It started with a jilted lover and a vengeful post. It then spun off into what is arguably a rabid hate group against what they perceive as ideological corruption. Since its inception in August, #Gamergate has led to at least three women leaving their homes in face of death threats over Twitter, Intel pulling their ads from gaming website Gamasutra, and a shooting threat at Utah State University. Gamergaters claim to be ethical crusaders; their opponents say they are at best trolls, at worse digital terrorists.
I’ve stared into the abyss – the endless feed of #Gamergate and #StopGamerGate2014 tagged posts, online imageboard 8chan and gaming forums, in an attempt to find what is the common thread in this movement. And what, in fact, is #Gamergate.
A confused and angry bunch
If it can be said that #Gamergate has a “base”, it is internet message board 8chan (a.k.a. “hatechan,” as 8chan users themselves call it), which came to be after the far better known imageboard 4chan started curtailing doxxing (the public release of personal documents to facilitate harassment) attempts – mostly focused on female game producers, critics and journalists. In itself, 8chan is contradictory: they claim to be a free-speech site, yet use their speech in attempts to censor so-called “Social Justice Warriors” – feminists, LGBT activists, anti racism activists, etc; its users claim they are not misogynists, yet the site contain numerous boards dedicated to harassing women, and to “destroy feminism”.
8chan is central to much of the #Gamergate movement; users are referred to as “Leaders of gamergate”, its largest board is “/gg/” – dedicated solely to #Gamergate – and may users see it as their safe haven against “political correctness”. Their worst fear is the end of gaming as they know it due to pandering to “feminazis” and the creation of a Comics Code Authority-style censorship board. Some of them seem sincere enough in their claims against “corruption in gaming journalism” – the problem is what they perceive as corruption.
A recent example of thier incongruity came after the release of Bayonetta 2. In response to the website Polygon’s less-than-stellar review of the Wii U title, which noted issues regarding objectification and over sexualization of women as problematic, #Gamergate started a campaign to get the gaming website blacklisted by Nintendo. In a way, their notion of corruption is “discourse I don’t agree with” – while ethics mean cronyism, as Polygon ought to be punished for the “crime” of not giving a perfect score to an AAA game (a large budget, mainstream title). Meanwhile, older and well known cases of actual corruption in gaming media – such as the firing of Jeffrey Gertsmann over his negative review of “Kane&Lynch” in 2007, which suggested a cosy relationship between news outlets and gaming companies – are ignored in the name of those perceived cases of ideological corruption. In fact, one of their main gripes is with the criteria set for game reviews. In short terms, they want “objective, unopinionated and impartial reviews” – a complete oxymoron. Another point of major contention is the alleged collusion of journalists with feminists and minorities to “fix the system” and “force their political agenda” onto the game market. .
“A hate group”
The targets of gamergaters harassment are well known by now: Game developer Zoe Quinn, feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian, who’s been on their radar for the past two years, and game developer Brianna Wu. The movement started with the harassment of Zoe Quinn over her alleged sexual misconduct.
Quinn had already faced harassment earlier this year, when her award-winning game Depression Quest became the target of a harassment campaign led by “wizardchan” – an online imageboard frequented by male virgins who blame “society” and “feminism” for their inability to have a relationships, who claimed Zoe was exploiting depression and mocking their pain. Then, in August, her ex-boyfriend Eron Gjoni came out with “thezoepost”. In this 9000 words blogpost, Gjoni claims Quinn cheated on him with five people connected to the gaming industry and the gaming press, to “ascend in her career”. One such partner supposedly was gaming journalist Nathan Grayson – whom according to Gjoni, she slept with to get favorable reviews of Depression Quest. The fact that Grayson never reviewed Depression Quest nor ever wrote about the game was seen by most gamergaters as irrelevant.
While maintaining their main concern was about ethics, gamergaters have discussed, judged, and condemned Quinn’s sex life, genitalia and behaviour. All three were forced to leave their homes over concerns for their own safety.
As a whole, the movement alternates between denying responsibility for the threats and harassment, denying the latters’ existence, or even claiming the victims themselves created the threats. While recently condeming doxxing on twitter, 8chan has at the same time being used to expose the id and home address of those women who #Gamergate perceive as enemies.
Other women have been caught in this debacle, too. Social researcher Jennifer Allaway was targeted by what she calls a “hate group” in late September. While conducting a study on the importance of diversity in game content, she was targeted by gamergaters with attacks and insults. “If members of gamergate took my study seriously, I would have welcomed them. The fact that they used my own study to mock the purpose of it and harass me shows that, to them, anything or anyone asking questions about diversity deserves mockery,” she said.
The whole environment has become “exhausting”, Allaway noted: “I have multiple friends in the game industry who have faced far worse harassment than I, and seeing what they go through makes me want to speak out more. The worst is seeing your friends leave. Women have worked so hard to make the industry a safe space for themselves, and now that feels threatened.” Among those who have quit due to the harassment, is award winning journalist Jenn Frank, who abandoned gaming journalism after being repeatedly threatened, insulted, and having her personal info posted online following an article she wrote for The Guardian regarding the harassment faced by Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian.
More than a vocal minority
The persistence of threats and harassment brings into question whether the angry and hateful side of the movement is simply a minority. Game developer Molly Carroll has doubts on how “minor” is the hatred in #Gamergate. While she notes that the official cause of #Gamergate is indeed worthy, as gaming journalism is in need of refinement, she is skeptical of whether people are truly in it for that cause. As she notes, the hatemongers have gained prevalence over whatever rational segment there ever was: “Sadly, one cannot deny that the actions of the anti-women portion of Gamergate have outnumbered and gained attention over that of any other,” she says.
Due to the way things progressed and escalated, as the focus increasingly shifted from claims about “ethics” to the position of women in gaming, #Gamergate was joined by women-haters and neo-nazis, who used it as an outlet for their hatred: “It isn’t even about games any more, its just an outlet for these kinds of people [to act] without consequence,” Carroll claimed.
#Gamergate in itself, in her perception, has accomplished nothing. At least, not anything the movement aimed for. “I suppose the situation has offered food for thought, but an actual tangible effect? No. At least not yet, and I highly doubt anything will come from it,” she said. If anything came out of this, is that the treatment of women is gaining more attention and sympathy than ever before. However, as Allaway noted, one must not keep silent over #Gamergate: “Silence is acceptance. If we are silent against the actions of #gamergate, then we are saying that we consent to the threats and harassment to our community. They have the ability to impact our culture if we do not put a stop to them.”
A “Culture War”
Some gamergaters themselves are no longer defining their “war” as one against corruption in gaming journalism, but as a “culture war” to keep gaming culture unaltered, to curtail any attempts at moving it towards a more inclusive environment, and to end critique of it – all the while maintaining they are the ones being oppressed. A recent post on 8chan read:
“Gamergate is about drawing a line in the sand and stating that ‘We will give up X freedoms to make you comfortable, but that is all we will ever give you.’ Freminists [sic] are demanding games be more inclusive for women. Black action groups are demanding games have more black protagonists. Gays are demanding more gay characters, and Trans are demanding trans characters.
The point of gamer gate is us stating that we have a culture independant [sic] of other cultures. That we will maintain our culture despite newcomers asking for more and more stipulations and changes to it. They have taken our right to speak freely in public. They have taken our right to debate freely in acadamia [sic]. They have taken our right to pubic [sic] expression and art. We are drawing the line at the edge of the internet and any one who tries to further force us to concede our freedom of expression will face us there.”
This kind of claim is nothing new: it harkens back to moral outrages over minority rights, and the reversal of blame so common in them. To Allaway, this indicated a “knee-jerk reaction” by people that until now were the only ones being catered to. “This is of course ridiculous, because there will always be games that cater to them more than women and other minorities” she addsed, “but they fear what this dialogue will do to games as a whole, and are willing to silence anyone who is a part of changing that.”
According to Carroll, another leading factor are misconceptions as to what is causing changes in gaming. “Currently some of the bigger figureheads spearheading these efforts and getting the most media attention are women. So naturally people assume that its women who are changing games in what they see as a bad way”, she noted, adding that those changes are still very slow. “For every step they [gaming companies] take forward, such as the removal of booth babes – skimpy clad women used to promote products in events and conventions – from gaming events, there is a step back,” she said.
The “War” narrative has been used before, in an interview conceed by Zoe Quinn’s ex-boyfriend Eron Gjoni (the author of the “zoepost” and arguably, the catalyst to #Gamergate) to Buzzfeed, Gjoni claimed he “quit his dayjob” as waging “internet warfare” took too much of his dedication. Nowadays he focuses mainly on coordinating #Gamergate – and says he would do it again – although in the same interview he said he regrets the harassment. According to him, the threats against his ex girlfriend are not his faullt: she should’ve done more to prevent that. Sadly, is another feature of some gamergaters: shifting the blame unto the victim, while portraying themselves as the ones being persecuted.
An online “war” over games might seem like a silly thing – and in many ways, it is – yet since its inception #Gamergate, either intentionally or by irresponsibility, has led to fear, harassment and aggression online. Whatever they think their intentions might be in theory, in practice their behaviour is little more than that of an angry mob – and should be treated as such.
Written by Pedro Leal
Image credit: gamergate365