“Ripped from the headlines!!!” is the Law & Order franchise’ favorite marketing anthem, a relic from its origins in the early ‘90s when the idea of a police procedural going back to the Dragnet model of stories “inspired by” real cases taking precedence over drama about the personal lives of cops and lawyers was a novelty. These days it mostly feels beside the point, with the ubiquity of internet wacky/tragic headline-sharing making almost every tawdry bit of inspiration the writer’s room might draw from something viewers are likely to have heard of.
In that respect, “Intimidation Game” (how dated is that punny title going to look six months from now?) is an oldschool throwback for Special Victims Unit; a return to the days of cobbling together a lurid, often outright-exploitative storyline out of a hot-button issue or prominent newsworthy crime and setting its fictional detectives loose on the perpetrators. In this case, reality served up the goods buffet style, allowing for a fast-paced (by network procedural standards) neo-pulp thriller featuring sexual assaults, cyber-terrorism, kidnappings, booby traps, a rooftop gunfight and theatrically inclined bad guys who wouldn’t be out of place getting beat down by the likes of Batman or The Punisher; almost all of it based around the internet absurdity known as “GamerGate.”
Exactly what GamerGate is has been covered in detail by Devin, Andrew and FILMCRITHULK (and that’s just among BAD writers!), but for the uninitiated it goes basically like this: Months ago, the ex-boyfriend of a female indie video game developer posted accusations of her infidelity to the public internet. Because one of the alleged paramours was a writer for a popular gaming news outlet, it was seized on by a small but vocal strain of gamers as “evidence” of a longstanding conspiracy theory that certain indie “art games” (mostly made by women, aimed at audiences outside the “traditional” gamer demographic or both) had gotten undeservedly (according to them) high review scores by their creators bribing or being too close to critics. A cyber-bullying harassment campaign began (or, rather, evolved out of the existing campaign targeting feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian), then exploded in earnest (with individuals being targeted with grotesque harassment and violent threats that have driven some out of the industry and even their own homes) under the hashtag “#GamerGate” when A.) various gaming sites condemned said harassment in a series of similar articles and B.) a loose consortium of has-been TV actors and right-wing media propagandists seized on the issue and egged the worst of the harassers on in the name of “solidarity” against the usual boogeymen of Liberal Elitism, Feminism and “Political Correctness.”
(I should mention, in the interest of full disclosure, that I’ve worked in and adjacent to the games media myself and am personally and professionally associated with several individuals targeted by GamerGate)
Much of that bigger political/cultural context is missing from Law & Order’s take on the matter, save for some throwaway references to GamerGate (which itself is never mentioned by name) buzzwords like “Social Justice Warrior,” a web-slur for progressive activism. Instead, “Intimidation Game” boils things down to a clash between a single female developer and a handful of young psychopaths who take the widespread “hardcore gamer” backlash against her upcoming new game from internet forums into reality.
As the episode opens, Detectives Rollins (Kelli Giddish) and Carisi (Peter Scanavino) are accompanying Fin Tutuola (Ice-T) to a gaming convention where he shows off his previously unmentioned love of video games, especially K.O.B.S (“Kill Or Be Slaughtered,”) a military FPS serving as our Call of Duty analog for the piece. No sooner has Fin explained his disdain for “campers” (hide-and-cheap-shot players in shooters) than they get called into action when a young woman minding a promotional booth for a game called “Amazonian Warriors” is harassed and then brutally beaten up by a pair of game-bros.
Rollins: “What did they do to you?”
Victim: “They leveled-up.”
This is par for the course for Special Victims Unit, their bread and butter being reframing scary-sounding things their mostly older audience (the episode even opens with Mariska Hargitay’s now-Sergeant Benson brandishing Chekov’s Topical Conundrum by worrying about the aggressive play of her young son) is vaguely aware of from the news into standard TV cop tropes. But it’s also decidedly disappointing: It might’ve been interesting to see SVU’s take on Breitbart, the conservative-paranoia outlet that stepped up to “legitimize” the movement. On the other hand, GamerGate’s favorite D-list celebrity mascot was briefly part of the cast, so… awkward, perhaps.
On the other hand, the gamer-culture business front-loaded into the first act has a certain admirable authenticity, at least on the sliding-scale by which one grades realism in the Law & Order universe: the bad-guy gamers look authentically “bro”-ish instead of the Urkel/Comic Book Guy archetype one might’ve expected, and Ice-T (a real-life video game fanatic) gets his references right when Benson taps Fin to translate gamer-slang while interviewing the victim. They even catch the bad guys pretty quickly (SVU takes place in an alternate universe where the NYPD takes sexual-assault victims completely seriously, prioritizes their safety and dishes out vigilante beatdowns in defense of marginalized citizens rather than against them) by enlisting help from a game designer familiar to them from a November episode based around the “Slender Man” creepypasta phenomenon.
It’s also exciting that this is quickly established as a Fin-centric episode, with Ice-T getting to slam the bad guys around while making gaming wisecracks (“Ain’t no reset button in real life!”), explaining internet-speak to his colleagues in his own signature cadence (apparently “doxxing” is pronounced “dachshund” – who knew?), flashing a subtly hurt reaction when the victim lumps her attackers and K.O.B.S fans together and even offering up an adorably succinct psychoanalysis of GamerGate: “In their world the developer is like a god. Some guys ain’t ready to give a woman that kind of power.”
Things then escalate, with a new wave of harassment exploding across the web as the assaulters are celebrated as martyrs on “RedChanit,” a mélange of Reddit and 8chan, two forums that have in reality enabled GamerGate’s growth by refusing to ban their activities according to some inane quasi-libertarian “free speech” commitment. This leads the detectives to the central victim of the episode, “Amazonian Warriors’” designer Raina Punjabi (Mouzam Makkar, doing well in a thankless part) whose costuming makes her a clear (if subtle) amalgam of prominent harassment targets like Sarkeesian, Zoe Quinn and Brianna Wu. Everyone from the cops to her venture capitalist fiancée (who gives great red herring with his exasperation over her dismissing his safety concerns – is he setting this up to scare her into being cautious??) want her to delay the launch of the game, but she refuses to let her harassers win.
(“Amazon Warrior,” incidentally, is presented as a sort of Civilization/MineCraft/Skyrim hybrid with a female protagonist and no combat mechanic – “I read on Kotaku it’s even better than Civ V with the Brave New World expansion!,” offers Fin.)
This brings out a new set of gamer baddies (not namechecking GamerGate is one thing, but not giving these guys a nickname of their own is a definite flaw in the episode), a trio of college-age guys in hoodies and skull-face ski-masks recalling Call of Duty: Ghosts and Bane-style voice-changers, who are significantly more proactive than the first wave: Raina gets swatted (false police reports sending a SWAT team to your house, a favorite tactic of cyber-stalkers) during a live TV interview, and at the actual launch for “Warriors” the villains set off noisemakers and laser-pointers in an attempt to trigger a shootout – using the ensuing chaos to kidnap Raina and stream her abduction to digital billboards outside, taunting the NYPD with game-slang graphics that leads Fin to take charge because “They’re playing a game.”
And yes, that’s really how this wraps up (though, since this is Special Victims Unit, not before a profoundly ugly stretch wherein captive Raina is beaten, gang-raped and forced to record ISIS-style propaganda videos urging women to get out of video games): Ice-T has to use his knowledge of game-logic to track down the bad guys and predict their moves. No, really. (SVU has used this angle before: In “Care,” then-Captain Cragen was able to clear a mentally-disabled youth of a false murder charge by learning the internal logic of a game the boy was obsessed with.) And that’s after an interlude that takes the cops to one of the kidnappers’ actual mother’s basement. “Ripped from the headlines!!!,” you see; though in reality I doubt any GamerGaters would have the creativity to rig up the booby trap Raina is eventually rescued from (she’s strapped into a chair with a shotgun duct-taped to her hands, trying to trick SWAT into shooting her).
It all culminates in what will easily go down next to “The Monkey is in the basketball!” from Season 10’s “Wildlife” in the pantheon of goofy SVU action scenes: Rollins and Carisi engage the kidnappers in a rooftop gunfight, wherein Carisi drops one of them and quips about shooting in real life being different from a game… only for the bad guy leader to jump out in surprise declaring that it’s exactly the same, with the camera cutting to a Call of Duty-style “FPS view” over his gun-sight for effect. He gets off some rants about how Raina and women in gaming “Took away the one thing we had!,” but then Fin steps out of his own hiding place (with his own FPS/p.o.v. shot) and puts two in his chest. As he subsequently explains to Benson, “I know the difference between video games and reality. Those guys didn’t.”
In the end, the bad guys lose… but also win: Raina decides staying in the business just isn’t worth all of this. “Women in gaming,” she gravely intones, “What did I expect?” For those not especially well-versed in the series: A downer ending is Special Victims Unit-speak for “This real thing is important and you should care about it;” though it should be noted that the majority of real-life figures assumed to have inspired Raina’s character/storyline have not quit (and are overall not happy about the episode, with Sarkeesian calling it “sickening” and a trivialization for entertainment). Granted, if you watch any amount of SVU (and I have watched a lot of it), seeing complex real-life issues and cases being reworked into lurid Dirty Harry pastiche is a big part of the appeal. I can’t (and won’t) fault possible real-life inspirations for finding it exploitative (it is) and triggering; but from a strictly critical perspective I thought it was a solid example of what the series does at its cheesy, sleazy “best” and I appreciated how right it got (most) of its gamer/web-culture references.
But, yes. It’s hard to argue that the defeatist ending (however “realistic” it may be) feels tonally at odds with what was otherwise pitched as “Ice-T beats up gross cyber-bullies.” There’s an amusingly “meta” level to that as well: Ice-T rose to prominence as a musician largely based on attempts to censor and ban his incendiary Body Count track, “Cop Killer,” and GamerGate very much likes to wrap itself the façade of simply being the 2015 descendants of ‘90s anti-music/gaming censorship movements; so casting the face of real resistance to real censorship as the good gamer smacking down the evil ones is just shy of poetic.
I was (still am, really) one of those outraged anti-censorship gamers back in the day, and I imagine the idea that I one day wouldn’t be outraged by a “killer gamers” episode of a TV show would’ve left me aghast then. The wailing and gnashing of teeth I’m seeing online over this show echoes my own SNES-era chest-thumping about unfair stereotypes and the lack of any evidence that video games “make you violent,” certainly. And yet… I can’t summon the self-righteous anger necessary to object.
Some of that’s just the effect time. There’s no danger that a tacky TV cop show going all Mazes & Monsters for an episode is a slippery slope to game bans now, and either way I’m old enough to no longer regard even the prospect of that as the most important thing in the world. But it also speaks to the sad reality of the situation: It’s no longer the stuff of pure fantasy that outraged self-identified “gamers” might react so loathsomely to women (or to anyone). If there’s a secondary tragedy to GamerGate, it’s that we can no longer honestly deny the presence of a sick, violent, inhuman undercurrent to darker parts of the medium and the hobby – the primary difference between “Intimidation Game” and reality is that the SVU antagonists had the will and the skill to do what harassers have (mostly) only said they wanted to do on the real-life RedChanits.
It was easy (and righteous) for gamers to slam the likes of Jack Thompson a generation ago, because what he was propping up was patently ridiculous: Mortal Kombat was a cartoonish Shaw Bros/Frazetta/Rikki-Oh mashup. Grand Theft Auto is interactive Tarantino tomfoolery. The idea of them spawning imitators or bending young minds was absurd on its face. But today? Even while acknowledging that, no, games still won’t “turn you into” a murder and remaining aware of the perils of ending up like Boomers romanticizing the protest rock of their youth while condemning “gangsta rap” as adults… yeah, it’s hard to defend pandering garbage like Hatred with the same self-assured absolutism, or to ignore that Call of Duty (however enjoyable its mechanics might be) is effectively neo-con/Cheney Doctrine pro-war propaganda laced with unmistakable veins of xenophobia and “9-11 revenge-sim” affectation.
Thanks to GamerGate (and to a broader sense of general ugliness underpinning far too much of modern so-called “AAA gaming”), the “psycho gamer” stereotype is no longer the implausible phantom it was before, and that should make the majority of video game lovers much, much angrier than Law & Order: SVU doing an episode about it.