After much anticipation, NBC’s “Law & Order: SVU” episode, “Intimidation Game” finally aired last night to an expectant audience. The Gamergate-inspired episode was the source of frenzied speculation with critics, viewers, and gamers wondering how the hashtag phenomenon would be treated. While it was generally accepted that the show might make some missteps in its depiction, nobody could have anticipated the utter lunacy that took place on our screens last night.
The show’s plot centred on a high-profile female game developer, Raina Punjabi, who becomes the victim of a harassment campaign. The developer is kidnapped during a game launch and later assaulted and raped. Punjabi is eventually rescued by SVU detectives, with one of the kidnappers shot dead by Detective Tutuola, played by Ice T.
The plot is, of course, standard cop drama fare; bad guys do bad things, good guys get the bad guys. But while the plot was pretty straightforward, the script was anything but. “Intimidation Game” was a stinking mess of over-the-top scare-mongering, demonizing rhetoric, cringe-inducing clichés, and unintentionally hilarious dialogue.
The episode was reminiscent of 1950’s PSA campaigns warning of the dangers of marijuana; the aim wasn’t to inform or educate, but to vilify. While it remains to be seen what the effect of the episode will have on those unfamiliar with Gamergate, the effect on those directly involved was twofold. Many felt revulsion at the treatment of gamers, and some complained directly to the show’s writers and producers.
Others found it hysterical.
Viewers tweeted their live reactions to the show or were nestled in online chat-rooms, sharing their impressions. The bizarre timber of the show was set early when two gamers assaulted a woman during a video game competition. After the assault, an SVU detective asks her what happened. “It’s these guys, they just can’t stand women in gaming,” she replies, blood pouring from her lips.
“What did they do?”
“They leveled up.”
Cue disbelieving laughter. Cue opening credits.
And so it went throughout the show; disturbing scenes featuring assaults, shootings, and even rapes were juxtaposed against the most inane and inexplicably hackneyed stereotypes imaginable. The treatment of the kidnappers themselves was just as schizophrenic, if not downright contradictory. At different points they were likened to ISIS terrorists, capable of extraordinary feats of planning and technical ability, and the next as impotent, whining mommy’s boys.
The gamers-turned-kidnappers (all scrawny white males, of course) were a cartoonish bunch of rage-fueled misogynists who wore luchador masks during their exploits. Where this rage came from wasn’t fully explained, nor was the reason why women weren’t welcome in gaming (although there were some vague allusions to daddy issues.)
The inevitable final showdown between the police and kidnappers occurred on a building rooftop. As cops closed in on the kidnappers, the camera angle switched to a first person perspective showing a hand holding a gun, mimicking the viewpoint of first person shooters. It was an oddball moment, designed to act as a visual metaphor for the kidnappers inability to discern actual reality from the virtual kind. As the first kidnapper was arrested, he whelped, “things went too far, I don’t know what’s real and what’s a game anymore.”
But as dreadful as those moments were (and there were many, many more) the absolute nadir came when Tutuola took the remaining armed kidnapper by surprise, putting three bullets in him. As he lay on the ground, presumably bleeding to death, Tutuola’s colleague remarked, “what, were you camping back there?”
Corny dialogue aside,“Intimidation Game” had two major flaws, flaws that meant it could never work. It was patently clear — even from the initial teaser trailers — that the show’s makers were in unfamiliar territory. Rather than examining the issue properly and applying an even perspective, they opted for a sensationalist approach, an error compounded by their unthinking adoption of the arguments of Gamergate critics.
The criticism of Gamergate is varied, and ranges broadly in severity. According to some, Gamergate is little more than a collection of basement-dwelling angry white dudes who hate women. They’re sexually impotent and can’t get dates. They’re childish man-babies. Yet, they’re also highly organized with the ability to hound those they don’t like out of their chosen professions. They’re technically gifted with the ability to hack websites. They group together in the thousands to create fear and to harass — hell, they’re terrorists. Put all of that together and you end up with a rather loopy characterization, and that’s exactly what “Law & Order: SVU” did.
On three separate occasions, characters in the show make reference to the racial and gender homogeneity of gamers (they’re all white guys); characters repeatedly declare (but never fully explain) that women aren’t welcome in gaming and then there is the threat narrative, expressed through the technical know-how and violent depravity of the kidnappers.
It’s little wonder that gamers reacted with hilarity to this Frankenstein-esque offering. Since the controversy began those on the Gamergate side have insisted that their issue is not with women in gaming, but with the ethical standards (or lack thereof) in games journalism. They’ve had every smear imaginable hurled at them, and now that those smears have been realized in the form of “Initimadation Game,” they are laughing. They’re laughing not because they don’t care, or because they’re heartless bastards, but because ultimately, the characterization is just too crazy to take seriously.