8 min read

When Games Play the Gamers: Social Engineering in Gaming Communities

How gamers, game developers, and gaming media are being manipulated.

Recent events in various forms of media have been both highly interesting and disturbing for various reasons. Gamergate has reached out and grabbed the attention of many involved in games, and resulted in some truly terrible things being done to more than a few people. It's been like a train wreck, the sort I've been unable to tear myself away from, and one that has been enlightening. Of course before delving into details, the obligatory disclaimer: this is my personal opinion and in no way reflects the opinion of anyone I work with.


Now that being said, some background. In addition to working on games I've got a passion for security. Starting out doing nothing but programming the two really meshed well together. As time went on I was drawn into an even more interesting aspect: the human element. Social engineering is fascinating, and it takes place far more frequently in everyday life than most people realize. It's there when you're selling your ideas, when you're shooting for that promotion, and even in those nasty emailed attachments or links. It isn't inherently good or evil, but quite often depends on how it is used.


I've personally used it on multiple occasions. To resolve workplace issues, to clean up poker tables, and even metagaming within gaming communities. Some people hate metagaming, while others view such practices as emergent gameplay which fuels much needed conflict. Needless to say, there are some lines which shouldn't be crossed (doxing for instance) when dealing with social engineering in games, but when used properly social engineering can provide a positive experience. First, I'd like to focus on one particular effect that is well known among metagamers though it is undoubtedly a topic others will be familiar with.


White-knighting. Like many other terms, the term varies dependent on the context, however the general gist is that people will flock to the defense of something regardless of the circumstance. In metagaming, it's a common practice to recruit females to work as spies or saboteurs. The essential reason, is even with insurmountable mounds of evidence, people will always flock to the defense of the agent. No matter how guilty, she's such a nice person she couldn't possibly be the spy. Anyone dissenting in opinion is often shouted down until they're ultimately silenced.


Many occurrences just like this are evident with Gamergate. Any critics are shouted down, some are threatened, others have suspicious syringes shipped to them in the mail. People are fired, or threatened to be blackballed for not conforming to a dictated opinion provided without any discussion beyond some degrading articles written by the friends of catalysts of this controversy. Some seem to be afraid to speak out, so I feel compelled to despite an active and obvious campaign to silence dissent. Placing someone on a pedestal isn't the same thing as equality. While there are valid points to be made about the ratio of female characters to male characters, this also disregards target audience. Different groups of gamers have different tastes, and there's nothing wrong with that.


Instead of focusing on positive progress however, many seem intent on destroying gamer communities, marginalizing gamers, and forcing one person's tastes on another without their consent. What is especially disturbing about the things happening, is if you've been around before gaming went mainstream, you'd already recognize that many of those gamers are gamers because they were marginalized. The very same victim blaming we wish to avoid is being used to prevent valuable discussion and feedback on the issue at hand. This detracts us from the real issue at hand. The issue of objectivity and conflicts of interest.


At the other day, generally speaking who has slept with whom is a non-issue. It's not even a public matter – except when it's a clear conflict of interest. I don't care about personal details to be completely honest, but I do care about the pattern of having relations with people in charge of awards and press. I don't care about how people interact in their relationships, but I do care that there's a rather visible trend of being less than honest or forthright. The interaction between Zoe and people such as The Fine Young Capitalists is important. I care because it highlights how much influence there is between one person, and those that should be telling stories objectively. How many women have lost a great opportunity, simply because one person didn't agree with their identity policy?


Of course, right there on the tip of the spear with Zoe is Anita Sarkeesian. Much like the fiasco surrounding Zoe, Anita's isn't very straightforward or honest either. Gaming was only targeted by her particular brand of feminism after receiving backlash. It's rather hard to sidestep such backlash when a self-proclaimed non-gamer turns around and claims to have been a gamer all her life – but only after receiving a spike in viewers.


Don't get me wrong, that shouldn't invalidate their opinions or statements. It doesn't mean they should be exposed to threats or harassment. It does mean though that everyone involved should be much more hesitant to take their statements at face value. This entire (long) conversation has been very intentionally shaped to keep attention away from what should matter. Censorship, banning of entire countries, black-balling of charities, death threats, bomb threats... these are the sort of things you see when a situation is out of control. They are the same sort of things you can expect when you intentionally continue to escalate a situation to try to prove a point and get your way.


Sitting someone on a pedestal isn't the same thing as providing equality. Equality means everyone is treated equally, at least as much as you can do so. One of the central problems is that men and women simply aren't equal. Quite frequently their tastes are different. What appeals to one gender doesn't always appeal to the other, and we don't always act the same way in our respective groups. Unfortunately instead of addressing this specific problem and looking for specific solutions, we're either “pro-equality” or “a generation of lonely basement kids” that “shoot up schools.” There is no middle-ground. There is no objectivity. You either believe questionable sources that you are responsible for marginalizing them or you are marginalized. You either accept you are responsible for shaming or are shamed.


They say no press is bad press. I say look at who is in the headlines. Who's best interest is being pushed publicly? It's not the best interest of gamers or game developers. Games can be and are an artistic expression, at least when they don't all conform to a single point of view. At the end of the day, no matter what some people will claim, people aren't truly equal. We all come from different walks of life. We all see the world through different filters formed by our own experiences. These different perspectives are what helps us create the art that we are passionate about. That isn't to say that a male or female is better than the other, or that a hardcore gamer is better than a casual or vice versa. It simply means we're different. We have some common ground, and until recently, I would have said it was our passion for games.


The relationship between journalists, gamers, and game developers has always been a difficult one. It is a relationship which has fallen apart simply because there are too many people who believe that only their way is the right way. The fact of the matter is though, all three are being exploited to suit an agenda and some seem content to continue to destroy rather than build.  Some of the manipulation manifests itself in the furthering of personal agenda, and in other cases it appears to be designed to line the pockets of people who are responsible for loaning money to games which they then judge at events.  Accusations of unethical behavior has called into question practices by not only those reporting on games, even events such as Indiecade and Independant Games Festival themselves. The accusations are shocking, and the gaming community as a whole should work together to address them.


Take it from someone who's seen large communities be manipulated before. There may be a lot of moving parts, but it's not all that difficult. Sometimes all it takes is someone taking the appearance of a victim, no matter how true that fact may be. Sometimes it's just about networking and having friends in the right places. There's a lot more to this story than simply people facing backlash for their statements and actions.


All I can say for certain is that we (as a whole) let things get this way. Not everyone has the best interests of games, gamers, and game developers in mind. People will seek to use us for their personal gain. We need honest conversation about all of the relevant details. Censorship and blind loyalty does nothing to help, and plenty to undermine the things we're all passionate about. If we continue to throw objectivity and critical thinking to the wind – well as they say things can always be worse.

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