Before you read this – especially if you aren’t familiar with the term “GamerGate” – you ought to read Matt Lee’s article on this subject in the Guardian. He’s a better writer than I am and he’ll give you a much better context on what GamerGate was and how it relates to Trump and the alt-right.
Having said that I’ve been thinking about Trump and GamerGate from a systems analytics perspective, and I want to share some insights into the underling system at work here:
In the beginning – i.e. the 90s – the game industry developed and marketed games towards a relatively small market that consisted predominantly of straight white males. These people were the “core” gamer demographic, and happily purchased games that appealed to their tastes. Due to this market’s interest in the subject a small journalism community sprouted to write game reviews, previews, and editorials.
It was a simple and functional system. Gamers were interested in games. Developers created games and sold them to gamers. Game journalists wrote about games and were supported by advertisers because they wrote articles that gamers read.
However, in the late aught’s, the game industry expanded rapidly to a variety of new demographics. Nintendo released the casual-focused Wii, Apple ushered in the era of mobile gaming with the iPhone, and enough people coalesced behind the indie games market that it began to be profitable. These events caused a whole lot of new people to enter the games market – new people who were very different from the “core” gamer demographic.
All of this caused predictable changes to the system. Instead of just the “core” gamer demographic, there were now the “casual” gamers – who would pay for simple fare such as Wii Sports – “mobile” gamers – who would pay for games on their mobile devices – and “indie” gamers – who would pay for games with more experimental content and/or pixel art. However, the “indie”, “casual”, and “mobile” gamers vastly outnumbered the “core” gamers. Because of this game developers and journalists found it profitable to produce games and articles targeted towards them.
Historically, this kind of thing has regularly occurred in population systems. A group of humans are living happily in an area. Suddenly several new groups of humans move in. The original group – lacking the ability to force the newcomers out – experience a change to their way of life and a weakening of their cultural power. They don’t like it. It’s a common story – from the Book of Exodus to the Eternal September. It probably even predates humanity. And in nearly every version, what happens next is conflict.
The first thing to really change was game journalism. This was to be expected, because game journalists can adapt their content much quicker than game developers. A game studio might take four years to transition between developing Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell to Just Dance, but a game journalist could do it virtually overnight by deciding to write about Anna Anthropy’s Mighty Jill Off in addition to Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto IV. To the “core” gamers this appeared as a stark difference. Suddenly their favorite sites contained a lot of content that didn’t appeal to them. Additionally – as these sites sought to retain and encourage their new readers – they adopted much more inclusive language, and featured much more inclusive viewpoints.
In hindsight it seems obvious that “Ethics in Games Journalism” became the rallying cry for GamerGate. Biased journalists – who would trade positive coverage in exchange for sexual favors – were all the explanation the small group of “core” gamers needed to form GamerGate. Then – pointing to the biggest change – they proceeded to brutalize the less powerful demographics. In this case it was the women in and around the games industry.
While politics works on a different scale than game markets, the systems are similar and the same pattern is playing out. The demographics of America have changed and – due to migrants seeking to escape the economic stagnation of Latin America and the brutal wars in the Middle East – that change is accelerating. One of the most prominent features of this change is that the media is producing content to appeal to these new consumers. A portion of the former majority has coalesced to rail against ethics in journalism – the Crooked Media, the Lügenpresse – and brutalize those from less powerful demographics.
GamerGate surprised us by how successful it was. We weren’t prepared for the tenacity behind their violence, nor were we prepared for the amount of people willing to stand by and let them get away with it. Trump’s success is a familiar surprise.
In the end though, GamerGate didn’t reverse the demographic changes to the games industry. Developers are still making games that appeal to the “casual,” “mobile,” and “indie” consumers, and game journalists are still covering those topics. And in spite of the real damage GameGate inflicted the system continues it’s trend towards more inclusive content for a more diverse market.
I hope that the political system will be similarly resilient.