If you’re a person who cares about video games and also happens to care about other people, you should denounce "Gamergate." You might have heard that it’s a movement about ethics in video game journalism, but in practice it’s a months-long campaign of harassment against women and progressive voices that’s just the latest in a long history of online abuse amplified by reactionary right-wing media trolls.
Gamergate is distinguished, like so many other things ending in -gate (or more recently, -ghazi), by its aggressive and desperate tone. Its supporters have largely attempted to scare anyone, but especially women, who have asked the same critical questions about the video game industry that are routinely posed in other communities. Critics of video games and Gamergate itself have been branded as liars, sluts, and co-conspirators.
Video game critics have been branded as liars, sluts, and co-conspirators
The militants of Gamergate claim they are the vanguard of ethical games journalism in order to justify their harassment. They have established no credibility as such, but maintain the titillating promise to "expose" corrupt game journalists with memes, sock-puppet trolls, and the kind of internet detective work that caught the wrong Boston bomber.
It would be easy to mistake the angry members of Gamergate as mere fanboys; people who have incorporated objects of consumer culture so deeply in their personal identity that an inconvenient or embarrassing revelation about a product they like is an attack on the self. Or, as Matthew Burns described them, "consumer kings" who mistake the ritual of consumption for self-importance. But they’re not just fanboys; as Peter Frase wrote in Jacobin, there’s a reactionary right-wing flavor to all of Gamergate’s desperate yelling. (Liz Ryerson was the first to thoroughly document this extremism.) "Some gamers would like it both ways: they want everyone to take their medium seriously, but they don’t want anyone to challenge their political assumptions or call into question the way gamers treat people who don’t look and think like them," Frase wrote. "They hate and fear a world where games are truly made by and for everyone."
Gamergaters use the same toolkit as reactionary agitators
What gives Gamergate power and momentum is its extremist conservative obstinacy; it is a reactionary movement against progressive voices that hoodwinks typically apolitical game players by convincing them of some harm that doesn’t actually exist, like they are losing their right to free speech, or their hobby is being killed by an anti-gamer conspiracy. Once you’ve insinuated something like that, whether or not it’s true, it’s easy to get a lot of people on your side; a closely related project is to get people hyped up about people stealing votes to justify racially and politically biased ID laws, even though voter fraud in the United States is a mythical boogeyman.
Gamergate’s patriarchal sway has allowed charlatans like Milo Yiannopoulos to become one of its preeminent champions. Yiannopoulos, who routinely writes misogynistic, transphobic, and other bigoted rants for Breitbart, would never be exalted in any forum lacking an undercurrent of reactionary right-wing sympathies. Even the American Enterprise Institute has chimed in, arguing that the issue of sexism and misogyny in video games is a fake issue created by "feminist tech writers" and "concernocrats." AEI’s involvement has been led by Christina Hoff Summers, who cares very little about video games but an awful lot about the alleged War On Men, which ranks somewhere near the War On Christmas on the list of things adults ought to take seriously. Nevertheless, she’s been anointed by Gamergate fanatics as a truth-teller for her views on male persecution, ditto other reactionaries like YouTube personality "Thunderf00t" who has published videos such as "Do hot girls have all the advantages?" and "Why feminism poisons EVERYTHING."
The conspiracy theory at the core of Gamergate even has parallels to other attacks on liberal journalists. Brietbart wrote how the "secret mailing list of the gaming journalism elite" had been "exposed," the same way Andrew Brietbart tried years ago to nail an allegedly liberal journalism "cabal" including writers like Ezra Klein and Dave Weigel. There was no real scandal with Journolist, the same way there is no real scandal with the game journalist list — unless you believe that journalists merely speaking to one another constitutes some kind of shadowy media illuminati.
SJW: someone who cares about people more than video games— Mara Wilson (@MaraWritesStuff) October 2, 2014
The enemy of the Gamergate supporter is the so-called "social justice warrior," which is a pejorative commonly used to describe basically anyone who feels empathy — a trait that sickens narcissists who believe that listening to another human being and taking their feelings seriously is a form of defeat. It’s difficult to read any thread on Gamergate without finding its supporters accosting their enemies with accusations of SJW loyalism, even though it’s essentially an insult in the form of: "look at you, caring about other people!"
Manipulative identity politics, ripped straight from the handbook of conservative sophistry, are also at play. Under the #notyourshield banner, people who say they have vulnerable identities rallied around the Gamergate cause to counter the narrative that all gamers are angry white men (something nobody is saying, by the way) and prove that "gamers" in the movement are suitably diverse. But this hashtag campaign started as just another disingenuous 4chan astroturfing operation designed to make Gamergate critics look like hypocrites, essentially by saying "look at all these women and queer people and black people, they can’t be racist or misogynist!"
Gamergate supporters, like the reactionary right-wing in general, have attempted to co-opt the vulnerability of those they seek to marginalize, while simultaneously maintaining the illusion that they are the ones being harassed. It’s the same tone-deaf logic that bigots and racists use when the structural power enforcing their traditional values erodes, and is eventually conquered: "Stop saying mean things about us because we believe gay marriage should be prohibited by the state! Stop silencing us!"
"This isn't a problem with gamer culture, it's a problem with our entire culture."
In short, Gamergate is a boggling witch hunt that continues to raise more questions than it answers because it didn’t have any useful questions to ask in the first place. Even Gamergate’s founding claim, that games journalism is corrupt, is opportunistic horseshit from misogynists who decided to shame a woman for allegedly sleeping around because they didn’t like her video game and wanted to punish her for it. Slut-shaming, gaslighting, dismissal, fallacious logic, intimidation: these are all part of the Gamergate militant’s toolkit.
Gamergate’s tactics, while louder and more sustained than many other campaigns of online harassment, aren’t unique, and they’re not really about video games. Like Frase wrote, "this isn’t a problem with gamer culture. It’s a problem with our entire culture." Its zealots use the same tradecraft as their spiritual troll-king, Weev, who exemplified internet abuse in 2007 with his malicious campaign against Kathy Sierra. Weev is the prototypical angry young man, whose development has been arrested by hatred for women and other scapegoats for his recursive misery. Using some of the same methods seen from Gamergate militants, Weev forced Sierra offline more than once, and the effects of his campaign have rippled for years; just yesterday, Sierra abandoned Twitter, leaving behind a saddening missive. "A particularly robust troll-crafted hot button meme today is that some women are out to destroy video games," Sierra wrote. "Life for women in tech, today, is often better the less visible they are."
Sadly, life for most women online may be better the less visible they are. As long as you’re being heard by a lot of people, or a bunch of guys happen to think you’re attractive, you could be easily made a target by people who are willing to harass and hurt you, and then remind you that it was all your fault: If you didn’t want your nude photos leaked, you shouldn't have taken them. You shouldn’t use iCloud. If I were you, I would have leaked them myself to get ahead of it.You had it coming.
Sometimes the abuse doesn't even require any pretense; Zelda Williams, daughter of Robin Williams, endured vicious harassment on Twitter for no discernible reason other than the fact her dad had just died and she was vulnerable. Women still aren't safe on the internet, and Gamergate is part of the problem.
Adding insult to injury, the places we might hope would stand up to this kind of abuse often stand and watch with their hands in their pockets, unwilling to challenge abusive people who provide them with revenue. Reddit, for instance, denounced the recent celebrity nude leak but was happy to profit from it. Gamers do this for their industry benefactors, and are rewarded with cultural dominance in big-budget video games.
so fyi, if you're part of gamergate and antiharassment, know that saying "hey don't harass" isn't working, hasn't worked, & never will— Zombië Queen (@TheQuinnspiracy) October 2, 2014
Gamergate is now a self-sustaining machine because it is fueled by reactionary rage and deception, existing now only to defend itself against criticism of "gamers." It’s not really accurate to call Gamergate’s militants "gamers" because, as Leigh Alexander rightly observed, gamer is basically a meaningless term that could describe basically any modern consumer. The problem for Gamergate’s "gamers" is that video games no longer exist purely to sate the gaze of galvanic young men eager to defend their sacrosanct right to beat virtual prostitutes to death as if they were righteous neck-stabbing defenders of the Alamo."‘Gamer’ isn’t just a dated demographic label that most people increasingly prefer not to use," Alexander wrote. "Gamers are over. That’s why they’re so mad."
The internet and video games are incredible because they can allow everyone to participate — and everyone to feel safe. Gamers are dead because we're all gamers now. So let's protect each other.
Update: References to "right-wing" parties or messages I made throughout this article were overbroad. These references have been amended to reflect that I am talking about viewpoints commonly espoused by the reactionary right.