Taste Privilege and GamerGate


[I know this has been a dormant site for months, and I have a draft post called “Too Busy to Blog” explaining why & what I’ve been up to, but I’ve not had time to finish it! But I just had some thoughts that are TLFT (too long for Twitter) that I wanted to throw out there. So here you go…]

I have been following the so-called #GamerGate story fairly closely (for strong overviews/analyses of what this story is all about, read this or this or this). In large part, my interest stems from having taught my first videogames course last semester, where we watched the Feminist Frequency “Tropes vs. Women” videos and read about the first wave of backlash against creator/critic Anita Sarkeesian, as well as exploring games & writings by women critics & independent developers. In that class, the reluctant and defensive reactions from some of my male students, and the resulting frustrations of some of my female students, was a pedagogical minefield that I tried to navigate effectively, but never felt like I fully engaged the issues sufficiently. Although my students never ventured into hate speech and misogyny, some of the less hateful GamerGate discourse feels like it comes from a similar place, with a palpable anxiety and discomfort in reaction to a feminist critique of games and presence of women within game culture – that type of anxiety rarely gets expressed when I explore similar issues about television and film.

What I find inexplicable about such anxiety, which has triggered verbal violence, digital vandalism, and serious threats of physical harm, is why challenging gender representations and calling to broaden the types of games that get made & praised should matter so much to consumers of the current mainstream. Obviously, outright misogyny should be condemned rather than explained, but I do think there is something to be gained by trying to understand the more mild and less overtly hateful GamerGate expressions—not to justify the movement in any way, but to try to figure out how we might engage in conversation and education. Sarkeesian’s excellent videos are quite measured in their approach to games as a medium, and clearly aim to educate over censoring. And yet so many people react as if they are being personally attacked, or if somehow Sarkeesian or other feminist critics are legitimately threatening to take away their toys. While there’s nothing rational about misogyny, I don’t think the defensiveness I saw in my students came from that hateful place, nor do I think all people supporting the idea of GamerGate are motivated by misogyny (although those who are attacking Sarkeesian, Quinn, Wu and other women in gaming clearly are). Why would people get so worked up about such critiques to warrant such activism, spending a massive amount of time and energy to campaign for something as ultimately pointless as “improved ethics in game journalism” (especially since there are so many more pressing ethical issues in gaming)? Why does it matter to them so much?

Here’s my current working theory: these gamers are blinded by taste privilege.

What do I mean by “taste privilege,” a phrase I’ve not seen referenced elsewhere (but please let me know if you’ve seen similar usage, as this is a concept I’d like to explore more in my research)? There are many different ways to define and conceptualize privilege, but one that makes sense for me (as a person of privilege) is that privilege is the freedom to not notice difference. In most contexts, I’m perfectly able to imagine that my experiences are shared, commonplace norms, rather than defined by my identity in ways that other people would experience differently. There is rarely a consequence for me to assume that other people see the world as I do, sharing the same access, rights, and freedoms. Basically, privilege is the freedom to ignore your own privilege.

It seems pretty obvious how such privilege operates over axes of difference like gender, race, sexuality, and class – the U.S. works with an assumed norm of straight, white, men with economic means. As someone who fits that bill, it’s easy to ignore the way that other people are disenfranchised by our system, while those outside that norm notice those barriers and structural obstacles all the time. So if you have privilege, the default is to be simply unaware of it – that’s not an act of malice, but one of ignorance. It takes lots of ongoing work and education to recognize your own privilege, and even more work to see the world outside your own experience.

So what does this have to do with taste? If you’re part of the dominant norm and your cultural tastes are either mainstream or affirmed by a sizable & valued group, you have taste privilege – you are free to ignore that other people experience that culture differently. Popular culture is structured by taste privilege, where the privileged audience is targeted and others are taken for granted, or given marginalized options. For instance, children’s media has long been guided by the assumption that girls will watch boy-centered texts, but boys will not watch girl-centered ones; thus girl viewers must learn to find places for themselves in boy-centric media, while boys with taste privilege never need to learn that skill. Similarly, television has frequently offered highly successful programs or channels targeting African-American or Spanish-speaking viewers—taste privilege is the ability to claim to be well-versed in mainstream television without acknowledging or even being aware of the huge popularity of Tyler Perry’s programs or Univision. While writing this post, I found another great example of taste privilege in reactionary action: although he doesn’t use the phrase, this piece by Arthur Chu hits at similar concepts quite well, focused on the parallel between GamerGate and the anti-disco movement of the late-1970s.

Because both privilege and intense commitment to your taste breed righteousness, the commonplace reaction when people who disagree with your privileged taste is dismissal, writing them off with “they just don’t get it.” But what happens when that disagreement expands into outright critique, and other forms of culture feel like they are getting more attention and validation than your own? Dismissal can morph into defensiveness, communal reinforcement of your shared tastes, and lashing out in anger toward those who seem to be “threatening” your privilege to be unaware of difference. If such anger clusters into a community, it will attract the truly hateful violent voices like those who have committed acts of terrorism and abuse in the name of GamerGate.

There is no rational reason that gamers would see positive reviews of experimental games like Depression Quest or Sarkeesian’s critiques of gender representations in gaming as a legitimate threats to the dominance of mainstream male-centered games within the marketplace—any more than gay marriages “threaten” straight marriages or women getting equal pay to men “threatens” male employment. Certainly my first reaction to reading GamerGate griping was “why on earth does this matter to you so much?” But we need to remember that all of these cultural shifts or policies make privilege visible to the privileged: when your unspoken norm is spoken, it loses its assumed, invisible status, and this feels like a threat. That revelation of privilege can hurt, as people with such privilege have not had a lifetime of experience processing the role of difference and inequality, so it can feel like a sudden shock to the system and disruption of your assumptions. You put that sense of shock, threat and hurt into a community defined by a love for a medium foregrounding violent simulations, anonymous smack talk, and demeaning representations of people outside the dominant norm, you get GamerGate.

Here’s the good news: education and experience help. I’ve seen this with my students, my friends, myself. We should remember that acting on privilege is not an neither an act of malice, nor an excuse for acting with malice. Engaging the conversation with people who are willing and able to listen is the best hope we have for freezing out those who are not, as evidenced with some examples linked from this piece. That’s why I think Sarkeesian is a hero: in the face of hatred, violence, and threats of physical harm, she continues to educate and engage the conversation.

In that spirit, I welcome productive, civil conversation below.


28 Responses to “Taste Privilege and GamerGate”

  1. 1 Jens Bonk

    I think your idea might just hit the nail on the head. It also explains the backlash to other developments in gaming: casual v. hardcore games, narrative-focused v. “actual” games, and even indie v. AAA. It’s always a confrontation of the taste privilege.

    I remember a discussion about whether “indie games” actually confront and rebel against mainstream conventions with Andreas Jahn-Sudmann at the “Media Change” symposium in Hanover (I think we actually met there, you might remember me as the obnoxious kid who could not bring himself to stop babbling about Minecraft over lunch). And I believe Andreas was right in saying that they don’t, they very often still cater to the mainstream’s taste privilege. It’s just when games come from elsewhere (women, people of color, maybe older people, too?) that sometimes these conventions get upended and that’s when “gamers” get terribly upset (if the games have success).

    So, while I’m maybe not as a big a fan of Sarkeesian’s work (I am a big fan of her enthusiasm, endurance and aims, though), I think you are on to something here. I look forward to reading more.

    As a side note, I believe GamerGate also tapped into a wider issue of anti-feminism in the online sphere(MRAs, PUAs and the anti-tumblr crowd are examples, I think) and probably in general.

  2. 2 Bob Fibby

    This was started by idiotic journalists who thought they were high on pedestals. The response was way to severe from gamergate but a similar response that didn’t involve death threats was warranted. The “victims” had it coming.

  3. Thanks for this, especially the succinct definition of “privilege” in a way that can be broadly applied!

  4. 4 Taylor

    ‘when your unspoken norm is spoken, it loses its assumed, invisible status, and this feels like a threat’

    I think this is hugely insightful, and honestly I think it helps explain a lot of reactionary anger in general, and not just with this particular situation.

  5. 5 Crossbreed

    I am SO glad I never had the misfortune of having to pay for a class you teach.

  6. I think this is a really excellent analysis of the situation. Thanks for sharing!

  7. 7 John

    I’ve only been very vaguely following this issue but I have one big, pretty, fundamental, question.

    To what extent does “GamerGate” actually exist? How many people are involved? The Internet and social networks often act as an amplifier, and it often amplifies fringe or clearly inappropriate viewpoints, which are often used a strawmen by people on the other side of the issue to decry. My entire knowledge of “GamerGate” comes from people arguing against it… which leaves me wondering how many people those people are arguing against?

    • Good question – I’ve seen little data about the numbers involved, but I’d say it’s a small but vocal group. If you post anything critical on Twitter with the hashtag, you’ll get a good deal of pushback. And the comment threads… say no more!

      • There are approximately 40k+ of us counting individual IDs that have used the tag although I think the number would be less than that substantially as our critics love to use the tag not only to comment on us but to occasionally (as in the case of Brianna Wu) post under sock puppet accounts to defame us (I can provide evidence if you’d like), and our eyes are everywhere, we don’t hate anyone really, nor are we rallying against feminism as people have claimed. What we ARE opposed to is unethical journalism and ideologically driven reporting, we want information on games, not necessarily opinion on the politics of a given piece of entertainment software. Not everyone’s opinion reflects feminist thought and a more neutral stance would be appreciated. It is also worthy of note that #Gamergate contains a fair contingent of feminists and social justice advocates that are on our side primarily because of the ethics issue and because they’d rather hear about how fun a game is rather than whether or not it sufficiently represents the liberal political lens for culture critics to give it their seal of approval.

      • And this is a good example of taste privilege: you are saying that GGers want “information on games, not necessarily opinion on the politics of a given piece of entertainment software.” There is no shortage of this information available out there – the vast majority of game reporting is apolitical and focused on AAA games, and almost all reviews focus on gameplay & technical merit over politics. And yet GG wants to fight against another type of journalism that is comparatively marginal, seemingly because the presence of alternative voices and perspectives threatens the monolithic block of what some people want games & game journalism to be. Why is that battle worth your time?

      • 11 David

        I read a post suggesting the number is around 10k or less; 10 thousand is about how many followers people like Baldwin or the right wing journo that used to mock people that played games have gained (ignoring the increase they were normally getting). Factor in sock puppets and there might actually be less than 10k hardcore gators.

  8. 12 Jon Luongo

    Thanks, Jason, this is excellent.

  9. 13 ssmulyan

    Jon Stewart could have used some of your clarity of language while arguing about white privilege with Bill O’Reilly this week.

  10. 14 Wulfram

    May I suggest that there’s a certain amount of “taste privilege” on the other side, too?

    A large part of the complaint behind gamergate – at least the parts that aren’t just hateful misogyny – is that the gaming media does not represent them. And the people who have the privilege of being represented in the media are dismissive and defensive towards this criticism

    • 15 AC

      The idea that people with GamerGate’s tastes aren’t represented in the media is simply not true. GamerGate dedicated an inordinate amount of rage to Polygon’s 7.5 review of Bayonetta 2, the score for which was partially influenced by the reviewer being made uncomfortable by sexual elements of the game. But the Metacritic for Bayonetta 2 is sitting at 9.1, an extremely high score.

      The fact that GamerGate’s tastes are not represented unanimously doesn’t mean they’re not represented at all; and in fact, tastes contrary to their own are shared by an extreme minority of games journalists and reviewers. The vast majority of game development budgets and games coverage still cater explicitly to the traditional gamer demographic, which is the definition of taste privilege used in this article. The idea that, say, feminists have taste privilege in games just because it was possible in the industry for someone to publish an article criticizing the portrayal of women in a game – especially when such reviewers are now incurring an astounding amount of harassment for ever having done so – doesn’t really make sense.

      The only thing the games media is banding together about in opposition to GamerGate is the issue of harassing journalists and developers, which isn’t really a matter of taste.

      • 16 Wulfram

        Bayonetta is hardly the sole touchstone of gamergate opinion.

        Feminists obviously don’t have taste privilege in games. But they do have taste privilege in gaming journalism. As do liberals – relative to, say, the american population, since political positions are inherently relative – in general. You’re not going to get an article disagreeing with progressive positions in the mainstream gaming press. If someone prominent says something in conflict with that ideology, you will get a whole bunch of articles condemning them

        Not through any conspiracy, just because that’s the sort of person that wants to make a career writing about games – and since it’s not actually political journalism, the market forces aren’t strong enough to counteract.

        There are a few other things where you get either common bias because of shared occupation, or because of group think, or because they naturally interact with developers a lot and assimilate their view points.

        And of course there is the taste privilege, which occasionally results in outbreaks of “Why you shouldn’t listen to those smelly basement dwelling socially awkward nerds who disagree with us” articles, such as the one that served as the main recruitment drive for Gamergate,

      • You are making assertions about the politics of game journalists with no evidence. While it’s probably true that a majority of game journalists are “liberal” politically, I’m sure that most do not claim to be feminists – many so-called liberals reject the banner of feminism, even though they agree with its basic belief in equality of opportunity and rights regardless of gender. (Do you disagree with that belief?)

        Instead, you seem to note a few voices of political critique and feminist politics and assume that they are the real power within game journalism regardless of evidence. Such claims of political bias are wrong in most media – as I’ve written about before, the most powerful biases in mainstream journalism are corporate bias and official source bias. Game journalism is no different – it seeks to provide coverage to promote the industry that supports it with advertising and access. That’s why the majority of gaming press focuses on AAA titles and rarely is hypercritical of them.

  11. 18 thrillhouse

    This is basically Bourdieu’s Distinction if you wanted to explore “taste privilege” more

    • I’d disagree that it’s the same as Distinction – it’s been years since I reread it, but Bourdieu is more focused on the broader structures of taste than the cultural practices where that structure is negotiated and reforged. But that’s an argument to save for the larger project…

      • 20 thrillhouse

        Borrowing from Anne Helen Peterson at Buzzfeed talking on “basic”:
        “Unique taste — and the capacity to avoid the basic — is a privilege. A privilege of location (usually urban), of education (exposure to other cultures and locales), and of parentage (who would introduce and exalt other tastes). To summarize the groundbreaking work of theorist Pierre Bourdieu: We don’t choose our tastes so much as the micro-specifics of our class determine them. To consume and perform online in a basic way is thus to reflect a highly American, capitalist upbringing. Basic girls love the things they do because nearly every part of American commercial media has told them that they should.”
        So if we’re talking about gaming’s field, it’s that it has been constructed in a certain way to favour certain viewpoints as default to the point where anything that doesn’t deal with the central taste-maker (“gameplay”, loosely defined) is seen as irrelevant to the field. Consalvo, Kirkpatrick write on this a fair bit. I think to a certain extent to identify as a “gamer”, at least in the way GG makes it out, means acknowledging that you are trying to elevate the gaming field to a position of esteem (rather than currently where it is, for the most part, marginalised, as Jesper mentions). When what are seen as “mainstream” concerns, (social justice, which exists outside of the gaming field) is brought in, it’s seen as proof that gaming is marginalised which causes gamers to double down on the defense of their field’s esteem.

  12. I think taste privilege is a great angle, but doesn’t it apply quite poorly to society at large, but very well to gamer-oriented media channels, hence the faux obsession with “ethics”?

    In the broad societal picture, to be a gamer (especially of traditional male-oriented military games) is to have your taste constantly challenged by everybody from the NRA to psychologists, to parents and school counselors worried about correlations between gaming and low test scores. I also think it’s only a few months ago that some lifestyle site claimed that video games” was one of the biggest turn-offs for women seeking men. This is not all like the taste privilege you describe.

    AT THE SAME TIME … I think gamergate could better be described as the fear of losing *dedicated* media channels in which taste privilege reigns and mainstream AAA taste is never challenged. Hence the imprecise claims about “journalist ethics” which in practice seem to be mostly oriented against (female) cultural critics of video games, against (female) game developers trying to push for new types of expression, and against the various articles construed as promoting negative stereotypes about gamers and video game culture.

    Then gamergate is not about having general taste privilege, but about having taste privilege in certain media outlets, in advertising, and in relation to producers of AAA games. This then ties into the issue that some gamergaters seem to radically overestimate the power of cultural critics, journalist, or academics (there is a separate DiGRA conspiracy theory) and apparently believe that someone like Anita Sarkeesian has the will or power to change AAA game development, which is absurd of course.

    I think this better explains the preoccupations of gamergate?

    • Yes, I agree that this is more about taste privilege within a subculture, and policing that subcultural tribe to ensure its purity and belongingness. But I do think the tide has been shifting in the larger cultural realm, as the stigma of gaming has been receding specifically because games and game-players have been diversifying – as the notion of “gamer” dissolves into a broader cultural practice, it becomes harder to delegitimize the medium out of hand.

      And oddly, this is precisely what is triggering this crisis of taste privilege: this type of gamer simultaneously resists the outside critiques of gaming, refuses to allow for different types of gaming to dilute their practices, and exhibits paranoia about how such diversity makes them marginalized. That type of “wanting it all on their own terms” is precisely what privilege is all about, and that’s why I think they exhibit the tendencies of mass taste privilege as well as the subcultural forms too. Does that make sense?

  13. 23 Wyrd

    “Privilege”? LOL

    I highly doubt gamers care about your hand wringing white guilt.
    That is one reason why they play games in the first place

  14. Some great points here. Honestly, I think this sort of debate and contention within the gaming industry is healthy in the long term. There’s always resistance to change and resistance to cultural shifts. Gaming is at a tipping point, perhaps even more so than film and other entertainment mediums simply because gaming has been male dominated for so much of its existence and only relatively recently has change happened and it has done so rapidly. Change will happen and there will be casualties along the way, unfortunately. But I think the future is bright.

  15. 25 sebastion

    Anita engages in conversation ? While she disables her comments and she is so heroic isn’t she, so much conviction not speaking at a an assembly because of deaththreats even AFTER the police and campus told her there was no threat, meanwhile real feminists in 3rd world countries have to deal with that on a daily basis with actual soldiers with guns that will kill them with zero warning.

    How about you guys stop spreading lies and generalizations about us, fact is that we do NOT want any of your agendas or the ideology of one sided biased opinions in our gaming or in our gaming journalism.

    That is when this will be over, when sellouts and fake journalists stop interjecting their completely unwelcome opinion into the hobby we MADE.

  1. 1 Taste Privilege and GamerGate | Just TV | The beta-testers of being
  2. 2 Sources on GamerGate and Philippic against Jemma Morgan. | The Scorpions Under the Rocks
  3. 3 #GamerGate may end up hurting gamers the most - Vox

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