The Gamergate controversy is, to some extent, a fight over whether all art is political. Supporters hate longtime target Anita Sarkeesian, for example, for finding sexist messages in things that are "just for fun." So it’s fitting that a lowbrow, sensationalist show like Law and Order: SVU inspired weeks of ideological debate by announcing an episode about gendered harassment in the gaming world. Nobody ever thought it would be good — SVU exists in a genre that’s famously awful at depicting technology. But in its own cartoonish way, it was going to help set the political narrative.
If Nightline’s Gamergate segment was a broad non-fictional attempt at explaining internet harassment to the non-gaming masses, then last night's episode, "Intimidation Game," is an even broader fictional one. The fictional Raina Punjabi is the creator of "nonviolent" game Amazonian Warriors and a chimera of Gamergate targets: a non-traditional female developer who fights misogynist accusations of promiscuity and wears Anita Sarkeesian’s trademark hoop earrings. Internet trolls go from making fake 911 calls and sending death threats to groping a "gamer girl" who works for Punjabi, then successfully carrying out an elaborate kidnapping and torture plot against the developer herself.
Ice-T is apparently a huge deathmatch fan
Despite some weird references to the "darknet" and terrible quips about "next levels" and "user hacks," SVU’s writers know most of the right concepts, even if they tread around them so carefully that the episode plays like an instructive PSA on internet slang. Characters helpfully define "doxxing," "n00bs," and "swatting," while introducing the world to the vicious cesspool of "RedchanIt" and, for some reason, an Oculus Rift clone. Gaming isn’t inherently dangerous in the world of SVU, but the show plays to a demographic that believes owning an Xbox makes you a bizarre anomaly. The kidnappers are all obsessive fans of a game called Kill or be Slaughtered, which has all the graphical sophistication of a ‘90s arcade shooter, and Ice-T — apparently a huge deathmatch fan — delivers the same moral lesson we’ve been hearing since the days of rock’n’roll. "I know the difference between video games and reality," he explains. "Those guys didn't." The team identifies one of the perpetrators by storming his house and screaming, "Does he play video games!?" at the kid’s mother.
All of this is enough to fit "Intimidation Game" into the long tradition of network television fundamentally misunderstanding modern tech culture — a member of Gamergate subreddit KotakuInAction compared it to Reefer Madness. But as camp, it’s hard to laugh at. There’s no third-act twist or even any real resolution to the episode: it’s just a fatalistic hour of the SVU team tracking Punjabi as she’s swatted, beaten, and sexually assaulted by misogynist gamers. When she’s rescued, she announces her departure from the industry. "Women in gaming. What did I expect?"
The Gamergate "moderates" are furious at SVU for making anti-gamer propaganda (apparently the episode was also "Birth of a Nation for gamers"), depicting them as straightforward misogynists who are all so white and male that detectives seem to have trouble telling them apart.
SVU's trolls are about 5000 percent more ambitious than Gamergate's
But "Intimidation Game" is a virtual carbon copy of the movement’s darker fantasies. A female developer with an overtly ideological game — the trailer says that "the good of one is the good of all" and promises to offer "multiple points of view" — is kidnapped and brutalized by clean-cut gamer boys who prove themselves exponentially more competent and ambitious than any of Anita Sarkeesian or Zoe Quinn’s harassers. She gives up on the industry, while they’re backed almost universally by a silent majority of gamers. For every "ethics crusader" who sanctimoniously claims they’re being persecuted, there’s probably a troll busy finding the best gifs of Punjabi’s torture. Reefer Madness is often cited as an example of uptight moralists criticizing something they don’t understand. It’s less frequently mentioned that the distributors aired it as an exploitation film.
There are other, obvious critiques of the episode. By depicting only the worst possible version of harassment, it diminishes the pain that real victims go through, and it gives harassers an easy out — at least I’m not like that! If there’s a bright side to "Intimidation Game," though, it’s that it underscores how poorly the old stereotypes about insular and homogenous basement-dwellers are starting to hold up.
Gamergate has insisted that it’s the voice of gamers, and in the world of SVU, its fictional counterpart genuinely is; developers like Punjabi are rare islands in a sea of misogynists. Six months in, the real Gamergate — insofar as it exists as a movement at all — has made deeper connections with fringe hate groups than it has with developers or fans. It’s been milked for cash and clicks by white supremacists, men’s rights activists, Frankfurt School conspiracy theorists, and bitter failed developers. People actually dedicated to playing the real-world equivalents of Kill or Be Slaughtered, instead of just protecting it from feminists, can’t spend eight hours a day sending emails and angry tweets. The last news about Anita Sarkeesian was that she had inspired a character in the beloved indie game Towerfall.
This isn’t to say that we’ve solved all (or most of) the problems in gaming. We’re not even close to finding a way to deal with internet threats, especially the increasingly disturbing behavior of obsessives who have latched onto Gamergate’s chosen targets. Last time I wrote about Gamergate, a Twitter troll claimed to have reported me to a British anti-child porn agency. But after spending an hour in the world of Special Victims Unit... well, by that measure, the light’s winning.