Ripped from the Headlines: What Went Horribly Wrong in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit’s “The Intimidation Game”

by Kristin Bezio

On February 11, 2015, Law & Order SVU aired an episode “ripped from the headlines” of GamerGate, focused on the harassment of feminists in gaming and featuring a central character rather transparently drawn from elements of Anita Sarkeesian, Zoe Quinn, and Brianna Wu. This is its story.

I want to begin by saying that in college I was a die-hard fan of Law & Order, both the old original series and SVU, and watched every day. New episodes, re-runs on TNT, you name it. It was a ritual for my freshman-year roommate and I after dinner. I have warm fuzzy feelings about Law & Order. Or at least I did.

The episode begins with a conversation between Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and her therapist in which Olivia discusses the gender-typical “boy” behavior of her newly adopted son, Noah. Noah apparently is a breaker-of-toys-and-teapots, destroyer of bookshelves, and generally an all-around “boy,” something about which both Olivia and the therapist laugh.

And my hackles are already up. This “boys will be boys” kind of attitude – although the episode does not actually condone such excuses – is highly problematic, and providing it as even a ghost of justification for outlandish and inappropriate behavior only exacerbates the flagrant problems our society already has with harmful gender stereotypes (against men, women, and other-gendered folk).

Of course, throughout the episode, we have to keep coming back to Noah and how Olivia is worried that “this is his future.” Yes, because no one would ever want their kid to grow up to be a dirty gamer.

The gaming convention attended by Fin Tutuola (Ice-T) is not too far off the mark in the grand scheme of things, at least in terms of set dressing and general noise level (although I did not see nearly enough gamer t-shirts or cosplay – I only saw the one gold-garbed cosplayer). It was a little bit of a relief to see that the gamers depicted were all clean and didn’t cater to the 1990s caricature of the “gamer nerd.” They did miss the mark a little with the neighborhood anti-feminist sea lions, though…

In the episode, two men approach a woman at a booth with a Sarkeesian-esque video behind her, and immediately begin talking about “feminazis.” The woman’s response, bracketed by suggestions to “Get out of here,” is a little weird. She asks “What, are you going to kiss me? Are we going to kiss?” with obvious sarcasm. The question rubs me the wrong way, since it presumes a level of sexual engagement that seems wildly out of place, given how utterly terrified most women would be in her position. But that fear doesn’t really show up until the next scene, where she’s assaulted in a plywood bathroom by the two men.

I’m also off-put by the juxtaposition of the assault with the crowd cheering at the shooter competition. Yes, the noise covers the noise of the assault (which makes sense), but the quick cuts between the two scenes makes an explicit connection between the digital violence of the game and the real violence taking place in the bathroom. That’s where I have a problem. To tie the two together is to inherently blacken all gamers – or at least all gamers who play violent games – as potential assailants, chanting savages who only need the right trigger (so to speak) to cause them to tip over the proverbial edge.

I’ve written elsewhere about how there just isn’t a justifiable case for violent games causing real-world violence, and there are any number of studies by others more qualified than I making the same case. The episode, although it may have a noble central goal in curtailing GamerGate and similar movements, doesn’t do any gamers, feminist or otherwise, any favors by dredging that back up.

Nor does the conversation between Fin and Amanda Rollins (Kelli Giddish) in which she asks if he’s “so addicted” to games that he “has to play right this second,” after remarking that she doesn’t understand how he can go home at night and play those “shoot-em-up games.” Okay, so I understand that the average demographic for SVU includes people like my mother, who does not play games, but the amount of pandering to negative stereotypes in this episode passed saturation point at about fifteen minutes in. Most people who enjoy playing games go home and – gasp – play games. Just like you, dear viewer of SVU, are sitting at home and watching tv for the same amount of time. While you might admit that you’re addicted to tv, relatively few people are going to point to it as a symptom of some sort of horrible anti-social tendency, despite the fact that you are even more passively staring at a screen than I – the gamer – am.

It also doesn’t help that SVU is making up acronyms. FALs – Failures-At-Life – are not an internet thing. It’s a cute attempt by the writers to make up acronyms to mimic gamer culture dialect – LoL, GTFO, DIAF, AFK, FPS, RPG, RTS, the friendly GG (“good game”) – but it’s one that just sounds idiotic to anyone familiar with gaming or internet culture. Also “troll behind their computers”? Not quite right, but close, I guess. At least they know what SWATting and doxing are. (I’m not even going to address RedChanIt.)

Sarah (the first victim) also describes her assailants as immature white boys with no life, who clearly don’t get out to see the sunshine (she emphasizes their extreme pallor). It’s a comforting stereotype, given that there are quite a few gamers hostile to women in gaming who are otherwise seemingly well-adjusted men in their 30s with jobs, wives, kids, etc. To perpetuate the idea that only 20-something, socially-awkward uber-nerds are responsible for harassment is to blindly ignore the reality (although they are mostly white, and clearly lack some level of maturity).

Raina Punjabi (Mouzam Makkar), a fictionalized but obvious fusion of mostly-Sarkeesian-with-some-Quinn-and-Wu, is the primary target of the episode and is the lead developer (do the writers even know what that means? I doubt it) of a company called Amazonian Warriors (uh huh). I wasn’t happy with the episode’s caricature of gamers, and I’m also not happy about its caricature of feminist gamers.

Also, I could have done without the fiancé’s insistence that “I told her this would happen. She wouldn’t listen.” Because clearly some man has to know better than she does. I also didn’t appreciate – at all – the forced “confession,” which, although designed to produce pathos for the victim, really only served to reiterate the kind of misogynist crap being promoted by actual people. Especially when, at the end, she says, “Women in gaming. What did I expect?” and then quits, saying that “they already [won].” It reifies the image that women like Sarkeesian “have this coming” to them, even if they’re ultimately rescued and the perpetrators brought to justice. And that’s horrifying and deeply, deeply saddening.

Overall, the general understanding (and therefore depiction) of internet and gamer culture is  a bit pathetic. Meeting in a back alley? No hacker would do that. They meet online. Hence… internet culture. But I suppose that doesn’t make for good television.

Neither does the everyday reality of what it’s actually like to be a feminist in gaming. It isn’t about large, dramatic attacks like being SWATted or having your launch speech sabotaged by crazy people (really, how many of us have given launch speeches? I’m guessing not very many) or being kidnapped. Yes, Sarkeesian’s talks have been targeted with bomb threats and threats of massacres, but GamerGate isn’t just about Sarkeesian, Quinn, and Wu.

GamerGate is about them, but it is also about every other feminist gamer (male, female, other) online and behind the keyboard and console screen. GamerGate is about silencing voices that don’t comport with a very specific and ultimately conservative ethos wrapped up in the fictional construct of what “gaming” and “gamer” meant in the 1990s, an uber-masculine valorization not of violence, per se, but of machismo and power.

It isn’t the violent content of games that produces this attitude. It isn’t the sexism inherent in many of them, either. Those are the symptoms, not the cause, of a culture that is entrenched in fear of the Other, whether gendered, racial, ethnic, religious, or sexual.

And all this doesn’t even address the episode’s end, when the officers are confronting the final perpetrator, and one of them says, “It’s nothing like in a videogame,” and he replies, “Actually, it’s exactly like in a videogame,” followed by a shot over the barrel of is gun, just like in an FPS. Not okay.

Even worse? The tasteless joke about camping that comes after Fin is forced to take a lethal shot and the officers are standing over his body. And to top it off with a platitude about how “I know the difference between videogames and reality”? Disgusting. Absolutely disgusting.

Creating an episode “ripped from the headlines” that suggests that gaming actively promotes violence and misogyny, that playing games causes antisocial and aberrant behavior, to use a television show to further ostracize a demographic that already feels itself (falsely or otherwise) under attack by affiliating it with terrorism, and – worst of all – to even further alienate those working to better that culture and industry by victimizing, exploiting, and undermining all that they fight for?

Congratulations, NBC and Law & Order. You’ve destroyed at least five years’ of gaming culture’s attempt to explain to people the nation over why their chosen form of culture isn’t a cesspool of violence and why they, as people, deserve respect. You’ve undermined gaming as an art form and trashed the medium as a whole, to say nothing about the very people you seem to think you’re supporting.

Because that’s the key part of this that SVU just doesn’t seem to get. Sarkeesian, Quinn, and Wu don’t hate gaming culture. Feminists don’t hate gaming culture. They aren’t trying to make their own culture, they are trying to participate in and change for the better a culture that they – we – already deeply love.

And you just shat all over it.


Related Posts

Comments (3)

[…] So I said in my last post that I would have more to say about the most recent Law & Order SVU episode on GamerGate. Here it is. […]

FYI, Cracked has a pretty good article inspired by this episode (which I have not seen and probably never will see). It’s about a day old now.

Leave a comment