabiting a parking lot not too far away.

"Yeah," Rocca smiles.

I catch hold of Vlambeer co-founder Rami Ismail on the last day of IndieCade, right before the closing ceremony itself. As the sky deepens to yolk-gold and red, we discuss how easily 20 dissenting voices can be interpreted as 200 and how certain people have worked tirelessly to bridge the chasm separating those on either side of the Gamergate debate.

"It has been very, very damaging to the industry and to openness, and transparency," says Ismail. "But it has also, in a very interesting way, united the games community, which in a way it’s kind of sad that it takes something like this for a community to come together and say like, ‘Hey, you know what? We’re all making games and this is terrible, so let’s stand together.’"

Ismail believes that Gamergate has inadvertently assisted in proving that misogyny and harassment are actual issues within the video games industry, compelling those who have abstained from the "diversity debate" to jump into the fray. More importantly, perhaps, it has inspired outreach between the disparate communities in the video games industry, which Ismail says have been slowly drifting apart from one another.

"Everybody always says that this issue exists in every medium and this issue is a societal issue," says Ismail. "But I don’t care. This is our industry. This is where we can make an impact and, if we can be ahead of society? Like, yes. I’ll take it. I will take that."

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