On Gamers, Culture, and #GamerGate

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This is an editorial piece. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of, and should not be attributed to, Niche Gamer as an organization.

In the world of the modern tree model, the surface outer layer is determined by the deep inner layer, but in the world of the postmodern database model, the surface outer layer is not determined by the deep inner layer; the surface reveals different expressions at those numerous moments of “reading up.”

-Hiroki Azuma

Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals

What is GamerGate?

The cultural phenomenon that has come to be known as GamerGate, is a complex, sometimes infuriating, and almost universally misunderstood event. The one thing commentators have correctly identified, is that it is a culture clash between two different groups, one that sees themselves as progressive, and portrays the other as regressive, and another that sees themselves as having no ideology. However, what has been consistently misinterpreted is the actual philosophical and political underpinnings of the conflict.

I found it somewhat baffling myself, until I read this article.

Once I understood the perceived truths of the author of that article, the entire framework of the conflict became crystal clear. What is actually at issue here, is not ideology at all; it is a struggle between modernity, and postmodernity, where neither side accurately self identifies their place in the conflict. The assumptions, of course, are that the self-proclaimed progressives are the agents of change, attempting to modernize the status quo of the culture, and the people pushing back against the change must then be regressive defenders of the status quo. In a way that is correct. However, where it all gets very tangled, is that the alleged progressives are in fact cultural throwbacks, decades late to attempting to modernize an already thoroughly postmodern culture.

Modernism, Postmodernism, and Narrative

At this point I should note that it would probably be helpful to have a working knowledge of Otsuka Eiji’s Theory of Narrative Consumption as well as Hiroki Azuma’s excellent examination of Otaku Culture that I quoted in the opening, however, I will try to discuss this without going too deep into the weeds. It would also be helpful to know the difference between postmodernity (a description of a state of culture) and postmodernism (a school of thought), but explaining that would be a long article unto itself.

I do think before going any farther down this path, it would be helpful to define some language.

Modernity, in the simplest terms, is History. It is the conflict of grand narratives that shaped the lives of the citizens of the 20th century. Systems of government, national identities, religions, racial and tribal identities, mythologies; these are the social realities that shape history, the grand narratives that define modernity. In a modern culture, all meaning flows out from the grand narrative like a tree, each branch being a new interpretation, and each leaf being an idea. All experience, all knowledge, all understanding flows back to the trunk of the grand narrative, and all reality is understood through the social agreement of which grand narrative to apply.

Postmodernity, however, Jean Baudrillard points out, is where grand narrative breaks down, replaced instead by a system of small narratives, combining and intermingling to take the place of the defunct grand narrative, and creating meaning, not from a hierarchical dogma, but from personal mythology built from the found intellectual objects of society, recombined, recontextualized, and given new meaning in their use, rather than meaning being handed down from a grand narrative. Postmodernity is slang, the mash-up, the in joke, the meme, rather than the sermon, the dissertation, the lecture, or the speech, which defined the truth of modernity. As Hiroki aptly describes it, if modernity can be viewed as a tree of grand narrative, then postmodernity is best viewed as a database of small narratives.

Gamer Culture

As Hiroki notes, Otaku Culture is not a product of Japanese Culture, it is a product of Western Popular Culture, overlaid on Japanese Culture. Western Popular Culture being pretty much the perfect example of a postmodern culture devoid of grand narrative. However, even deeper than that, you have Gamer Culture, a culture so intertwined and informed by Otaku Culture, as to make the two at many points indistinguishable and interchangeable, even across national boundaries. In fact, at the core of this very dispute, are the various chans. In Japan is 2ch, the heart of Otaku Culture, and in the West, there is 4chan (copied directly from 2ch), and now 8chan (actually partnered with 2ch). From this perspective, I would argue that all of Hiroki’s observations of the nature of Otaku Culture are equally applicable to Gamer Culture.

And this, is the beginning of the misunderstanding that is GamerGate. Much ink has been spilled, if you will forgive the anachronistic rhetorical flourish, about the validity, or invalidity of Gamer Culture. Williams, Hendricks and Winkler had their interpretation of Gamer Culture, Adrienne Shaw had her objections to Gamer Culture,  and Dan Golding had his outright dismissal of Gamer Culture. I would argue, however, that all of these people insisted on understanding Gamer Culture through modernist grand narrative, rather than, like Hiroki or Otsuka, recognizing its postmodernity.

As Hiroki argues, Otaku Culture finds meanings not from the grand narratives of modernity, but from cultural mythologies created on the fly though the combination and recontextualisation of ‘database objects’ taken from consumed narratives, and repurposed as a substitute for grand narrative. In this way, through reducing the consumed narrative to a system of objects, and recombining and reusing the objects, they become a simulacra stripped of their intended meaning, and assigned new meaning by the culture. Through successive iterations these create deep cultural meanings, inaccessible to those attempting to “read up” the surface layer, without understanding the deeper cultural database on which the simulacra are based. Practical examples of this behavior are readily available at sites such as Know Your Meme.

What is important to understand about this process, is that the narrative is not being consumed as a grand narrative, but rather as a source of new objects to be appropriated and employed in the creation of new simulacra. Thus you have consumption as a way to acquire new narrative elements, rather than as a way to consume and assimilate entire narratives. Those elements are then incorporated into the underlying database, which is then expressed on the surface layer in different ways depending on the context. This underlying database, is what comprises the culture, and it is a postmodern culture, devoid of grand narratives like Ideology or Religion, which is exactly how Gamers are able to interact as a culture, despite completely different views on topics like this.

Put more plainly, Gamer Culture is not a culture in the modern sense, of a set of shared ideologies, beliefs and morals, but in the postmodern sense of a shared reality of contextual elements, and language for expressing and reusing those elements in meaningful and transformative ways, that speak to the cultural gestalt of the participants.

Critical Theory, Social Justice and Grand Narrative.

By contrast, the self-proclaimed progressives dismissing Gamers, are thoroughly modern.  They firmly believe in the grand narrative of Social Justice, and are so strictly ideological, that they cannot imagine anyone motivated by anything but grand narrative. They evaluate the small narratives consumed by Gamers, through the lens of Critical Theory, an intellectual tool that pretends to be postmodernism, but was actually conceived as, and to this day is used for, the creation of grand narrative to create social change. Critical Theory employs postmodernist thought, in the service of very modern goals. It is beyond a shadow of a doubt that, like all modern thinkers, they believe their grand narrative is the path to a better world, and the creation of the correct History. However it is also beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they can only experience truth as defined by their grand narrative, and suffer under the burden of the creation of new History, to which they believe there are “right” and “wrong” sides. It is a grand narrative of oppression, power, prejudice, and privilege, where all interactions must in some way fit the narrative, or be made to fit the narrative, before they can be understood.

Put simply, like all believers in modern grand narratives, they think they are doing what is best for all of humanity, and therefore anyone not helping them, or standing in their way, is hurting all humanity.

And so the Conflict Begins

All of this preamble, was unfortunately necessary, because no conflict can be understood, without understanding where the participants are coming from. The useful thing about understanding where the participants are coming from though, is it becomes quite easy to then understand the nature of the conflict. This conflict is actually quite simple to understand, once you realize it is a fight between modernity and postmodernity.

From the Gamer point of view: A group is coming in and trying to invalidate their entire culture, by corrupting their database of postmodern simulacra, and all the millions of small narratives intertwined in that database, and the nuanced meanings they are able to “read up” at the surface layer, and replace it with the modern monolithic grand narrative of Social Justice. This literally would be a complete destruction of self for the Gamers, who have contextually moved passed modern concepts of grand narrative, and embraced postmodern culture.

From the point of view of the self-proclaimed progressives: They can only recognize the surface layer of Gamer Culture, and see nothing but frivolous pop culture detritus, with no inherent meaning other than that which they derive from their grand narrative of Social Justice. Where the Gamers (or Otaku) see, even if only subconsciously, a rich set of contextual clues and meanings to the Moe elements of a character, the supposed progressives see only an unrealistic and sexist depiction of a woman. Their modern view, precludes them from comprehending, or even recognizing, the dual-layer nature of the postmodern Gamer database culture, thus they predictably seek to wipe away the frivolous and offensive garbage, and plant their tree of grand narrative.

Where the vitriolic reactions come in, is of course the eternal failing of modernity, and why it was largely left behind by the Western world. Those operating under grand narrative, see it everywhere, and can’t not see it. As a result, when a group refuses to accept their grand narrative, they have no choice, they don’t even have a conceptual framework to process anything but that those refusing are opposing them. The very concept of rejecting the grand narrative, because it is grand narrative, is alien to them. To those committing History, you are either part of the problem, or part of the solution. There is no “just not play the game.” There is no option to just say “no thank you” and continue to collect your small narratives and add them to the database, abstaining from participating in, or embracing, any grand narrative.

Their grand narrative renders them incapable of understanding that there are other modes of human thought, aside from beating each other over the head with tomes of dogma. Anyone who rejects their dogma, they will happily project their “enemy’s” dogma upon, because in a modern culture, there are only allies, enemies, or those who have not yet chosen a side. You see this time and time again in the article I linked at the very beginning. Thus, all Gamers become misogynists, monsters, racists, bigots, because why else could you possibly have a problem with Social Justice? You either believe in Social Justice, or you want to stop Social Justice. There is no option, from their modern view, that Social Justice is just another narrative of millions, that you choose not to consume.

And that, is where we find ourselves stuck now, just waiting for the modern thinkers to either evolve into the 21st century, give up and go away, or eventually amass enough power and righteousness to convert or kill all us postmodern heretics, as people trying to make History are known to do in the modern era.