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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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle