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Youth Radio

One Gamer's Take On 'Gamergate'

Under the #Gamergate hashtag, a debate has flared surrounding ethics in video game journalism and the role and treatment of women in the video game industry. LA Johnson/NPR hide caption

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LA Johnson/NPR

Under the #Gamergate hashtag, a debate has flared surrounding ethics in video game journalism and the role and treatment of women in the video game industry.

LA Johnson/NPR

A very public controversy has engulfed the world of video games, centered around the treatment of women and minorities in the gaming culture.

The debate has ramifications for educators, as schools ponder the educational potential of online games and the need to protect young people who play them. For some perspective on this issue we turned to Rafael Johns, a reporter for Youth Radio. Here's his commentary:

I enjoy video games.

I'm an expert at shooting down hordes of enemies in Halo and Left 4 Dead. I love the stories of Dragon Age and Mass Effect, and I'm a master of fighting games.

I am also a black and queer person who grew up surrounded by women. My experiences in life have shaped me, at age 19, into someone who believes in respecting people at a basic human level.

And so, despite the enjoyment I get from these games, I feel shame almost every time I tell people about it.

The culture is full of discrimination – subtle and blatant — towards those who are different. Racist and offensive language are everywhere: I see usernames like "Nappynighair" or "MolestationCentral" or "420Hitler" all the time.

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It's no surprise that many of the people who play these games are aggressively competitive and immature. Anyone who's ever played a boys' sport in middle school has dealt with this, and hopefully learned to handle it. But some gamers reach a whole new low.

And now, what started out as attacks against one of the few female game developers has quickly spiraled into an onslaught of hatred towards feminists and anyone who points out the ugly norms in video game culture.

Some gamers claim these criticisms are the result of their culture being overrun by "social justice warriors" and "politically correct annoyances." Gamers are often viewed as overgrown kids, which leads to many of them feeling criticized, marginalized and thus defensive of their identity as gamers: the mass-marketed image of which is a straight, white, post-adolescent male.

To me, geek culture and in particular the gaming community have always felt hostile. Since I began playing online games that allowed me to talk directly to other gamers, I realized that I was running with the wrong crowd.

Players use the word "nigger" so often that it's like I'm living on a plantation in the antebellum South. "Rape" is frequently used when an opponent is playing particularly well. Even more common is "faggot," so there's no way I'm opening my mouth to let out my high-pitched voice.

The result is that time that I should be spending having fun playing a video game is instead spent gauging whether or not it's safe for me to even speak.

What I'm seeing online and in this community is the sort of behavior I used to see in a middle-school locker room: a toxic combination of cruelty and low self esteem. And it makes me feel just like the locker room used to: constantly cautious in an unsafe environment.

Anita Sarkeesian, host and writer of Feminist Frequency, a video weblog that discusses the representation of women in pop culture. Feminist Frequency hide caption

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Feminist Frequency

Anita Sarkeesian, host and writer of Feminist Frequency, a video weblog that discusses the representation of women in pop culture.

Feminist Frequency

I assumed I was alone in the gaming community, and even considered dropping out of it. But it turns out, I just needed to find other gamers like me, somewhere outside of the games themselves. That place turned out to be Tumblr, where gaming fans gather to trade notes about their hobby. And finding those people helped changed the way I thought about gaming and the culture surrounding it.

I learned I could explore multiple subcultures that included gamers who were also queer and people of color. These were people who played video games and found the constant verbal barrage just as off-putting as I did.

I was stunned to find others who believe that the world of gaming should, and can, change. There are people who want to play video games with others who look like them, and act like them, and love like them.

And it wasn't just players like me that I discovered in this world. Powerful people in gaming, like the head writers of popular games, are also on Tumblr, where they have an opportunity to interact with a fan base that isn't necessarily male and white. I'm hopeful these interactions can affect the content that they create.

Like a lot of other players, one of the reasons I love gaming is because I love stories. And lots of people learn about computers and engineering from playing video games, not necessarily the other way around.

We're a very diverse culture. And with that diversity comes a lot more chances for learning. With more women, queer people, and people of color here, there are more people who could potentially become involved in the greater world of tech, as creators and programmers.

And those people need safe spaces to explore ideas. With more students spending time with controllers in hand and eyes on screens, learning how to make gaming culture a safe one might seem daunting, but the groundwork is already there.

Indie games have been winning awards and approval as new templates for what video games can be, despite the criticism heaped against them as "inauthentic" and lacking interactivity. They don't follow the typical first-person shooter format. Which means the chauvenistic culture that I grew up experiencing doesn't have to be the one that 13-year-olds of today see when they log on.

We can all learn to look at games, and the people who play them, in a broader, more accepting way.

Rafael Johns is a reporter for Youth Radio.