The Future Of The Culture Wars Is Here, And It's Gamergate

We may earn a commission from links on this page.
Image for article titled The Future Of The Culture Wars Is Here, And It's Gamergate

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 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.


There are conflicts of this kind all over the place, right out in the open. (Do you know if your favorite columnist paid for his consoles, or accepted them from Microsoft and Sony?) For the usual reasons of professional courtesy or decorum, a lot of this goes unreported or commented upon, but it matters. These conflicts may be common in many fields, but they are especially bad in gaming journalism, partly due to its nature.

I spent close to three years covering and reviewing technology for Gizmodo. The very first thing I learned about reviews was that you can't fuck up. Day to day, writing about products and entertainment—games, gadgets, movies, whatever—is a low-stakes occupation that a lot of people would kill for. The only serious responsibility you have is to make sure that you do not compel readers who trust you to spend their money and time on something they won't enjoy. To do so accidentally is incompetence; to do it knowingly, or to put yourself in the position where you can be influenced into doing it, is just about the only way to fuck up in the job, and an awful lot of gaming writers are doing it, in shops where the walls between ad sales and editorial grow thinner than they should.


At the other end of the spectrum, you have something much more fraught and complex. People generally don't work in independent gaming, whether as developers or journalists, to get rich; they do it because they believe in it. The press covering independent gaming is coming from a very specific perspective, and the line between writing honestly from that perspective and engaging in cheerleading and advocacy can be thin. That's especially so given the overpowering cults of personality that exist in the field—a phenomenon not at all specific to games. Recently, for instance, I asked a friend in the industry if any indie conflicts stood out.

"There's this really popular developer named Rami Ismail," he started. Ismail is an indie dev at Vlambeer, which makes games like Ridiculous Fishing and Super Crate Box.


"Oh, everyone loves Rami!" I jumped in, the first time all night that I'd had anything to contribute. Then, after a beat, the point dawned on me: Everyone loves Rami.

This isn't a bad thing! Ismail is a sharp dude, and there are reasons why everyone loves him. But there's no question that figures in gaming can reach a certain level where their words aren't treated with nearly enough skepticism or distance. Most of the tension surrounding the original Depression Quest launch was about a woman receiving praise, for example, but there was also a very real frustration with cynical, share-happy indie gaming sites keying in on games like this less because of their merits than because they're tailored enough in their scope to be a very particular sort of viral.


It tells you a lot about Gamergate that it has focused principally on this end of the spectrum. The equivalent in Deadspin's world would be to hold up a few preps reporters who've become friendly with some coaches in their coverage area as examples of the hopeless corruption of the sports media, while ignoring, say, the ongoing love affair between ESPN and the NFL.

The demands for journalistic integrity coming from Gamergate have nothing at all to do with the systemic corruption of the gaming media. They've centered instead on journalists purportedly pursuing social-justice agendas and on ridiculous claims that the press sees gamers as vectors of social contagion. Some of the complaints, like the idea that outlets ought to reconsider their editorial positions if enough readers disagree with them, even stand in direct opposition to traditional journalistic ethics.


All of this makes sense, though, if you think about Gamergate as a mutant variant of the traditional American grievance movement, a rearguard action marching under the banner of high-minded media critique. The claims from what we like to call the "bias journalisms" school of media criticism aren't meant to express anything in particular, or even, perhaps, to be taken seriously; they're meant to work the referees, to get them looking over their shoulders, to soften them up in the hopes that a particular grievance, whatever its merits, might get a better hearing next time around. The problem, in other words, isn't that journalists have agendas; it's that some of them have the wrong agendas.

How does it play out? Like this: Earlier this month, the New York Times covered Intel's capitulation in the face of a coordinated Gamergate campaign, called "Operation Disrespectful Nod." Here's how the story read:

For a little more than a month, a firestorm over sexism and journalistic ethics has roiled the video game community, culminating in an orchestrated campaign to pressure companies into pulling their advertisements from game sites.

That campaign won a big victory in recent days with a decision by Intel, the chip maker, to pull ads from Gamasutra, a site for game developers.

Intel's decision added to a controversy that has focused attention on the treatment of women in the games business and the power of online mobs. The debate intensified in August, partly because of the online posts of a spurned ex-boyfriend of a female game developer.


The story continued in this vein—cautious, assiduously neutral, lobotomized, never questioning the premises of the Gamergate "firestorm" and "debate." Both sides were heard. And thus did Leigh Alexander's commentary on the pluralism of gaming today get equal time with a campaign bent on silencing her.

And that's how it works. It's a neat trick. Agitate bare-facedly for the absolute necessity of developers investing the vast majority of their resources in games pitched at the intellectual and emotional level of a 16-year-old suburban masturbator, and no one beyond the gaming world is going to take you very seriously. But make it a story about an oppressive and hypocritical media conspiracy, and all of a sudden you have a cause, a side in a "debate."


What's funny about all this is that a true interrogation of the corruption of the gaming press would materially harm the status quo that Gamergate is fiercely trying to protect. If what you want is yet more games about space marines and orcs in which women serve as props and decoration, why go after the de facto marketing departments of the people who make them?

To even take Gamergate's corruption critique seriously enough to point out how incoherent it is, though, is to give the movement too much credit. It's not about gaming, any more than the 9/11 truther movement is about getting Dick Cheney to confess Yes, by God, yes, we did it to get our hands on Afghanistan's oil. It's about identity.


One of the genuine ironies of the internet is that as it's grown unflinchingly, even militantly tolerant of race, orientation, taste, and fetish, tolerance has been fashioned into a weapon, to be used against itself. "God, who cares?" is a rote reaction among a certain sort of person when it's announced that the hero of a game is a woman or black, or when an athlete comes out as gay, or when some other milestone is achieved. The idea is that we're all so equal now that true intolerance begins with even noting that anyone is different from the norm, said norm of course being a young, straight, middle-class white guy. To get to this mindset requires a certain willful blindness to privilege and the ways it has embedded itself in the very structures of American life, which is how you wind up with people saying things like, "For some reason, some black people kind of hold onto the 'back in the day,' the slave thing, or they feel they're not being treated right." Cluelessness about institutional inequality isn't a crime, but it's a major contributing factor to the grand nerd myth of the internet as a perfect meritocracy in which everyone is equal and the worst crime is special pleading.

By those lights, a woman using her sexuality—her difference from the presumed default state of humanity—to gain an advantage, well, shit, that's violating rule No. 1. That people badly want this to have happened even though it didn't is crucial to understanding why Gamergate resonates the way it does—it seems to offer evidence not only that the social-justice warriors are hypocrites and frauds, but that the true defenders of equality turn out to be, well, young, middle-class white guys, and their allies. This is how people can hold the remarkably naive idea that a movement that began with some of its members harassing women with threats of violence, rape, death, and torture can expect to be taken seriously in good-faith discussions about ethics in journalism, or anything else: They see themselves as the ones holding true to the ideals in which their opponents only profess to believe.


The reasoning here is unspeakably bizarre when laid out directly. (Feminism is about equality, and a woman using sex to her advantage is doing something a man can't, and so therefore feminism is invalid.) But it's the backbone of Gamergate, and it's not hard to see where it's going.

Christina Hoff Sommers, a conservative Democrat and former professor now with the American Enterprise Institute, was one of the first to parachute into the Gamergate camp, touching down with the video above. Sommers does not follow gaming, and in other circumstances she would have been roasted as a meddling interloper offering sweeping opinions on a subject she admits that she hasn't followed closely. Conveniently, though, she's been adopted as a legitimizing face of the group—"Mom" to the Gamergate supporters—on the strength of her academic credentials, her self-identification as a feminist, and her video above, a deadly clear snapshot of how obvious cracks in basic logic can be navigated, easily, by a clever public speaker with halfway decent video production and a willingness to pander to an audience that's aching to be pandered to.


The numbers Sommers cites are well known, but instructive. Among incoming college freshmen, 65 percent of women say that they never play video games, compared with just 19 percent of men. Among hardcore gamers, just one in seven is a woman. In a breathtaking non-sequitur, Sommers argues from these numbers that including fewer sexy women in games and fewer instances of violence and indifference toward women will not make men less sexist, in the same way that violence in games has not been shown to correlate with violent crime. We can pass over the misstep of comparing an active and aberrant behavior (committing a violent crime) with a passive attitude (viewing women as sex objects instead of fleshed-out human beings); that's wrongheaded, but it's not the main problem here. Neither is the hand-waving at "cherry picking" sexist games without offering even ballpark statistics, an argument that can be boiled down to #notallvideogames.

The real problem is her claim that because girls don't play games anyway, and boys do, it's only natural that game makers would tend to include sexy women in their products. This launches fundamental economic precepts so directly into the sun that it cannot be accidental. You've got a growing base of women playing games and evidence that college women aren't playing games at the same rate as men; that's evidence of a massive untapped body of game players who should be catered to directly, not that gaming should run far and fast back the way it came and hope the girls never find it. This is the shallow reasoning that allows arguments like, "Duh, video games are a business" to fester in comment sections. Of course they're a business—and this is bad business by any measure.


Sommers's concern trolling ought to be beside the point—this is just not a credible argument in any way, flatly, obviously, right-there-on-the-surface. But it's taken seriously—proudly, even—because the credibility of an argument or its source isn't the point, in the way it's not the point of a Marine Todd chain letter. The only point of propaganda is that someone with a veneer of credibility is saying it, and that the people who want to agree are able to do so, thus ratifying and reinforcing the ideals of the group.


Eventually, Sommers comes to the true fear at the root of the objection to "social-justice warriors" getting involved in gaming: Feminists are trying to force men out. No more men. Kill all the men. It's shocking how much traction this gets. How this will be accomplished, once the feminists have their way, is usually left a mystery. One line of thought claims that the gaming press—the same one that is functionally an appendage of the game makers' marketing departments—has grown so influential that it can now dictate to developers what kinds of stories and characters and philosophies are acceptable, and that once the feminists have taken over, their first order of business will be to do away with all the space marines and all the orcs. Someone has to stop them. Perhaps Gamergate and the American Enterprise Institute will be the ones to do so.

In the future, all culture wars will look something like this:

"I don't doubt that people have given [Quinn] shit, but it's being played up to the nth degree to bring in sympathizers, and most of this 'abuse' actually takes the form of all the information we're making public on her," another member of the 4Chan community stated. "She accused [actor] Adam Baldwin of spreading all sorts of dox on her when a simple click could confirm he didn't, and despite being proven wrong she kept crying wolf. She's at best hamming it up and at worst a liar."


The above quote, captured by The Escapist, is perfect troll logic, as pure a distillate as you'll find of the 4chan hivemind. There are notes here, too, from a hymn book that predates the internet: self-pity, self-martyrdom, an overwhelming sense of your own blamelessness, the certainty that someone else's victimhood is nothing more than a profitable pose. All culture wars strike these same chords, because all culture wars are at bottom about the same thing: the desperate efforts of the privileged, in an ever-pluralizing America, to cling by their nails to the perquisites of what they'd thought was once their exclusive domain.

What we have in Gamergate is a glimpse of how these skirmishes will unfold in the future—all the rhetorical weaponry and siegecraft of an internet comment section brought to bear on our culture, not just at the fringes but at the center. What we're seeing now is a rehearsal, where the mechanisms of a toxic and inhumane politics are being tested and improved. Tomorrow's Lee Atwater will work through sock puppets on IRC. Tomorrow's Sister Souljah will get shouted down with rape threats. Tomorrow's Tipper Gore will make an inexplicably popular YouTube video. Tomorrow's Willie Horton ad will be an image macro, tomorrow's Borking a doxing, tomorrow's Moral Majority a loose coalition of DoSers and robo-petitioners and scat-GIF trolls—all of them working feverishly in service of the old idea that nothing should ever really change.


Correction: The post originally stated that GameSpot's Chris Waters had never played the World of Warcraft expansion advertised at the Blizzard event he hosted, and that GameSpot sponsored the stage. Watters had, in fact, played a beta version of the game, and GameSpot signage was not present on the stage. We regret the errors.

Image by Jim Cooke