Why 'Law & Order: SVU' did more harm than good with their Gamergate episode
"Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" is not what it once was. At its best, the series walked a tightrope between "ripped from the headlines" storytelling and a light touch on the way the personal lives of the cops and the lawyers would bleed into their work. The best years of the show focused on the increasingly tense partnership between Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni).
It's a show I watch out of habit at this point more than anything, and every now and then, they find an interesting angle on a real-life conversation. As a result, I was curious about this week's episode because I wanted to see how they would handle a fictionalized version of the Zoe Quinn/Gamergate story. To be clear, I think the entire Gamergate thing has been a repulsive example of the worst of what the Internet can accomplish, a disturbing, ugly skirmish in a larger cultural war, and I don't think there's much that is grey about the situation. For those still blissfully unaware of the situation, it began with a break-up between a game developer named Zoe Quinn and her boyfriend, who decided to publish a detailed and wildly inappropriate open letter to her about intimate issues. From that incident, a firestorm erupted that has given voice and focus to a very hate-filled minority, primarily made up of young white men who feel some sense of ownership over gaming and the definition of a gamer.
While it has been very clear that fandom, whether we're talking about film or comic books or video games, has trouble with diversity, I believe we're on the cusp of a great era in which that's no longer true. What we're dealing with right now are the death throes of the old way. We're seeing the tantrums of the people who are starting to realize that change is an inevitable force. When you have been the default your whole life, it’s a shock to the system to realize that may no longer be the case.
What has happened in the last year in gaming has been disgraceful and embarrassing, and when I see something like "Law & Order SVU" this week, it's worth considering because this is how the mainstream sees gaming and game culture. "Law & Order" is a TV institution at this point, and eventually, they find a way to grind any complex issue down to the dullest possible point so that anyone, no matter how much or how little they know, can follow what's going on.
Unfortunately, I think that "Intimidation Game," this week's episode, missed the mark in some pretty significant ways, and it managed to be insulting to pretty much everyone involved with these issues, starting from a fundamentally wrong-headed place. What begins as an examination of institutional misogyny and the anger behind it quickly becomes "Mazes and Monsters." If you haven't seen that TV movie, it was released right as the debate about "Dungeons & Dragons" was at its most fervent in the ‘80s. A pre-famous Tom Hanks starred as a kid who gets caught up in a fantasy role-playing game, only to become lost in the fake reality of the game. It was dopey alarmist claptrap then, and it's dopey alarmist claptrap now when the episode eventually evolves into "They're playing the game… FOR REAL!”
Unfortunately, the issues raised by Gamergate are not at all simple to unpack or things that can easily be distilled into one hot-button idea. By its very nature, diversity is a conversation that is going to be sprawling and ongoing. The thing that Gamergate got wrong, above anything else, is that the people on the anti-woman side of things were working from a position of fear. Fear that this thing they love is going to be different. Fear of people they don't normally socially interact with. Fear of losing what little power they think they have in this world. Gamergate isn't about people who have lost the ability to tell realty from fantasy; it's about people who have lost the ability to tell right from wrong. There is absolutely a deep ugly vein of misogyny at the heart of it, but I think there are other simmering angers stirred in as well.
More than anything, I think what we're really seeing on a larger cultural level is something that there may be no resolution for. We are accelerating, technologically speaking. Each year, there are more and more mundane miracles, things that we fold into our lifestyle without really fully appreciating how insane and magical much of our tech is. I have a Kindle where I can carry around an virtual room full of books that fits in a jacket pocket, lit so I can read it anywhere. As someone who has spent his whole life dealing with the unfortunate physical reality of moving and owning actual rooms full of books, I think the Kindle is magic. I am amazed by it every day. And I think by and large, most people love all the new tech that we get every year. But it has had an opposite effect on culture. People seem to cling to nostalgia more fiercely than ever before, and beyond that, change of any kind seems to freak people out. People have never had a more voracious appetite for "the same," and so anything that threatens to bring in real lasting permanent changes seems to send some people spinning, unable to process it. There is only so much new the human animal can take before it starts to create a permanent state of panic, and we are awash in the new constantly now.
The episode spent much of its time just trying to define terms. Doxxing. SWATing. The DarkNet. Noobs. If you're already familiar with that subculture, it felt like they were overdoing it, but again… imagine your grandmother watching the episode, trying to make sense of any of this. My first takeaway from seeing the episode's set-up is that this really is one of the stupidest low-stakes fights ever. The people who are determined to do… whatever the hell it is the primary engineers of Gamergateare determined to do… are poorly organized, unable to articulate anything beyond sloganeering, and more than anything else, embarrassing. From the outside, this looks like a bunch of babies throwing their toys out of the crib because someone put a girl in there with them. It is pathetic, and it makes gaming look like a pastime only for losers and social misfits. They are the dark, unfocused, immature shadow of Anonymous, an organization that has used similar tactics, but focused on genuine social injustices.
"But that's just how the show portrayed them!" you might say. Sure. But again… "Law & Order" is coming at this from the outside. This is what the mainstream takes away from all of this. And here's where I feel like the episode goes really wrong and then becomes actively inflammatory. It's one thing to take on the conscious, although anonymous, behaviors of the Gamergate movement. It's another thing entirely to then make the jump to gamers running around with real guns killing people because they can't tell what's real and what isn't. This is the same spurious connection that people have tried to push onto videogames for years, and what gamers need to realize is that it doesn't matter if the connection is real or if it isn't. Once the mainstream media makes that connection, it becomes very, very difficult to shake. And when you're using threatening language and rape threats and calling in the bomb squad, you're creating an irresistible and morally inarguable target. You make it easy for people who want to ban certain kinds of games to connect dots that shouldn't be connected. You have become the worst case scenario, and so that's all people will see now. And don’t tell me “But I’m not one of those gamers.” Try telling that to those three Muslims who died in Chapel Hill this week. I’m sure they weren’t “those” kinds of Muslims, but once rage has picked a target, rational thought frequently goes out the window.
Sure, this is just one episode of a show that is basically limping along in its final seasons. But the attitude that the show displayed towards these events is enlightening, and I would say that it doesn't matter what side of the debate you're on… the damage has been done, and it is very real. Gaming is suspect again, maybe more so than ever before. And when all is said and done, people will look for targets for their rage, and they'll continue to focus it on Zoe Quinn or Anita Sarkeesian or various blogs or websites, and they'll continue to avoid the mirror, afraid to acknowledge that the real harm that has been done to gaming was done by gaming. Not every gamer was part of Gamergate, obviously, and not even a majority were. I am a gamer. I love modern video games, and I think there is a great conversation to be had about where they can go in the future. But by allowing Gamergate a platform and treating them like they had a credible argument, all gamers have presented something so ugly to society that of course there will be a reaction.
And we have no one to blame but ourselves.