Reflections on ‘Game Changers’ (with thoughts from Dan Golding and Leena van Deventer)

game changers

Game Changers is a powerful, emotionally moving non-fiction book that made me cry on more than one occasion. This is not a review, but rather a reflection on why Game Changers affected me so deeply. If you would prefer to read a review that follows a more traditional format, I’ve written one of those too.

After the release of Game Changers, I spoke with both Dan Golding and Leena van Deventer about the book and their experiences writing it, as well as how they have been feeling since its release. Both Dan and Leena have made wonderful contributions to the games industry and their experience as professionals and players of games shines through in Game Changers. I feel incredibly lucky to have been given the opportunity to hear and share some more of their well-articulated thoughts and reflections.

Both Dan and Leena also clearly have great respect for one another; though I never explicitly asked them about how well they worked together, both individually shared with me the impact that the other had while writing the book. Dan spoke highly of Leena, calling her a ‘huge support’ and saying that ‘she’s one of the funniest, most caring people I know’, while Leena was happy that she ‘had the good fortune to find someone [she] admired and trusted who also had a giant brain’. Given the opportunity to add some final words, Dan responded, ‘I also want to say how incredible it was to work with Leena on this. An entire book, and not a single fight or disagreement through the whole thing—seriously.’

The synergy with which Dan and Leena worked together is evident in the finished product; Game Changers is a wonderfully coherent, clever text with immense value. Although I am certain each person who reads the book will take something different away from it, my experience was primarily one of catharsis. When reflecting on people’s responses to Game Changers, Dan touched on this, saying, ‘I think airing some of these issues and putting together an incontrovertible document has been cathartic for people, and I have been a little bit shocked (in a pleasant way) to discover that.’

For me, I think it was simply a relief to hear somebody speak so candidly about the issues of harassment and misogyny in the games industry that have been effective at fostering feelings of fear and isolation for people who are in the videogame world. This ongoing fear restricts open discourse and it’s something both Dan and Leena discuss in Game Changers. The sentiment is perfectly captured when Dan says, ‘Since Gamergate started, I rarely tweet about games because I’m scared’ (p. 181).

When sharing my opinions about videogames online, I feel the same heart-racing fear that I experience when walking alone at night. I publish my articles while holding my keys between my fingers, just in case. I feel that fear now, even as I’m typing these words. And yet, I am writing them anyway.

Why? Well, sometimes there are more important things than fear, and this is a sentiment that Dan and Leena share. When discussing how they conquered their own fears and managed to publish Game Changers—a very public statement about Gamergate and the toxic culture surrounding it—Leena said, ‘I was fearful at times but I felt like it was more important to tell women’s stories and also inform people of all the amazing women-lead collectivising that has been happening in the wake of this garbage fire. I wanted people to be reminded that women are strong… Personally I was inspired by the women we were writing about. I had no business being scared when I compared myself to them. It comes down to what is more important, me getting some hate online, or explaining to concerned people what the hell this Gamergate stuff was all about.’

Similarly, Dan said, ‘There came a point for me where I became no longer afraid to say things. I take caution with how they are presented, and phrased, and how easily accessible my comments will be to those who would misuse them, but I’m not afraid of Gamergate anymore… By writing a book, we’re engaging on our terms. We set the conversation, we shape the parameters, and to some extent we choose the arenas in which we’re engaged with by our critics. They’re reacting to us, not the other way around. That’s quite powerful, and certainly helps.’

These sentiments, which underpin Game Changers, are what make the book so powerful and galvanising. It is the podium on which I stand now when I share my thoughts; it is my reminder that I am not alone and that the words I am saying should be heard. Still, a blog post by Kathy Sierra called ‘Trouble at Koolaid Point’ is quoted in Game Changers and it describes the ‘dangerous tipping point between a woman being ignored by online mobs and a woman being identified as a target for abuse’ (p. 86). This tipping point is one I’ve considered many times, wondering where I sit in relation to it. I contemplate how much I can push until I’ve pushed too far. I spend a lot of time second-guessing myself and what I am writing or working on.

This process of second-guessing is something that writers and creators from minority groups subconsciously engage in regularly because we know that once a particular point is reached, there is no turning back. The book suggests that ‘there’s no “off” switch that allows you to opt out from the mob’ (p. 212), so each decision that might cause the mob to find and target you needs to be made consciously and deliberately. In a quote included in Game Changers, Brendan Keogh acknowledges this process of second-guessing when he says, ‘There’s been no shortage of really brave women in videogame journalism who have to sacrifice a lot just to do what a guy like me can do without a second thought’ (p. 131). I am also in awe of the courage that so many writers have shown in the face of debilitating harassment.

In the book, Dan says, ‘Is it really worth the hassle for us to talk so publicly about Gamergate? Of course the answer should be yes—we shouldn’t be silenced by these people’ (p. 183). As I gradually find my own strength, I am starting to feel this way about all things, not just Gamergate. Game Changers has helped me better understand myself as an activist and a researcher through its discussion of ‘fourth-wave feminism’ and the language and qualities that define this emerging movement (p. 126-7). Focused on improving the diverse representation of minority groups and strengthened by the online communities I surround myself with, I don’t want fear to silence me in discussions about the issues that I feel are important.

Still, fear of being silenced is not the only worry that the emergence and continuance of Gamergate has caused for me. Both Dan and Leena have experience teaching university students about games—as well as adjoining fields like film, media, and narrative—and this terrain is one I am also traversing. I am currently teaching an introductory course in game design and I am worried for my students who are preparing to enter this tumultuous industry. I am concerned that I am not adequately preparing them for what may be waiting for them after graduation, or even sooner.

I asked Dan and Leena if they share my concerns about helping new people join the games industry. Dan said that ‘it’s almost [his] number one concern, actually: bringing people into games who may have a really bad time simply because of who they are is incredibly fraught… Videogames can ruin people’s lives, and being someone who can be a welcoming face for that is a terrible responsibility’. Leena shared that, ‘I feel guilty sometimes telling more women to get involved in the games industry as it can feel like leading lambs to the slaughter sometimes—but in reality nothing is going to change without them. So it’s a matter of supporting them as much as we can to make sure they’re not bearing the brunt of the changing dynamic on a personal level or copping most of the flack.’ Dan added that, regardless of his concerns, ‘[he’s] not a patriarchal gatekeeper who knows what is best for everyone, so you’ve got to trust that you can give someone the information and support that they need to make the decision that is right for themselves and their own circumstances. What if that person goes on to change games for the better, and although suffers a personal toll, views it as worth it? You can’t decide for someone.’

Still, it can be difficult to navigate the process of encouraging and helping new faces find their footing. Leena told me about how she ‘did have to sit down with [her] students and sort of unpack [Gamergate] with them’ when it ‘first really hit’, and how in the past she has experienced ‘quite heated discussions in some classrooms (at varying universities) with students’ about the ongoing issues in the game industry. In Game Changers, Leena also shares a situation where a talented student changed from a game design degree to a program where she would be able to ‘make something else for people that won’t threaten [her] life’. This is a poignant moment in the book, made more affecting by Leena’s inability to respond at the time and her ongoing reflection on the ‘bankruptcy of [her] response’, as well as her feeling that she had ‘failed’ her student (p. 148). I think we all have moments where our exhaustion regarding the ongoing issues in the games industry make it difficult for us to continue, let alone find the right words to help our students.

But there is hope. When asked about how Gamergate has changed their classroom environments, Leena said, ‘I think in classrooms I’ve observed that women are more likely to have each other’s backs than they might have before? But that could be because I’m very much hoping that is happening! I think more women speak up in class when something bothers them now because we’re all so aware of the vacuum that silence brings.’ Similarly, Dan said, ‘I do usually find that Gamergate has galvanised students who might have previously felt hesitant about expressing support for diversity or contempt for regressive social groups.’ It’s encouraging to recognise that, despite the attempts that Gamergate has made to silence particular people and tear them down, so many movements of support and understanding have developed and they are making it easier for people to work together and speak up against injustice. Hopefully these communities will help the new faces who are joining the games industry, even on the days that their teachers are speechless.

And if you are looking for the right words to share with newcomers to the videogame world, Leena offers the following advice to those starting out in any industry: ‘…make sure you never assume to understand someone else’s lived experience. Consult with others, know when to speak, know when to be quiet, but never assume to be an expert on someone else’s life. It’s amazing how much people think they know, and how damaging it can be.’ In addition, Dan shares these words with those who are new the games industry, but they are equally useful to anyone who needs encouragement or support: ‘No-one who has been targeted by Gamergate or who has suffered at the hands of institutionalised exclusion in the videogames industry has deserved it. None of them. Not a single one. It’s never your fault—but now, in 2016, there are more people than ever who are here to support you and help you. Videogames are important—too important to have to leave to the dregs of society.’

Reading Game Changers, I cried with sadness as I was reminded of some of the awful, heartbreaking harassment I have witnessed over the last few years, just as I cried with joy as I was reminded of the incredible courage displayed by those who have carried on in spite of it. I saw myself reflected in so many sentences—statements of fear, of strength, and of uncertainty. I am eternally grateful to Dan Golding and Leena van Deventer for the incredible book that they have written and their thoughtful responses to my questions. Game Changers was a deeply affecting experience for me and I learnt so much as I journeyed through its pages; I hope that you do too.

Disclaimer: I have interacted with Dan Golding and Leena van Deventer online and in person at industry events, conventions or conferences. I have great admiration for both of them and for their work within the games industry. This article is based on a copy of Game Changers that I pre-ordered with my own money and waited for like everyone else.