Last Wednesday, I was front row center for a rare treat: I watched one of my favorite shows of all time —“Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” — embarrass itself covering the GamerGate controversy.
The “Intimidation Game” episode begins with a decent representation of a gaming expo. A female game exhibitor is harassed by two skinny white dudes, who follow her to a bathroom and assault her. When one of the SVU detectives asks her what happened, she tells the cop “they leveled up” before the trademark “Law and Order” theme music plays.
That’s when I threw a full carton of chow mein at the TV.
You’ve got to be kidding me. No one talks like that — ever — especially moments after being sexually assaulted. The episode — what I could see of it between the greasy noodles — then spirals into an out-of-control trainwreck of various stereotypes, misconceptions and outright lies about gamers and video game culture.
I can take all that. I’ve seen it before in primetime TV and beyond. But what I found truly heinous was the message it sends to women in the gaming industry that are already under constant attack.
In the episode, a young woman is developing a game. She faces a series of online threats and abuses clearly based on the GamerGate movement, which is a fairly large group of mostly young, white guys attempting to force outspoken women out of game development and journalism through horrible abuse campaigns.
The central character seems based on the two main GamerGate targets: independent game developer Zoe Quinn and media critic Anita Sarkeesian. The character is accused of sleeping her way to her position and is the victim of unending waves of cyber attacks.
The episode soon ratchets this scenario up for dramatic effect. The developer is kidnapped and tortured by gamers who “can’t tell the difference between a game and reality.” That is the laziest excuse for human behavior ever, by the way. I discussed it with a colleague at GamesBeat, and we, in our years of playing and writing about games, have never heard anyone say, or even imply, that they didn’t know a game from real life.
Eventually, the cops save the woman. And she quits. She gazes into the distance and utters something like, “Women in gaming — what did I expect?”
Right, because that’s a good message to send to millions of primetime viewers, many of whom probably love games. Women should know better than to design video games.
I actually learned of the episode from Quinn’s Twitter account. At 7:11 p.m., she tweeted: “I don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t ‘Law and Order’ telling me to give up.”
The faux developer was kidnapped and tortured for dramatic effect in “Intimidation Game.” As far as I know, the GamerGate threats haven’t escalated that far. So maybe the writers thought that if anyone went through such a violent ordeal, they’d quit their jobs.
I suppose that’s fair. But it still rubbed me in all the wrong places. It was just lazy. It took a very important topic — the unending, unmerciful abuse of young women in gaming — and ruined it. “SVU” could have been miles ahead of the curve of network TV by being the first to accurately and tactfully handle an ongoing campaign of online hate, but instead opted to muddy it up so badly with dramatics and tired gaming stereotypes that no one could possibly equate it to a real problem without prior knowledge.
The episode does bring to light several real issues. The protagonist is “swatted,” a very real trend in which someone — typically a person broadcasting online — has their local police called out to their home on a fake report of a serious crime. Often local SWAT teams respond, hence the name. In fact, a man named Brandon Wilson was arrested in Las Vegas this week for allegedly swatting someone.
This week’s “SVU” also brings attention — in its own misguided way — to a culture of online abuse that exists and thrives today. That’s probably a good thing in the long run.
I still can’t shake the feeling that this episode set the mainstream public’s perception of game culture back a decade.
It blames the actions of evil men on a video game. Why do they need a reason? People do horrible things all the time; why does the violent game have to “make” them do it? I believe this dramatization lets the actual GamerGate thugs off the hook. Someone might watch this and think GamerGaters are just misguided by a big, bad game.
I think we deserved better than 10 minutes of researched game industry dramatization flanked on all sides by tired, unimaginative garbage.