(This is Part 2 of an article series that explores a case of harassment in online gaming known as #GamerGate. Please read Part 1 of this post here. Part 2 argues that the sexist harassment campaign is rooted in resentment against current changes in the gaming industry.)
In the early days of the harassment campaign against Zoe Quinn – indie game developer, critic, and cyborg – before the campaign was given its name, a number of editorials were written on a curiously specific theme: the cultural category of “gamer,” and how those who play games relate to it. On Kotaku, Luke Plunkett wrote of the “Death of An Identity.” “Gaming is a hobby I’ve had (on and off) for most of my life,” wrote Emma M. Woolley in The Globe and Mail, “but I’ve never called myself a gamer. One reason is that while playing video games is something I enjoy, it doesn’t define who I am; another is that I don’t identify with many people who do call themselves gamers.” The “gamer” label has been a problem for games writers for some time; never literally describing everyone who plays any kind of games (which is to say, almost everyone), it’s traditionally been used to exclude casual games, mobile platforms, or certain genres. In its most nativist form, “gamer” (often appended by the modifier “real”) is a term used to denote a class of consumers that cares about gaming more than anyone else, competes more fiercely than anyone else, and is thus deserving of special attention from the industry and the press that covers it. In academic circles, there have been attempts to expand the category of “gamer” to better represent the variety of players out there. These editorials were taking the opposite tack: if this is what “real gamers” really want “gamer” to mean–young white men with disposable income who respond to academic criticism with death threats–then fuck ’em. Let them have it. “‘Gamer’ isn’t just a dated demographic label that most people increasingly prefer not to use,” wrote Leigh Alexander for Gamasutra. “Gamers are over. That’s why they’re so mad.”
Indeed, the demographic signified by this use of “gamer” is a smaller market than it used to be, and with AAA development costs spiraling ever higher, it’s unlikely the industry will continue catering so dutifully to a shrinking audience. In the same editorial, Alexander described this demographic angst thus: “This is hard for people who’ve drank the kool aid about how their identity depends on the aging cultural signposts of a rapidly-evolving, increasingly broad and complex medium. It’s hard for them to hear they don’t own anything, anymore, that they aren’t the world’s most special-est consumer demographic, that they have to share.” This kind of territorial, reactionary behavior is common in spheres where privilege is eroding, and especially when several of those spheres overlap; in practice, GamerGate closely resembles similar tensions within the atheist movement erupting in the wake of “Elevatorgate.” Given the prominence of 4chan and Reddit, it’s entirely possible that a lot of the same people have been involved in both.
Not everyone has been paying attention from the beginning, of course, and certainly some well-meaning people have been drawn into the argument under the belief that GamerGate is really about journalistic integrity. Certainly, there has been effort from the beginning to conceal the origins of what is fundamentally a harassment campaign, and it’s more than a little ironic that an attempt to keep feminists out of games culture felt the need to create a female mascot in order to appear more credible. The question remains, however: if GamerGate isn’t about misogyny, then what is it about? The voices clamoring loudest for “journalistic integrity” seem to understand the least about how journalism or the videogame industry actually work. Game designer and former games journalist David Hill writes that the gaming community is now “having two completely different conversations. One’s an insider conversation, informed about the industry. The other is an outsider conversation, based on half-truths, misunderstandings, and what we see as skewed priorities. ”
Cameron Kunzelman spent some time talking to GamerGate supporters on Twitter, and came away with few compelling answers:
It seems to me that the participants in #gamergate are all there for different reasons and that it is mostly an accidental coalition that has formed out of a sense of being wronged. The person that I talked to in that Storify seems to just generally have a problem with a perceived lack of transparency in the world of games journalism. Another common thread that I see is that “the wrong games are being covered,” which smacks of small developers who are unhappy that their games don’t receive much press coverage. There’s yet another demographic that are literally using it as an excuse to air out all perceived wrongs–they seem to believe they’ve been wronged by all women, by the industry, by those who cover the industry, and a smattering of other, more nebulous sources.
Generally, #gamersgate leaves me with a sense of confusion more than anything else. I see a lot of chatter in the tag about it not being sexist, but then I see the immense amount of hate mail/hacking attempts/threats that women in the industry are getting. I keep seeing appeals to logic and rationality but no longform defenses of these methods or even arguments for why #gamersgate matters at all. As you can see in the conversation from the Storify, there isn’t much cohesion in the arguments being delivered from this set. It mostly seems like a decade’s worth of forum “common sense” (journos are paid off, games aren’t as good as they used to be, journos have an agenda) being thrown at a wall in order to see what sticks.
This seems to be where any investigation into the substance of GamerGate dead-ends: in a vague, unquantifiable sense of grievance, and a sense that someone, somewhere, is at fault. In my own conversations on the subject, an awful lot of people seem to feel deeply affronted by the aforementioned “gamers are dead” editorials, having interpreted analyses of changing cultural iconography (and collective embarrassment at the behavior of this vocal minority of fellow videogame enthusiasts) as a personal attack on all white men by an elite clique of “SJWs” with obvious contempt for their audience. This sort of narrative is far from unique. It is, in fact, precisely what one would expect from a mainstream conservative political ideology.
In recent days, Christina Hoff Sommers–a self-described “equity feminist” frequently at odds with modern feminist thought–has been lionized by supporters of #GamerGate for being critical of Anita Sarkeesian and other “gender activists and […] hipsters with a degree in cultural studies.” Conservative standard-bearer Breitbart.com, having earlier been supportive of GamerGate for its hostility to feminists and other activists, is now repurposing the JournoList “scandal” for games journalism. There’s nothing new or radical about this; just a group of people desperate to not talk about gender, to not talk about race, to not talk about labor, to not talk about capitalism.
Frank, Jenn. How to attack a woman who works in video gaming.
Handler, Michael. The Paranoid Style in Gaming Misogyny.
Rauch, Peter. How to Crowdsource Assault.
Ryerson, Liz. On Right-Wing Videogame Extremism
___. On “Gamers” And Identity.
[Full Disclosure: The author knows a lot of these people. He has met Zoe Quinn on a handful of occasions, donated to help fund her work once, and has drank beer at a table adjacent to where she was sitting. He once bummed a cigarette from Leigh Alexander, and has purchased her ebooks. He has traded dumb jokes with Jenn Frank, and wrote this passive-aggressive disclosure notice in her honor.]