The angry fundamentalists of the church of gaming

Why are gamers such an angry bunch?

I like the idea that the hate storm surrounding Anita Sarkeesian is a surprise to some people. It pleases me that there are still people in the world who possess that level of innocence, that people can still be outraged by the viciousness and ignorance that so many people take for granted when using the Internet.

Sarkeesian you see broke two rules of online communication, the first, which I don’t want to dwell on, is that she forgot to be male. If you want to express any sort of opinion without a penis to give you credibility then you are going to get a certain type of abuse from men, almost regardless of topic.

The second rule she broke however is that she poked the sacred cow, video games.

Gamers are an incredibly diverse bunch as I’m sure we all know, but like with any broad church there are going to be some people in there who are, for want of a better word, fundamentalists.

Gaming is no exception to this and in many ways gaming culture mirrors the structure of an established religion. The younger gamers are often more radical, more extreme in their views and how they express them, the fanboys and the fanatics. The games industry is itself the church, delivering the games which are to be worshipped and revered by the masses. The older generation of gamers tend to view this church with more suspicion, but most, at heart, are still believers.

The big element which links gaming culture to a religion however is just how conservative it is. A lot of gamers do not like change, they will wait like hungry dogs for the next game in a series, but they don’t want it to be too different. Just like the faithful going to church they are expecting to hear what they want to hear, nothing radical, nothing too different, but not word for word what was said last week. It is no coincidence or surprise that so many of the most successful games in recent years are sequels, giving the public more of the same.

You can see evidence of this gaming conservatism if you look at the kind of language that gamers often use to describe new games. New games are jumped upon and embraced of course, but at the same time they are often resented by the faithful. Many games, even successful ones like Skyrim and Battlefield 3, are seen as toned down and casual shadows of the tougher, less forgiving and less accessible games that we cut our teeth on. 

In the face of this orthodoxy the arrival of women on the scene, carrying with them an agenda of change, it is inevitably greeted with vitriol and anger by gamers who perceive their precious stream of the same thing as last year to be under threat. Worse it is not just the women who openly have an agenda who face this wrath; female gamers are also abused merely for the crime of being female. Female gamers are seen as harbingers of some sort of oestrogen induced end of days for gaming, a spoilt little sister who has climbed the rope ladder to our clubhouse and is intending to paint it pink.

It is this conservatism that Sarkeesian’s project confronted, a desire of many gamers to not see things changed. While it only takes a small minority to unleash the torrent of abuse she was subjected to the views held by those who abused her are not that rare, as evidenced by how often they are encountered by female gamers themselves.

This mind set is of course not common to all gamers and gaming does see radical ideas breaking out into the world on a regular basis, but it is something of a concern for anybody wanting to see the medium progress that the biggest titles are always the hardy perennials, Call of Duty, Halo, FIFA, the same Malibu Stacy as last year with a new hat.

To an extent change is already happening, Lara Croft being transformed from a heavily armed blow up doll into a relatable teenage girl wielding a bow is a laudable if clumsy step in the right direction. Of course it could also be seen as an attempt to cash in on The Hunger Games, but even that in itself shows a change in the focus of marketing. Meanwhile recent games like Duke Nukem Forever and Postal 3 which have used their misogyny and crassness as a selling point have been total failures.

Games and gaming are growing up fast and no amount of hostility and rage from the hard line gamers is going to change that.

A gamer of yesteryear. This dying breed will defend its turf to the death.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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