Gamergate’s Latest Targets Are Cyberpunk 2077’s Critics

The gift — or rather the curse — that keeps on giving.

If Gamergate was ever consistent at something, it’s that they’ve mastered the manipulation of the news cycle to their advantage by fabricating controversies predicated on an overarching conspiracy by “the left”, or “SJWs”, to perverse their entertainment. Such a thing of course was never on the table, and it’s all but a ruse to get the attention of Gamergaters away from their idols’ financially predatory behavior. Simply put, Gamergate gains more by keeping their issue of choice an active discussion, even when that persistence requires it to cannibalize every other story in its wake. Cyberpunk 2077 headlined Gamergate’s concerns as E3 just concluded, and it’s all for reasons not entirely unfamiliar.

The tale started as everyone knows it did–Keanu Reeves in an unprecedented gesture walked into the Xbox E3 2019 briefing stage, and with him, he brought along the promise that Cyberpunk 2077 was indeed going to be the game everyone was bedazzled by last year.

After the dust of the impressive announcement settled, CDPR released screenshots of the game taken on its PC version, and one of them included a an advertisement poster of a trans woman with her dick visibly bulging upwards through her apparel used to sell soda–it’s important to point out the controversy wasn’t strictly stoked by progressives, or even the LGBT+ community specifically, but it was more of a broad observation that if CDPR screwed up their PR campaign about the game previously, that it was quite indicative of a troubling trend in Cyberpunk 2077’s marketing that it doesn’t relish in the body-altering experience some trans people go through, and rather criticizes it without realizing how ironic that looks in retrospect. CDPR used problematic imagery to sell a game supposed to critique said problematic imagery–something was off.

The unusual part wasn’t that CDPR had used controversial imagery, or that left-wingers are particularly sensitive to problematic depictions of women and minorities in video games–it was more about how overblown such an assertion on Gamergate’s side that “SJWs” and “the PC crowd” would just not shut up about Cyberpunk 2077’s said depictions.

Having followed E3 — through conferences and audience reaction — the response to Cyberpunk 2077 seemed like it was universal praise. Just like last year, CDPR had an ace up their sleeve and played their cards correctly with regards to marketing and strategy–invite an A-lister on stage, show a demo behind closed doors that players only learn of second-hand before seeing it themselves as hype builds up, and pre-orders opened up as the game slates for release in April 2020. But apparently, the face of glee on many enthusiastic fans and journalists alike wasn’t enough to sate Gamergate’s lust after a common unifier of vitriol against anyone and anything, and so the fabricated conspiracy of indignant liberals against Cyberpunk 2077 was born, and all those invested in it had bought into the outrage without looking very closely at how their ire was successfully manipulated in the past for much sillier.

A good gauge for the profile of a controversy is usually to type a neutral search term on YouTube and see if the first result pertains any closely to the terms being searched, or has it conversely been flooded by an algorithmically exploitative fit of rage and outcry. Sure enough, when typed into YouTube’s search box, “cyberpunk 2077” brings up just in its first page two notable gaming provocateurs–Cleanprincegaming, and YongYea. Those are then followed up by the game’s official YouTube channel, (which by all means should have been the first) only to be flooded once again with content of incendiary tone by the usual suspects–the Quartering, LegacyKillaHD, Geeks + Gamers, Downward Thrust, among others.

The content of the analysis isn’t necessarily misleading–outlets like Kotaku, Polygon and Rock Paper Shotgun have all came out in mild reservations against the problematic depiction of Haitians and trans people in the trailer. What’s however taken on quite an exaggerated note, is the amount of news cycle stock Gamergate-adjacent commentators have falsely purported as being huge, when it is in fact, overshadowed by a general sense of satisfaction around what Cyberpunk 2077 has shown at E3.

In Rock Paper Shotgun’s case — the alleged instigator of the controversy — the game wasn’t discarded as ineffectual, or otherwise “bad”. As is the case with previews, expectations adjust, and there are pointers that suggest what the tone of the writing is and where the story is headed. It was safe to assume after the outlet’s Staff Writer Matt Cox remarked upon the problematic framing of a white man being correctly wary of an ominous group of brown thugs, that the rest of the story might entail some additional racial stereotypes. What that however was spun into, is this preposterous notion that the writer of the story in question was out to smear the game as part of a “larger agenda” targeting freedom of artistic expression — never mind that Gamergate contends heavily with the conceit that video games are art at all — when the pointed critique was more about the game’s thematic inconsistency, rather than its ineffectual portrayal of Haitians as having a natural inclination to commit crime, or trans people as… whatever the hell that poster’s artist thought they were.

Cyberpunk 2077 wants to be taken seriously as a game about a larger theme than the sum of its parts. It wants to delve deep into the machinations of a broken capitalistic dystopia; where corporate interest of the rich few outweigh the needs of a disenfranchised many. In Cyberpunk’s world, everyone was to be met with some sort of prejudice, on top of its many preexisting manifestations inherent to American society. So when the tone of the game is so heavily in favor of critical analysis, even as it doesn’t lend itself to that in the paratext, there’s something to be truly said about an oeuvre of art that seeks controversy, gets it, creates another controversy because of the initial controversy it had originally sought; and after all that, its creative leads have to come out of the gate swinging just to avert any potential bad PR outcomes.

“Is it so difficult to accept that Cyberpunk 2077’s world is the kind in which, people in general, regardless of race, just, kill each other for all kinds of fucked up reasons” says YongYea in his video commenting on the issue; elsewhere the Quartering started out his video by saying “Cyberpunk 2077, cool game you got there! Would be a shame is something happened to it.” And later on accused Anita Sarkeesian of extorting CDPR for consulting money, as well as regurgitate an already-debunked falsehood about her being one of the reasons BioWare’s last two games — Mass Effect: Andromeda and Anthem — have been poorly received; It’sAGundam also echoed similar sentiments, he further added a political dimension to the debate by complaining that “People are trying to interject their own politics and personal beliefs in a god damn video game based in a far-off dystopian future.”; LegacyKillaHD went as far as to say the original Rock Paper Shotgun article was a “hit piece”; and the tone of the rest of the videos follows accordingly.

What this has been furthered by is a defensive response by the creator of the IP CDPR’s game is based on, Mike Pondsmith, who has deflected accusations of racial inadequacies by advising that people dish it out to their racist uncles in a thanksgiving dinner, promoted the view that “the Animals” as a gang name for a predominantly-colored group is one of endearment, and came out additionally in defense of Poland as totally unproblematic and non-racist, drawing a line between its populist right-wing government and public attitude.

It would be really hard to take away from Mike Pondsmith’s own interpretation of what CDPR has been making for the last few years since he’s more closely aligned with the project than pretty much anyone outside of the company, but what appears to have happened, is that Gamergate is taking Mike Pondsmith as a token black creative — i.e. CDPR couldn’t possibly be racist since they hired a black person — doubling as a noteworthy creative say in Cyberpunk’s thousands of pages of script. Asserting that Mike somehow doesn’t have a subconscious bias against his own kind, or is in any way invulnerable to racial prejudice against minorities is about as sound as saying Trump’s presidency has been a blessing upon black people because Kanye West said so.

And much like Andrzej Sapkowski with the Witcher series, Mike Pondsmith has very little say in what Cyberpunk writers and narrative designers are doing. Mike Pondsmith himself admitted this–it is simply inconceivable for someone whose chief concern when making Cyberpunk 2020 — the original idea upon which is based Cyberpunk 2077’s world — to know much, if anything at all about effective game-design. Gamergate dressing him with authoritative authorship serves a two-fold purpose: For one, it allows them to come out in stern opposition of criticism which they paint as stifling creators’ freedom of artistic expression, but it also permits them to shift the narrative away from the creative leads and portray the conflict as “PC culture” gone berserk. In both cases, the final outcome is heavily contrived, and is barely based in any grounding of truth or reality–it’s just yet another attempt by Gamergate to capitalize on the current popularity of a video game by painting its criticism as sacrilegious and unduly.

That this criticism is largely coming from right-wing-adjacent commentators is not a coincidence. YouTube has recently been the center of a controversy where clear violations of its guidelines by political pundit Steven Crowder were met but with a slap on the wrist. And as growing concern around the effectiveness of the YouTube algorithm at favoring sensationalist headlines and fear-based identity activation is bolstered by many creators’ concern that YouTube has a very clear issue with enforcing its policies, it’s no wonder a disproportionate response to an initial spur of criticism towards a major production got the views it needed to generate. YouTube’s algorithm is almost systematically wired to favor “feelings over facts”, and it is in that misrepresentation of facts that resides a lot of anger by toxic online nerd culture at what have been so far quite superficial complaints over an insignificantly small portion of yet another product in our modern consumerist hellscape.

Furthermore, when “artistic freedom” is brought, it is only done in service of Gamergate’s ideological inclinations, rather than any impartial appeal to creativity no matter what part of the political spectrum it hails from. When BattleTech introduced the option for a gender-neutral pronoun, no such defense was invoked, and the backlash was instead directed towards the developers–who might I remind, should have retained full artistic control over their IP. The precedent for “creator over fan voice” just does not bear out.

More unbelievable than all of this, is toxic gamers’ unwavering rush to defend a corporation over the opinion of a few journalists who’ve nothing to physically or emotionally gain from criticizing a game of this caliber. It’s almost as if the commentary of the game is completely lost on its target audience–if V is on a mission to plot his route through the capitalistic trappings of a dystopian cyberpunk society, wouldn’t it be more sound to give further leeway to isolated criticisms of the game, and not immediately jump to dub them as part of a larger conspiracy? V alone can’t topple an aristocracy — much less hope to put an even slightly big a dent in it — so this notion that a small journalist who very few have heard of prior to the story being picked up by Gamergate outlets like wildfire is somehow even slightly effective at deterring people from purchasing a game in a society where said prejudices against people of color and trans people are already prevalent is absolutely wild. It’s even more so the case when the call to collective action is intermittently placed along Patreon links when the authors of such ludicrous claims are already a comfortable level above the majority of their audience on both a financial, and a social level.