Marijam Didžgalvytė Understands Gaming Culture Better Than Most

A radical approach to picking apart its worst ills.

Think of the things that gaming culture is most recognized for–it might be a game like Fortnite, a convention like E3 or Gamescom, a platform like PlayStation or Xbox, but very few would reference the culture itself. It’s of little surprise then that Gamergate claims a significant portion of that pie–the movement metastasized a once-dormant sense of discontent with women and minorities in a medium that traditionally catered to straight white men, and in its wake, completely upended the parameters of culture war, as it forever changed the face of online discourse.

Marijam Didžgalvytė understands that better than most. She’s been involved in the conversation through an independent editorial effort on the Twitter-hosted series Left Left Up, which seeks to analyze what ails the modern gaming industry from a class-conscious lens, devoid of all the baggage that a focus on liberal solutions for capitalism-sprung problems entails.

Political ideology is something that games journalism puzzlingly shies away from–it custodes the brunt of the criticism they’ve been getting, and yet it’s something they’re reticent to embrace. I asked Marijam what motivated her to assume the profile that she has, and the answer was simple: She has been a political organizer from the start, and that’s how she traditionally approached these issues.

“I’ve been antifascist, and an active street antifascist organizer since a very young age, [at] about age 14 or so back in Lithuania before I moved to the UK,” Marijam says. “Whether that’s street opposition, or more of a digging into the personalities themselves, anti-racist action is just something that’s informed a lot of my work for as long as I’ve lived.”

Having recognized the issues with gaming culture and the industry prior to them blowing up in a big way back in 2014 makes you part of a decidedly rare breed. Part of what made Gamergate powerful, is that it brought to the fore feelings that have always existed, but were ignored by all vectors of influence within the gaming space. Marijam believes one of the reasons toxicity was allowed to fester as freely in gaming culture, is “because radical progressives tended to be technophobic and were nowhere to be seen.” What makes the opposition to Gamergate particularly distinct, is that it is mostly a reaction to the movement, rather than a generative ideological force by itself. So much of the action that exists to foster a more hospitable environment for players today, was fairly insignificant prior to the instigatory events of Gamergate.

Marijam’s academic background is partly to owe for her attunement to these issues. “I come from a fine art background, so gaming was something I did as a hobby for many years and actually was quite judged by my lefty counterparts for,” she says. Revenue generated by the gaming industry recently surpassed that of the film industry — a notion once thought to be inconceivable — and that’s around the time when Marijam realized she had to get involved.

“That was my first time,” she says. “I didn’t know how to deal with it. I didn’t know anything about it. And that was painful–right now it happens all the time, but on a much smaller scale, but at least I know I’m prepared.” That was Marijam’s first taste of Gamergate’s brand of harassment a few years back. She thought herself to be empathetic enough to skate by untouched, but alas, she hadn’t realized yet that it wouldn’t have made much of a difference for a movement whose signature move is to dehumanize its victims.

The structural critique often made by Gamergate is that media companies are profit-motivated, and will therefore do anything to get clicks, even when it defies journalistic responsibility. The issue with Gamergate, is that this often is directed at the wrong individuals–shareholders are able to evade scrutiny, as journalists are being piled onto for decisions they had little control over. Marijam noted that while this is relevant currently, it might not always be the case in the foreseeable future.

“I think gaming journalism is kind of dying. Most people are more likely to make up their opinion about a game from watching streamers that they love and relate to, rather than reading what IGN thinks about it,” she says. “I just find the quality of most games journalism to be incredibly poor. It doesn’t hit any of the critical thinking that could be flourishing in this medium. almost always does an excellent job and there are a few individual writers in other popular gaming websites that don’t shy away from a more complex take and questioning the business incentives, but that’s so rare!”

I was shocked at first to learn that Marijam very much shared my own opinion about games media — if Gamergate likes to bark about “politics” — which is a shorthand way of saying feminist, race-aware, and queer-positive analysis–invading games media as being its demise, the problem has always been that game critique was always shallow, and ideologically-uninvolved. “People going through film school actually learn basic art history, and games journalists don’t–they just think it’s their own world. They have no comparatives, no references, or they just don’t look at history at all,” Marijam tells me. Looking at the games media scene, her observations bear themselves out.

Being intrigued by what distinction would she make between the role of class and identity in entrenching Gamergate members, Marijam thought that taking one without the other does a major disservice to the discourse. “Class is an identity itself, and also class inequality is predicated on the othering and exploitation of people with less power,” she says. “A lot of the time this happens to be people in the Global South and other marginalized people.”

In our quest to come up with a simplified playbook of how to deconstruct the group dynamics of Gamergate, a crucial piece of the puzzle can get lost as one is taken when the other is left. Intersectionality in class and identity analysis is crucial in Marijam’s point-of-view to reach as close an assessment to the empirical truth as possible. She goes a step further and emphasizes the importance of organizing from the opposite perspective: “Let’s not underestimate the architectures and infrastructures that were built by very active far-right actors during that time.”

Of course, what Marijam said was true. Conservative news outlet Breitbart was fanning the flames of conflict months leading into its ultimate crescendo, and 4chan users — infamously known for their edginess — were heavily involved in the process. Marijam adds that “fairly classic misogyny has always existed, but there was a very active particular push by some that found this group of people very malleable for it to grow into this scale of abuse that we’ve seen.”

As satisfactory as that has been for six years now, I couldn’t help but think that dipping back into the well of Gamergate has become a mythology of its own, so I asked the question of whether we’re losing out on new perspectives because of the natural impulse to resent revisionism. “It’s so tricky to even be having this conversation altogether out of the absolutely understandable anxiety of not wishing to belittle a lot of the suffering that has happened,” Marijam says. “I wish to stress that us criticizing the liberal approach to it, has nothing to do with the fact of the real pain that was caused by the events.”

To those unfamiliar, the liberal approach Marijam speaks of is this tendency to look for solutions to problems downstream of their root causes. From that, most of the existing literature focuses so heavily on the plight of developers and critics like Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian, that it overlooks so much of what toxic gaming culture has co-signed prior, spilling its radioactive waste of bigoted behavior onto other women, people of color, and trans and queer people whose struggles have been ignored because of the media’s fixation on a narrative of retroactive inevitablism and linear escalation. It’s okay for the chronology to be messy–any serious historical analysis has to take that inherent haphazardness into account.

If some think the remedy for Gamergate could’ve been more explicit disapproval from gaming companies, Marijam sharply disagrees. “I think it’s a misdiagnosis–those same companies were creating the conditions for it to happen quite a long time ago. There were choices made by these companies to create the identity of the gamer,” she says. Marijam similarly views the notion of diversifying stories as a path for liberation with skepticism–to her, that’s just “capitalism getting stronger” and it’s something she thinks “needs to be looked at more critically, especially if [our culture is] going to be looking at the type of plight that the gaming industry is inflicting on people in the Global South.”

Group identity is something we still have a poor understanding of in the era of political polarization. The recently released “Why We’re Polarized” by Ezra Klein dove into those issues with great detail, concluding that so much of what defines modern culture war is a direct result of rising tensions between liberals and conservatives in America, with similar dynamics playing out in other parts of the world. I asked Marijam what role does she think identity plays in Gamergate, and her answer was rather illuminating–reflecting on Jesper Juul’s “A Casual Revolution”, she remarks that the author put great emphasis on the reliable presence of cynical story cues as signifier of “hardcore” status, which was taken up by some gamers in the past — and still today, though to a much lesser extent — to be a badge of uttermost honor. Similarly, on Juul’s “The Art of Failure”, Marijam notes that the recurrence of a failure state in games seems to condition players to naturally think themselves as losers, where winning is rather the exception to the rule. “The nihilism of the stories, always wishing to be better and not to lose, for other people to see you as better than you are–that sort of circles back to the idea of alienation.”

That Gamergate was partly fueled by internalized feelings of social inadequacy made intuitive sense, but part of me wondered for a long time if the movement was the mere produce of ambient misogyny and racism–the United States has its fair share of history with these phenomena, so it only makes sense to see some of it seep into the fabric of such a widely consumed form of media. Marijam noddingly approved, but with a caveat: “We tend to think about this in a very Global Northwest-centric way, but I would not underestimate the levels of Eastern European gamers who were involved in this. Those are societies that are extremely misogynistic and racist, so it’s just them reflecting what they know.”

Still, the American roots of misogyny are important to tackle. Marijam spares no details in her historical perspective on the phenomenon:

Sometimes, when I do talks, I draw this history of “How did we arrive to 2014?” and I begin with the level of women we actually had in the tech sector from the 1950s, but then because of flawed recruitment methods circa the 1960s, they actually get pushed out. [At that point], we’re very much looking at the birth of this exciting new profession — the IT person — and then if we fast-forward to the 70s, and the worst of Silicon Valley, what do we see in the gaming sector? Atari of course, and [them] being the most successful gaming company at the time, cemented the kind of culture we see in Silicon Valley today, which is the tech dudebro culture. […] It’s still very much alive today, but it has its roots back in Atari, and everyone thought that Atari is the most exciting place to work at, it cemented the idea of what game creation is, and although the company tried to appear sexy, in the end it turned out to be sex-ist.

We fast-forward to the 90s, and the incredible mechanics that were created by Id Software in games like Doom and Quake [and] it did have the gory aesthetics attached to them that already perpetuated the lone blond hero [cliche]the kind of image that to this day we see as part of gaming. Then again into the 2000s, there is huge evidence of the US Department of Defense funneling hundreds of millions of dollars into the industry for their message of global domination and spread of democracy to be reflected in video games as the good guys. Really America was very much ahead of its time in understanding that this is a space where you create cultural hegemony.

Yet, the puzzling part for Marijam remained is why didn’t progressives realize the power of the medium prior? A dismissive view of video games as an art form she seems to think: “We see counterculture in noir films, in fine art relational aesthetics, etc. But with gaming, I’ve just seen this around me–we have thought that gaming is something else. It’s just there, it’s not ours, it’s not our battle, it’s done by these no-lifers, that’s not our field, we just get on with our stuff.

This was all pretty depressing stuff, but even more so was the discussion we had shortly thereafter about the role of the global south in the gaming industry. Aside from the concerns about consoles’ carbon footprint in the greater fight against climate change, they do not deviate from the standard in consumer electronics. “When I was getting interested in games and politics, and their whole intersection I was like okay “feminism and video games” sure fine–but surely, they’ll talk about the fact that Zoe Quinn’s and Anita Sarkeesian’s careers are only possible because of mass rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as suicides by female workers in Foxconn factories. Surely they do!” Marijam says, but much to her disappointment, that conversation was sidestepped altogether. “How can they talk about feminism, and the fact that as I say this, it’s predicated on the exploitation of women in other parts of the world? It was so shocking to me.”

I happen to share Marijam’s skepticism about a lacking intersectionality in conversations surrounding feminism, especially when they pertain to the most vulnerable. A feminism that doesn’t cut across class, and the dire straits that an unconscionable amount of women have to be put through in order for its Western iteration to thrive, is not very feministic at all. It’s even more so of importance to have that conversation as the planet continues to collapse on the back of that very selectivity. “As someone who’s interested in culture, and how can culture create social change, and how can art be effective in creating social change, I always found video games and the fact that they’re so dependent on the dictatorship of the console [to be] a huge limitation for games to ever be effective, because their existence is already built on suffering.”

One of the main reasons that Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo are able to maintain the status quo on console manufacturing, is because they remain largely unchallenged. As gargantuan multinational conglomerates, their status is under minimal threat. I asked Marijam if there’s any chance of a regulatory effort led by the United States to see that game console manufacturing becomes a more sustainable endeavor–maybe restrict exclusives so getting multiple consoles is discouraged, or mandate carbon emission standards so that their production is less perilous to our planet. “I’m not necessarily optimistic about the US system taking a stance towards this because the electoral arithmetic is not there,” Marijam says. She then jested about Valve announcing an all-ethical console, and putting Half-Life 3 on it, but was realistic about there being no corporate will to commit to such an ambitious project–nonetheless, she cautioned not to underestimate the power of greenwashing in mobilizing towards pro-climate policies: “Microsoft is talking about creating a carbon-neutral console–they’re not doing this out of the kindness of their own heart, they’re just wishing to sell a product that gamers will feel better about buying.”

Knowing it was a long shot anyway, I proposed to Marijam the possibility of the government subsidizing part of the production cost such as to make more ethical forms of production less financially strenuous for consumers. Her response was surprisingly optimistic: “We’re already footing the bill for an iPhone that costs eleven-hundred dollars, when it costs [a fraction] to make. This is why the unionization movement is so inspiring to me–we’re hoping to at some point be a strong enough power to have some sort of say in these issues and also just create a new belief in trade unions and the workers’ power.”

So far, what Marijam described, is an industry that while sure of its strides, seems like a house of cards that could come tumbling down at any moment. Yet, when I expressed my fear of an eventual game crash — one fueled by market saturation and paralyzing consumer choice — she didn’t seem to be as adamant about drawing immediate conclusions as I was.

“There was already talk of a gaming apocalypse in the mid 2000s, but most of that attention turned to mobile gaming,” Marijam says. “For AAA developers to have their wings clipped a little bit, I don’t know [about that]. GTA V has earned like what, 9 billion dollars, and is the most profitable culture piece that’s ever been created? That also did very well. […] I think more and more people are investing into gaming and esports as it’s a big thing, and in the next decade, I don’t see anything changing.”

To close out the interview, I asked the question that a lot of people think about, but few dare to put into words: On net, is it ethical to be playing video games at all?

“I think it would be hypocritical of me to say that it’s unethical, because you know, as many people pointed out we use appliances in our kitchens, and our cars are emitting just as much bullshit into the air,” Marijam asserts. “But I think we need to grow generational conscious consumers that will be in tune with people making the product. We just need a radical implementation of the Lucas plan, and a real push towards class consciousness amongst game makers. As someone who believes the importance of cultural hegemony and the necessity for progressive voices within this medium, we can’t just walk away–we have to be here, and we have to mold it and shape it.”

In a bid to brighten the mood after a morose conversation, I jokingly suggested that the solution might be to embed leftist propaganda into games. Marijam brilliantly summarized our long chat in a short, concise response: “I don’t care for leftist games, I care about leftist means of production.”