The “Law & Order franchise,” b. 1990, has basically lived through every major development in modern computing. It was there for the rise of the blocky personal computer — for the mainstreaming of the “World Wide Web” — for the eventual adoption of laptops, smartphones and streaming TV, where millions of people now watch it.
It makes sense, then, that when “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” airs Wednesday night on NBC, it’ll take on one of the more salient Internet narratives of the past year: Gamergate. The highly public and often scary harassment campaign against women in the gaming industry — which began in August, peaked in late October and has receded, unwillingly, ever since — has become a lightening rod for issues such as inclusion, diversity and speech online.
[Explainer: The only guide to Gamergate you’ll ever need to read]
In a preview posted to YouTube last week, detectives from New York’s special victims squad investigate the case of Raina Punjabi, a female game developer receiving graphic, anonymous online threats. Punjabi, with her hoop earrings and forthright manner, is an unsubtle stand-in for feminist game critic Anita Sarkeesian. And the evidence that SVU combs through — Photoshopped images of Punjabi’s bruised face, death and rape threats, promises to phone in fake SWAT tips — are, per a theatrical voiceover, “ripped from the headlines,” too.
But “SVU” isn’t sticking strictly to the Gamergate script, as the fine people of the comments have thoughtfully noted. (By “fine,” of course, I mean “terrible,” and by “thoughtful” I mean … the opposite.) While Sarkeesian did receive hundreds of well-documented threats — enough that the FBI opened an investigation — most of them were neither quite so specific nor quite so actionable as the ones quoted in the “SVU” clip. And Sarkeesian was, of course, never kidnapped and held hostage by some mask-wearing psycho, as a brief second preview seems to suggest.
“ ‘Law & Order’s’ ‘ripped from the headlines’ approach is a double-edged sword,” said Jeff Thompson, an artist and professor who spent years documenting the show’s coverage of technology. “It lets the show reflect our fears and fascinations almost as they happen but it also has to twist those real events to work in a 42-minute prime-time crime drama.”
“I haven’t seen the [Gamergate] episode,” Thompson continued, “but even though the show is probably not going to reference doxing or 4chan, ‘Law & Order’ can be a useful lens for how the average American is likely to see issues like these.”
How does the average American see Gamergate, six months on? According to “Law & Order,” at least, like a menacing, high-tech fever dream — which should surprise nobody.
But more telling, I think, are the attempts the show runners made to dramatize Gamergate and raise its stakes. The show (and, presumably, its middle-American audience) are not content with threats and specters alone; there has to be an abduction inspired by a violent game, a captor wearing a ski mask, a mysterious hacker-y broadcast.
Online harassment is bad and scary, in other words, but it’s not bad and scary enough. Unless it happens in real life — unless there are actual bodies and blood — it’s all just an Internet fiction. A game, so to speak.
“You know,” wrote a fairly typical YouTube commenter, “I think they are marketing this as an episode that shows these professional victims what it is like if they really WERE attacked for being a female gamer or game dev, which, of course, they [were] not.”
That attitude is insidious, of course, because it plays into a greater framework that plays down victims and their concerns. It’s a critical hurdle in addressing and overcoming widespread online harassment, whether in the legal system — where victims are frequently told to “get off the computer” or “ignore it” — or on social platforms, such as Twitter, where chief executive Dick Costolo acknowledged only last week that harassment is a real issue.
Even in the preview, Detective Olivia Benson demands, “how is this SVU-related?”
That said, crime procedurals in general — and “Law and Order,” in particular — have a long history of probing the technophobias of their moment. Just in October, “SVU” took on the case of Belle Knox, the college student who turned to online porn to pay for her tuition. (In a follow-up essay for xoJane, Knox wrote that she was happy with how the show adapted her story.) Long before that, “Law & Order’s” various spin-offs, franchises and spiritual descendents — because let’s face it, every crime and legal drama owes something to “Law & Order” — had tackled everything from Internet celebrity and violent video games to hacking, Bitcoin, Second Life and Reddit’s Boston bombing witch hunt.
These depictions aren’t always accurate, mind you; in fact, they’re frequently pretty absurd. But taken together, Thompson argues, “Law & Order’s” takes on technology make a compelling cultural artifact — a narrative on how we feel about the Internet. It was so compelling to Thompson, in fact, that in 2012 he applied for a grant to document every computer that appeared on-screen over the show’s 20-year history. (As he found out after winning the grant, there are 2,500 of them.)
“Over its run,” Thompson said, “’Law & Order’ has shown us a reflection not so much of the promise of the Internet, or even its real problems, but how we have seen it over the last 20 years as a powerful space to be wary of.”
So, when Wednesday night’s Gamergate-themed show airs, it won’t necessarily say much about Gamergate, as such. But it will speak volumes about how Americans are grappling with issues, such as online threats, female harassment, doxing and the Dark Web.
“Ever since the swatting went viral, I’ve been called the face of women in gaming,” the Sarkeesian character says in the preview clip. “. . . I’m [not] showing the world I’m intimidated by cyberterrorists.”
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