The “Law & Order” franchise, with its cases ripped from the headlines, is often a useful barometer of public sentiment. And so after a year in which one of the biggest culture stories was vitriolic attacks on women in video gaming, last night’s episode, “Intimidation Game,” was of particular interest. While the umbrella known as GamerGate includes some people who are primarily focused on consumer advocacy, arguing that gaming publications have grown increasingly disinterested in the mechanics of games in favor of coverage of their politics, “Intimidation Game” suggests that essentially none of that message has reached a mass audience.
The word GamerGate doesn’t appear anywhere in “Intimidation Game.” But neither does the much-mocked contention that the movement is really about ethics in gaming journalism. Instead, the story is purely about misogyny and violence.
“Intimidation Game” follows a character named Raina (Mouzam Makkar) who is preparing to launch a major new title, and has been brushing off allegations that she is only marrying her fiancé (Peter Mark Kendall) to fund the project. She refuses to be cowed by an attack on one of her employees at an e-sports championship, or even being SWAT-ed during a pre-launch interview. But the day of the rollout, she is kidnapped and sexually abused by fans of a hyper-violent first-person shooter. One of her attackers is shot during her rescue, one pleads guilty and a third is headed to trial at the end of the episode. But even with this show of law enforcement involvement and interest, Raina decides she’s done with gaming.
“Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” tends to privilege victims’ perspectives and experiences, and that set of priorities carries over into “Imitation Game.” But it’s an episode that might have benefited from closer attention to the perpetrators.
The first men we meet talk in message-board speak, telling a woman “Go home, Gamergirl,” and “Raina Punjabi only got this Feminazi game made by being a slut.” Of the men who kidnap and assault Raina, we learn only a very few things. One of them is presented, via his distraught mother and later his own words, as a guy who got too involved in his in-game friendships. The other is presented as a true radical who lured the others into his plans. But we only get a few sentences about their motivations. Veteran detective (and gamer) Fin Tutuola (Ice T) ultimately dismisses them as people who got confused about the difference between a game and real life.
This sort of justification is trotted out almost every time someone who plays video games commits an act of violence, but here, as in the real world, it feels terribly insufficient. “Intimidation Game” manages to simultaneously make the men who threaten violence against women in gaming seem much more competent than they have been in real life so far and to underrate the malevolence it takes to make someone’s life a misery for making things you don’t like, or for liking different things than the ones that mean so much to you.
In a way, the most interesting thing about the episode is Olivia Benson’s (Mariska Hargitay) position within it. As one of the original “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” detectives, Olivia was the first and most passionate voice for victims on the series. So to see her a slightly more skeptical voice in the episode is an indication of just how much sex- and gender-based violence has changed since the show has been on the air.
When she worries that her adopted son’s future is going to be “playing cyber cowboys and Indians,” Olivia sounds a little bit like a fusty culture warrior.
But more powerfully, her initial reaction speaks to the ways in which law enforcement isn’t keeping up with a new environment. “Guys, unless there’s a specific threat, there’s nothing we can do about it,” she tells the detectives she’s supervising. Later, she wants to know what the case has to do with the Special Victims Unit’s mission. It’s Dominick Carisi, Jr. (Peter Scanavino) who trolls through Internet forums and finds something actionable — and also makes clear to Olivia that this is a matter of sexual violence, rather than a mere business dispute.
(In a nice aside, the episode also has Fin express frustration with the role that the police themselves play in SWAT-ing incidents, jumping to provide an overwhelming response before assessing a reported threat.)
I can imagine the people who wrote to me last year explaining that their attraction to GamerGate stemmed from ethics and consumer issues would be frustrated with “Intimidation Game.” But there’s a strategic insight to be found behind any sense of unfairness. If this is what the public at large thinks of GamerGate, it’s time for ethics and consumer advocates to find a new label.