Since the outburst of the Gamergate controversy in 2014, discussions on gender representation, inclusion, and diversity have recurred in video game cultures and the video games industry. The controversy coincided with the eighth generation of the videogame industry and generated a considerable level of toxicity and coverage, ultimately encouraging media scholars to study and monitor gaming culture more attentively (Mortensen, 2018). Ever since Gamergate, the debates and discourses surrounding design and narrative choices have been tainted by political and cultural clashes that have redirected the battleground from journalistic integrity (Perreault & Vos, 2018) to the topical issues of hypermasculinity, feminism, and sexism (Chess & Shaw, 2015).
Certain views – that are commonly understood as dominant within a gamer identity closely aligned with white, heterosexual, young male players (Humphreys, 2019), but that have found a fascination in other demographics as well (Ferguson & Glasgow, 2021) – claim that the creative energy driving the industry and the surrounding specialized press has been lost in favor of efforts to please political correctness audiences and interests (Braithwaite, 2016). The opposite view sees Gamergate as a harassment campaign fuelled by misogynistic instincts and an overzealous protection of the traditional “gamer” identity (Chess & Shaw, 2015; Humphreys, 2019).
These cultural tensions are particularly prominent in popular franchises, which have often become the center battlegrounds of these ongoing harsh cultural wars, activating the tension within an industry that revolves around a certain expectation of delivering inclusive and diverse stories but that, at the same time, tends to be highly criticized every time it does it. In 2020, The Last of Us Part II, one of the most anticipated games of all time and the sequel of a universally acclaimed first entry, represented one of the epicenters of such cultural battles. In the first game, The Last of Us (2013), the player controls Joel in his quest to protect Ellie, a teenager he randomly meets in a lawless and zombie-filled threatening world. In the sequel, the player controls Ellie and Abby in turns, the latter being responsible for killing Joel, following both characters’ path to revenge. The bold narrative choice of the sequel – which “forces” the players to play as the antagonist – has led to a tremendous amount of criticism, and the cultural fracture around the sequel is still perceived in the great discrepancy between the universal acclaim of the critics’ scores versus the rather mediocre score given by users on sites such as Metacritic.
Platforms such as Reddit, YouTube, and Twitter, as well as review aggregators such as Metacritic, were among the hubs hosting the debate surrounding the controversial release of Part II. The leak of revealing footage made available months prior to the official release date, and the subsequent wide range of emotions that stemmed from it, paved the way for a long, complex, and multifaceted cultural debate that picked on inclusivity-driven narrative choices. One of these facets revolved around the co-protagonist, Abby, who was subject to an intense backlash for her body type.
While it is fair to assume that part of the upset and the resentment towards Abby originated from her having brutally tortured and murdered the fan-favorite Joel, the criticisms directed at her muscular figure are relevant in the context of exploring how certain patterns emerged during Gamergate may persist in the gaming discourse. The criticisms focused on Abby being too big for a female, and even more unrealistically so in the context of a post-apocalyptic game, where food is scarce, and survival is understood as the only priority. Common derogatory remarks targeted Abbie’s masculine appearance and included terms such as “hulk”, “shemale”, “sodom”, and “androge-” (Tomaselli et al., 2021), to the point that in the aftermath of the leaks, she was speculatively confused for a transgender character. Even more poignantly, the reasoning behind the creation of Abby was perceived by some as an attempt to design an androgynous trans-friendly character and, in doing so, please a politically correct design, which added to the backlash (Tomkinson, 2022). These views reveal a level of resistance towards accepting female body types that differ from what typically caters to a male audience.
Another point of controversy concerned the presence of LGBTQ characters, including the co-protagonist Ellie, who was revealed to be a lesbian in a DLC of the first game released in 2014. As Corboz (2022) found out, references to LGBTQ sexuality terms are significantly more frequent in negative reviews than in positive ones, indicating how the move away from heteronormativity is often associated with negative perceptions. Notably, transphobic slurs are more frequent in reference to Abby (Corboz, 2022), which may be the result of a combination of her gender being misinterpreted in the wake of leaks and her muscular figure. Despite Ellie being overwhelmingly more appreciated than Abby, her relationship with the new character Dina has also been subject to criticism, even if to a lesser extent. In a meme circulated on Reddit, Ellie is ridiculed for Dina’s appearance and bisexuality, as she had had sex with another male secondary character prior to dating Ellie.
The case of the cultural clash surrounding The Last of Us Part II shows how the debate at the center of the cultural fracture within the gaming world can be ignited once and again when inclusivity is considered. This calls for broader scholarly attention on the extension of the Gamergate debates and discourses across the industry, the media, and the communities' activity on social media platforms relevant among gamers, including Twitter, Reddit, Twitch, YouTube, and ResetEra. To address this gap, the authors will design a multiplatform search that will use digital methods to map interventions and interactions resonating with Gamergate among participants across the platforms. The aim is to identify the main actors emerging across platforms (common and distinct), their interactions, and the discourses embedded within their arguments. This complex map will help enrich the approach to the transformation of the videogames industry and cultures, by also identifying the limitations of reducing it to a single binary cultural clash.
- Braithwaite, A. (2016). It’s About Ethics in Games Journalism? Gamergaters and Geek Masculinity. Social Media + Society, 2(4). https://doi.org/10.1177/2056305116672484
- Chess, S., & Shaw, A. (2015). A Conspiracy of Fishes, or, How We Learned to Stop Worrying About #GamerGate and Embrace Hegemonic Masculinity. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 59(1), 208–220. https://doi.org/10.1080/08838151.2014.999917
- Corboz, M. (2022). The Last of Us Part II (2020): Queerphobic Discourse in Video Game Reviews [Master’s thesis, University of Lausanne]. https://serval.unil.ch/resource/serval:BIB_S_33939.P001/REF.pdf
- Ferguson, C. J., & Glasgow, B. (2021). Who Are GamerGate? A Descriptive Study of Individuals Involved in the GamerGate Controversy. Psychology of Popular Media, 10(2), 243–247. https://doi.org/10.1037/ppm0000280
- Humphreys, S. (2019). On Being a Feminist in Games Studies. Games and Culture, 14(7–8), 825–842. https://doi.org/10.1177/1555412017737637
- Mortensen, T. E. (2018). Anger, Fear, and Games: The Long Event of #GamerGate. Games and Culture, 13(8), 787–806. https://doi.org/10.1177/1555412016640408
- Perreault, G. P., & Vos, T. P. (2018). The GamerGate Controversy and Journalistic Paradigm Maintenance. Journalism, 19(4), 553–569. https://doi.org/10.1177/1464884916670932
- Tomaselli, V., Cantone, G. G., & Mazzeo, V. (2021). The polarising effect of Review Bomb. https://doi.org/10.48550/ARXIV.2104.01140
- Tomkinson, S. (2022). “She’s Built Like a Tank”: Player Reaction to Abby Anderson in The Last of Us: Part II. Games and Culture. https://doi.org/10.1177/15554120221123210