Why the trolls are winning #Gamergate

war zone reporter taking picture

If everyone thinks “gamers” are terrible, who will actually want to make video games?

A few weeks ago I was at a bar and ran into another journalist. As reporters tend to do when they encounter each other in the wild, we immediately started talking shop. He worked for a news website covering national security and, as soon as he found out I report on Internet stuff, his first question was, “What do you think about Gamergate?”

I said hadn’t written about it, but the whole thing seemed like an awful mess. He agreed, nodding his head. “I’m so glad I don’t cover video games.”

Let’s unpack this statement for a second. Here is a guy who spends all day on the phone with officials from the Pentagon trying to ferret out which multi-billion dollar weapons systems are actually expensive boondoggles and, thanks to Gamergate, he’s terrified to even spill a drop of virtual ink covering video games.

My one-time drinking buddy isn’t alone. Gamergate is a scandal that initially started as a crusade by online vigilantes against a female indie game designer, but it has since metastasized into a battle over the future of gaming. It has rendered the “gamer” brand so toxic in the public consciousness that an entire generation of journalists, academics, and computer programmers—both male and female—are actively avoiding anything to do with the industry.

The core of the problem is a persistent wave of online harassment that’s been directed at people who have fallen into the crosshairs of Gamergate’s online hordes. The fear is that, by doing anything associated with video gaming, you’ll be barraged with violent threats that could transform into action. You’ll have all of your online accounts hacked and your family members will be harassed. When deciding whether or not to go into the gaming industry, people now have to factor the potential for life-altering harassment into the equation and many are deciding that it’s simply not worth it.

Thanks to Gamergate, when the average person on the street now thinks about gaming culture (if they think about it at all), they don’t think about a rapid growing industry that’s now bigger than movies or music. Instead, they think of a collection of young men that, for whatever reason, will do just about anything to stop women from climbing into their treehouse.

For anyone who cares about the future of gaming, no matter what their opinion on Gamergate, this is seriously bad news.

***

Gamergate started in a piece of relationship drama gone massively, embarrassingly public. Earlier this year, game developer Eron Gjoni wrote a blog post attacking his ex-girlfriend, another game developer named Zoe Quinn. Gjoni accused Quinn of repeatedly cheating on him during their relationship, including one instance with a gaming journalist who, he implied, had then given favorable coverage to her games. Quinn later started dating the journalist, who never actually reviewed any of her games—only briefly mentioning Quinn once in passing before their relationship began.

The post sparked a backlash among some gamers who saw Gjoni’s post as evidence of widespread collusion between game journalists and game developers. The term “Gamergate” was coined by actor Adam Baldwin and a movement, supposedly aimed at rooting out corruption within the gaming industry, was born.

What happened next would seem completely insane for anyone unfamiliar with the online culture surrounding video games.

“For some reason, in gaming, the attacks get very personal,” said Jane, a longtime professional gaming writer who has since left the business and now writes about pop culture for a general interest website. “If someone dislikes something you write [about games], they’ll be like ‘you’re ugly, you need to lose weight, you’re disgusting,’ and other much worse things that I’m not going to go into… [At the non-gaming site I write for now], there are plenty of people who say that what I’m writing isn’t news or is stupid. But they would never say, ‘I’m going to hunt you down and and kill you.’ I’ve never seen that in any other business, ever.”

Jane asked that her identity, as well as her previous and current employers, be withheld for this article.

Within a matter of weeks, Quinn was on the run. She had been receiving daily threats of death and sexual violence. All of her online accounts were hacked. Her father started getting menacing phone calls from anonymous strangers. She told the New York Times that she left her home and hasn’t gone back.

Gjoni has since apologized, writing on his blog, which was created for the exclusive purpose of attacking Quinn, “I do not stand by the current abuse and harassment of Zoe Quinn or friends. Stop doing that. It is not in anyone’s best interest.”

Although, it should be noted that Gjoni made a couple of appearances in IRC chat logs showing that users of the anarchic message board 4chan had coordinated ahead of time to use the controversy about journalistic ethics as a way to personally attack Quinn, who they felt had only achieved success with her game, Depression Quest, due to her publicizing prior incidents of harassment from online trolls.

But the cat was already out of the bag. Quinn was a target, as was anyone else Gamergaters perceived to be on her side. Since gaming has become an infinitely more diverse place than it was in its early years ,when it really was the province of the stereotypical white, male, heterosexual “gamer”—adult women, for example, now make up the single largest demographic in gaming—there were a significant number of people willing to line up on her side. Many of whom also became targets themselves.

Quinn’s friend and fellow game developer Phil Fish spoke up in her defense on Twitter and was quickly hacked by Gamergaters. Personal information like Fish’s email address, passwords, home address, and bank account information were plastered across the Internet.

Branna Wu, the cofounder of an indie gaming studio, was also driven out of her home by threats after she posted a meme making fun of Gamergaters.

As a result of all this harassment, a number of media outlets (the Daily Dot included) have published essays arguing that the “gamer” identity has to die. If all of this terrible behavior is coming out of gamer culture, than maybe gamer culture is the problem.

If Gamergate wasn’t a full-fledged culture war before this point, it certainly became one. For a lot of people, video games are an unimaginably important part of their lives. The mantle of “gamer” was one of the few identities they could wear with pride. People many gamers perceived as outsiders critiquing that identity as one steeped in race- or sex-based exclusivity really struck a nerve.

“For some, games were their escape from bullying or a bad home life. It was a place to feel safe,” explained Dr. Adrienne Shaw, a media studies professor at Temple University, who has written extensively on game culture. “For a lot of Gamergaters, it feels like people critiquing something that they love is really just calling them bad people.”

“I think part of it stems from a long-standing feeling of being pushed aside or put down on. Games have not been taken seriously. Gamers are used to being told that games are silly things that kids do, games aren’t important. People are naturally defensive about playing,” continued Shaw, who noted that some of her published work on game culture has drawn the attention, and therefore harassment, of Gamergaters. “It’s weird for a lot of games academics and journalists who are being attacked because we’ve been saying for years, to anyone who will listen, that games are really important, that games matter. It’s just that games are really important to us and, as such, should represent more of us—gay, straight, white, black, cis, and transgender.”

These calls for gamer culture to become more inclusive angered a lot of Gamergaters who insist that everything about the world of video gaming is completely open and welcoming the way it is.

“There is a great deal of diversity within the gaming community… Beyond this typified view of diversity, gamers include all political and religious affiliations as well,” insisted a Gamergater going by the handle YouHaveNoControl who has been working with Shaw on her investigation into the roots of the controversy. “So it boggles…[Gamergaters’] minds, I think, that there is a group of people who really believe gamers are just entitled, sexist, white males… and that they publish statements saying as much not only in the gaming press but in major media outlets. It makes them wonder if the writers themselves are even gamers or know anything at all about gaming culture.”

Like Shaw, people who have long been critical of gamer culture, especially on feminist grounds, have seen increased harassment. The most prominent example is Anita Sarkeesian.

In 2012, Sarkeesian launched a Kickstarter campaign for a video series exploring sexist depictions of women in video games called Tropes vs. Women in Video Games. The campaign was a success, raising far more than its initial goal, but it also opened up Sarkeesian to endless harassment.

For example, someone actually made a video game where the object was to beat Sarkeesian into a bloody pulp.

After Gamergate, the threats against Sarkeesian reached a fever pitch. Earlier this week, Sarkeesian’s speech at Utah State was cancelled after someone claiming to be a student threatened to carry out “the deadliest school shooting in American history” if she were allowed to speak. Since Utah’s gun laws prevented the school from prohibiting guns in the auditorium, it was impossible to assure Sarkeesian’s safety and the entire event was scrapped.

Like Quinn and Wu, Sarkeesian also abandoned her home due to persistent threats on her life.

Now, imagine you’re a young journalist—one who likes video games but would be just as happy writing about something else, maybe national security; imagine you’re a female computer science student deciding whether or not to use your talents to make video games or design a mobile app that’s like Tinder, but for dogs; imagine you’re an academic considering whether or not to spend your career analyzing video games. Looking at the media coverage of how Gamergate has played out, would you dive head-first into video games or would you think to yourself, “No way in hell,” and never give games a second thought?

***

For their part, many Gamergaters insist the media is being played by a gaggle of attention-seeking grifters looking to further their own agendas by pushing narratives of victimhood.

“To be entirely frank, I think people who are taking these threats as seriously as they are, are just being huge drama queens…and they are doing it because it plays directly into the helpless victim narrative that they are trying to push,” explained a Reddit user going by the handle StrawRedditor, who serves as a moderator of Gamergate hub of r/KotakuInAction. “All these sites completely sidestepping any ethics questions and instead resorting to smear campaigns that GG is nothing but women harassers (even though some of our most prominent members are women).”

StrawRedditor continued:

What I think people also need to realize is that what harassment is just something that happens on the Internet when people are given anonymity. I’ve been threatened and insulted and been told some incredibly vulgar things just for playing games…and I’m pretty sure most people have. It doesn’t bother me at all, because I know it’s all completely baseless… that’s just what happens when you’re on a platform that lets you anonymously interact with millions of people. There’s always going to be a few (or a few hundred out of millions) assholes who like trolling people. Are you aware of any anonymous internet threat ever come to fruition

First and foremost, it’s wrong and I wouldn’t support anyone who would think threatening anyone is okay. That being said, I’d say it’s pretty obviously fake, as are 99.9999 percent of these things posted on the Internet.

StrawRedditor accused both Sarkeesian and Wu of faking their death threats as a way to get publicity, as well as insisted that people on the pro-Gamergate side have been getting threats as well.

“People who are being negatively affected by what the gaming outlets are saying are probably people I wouldn’t want in the industry anyway,” StrawRedditor added.

However, insisting that anyone who wants to do anything within the gaming industry should just be willing to laugh off a slew of death threats—like Call of Duty developer David Vonderhaar recounted doing after being barraged with death threats from aggrieved fans for doing something as minor as slightly changing the rate of fire on one of the game’s weapons (really)—is deeply problematic.

“Harassment is harassment, online or offline and those who remain ‘anonymous’ while they do it are the biggest abusers, and quite honestly, true cowards,” charged Jayne Hitchcock of the anti-cyberbullying group Working to Halt Online Abuse in an email. “When someone like Anita Sarkeesian is hit with DEATH threats (as well as anyone who was going to attend her session), there is something really wrong. And yes, anonymous threats have become real—my organization works with online victims every day and it’s scary how the anonymous cyberstalkers are the most vicious, then get to a point where they don’t care if the victim knows who they really are, then confront them in person or send them threats of physical harm. It has nothing to do with thin skin.”

“Cyberstalking is a real problem and it is not going away,” Hitchcock added. “I’ve been involved in this field since 1996 and I’ve only seen it get worse as time goes on.”

A lot of the problem has to do with social media.

Jane started writing for gaming websites in 2007. Back then, those sites were unquestionably boys’ clubs, but Jane said her colleagues were never anything less than polite, respectful, and professional. Her readers, on the other hand, not so much. “Early on, I was getting verbal abuse. Before I was more skilled with dealing with Internet trolls, I remember just many days when I’d close my computer at 2pm and just start crying. I couldn’t do any more work because I was so intimidated and sad and frustrated.”

She eventually got better at handling the barrage of hate she’d get simply for being a woman writing about games. But as Twitter grew in popularity, the harassment she received increased by an order of magnitude. It was easy not to read the terrible, mean-spirited posts in the moderated comments section of an article she wrote. It was much harder to ignore a stream of tweets popping up on her feed from anonymous jerks threatening her life.

“My Twitter feed is filled with comments from the colleagues that I used to work with and I’m seeing them in terrible pain,” she said. “This is unbelievable. The threats are the worst part because I’m afraid that people I know will be hurt.”

Jane hasn’t written about games for a few years and insists that Gamergate was the really the stake in the coffin for her game writing career. It solidified to her that, no matter what happens, she’ll never go back to covering something that’s been one of her passions since the age of 9.

“[If a young journalist came to me asking if they should get into games], I would absolutely say it’s not the best use of their time,” she said. “The games industry is populated with a lot of children masquerading as adults. People who are excited about turning their thing into a career. I get that feeling, but it’s a big playground that invites in people who don’t know what the boundaries are.”

I spoke with another female journalist, who requested to remain anonymous, who made a concerted effort to stop covering games around the same time Gamergate broke. “Several close friends of mine have been driven away from gaming culture as a result of the movement, and I don’t blame them for leaving,” she wrote in an email to the Daily Dot. “Advocating for change within gaming culture is not only physically dangerous (see the threats against Anita Sarkeesian), it’s emotionally draining as well. This loosely organized hate group has been floating over online gaming discourse like a storm cloud for months now and it’s hard to know when or if it will end.”

Even journalists who are currently writing about games see the flood of harassment triggered by Gamergate as something that makes them uncomfortable about doing their jobs.

“Gamergate has been rather demoralizing… Is pursuing games journalism a worthwhile investment if people on the Internet don’t really care about reporting?” asked Daily Dot gaming reporter Imad Khan. “Are more people interested in watching Let’s Play videos and arguing about 900p vs 1080p? I wanted to get into this to work on features that covered developers, talked about games in relation to American society, things like that. If I write a feature on race and games, what’s the point if half the comments will say things like ‘they’re just games’ or ‘f**k you, you don’t even have a journalism degree?’ So, yeah, the toxicity of the Internet has slowed the creative vision of many who want to put worthwhile content out there.”

***

People on both sides of Gamergate insist that those doling out the most serious harassment don’t represent the majority of gamers by any stretch of the imagination. That was made clear by almost everyone I corresponded with for this piece; however, those aggressive, hostile voices have had the effect of sucking all the air out of the room.

As a result, it’s often proved difficult for outsiders to figure out exactly what Gamergate is really about. While the core of it is clearly about protecting video gaming culture from a perceived “other” insistent on changing it into something unrecognizable, there seems to be little clarity inside the movement about precisely what’s causing that harm.

U.K.-based academic Jenni Goodchild endeavored to clear up this confusion by collecting hundreds of responses from people on both sides of Gamergate in an anonymous online survey.

“If anything, it’s made it clear there are multiple strands of thought within [Gamergate],” said Goodchild. “There is indeed a section interested in corruption and ethics, but there’s also sections obsessing over the influence of cultural marxism, or who want any discussion of sexism/racism/etc to leave game reviews entirely.”

She recounted having wonderful, reasoned discussions with people legitimately concerned with ethics in gaming journalism, but those conversations were continually drowned out by people livid about the insertion of political or cultural criticism into the conversation about games.

Goodchild pointed to a tweet from an account that sends out dozens, if not hundreds, of angry Gamergate posts per day that directly contradicts calls from Gamergaters that they’re concerned about journalistic ethics.

“This is clearly encouraging publishers to blacklist reviewers who don’t give them high scores,” Goodchild insisted. “That’s the OPPOSITE of ethics. I pointed this out, and look what happened.”

“You can tell when something has become about ‘beating the enemy’ rather than, say, actually working for ethics when something is considered okay because the ‘enemy’ dislikes it,” she added.

Goodchild said that many of her friends in the gaming industry are terrified of being targeted by Gamergate and feel that the movement’s gaze could fall on them without warning or provocation.

“And it’s all very well and good saying ‘Well, if they’ve got nothing to hide they shouldn’t worry,’ but the fact is that…[Gamergate] is often making up conspiracy theories,” she noted. “Over the past few months, people have tried to prove that I work for…[the Digital Games Research Association, an organization of gaming researchers that has been targeted in Gamergate for promoting scholarship on games they didn’t like, but] I don’t. I once invited someone who…[did work there] to speak at a conference. You don’t need to actually have done anything or have any connections for some of them to try and make some about you—and that’s what makes it even scarier.”

Shaw, the Temple University professor, said this looming fear is actively stopping her students from wanting to publish any research on games.

“I had a grad student I talked to earlier today who was going to do a dissertation on representations of gender in video games, and now she’s not sure if she should anymore because she’s worried people might mess with her survey, people might harass her, people might hack her accounts just to find out what she’s up to,” Shaw recounted.

Gamergate is also having the effect of pushing female developers who are anything less than 100-percent dedicated to careers in making games out of the industry entirely.

“I think that Gamergate has to have an influence on anyone ‘considering’ a career in gaming. It has to be an additional negative on top of the challenges that already exist in finding a role in the games industry,” explained David Smith, who has worked for two decades to bring more women into the gaming industry both as a recruiter and the founder of the nonprofit Women In Gaming Jobs. “From what I can see in the U.K., I don’t think it is putting off anyone who is already committed to a career in gaming. Anyone looking for a job in games has to have patience and persevere.”

A 2008 survey found that 52 percent of women working in science and technology fields drop out, citing a “hostile macho culture” in the workplace as their main reason for doing so. Combine that with the fear that they’ll be on the receiving end of death threats if they happen to tweet the wrong thing, and it provides more than enough incentive to avoid working anywhere near video games.

Belinda Van Sickle, the president of industry group Women In Gaming International said that, in the games industry, there’s been a concerted effort by companies to make their workforces more diverse, simply as a business decision to reflect the increasing diversity of the people who play their games.

“I get calls all the time from companies looking for female programmers and I, too, often have to tell them that I can’t find any candidates that have all their technical skills,” Van Sickle said. “These recruiters are under mandates from their bosses to make their organization more diverse and every day that Gamergate gets more attention it makes their jobs just that much harder.”

Van Sickle’s organization usually doesn’t take political stands and has thus far stayed out of Gamergate. However, she told the Daily Dot that it was time to come out about against Gamergate harassment, calling it “an extraordinary civil rights issue.”

“I was nervous even speaking to you about this,” she admitted. “I talk to reporters all the time and I’m never scared to talk about anything. But this made me afraid. I didn’t want to get doxed, I didn’t want to get harassed.”

The fear in her voice was real. The fear in the voices of everyone who thinks they might be a target is real. Gamergate has created an atmosphere where almost anyone in the gaming industry has to live with the nagging fear in the back of their minds that, one day, they might become a target. Sure, there are a lot of people who are passionate enough about games to deal with that fear. But most will simply turn away.

“I love games but if someone was threatening my life, I’d probably stop writing about them,” Jane said with a weary sigh. “It sucks because, in that case, they kind of win. But it’s not worth my life. Nothing I could write about is worth that.”

Photo via Global Panorama (CC BY SA 2.0) 

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