Up until now I haven’t commented on the GamerGate affair – not out of fear, nor out of some attempt at neutrality, but out of a conscious effort to avoid pouring more energy into an argument that seemed to be a pointless and harmful waste of time.

But now I worry that my silence may be misinterpreted. So now, reluctantly, I am wading into the tumult to clarify my perspective. I’m speaking personally here, but as the Director of the NYU Game Center I hope to reflect what I see as the shared values of the community we are building here at NYU.

Let’s start by stating what should be obvious. There are a number of women who have been the target of extensive and appalling harassment. The nature of this abuse is so repellent and shameful that it dwarfs any other issue involved in the discussion. There’s a reason that the GamerGate story on the front page of the New York Times is about the violent threats levelled at Anita Sarkeesian. The reason is not that the Times is part of a feminist conspiracy – the reason is that the violent threats are the story and any sensible person should be able to see that.

And no, it isn’t possible to point to harassment on both sides or to claim that the harassment is the work of a few isolated trolls. It doesn’t matter what percentage of the people who use the tag are decent folks who wouldn’t hurt a fly. The process by which words and phrases acquire meaning is complex and beyond our control, and the fact is that GamerGate has come to mean something abhorrent.

It has become clear that the Internet can be a hostile and unpleasant place for women. Technology can be a hostile and unpleasant place for women. And sadly, games can be an especially hostile and unpleasant place for women. These are serious problems that demand our attention. Regardless of intent, GamerGate has been inextricably linked to the worst aspects of this hostility and should be opposed.

As for the purported issues of ethics and corruption that are the ostensible motivation behind the ongoing use of the tag, I have not been able to find a single explanation of a coherent GamerGate position. It remains completely unclear what is being called for or denounced. As far as I can tell there are no useful ideas with which to engage here – only an inarticulate mess of confused feelings, uninformed opinions, and second- and third-order meta-arguments.

All of that said, there is one consistent thread in the GamerGate maelstrom which I do want to address. This is the notion that game reviews should be objective, that critics should clearly describe a game’s features and shouldn’t dwell on the political context or ideological values implied or expressed by the game.

I think this position reflects a frustration with a gradual change that has happened in the overall perception of games, of what they are and how we should think about them. There used to be a sense that games should primarily be thought of as a form of technology – as something like appliances – and that writing about games should take the form of the kind of technical product evaluation that you find in Consumer Reports. But there is an emerging consensus around a different way of thinking about games. In this newer view, games are not appliances but works of culture like songs, movies, or TV shows.

Seen as works of culture, games will always have complex relationships to history and society, to the identities of the people that make them and the communities that play them. These qualities exist alongside the game’s formal and technical features, they don’t replace them but are all intertwined – and thinking about one dimension can illuminate aspects of the other. These relationships are often subtle and complicated and can be surprising, multi-layered, contradictory and ambiguous. The reason to consider these qualities is not to demand obedience to one particular ideological view but to inform our understanding and deepen our appreciation of the games we love and enrich our conversations about how and why we love them.

This shift of perspective is not simple, and the process of understanding games as culture is liable to continue to be challenging and contentious. But this is the direction we are moving: away from thinking about games as merely gadgets for children and towards an understanding of games as existing within a complicated web of social values and cultural meanings. If you love games, then you should be happy we are moving in this direction. This is an expression of games’ increasing importance, influence, and significance. We are moving uphill, together, and it’s going to be good for all of us.

Frank Lantz
Director, NYU Game Center

This post was also published to Gamasutra, available here.