Friday, 13 February 2015

The Language of Gamergate

[Note- this was written way back in October, but for various reasons has not been published until now. Whilst Gamergate is not the hot button it was back then I feel the points in this article still ring true and thus thought it worth publishing]

Back when I was at university I wrote my dissertation on “Speech Communities” in online forum discussions. The internet is fascinating from a linguistic perspective, as it breaks down the conventional binary between written and spoken language. Despite the relative longevity of the internet there is still surprisingly little academic writing on the linguistic importance of online communications. One key observation that has been made is that the internet allows for language without accountability. 100 or even 20 years ago it would be impossible for someone to disperse their opinions to potentially innumerable people in the same way that currently technology allows. Whilst this allows linguistic patterns to develop more quickly and with a lot less contextual baggage, it also means people can communicate without consequences.

A lot has been written about what has been termed “Gamergate”, and whilst there will never be complete consensus on these matters, I would say the general opinion is that this is an outcry of dismay from the privileged.  And yet in the same few weeks that the story is discussed at length we receive the news that there are apparently more female than male gamers. Is there an answer to this incongruity?

Obviously there is, and I am not going to try to cram in all the gender and media issues being debated heatedly into one article. I think, however, there is something to say on the importance of the internet and how it relates to gaming culture. I write this fully aware of the irony of posting this on a gaming blog.

Gaming culture has, from a very early point, had a very close relationship with internet culture; probably more than any other mainstream interest has with the internet, with the two obvious and clich├ęd exceptions of cats and porn (though ever the twain shall meet...hopefully). Even though there are, of course, innumerable websites dedicated to cinema, literature, television, music, sports, etc, the internet has generally existed as a by-product of those interests. Comparatively, gaming has regularly embraced and used the internet as a basis for a lot of key parts of gaming culture. It’s easy to recognise the necessity of the internet for MMOs and browser based games, but also the development of modding culture and freeware in the 90s helped form the basis of digital distribution today.

Moreover, there is a perception that both gaming and the internet are a broader part of “nerd” culture. I think these perceptions and stereotypes are being eroded, but I do believe there are certain people in the world who embrace both media, as such digital playgrounds allow for a huge and very involving escapism that even the most bracing novel can struggle to compete with. Therefore, the internet and video games draw in, amongst many others, people who need escapism. This is culturally liberating, but also offers unique language opportunities.

David Crystal's "Language and the Internet" is probably the best text to start with

Although most of the content on the internet is written language, the internet as a medium has a lot of the defining characteristics of speech. Speech is instantaneous, much like writing on the internet on the internet; compare this to other forms of writing, such as letters or a novel, which require some kind of delivery before they will be read. Moreover, in conventional linguistics any example of language with as broad an audience as that written on the internet would normally have some kind of control measure, such as an editor or publisher. With the internet it is possible for anyone to write something with no quality control and a potentially limitless audience. This means that divisive or controversial views can reach a lot of people without the accountability of an official endorsement.

More importantly, individuals can write on the internet in complete anonymity. Again looking to historical examples, there would be very few instances where communications would be made where nothing was known about the party communicating to the audience. In speech the individual would have accent, inflection, dialect, pitch and pace, among many other factors, to inform an audience about certain aspects of the speaker. Likewise, whilst these factors would not be relevant in written text, most written language would be framed in such a way as to give information about the writer. For example, the author would normally be named in a book, article or letter. Naturally there are examples where this would not be true, but none of these exceptions are particularly common or have a very wide audience.

The internet, however, does not have any of these restrictions. Anyone can set up a blog, write an article with whatever content they want and distribute it to as many people as they wish; indeed, the more controversial the article the more likely it will pick up media attention and a wider readership. This can be immensely empowering, as this form of communication removes any social judgements around ethnicity, nationality, gender, age and appearance, which can give oppressed groups an equal platform where previously they would not have it. Unfortunately, with this freedom comes a lack of accountability, meaning that the act of language is completely abstract, and the person saying them can be completely free and anonymous. Sadly, this means that when an individual such as Zoe Quinn puts herself as a figure with defined characteristics she is, in some senses, weaker than those who remain anonymous.

The combination of this linguistic freedom and entitlement of internet gaming culture has proven to be very dangerous. But gaming is modernising. As video games become increasingly more lucrative (and, indeed, increasingly similar to the film industry), the less progressive sides of gaming are challenged. I am a long way off claiming that gaming being part of mainstream culture guarantees fair treatment of people, but the latent sexism, homophobia, and other unpleasant views are being sanded down. Suddenly the world demands accountability where there was not before. And when things change in a way people don’t like they lash out, and blame the people they see as the issue; in this case, the minority of angry people see women in gaming as the problem, and channel their aggression there, as they do not want to have to accept that the problem may lie with them.

Does this excuse the horrendous abuse these journalists are receiving? Of course not. But as gaming becomes increasingly linked to the mainstream so too does internet gaming culture, whether it is ready to or not. Hopefully, as we understand these things more, we can make some progress towards reducing these aggressive attitudes. Maybe one day we can all hold hands, smile, and agree that Final Fantasy XIII is ridiculously shit.

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