#GamerGate: Here’s Why Everybody in the Video Game World is Fighting

September 10, 2014

By Todd VanDerWerff via Vox

Over the past several weeks, the online video game community has become ground zero for a series of heated discussions and arguments about, among other things, sexual harassment, feminism, and journalistic integrity. These are big, meaty topics, so naturally, everybody was completely civil and thoughtful in their discourse.

Not really. Most of these debates took place on Twitter under the hashtag #GamerGate. But what is #GamerGate? Well, you’ve come to the right place.

What is #GamerGate?

Like all hashtags, #GamerGate has come to mean about 500 different things to thousands of different people. But at its heart, it’s about two topics:

1) The treatment of women in gaming: The start of the story (which is actually the latest permutation of a long-evolving firestorm) came in late August after indie game developer Zoe Quinn and critic Anita Sarkeesian were both horribly, horribly harassed online. The same harassment was later lobbed at award-winning games journalist Jenn Frank and fellow writer Mattie Brice. Both Frank and Brice say they will no longer write about games. The FBI is looking into harassment of game developers.

2) Ethics in games journalism: Some argue that the focus on harassment distracts from the real issue, which is that indie game developers and the online gaming press have gotten too cozy. There’s also a substantial, vocal movement that believes the generally left-leaning online gaming press focuses too much on feminism and the role of women in the industry, to the detriment of coverage of games. (One of the sites mentioned in this debate is Vox’s sister site, Polygon.)

Broadly speaking, the two sides in this debate are “the #GamerGaters,” the ones who are organizing under the hashtag to protest any number of issues, namely what they feel is a lack of journalist ethics in the gaming press, and a wide variety of other voices, who think the #GamerGate movement’s connections to online harassment make it an unworthy vessel for change. The #GamerGaters have some actually interesting concerns, largely driven by the changing face of video game culture. But those concerns have often been warped and drowned out by an army of trolls spewing bile, often at women.

“The ‘official’ line is that it’s about a demand for more transparency and better ethics in games journalism,” Keith Stuart, games editor for The Guardian, told me in an email. “This in itself is absolutely fine — as I wrote in my own piece, we should all be skeptical of the media. But whatever the higher motivations of some of those involved, the debate has had such a toxic undercurrent of abuse and anti-feminism that it has poisoned the whole concept. If this is about ethics, it cannot also be about systematic harassment. Those two contradict each other completely.”

So who is Zoe Quinn?

Quinn is a game designer whose most famous creation is Depression Quest, a game she co-created with Patrick Lindsey and Isaac Schankler that uses the format of a multiple-choice text adventure (a game told entirely through words) to simulate the experience of having depression. It’s a beautiful, brutal experience, but it’s also one that doesn’t really offer much in the way of traditional “gameplay,” since you are, after all, making selections from a menu of options.

That’s Quinn’s artistic point — depression creates the impression that you have limited options — but there’s also a large, vocal audience that cares first and foremost about gameplay. That audience actively tried to prevent Depression Quest from being included on Steam Greenlight, which is a voting process that gets indie games on Steam, one of the largest platforms on which consumers obtain games.

For a time, Quinn dated a programmer named Eron Gjoni. Things ended badly. Gjoni wrote a series of online posts about the end of the relationship (collected here). He released personal information about her. And then all hell broke loose. (Gjoni has since distanced himself from everything that followed in this Vice interview.)

Gjoni said that Quinn had cheated on him, and one of those instances was with a writer for the influential games website Kotaku. Kotaku investigated, finding no wrongdoing on the part of either its writer (Nathan Grayson) or Quinn, but the seeds of the controversy were sown, and you can see elements of both of the major points of #GamerGate emerging.

Thousands of comments on the matter were expunged from normally freewheeling 4chan and Reddit for reasons that weren’t immediately clear, and a DMCA takedown notice was filed against a YouTube video using footage from one of Quinn’s games. Quinn was harassed endlessly via Twitter, her phone, and other modes of communication. Needless to say, much of the criticism of Quinn was horrifyingly gendered, directed not just at her personal decisions (which would have been bad enough) but also at her identity specifically as a woman within the gaming community.

Some gamers were upset that the press didn’t report more on Gjoni’s accusations, accusing the journalists of covering for one of their own. But, of course, journalistic outlets don’t make habits of reporting on the personal lives of those they cover, unless those personal lives are somehow specifically notable. So in that sense, #GamerGaters has succeeded.

In a popular post about #GamerGate on the site What Culture, writer Jordan Ephraim, who sympathizes with the #GamerGate movement, boils down the Quinn controversy thusly: “People have used the recent Zoe Quinn controversy — where she received harassment for cheating on her boyfriend with five other guys (one a writer for Kotaku) — to demonize people who simply like playing video games.” For Ephraim, the thought that she might have slept with someone from Kotaku comes second to the thought that she cheated on her boyfriend. This suggests interpersonal drama was the original engine driving #GamerGate, rather than concerns about journalistic ethics. It might still be.

Who is Anita Sarkeesian?

Sarkeesian is a popular, prominent feminist critic of all forms of media, who writes and hosts the YouTube show Feminist Frequency. A few years ago, she launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for a new series on female characters in video games, focusing on how many of them fell into harmful tropes. The Kickstarter was wildly successful, with supporters motivated to donate by the tons of hate-filled comments and anger directed Sarkeesian’s way (up to and including the creation of a game in which players beat her up).

Since then, Sarkeesian has mostly released her videos to more subdued (though still present) vitriol and the occasional smear campaign. But one of her most recent gaming videos was released right as the Quinn story was boiling over, resulting in even more harassment than the original one. The threats were so specific that Sarkeesian feared for her life and went into hiding. Avengers director and Buffy creator Joss Whedon tweeted her some words of support, while Star Trek: The Next Generation star and online nerd icon Wil Wheaton angrily chastised gamers for their treatment of her.

All of this led to a series of essays published on the “death of the gamer” as an identity. To anyone in the online media industrial complex, this will just look like the typical swarm of thinkpieces trying to find new things to say about the same topic. But to a lot of #GamerGaters, it looked like collusion — an attempt to silence them and deny their right to exist.

What is a gamer?

Theoretically, it’s anyone who plays video games, but the actual term “gamer” has become so heavily identified with “young man who plays a lot of video games” that the word has, essentially, become gendered. As video game critic Brendan Keogh points out, you can see this any time there’s talk of how video games are increasingly played by demographics that don’t conform to the stereotype, or how smart phone or tablet video game players (who are often women) aren’t “real” gamers because they spend all of their time playing Angry Birds or Kim Kardashian Hollywood.

Many involved in #GamerGate say they don’t want the term “gamer” to go away, but they also want it to be as inclusive as possible. But the term already is exclusionary, because it’s so heavily associated with the stereotype.

“A relatively uninformed ‘product consumer’ fan base within games feels obliquely like their identity is ‘under attack’ any time there’s a critique of gamer culture or gaming consumer ideals. It’s really fatiguing,” journalist Leigh Alexander said of the uproar. “And if you want to know how truly absurd it really is, try explaining it to people who work in other media, or who have only a casual interest in video games, and see how ridiculous it all sounds.”

What is journalism? What is a video game?

These might seem like a silly questions, but they are central to this debate. A large part of #GamerGate stems from a fundamental disconnect between what those who read gaming media believe journalism to be and what it actually is. Put simply: cultural journalism (which includes video game journalism) is bound by the same strictures as traditional journalism — get the facts right, don’t plagiarize, don’t write glowing stories about friends or family, etc. — but at the same time, its very existence denotes a kind of built-in critical judgment. Put bluntly: if a cultural journalist writes about a game or movie or book, the implicit assumption is that this is worth you knowing about on some level.

But when that springs up around nontraditional games, it leads to a disconnect between the primary audience of gaming publications and those who write about games. In his What Culture piece, Ephraim brings up the game Gone Home, about a young woman returning to her house after time away. It’s not a game so much as an exploration of that space and her character. Roundly lauded in the gaming press, Ephraim singles it out as something that was praised only because it engaged with LGBT issues (whereas most of the reviews actually suggest the game was appreciated because it did something very different from other games).

In an email to me, Ephraim said the problem is just one of nomenclature, something very important in a subculture that is endlessly fond of making lists of things: “People, gaming journalists included, are allowed to have their own opinions on whether ‘art’ games are good, and healthy debate and discussion should spring from this. The main problem is that games like Depression Quest and Gone Home are called ‘games’ in the first place. As I said in my article, there needs to be serious consideration of an official genre called ‘Walking Novels’ for Gone Home and ‘Interactive Novels’ [for something like] Depression Quest.”

All branches of journalism have to wrestle with the question of friendships between journalists and those they cover. But it’s particularly acute in the gaming press, which evolved from an enthusiast press — that is to say that it was originally written by people who really liked gaming, for people who really liked gaming — that was often a publicity arm of the games industry for many years. (Game companies would use magazine “previews” as essentially giant advertisements.) In many respects, the rise of online outlets, which are more skeptical of the industry, has been a boon to good, objective games journalism.

But it’s also led to more and more articles about the poor relationship individual titles and the industry as a whole have with women and minorities. These articles are often poorly received by the core audience. This has slowly but surely widened a divide between those who might just want to hear about how video games are awesome and those who want forthright coverage of problems within the industry. (And, arguably, having those close relationships between reporters and sources has led to better coverage of those problems, though it’s also led to situations where journalists have known about a newsworthy event about to happen and haven’t reported on it.)

But all of that writing about the sociopolitical implications of games has led to an impression among some #GamerGaters that this is now the only topic in gaming that gets any attention.

“The way things are now, the loud, angry, polarizing voices are the ones most likely to find success in this industry. We’ve raised an army of pundits, literally Fox-News style talking heads who do nothing but scream at each other,” #GamerGate supporter Stanley McCatty said to me in an email.

This, in essence, is what ultimately drove the freelance games journalist Jenn Frank, at the time a largely uncontroversial reporter and critic, from the business. Frank wrote an op-ed for the Guardian about the harassment surrounding Quinn. She asked the paper if she needed to disclose her connection to Quinn (with whom she was friendly), but was told that wasn’t the case.

Once gamers discovered that they had a relationship, they became furious, convinced the Guardian had misstepped. But Frank was already writing an op-ed, rather than a reported piece, and her relationship with Quinn was minor enough to not raise eyebrows. Yet those distinctions were lost on many.

Who is behind #GamerGate?

4chan: The long-running forum is at the center of nearly every other internet controversy of the last month, so why not this one as well? All available evidence points to 4Chan’s popular video game board spreading the word about Gjoni’s initial missives and coordinating messaging on the hashtag going forward. The board also had its own “controversy makes strange bedfellows” moment when it backed the game design programs of the Fine Young Capitalists, a very feminist group that wants to see more female game designers. (At the time, the Fine Young Capitalists were in a feud with Quinn.)

Adam Baldwin: The actor, best known for roles in Chuck and Firefly, has tweeted several times about the situation, raising its profile. Baldwin is one of Hollywood’s best known political conservatives, which also brought the situation to the attention of the right (more on that in a bit).

Social media: Sometimes, these things just get out of hand. And while many of the tweets about #GamerGate in the early going were from accounts with only a handful of tweets (suggesting perhaps “burner” accounts set up just to tweet about the situation and raise its prominence), it was enough to give the hashtag momentum. It quickly went viral.

The problem is that the people who have dominated this conversation are the same people who have harassed women such as Quinn and Sarkeesian and Frank, or even their male supporters such as Phil Fish (designer of popular game Fez). They’re the people who forced the president of Sony’s online entertainment division to divert his flight because of a bomb threat made on Twitter. So long as these misogynistic bullies are part of #GamerGate, it will be hard to take the movement’s other concerns seriously.

What do they ultimately want?

This is what isn’t as clear, and it really differs based on which #GamerGate supporter you talk to. If it was just to bring attention to Quinn’s personal life, that’s, as stated, already happened. And if it was to create better ethical disclosures in online journalism, that’s happening, too. The Escapist is drafting new guidelines, while Kotaku is now forbidding its writers from financially supporting independent designers on Patreon, a popular method for backing independent artists, unless the site’s writers need to donate to Patreon for coverage purposes (since many developers release material first to their Patreon backers). And Vox sister site Polygon requires disclosures of this sort of support.

Polygon editor-in-chief Christopher Grant wrote: “While I disagree that contributing to a game developer without holding an actual financial stake in their success is a violation of the spirit of that principle, I also think that disclosure is the best medicine in these circumstances. So starting immediately, I’ve asked everyone on staff to disclose on their staff pages any outstanding Patreon contributions and, additionally, to disclose the same on any coverage related to those contributions under that staff member’s byline. We’ll retroactively update any stories published in the duration of that support to reflect that, and I’ll note those updates here.”

The Guardian’s Stuart said, “Some just want potential conflicts of interest labeled clearly on articles — where reportage is concerned, I think that’s fair. Others seem to want certain writers fired, or major sites like Kotaku and Polygon closed down. Which of course, isn’t going to happen — this is a free press.”

For his part, Ephraim thinks the movement has succeeded: “I’d say #GamerGate has already been successful. One of the main points was to promote skepticism about videogame journalism, and considering how much the topic has been trending, it’s safe to say it was successful.”

But a lot of what #GamerGaters really want seems to be about things that are so nebulous as to be meaningless. “Better objectivity” is all well and good, but what it often seems to mean, functionally, is a return to the days when the gaming press was filled with borderline press releases about upcoming games, which is sort of the opposite of that — what with it requiring massive amounts of access to the industry and all. There’s also a desire for gaming sites to stop covering issues of female representation in games, but given the increased prominence of women as both game players and people within the industry, this is almost certainly not going to happen.

So, in essence, #GamerGate has “won,” superficially, but it can never really win. The movement is probably too big now to accomplish all of its goals, much less concretely articulate them.

Do politics play a role in this?

Yes, of course. This is the United States. #GamerGate, as stated, really took off once Adam Baldwin got involved, and it’s led to articles about the situation on sites like Breitbart. (That article, incidentally, describes “gamers” in terms just as harsh as any in the spate of “death of gamer” articles.) The conservative argument in a nutshell is the old saw about political correctness and/or feminism ruining things. The Breitbart article is actually headlined “Feminist Bullies Tearing the Video Game Industry Apart.”

Plus, because of the video game controversies of the ‘90s (when games were frequently blamed for things like school shootings), the community is already primed to think that any discussion of games in a sociopolitical context means that talk of banning them isn’t far behind. This has been building for a long time, at least since 2007, when the trailer for Resident Evil 5 was released, showing a white man gunning down herds of black zombies. It ended up exposing hidden fault lines in the video game community.

“The gaming scene was so diverse that people had failed to notice that huge divides in political opinions were just sitting there out in the open, unexplored,” McCatty said. “The most ‘serious’ thing about a mainstream game before RE5 was whether or not it would be violent and whether or not the breasts on the women could jiggle. We hadn’t noticed that so many gamers were bitterly right wing or fanatically left wing until the conversation sprouted up.”

The #GamerGate arguments, particularly on 4chan, reference the term “social justice warrior” frequently and often. What this means, usually, is someone — often a woman like Sarkeesian — who is pushing for games to become more diverse or representative of viewpoints other than that of a young white guy. And there are huge portions of the #GamerGate world that are angered by this (though not all, by any means; McCatty told me he likes Sarkeesian’s videos for how they point out tropes the industry leans on too often).

But if much of #GamerGate is about railing against the evolution of gaming journalism from enthusiast press to something closer to genuine press, or about lamenting the evolution of games from product to artistic statement, then it’s also about pushing back against the medium’s evolution from one that’s just for the “gamer” demographic to one that’s more inclusive. And while that doesn’t describe everyone involved in #GamerGate, such defenses of the status quo have always overlapped with political conservatism.

Can games be art?

Yes. And, really, a big part of this debate is about how games are allowed to be art. The indie game scene stretches the definition of games in an industry dominated by massive action blockbusters. Depression Quest and Gone Home keep coming up in this debate because both are, for the most part, devoid of traditional gameplay mechanics. They’re less about getting you through a gameplay narrative and more about making you have a particular experience. They’re about personal, artistic expression more than a carefully controlled story that apes big-budget movies.

“In the past, there was this fictional conception that a reviewer could apply an ‘objective’ score to a video game, untainted by any personal bias. Given that games are highly subjective, experiential things, and not mobile phones, this idea is a bit silly to begin with,” Alexander said. “But then you add into the mix that the historical model of games coverage involved bargains struck between marketing departments at big games companies and the advertising departments of niche games magazines, and it’s stunning that the biggest ‘ethical concerns’ our audience has ever raised come from an environment where people now do personal, creative writing about independent games.”

The film industry is a good comparison point here. That’s a world where there are both huge blockbusters and smaller, more intimate films that take chances with the form. Video games are getting there, too. This is, ultimately, just a part of that evolution. And as long as that evolution continues, there will be this sort of fractious debate. Because what #GamerGate is all about isn’t who is or isn’t a gamer, or what role the press should play. It’s about what games should be and who they should be for. And that’s worth a real discussion, not just a hashtag.

Image: PlayStation Europe