'Law & Order: SVU's take on online harassment is uncomfortably accurate
For more than 20 years, the Law & Order franchise has been ripping stories from headlines, spinning real-life stories from the police blotter into a consistent and dependable ratings machine. Tonight’s episode is of particular interest because it delves into an area that Law & Order touches on less often: video games and online harassment.
Tonight’s episode, “The Intimidation Game,” rips from quite a few headlines and makes overt references to a number of real-life people. The plot concerns an incident at a video game convention where the female employee of one Raina Punjabi, head of an independent game studio about to release a game called Amazonian Warrior, is harassed and physically assaulted by misogynist dudebros who have a problem with Punjabi and her studio.
These goons see themselves as crusaders against “Social Justice Warriors,” (this is a real thing), people who believe that women pushing for different games (or change in games) are trying to muscle men out and “The Intimidation Game” is, in most a few ways, surprisingly accurate. I mean, it’s far from subtle—Law & Order: SVU is about as subtle as the Seattle Space Needle—but there’s a well-documented history of the sort of issues faced by the character of Raina Punjabi.
She’s a sort of amalgam of women working in games or games criticism—for her real-life analogues, there’s no need to look any further than Anita Sarkeesian, Brianna Wu, or Zoe Quinn. All have faced substantial harassment, mostly just saying things that certain subcultures such as the much-maligned #Gamergate social media campaign don’t like. There is a status quo in video games, and pointing out that there might be problems with it can have very real consequences for the women who speak up to challenge it.
In “The Intimidation Game,” Punjabi’s internet harassers start out doing things that real internet trolls do: She’s swatted (that’s when police departments are hoaxed into sending a SWAT team to a target’s house), doxxed (the malicious posting of personal information like your home address with the implication that some sort of retribution is imminent), and continually degraded in comments and message boards. However, her harassers quickly take things to the next level (that wording is important—the trolls here slavishly adhere to video game rhetoric). They kidnap her, beat her, and rape her—uploading videos of it all to the SVU version of Reddit/8chan.
This week’s episode straddles a fine line between cartoonishly ham-fisted and extremely uncomfortable, even as things make a sharp left turn into crazy town. Sure, it’s funny as hell to watch O.G. Gamer Ice-T explain games to the SVU team, but barring the more outrageous plot points (the kidnapping, the rape)—this crap really happens. Doxxing, nonstop waves of online abuse, and the sustained effort to downplay and discredit the accomplishments of women (both the “not a real game” and “she slept with someone to get her work funded” arguments are used by antagonists) are all things that have happened. They continue to happen. Death threats happen.
As out-there as the episode’s sudden shift into domestic terrorism becomes, you could argue, like The Washington Post does, that it’s necessary—because the prevailing attitude toward online harassment is one of indifference. It’s not “serious” enough a threat. Regardless, “The Intimidation Game” ends with something that does, sadly, feel true-to-life: the trolls that the Internet brought to Raina Punjabi’s doorstep have effectively made her decide that remaining in the games industry just isn’t worth it.
I wonder how SVU’s non-gaming viewers will see this episode. Will they be surprised? Will they find it kitschy and trivial? Further evidence perpetuating the stereotype that video games are the domain of petulant man-children, not a pastime for serious adults?
It’s hard to say for sure, but it’s a shame that games are even associated with all this in the first place.