The battle of Gamergate and the future of video games

By Aja Romano on December 21st, 2014

As we close the book on 2014, we can hopefully put aside #Gamergate, the ugly, bitterly divisive battle in the gaming community that inflamed the Internet between August and November.

By the time Gamergate burbled up to the mainstream press, it was typically referred to as a culture war, but it was never so neatly two-sided. At its heart, beyond the sexism, 4chan/8chan antics, the doxing, the endless jokes about ethics in journalism, the threatened mass shooting of an entire university campus, and the bitterness of an ex-boyfriend that started it all—Gamergate was about representation: in the gaming community, in gaming media, and in games themselves.

At its core, Gamergate was an attempt to control who games are for.

Ethics in video game journalism

Gamergate began at the end of August with a sex scandal. The ex-boyfriend of game developer Zoe Quinn posted a long tell-all accusing her of lying and infidelity. Quinn was already a loathed figure among conservative male gamers who felt her Depression Quest hadn’t earned its success. Quinn received a flood of harassment when the indie game was greenlit on Steam last year.

To understand why Quinn was harassed for making a game about depression, it’s helpful to understand the changing nature of gaming culture over the past half-decade or so. With the advent of mobile and PC games, Steam communities, and the mainstreaming of geek culture, more people are playing more kinds of games than ever before. With that new audience, more voices are speaking out about what they want games to be. Innumerable efforts in the community to encourage a broader audience that includes women have paid off. A recent industry study found that adult women are now the largest demographic in gaming.

At its core, Gamergate was an attempt to control who games are for.

Traditional gamers haven’t dealt with this influx of new players gracefully. Newcomers speaking out usually face intense backlash. Women in the community are increasingly discussing their wish to be treated respectfully, and their dislike of seeing female characters used solely as sex objects or glorified props in the games they play. In response, some male gamers see those concerns—and the people who bring them up—as ruining the fun of their gaming experience. When video games were fringe entertainment, they weren’t subject to the same kinds of social critiques common in film and television criticism. Now that games are part of the mainstream, more people are taking a critical look at the messages within games and issues of representation.

This is a message many male gamers don’t want to hear. Women are harassed constantly in the gaming community. Bioware’s Jennifer Hepler finally resigned last year after enduring years of harassment. Game critic Anita Sarkeesian has faced rape and death threats the past two and a half years, including a bomb threat in April, from gamers who feel her feminist critiques are everything wrong with games. Even women otherwise revered among gamers come under fire if they begin to talk too freely about harassment or representation in the gaming community. Gaming golden girl Felicia Day was promptly doxed after blogging about how Gamergate made her fear for her privacy.

The first time Day was harassed in April, it was because she cut her hair.

A pattern of abuse

In his post about his relationship with Zoe Quinn, her ex, Eren Gjoni, stated he wanted to warn the community about her. Gjoni alleged Quinn had cheated on him and lied about it, and that she had slept with at least five different people during their relationship. Though Gjoni’s ostensible goal was to share a tale of an emotionally abusive relationship, he also went out of his way to disclose that one of Quinn’s alleged partners was a writer for gaming website Kotaku and another was a supervisor.

Gamers flocked to accuse Quinn of sleeping around for positive reviews and personal career advancement, despite a lack of proof: Kotaku editors publicly clarified that the reporter in question never wrote a review of Quinn’s game, and she was hired well after her relationship with her supervisor had ended. Still, gamers latched onto her relationship with the reporter as an example of corruption in video game journalism. Later a statistical analysis of Gamergate harassment by Newsweek would determine that the reporter received a tenth of the harassment that Quinn did. Nevertheless, the rallying cry for the community became one of concern over “ethics in gaming journalism.”

Gamergate denizens’ concerns boil down to two basic ideas. The first is simple: Journalists are too cozy with developers and are failing to provide unbiased coverage of video game news.

The Gamergate movement wanted desperately to be about gamers’ perennial dissatisfaction with gaming media, but what it mostly seemed to result in was the harassment of individual women.

This an old suspicion that hums in certain corners of the gaming community only to erupt when scandal breaks. Many gamers see the perks of video game journalism (early access to games for review and free stuff) and the close relationship between gaming studios, advertisers, and journalists as evidence of corruption. Pandering journalists could be giving good reviews and promotion to mediocre products to please friends in the business, the theory goes.

But there’s little evidence that points to any of that being true. The worst ethical breach uncovered by Gamergate was that some journalists had failed to disclose that they provided crowdfunding to certain games or developers they wrote about. Gaming sites Kotaku and Polygon copped to this and have since created policies to address it. Polygon is requiring their reporters to make those disclosures standard procedure to avoid the appearance of any impropriety. Kotaku “nixed” such donations.

But even after the immediate fallout from the Quinn post had cleared, Gamergaters were still on a warpath against alleged ethical breaches in journalism. Their ire gave the movement a name, when conservative actor Adam Baldwin (Firefly) wrote this tweet in reaction to the hubbub:

In the first week of its existence, Twitter used the #Gamergate hashtag more than 244,000 times. The heart of their complaints had less to do with the ethics of how mainstream gaming sites were reporting, but what they were reporting.

To Gamergate denizens, the gaming press is unethical because it acknowledges social issues in video games. When Gamergate proponents claim a concern for “ethics in journalism,” this is nearly always what they are talking about. One of Gamergate’s commonly cited examples of an ethical breach in journalism is an October review of Bayonetta 2 by Arthur Gies for Polygon. In Gamergate’s extensive dossier on gaming journalism, released in November, the Polygon review is among the very first cited as an example of the kind of game review the movement as a whole is objecting to. The problem? Gies gave the game a 7.5 out of 10 mainly because he felt its rampant and notorious sexual objectification of women detracted from his enjoyment of it.

What’s contradictory about this is that the Gamergate dossier also cites a wish to abide by the ethical tenets of Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel’s Elements of Journalism. One of the most important of these tenets is that journalists “must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience,” which is precisely what Gies was doing when he noted that he couldn’t, in good conscience, rate the game more highly because its sexism offended him.

Instead of seeing more inclusive stances by reviewers as exercises of personal conscience, Gamergate proponents see them instead as an onslaught of political correctness. Reviewing games for their substance hasn’t historically been high on the list of gamer priorities—they’re usually more concerned about game mechanics and playability. But more and more games are heavily concerned with substance, from the popular family-centered game Gone Home to the critically acclaimed Communist narrative Papers, Please, to the run of choose-your-own-adventure stories from studio Telltale Games. As more people join the community, they demand more from the games they play—like women as characters. One of the most popular posts on Tumblr in 2014 was a post by pushtosmart caustically and succinctly pointing out the gaming industry’s “priorities” when it came to representation:

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This post doesn’t just point out industry hypocrisy—it signals the way the gaming community is evolving beyond its gatekeepers. It’s not that people suddenly want new things from games, like increased representation and women treated as real people. Players have always wanted these things from games—it’s just that now, thanks to the increasing numbers of gamers and the visibility and networking ability of the Internet, we can hear them talking about what they want. And increasingly, the gaming industry and gaming media are starting to listen.

That brings us to Gamergate’s other concern: the social justice warrior, or SJW.

In 2014, this term was everywhere, most often used in reference to feminists and other progressives on Tumblr and Twitter—but most especially feminists. It’s meant as a derogatory insult like “bleeding heart liberal” or “feminazi.” These days many progressives wear the insult like a medal of valor, a purple heart received in the line of fire. When Gamergate made a huge autoblock list of “SJWs” on Twitter, noted webcomic artist Kate Leth made a literal badge of honor out of the achievement:

Gjoni’s post opened the floodgates on resentment within the community toward progressives that had been gathering for years. Reddit communities like r/KotakuinAction and r/TumblrinAction synthesized the most intense of these feelings by serving as a gathering place for disgruntled gamers and trolls to mock what they saw as idiocy, hyperbole, or sheer SJW hypocrisy.

The Gamergate movement wanted desperately to be about gamers’ perennial dissatisfaction with gaming media, but what it mostly seemed to result in was the harassment of individual women. Many people who dared to tweet negatively about Gamergate found themselves bombarded with responses from Gamergate members—many of whom made new sockpuppet Twitter accounts just for the occasion—throughout the months of September, October, and November.

“Feminists have ruined my life and I will have my revenge,” the sender wrote, “for my sake and the sake of all the others they’ve wronged.”

Three visible women in gaming received so much harassment that they all had to leave their homes at one point. The first was Quinn, chased out of her home by threats the first weekend after Gjoni’s post arrived. Then came Sarkeesian, after she posted the latest of her controversial Tropes vs Women in Video Games series the day before Baldwin coined the #Gamergate hashtag. She was promptly driven out of her home by rape and death threats. The third, indie game developer Brianna Wu, called the police and fled her home in October after receiving days of threats from Gamergate proponents, building up to a series of graphic death threats from a Twitter user who included her address.

A fourth, Leigh Alexander, received a different form of harassment as part of Gamergate’s strategy of targeting advertisers. Alexander wrote a strident piece in Gamasutra calling for the end of core “gamer” culture. In response, Gamergate proponents successfully bombarded Gamasutra’s main advertiser, Intel, with emails claiming the website was promoting bullying of gamers. A clueless Intel hastily pulled its advertising from Gamasutra, then declared it wasn’t taking sides, then restored its advertising after a subsequent email campaign from non-Gamergaters.

Intel wasn’t alone. In the oddest tangent yet, Gawker’s then-Valleywag editor Sam Biddle took to Twitter to ironically suggest we should “bring back bullying” in order to silence Gamergate denizens once and for all. Biddle was subsequently reprimanded by Gawker owner Nick Denton after Gamergaters successfully targeted Adobe, persuading it to remove its logo from the website. Adobe later clarified it wasn’t actually a current advertiser at Gawker, but it wanted nothing to do with Gamergate’s agenda. “We reject all forms of bullying, including the harassment of women by individuals associated with Gamergate,” Adobe wrote. As for Valleywag, Biddle left it for greener Gawker pastures, but not before his editor, Max Read, lambasted Denton’s response to the farce: “We got rolled by the dishonest fascists of Gamergate.”

The toll taken

Adding to the sense that all of this was a sketch comedy were endless claims that Gamergate was overrun by trolls. Gamergaters declared anyone engaging in doxing or harassment to be either a troll or an anti-Gamergate spy attempting to make the movement look bad. On the other hand, doxing was so prevalent as a strategy in the early days of Gamergate that 4chan of all places kicked Gamergate to the curb. Younger brother 8chan thus became the Internet’s Gamergate headquarters. Quinn herself screencapped instances of 8chan denizens planning their own troll campaign: the subsidiary hashtag #notyourshield.

#Notyourshield was intended to seem as if it came from multicultural gamers against feminism, proclaiming that they, too, were women and minorities and that feminism couldn’t use them as a “shield” against justifiable criticism. The problem, as Quinn pointed out, was that it was a hashtag entirely engineered by 4chan members adept at creating troll campaigns using fake hashtags on Twitter. Quinn argued that the point was not to give a voice to women and minorities who supported Gamergate, but to deflect attention away from the #Gamergate hashtag once it came under fire for fueling misogyny and harassment. Even 4chan’s support of a women’s developer group, as Vice pointed out, wasn’t actually about the women themselves, but about Gamergate becoming “PR-untouchable.”

Another false note was the discovery that many gaming journalists (including the Daily Dot’s Dennis Scimeca and contributor Mike Wehner) were on a public Google group where they discussed news and community issues with each other outraged many Gamergaters. But this isn’t actually an ethical violation; it’s more like attending a professional meetup. Gamergate tried hard to prove “collusion” and “bias” in media, but apart from its two initial discoveries, it came up empty. Even the Guardian, in the middle of Gamergate, seemed baffled about why reporter Jenn Frank wanted to painstakingly disclose a minor connection she had to Quinn. It just wasn’t an actual conflict of interest.

Yet the nonstop campaigning and harassment had a real toll on members of the media, even the ones who weren’t speaking out.

In September, Frank and game developer Mattie Brice announced they were leaving games journalism and the gaming industry, respectively, due to Gamergate harassment. Because the Guardian editors had initially declined to include the unnecessary disclosure Frank had asked for, Gamergate members harassed her until she’d had enough.

If a pre-Gamergate industry didn’t recognize women as a visible part of their community, it almost certainly does now.

Brice was right behind her. “I won’t be involved with anything tied to the games industry professionally anymore,” she wrote on her Twitter. “I put in my time.”

It didn’t stop there.

In October, Utah State University staff received an alarming email threatening “the deadliest school shooting in American history” if a scheduled talk by Anita Sarkeesian went on as planned. The threat, written by an unknown Gamergate proponent, referred to the Montreal massacre—a mass shooting at a university in which 14 female scientists and engineering students were targeted and killed because of their gender by a misogynistic shooter. The sender also claimed to have an arsenal of weapons including a semiautomatic rifle and pipe bombs.

“Feminists have ruined my life and I will have my revenge,” the sender wrote, “for my sake and the sake of all the others they’ve wronged. [Sarkeesian] is going to die screaming like the craven little whore that she is if you let her come to USU… I will write my manifesto in her spilled blood, and you will all bear witness to what feminist lies and poison have done to the men of America.”

It should probably be noted here that the most poisonous thing Sarkeesian has done in her gaming videos is point out reams of evidence that women are sexually objectified and made the targets of extreme violence in video games.

Because Utah is an open carry state that allows guns on campus, police refused to screen audience members for weapons. Sarkeesian subsequently canceled her appearance.

This, for all intents and purposes, was the moment Gamergate died as a cultural debate. Threatening a mass shooting was too horrific for Twitter to ignore. #StopGamergate2014 trended worldwide and made international headlines. Former NFL player and lifelong gamer Chris Kluwe issued a profanity-laced smackdown of the movement that immediately went viral.

Stephen Colbert invited Sarkeesian onto the Colbert Report, where he declared himself a feminist. It was, essentially, the last word on the subject.

Moving forward

So in the end, what was won in the battle of Gamergate? There’s not much for the proponents of the movement, but those who fought against it can claim some victories.

If anything, Gamergate may have made developers more likely to listen to feminists and progressives—not less. Bioware developer Damion Schubert castigated the idea that Gamergate was about anything but misogyny, while asserting that many game devs found the movement embarrassing. The industry’s largest trade group, ESA, told the Washington Post there was no room in the industry for Gamergate’s culture of harassment. A joint statement from 45 academics and game developers in Sweden denounced Gamergate and issued support for feminists.

Escapist magazine did a series of interviews with male game developers, including some the publisher recruited directly out of a Gamergate forum. Though most of the resulting interviews were pro-Gamergate, independent developer Greg Costikyan stated that Gamergate was “repulsive,” while writer Tadgh Kelly called it a war against “an imaginary enemy.”

In the end, what was won in the battle of Gamergate?

The accompanying interview series with female game developers was entirely anonymous because participants feared harassment. “The more you’re seen as a hate mob, the more developers will tune you out,” one of them wrote.

The fallout of Gamergate also dismantled the myth that “gamer” is an identifiable, easily defined label. The visible presence of women and minorities among the Gamergate numbers proved that “gamer” isn’t a monolith. And Gamergate served to make women and other minorities more visible in gaming in general. More and more, casual gamers are owning their hobby, and women are insisting on being counted. In September, the Guardian declared that “52 percent of gamers are women, but the industry doesn’t know it,” due to the stereotype that the players of casual games aren’t “real” gamers. But if a pre-Gamergate industry didn’t recognize women as a visible part of their community, it almost certainly does now.

The harassment and threats of violence associated with Gamergate may have been the final push Twitter needed to do something its users had been begging it to do for years. In December, Twitter took its first real baby steps toward creating a better system of reporting for harassment and abusive behavior on the site. Meanwhile, Gamergate proponents, realizing they had to disengage from violence, resorted to much cuter ways of trying to get their message across—an attempt to be kinder, gentler critics of women and minorities in their spaces:

tumblr_ngnaiofKL11u2kee3o1_1280Illustration via Tumblr

Perhaps this emphasis on kindness will produce the one concern for gaming that Gamergate failed to demonstrate: empathy for other players. Gamergate laid bare the emptiness of entitlement—the belief that cultural products are only for them—that the inclusion of other identities and experiences in games is somehow taking something away. Perhaps it is; after all, it’s harder to maintain ignorant or stereotyped beliefs about other people when we’re presented with complex representations of them in the media we consume. It’s harder to invalidate other people’s wish to be included when we’re obliged to spend time with them regularly.

Sarkeesian once described Gamergate as a “sexist temper tantrum.” In essence, Gamergate is about who gets to play in the sandbox.

Now at the end of 2014, everyone does, whether gamers like it or not.

Illustration by Max Fleishman