Over the weekend, a game developer in Boston named Brianna Wu fled her home after an online stalker vowed to rape and kill her. She isn't the first woman who's been forced into hiding by aggrieved video game fans associated with Gamergate, the self-styled reform movement that's become difficult to ignore over the past several months as its beliefs have ramified out from the fever swamps of the internet into the real world. She probably won't be the last.
By design, Gamergate is nearly impossible to define. It refers, variously, to a set of incomprehensible Benghazi-type conspiracy theories about game developers and journalists; to a fairly broad group of gamers concerned with corruption in gaming journalism; to a somewhat narrower group of gamers who believe women should be punished for having sex; and, finally, to a small group of gamers conducting organized campaigns of stalking and harassment against women.
This ambiguity is useful, because it turns any discussion of this subject into a debate over semantics. Really, though, Gamergate is exactly what it appears to be: a relatively small and very loud group of video game enthusiasts who claim that their goal is to audit ethics in the gaming-industrial complex and who are instead defined by the campaigns of criminal harassment that some of them have carried out against several women. (Whether the broader Gamergate movement is a willing or inadvertent semi-respectable front here is an interesting but ultimately irrelevant question.) None of this has stopped it from gaining traction: Earlier this month, Gamergaters compelled Intel to pull advertising from a gaming site critical of the movement, and there's no reason to think it will stop there.
In many ways, Gamergate is an almost perfect closed-bottle ecosystem of bad internet tics and shoddy debating tactics. Bringing together the grievances of video game fans, self-appointed specialists in journalism ethics, and dedicated misogynists, it's captured an especially broad phylum of trolls and built the sort of structure you'd expect to see if, say, you'd asked the old Fires of Heaven message boards to swing a Senate seat. It's a fascinating glimpse of the future of grievance politics as they will be carried out by people who grew up online.
What's made it effective, though, is that it's exploited the same basic loophole in the system that generations of social reactionaries have: the press's genuine and deep-seated belief that you gotta hear both sides. Even when not presupposing that all truth lies at a fixed point exactly equidistant between two competing positions, the American press works under the assumption that anyone more respectable than, say, an avowed neo-Nazi is operating in something like good faith. And this is why a loosely organized, lightly noticed collection of gamers, operating from a playbook that was showing its age during Ronald Reagan's rise to power, have been able to set the terms of debate in a $100 billion industry, even as they send women like Brianna Wu into hiding and show every sign that they intend to keep doing so until all their demands are met.
The simplest version of the story goes something like this: In August, the ex-boyfriend of an obscure game developer writes a long, extensively documented, literally self-dramatizing, and profoundly deranged blog post about the dissolution of their relationship. Among his many accusations, he claims she slept with a gaming journalist in return for favorable coverage. This clearly isn't true, but a group of gamers becomes convinced there is a conspiracy to not cover this story. The developer's personal information is distributed widely across the internet, and she and a feminist gaming activist receive graphic, detailed threats, forcing the activist to contact the police and flee her home. In response, several sites publish think pieces about the death of the gamer identity. These pieces are, in essence, celebrations of the success of gaming, arguing that it is now enjoyed by so many people of such diverse backgrounds and with such varied interests that the idea of the gamer—a person whose identity is formed around a universally enjoyed leisure activity—now seems as quaint as the idea of the moviegoer. Somehow, this is read to mean that these sites now think gamers are bad. The grievances intensify, and the discussions of them on Twitter are increasingly unified under the hashtag #gamergate.
The longer, more detailed version of the story is considerably more interesting.
In August, a programmer named Eron Gjoni posted a long account of the end of his relationship with Zoe Quinn, an indie game developer; it was regrettable and embarrassing for everyone involved. Part of the account involved Quinn cheating on him with a writer named Nathan Grayson. At the time, Grayson freelanced for Kotaku and for a popular gaming site called Rock Paper Shotgun; later, he would join Kotaku as a full-timer. Gjoni's post was taken as evidence that Quinn had slept with Grayson in order to receive a favorable review for one of her games, Depression Quest, at Kotaku.
(A necessary disclosure: Kotaku is Deadspin's sister site. Both are owned by Gawker Media.)
Released in early 2013, Depression Quest is a choose-your-own-adventure-style game about managing life with depression, released independent of the big gaming studios and promoted as a boutique product. It was the right kind of game, made by the right kind of person, to hold up as evidence of the broadly correct and generally appealing notion that games and gamers are diversifying in new and increasingly unexpected directions, and so Depression Quest was lauded by several outlets as a brave and personal piece of work. This was, strictly speaking, true; the structural gamification of dealing with depression directly was novel and earnest, and it was and remains a game that might induce serious thoughts about a serious subject. It was also true, though, that Depression Quest was not a good game so much as a critic-proof gesture at one, seeming to exist more as a set of instructions for the writing of puff pieces about how brave its creator was than anything else.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the game and its glowing reception were hugely unpopular among a certain type of video game fan. By late 2013, when Quinn added the game to Steam's Project Greenlight, she had become the target of sustained and virulent harassment. Very little of this seemed to have to do with actual, detailed criticism of the game, and even less seemed to have to do with any sort of principled critique of the way Depression Quest served as a means for game writers to demonstrate their right-mindedness.
Once Gjoni's breakup post was made public, with its sotto voce intimations of sex-for-coverage exchanges, this cycle was set back into motion and supercharged. It's important to note that the initial claim that sparked Gamergate was not only untrue, but totally nonsensical—neither Grayson nor anyone else even reviewed the game at Kotaku, and while Grayson did write about Quinn in late March in a feature about a failed reality show, that was before they'd begun their romantic relationship. Nevertheless, fevered accusations that Quinn had traded sex for press began to float around online, and Quinn's sexual history and nude photos were spread around 4chan and IRC. Logs of conversations among her harassers show them to have been unimaginably toxic:
Aug 25 07.18.18 <Logan> Any chance we can get Zoe to commit suicide?
Aug 25 07.18.29 if we can get more daming evidence
Aug 25 07.18.29 I think the [doxxing info removed by DF] is a good shot.
Aug 25 07.18.33 <temet> like her fucking a train of lack dudes …
Aug 25 07.18.39 <PaperDinosaur> fuck off Logan
Aug 25 07.18.39 <temet> black
Aug 25 07.18.51 <Logan> Nah 21st century doing a train is so 90s. …
Aug 25 07.18.59 <PaperDinosaur> If she commits suicide we lose everything …
Aug 25 07.20.34 <PaperDinosaur> If you can't see how driving Zoe to suicide would fuck this entire thing up then you're a fucking idiot
Aug 25 07.20.41 Imagine the kotaku article …
Aug 25 07.20.48 <temet> PaperDinosaur is right
Aug 25 07.20.51 <temet> not the right PR play
This was the impossibly stupid beginning of an impossibly stupid and literally unbelievable sequence of events. Also around and during this time:
Anita Sarkeesian releases a video about the sexualization and use of women as props in games; she becomes involved as a matter of course; Sarkeesian is harassed and threatened to the point of filing a police report with the San Francisco Police Department and leaving her home due to the severity of the threats; Quinn produces logs of chatrooms and posts from Reddit and 4chan that show gamers planning to carry out hacks on her personal accounts and create fake accounts to "speak out" against harassment; the gaming industry circulates a petition speaking out against the harassment of Quinn and Sarkeesian that's eventually signed by thousands of industry members; The Fine Young Capitalists, a fifth-column feminist group dedicated to "promoting women in gaming" with whom Quinn had previously feuded, re-engage her; groups from around the internet raise more than $70,000 for TFYC in a crowdfunding project; Adam Baldwin (yes, that Adam Baldwin) coins the term #Gamergate on Twitter; an ancillary hashtag, #notyourshield, is hatched by minorities, women, and LGBTQ gamers who agree with Gamergate and disagree with writers who they feel are misrepresenting them; Gamergate tweaks its outward image, deciding that it is now on a mission to expose broader corruption in video game journalism; and writers who have openly supported Quinn and Sarkeesian are harassed online, via email, and through repeated hack attempts, with Vox Media singled out in particular.
Eventually, several articles on the same basic topic were published. The general premise was that it is pointless to talk about "gamers" as a whole—the constituency is too vast—and further, that the core identity of a "gamer" had become dominated by the loudest and most unacceptable sort. The most openly prosecutorial was a Gamasutra op-ed by editor-at-large Leigh Alexander titled "'Gamers' don't have to be your audience. 'Gamers' are over." It argued that the only way to begin anew the project of defining the culture of gaming is to tear the whole thing down and build from scratch. It contained this passage:
'Games culture' is a petri dish of people who know so little about how human social interaction and professional life works that they can concoct online 'wars' about social justice or 'game journalism ethics,' straight-faced, and cause genuine human consequences. Because of video games.
This is when everything fell all the way down the shitter.
Early this month, Intel announced that it would cease advertising on Gamasutra. It would later claim that it was unaware of Gamergate when it made its decision, but that it would stand by the decision and not advertise on Gamasutra. A handful of trolls, vaguely waving their hands about a non-existent sex scandal, had successfully bullied a corporation with a $158 billion market capitalization into doing their bidding.
By most metrics, Gamergate comprises an insignificant fraction of video game fans. On Reddit, for example, the main staging ground for Gamergate has reached 10,000 readers, representing .17 percent of the more than six million readers on the general gaming subreddit. In terms of actual, demonstrated public interest, this isn't even a tempest in a teapot. What it lacks in scale, though, it more than makes up for in volume.
Gamergate is surprisingly well organized, with "operations" staged from a mishmash of Reddit boards, infinite chan threads (having abandoned 4chan), and unofficial-official dedicated sites. "Daily boycotters," for example, are instructed not just to email targeted companies to express their grievances, but to spam these targets on Sundays and Wednesdays to maximize congestion—shit up the Monday morning rush, and dogpile in the middle of the week, so the mess has to be addressed before the weekend. They're told never to use the actual term "Gamergate," as that will allow the message to be filtered.
This has proved effective enough to get Intel to keel over, and it won't be surprising if it works on other companies, too. A representative of one of the companies targeted by the daily boycotts said that they'd received about 1,000 emails so far, more than half of which were pro-Gamergate. The only comparable online flare-up any of the representatives interviewed could remember is SOPA—the Stop Online Piracy Act, one of the most universally panned pieces of legislation in recent memory. This is how a very few people can get their way, and the use of this technique is one of the many similarities between Gamergate and the ever-present aggrieved reactionaries whose most recent manifestation is the Tea Party.
This isn't a complex jump. Like, say, the Christian right, which came together through the social media of its day—little-watched television broadcasts, church bulletins, newsletters—or the Tea Party, which found its way through self-selection on social media and through back channels, Gamergate, in the main, comprises an assortment of agitators who sense which way the winds are blowing and feel left out. It has found a mobilizing event, elicited response from the established press, and run a successful enough public relations campaign that it's begun attracting visible advocates who agree with the broad talking points and respectful-enough coverage from the mainstream press. If there is a ground war being waged, as the movement's increasingly militaristic rhetoric suggests, Gamergate is fighting largely unopposed.
A more important resemblance to the Tea Party, though, is in the way in which it's focused the anger of people who realize the world is changing, and not necessarily to their benefit.
The default assumption of the gaming industry has always been that its customer is a young, straight, middle-class white man, and so games have always tended to cater to the perceived interests of this narrow demographic. Gamergate is right about this much: When developers make games targeting or even acknowledging other sorts of people, and when video game fans say they want more such games, this actually does represent an assault on the prerogatives of the young, middle-class white men who mean something very specific when they call themselves gamers. Gamergate offers a way for this group, accustomed to thinking of themselves as the fixed point around which the gaming-industrial complex revolves, to stage a sweeping counteroffensive in defense of their control over the medium. The particulars may be different, and the stakes may be infinitely lower, but the dynamic is an old one, the same one that gave rise to the Know Nothing Party and the anti-busing movement and the Moral Majority. And this is the key to understanding Gamergate: There actually is a real conflict here, something like the one perceived by the Tea Partier waving her placard about the socialist Muslim Kenyan usurper in the White House.
There is a reason why, in all the Gamergate rhetoric, you hear the echoes of every other social war staged in the last 30 years: overly politically correct, social-justice warriors, the media elite, gamers are not a monolith. There is also a reason why so much of the rhetoric amounts to a vigorous argument that Being a gamer doesn't mean you're sexist, racist, and stupid—a claim no one is making. Co-opting the language and posture of grievance is how members of a privileged class express their belief that the way they live shouldn't have to change, that their opponents are hypocrites and perhaps even the real oppressors. This is how you get St. Louisans sincerely explaining that Ferguson protestors are the real racists, and how you end up with an organized group of precisely the same video game enthusiasts to whom an entire industry is catering honestly believing that they're an oppressed minority. From this kind of ideological fortification, you can stage absolutely whatever campaigns you deem necessary.
My name's Chris Watters, I can usually be found talking about games, playing games, generally celebrating how awesome games are on GameSpot.com. But today, I'm here, we're all here, to celebrate one awesome game.
When Blizzard revealed the trailer for Warlords of Draenor, its newest World of Warcraft expansion, at a showcase in Los Angeles last month, it opened with the sort of ritual auto-fellatio familiar to anyone who's ever attended any corporate event. What was odd about it—or at least what would be for anyone unfamiliar with the peculiar folkways of the gaming industry—was Blizzard's choice of a master of ceremonies. There was Chris Watters of GameSpot, one of the largest gaming sites on the internet, standing on a conference stage
sponsored heavily by GameSpot being broadcast to video game fans on GameSpot's bandwidth and carrying GameSpot's logo, hyping a trailer for a game that he had never played was still in development.
If the goal of Gamergate is to wipe out corruption in games journalism—if the movement isn't merely a bunch of loosely shaped sublimated qualms about feminism and minorities—it's doing a shit job of identifying the actual, honest-to-god problems in games writing. It's not as if those problems are hard to see. As a rule, games journalism is inherently compromised. From the top down, publishers ranging from AAA behemoths like Electronic Arts to the IndieCade crowd do in fact enjoy symbiotic relationships with gaming media outlets, and if it came down to nothing more than sex and petty corruption, that would be nice, because the problem would certainly be a lot more easily solved.
At one end of the spectrum, you have press outlets that barely even feign autonomy from marketing departments. IGN's "IGN First" features on upcoming games and Game Informer's monthly cover story rely on deep access to upcoming games—access granted to no one else in the industry. Invariably, the stories produced from that access are positive. It's a win-win for game studios and press outlets, and a loss for anyone who'd like to read something other than thinly veiled advertorials about big upcoming games. These kinds of relationships are what makes programs like Kotaku's embedded gamers—wherein writers play four or five series extensively post-release, dive deep into the community, and report back—important for players looking to read coverage outside the marketing cycle.