On Gamergate

  • This piece was written over a year ago. It may no longer accurately reflect my views now, or may be factually outdated.

The entire thing could have been avoided, had they simply admitted fault… Instead, the media went on an all out war against the gamers for whom they write…turning from journalists who write about games for gamers, to journalists who write about gamers for other journalists.

At some point I plan to write a piece about my times on 4chan and the subsequent (and broadly, I think, positive) lasting effects on me. Until then, the uninitiated shall have to rely on the likes of Nagel and Auerbach and their attempts to distil *chan culture for the normies. Unfortunately, social scientists who attempt to write about this subculture have a dearth of contrary voices within their field and are thus prone to be treated as wise and learned travellers of this strange land no matter how they (mis)characterise it.

Step forward, then, Michael Slater, who’s article From geek masculinity to Gamergate: the technological rationality of online abuse I was required to read for my Cybercrime module. The abstract claims that [i]n 2014, an orchestrated campaign of online abuse overtook the global video game industry. Slater is talking about Gamergate, an event that I recall slightly differently from my vantage point as a then-regular on 4chan’s video games discussion board, /v/. Alas, Slater’s audience will have little to no prior conceptions of an event they have likely never heard of, and so his rendition will no doubt be accepted as fact. Note that it is not my intention to defend the excesses of some associated with the campaign, but merely to provide some form of a counternarrative.

Slater’s Gamergate

Slater writes that [t]he catalyst for Gamergate occurred in August 2014, when video game developer Eron Gjoni circulated a defamatory article about his ex-partner Zoe Quinn in retaliation after she ended their brief relationship. In the rambling 9000+ word article, Gjoni accused Quinn of multiple infidelities, alongside the false suggestion that her modest success in the video game industries was due to sexual favours…. Slater then details how the cause was taken up by 4chan—…a major online hub for geek masculinity [that draws] millions of users each month into anarchic discussions of video games, cartoons and pornography amongst other subjects—who were …animated by an escalating sense of defensiveness…to growing criticisms of the excesses of their subculture and preferred games.

Into this febrile atmosphere came Gjoni’s smoking gun. Now gamers had the evidence to …prove that women were using their sexual wiles to infiltrate and destroy gaming from within. Cue the online abuse of women such as Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian on Twitter, the involvement of right-wing celebrities on the side of Gamergate and a Gamergate rhetoric that took on a grandiose quality as participants imagined themselves as crusaders in a war against feminists and other perceived enemies….

I confess to an unfamiliarity with the ins and outs of social scientific academic writing, but Slater’s language is patently laughable, even if his claims were true. Slater, who feels the need to spend a paragraph explaining how Twitter works, does not think that any of Gamergate’s potentially legitimate issues merit more than a pithy handful of words. He calls Gjoni’s article rambling, defamatory and slanderous, whilst lacking both a citation for the original post and any citations for pieces disproving the allegedly defamatory claims made within.1The Wikipedia article on the controversy is the same, lacking any link to the instigating primary source amongst its 215 references

Whatever your thoughts on The Zoe Post are, surely it is an item of interest for anyone hoping to gain a better understanding of Gamergate. Similarly, for the article to be defamatory insinuates that the claims made within it have been proven false. That may or may not have been the case, but consider my position having looked at both the original article, replete with screenshots of Facebook conversations concurring with Gjoni’s account, and Slater’s, which claims defamation without any evidence with which to convince.

Gamergate is not a phenomenon that lacks primary sources. The exclusive citation of secondary sources, written primarily by people on one side of the debate, should have been a substantial red flag to whoever accepted and edited this article for publication, as should Slater’s use of emotive language throughout in a way that strikes me as entirely unsuitable for the detachment of academic discourse. The supposed attempt of gamers to …drive women and other users from gaming and social media… is desperate, The Zoe Post can apparently …be best understood in terms of domestic violence and Gamergate logic is convoluted. I must concur somewhat with matthew_lane on the r/KotakuInAction subreddit—this is not academia, this is a blog post.2I am aware of the irony. This is Gamergate-as-per-RationalWiki.

This irritates me not just because I believe it unfairly maligns an online community with whom I feel some identification, whilst conflating their actions with those of a radical fringe, but because the article’s lack of informational worth represents a huge missed opportunity. The story of Gamergate is the emblematic story of our postmodern age—an isolated issue within the video gaming community somehow led to the election of a ridiculous US President. Doesn’t that just fill you with questions? Aren’t you intrigued to find out on what basis I make such a ludicrous claim? Worry not, and allow me now to propose my counter-narrative. Unlike Slater, I shall attempt to take a more even-handed view of things. Hopefully, however, via access to sources from the other side of the ideological divide the reader will be then better placed to come to a conclusion of their own, rather than simply adopting Slater’s (or mine, for that matter).

Note that I do not mean to diminish the fact that there was surely online abuse as part of Gamergate and that, equally likely, much of this was directed at and of forms specific to women—a woman was the centerpiece of the inciting allegations, after all.3I shall not, here, question the degree to which forms of abuse are gendered, but regarding the idea of rape threats as a misogynistic attack, it has always struck me as obvious that someone attempting to upset or get a rise out of another would reach for the most effective tools they could, and the emphasis on rape threats as being supposedly particularly harmful to women is liable to reinforce their utilisation when abusing women. One does not find stories about men being particularly perturbed by online rape threats, and thus they are unlikely to receive them, apparently increasing the gender-targeting nature of them, and so on in a feedback loop of dreadful behaviour. Additionally, my viewpoint is limited to 4chan’s /v/ board, excluding the r/KotatuInAction subreddit and the more radical fringes of the movement which formed after discussion of Gamergate was banned on /v/ and moved elsewhere, to sites like Wizardchan—…an imageboard site for adult male virgins—and 8chan. Nor did my witnessing of the birth of Gamergate ever translate into action on my part—I had no interest in getting a Twitter account, or in emailing advertisers, but I did enjoy lurking in the discussions. These caveats placed, this shall be a narrative of what I remember of my Gamergate, closer to Gamergate-as-per-Encyclopedia Dramatica.

Gamergate existed long before Gamergate

The state of games journalism had been an object of derision for as long as I was on /v/. For some reason, younger me thought it would be a good idea to save a number of images on the topic that I saw shared on the board, just in case they ever came in handy—you can look through an archive of them here. The issues can be broadly split into two categories: those relating to too-close relations between the supposedly-critical journalists and the industry they covered; and those that related to the imposition of critical, social science-influenced politics within the formerly largely apolitical sphere of gaming.4Note, however, that those who believe gaming to represent things like patriarchy and heteronoramativity would argue that gaming had thus always been political, and that the only change had been the introduction of challenges to the orthodox views implicitly held. The first type of criticism goes way back, as shown, for example, in this EGM editorial from 2005.

However, the second type of criticism is newer. Games journalism is a young field and it is not unreasonable to think that the people working within it look enviously upon the highly-respected sister fields of literary and film journalism. Thus we see things like the New Games Journalism movement, which imported the values of New Journalism and emphasised articles relating the author’s personal experiences with a game, rather than those that turn …every game critic, journalist, blogger and writer into stenographers, tapping out yearly patch notes. It makes perfect sense why this happened: [t]he new and weird will always be darlings to a media in search of critical relevance, for however long they stay new and weird and relevant.

Also relevant, in the extra-gaming world, is a relatively recent societal focus on things like third-wave feminism, post-modernism/structuralism and the broader field of identity politics. This was picked up by the gaming press, as we can see in a prominent Gamergate figure’s early text:

Gaming journalism has reached a low point over the last five years. It started with pieces that had nothing to do with gaming or game reviews, nothing to do with software or hardware, nothing to do with events or expos. It started to travel off, into the areas of social justice and feminism and opinion pieces and op-eds that had nothing to do with gaming.

Note that I have no objection to the burgeoning field of games criticism—I enjoy Robert Yang’s blog and Errant Signal—but consider the tone evidenced in something like Far Cry 5 and the Art of Saying Nothing: to be clear, I’m not saying the game is bad because its politics are right-leaning. You can respond to the game’s politics however you will….what I am saying is: it’s bad to suggest the game has no political perspective….

Perhaps, with this kind of tact, these not-invalid social justice criticisms could have found a more receptive audience. Instead, they were broadly delivered in the form of criticism-by-bludgeon. Internet Aristocrat goes on: It [gaming journalism] started to have authors who were writing pieces condemning the gaming audience as being sexist and misogynistic, as being racist and bigoted, as being overly violent rapists. Over years of such articles, the divide between the authors and their audiences had grown intolerably wide. At the same time, objections to one theme of the articles—their characterisations of gamers as overly violent rapists—morphed into objections to other themes present in the same articles—the validity of games criticism, the raising of issues of representation within gaming, etc. At the same time, the authors of the pieces received criticism that they believed to have come from the very groups they were calling out, which reinforced their belief in what they were saying. Feedback loops all round, nobody wins.

In this sense, the ethics in games journalism crusade has been going on for longer than any movement called Gamergate, and it was into this kindling that Gjoni threw his match. The chord it struck is again illustrated by Internet Aristocrat:

That is why this [the accusations in The Zoe Post] is important and it needs to be talked about. This has nothing to do with her as a person in a relationship. I don’t care that Zoe Quinn fucked five guys. I don’t care that Zoe Quinn cheats on people that she’s in a relationship with; that’s on her, that’s on her own personal accountability. Her ethical and moral failures as an individual are for her and her partner to deal with. However, when the people she’s having an affair with—when the people she’s cheating on her boyfriend with—happen to be able to help her career through their actions related to the industry that she’s in, then it becomes a piece of public discourse, and it becomes important, because it helps to highlight a massive flaw in the fifth estate.

ibid.

In a sense, she became gaming’s Monica Lewinsky, her sexual dirty laundry now considered to be in public interest due to the dramatis personæ within it.

Invasion of the entryists

Where Gjoni threw his match, a fire blazed. The games journalists decided to put it out by pouring petrol in what Encylopedia Dramatica describes as the start of …the long, convoluted road of retarded damage control by the gaming press. Gamergaters believe it to have been a co-ordinated effort, others believe it to have been a simple case of the news cycle—one person published a thinkpiece, it got popular, others rushed to chime in with their own thoughts—but suffice it to say that the Gamers are dead moment marked the point at which any rapprochement between the sides become impossible. The battle lines were drawn, and if WWI taught us anything it is that such lines tend to reinforce over time.

It is around this time that conservative pundits, previously uninterested in video games, began joining the fray. 4chan’s /pol/ board—a politics board consisting primarily of dubiously-ironic white nationalism—regularly derailed Gamergate threads on /v/, Adam Balwin coined the term Gamergate and Milo Yiannopoulos brought Breitbart into the fray with Feminist Bullies Tearing the Video Game Industry Apart.5It’s worth noting from the URL that Yiannopoulos’ original title was directed at lying, greedy, promiscuous feminist bullies—I’m stunned that Breitbart apparently has genuine editors who tone down their headlines. Erik Kain explains well why Yiannopoulos’ article found such a willing audience: I’m not against bias or opinion, per se, but far too many gamers who felt under-represented by the gaming press latched on to the piece as an example of real journalism.

From the moment it had a name, Gamergate changed. What had previously been just the latest in /v/’s years-long string of largely-justified whinges became a new movement that, depending on who you ask, either rapidly broadened the scope of its targets or was hijacked by opportunistic wannabe media personalities. After a while, Gamergate—long since divested from games industry concerns—morphed into its current form: the alt-right, whose candidate now sits in the White House. GamerGate to Trump: How video game culture blew everything up sums up the changes well, but I think an equally informative, yet far more succinct, primary source to be this post on 4chan’s /pol/ board:

A poster on /pol/ explains how Gamergate let to President Trump.

Think how easy it would have been for those so inclined to find these angry gamers, whose own hobby seemed to have been hijacked by strange new politics and turned against them, and to blame it on all the usual bĂȘte noires of the far right—the Jews and feminists and blacks. Slater’s response to this? Further ridicule. Because that’s going to help.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. The Wikipedia article on the controversy is the same, lacking any link to the instigating primary source amongst its 215 references
2. I am aware of the irony.
3. I shall not, here, question the degree to which forms of abuse are gendered, but regarding the idea of rape threats as a misogynistic attack, it has always struck me as obvious that someone attempting to upset or get a rise out of another would reach for the most effective tools they could, and the emphasis on rape threats as being supposedly particularly harmful to women is liable to reinforce their utilisation when abusing women. One does not find stories about men being particularly perturbed by online rape threats, and thus they are unlikely to receive them, apparently increasing the gender-targeting nature of them, and so on in a feedback loop of dreadful behaviour.
4. Note, however, that those who believe gaming to represent things like patriarchy and heteronoramativity would argue that gaming had thus always been political, and that the only change had been the introduction of challenges to the orthodox views implicitly held.
5. It’s worth noting from the URL that Yiannopoulos’ original title was directed at lying, greedy, promiscuous feminist bullies—I’m stunned that Breitbart apparently has genuine editors who tone down their headlines.

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