Way back in 2013, Zoë Quinn released a small, critically acclaimed browser game called Depression Quest, which looked to portray the truth of living with depression. This would prompt one of her former boyfriends to release a 9,425-word blog post detailing their history and her relationship with a well-known games journalist, and suddenly we had a culture war of men vs women disguised as a “discussion” on ethics in games journalism. Yes, this unassuming lady developer had inadvertently set the stage for one of the biggest controversies to rock the entire gaming world, and would have lasting impact in the years to follow.
I’m not going to bore you with an entire recap: Wikipedia will do a better job of that if you really need the play-by-play, and frankly those aren’t exactly days I’m eager to relive, speaking as one who was working and reporting at the time. But by the time it was over (as over as these things could be), the gaming world had certainly changed. A lot of good things have happened as a result of that stupid, unnecessary campaign… and a lot of bad. For example, it’s often been said that those events may have led to Donald Trump getting elected.
So it goes. You win some, you lose some.
Regardless. It’s been over five years since Depression Quest first came out, and well under four since Gamergate stopped trending and the whole of the gaming world just sort of agreed to move on. And, for no other reason, I’ve decided to take a quick look back and see how we’ve changed. Sort of like an industry audit of how we’ve improved – or not – since those days have come and gone. So let’s give it an honest look, shall we?
More leading ladies
By the time this all started, the idea that video games were something to be enjoyed by all people of all sexes was an idea that the industry was slowly coming around on. But Gamergate really kick-started the progress as it gave rise to more voices both inside and outside the industry that demand more girls at the table when designing games, which would inevitably lead to more women taking prominent lead roles in game stories themselves. That, as well as the realization that it was suddenly hip to have new and different protagonists that offered new and different perspectives, lead to an increase of leading ladies in single-player games, particularly in the indie sphere, which was far more responsive and reactive than the triple-A behemoth.
Still, it happened. E3 2015 saw far more leading ladies than in years before. Assassin’s Creed got its first mainstream leading lady with Evie Frye (which was likely just as much a reaction to Gamergate as it was Assassin’s Creed Unity). Fallout 4 showed off a female wanderer in its trailer, and Dishonored 2 bragged that you’d have the choice to play either a male or female protagonist, depending on your tastes/playstyle. That was the same year Horizon Zero Dawn was announced, and we got our first look at Alloy.
And in the years to follow, it’s only gotten better. Hellblade had a wonderful female lead that also did a good job of tackling mental issues. Indie darlings like Gone Home, Night in the Woods, and Tacoma. And of course, in the triple-A space, we got a Uncharted spin-off focusing on the female leads, the next couple of Tomb Raider games carried on well after the first, Shantae made her grand return (although maybe she’s not a good example of empowering female characters), NieR: Automata showed you could have your cake and eat it too with excellent female leads and plenty of fan service, and of course, Tracer came out of the closet. Which is a double-win if you think about it.
And the best part, of course, is that this once-controversial problem has sort of stopped being that. Whereas before the idea of lady-protagonists might have raised eyebrows or got people angry, that kind of discourse is far less common these days. That’s a really nice, positive step forward, and the sooner it becomes completely normalized, the sooner we’ll put a very dark chapter of gaming behind us.
So as far as I’m concerned, we’ve been making some pretty great strides so far on that front.
MeToo before MeToo
The #MeToo movement has been praised as an outstanding moment in the fight for women equality in the workplace, and the kind of abuse they have to silently suffer through just to function in some parts of the adult world. And not for nothing, but the gaming industry was able to have our own personal #MeToo movement a full three years before the rest of the world caught up.
Of course, there are some caveats to that. On one hand, yeah, the fact that we were able to craft some spaces in the wake of Gamergate in order to allow these attacked women to speak out and directly address the problems of the industry was a good thing. On the flip side, however, is the issue that we really should have been prepared to do that sooner. The misogamy in the gaming culture wasn’t ever really an open secret in so far that it was never really a secret: it was just one of those ‘out of sight, out of mind’ things that people accepted. The Cross Assault controversy should have really been the wake-up call we needed with the whole “sexism is a part of the fighting game community” mess, but it came, it went, and while jimmies were rustled it didn’t really amount to much.
But GamerGate, at least, seemed to be a moment where the industry really took notice. Likely because it hit closer to home and prompted reactions from every girl in the field and/or culture. And while “better late than never” is certainly applicable… it feels weird to ‘celebrate’ that fact. If anything it should probably be a source of shame that it took as long as we did. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The detox movement
Right now, Microsoft, Sony, Riot Games, Blizzard Entertainment, Epic Games, Twitch, Wargaming.net, and countless other developers have either been working around the clock to fight toxicity in their communities, or they’ve agreed that it’s a problem and have been vocal about trying to solve it. And while you could possibly argue that was going to happen eventually, I think it’s really entered the forefront of the gaming conscious because of events like, and surrounding GamerGate.
I mean, as I said before, it was never a secret that gaming communities were toxic. Riot Games, developer behind League of Legends, had to have known that for years, their game had a reputation for being one of the most toxic cesspools in the whole of the gaming space. But it wasn’t until relatively recently that they decided to actually step up and do something about it, introducing new systems both the penalize bad behavior, but more importantly, reward good behavior as well.
And they are far from alone, as I mentioned. Blizzard has really kicked off on improving its fan-base, Ubisoft has had strong words and stronger solutions for curtailing hate speech on their games (specifically in The Division and Rainbow Six). Twitch, which is typically where a lot of this hate speech spawns, has doubled down on moderating this sort of behavior, and while they could certainly do a better job, the fact they’re even paying attention at all is frankly kind of a miracle.
It’s still an enormous problem
Yeah, of course, we’re gonna have to end on a hard, unpleasant truth: whatever steps we’ve taken to address the problem just hasn’t been enough. End of the day, the gaming community has grown a bit more accepting, a bit more open, and a bit more liberating. But there’s not much practical difference between “literally the worst” and “just barely not the worst”, particularly not for the people who still have to deal with it. Anger online is still one of the biggest driving forces in games, Sexism hasn’t gone anywhere, and women still don’t especially feel safe in this space. At least, not in the general sense. The fact that Fortnite had a small controversy because guys were upset at how many girls were playing it was proof enough of that.
I’ve been a part of the gaming world for over fifteen years at this rate. And I’ve been a small-time journalist for about seven of those years. I’ve watched the gaming world transform before my eyes into something my past self would probably barely recognize. I’ve seen fads come and go, I’ve watched the community change and diversify, and when I was a kid, the idea of a girl playing video games would have blown my mind.
The fact that it’s not “weird” anymore? That’s technically progress. But even with Gamergate at our heels, we’ve still got a long ways to go.