pop culture

Why we need to talk and keep talking about #GamerGate

I figured if I was going to post a picture of video games, I’d kick it old school. Photo by Kari Sullivan. Used under cc license.

I originally thought about starting this post off with an apology. The #GamerGate controversy has been going on for a while at this point and I had yet to post about it. Furthermore, when I saw a few other bloggers writing posts about it, I had a passing thought of, “Well, then it’s covered” and went back to grading papers, planning lessons, or whatever it is that I was doing. Then I read John Spencer’s recent post as well as the comments on the post and realized that was the wrong approach, too.

Both John and Audrey Watters approached the issue succinctly and eloquently and I encourage anyone reading this post to read those two posts first. But put simply, the issues at hand are those of the threats made against Anita Sarkeesian, who has been not just criticized for her series of videos, “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” but received rape and death threats as well as cancelled a speaking engagement at a university because extra security couldn’t be provided when someone threatened a mass shooting due to Utah’s concealed-carry laws.

Audrey and John both call out the educational technology community for their silence and rightfully so, pointing out how it’s an issue that goes beyond the niche of gamers, especially at a time when “Gamification” is still an edu-buzzword and online learning platforms are being marketed to children as young as preschool.

Audrey’s post does not have comments (at least not ones I could find), but John’s does and they are typical of the type of anonymous trolling this issue has been receiving. A quick sample (Note: they’re all anonymous, so I’m not sure if they are one person or many people):

Maybe the edutech circles aren’t talking about it because they know its not a big deal outside of the militant feminist circles.

The writer wants to take away “neutral spaces” on the internet so they can be policed by an authority. fascism? I’d love to see the objective research done on that. Basically you want to push an agenda without recourse.

Advocating censorship in the guise of concern, the girls I knew never needed to be babied.

You admit that you’re not a gamer so why are you writing about something you don’t even understand?

Some of these completely miss the point of John’s post and others are trying to deflect from the issue. He was questioning why Important Connected Educators and Education Social Media Icons were not addressing this when it clearly is an issue that hits home with a number of students; furthermore, not saying anything about it shows that they are living in an #edtech bubble wherein being online is a happy place where ideas are free to flow without consequence or repercussion.

All is well. Move along. Nothing to see here.

And like I said at the top of this post, I was silent on this until I read John’s post and thought about a few things:

1. Anita Sarkeesian has been dealing with this for two years and has not backed down. When she was seeking funding for her series of videos via Kickstarter, the Kickstarter campaign was similarly trolled and similar threats were made. I actually wrote about it back then in a post called “When the Authentic Audience is a Hostile Audience.” And I’m not saying that to promote my own stuff, but to point out that the whole controversy surrounding Sarkeesian and #GamerGate is not brand new, nor was it ever brand new.

2. While I’m not a gamer myself, I’m a geek. A comic and pop culture geek, to be exact. A month and a half ago, I attended the Baltimore Comic-Con and while the convention was awesome and a great atmosphere, the organizers of the con felt the need to clearly post a policy that read “Cosplay Is Not Consent.” This is in response to stories out of quite a number of comic conventions where women who have dressed up in superhero costumes have found themselves sexually harassed (or worse).

3. On Saturday, while I was getting ready for dinner, the local news here in Charlottesville tweeted that a press conference would be held at 5:30 to discuss a body found on a farm south of town and how that related to missing University of Virginia student Hannah Graham. While an announcement has been made that the Graham investigation is now a death investigation, a suspect is in custody (and has been indicted on a separate sexual assault and attempted murder in Fairfax County), as of this writing the police have not announced the results of lab tests that are currently being run on the body.

So wait, if #GamerGate has to do with video games, why am I bringing up cosplay and Hannah Graham? They’re not connected, are they?

Or are they?

Table any discussion you’d like to have about ethics in video game journalism or the specific video games and tropes that Sarkeesian is talking about in her video series. Both are topics that are worth the discussion and whether or not Sarkeesian is right about what she’s saying in terms of women and entertainment can be debated; in fact, I’m sure she’d welcome a civil debate.

But let’s make one thing clear: rape threats are not civil debate. Threats of violence are not civil debate. Death threats are not civil debate. Sarkeesian is not being “too sensitive” and neither are any of the other bloggers or tweeters who have shared their disgust with the way she’s been treated and threatened.

Of course, I’m not the first person to say this, so why did I finally write this post? Because when I watched John’s post go down in the flames of trolls, I realized that it doesn’t matter if I’m being timely or relevant here; it matters that I’m opening my mouth.

I am a man who is currently raising a boy. I want that boy to grow up to be a strong man who treats his fellow human beings with respect. I do not want him to see an inequality between men and women because I do not believe in inequality between men and women–don’t get me wrong, it certainly exists in our society, but I refuse to contribute to or perpetuate it. I want him to know that violence against anyone is wrong and that rape is a horrible, disgusting, vile act and that to be the better man means not to be the louder man but to be the smarter man, to speak with intelligence and understanding, act with respect and empathy, and give help to those who need it.

And that is the conversation we need to be having in the Connected Educator circles. How do you teach young boys and men not to grow up to make rape threats against a woman because she has said something they don’t like? How do you teach them that just because she has a different anatomical makeup it doesn’t mean she is weaker or somehow lesser? How do you teach them that because she’s wearing a certain outfit, it doesn’t mean that she “wants it?”

When are we going to have that #edchat? When are Innovative Educators everywhere going to talk about that? When are the Education Social Media Icons going to stand up, look around and say, “This is wrong and we need to talk about it?”

I am writing this to add my voice to the myriad others who have said the same thing. And when this post goes down in flames, I will continue to say what I’m saying and I will try and pass the baton to someone else who will write the same thing.

And I want them to do the same.

And I want the next person to do the same.

And the next.

And the next.

This is not a news cycle. This will not end. If it’s not #GamerGate, it’s a football team in Ohio. If it’s not cosplay, it’s a coed in Charlottesville. And it’s bullshit.

This is supposed to be a community and clearly there is a segment of the community that feels that it is not being heard, that it is being ignored, or maybe even worse. Be a true community. Make the next #edchat about this topic and this topic alone. No putting it up for a vote against the usual topics of professional development or formative assessment or teacher dress code (and no, I don’t want to suggest a topic or moderate myself–you should be doing it without me writing about it, that’s my point). You want to truly be an Innovative Educator? Go online and interrupt the bumper sticker sayings that people retweet at an expotential rate with a serious discussion of how to talk to our fellow teachers and our students about what goes on. You want to be an Educational Social Media Icon? Make that the topic of your next widely read, Bammy-nominated blog post. You want to stand for Student Voice? Spend an hour chatting about how you are helping your fellow students overcome bigotry, misogyny, harrassment, threats, and violence.

Take this issue head on. Take it and don’t stop. Shout down the trolls. Encourage, help, and support those who feel victimized, whether it be online or in the hallways at school to stand up for themselves. If you don’t, you’re as out of touch with students as you claim teachers are.


But Trust Me on the Sunscreen


One of the hardest things to teach, at least I have found, is “funny.” Watching my fair share of stand-up comedy and having taught satire to English classes, I know how hard comedians and satirists work to perfect their craft (and if you don’t, listen to Marc Maron’s WTF podcast), and I also know that when you are trying to introduce something like satire–wtih all of its nuances–it often falls flat because sometimes students do not get hte jokes or even take the satire at face value, and if you have to explain said jokes, they aren’t really that funny anymore.

Such is the case with Mary Schmich’s 1997 op-ed for The Chicago Tribune  “Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young.” Schmich, her tongue firmly planted in her cheek, offers her audience a send-up of the standard commencement address. She begins by essentially stating her purpose, saying:

inside every adult lurks a graduation speaker dying to get out, some world-weary pundit eager to pontificate on life to young people who’d rather be Rollerblading. Most of us, alas, will never be invited to sow our words of wisdom among an audience of caps and gowns, but there’s no reason we can’t entertain ourselves by composing a Guide to Life for Graduates. I encourage anyone over 26 to try this and thank you for indulging my attempt …


She then indulges herself, offering advice that is sometimes witty but meant to reflect the trite sort of advice given to students who are sweating out on football fields in multi-colored polyester, waiting to go to the first post-graduation party. The one thing she insists that rings true is this piece of advice: wear sunscreen. Now, if this seems familiar to you as a reader, then you are probably familiar with the spoken-word song with accompanying music video, “Everybody’s Free (to Wear Sunscreen),” which was produced by Australian movie director Baz Lurhman, which adapts all but the beginning of Schmich’s piece into a fake graduation speech for the class of 1999. As he doles out advice, there is text, photography, and video animation that while it predates YouTube by about four years, still would probably go viral today because it uses elements not unfamiliar to today’s YouTube amateurs. In fact, this video kind of stems from Schmick’s piece going viral without her realizing it.

Around the time of the song’s release in spring 1999, the text of “Everybody’s Free” sans intro and author identity was making the rounds on the Internet via the old standby of an email forward (this was probably around the time when those things were still effective and not what your mother and only your mother seems to send on to her entire address book every chance she gets), and some versions of it attributed the text to Kurt Vonnegut–specifically, a speech he supposedly gave at MIT. I’m not sure who attributed this to Vonnegut or why that person thought he gave the speech at MIT; perhaps he or she thought it was kooky enough for a Vonnegut speech.

To his credit, Luhrman, who first read the piece via its viral incarnation, took the time to get permission from Schmick to use her text and she gets a songwriting credit on his album. Furthermore, the video reflects her tongue-in-cheek tone. The images are meant to make you chuckle, and the framing around the advice to wear sunscreen is obviously meant to be a silly overall point. And I’m sure that a number of teenagers got the joke, too, when they saw it on MTV (and this is another historical note: in 1999, MTV was still showing videos).

My students obviously got it when we read the piece and watched the video, and as I was covering it, I got the impression that they understood it for what it was intended–a chuckle over a morning cup of coffee and not much more. And the lesson I was using it in was a “one and done” anwyay: we were in the midst of a creative project where they could write and perform anything they wanted (I called it “open mic night”) and this was among a few selections that we read and watched as a way to illustrate how performance can affect a piece. It was also a good tool for a quick and dirty introduction to satire itself–because it’s not only obvious that Schmich is making fun of graduation speakers (and adults who dispense advice), but it’s relevant. My students may have even been to a few graduation ceremonies already but they more than likely will wind up listening to some adult dispense pretty useless advice at a ceremony at one point in their lives. So yeah, we can all laugh at it (“It’s funny because it’s true”).

As an interesting personal postscript to this, I am a card-carrying member of the class of 1999, having graduated from Loyola College in Maryland (now Loyola University Maryland) that May. Our commencement address was given by NBC News’s Andrea Mitchell, who did what too many people tend to do with stuff liket his–pass the joke on. I don’t remember too much of her actual speech, but I do remember her opening witha mention of the song/video (which was climbing the charts) and closing with the same “wear sunscreen” joke. Unfortunately, being that there is a law of diminishing returns on jokes, it was met with a half-chuckle and some quiet groans fromt he mostly hungover crowd. Mitchell obviously got the joke, although I am sure that there were plenty who didn’t get it because satire, like intelligence, can often be just wasted on the dumb.