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Misogynistic Death Threats Make Me Embarrassed to Be a Gamer

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No one should ever be embarrassed for what they choose to love. I take my pop culture seriously, which is why I run this column. I have a passion and a long-standing interest in the things I write about, and I have for the grand majority of my life. But every few years I have a crisis of faith, so to speak.

I watch more cartoons than most people my age. I carry my Nintendo 3DS around with me at all times, and I have the next Pokemon game pre-ordered. I care about the machinations of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and I argue about how comic stories will be adapted to the screen. I just finished a 16-book series about a Wizard Detective.
(It was awesome.)

Every now and then, I wonder: Am I getting too old for this shit? Did I become the tragically undeveloped man-child without even noticing it? Should I be more into sports, or dubstep, or the condo market? Do I even like this stuff anymore, or am I basically Linus writ large, carrying my childhood security blanket around with me at all times in the form of a now-chic geek credibility?

Then I stop wondering about that, because Legend of Korra is back and it's FANTASTIC.

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I fell into gaming as a child because my brother and I received a Super Nintendo Entertainment System for Christmas one year after our grandfather heard that "all the kids wanted one." It was an offhand gesture; if we had been born a couple of years later, we would have received Devil Stix or a Furby. But we got the SNES, and suddenly I had a way in with all of the kids at school. I was the ADHD-riddled, mixed-race new kid in town. I'm fairly sure that my mom was one of the only single parents in the neighbourhood, and that reality seeped into every aspect of my daily life. There was nowhere I could go that didn't remind me that I was weird, and weirdly-coloured, and dadless.

But then I got really good at Mario, and all of that mattered less. Gaming became a gateway into all kinds of geekery; suddenly I was subscribing to multiple gaming magazines, and that became an entryway to anime, and then there was no stopping me.

But I've come to realize something: being a geek just means that you're fluent in something. And everyone strives for fluency, because that means, on some level, you get something to the point that you can speak about it with comfort and familiarity. How lovely is that? It's something everyone strives for, which is why my little brother is equally geeky about basketball and Pokemon; he's fluent as hell in both. If we're fluent, we feel like we belong.

And to me, that's what geek culture has always represented; a place where I could feel fluent, where I could hang in one way or another. Every portrayal of nerds in pop culture builds itself on that archetype, that nerdy pursuits are the great equalizer and the domain of the open-minded underdogs. After all, how could the ones who were bullied and excluded be anything but understanding towards newcomers and those who are different?

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The reality of the situation is far less Utopian. Diversity is hard to come by in all forms of North American media, and it's a difficult situation to explain to anyone who isn't affected by it. There's no real middle ground on the issue: either you've never thought about people on TV (or in books and movies) not looking like you because they've always looked like you, or you're completely aware of the fact that no one ever looks like you, and you've accepted it. It starts to add up; this study by academic journal Communication Research shows that a lack of positive characters that a child can physically identify with can seriously affect their self-esteem.

I have found myself unreasonably happy when a game lets me choose a character with a darker skin tone. I literally cheer when a black character survives a horror movie, or is described in a novel as anything but "street-smart" or "sassy." I have come to realize that I expect so very little in terms of diversity in my pop culture that I'm overjoyed when even the smallest concessions are made. I want better, but I'm not holding my breath.

I'm not alone in wanting a more diverse set of voices, especially in geek culture. But when it comes down to it, I'm still a dude. At the very least, my gender does alright in pretty much every form of pop culture. Ladies? Not so much. But that's due to change as well.

Women in the gaming industry (and also in the comics industry) have been pushing for greater diversity when it comes to characters, representation, and gameplay experiences. Feminist critics like Anita Sarkeesian and Leigh Alexander have said great things about the bad habits the games industry has developed towards women and in general and they offer ways to fix these habits before they become all-consuming.

The resulting fallout has been christened #GamerGate, and it has made me embarrassed to call myself a gamer.

The online firestorm known as #GamerGate has made headlines across all forms of media. This sucker's gone mainstream, and if you're looking for a comprehensive breakdown of how it all started, here's a balanced summary by Forbes, an entertaining overview by Cracked, and Leigh Alexander's excellent analysis, published in TIME. Some will argue that #GamerGate is about accountability and a call for ethics in games journalism. Others will argue that it's a smokescreen to justify the harassment of Zoe Quinn, a game developer who found herself the focus of an online smear campaign orchestrated by her ex-boyfriend.

But here's the thing about all that: I am beyond caring about what noble intentions may have possibly existed at the root of this movement, because here's where things stand currently: Just this past week, game developer Brianna Wu and critic Anita Sarkeesian were forced to leave their home and cancel a major university appearance, respectively, because of the avalanche of death threats they received. And just to get ahead of any lingering doubts that these threats are related to #GamerGate:

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Reasonable people are calling for an end to this madness, gathering their support under the hashtag #StopGamerGate2014 on Twitter. But even then, supporters of the "original" #GamerGate cause (those devoted to rooting out corruption in the games media, with their motivation compiled here) still continue to support the movement. A spinoff hashtag, #NotYourShield, has risen to represent those who support the values of #GamerGate, but do not fall under the "white-male-misogynist" label that many of the movement's supporters have come to represent.

If there was ever a redeeming factor to #GamerGate, it was lost long ago. The well has been poisoned, and the movement is beyond redemption. Anyone trying to keep the movement afloat has to do so while standing on a pile of rape-and-death threats. At what point is a cause beyond redemption? (Hint: The point where multiple death threats are sent to a campus.) But sadly enough, Internet hatred isn't anything new. Hell, Internet hatred towards women is a thoroughly established reality. What makes #GamerGate such a morbidly fascinating event is that it's fairly unprecedented, and it represents the end of an era.

There is no other medium where a fairly benign bit of criticism like Sarkeesian's Tropes vs. Women YouTube series would earn its creator regular death threats. And that's just the standard response to pretty much anything in the gaming industry: Here's a story about a male developer on Call Of Duty receiving piles of death threats because of a minor tweak to the performance of an in-game gun.

At the same time, a huge amount of backlash has also been directed at writers and gaming news sites that saw this entire fiasco as proof that gamers as a cultural label are irrelevant, if not borderline extinct. This is a controversy that has continued for months now, and the reason it continues to burn bright is because those involved know that one way or another, the status quo will change. Either the dominant culture of hate-speak and online abuse will once again stomp the life out of people who only wanted to create and belong to a wider community, or the Gamers of the World will have to painstakingly evolve and make room for others at the table. For everyone's sake, I hope it's the latter option.

But for me, I don't know if it'll ever really be the same. I'm not just embarrassed by the thing I love, I'm disappointed by the community surrounding it. No one attached to this issue can do anything horrible enough to make Mario Kart less fun for me to play with my brother, or drive me to cancel that Pokemon pre-order. I'll always love the fruits of the talented people who simply want to create things for others to enjoy. But I have seen a lot of horrible things while researching this column, and I'll probably be on the receiving end of a fair few once it goes live.

I'm not too old for cartoons, or gaming, or Wizard Detectives, because I still live squarely in reality and there's no age limit on what speaks to you. But I'm probably too old for wishing death upon someone because we have different opinions on a video game, and I'm definitely too old to want to be part of a community that would allow any of its members to act that way.

And that's the end of that chapter.

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Thank you for sticking with me through a Very Special Episode of It's All Geek To Me. Tune in next week for an article about pro wrestling, because the world needs more of this:

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And that's the bottom line.

It's All Geek To Me is a weekly column about geek culture, and how it's secretly all around you, influencing everything you do, forever. Mike Sholars is a writer, editor, Twitter guy, and he just spent half of this article talking about his childhood feelings. What is this, Thought Catalog?

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