In August 2014, scholar and critic Anita Sarkeesian fled her home fearing for her safety after a number of threats were made to her online. The following month, video game developer Zoe Quinn was threatened with “a crippling injury” next time she made a public appearance at a conference. Last, but certainly not least, a second developer, Brianna Wu, left her home earlier this month after a series of violent sexual threats were issued to her.
It’s a pretty sordid and tense state of affairs, but what’s brought all of this on? The answer: GamerGate. It’s had some lows, and it’s had… some more lows.
It is at once a debate about the ethics of video game journalism, corruption within the same sector, the frequency of misogynistic tropes in games, the treatment afforded to women in the gaming community, feminism in general, people who think feminism is too militant to compromise and a smattering of racial issues too. Some see it as a large culture war that will set new boundaries and definitions for both the winners and the losers.
The name was unexpectedly coined by actor Adam Baldwin, who undertook a very loud and public show of support for the concept. In short, it’s a big deal, more than a little out of control and the debates and arguments will be raging even as you read this.
Let’s make no bones about it: gamers have always been an excitable and argumentative bunch. Roger Ebert famously declared, “video games can never be art” – and spent a lot of time before his death backtracking. A portion of gamers spend their time acting defensively and protectively of their hobby. Despite it being a billion-dollar industry, games still manage to retain that “shut-in playing in the basement” vibe. So when it comes to people insulting and deriding games, that’s when it gets messy.
The two key incidents that kicked off GamerGate revolve around the aforementioned Sarkeesian and Quinn. The former, known for her Feminist Frequency videos, posted the following towards the end of August. The video states that most female roles in games exist solely to facilitate sex and violence from male characters:
Around the same time, Quinn released Depression Quest, which attracted consumer consternation for being boring, unnecessary and containing too much reading. Where some saw its release as a broadening of game expression, others questioned the basis of its existence. Despite that, the game was featured prominently by Steam and attracted public attention for its themes and message.
Quinn’s ex-boyfriend claimed in a rather oversized blogpost not much earlier (which may say more about the author than anyone else) that she had guaranteed good reviews for her game by sleeping with at least one of those that wrote it up (a notion ultimately debunked). Despite Quinn’s denial, the die had been cast and so began the long and tawdry descent into the heart of darkness.
So began the threats, police involvement and production of chat logs for evidence purposes. A petition soon flew around many connected to and active in the gaming industry that condemned the events and gamers, collectively accused of being temperamental, sexist troublemakers, quickly mobilized, took aim and turned the discussion towards a look at what they perceived to be widespread failures in gaming journalism.
Some saw Quinn’s alleged dalliances as the icing on the cake of an industry that had become wrapped up in its own cliques, favorites and back-scratch deals. Games journalists, GamerGate supporters yelled, cannot talk about integrity when they only seem to support or praise people they have sex with or donate to privately in crowdfunding projects.
Those who opposed that argument shouted back that the object of gamers’ ire were all female, thus making the movement fundamentally and publically misogynistic. Although, when you have staunch anti-feminists such as Thunderf00t causing scenes for you, it’s hard not to agree.
#GamerGate on Twitter swelled beyond all proportion. Soon, anybody with the slightest of grievances relating to the video games, gender wars and ethics hopped on the hash-wagon and any genuine, reasoned debate disappeared in the deluge of playground insults and threats that grew day by day.
One of the more unseemly elements of GamerGate was the caustic language and opinions that followed. Milo Yiannopolous railed against “lying, greedy, promiscuous feminist bullies.” Leigh Alexander called Adam Baldwin “a washed up crackhead.”
Those who supported the aims of the movement decried the closed ranks and favoritism (and favors) that they wilfully accused gaming journalists of. Polygon admitted they were aware that their staff had contributed to one of Quinn’s funds, but refused to declare it as a conflict of interest. Kotaku decided to ban the practice altogether.
While there are many pro-GamerGate people who insist the campaign is actively trying to redress a balance between good journalism ethics and an impartial viewpoint, any ground made or merits agreed upon have been utterly decimated by the ill-will, bad feeling and inexcusable actions of those who have stolen the headlines.
Because let’s face it, will you view the side who are indirectly responsible for cancelling a scheduled lecture because of a mass shooting threat as reasonable and willing to talk?
A sizeable portion of #GamerGate became a cesspit of threats against women. Those made against Quinn and Sarkeesian echoed incidents in England, where female journalists and MPs were the subject of death and rape threats.
Studies show that 48% of gamers are women, be they from the hardcore, casual or phone markets. The cold facts support the notion that women have every right, should they feel, to question the role of women in games and whether they are represented fairly, equally and without malice. The same can be said for men too, of course. Although any of us who have played series such as Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty can attest that male characters generally run the show in the video game world. The image of the traditional gamer, whatever that may be, has suffered overall and the media narrative has picked up the thread.
“For 30 years now video games have really been perceived as a boys’ club. You’ve had video games made by men, for men” said Brianna Wu during a speech, “…and I think in 2014, when almost half of the video game players are women… you’re seeing some very insecure guys feeling threatened by that and lashing out.”
GamerGate seems to have dragged on longer than it should have. Its detractors will call it aimless, pointless and discredited. Indeed, the movement has begun to attract some less-than-desirable characters with the implication being that they are using it to get some attention of their own.
But the pro-movement isn’t exactly small fry. They’re a mobilised, hungry and efficient force. Intel recently felt their power when they faced calls to remove advertising from a site that criticised the actions of the pro-GamerGate group. It was a surprising outcome, but one that might be indicative of the sheer weight of numbers that one side can field. This side also have bases on Reddit and various 4chan boards. Sloganeering, counter-offensives (such as the #NotYourShield campaign) and tactics give the whole affair a militaristic hue. But with no real leader, platform or solid targets, it will largely submerge over time.
GamerGate is the evolution of an argument that has in some form shifted in the same circles for decades. It lives and dies by chatter. A recent thread on Reddit gives some insight into the wide and lengthy opinions people hold on the whole damned thing. It’s all just a big game.