Edit May 22nd: Tonight, at 20.00 Central European Time, I will close the comments on this blogpost. The discussion has been interesting, and it has provided more data on the opinions and viewpoints of Gamergate. For that I thank those who have participated and who may participate over the next 12 hours.
DiGRA 2015 was a great event for those who participated. The keynote speakers were great, even the ones I disagree with. Actually, I find that disagreeing with well informed and thoughtful keynotes is at least as useful as finding my inner fan girl.
I was part of a panel that has been described by Frans Mäyrä, with a fantastic lineup of researchers. I always feel like it's an out of body experience when I find myself with these people whose books I buy, read and obsess over, and this was no different. The transgressive aesthetics workshop was incredibly useful, to open up for new angles and discuss and challenge old ideas about what "transgressive" means, and how it can be a useful tool to gain a deeper understanding of games and game strategies.
During the event the twitter hashtag #Digra2015 was in use, although with the very clear knowledge that it would be watched and very likely flooded by the movement Gamergate, which has been targeting DiGRA for several months. Their main argument was that radical feminists run DiGRA, that DiGRA is a think tank that does not operate by regular academic standards, that it has an agenda of making gamers politically correct, a plan which is financed by DARPA (summary of claims here), and they have been blaming DiGRA for being the source of the many articles they claim are all about "the death of the gamers". We have seen a lot of examples of charts that "prove" how DiGRA is connected to and influence the game industry, and they have been using the informal notes from a fishbowl at DiGRA 2014 to "prove" their claims. Through the months since then there have been a few eager twitter accounts arguing that DiGRA should be burned to the ground, combined with several doxings and threats to game scholars on 8chans boards, both on the Gamergate boards and the related boards. So most researchers took to Twitter very carefully, with a strong awareness of the public nature of the feed.
Over the next few days, Gamergate kept up the flooding. A few scholars, me among those, invited the more reasonable of the spammers to conversation. Very few wanted to engage beyond defending their actions. This was mainly a defense based on the assumption that DiGRA articles are judgmental of gamers and game culture. Disregarding the very strong bias of DiGRA academia in favour of research being conducted by people who are also players and gamers, Gamergate was claiming the right to control research on games, censoring the topics and dictating the results, while also accusing DiGRA of being unethical and dictating research results.
After a few days of flooding the hashtag, a game developer got heavily engaged. Mark Kern, who has worked on the team creating World of Warcraft, decided to join the mob flooding the #digra hashtag. World of Warcraft is a solidly studied game, to the point that we can almost talk about World of Warcraft studies as a genre of its own. I was part of the process of writing the first anthology on WoW, and have both played and studied the game since. This book was published after Kern left WoW, as is most of the later WoW research. Digital Culture, Play and Identity is still perhaps the book that most closely addresses the game as it was when Kern knew it.
As far as I know though, Mark Kern has not read this book, nor any other articles on game research, until he started tweeting about the stupidity of game research.
Not only does he not like the research DiGRA does, he also claims that the tweets are libelous. Now, if a research association, or members of a research association, actually circulated libelous slides, that would be a bad thing. However, if they happen to be making slides with a funny, ironic or even quite correct text that somehow responds to a campaign heavy with misrepresentation, lies, harassment and threats, that isn't libel. Claiming they are libel, if they aren't - now that can be libel, if the speaker has credibility to the point of being able to harm the person or organization being attacked. Which leads us into a very funny little paradox, and if we go too far down that path, lawyers will take over the world.
The important part is how Mark Kern feels that he, like many other performers or creators of cultural objects, knows better than the critics. This is a very common position to take. Nobody likes to hear anything but praise, so when faced with criticism, no matter how good or well grounded, film-makers, authors, actors, painters, sculptors, journalists, and just about every other person who has dared to create something which then is criticized, respond with the same knee-jerk response: let's see you do it better. Which is why, when Gamergate wanted to "peer-review" the DiGRA articles, the scholars - me among them - responding were consciously suppressing that response and offered support for the process. Kern does not suppress the knee-jerk response though, as one researcher responds to his criticism of DiGRA by asking what Kern actually knows of the research.
Mark Kern is an example of the type of push-back against criticism which is both expected and common when anybody, scholars, amateurs or professional critics, start looking systematically at any cultural expression and ask more of it than just superficial entertainment. This reaction proves, just as the entire Gamergate affair does, that game criticism and research is growing up. It is no longer simply scratching at the surfaces of description, as we did in the first few years, at which time we tried to understand what was actually going on, creating a language of academic discourse, and fighting for the value of a thrashed and disrespected medium. The anger, the shouts of "don't criticize if you can't do the same as me", the misunderstandings and the deep fear that Gamergate expresses, demonstrates that the research has touched a nerve, has come too close for comfort.
I am not going to say game research is "winning", as that is Gamergate terminology. There is no victory to be had here. Reacting too much to the aggression will skew research, and make it certain that we start having a bias against a subgroup of people who claim the tag "gamer" for themselves. It will give Gamergate influence in a detrimental manner, as they are working very hard to make game researchers hate "gamers". However, it proves the relevance of game research. Games are deeply entrenched in modern culture, and understanding game culture combined with the social media ecology may be more important now than it has ever been. It also forces researchers to reflect on terminology, on user models and pre-conceptions, and on the value of games, which we so far have mainly taken for granted. Perhaps it is time, after years of thinking of games as an almost universally good thing and a medium to be defended, to question that truth. Perhaps games, design and gamers aren't so special after all, and need to be studied more as hostile objects resulting from a hostile culture, than as the labour of love it has been to so many of us.
Edit: I found the tweet that pronounced the twitter feed toxic, and added it above.
Note: I have always moderated the comments on this blog heavily, and I will keep doing that.