It’s a long-established tradition for TV shows to draw inspiration from real-life events. NBC’s “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” is no different, and Wednesday, February 11, sees the crime drama series tackle Gamergate in an episode entitled “Intimidation Game.” The plot centers on the online harassment and kidnapping of a game developer, Raina Punjabi, modelled on controversial feminist game critic Anita Sarkeesian.
NBC’s trailer opens with Punjabi discussing the threats she’s received with police. She is set to attend an important game launch but has become the victim of an online harassment campaign. Punjabi insists that she will attend the launch, however, because not only is it a massive international event but also she refuses to give in to online hordes of anonymous, misogynistic trolls. During the conversation, terms like “swatting,” “doxxing,” and “dark net” are referenced, with one detective pointing out that online threats are “not covered by free speech.” The dialogue is embarrassingly clumsy, written for an audience not familiar with Gamergate or the more complex workings of the internet.
We later discover (in a second clip released by NBC) that Punjabi is in fact kidnapped — presumably by the same trolls who had threatened her online. It’s a pretty solid guess at this point that SVU’s finest will save the day, the perps will go up the river (do people still say that?), and just enough time will be left for a brief, simplistic debate about misogyny, where free speech begins and ends, and how we should police the internet.
So far, so predictable.
There is a quite considerable bump in the road, though. The manner in which the writers of “Law & Order” have historically incorporated social commentary into their shows is beyond appalling. They consistently misrepresent complex social issues and pander to political and intellectual lowest common denominators. There is nothing wrong with a TV drama highlighting and making accessible important social issues. It is, however, patently clear that the makers of “Law & Order” have no interest in balanced, fair commentary and are instead focused on ensuring that their treatment of moral, legal, political, and ethical issues move in lockstep with prevailing ideas.
Ten years ago, an SVU episode entitled “Game” was aired in which kids who played violent video games were replicating virtual violence in real life. In the episode, detectives are puzzled by a strange homicide in which a sex worker is run over by a car and then beaten to death by the driver. (No points for guessing which video game was the subject of this particular program.)
The message was clear: violence in video games causes real-life violence. It was a thesis extremely prevalent among many politicians and activists at the time, most notably Jack Thompson, but it is one that now, a decade later, is viewed with widespread disdain. Numerous studies as well as a downward trend in violent crime and a corresponding uptick in game sales have shown that the idea is pure nonsense.
If NBC’s teaser is anything to go by, then the events as depicted in “Intimidation Game,” just like those depicted in “Game,” will also be completely at odds with reality.
Last October, Anita Sarkeesian was due to speak at the University of Utah but cancelled the event when threats were made in an anonymous email: “If you do not cancel her talk, a Montreal Massacre style attack will be carried out against the attendees, as well as students and staff at the nearby Women’s Center. I have at my disposal a semi-automatic rifle, multiple pistols, and a collection of pipe bombs. This will be the deadliest school shooting in American history and I’m giving you a chance to stop it.”
You don’t need to be Columbo to figure out that this is an idle threat, but that didn’t stop a slew of police agencies from giving it the once-over.
Campus police, local and state police, as well as a number of federal agencies — including the FBI — investigated the threats and deduced that there was no viable threat to Sarkeesian or the attendees, and that she could safely attend. Sarkeesian, however, chose to ignore that advice and cancelled. Like many prominent figures opposed to Gamergate, she took to social media to express her fear and revulsion at the supposed threats.
Unlike the scenario portrayed in “Intimidation Game,” though, Sarkeesian was never advised by police to cancel her gig, was never kidnapped, and, according to police authorities, was never in any sort of danger.
By this point, the Gamergate hashtag has racked up an astonishing six million tweets, with thousands of articles written about the movement from almost every conceivable angle. During all the argument and acrimony, throughout all the controversy, nobody has been murdered, kidnapped, sexually or physically assaulted, or had any serious crimes committed on their person as a result of Gamergate activity. None. There hasn’t been anything. There have been threats, sure, but time and again, those threats have been shown to be idle — little more than trolling.
Few would deny that artists and those involved in the creative process should be granted some form of creative license. A cop show that doesn’t contain drama, tension, violence, and the usual tropes of good versus evil wouldn’t do all that well in the ratings. Therefore, it’s expected that the scripts of “Law & Order,” or other shows that take inspiration from real-world events, should diverge from a purely factual retelling. However, if shows like “Law & Order” are to apply social commentary, then fairness dictates that contentious issues, such as those found in Gamergate, are dealt with in a balanced manner.
Unfortunately, as long as writers and artists continue to sacrifice fairness and truth for the dominant narrative, that’s unlikely to happen.