GamerGate: This Issue, Everybody Dies!

If you play video games and pay any attention at all to the industry itself or journalists who write about video games, you have almost surely heard about something called “GamerGate.” If you haven’t, then it will bear some explanation. (If you’re already up to speed on the controversy, skip to the next section.)

At the heart of this story are two women who don’t really have anything to do with each other apart from the fact that they are involved with video games. One is Zoe Quinn, creator of Depression Quest, and all-around outspoken independent game developer. The other is Anita Sarkeesian, creator of Feminist Frequency, a site that examines popular culture through a lens of feminist critique. Given those superficial descriptions, it might surprise some to learn that these women–among many others–have been targeted for public harassment, stalking, and abuse. As to why, that’s a somewhat longer tale.

Quinn rose to prominence in late 2013 when she submitted her game, Depression Quest, to Steam Greenlight. Because she was a woman creating a game about depression, she was harassed and insulted for her trouble. Coverage of the incident brought her no small amount of notoriety, a fact that continues to contribute to the abuse she receives. She has been accused of making up her allegations of harassment, using it to seek attention rather than trying to succeed on her own merits. No evidence of such malfeasance has ever been produced.

Sarkeesian, for her part, created a Kickstarter project in 2012 entitled Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, with the intention of producing a video series to examine portrayals of women in video games. The Kickstarter, though plagued by abuse and harassment from people who objected to Sarkeesian’s intentions, had nearly 7000 backers and raised over $158,000, though Sarkeesian only asked for $6,000. Some expressed skepticism as to whether she would ever produce the videos in question, but the videos did finally start to appear in March of 2013, and episodes have been released once every few months since.

Quinn remained in gaming news in part due to her participation in an expensive, abortive game jam. (The game jam’s failure was in no way her fault, in case you’re wondering and don’t feel like reading the link.) She has also maintained a tumblr blog on which she shares updates about her work as well as anything else she finds interesting. She created a video games sexism bingo card. Predictably, rape threats were sent in her direction in a mere 17 minutes. In short, Quinn is no stranger to online harassment, and has thus far stuck it out despite its seeming endlessness.

In mid-August of this year Eron Gjoni, a recent but former romantic partner of Quinn’s, posted an extensive blog detailing his relationship with Quinn. It came complete with text messaging logs, Facebook chat sessions, and other information meant to corroborate his narrative, namely: that Quinn cheated on him with at least five other men and, most egregiously, used sex to influence at least one (but implicitly more) game journalist into giving her a positive review of Depression Quest. This was to mark the start of an online controversy that is still burning white hot, weeks later.

There is just one problem: the review in question never happened. (To be fair, there’s much more than one problem here, but the fundamental premise is fatally flawed.)

This did not stop users of various sites from attempting to destroy her life. Though the exact perpetrators are unknown, users from 4chan and/or Reddit (it is unclear which) hacked her blog and also obtained personal information about her and her family, which was posted online and used to harass people close to her. Her friends on twitter were also targeted for abuse, including transgender friends, whose gender status was used to insult and degrade them. Quinn, for her part, was adamant that she would not discuss details of her private life in public, as they have nothing to do with her work as a game designer/developer. Nevertheless, the abuse has continued.

As a bit of good news, some of the sites whose users perpetrated the worst abuses saw their threads and posts about Quinn deleted. Moderators on Reddit, 4chan, and numerous other sites where video games are discussed saw fit to squelch discussion of Quinn’s personal life as it was not an appropriate topic for their forums, and they did not want to be held accountable for any threats, harassment, or personal information leaks. This, however, gave rise to a crackpot conspiracy theory that Quinn had somehow managed to bring almost the entire world of video games journalism into her corner to protect her, presumably through the promise of sex or some other deep magic known only to the female members of the species. Such conspiracy theories continue to proliferate despite, again, an absolute lack of evidence.

The focus of most “serious” reporting on this issue has been the allegation of “nepotism” (more correctly, cronyism) in the video games industry. While this may indeed be a real problem, there is precisely zero evidence that Quinn has been involved in any sort of quid pro quo with gaming journalists. Claims that she has used her “power” to silence critics is a laughable smokescreen–in truth, the only purpose is to silence Quinn, and anyone who sees fit to defend her. She has been repeatedly accused of “staging” her own hacking, even though Adam Sessler, a well-known gaming journalist, personally witnessed the hacks being perpetrated against her site.

Where Sarkeesian enters this shit show is more a matter of coincidence than any direct involvement with Quinn. She released the most recent video in the Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series on August 25th, when the Quinn “scandal” was still fresh. Once again, men who felt their privilege threatened took to YouTube and twitter to unleash a torrent of hatred and harassment. The abuse was taken as far as Sarkeesian being driven from her home by credible threats against herself and her family. Sarkeesian has been a convenient target for online misogynists since her first venture into the world of gaming, and the furor caused by the Quinn incident only heightened their anger. Some notable game developers, including Tim Schafer, posted links to Sarkeesian’s video in the hopes of people taking her message to heart. Instead, it only “confirmed” the extent to which women like Quinn and Sarkeesian have “corrupted” the games industry from top to bottom. Every incident that’s even loosely connected to Quinn or Sarkeesian is seen as evidence of an ever-growing conspiracy to “destroy” gaming–at least gaming as the entitled, frightened, privileged, reactionary, misogynistic, rape-threat-slinging man-children know it.

<End Background Summary>

Within the last few days, the entire debacle has come to be called GamerGate, after a hashtag that probably originated on twitter. This, at least, gives us a hook on which to hang discussion of the ordeal. The fact that it’s only just now acquired a moniker should be a good indication of how wide-ranging and confused this whole mess has been. GamerGate itself is meant to refer to the invented “scandal” that game journalists and developers are involved in illicit quid pro quo arrangements, despite an obvious lack of evidence. Like any circus, this farce has had its bizarre sideshows. For instance, a group of female game developers known as the Fine Young Capitalists made public claims that Quinn had their efforts to start a game jam stymied through shady means, a revelation which rallied the support of 4chan’s /v/ forum. The logic of the /v/ members who participated was tortuous and bizarre: by supporting women Quinn had supposedly victimized, they could both express their disdain for Quinn and her “social justice warrior” followers while simultaneously appearing like good feminists due to their support for TFYC. To date, TFYC have raised over $50,000 of their $65,000 goal.

Another peculiar exhibit in this hall of grotesqueries is the #NotYourShield twitter hashtag, conceived on 4chan as a “culturejamming” strategy. The idea is twisted but hopefully not hard to follow: since defenders of Quinn and Sarkeesian are often people concerned with equality and social justice–maligned as “Social Justice Warriors” or “SJWs”–the best way to “expose” them as “hypocrites” is to have an army of traditionally-oppressed people–black people, Latin@s, gay people, transgender individuals, etc.–declare that they are against SJWs, support media attention for GamerGate, and most importantly, are #NotYourShield. The accusation is then that so-called SJWs use their professed support for oppressed minorities as a shield to protect themselves from retribution when they supposedly harass and intimidate those who dare to speak up about GamerGate. In other words, this makes the harassers of Quinn, Sarkeesian, et al into the “real” victims: people who are simply trying to reveal the truth and being attacked for it. It does not matter that most of the people using #NotYourShield are simply employing sockpuppet accounts created solely for this purpose. The point is to drown out support for Quinn and Sarkeesian and produce a groundswell showing that GamerGate is a serious issue that needs widespread attention. Unfortunately, the strategy has been working. Due to the competing narratives and the comparatively superior organization of GamerGate proponents, mainstream reporting on this clusterfuck has generally sided with GamerGate or at least attempted to portray it as an issue with two equally valid sides, even though it is essentially an ongoing, vicious campaign to silence women in the video games subculture.

Dr. Nerdlove has described these events as the extinction burst of gaming culture, and he may be right. Others have commented on the necessity of retiring “gamer” as an identifier. The portion of the culture that seems to rear its head every time a controversy erupts is unquestionably misogynistic, hateful, and juvenile. But, much like the Tea Party, not having an ideological leg to stand on doesn’t mean they can’t accomplish a lot through sheer volume, anger, and a commitment to keep up pressure. Jenn Frank, who has been a supporter of Quinn’s work, reported on the online harassment facing Quinn and Sarkeesian. She was accused of having a conflict of interest and harassed into exiting her field. She is hardly alone. Others have left, most of them silently, unwilling or unable to put up with an unending deluge of abuse and torment simply for being female in a field dominated and controlled by men.

With all of that said, I have been playing games for most of my life. My parents had an Atari 2600 from my earliest memories. I grew up with the Nintendo and Super NES, got into PC gaming in the DOS days, and have continued that pleasant hobby into the present. It’s always been a good part of my life, but in the past couple years I’ve started to notice much more readily the amount of sexist bile that seems to infest the gaming sphere. There was hope when gaming journalists began reporting on these issues, thanks in part to women like Sarkeesian shining a spotlight on sexism in video games. As reporting on such issues increased, game developers took note and, while it’s not been an entirely smooth road, there has definitely been progress. What has not evolved, unfortunately, is the mentality of the self-described “gamer.” Often conservative, homophobic, misogynistic, and reactionary, these are men who are either still teenagers or never matured beyond their teen years, who consider games and gaming culture to be “theirs,” and who can’t tolerate the possibility that gaming might include women, people of color, or people who are gay, bisexual, transgender, or otherwise not conforming to a straight, heterosexual, cisgender identity. They are apparently frightened by these supposed incursions into their hobby, even though gaming has been popular among all walks of life since its inception. Women like Roberta Williams are responsible for some of the best chapters in the history of gaming, and yet the lie persists that gaming is primarily and rightfully a male pursuit.

Almost half of all gamers are women. These numbers are only expected to grow, and in fact by some measures women are already more than half of the gaming public. This notion scares the shit out of men who are already afraid of women, who retreated into gaming in order to escape interacting with them. I am disgusted with their behavior. I am disgusted with this so-called culture. There is no excuse for the sort of abuse and harassment women like Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian–not to mention many, many others–have received. It doesn’t matter what they’ve been accused of. Sarkeesian herself, in fact, has never been accused of any credible wrongdoing, yet she is subject to constant harassment and threats. The enemies here are not reasonable people trying to bring others to their side. The enemies are hateful slimeballs who think they can shut women up by threatening to rape them, who think they can “reclaim” their hobby by making it eternally hostile to women.

What else is there to do but prove them wrong? I am giving up “gamer”–I refuse to identify myself any longer with a horde of petulant, self-debased man-children–but I will continue to play games, and I will continue to express my support for women like Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian whenever and wherever I can. Women who want to be in gaming, whether it’s to play games, write about them, or make them, deserve to be here. They deserve to be welcomed and appreciated for what they bring to this hobby and this industry. They deserve to enjoy it as much as anyone else does, not driven out of it for checking the “wrong” box in the “gender” field.

GamerGate will fade away, eventually. It must, as it is completely lacking in substance–the ruse can’t be maintained forever. When the smoke clears and the dust settles, I hope to see a gaming industry less willing to tolerate and cater to the excesses of a coddled, infantilized core demographic, and one more eager to appeal to everyone, to disavow itself of its unseemly elements, and a gaming culture in which the thunderf00ts of the world are regarded more like a crazy uncle than a tribal chieftain.

Forward is the only way to go. They can keep “gamer,” but gaming is ours.

Further Reading: (Note: links here are not necessarily endorsements of the contents.)

Update: post has been edited to remove typos, correct some awkward words and phrases, and a new “Further Reading” section has been added.