The country's leading game industry group weighed in Wednesday on a roiling culture battle that's rocked the gaming world for months. Known as "Gamergate," the controversy -- ostensibly over ethics in gaming journalism, but used as a vehicle to lash out against women in the gaming industry -- has shone a spotlight on the ugliest part of gaming culture.
The controversy, which stemmed from questions over whether a female developer's relationship with a male game journalist influenced coverage of her game, has expanded in a full-blown firestorm. What began as calls for journalistic integrity turned ugly in social media and gaming trade sites. It's gotten so serious that three women associated with the industry have been forced to leave their homes due to threats. And media critic Anita Sarkeesian -- who left her home after her criticism of the industry's depiction of women prompted violent threats this summer -- said Tuesday that she would cancel a speech at Utah State University after someone threatened a shooting at the event.
That prompted the the nation's top trade group for video game companies to speak out Wednesday. “Threats of violence and harassment are wrong," said a spokesman for the Entertainment Software Association in a statement. "They have to stop. There is no place in the video game community—or our society—for personal attacks and threats.”
It's a simple statement. But it indicates just how seriously the gaming industry is working to break free of the worst stereotypes of its community. Game culture is, no doubt, changing. The ESA now boasts that women comprise nearly 50 percent of its audience. The push toward mobile gaming, in particular, has expanded the industry's audience at a faster rate than ever before. The Gamergate controversy has drawn attention to the worst kind of video game player -- misogynistic, violent and reactionary.
In other words, exactly the kind of player that the industry no longer wishes to be the face of the industry.
Kate Edwards, the executive director of the International Game Developers Association, has been a vocal supporter of Sarkeesian and of the two other women who've been threatened the most, developers Zoe Quinn and Brianna Wu. The gaming industry has taken broad steps to be more inclusive and supportive of women in the industry. But, she said, even with those efforts, some of the games the industry produces still heavily courts the type of gamer that it says it's trying to distance itself from.
"The industry has catered to that [demographic] in their marketing," she said. "This group is out of touch. The whole community, the world around them has changed, but they think that's not the case."
School shootings over the past several years may have also pushed the industry group's hand. Rightly or wrongly, the video game industry has been blamed for fostering a violent culture that appeals to troubled individuals looking to take cues from blockbuster titles such as "Call of Duty" or "Grand Theft Auto." After the elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn. in 2012, several lawmakers called for government research into the connection between virtual and real-world violence. Studies, meanwhile, have shown violent games can increase aggression, but have found no causal link between violent action and video game use.
In an e-mail to students, Utah State University said that Sarkeesian was particularly concerned about "the fact that state law prevented the university from keeping people with a legal concealed firearm permit from entering the event." Sarkeesian said on Twitter that she asked for extra security measures in light of the threat but the university deemed her request was not in keeping with the state's gun policies.
Edwards said, sadly, she was not surprised by the level that these threats have reached, but noted that quelling the debate about gaming runs contrary to the very heart of what the critics of women such as Sarkeesian, Quinn and Wu say they're trying foster.
"The irony of this movement is that they want journalistic integrity, but are looking to squash the voices of women at all costs," Edwards said. "The logic is completely lacking."
She added that the Gamergate incidents, as well as the stories of sexism in the industry described by many female game developers, have spurred some women to tell Edwards that they're thinking about leaving the industry or discouraging their daughters from working in it. That, Edwards said, signals to her that more major game studios and publishers need to speak out in solidarity for the developers who have been harassed.
"We've fought so hard to get women into this industry," Edwards said. "One nice effect of this sad event is that it's tied developers together. We need to be better at supporting each other not just during events like this, but all the time."
Sarkeesian, for her part, made very clear that while she canceled her talk, she was not bowing to the threats.