John Tabbernor, Columnist // Illustration By Cynthia Tran Vo
If you spend enough time paying attention to the video game industry, you’ll notice that the conversations become cyclical. Whether it’s scapegoating games for acts of real world violence or separating art from artist when discussing your problematic fave, stick around long enough, and it’ll be the same shit, different day. The most tired but pressing conversation around games culture and video game development has always been one of inclusion. Who gets to make games, who gets to play them and who gets to talk about them? At least those are the questions being asked by certain segments of the games community. As altruistic as it might be to say, “well, everyone can love games,” reactionary and toxic corners of games fandom would disagree. They’ll lament the erosion of their favourite pastime thanks to the onslaught of “social justice warriors” and liberals strong-arming their values into these spaces. Gatekeeping has been an issue in fandoms and nerd culture for decades, but it continues to be challenged as society becomes more progressive.
It’s no secret that games development, much like Silicon Valley and the tech industry, is dominated by men. Though many companies are making great strides to include marginalized voices in their organizations, these spaces are still predominantly male. In the last year, we’ve seen more demand for accountability in the public sphere and in the workplace. It was only a matter of time before the spotlight of movements such as #MeToo would shine its light on the corners of game development. This summer, that spotlight revealed the dark recesses of one of gaming’s largest and most influential developers: Riot Games. The makers behind the massively successful League of Legends have had a tumultuous summer after a damning report from Kotaku exposed the rampant sexism and fraternity culture of the studio. Leaving aside the sexist comments, harassment and “locker room” talk, Riot seems to have fallen into the trap of gatekeeping even in its hiring practices.
Many women recall having their “gamer cred” tested during the interview process, something that was rarely, if ever, brought up with male hires. Riot Games had an internal policy of hiring “real” or “core” gamers as they felt that would ingratiate them to their fans while also contributing to a superior product. In reality, this discounts the experiences of developers, artists and engineers who didn’t like the “right” games. A love for franchises such as The Sims or Cooking Mama somehow had less value than a love for Call of Duty or World of Warcraft. Whether conscious or unconscious, this type of gatekeeping reflects a biased portrait of who is allowed to exist and participate within this space. The tragedy is that if we believe the spaces around games are or should be homogenous, then we deprive ourselves of the width and breadth of the human experience.
We see this in every facet of games culture. Whether that be targeted harassment of women and LGBTQ folks in development, policing who can live-stream on Twitch or even the tirade of misogynistic and racist slurs being thrown around by some rando in your last Overwatch match. These behaviours compound on each other and culminate in the only possible conclusion one can draw: if you are not a white cisgender man, you do not belong here. What’s most frustrating, is that this rote argument has existed for decades. Hope lies in the knowledge that this is not, and has never been, the case. Gaming is diverse. It has always been that way, and the lamentations of regressive factions on the internet have little chance of changing that. We’re talking about this now, and we’ll probably be talking about it again in a few months time. The problem of gatekeeping won’t go away any time soon, but every time we have this hard conversation, things change. And little by little, it’s for the better.