Law & Order: SVU 'Intimidation Game' 
Is Not What Games 
Are About. Image 1.

Leigh Alexander

Video games journalist

Video games always get a bad rap on television. At best, you’ll have the stereotypical weirdo character hunched at the end of the sofa, wrenching a controller around as if it were the wheel of a little toy car, retro bleeps pinging in the air.

Worse, you’ll have the moral panic, sinister insinuations that violent video games can be correlated with murder. This is especially common on crime shows – you know, where the suspect likes games and therefore probably can’t tell the difference between fantasy and reality, or something (like in this 2006 episode of Law & Order).

To the lifelong video game fan, there’s almost nothing more grating than how the film and TV world portrays its precious hobby. This Game Informer piece irritably rounds up errors and general corniness that the general public would probably not have noticed. Here on Venturebeat, a user is infuriated about some liberties “The Big Bang Theory” took with its portrayal of World of Warcraft. rounded up some general tech mistakes from television for those of us in the know to smirk at from behind our Power Gloves.

The indignity tends to be compounded by the way the games themselves always look – built in a rush by set dressers (or similar) in simple 3D modeling programs; games invented for film and TV look fifteen years out of date, like plinky toys ripe for ridicule (with the notable exception of David O’Reilly’s recent visionary work for Spike Jonze’s Her).

Law & Order: SVU 'Intimidation Game' 
Is Not What Games 
Are About. Image 2.

Although most game developers who are still making money these days seem to understand that imitating the conventions of film and TV doesn’t serve video games, this earnest tension often still lingers in gaming fans, who’ve been secretly craving the crown of legitimacy from mainstream media for decades. These longstanding unflattering portrayals of games and their culture are no doubt a thorn in the side of the people who play them, desperate for family and friends to understand that they are not wasting their lives, living in their mom’s basement, or slavering over fantasies of mass murder.

When word came down that ancient cop drama Law & Order: Special Victims Unit would tackle the “Gamergate” debacle – you know, that “actually-it’s-about-ethics-in-game-journalism” movement that’s really about stalking and bullying women and allies of diverse, progressive content in a historically male-dominated and heavily gate-kept medium – we all knew it would go badly. The episode itself was a clunky and simplistic portrayal of games, their culture and their current problems. And it wasn’t realistic; man, can you imagine if the cops took internet threats against women seriously in real life?! Ha, ha.

In “Intimidation Game”, the SVU team is tasked with pursuing a group of internet-based terrorists who stalk women game developers at conferences, then kidnap, assault, and threaten to kill them. At the episode’s outset, a few officers are attending what seems to be a competitive play event surrounding a popular (fictional) first-person shooter titled “Kill or Be Slaughtered.” For some reason, even though this is an eSports event, other video games have booths set up – one of these is “Amazonian Warriors,” a game made by a woman with a woman staffing the booth.

A couple of angry male attendees confront this staffer and later assault her in the venue’s restroom in protest of her presence and her employer’s game. The SVU staff attempts to provide security for Amazonian Warriors’ lead developer, Raina Punjabi, despite her resistance to any fuss around her crucial game launch. Nonetheless, they are unable to prevent her abduction in the midst of an onstage appearance. They then follow cryptic internet broadcasts from masked men muttering misogynistic slurs, but they cannot save Reina from violence or her ultimate decision to quit the games industry after all.

It’s all very corny and ugly. This isn’t what games are about.

The lack of mainstream understanding grates me too, y’know? This past weekend, I was at IndieCade East, a conference at New York City’s Museum of the Moving Image, hosting a debate about the art and politics of game design, about whether mechanics are imperialistic and political. Upstairs they had games like How Do You Do It, a vignette game about girlhood and the mystery of sex; Consentacle, a card game about consensual alien tentacle romance; things called Snuggle Truck, Karaoke Combat. You know. Nice stuff. Experimental, brilliant, forward-thinking, political stuff. Worthy stuff.

Before IndieCade East, I attended four other conferences across just about as many weeks, speaking at universities, game jams, and art events. I helped judge a game jam in Malta where the winning title was a board game about what’s next after you hit your peak in life. At a festival in Belgium, I wore a 3D headset and helped my friends defuse an imaginary bomb. From Helsinki to Antwerp, from London to New York City, I met countless artists and weirdos devoting their lives to the creation of video games. I met people like me who were giving their all.

Law & Order: SVU 'Intimidation Game' 
Is Not What Games 
Are About. Image 3.

I wish the world knew that face of games. I wish the world knew the games industry that I know, the open-minded and loving players that I know.

And yet, on the television is this horror story. Masked internet creepers planning to assault women. It’s not really real, right? It can’t be.

I mean, while I was in Helsinki, a couple of guys from the internet came to my talk. One of them wanted to ask me about “ethics in games journalism.” My response went viral. Another guy asked about whether my niche market views were worthwhile. Later, he would post a pretty fair assessment of my lecture on child porn haven 8chan and say that I was “a lot hotter irl” than I am in pictures.

When I was in Malta, presenting to a small group of students, one Redditor decided not to attend after he was told he couldn’t film me and disrupt my presentation, as he had publicly plotted to do.

I didn’t think these guys were going
to hurt me. But they follow me nonetheless
I shouldn’t need security; I’m a video game critic. I’m nobody.

 I mean, I did do something; a couple months back, when Gamergate started, thanks to a jilted ex’s post about a woman I know who makes games, I wrote an article criticizing “gamer culture.” I wrote about slavish devotion to brands; I wrote about people who cling to a consumer label, even when it lets them be exploited by corporations. I especially aimed my flamethrower at the latent vein of sexism which meant my colleague couldn’t work in games without people trying to destroy her on the regular.

Most of all, I exhorted game developers to make games not about the stereotypes they see on TV, nor for the labels that have been groomed and determined by marketers, but for diverse adult audiences of all kinds who deserve the pleasures of interaction and escapism and play. I begged them to ignore the segments of loud internet users who hated women and growth and change.

Things have been tough at work since then. All my friends wanted to watch this episode of Law & Order so they could understand what my life has been like since then. I’ve had it easier than a lot of my women colleagues since then -- many of them have been threatened seriously.

I watched the episode with one of my non-gaming friends. And when the spooky masked men and their silly videos came on the screen on the melodramatic and misrepresentative television show, I had to be like, look, babe, there really are some masked men out there. I pulled up a bunch of them: weird rants about “women in gaming” from conspiracy theorists who fix their unplugged gazes just out of shot. (1, 2, 3, 4)

Law & Order: SVU 'Intimidation Game' 
Is Not What Games 
Are About. Image 4.

I mean, okay, no one has slammed me into a bathroom stall or hit me or abducted me or any of my colleagues, like it shows in the Law & Order episode that stars composites of women just like my colleagues who have received bomb threats or had SWAT teams called to their homes or had to flee their homes or have had their personal lives aired virulently in public because of video games. Mostly it’s just internet threats. Yes, sometimes the dudes actually show up, but mostly it’s just internet threats.

No one has gotten hurt yet, which means
the episode is very unrealistic. We wish the cops would intervene before someone gets hurt, not after.

Really, isn’t this just another occasion for gamers to get outraged about the “unfair portrayal of gaming” on yet another television show?  Gaming is nothing like this, we’re all saying. At Forbes, the outraged Erik Kain points out that no guy would actually be so aggressive as to bully a woman directly at a game event. That never happens, he says. So why do we have to make games look bad like this? Over a supposed few bad apples, really?

I know the world of game design, creation and play doesn’t resemble Law & Order’s sensational sketch. As a game critic for close to nine years, I’ve been trying to dismantle misconceptions and stereotypes about what gaming can be and for whom throughout my whole career. I’m as tired of the stereotypes as anyone. I think anyone of any age, class, creed, or heritage should be able to enjoy digital play without having to pass all the checkboxes required to join some consumer cult. I think they should get to just play games and reject labels, refuse gatekeeping.

There are some themes in the episode I hate seeing enforced: that there is something unique to boys that draws them to video games; that that something is an innate evil instability, an appetite for violence and destruction that girls just don’t share. That the most popular games are bloody shooters. Most concerning is the way the show plays with the idea that playing video games can desensitize you to real-life violence, even make you a better shot with a real gun. These are all dangerous and untrue assumptions.

But when I ask how we got here – why does the mainstream media think this about “us” video game makers, players, fans? – I’ve gotten some weird answers. It’s us noisy feminists presenting a wrong impression of gaming to the world, apparently. We complain about problems, so the mainstream media thinks that problems are all we are. Everything was going great for mainstream perception of games until people like me came along, right? Judging by some of the tweets I’ve gotten, you’d think I personally lied to the makers of Law & Order so that they’d present an offensive, upsetting story about how women in games are doomed to be assaulted and intimidated out of their jobs.

Even full-grown adult game makers, like the creator of Bulletstorm, think this is the fault of my messaging. This bizarre petition from another game developer entreats the games press to mend some nebulous “rift” it caused through its “self-defeating” coverage of an issue it won’t specify, but seems to suggest is invented by the media, or writ too large. There’s nothing really wrong here, so why is the games media ruining everything, it pleads.

Like, if not for women like me, the writers of Law & Order would understand the innate cultural validity of video games, they presume. There would be a more flattering and nuanced portrayal of gaming, if only us women would stop pretending that we are a little bit afraid to be here sometimes.

I sort of envy the majority of players who got to watch this Law & Order episode and just go, “ha ha, how ridiculous.”

The people for whom a mean episode of TV is the most unfair thing that will happen to them all year. The people who have the privilege to avoid thinking about what is going on in their industry that would produce an episode of TV like this, who can just get outraged, and say, “well I’m not these guys. I’ve had enough of video games getting a bad rap on television.”

Enjoy that, I guess. I used to have a lot of fun laughing at awkward video game-themed episodes of TV too, back before I put my head over the line.