How GamerGate Is Influencing MIT Video Game Teachers

–Ted S. Warren/AP

GamerGate has engulfed the Internet.

It pits two factions against each other: The “gamers’’—people (mostly men) who see video games as part of their identity—claim they’re fighting for ethics in games journalism. The men and women opposing them, who come from backgrounds including media and video games, claim GamerGate is all about misogyny and intimidating those people who don’t follow a particular party line.

The protracted fight has rippled through the Internet—and in its most harrowing moments, targets of GamerGate have been driven from their homes, had their personal information leaked online, and forced to cancel appearances because of physical threats.

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GamerGate has, however, only begun to enter the atmosphere at MIT, where the next generation of game developers and designers is just beginning to discuss the topic with their teachers.

MIT does not offer a formal degree in game development or design, but it plays host to the MIT Game Lab, a space for students who want to develop their own academic concentration of game design and theory. It also offers a number of courses that study gaming as an industry and provides an opportunity for dialogue—both of which go to the heart of GamerGate’s debates.

“I would say that it’s made it harder, as a teacher, to get through the day,’’ said Philip Tan, a research scientist and instructor at MIT. “It’s extremely demoralizing to see people who claim they are passionate about games and work so hard to prevent women from voicing their opinions about games. It goes against everything we stand for as educators. It’s our job to make it easier for a larger range of people to contribute to the growth of this medium.’’

Tan teaches more than 16,000 students in MIT’s online course Introduction to Game Design, which he instructs in tandem with Game Lab development director Sara Verrilli. Their pupils can be as young as middle school age, and the class (unless taken for credit) is offered free through MIT’S edX program.

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“I’ve followed [GamerGate] on Twitter as much as I could stomach and have been paying attention to the press coming out,’’ Verrilli said. “GamerGate is publicly something that’s been happening to women quietly for the last 20 years. I am not glad to see it happen, but I am glad to see the level of publicity, outside of its narrow communities, that its getting. It’s happened to a lot of women, at a lot of companies and on the Internet, and it’s never gotten enough mainstream steam and press to make mainstream culture pay attention to it.’’

Verrilli said the current semester of her course Creating Video Games, which focuses on project management techniques, has three times as many men as women. She said this semester, in particular, she and her colleagues proactively assessed the course’s focus to reduce female students’ drop-out rate.

“We always have fewer women starting in the course than men, so every time we lose just one woman, that changes our percentages pretty significantly,’’ she said, noting her assumption that women dropped the course for the same reasons men did—they were overwhelmed by the intensity of the course, or their own semester’s course load.

Tan said that he and Verrilli also investigated preemptive and productive guidelines to restrict any sort of harassment in the classroom.

“We said, ‘If you want to be here making a game, you need to be involved and contributing to a welcoming environment to everyone,’’’ he said. “We’re really not going to allow any harassment inside classrooms.’’

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The MIT Game Lab enforces a custom version of the school’s harassment policy that emphasizes no tolerance of digital harassment. While the policy has always been present, Tan said, it is not usually addressed before the beginning of class.

“Even before GamerGate, we’ve been implementing a very strict safe place policy for all of our classes,’’ said Game Lab studio manager and instructor Rik Eberhardt. “We take time on the first day of class and say, ‘This is the type of discourse we are going to have in class and we are not going to have harassment between students.’

“We made it very, very clear that we will not tolerate that,’’ he said. “It’s hard enough to make a game. We don’t want to make anyone feel bad about making games and make them feel like they don’t belong in the classroom.’’

Scot Osterweil, who teaches an MIT course entitled Games for Social Change, said his class’s male-to-female ratio is almost evenly split this semester, and that his class isn’t made up solely of “hardcore gaming types.’’ Osterweil’s class explores the potentially positive effects of gaming on society, and while he hasn’t broached the topic of GamerGate in his classroom yet, he plans to.

“I’m going to have my students do a bit of research on their own about [GamerGate] and come prepared to discuss it in class,’’ Osterweil told Boston.com. “It’s a seminar, and I’m very interested in the students developing better critical faculties, so I want them to be able to bring their own experiences with it to the class.’’

MIT’s instructors collectively agreed that their students are not the types to embark on crusades of harassment.

“The class I teach is on social change, so most of the students in my class are interested in social change. It may not be representative [of MIT attitudes at large],’’ said Osterweil.

Eberhardt said only a small minority of the students who take the Game Lab courses are hardcore gamers. “We get a lot of students who stop playing games while trying to get into MIT, and only within their first year or second year do they start to play games again,’’ he notes. “A lot of them tend to be out of the loop when it comes to mainstream game culture, but they’ll know a specific niche really, really well.’’

GamerGate, despite all its ugliness, opens the ways that video games can be discussed not just in the mainstream media, but in academia.

“This isn’t just an industry problem, it’s a cultural problem,’’ said Verrilli. “It’s the people who consume the industry and for whom the industry is targeted and giving material to. There have been a lot of prominent people in the industry who have stepped up and said, ‘Hey, I don’t even like the things [feminist video-game critic and GamerGate lightning rod] Anita Sarkeesian is saying, but I’m going to have to look into making my games more diverse because I cannot stand to see what is happening to her.’’’

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