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Gaming’s summer of rage

Katherine streeter for the boston globe

Those who don’t follow gaming closely missed a big, loud, embarrassing controversy that ate up a big chunk of this summer. But it’s worth acquainting oneself with it, because it tells an important story about gaming’s awkward, tumultuous adolescence as an art form.

The controversy in question is called either GamerGate (often presented as a Twitter hashtag: #gamergate) or the Quinnspiracy. It surrounds Zoe Quinn, a game developer who created “Depression Quest,” a well-regarded indie title that, as the title suggests, is about what it’s like to be depressed.

The short version of what happened — and it is remarkably short given the supernova of dysfunctional male angst it precipitated — is that Quinn was dating someone, they broke up, and he wrote an extremely long, personal series of blog posts about her in which he laid out a long series of grievances and listed, by name, several people she had allegedly slept with while they were together.

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One of them was a writer for the popular blog Kotaku, and when this came out a certain subset of the gaming community erupted with videos and blog posts and other rants how she had seduced him for favorable coverage (the wench!). In reality, though, the writer in question had mentioned Quinn in an article once, before their involvement, and had never reviewed anything of hers. Unless Quinn had access to a time machine, the idea of some sort of “conspiracy” didn’t make any sense. (It should be said that the cozy relationship between game publishers and the gaming press is a real, ongoing issue — just not one that has anything to do with Zoe Quinn.)

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But that didn’t stop a torrent of unfathomable outrage. It’s difficult to adequately summarize the campaign of online hate Quinn faced. “Long story short,” she wrote in an account of her experience on Cracked.com this month, “the Internet spent the last month spreading my personal information around, sending me threats, hacking anyone suspected of being friends with me, calling my dad and telling him I’m a whore, sending nude photos of me to colleagues, and basically giving me the ‘burn the witch’ treatment.”

Every step of the way, of course, eager Internet sleuths published images and blog posts “proving” that her complaints about harassment were false, that she was just in it for the attention (this happens like clockwork whenever a female gamer or gamemaker or journalist reports being harassed).

Trying to unravel where all this anger comes from could occupy dozens of dissertations’ worth of interviews and research (I’m not sure if the relevant field would be anthropology or clinical psychology). But what this whole sorry summer comes down to is insecurity — profound insecurity — on the part of some male gamers reacting to their hobby of choice becoming more diverse and nuanced and, I dare say, emotionally intelligent.

It’s a simple point: The form art takes depends a lot on who is allowed and encouraged to make it. We’re in the waning days of the dude-ified gaming world. Women are increasingly breaking into the industry, writing about games and playing them.

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That doesn’t mean that bloody, stereotypically male first-person shooters (which, it should be said, many women enjoy, too) are going anywhere. But it does mean that the gaming world has been pulled permanently into a tangled conversation over gender and misogyny, and there’s now serious pressure to address issues that for the most part had been invisible.

If you liked things the way they were before figures like Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian (a critic of misogynistic tropes in gaming who was driven out of her house this summer as a result of threats) came around, this is a scary time. Mix in an overinflated view of the importance of a certain kind of “purity” in gaming and perhaps some broader issues with women, and that’s how a tiny non-controversy based on a single jilted dude’s blog posts turns into a horrible rain of rape threats.

The haters know they’ve lost, though. Their rage is of the last-ditch, dying variety. There will always be a small minority of furious male gamers wanting to hit the reset button, as it were, and return to a time when gaming meant nothing but big guns and big boobs. But it’s 2014 and the world is just going to keep changing. That doesn’t mean I’d want to be Quinn or Sarkeesian right now, but it does serve as a hopeful point on the horizon as we reach the merciful end of an embarrassing summer of gaming rage.

Jesse Singal can be reached at jesse.r.singal@gmail.com.