It all started with a scandal. One woman slept with other men, and one man took umbrage, posting personal chat-logs with her as “proof” of videogame nepotism and corruption. The result was “Gamergate,” a videogame-related witch-hunt the likes of which none of us have ever seen before.

Gamergate is an online controversy centered around both the treatment of women in videogames and ethics in videogame journalism. The active campaign operates primarily out of the concern that there is a general “groupthink” in videogame journalism centered around feminist and generally progressive concerns.

The rallying cry of Gamergate, if there is one in that confused combination of hashtags and divisive rhetoric, is that it’s all about the games.While Gamergaters will insist that their movement is primarily about ethics and journalistic responsibility in the videogame industry, the reality on the ground is that Gamergate is more of a front. After all, the videogame industry has been talking about ethics in journalism and game development on a consistent basis for years. (Previous flare-ups off the top of my head include Doritosgate, the “EA Spouse” anonymous letter, and the regular debates about reviews and review scores that typically flare up most during the fall when the biggest, most anticipated blockbuster games are released.) The cause itself is a tool used to silence those with alternate viewpoints that don’t align with those who make up the bulk of Gamergate, i.e., young males.

The public enemies of Gamergate are sneeringly referred to as “Social Justice Warriors.” It refers to people like Anita Sarkeesian, the media critic behind the video series “Tropes vs Women in Video Games,” which uncovers various harmful ways that videogames portray women; Leigh Alexander, who rarely writes about feminist issues (until Gamergate happened to her, of course) but happens to be a woman writing about games; and even allies or “white knights,” like Polygon’s Ben Kuchera.

A helpful list of "Social Justice Warriors" brought to you by Gamergate.

A helpful list of “Social Justice Warriors” brought to you by Gamergate.

The perceived necessity for Gamergate became more apparent as developers and writers — and “Social Justice Warriors” — began coming out of the woodwork with new things to say to an industry that had been stagnant for years. And as these new voices — which, we might want to point out, included a host of openly Christian writers and developers — began to make their way on to the scene, the carefree haze of the pre-modern gamer was disrupted.

Suddenly, a club of satisfied gamers was confronted with the fundamental assertions of feminism and the charge to consider what their games were doing to them and what their games might mean. This is, after all, how art and entertainment mediums grow: through self-awareness, thoughtful reconsideration, and back-and-forth criticism. Sometimes that can get uncomfortable, contentious, and downright ugly. And it did, for years.

Then it got dangerous. Women started receiving death and rape threats, and began to genuinely fear for their lives and the safety of those around them. In addition to those who have been generally silenced by this movement, a number of women have quit altogether, stating unequivocally (and rightly) that videogames are simply not as important as their lives.

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The Road to Gamergate

Long before Gamergate, women spoke of simple existence within the videogame industry as a risky, emotionally exhausting affair. Illicit comments, harassment, and a general sense that women weren’t “real gamers” existed anywhere gamers congregated, from convention show floors to underground forums to mainstream game site comment sections.

Then the games started changing. As women became more influential in the games-making process and began creating games themselves, games started to diversify. Gone Home (#5 on last year’s CAPC25) featured a woman as its lead protagonist and involved no tasks besides exploring both a house and the internal struggle of another young woman. Kellee Santiago’s Flower and then Journey helped to redefine the standard console game by presenting the player with a game that involved no violence or real conflict, but instead, focused on quiet, inward play. Zoe Quinn created Depression Quest, which helped the player to understand what it was like to live a life plagued with clinical depression.

These games didn’t replace anything. They didn’t push other big-box AAA experiences off the shelves. Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto didn’t go away. Still, a large group of gamers felt threatened by a combination of thoughtful criticism and creation.

So, as it turns out, Gamergate didn’t start with a scandal so much as it was galvanized by a scandal which eventually morphed into the broader “Gamergate” phenomena, providing concrete “evidence” of a videogame industry owned and operated by a vocal and strategic majority, i.e., “Social Justice Warriors.” Nevermind the fact that there is no real evidence for this claim, nor is there any smoking gun that proves a game got more coverage than it deserved because of some secret agenda to overthrow the male gamer population.

The narrative conveyed by Gamergate is marked by fear, and it includes an implicit assumption that videogame developers and journalists must refrain from politics, worldview assumptions, and general subjective perspective in their work. In other words: Gamergate is about enforcing homogeneity in the videogame space. Gamergate is about silencing alternative perspectives.

It’s all too easy to see the passionate, emotional revelation of alternate perspectives as “attacks” on our own worldview rather than what they really are: articulations of the human experience. The more we are a comfortable part of the norm, the more likely we are to become convinced that all other perspectives are an attack on that norm. What we’re seeing in the videogame space right now is a heightened and engineered retaliation to a norm that is changing.

So here we are with a misguided movement that serves as a way for throngs of threatened gamers to save face, to convey outrage rather than fear and hurt. The space that used to make them feel valued and alive, that used to distract them from real life struggles, now seems to be infiltrated by those very things. They yell, scream, and threaten so that they do not cry.

Escaping Empathy

The arguments coming from the Gamergate side tend to take a brute-force approach with a string of arguments that are conveyed as “calm” and “reasonable.” Many within the movement pride themselves on their possession of “logic,” which is to say they claim to possess objective truths they would like everyone else to accept. The content of these truths remains unclear except in what they are not. They deny that women need a larger voice, that sexual objectification in games is a problem, that meaningless violence in games is a problem, and that videogame journalism ought to concern itself with anything beyond what makes a game “fun.”

Gamergate supporters often claim that reports of threats are either blown out of proportion or originate from some other group or cause (albeit one with very similar concerns). “They don’t represent us,” they say from one side of their mouth. But from the other, they continue to condemn the “Social Justice Warriors” who merely seek to add their voice to an industry in desperate need of new perspectives.

This specific fight taking place on the small battlefield of the videogame industry should look familiar, because we’ve seen it many times before. It’s what happens when a self-centered, man-centered religiosity overwhelms a love for one’s neighbor. For Gamergate, the de-facto religion is a devotion to a hobby that simply hasn’t earned our devotion. Like the false idols of the Old Testament, videogames require protection on the part of their followers, or else they may be destroyed. On their own, these games are beautiful, marvelous things. But when they are crafted into an idol, they offer destruction and hate.

The Rallying Cry of Gamergate

Ultimately, this all comes back to the games. The rallying cry of Gamergate, if there is one in that confused combination of hashtags and divisive rhetoric, is that it’s all about the games. It’s all about the fun. That approach would be an admirably positive one in this discussion — until, that is, you consider the experiences that have been previously offered up by gamers as “fun.”

There’s been a browser-based game in which you can punch Anita Sarkeesian in the face, causing her to become bloodied and bruised over time. There’s the sexualized violence present in games like Mortal Kombat and Grand Theft Auto. There’s the offer of a bikini-clad decapitated torso by a game publisher for their most hardcore fans, which was defended by gamers as readily as it was condemned. Most recently, there’s the “honest” fun of Hatred, in which you kill innocent people for no other reason than the titular emotion.

In view of these examples, the rallying cry of bright-eyed escapist “fun” takes on a different shade. These grey areas grow darker every day, until we find ourselves sitting happily in the pitch black of night, yelling angrily at intruders who try to join us with lanterns and flashlights to keep out.

It’s all about the games, the gamers cry. They would never understand.

 img via Luke Hayfield


7 Comments

  1. This is a poor article. Leigh Alexander got the reaction she did because her article pathologized the entire gamer culture and thought it should be ended, and it was one of many articles that posted that same day from a PR group. Anita is disliked because she didn’t come across as a gamer as opposed to someone who criticized from the outside. People disputed her tropes because of that; there was a sense of cherry-picking and manipulation to make a predefined point. Most gamers know that the reality is more complex and negative + positive tropes exist in any fictional genre or work. Kuchera is disliked because his site Polygon is unabashedly progressive and will downrate any game for being something that doesn’t meet their progressive views.

    Gamergate people aren’t making the point that women should be silent. It’s more that people shouldn’t be negative actors; you shouldn’t try to remove games you dislike as opposed to make games you like. Not many people minded Gone Home at all; there was more debate about whether or not it should be considered a game due to its lack of interactivity than anything. There is a related issue though about dislike of indie games in general, and that may have fed into it some.

    I think the biggest problem I have though is that this doesn’t feel written by a gamer or someone with skin in the game. A gamer would point out that meaningless violence is ten times more present in movies or in books, and that games have always been accused of this since the early eighties. A gamer knows that a significant number of gamers are jerks, but that doesn’t tar an entire movement or genre. If this were the case, no one should be pro-life, for that movement has done things ten times worse than any gamergate psycho has.

  2. “Anita is disliked because she didn’t come across as a gamer as opposed to someone who criticized from the outside.”

    “I think the biggest problem I have though is that this doesn’t feel written by a gamer or someone with skin in the game.”

    Interesting perspective. Read my bio.

    This is, honestly, a pretty typical type of response from GG sympathizers – an attempt to discredit arguments that don’t come across as coming from inside the camp. All I can say is that being open to input (yes, even criticism) from outside the camp is pretty darn crucial to the survival and validation of a subculture.

  3. As a fellow Christian and gamer, I find your perspective on this issue somewhat saddening.
    I don’t want you to take this as condescension, but I hope you’ll read this and try to understand my perspective. I’m not the most tactful person, but I’ve been thinking about this piece since I first read it 4 hours ago, and I’d appreciate it if you hear me out.
    I’ve been observing this fight from the outside with some interest. Other than asking for clarification from a few individuals involved, I haven’t weighed in too heavily until recently. Your writing on the history of the issue is spot on. It was a movement born of hatred and rage. It sought to discredit hard working people (innocent or otherwise) and chase them out of their jobs. It served as a “base of operations” of sorts of people interested in doing nothing more than harassing and abusing their opponents. It never once sought to approach the issue with a shred of tact and compassion. Their opponents, rightfully, pointed this out to them, and dismissed them.
    Recently though, I’ve started to see a change.
    Within the past two weeks, I’ve seen GamerGaters go from being the most abusive people on the internet, to policing it. They’ve been reporting and calling out doxxers and harassers within their movement and without. They’ve almost been acting to protect their “enemies” like Zoe and Anita, probably to protect their image, but still, it’s astounding to me to see this at all.
    To me, it looks like a group of people who are taking their accusers seriously. I think they’ve been convicted. I think they realize they’re wrong, and I think they’re trying to clean up their act.
    It looks to me like they’re looking for redemption.
    I think what I find saddening about this piece is there’s no way out for them. Where do GamerGater’s go now? What have to do to make up what they’ve done? Who is going to be open to talking to them, to listening to their complaints even if they don’t agree? Who is going to give them a chance? All I see here is scorched earth, salted soil, no quarter. I just don’t think that’s right. I think we, as Christians, should be offering something more. We should be adopting the same attitude Christ had to his accusers.
    I’m not saying you’re wrong, and it’s clear that you’re frustrated. I understand that completely, but I just don’t see us giving anything to them. If they are a movement motivated by hate, what is being offered as an alternative? What’s their out?
    I’m no prophet, but I don’t see GamerGate winning this, which means they are either going to outright abandon their cause or change their hash tag (very unlikely) redeem themselves, or simmer away bitterly in the background, emailing advertisers and rejoicing when another “corrupt” site loses money and influence, waiting for the next chance to lash out at their perceived opponents.
    Personally, I’d like to see redemption win, but that won’t happen without help. Call me crazy, but I’ve seen enough of the media to know that accusations of corruption aren’t totally out of line. And don’t tell me that their opponents haven’t been agitating them with stuff like “TweetLikeNotYourShield” and constant accusations regardless of evidence. As long as that keeps up, they’ll have plenty of fuel to keep motivated for a long, long time without kind, loving intervention.
    So what do you think? Can GamerGate be saved? can their tag become something positive while still addressing their concerns? Or is it all meaningless, hopeless, scorched earth.

    1. @jet – this is a very interesting question, compelling even, and I’d like to take a shot at speaking to it in the spirit it seems to be given – in earnest.
      So I hope you’ll allow me a bad pun – it’s meant to be humorous and illustrative, not offensive, but we’ll see how that goes. I’ll talk about the GamerGators.
      If GamerGator ever wants to talk to anybody about anything he must be aware of the visceral effect of his teeth.
      When anybody sees the threat of violence all other information is lost. That is perhaps unfair, even illogical, but it’s very, very human. As Frank Herbert says, “fear is the mind killer” and there is no rational discourse beyond that. GamerGator is saying “I just want to talk!” while others are saying “I’m afraid.” And that’s the end of it.
      For better or worse, fair or unfair, GamerGator will be sowing the whirlwind until the fear is dealt with. And in fact, the more he tries to talk over the fear the more insensitive and fearful he sounds.
      It’s worth pointing out that there is no point in GamerGator asserting, as @Laura does below, that “they are scary too.” Becuas that’s an appeal to reason (or at least fairness) but as stated above, where there is fear, there is no reason. In fact, this may the main misstep from the “good” GamerGators – they continue to act as though their hashtag is about truth, but it’s not – it’s about people. As Christians we must always, always, always return to the awareness that it’s always about people – Love is deeper than Truth. We need both of course, but Love is preeminent.
      Let me also draw a possible parellel between what you’re asking and Operation Rescue. If you’re too young to remember this, it was a pro-life group that was active in the 80s mostly. not being on the inside, I couldn’t say how this all happened or if there was any credibility to the charge, but Operation Rescue got associatd with the extreme practice of bombing abortion clinics. Fair or unfair, some AbortionTrolls crossed a line and added violence to the equation and probably set the pro-life conversation backwards 20 years. One of the big problems was that the church was publically double-minded on the whole thing. On the one hand, everybody agreed that bombing a clinic with people inside was over the line. But bombing it while nobody was in there…maybe that was a net positive.
      I’m not here to attack or defend Operation Rescue, only to point out that the “one bad apple” thing isn’t new. And it’s complicated when we find ourself split between the value of a Trolls message and their method. In th encourage of public opinion the church’s double-mindedness was often taken as implicit support for that violence and I don’t know that Operation Rescue ever really recovered.

      So for you – and other GamerGators (spoken with affection) what to do?
      My input would be this:
      1. Love more than you Think. Recognize that people are afraid and more talking appears as filibustering at best, tacit approval at worst.
      2. Be above reproach. Overcompensate toward compassion . Nobody cares what you know until they know that you care. Come to grips with the reality that while GamerGator may have wanted it to be “about then games” – that ship has sailed and the perhaps bitter reality is that it is now about something very different.
      3. Be shrewd as serpents – a tag is nothing. It’s a free chain of characters. At some point every general has to consider a change of tactics. The tag isn’t the point, the goal of journalistic integrity is. If I were you, I’d drop that tag like a bucket of blood from Senegal and let the dust settle. Let the fear dissipate, and take another go at the issue with hard won wisdom and poise.
      I think that’s very much what the pro-life movement did and I think it was that “refactoring of priorities” that lead to to genuine progress on that front in that last few years.
      …that’s my two cents…

  4. It’s interesting how you seem to have given the anti-GamerGate people a pass for behavior you condemn in pro-GG people. For example, Zoe Quinn deliberately sabotaged an effort by The Fine Young Capitalists to get more women involved in game development – then created her own, similar, effort from which she could personally profit. Leigh Alexander has openly bullied others, including trying to destroy the career of a young woman getting started in game journalism. And laughed about it on Twitter. And if I recall correctly, encouraged the doxxing of people who oppose her. Anita Sarkeesian cherrypicks and engages in logical fallacies, and she states as fact things which are proven not to be true. (Misogyny in video gaming leads to abusing women in real life, violence in video gaming leads to real life violence, that sort of thing.) These things have been disproved many times over the years by social scientists in valid, peer-reviewed studies. In other words, after she states that obvious fact that video games do in fact feature sexy women and violence (as do movies and pretty much every other form of secular entertainment) she’s peddling lies as her conclusions. I use the word lies deliberately because if she is the expert she claims to be, she should certainly know better.

    Finally, you are overlooking the fact that pro-GG women have also been doxxed and threatened, in fact one woman was threatened with almost exactly the same wording that Brianna Wu was threated with. (And interestingly, neither those threats nor Brianna Wu’s were tagged with #GamerGate, so the assumption that a pro-GG person threatened Wu is very odd.)

    None of the things I’ve written above excuse bad behavior on the part of pro-GamerGaters. But what you’ve written does not reflect the reality that this is a complicated issue and it’s not easily sorted out into Victims vs. Bad Guys. I hope that you will take a step back and reconsider your views.

  5. The biggest driving force behind #GamerGate has been shoddy journalism and constant misrepresentation. The irony being that a piece like this, lamenting the existence of the tag, only perpetuates it.

    It’s like no real effort was taken to even look into this. An article exposing the acceptance of uncomfortable views that not-at-all addresses the uncomfortable view it is speaking against. Whether out of honest misguidance or a more malicious and shameless hypocrisy, it feeds into the stereotype of the anti-gamers who try to make #GamerGate about anything except what it is about.

    Not caring for misinformed and poorly developed opinions is spun as mysoggyknees, simply because they are female – nevermind the veracity of claims and poor structure. Especially nevermind that discussion of women and involvement of women in games has been on a steady incline over the past generation. No, that doesn’t count. Unpopular writers are female, it has nothing to do with what they say, it’s just that they are female – oh, and you’re the sexist for making it about them being female.

    Nobody cares that they have different opinions. People have had different opinions since the beginning. Censorship and corruption become a problem, and when it’s a political movement behind such, that movement gets lambasted. Of course, it’s never about what they’ve done, it’s about who they are. Nevermind that others unrelated to their politic face criticism and mockery, nevermind that we harass and threaten, nevermind that we resort to shamelessly unethical and borderline illegal means, it’s only important that dissent is silenced. Oh, but it’s other people who are censoring for ignoring our message.

    People will fight this to the bitter end. Not because it’s different, but because it’s wrong. It’s wrong and it threatens what we love.

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