#Gamergate: we must fight for the right to fantasise
The war on violent videogames is a war on the freedom of thought itself.
Not content with curbing our speech and monitoring our thoughts, the self-elected morality police now want to colonise our fantasy lives. That deepest part of an individual’s mind – the bit where he lets his thoughts run riot, fantasising about saying and doing things he would never say or do in real life – is being encroached upon. Having cleansed the public realm of offensive ideas, the speech-watchers and image-policers now want to cleanse men’s very souls, removing from them any twisted or warped or simply daft fantasy that doesn’t pass muster with those of a PC bent. Just look at the #Gamergate controversy.
#Gamergate is the name given to a furious online battle that has been raging since August 2014 and which, like most internet spats, is too complicated and too depressing to describe in great detail. In a nutshell, some people, including a new breed of socially aware female gamer-cum-commentator, feel that videogames are misogynistic and hateful, while others, including slightly nerdish male gamers whose joysticks are like a fifth limb, think videogames are fine and dandy and shouldn’t be socially-critiqued out of existence by feminists, broadsheet handwringers, or anyone else. This latter group has surprised everyone by refusing to cave in to the Culture War being waged against them and their favourite pastime – as everyone from Dapper Laughs to the Barbican has recently done in response to loud but unrepresentative cries of ‘You can’t say that!’ – and instead standing up for their right to shoot and beat up anyone they damn well please in the recesses of their own minds and the privacy of their own bedrooms. The gamers are, in essence, fighting for the right to fantasise, to think about doing things that they would never actually do.
To see how much the censorious anti-gamer side is attempting to conquer and remake fantasy life itself, consider last week’s successful campaign to have Grand Theft Auto V withdrawn from sale in certain shops in Australia. Alarmed that players of GTA can, if they wish, attack and kill prostitutes – as well as rob banks, steal cars, kill police officers, take drugs, and do lots of other fun stuff – the new videogame moralists have slammed it as ‘violently misogynistic’. They petitioned Aussie branches of Target, the department store, to take GTA off their shelves on the basis that it’s a ‘sickening game’ that ‘encourages players to commit sexual violence and kill women’. Outrageously, Target kowtowed, and now Oz patrons of that store won’t have the option to put what is by all accounts a brilliant game into a loved one’s Christmas stocking. But what is most striking about this outburst of moralistic censorship is the way the shrill opponents of GTA have described the game’s entirely fantasy world – as an unacceptable place that must be policed by outsiders.
So one of the organisers of the petition, which got nearly 50,000 signatures, says she used to work in the sex trade, and therefore ‘in Grand Theft Auto…I would have been the character who gets left by the sidewalk, bleeding and unconscious’. She talks about the characters in GTA as if they were real people suffering real violence, claiming that she suffered abuse while working in prostitution though it was ‘not as extreme as [that suffered by] those in the game’. What is she talking about? There are no people in this game, and no one is being abused. No human beings are being harmed in the world of Grand Theft Auto because that world does not exist. She says that if she was in GTA’s fantasy world, she would be abused – well, if I was in Middle Earth I might be attacked by Orcs; if any of us human beings had the misfortune to live on the Planet of the Apes, we’d be screwed; if we lived in Oceania, we wouldn’t be able to think and say and fantasise as we saw fit in our own homes because of the Telescreen on the wall watching our every word… oh wait, that’s a bad example – that world does increasingly exist. But we really don’t have to worry about Middle Earth or the Planet of the Apes or the world of GTA because we can never go to these places on account of the fact that they exist only in words and images and people’s minds. To talk about the risks one would face in such worlds is a kind of madness, a failure to make that most basic of distinctions between reality and fantasy, between that which exists and that which does not.
It is bad enough when Victim Feminist campaigners depict the streets of London or New York City as terribly scary places for women – but to bemoan the abuse of women on the streets of GTA is just surreal, given that those streets are mere pixels, the women are just graphics, and the abuse is entirely imagined. This complaint that the fantasyland of GTA is insufficiently safe for, and too disrespectful of, prostitutes and other female characters shows how far the policing of fantasy has gone. That a game has been withdrawn from sale in an Australian department store on the grounds that its fantasy world does not adhere to the rules and laws of the real world shows that even our imaginings, our psychic lives, are no longer safe from the morality cops of the concrete worlds of intolerance, censorship and law.
The withdrawal of GTA from Australian Target stores, and the broader, thankfully struggling Culture War against misogynistic and violent videogames, is revealing for many reasons. First, it shows how seamlessly the prejudices of the right-wing, reactionary, often Christian-leaning lobbies of the 1970s and 80s have now passed on to the apparently radical feminist campaigners of today. All the same prejudices the blue-rinse brigade once came out with – that video nasties and violent videogames would transform people into hateful, marauding sociopaths – have been given a lick of feministic paint and a new lease of life. One of the first public speeches I ever gave, in 1998, was in defence of a videogame called Carmageddon, in which you were encouraged to win races through reckless, violent driving. The people complaining about that game were conservatives and right-wingers. Today, the censorious, media-effects baton has been passed from the right to those who consider themselves left, from middle-aged Home Counties women to young media feminists, but the argument has remained strikingly similar: videogames can warp minds and cause actual real-world crime.
And the second striking thing about the war on GTA and the bigger #Gamergate scandal is its intolerance of fantasy, the naked desire to stamp out, not simply words and ideas, which is terrible enough, but also, in essence, dreams. The world of fantasy is being invaded, tut-tutted over and in some cases cordoned off by the new moralists who don’t only say ‘You can’t say that!’ but also ‘You can’t imagine that!’. It isn’t only in videogames. The moral policing of culture, especially pop culture, has become weirdly and wildly fashionable in recent years. Where once it was only the most tyrannical of regimes – think the GDR’s Stasi – that monitored culture for political wrongness and rightness, now a whole new generation of activist and journalist devotes its moral energy to assessing whether culture is ‘problematic’ (their favourite word) or okay. In the blunt but apt words of the American journalist Drew Magary, there is now ‘a whole black hole of the internet that spends all day up its own ass, endlessly worried about approving of pop culture rather than actually fucking enjoying it’.
And they’re having an impact, these policers of culture and ultimately of fantasy. They’ve got GTA de-shelved in Australian shops; they’ve chilled the videogame world, no doubt encouraging games-makers to water down their fantasies; they’ve contributed to the banning of ‘problematic’ pop songs on British university campuses; they got Dapper Laughs pulled from ITV, and got comedian Daniel O’Reilly to kill off that character forever; they’ve encouraged Sweden to start rating films by whether they are gender-balanced; and they’ve kickstarted a serious debate in Europe about introducing what Nick Gillespie calls ‘an insane plan to rate video games for sexism’. Both formally and informally, using both law and threats, both demands for new legislation and mob-style uprisings, they have depicted fantasylands as places that must conform to the morals and outlook of the real world. This is a disaster. Taken seriously, it represents the death not just of gaming but of culture itself, and of freedom of thought.
This is the bottom line: we must be free to fantasise, about anything we like. It is rightly forbidden for anyone to hit a woman – but it should never be forbidden to fantasise about hitting a woman, or to write about it, or to enact it through pixels pretending to be people. Why? Because in free and democratic societies, in civilisations, we punish people for certain actions but we never punish them for their thoughts or dreams or mind experiments. This is a key Enlightenment ideal. As the great seventeenth-century English jurist Edward Coke said, in the aftermath of the soul-policing, thought-punishing Inquisition, ‘No man shall be examined upon the secret thoughts of his heart, or his secret opinion’. Well, today he is. Today, a new Inquisition is emerging, and it is examining men upon their secret thoughts, their secret opinions, their fantasies, their gaming, their very psychic existences. Don’t laugh at the so-called ‘nerds’ fighting for the right to play what you might consider to be silly or outrageous videogames, for they are instinctively defending the freedom to fantasise, which is a central part of the freedom of the mind, which is the very backbone of freedom itself.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.