I've been working on a piece about questioning the existence of gamer culture, mostly because no one seems able to define it, and when I think of "culture" I think of an all-encompassing something that binds a people together. I don't feel bound to other people who play video games just because they play video games any more than I feel bound to other people who also like cats or enjoy writing.
My frame of reference for defining the term comes from things like complaints about the Spike TV Video Game Awards "misrepresenting gamer culture." That's what I read on the twitter feeds and blogs of some of my colleagues the night of the VGAs and the day following, and when I wrote a First Person column on The Escapist about why I am patient with the VGAs many responses from the readers were along the same lines. They were angry about the way the award show "misrepresented gamer culture."
Prior to PAX East 2010 I had never thought about the idea of gamer culture much less considered that I might have been a part of it, so Penny Arcade will, for me, stand as a bastion of this amorphous thing we call gamer culture until such time as I have a cogent definition. Watching the drama over Paul Christoforo over the last few days has taught me a lot about gamer culture, as said drama is emerging largely in response to the actions of Mike Krahulik from PA and it seems like "gamers" are right on board.
(I am posting links within this quick review of the Christoforo situation just so you don't think I'm making any of this shit up, on the slim chance that you're not aware of what's going on, even though I'm ultimately feeding into the drama by doing so. Just want to make it clear that I'm aware of why this could be problematic considering where I'm going with this blog post.)
A quick review:
Paul Christoforo is a guy from Boston who used to do marketing for a company called N-Control, which produces a game controller attachment called the Avenger. A customer named Dave, who had paid in full for a pre-ordered pair of Avengers, contacted Christoforo asking where his controllers were. The exchange got contentious, and Dave copied Kotaku and Penny Arcade on the email chain. Christoforo then got into it with Krahulik, who plastered the exchange on the Penny Arcade website and included contact information for Christoforo. This resulted in the whole affair going viral.
Kotaku did some digging and suggested Christoforo might have suffered a 'roid rage incident because his name was found on a message board where discussions of anabolic steroids took place. A webpage mocking the event popped up. Videos were made. Someone dug up a domestic abuse case involving Christoforo, who has said that he has been receiving death threats against himself and his family. And then Mike Krauhlik smugly washed his hands of the entire affair when Christoforo reached out to ask Krahulik for help in making it stop, even though Krahulik helped make that harassment possible by publishing Christoforo's contact information, and Krahulik gave us all an explanation about being someone who was bullied as a kid who now has to fight back against bullies.
I heard about the email exchange with Penny Arcade on Twitter, of course, while on vacation in Florida earlier this week. The whole thing sounded pretty funny as Christoforo clearly sounded like an unstable individual, and seeing him rant in lowercase text that lacked punctuation made him out to be some sort of neanderthal and certainly made me feel smug for knowing how to employ the English language properly. We'll get back to that.
I had retweeted some of this stuff on Tuesday, then traveled home to Boston on Wednesday and just got caught up on the situation tonight. It took a comment from game critic and my acquaintance Kate Cox to make me realize I'd been participating in something dreadfully awful:
I took Kate's meaning to be first a reminder of the Dickwolves issue, wherein Penny Arcade showed a complete lack of remorse for making light of rape, and during which Mike Krahulik actually mocked feminist voices for their outrage. That's an issue that I've written about and consider myself on the same side as Kate and other writers-about-games who raised their voices in disgust. The second "wrong," then, would be Mike Krahulik using his web presence to spearhead what now amounts to web bullying and harassment of the worst kind against Paul Christoforo.
Being a good Catholic I naturally passed Kate's statement through my internal guilt generator and wondered whether I'd been participating in this internet mob mentality. Inasmuch as retweeting the event in any way, shape or form constitutes participation I guess I have, and the sobriety that accompanied this reality-slap brought me back to thinking about what "gamer culture" is.
Gamer culture, among other things, is making death threats against a man who sent an excessively rude email to a customer about a pair of video game controller attachments. If the average age of the gamer really is mid-to-late 30's, I hope that most of the people who may read this post understood how completely fucking ridiculous this is. Game controller attachments? Really? This is an issue of such importance that it's worth ruining a man's livelihood over?
Gamer culture, among other things, is about entitlement. The entitlement to continue talking about rape with no expectations of consequences, and to make death threats against a woman who has actually been raped and who therefore has every right to express her anger about the issue being bandied about casually.
Gamer culture, among other things, is about banding together to pat ourselves on the back and feel cool for knowing internet memes and displaying the low form of wit known as "snark." And all of that is in response to having ever been made to feel like nerds or geeks or other names for social rejects, and now being in an arena where we hold the greatest comprehension and thus wield the greatest amount of power, i.e. the internet. I reflect back on my reading Christoforo's emails and feeling good about myself for having a command of the language. I would bet dollars to donuts I am far from the only person to have that reaction and enjoy the drama in part on that basis, and I'll be the first person to admit I was being an asshole in that moment.
Compared to any of those things, teabagging a video game developer on stage feels genteel. If Penny Arcade really is the bastion of "gamer culture" that others seem to hold it up as, the conduct of that website more than adequately explains why the VGAs were the lowbrow, immature broadcast they were. And I quote from one of Mike Krahulik's responses to the exchange with Christoforo:
I have a real problem with bullies. I spent my childhood moving from school to school and I got made fun of everyplace I landed. I feel like Paul is a bully and maybe that’s why I have no sympathy here. Someday every bully meets and even bigger bully and maybe that’s me in this case. It’s the same thing that happened with Jack Thompson. It might not always make the most business sense and it is a policy that has caused us some legal problems, but I really don’t give a shit about that. When these assholes threaten me or Penny Arcade I just laugh. I will personally burn everything I’ve made to the fucking ground if I think I can catch them in the flames.
There's an argument to be made that when someone has suffered at the hands of a particular evil, the most important thing they should ever learn from the experience is why not to commit the same evil onto someone else. And the last sentence sounds like the raving of a petulant child. It also sounds like the sort of mentality one might attribute to "a gamer" based on shit like the Spike TV Video Game Awards.
Complaints against the VGAs are feeling much emptier today than they were when I wrote that column a few weeks ago. They're also feeling entirely unwarranted. The sad thing is that when I hear tales of death threats being issued against the family of a man whose sole crime was being an asshole to a customer, and I hear that said threats are being issued by members of this so-called "gamer culture," my response is to shrug and say "Well, that's gamers for you." Because apparently "gamer culture" is also all wrapped up in being a complete, fucking asshole, which makes the Spike TV Video Game Awards feel picture-perfect for "our" audience, doesn't it?