What It Is Now
I'm going to do my best to relay what I have seen from GamerGate over the last couple months. I talked for several days with a number of ardent supporters, watched hundreds of interactions on social media, and watched hours of videos linked to me as evidence supporting the movement. I talked with people outside of the video game industry to get their perspective on recent events. This is how I've seen GamerGate. This article, as with all articles that I write, only represents my own stance. I do not speak for the organizations with which I work.
My female friends in the video game industry are scared. One of them said that she couldn't tell her parents what was going on because they'd fear for her safety. It is a fear she shares for herself and other women in the video game industry. It is a fear that is well founded in the wake of the movement called GamerGate.
To really understand where GamerGate is coming from, to see that it isn't just some spontaneously emergent group, you need to look at the precursor case of feminist pop culture critic Anita Sarkeesian's Kickstarter. Many of the attitudes, arguments, theories, and tactics that have been used to justify, support, and defend GamerGate began there. Anita Sarkeesian holds a master's degree in social and political thought from York University and is best known for her work on Feminist Frequency, a YouTube channel launched in early 2009 that examines depictions of women in popular culture. In 2012, she launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $6,000 to fund five videos in a series called Tropes vs. Women in Video Games with the goal of examining common tropes in video games that spread problematic messages about women. It should be noted that a trope is a significant and recurring theme or motif and usually does not constitute the entirety of a given work. Each video was planned to be anywhere from ten to twenty minutes long (though all of the videos she has released so far have been over the twenty minute mark) and be freely available to the public with no ads. The videos were intended to be taken as educational introductions to feminist theory as applied to video games. Instead a portion of the gaming community took Sarkeesian's Kickstarter as a declaration of war and responded with an all-out assault on her character and career in an attempt to destroy her critique. Her Wikipedia page was vandalized with pornographic images and slurs. Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks were carried out against her websites. The harassers attempted to obtain and distribute her address and phone number. She received thousands of death and rape threats. A game developer named Ben Spurr made a "game" called Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian in which users could punch and disfigure Sarkeesian's face until the screen turned red. There are many, far too many, examples.
All because a critic wanted to make some educational videos critiquing video game tropes.
Video game outlets got a hold of the story and spoke against the massive outpouring of hatred against Sarkeesian. Backlash against the abuse wasn't able to stop the harassment against Anita Sarkeesian, but it did draw many to her Kickstarter. Of the $6,000 that she had asked for, the month long Kickstarter ended with over $150,000. The additional funds are being used to create twelve videos instead of five, to bump up the production quality, and create a Creative Commons licensed curriculum that will be freely available for teachers, organizations, and families. For the record, Feminist Frequency is a registered 501(c)3 nonprofit in the state of California, a status that invites heavy financial scrutiny from the government for tax purposes. The Kickstarter was successful beyond what anyone could have possibly expected and Tropes vs. Women in Games was becoming a reality. That seems like where the story would end, right?
Shortly after the conclusion of Sarkeesian's Kickstarter campaign, claims that Sarkeesian had faked a month of harassment against herself in order to make financial gains began circulating. That was the birth of one of the first conspiracy theories regarding Anita Sarkeesian and you can still see it two years later being repeated by many proponents of GamerGate. We see people throwing around accusations that those who are receiving harassment are liars, scam artists, or professional victims looking to profit off of abuse. This is a viewpoint that is spewed by the mouthpieces of GamerGate as well as many of the individuals who ascribe to the movement.
The harassment Anita Sarkeesian has faced for the last two years has intensified, not gone away. At the Game Developer's Choice Awards this year, a credible threat was sent to the event organizers that detailed plans to trigger a bomb during the award show if organizers did not revoke Sarkeesian's Ambassador Award. The San Francisco Police Department Explosive Ordinance Division dispatched officers and bomb-sniffing dogs to ensure safety at the event. Sarkeesian, knowing her life was in danger, took the stage anyway. Earlier this very week, the feminist critic had a speaking engagement at Utah State University which had to be cancelled because of an email sent to the school threatening a "Montreal Massacre style attack," a reference to the 1989 shooting rampage which took place on a Montreal university campus where the shooter murdered fourteen women for being feminists and shot fourteen others before turning the gun on himself. Sarkeesian canceled her talk after USU refused to provide adequate security.
To reiterate, a woman who wanted $6,000 to make educational videos critiquing video games has now lived under years of death threats and harassment. The worst part is that Sarkeesian is not alone.
To say Zoe Quinn is a small-time independent game developer is an overstatement. Her game development operation is so small that she relies on Patreon, a service where people may donate to help support her while she makes weird and quirky games. That's not a comment on her abilities as a developer, either. Most of the games she creates are made freely available. In fact, her most well-known and highly praised game, Depression Quest, has a pay-what-you-want model with all proceeds going to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Quinn first enters this situation when she attempted to put Depression Quest on the PC platform Steam via Greenlight, a service that vets indie games before they're accepted onto the digital store. Depression Quest attempts to tackle what it is like to go through life with depression and, while certainly a valuable artistic experience, isn't what one would traditionally consider fun. For the crime of not being fun enough, a subset of the gaming community decided to harass Quinn in an effort to get her game thrown out of Greenlight, which is so well known for their game standards. The contempt faced by her game caused Quinn to withdraw it from Greenlight. After some time had passed and armed with positive feedback from her players, Quinn decided she wasn't going to let trolls dictate her life and put it back on Greenlight, eventually making it through the vetting process to become available on Steam. The harassment began again, but in an interview with Vice she stated, "I thought, honestly, I could take the hate if it meant the game could reach somebody who would get something out of it, feel less alone."
For a while it seemed like the ire directed at Quinn would die out over time, but then Eron Gjoni happened. Gjoni, a former romantic partner of Quinn's, decided to plaster a bitterly worded, 9,000-word long, angry tirade against the indie developer online. I won't sum up the entire article, since it is largely a personal matter between Zoe Quinn and himself; in my opinion, it should have stayed that way. The only important fact to know about the contents of what has become known as "thezoepost" is that Eron Gjoni accused Quinn of cheating on him with Nathan Grayson, a video game journalist for Kotaku. Not content to write out and publish his angst, Gjoni shopped the diatribe around the Something Awful and Penny Arcade forums where it was promptly moderated. Then, on August 16th, he shared his angst on 4Chan, the internet's wretched hive of scum and villainy and contender for one of its most inflammatory places. Fully aware of 4Chan's history, Eron Gjoni posted his accusatory screed there. It struck a spark in the heart of 4Chan among the anonymous communities of /pol/ and /v/ setting the stage for GamerGate proper to come into being. The inhabitants of those boards immediately set about trying to tear apart Quinn's life. Tipped off that her former boyfriend had posted on 4Chan, Zoe Quinn began taking screenshots, documenting a situation that was becoming uglier by the hour. These screenshots exist and many can be viewed today, though some are being held back for the purposes of an ongoing FBI investigation. If you are set on seeing them for yourself, I must warn you that they are vile. Quinn shared images that showcase the beginning stages of this movement and they've been gathered here.
Note the comparison to Anita Sarkeesian. It was another call to arms.
In the first day of Gjoni's post being brought to 4Chan's attention, they had already coalesced one of the core messages of what would become GamerGate. They decided that the message shouldn't be one about a bitter ex-boyfriend who wrote an angry letter to incite trouble; no, it should be about an indie game developer who used sex to get ahead professionally. From that desired message was birthed the blatant lie that Zoe Quinn slept with Kotaku reporter Nathan Grayson in exchange for positive coverage of Depression Quest. This story was disseminated through social media. Within two days YouTubers like Internet Aristocrat were decrying the awful corruption of video game journalists and declaring that Quinn's situation was symptomatic of larger issues in the industry.(Note: People in GamerGate have linked me to Internet Aristocrat's videos as an argument in favor of their position. I watched the videos linked to me and found them to be inflammatory, derisive, ugly, and presenting a deeply skewed version of events. Only watch if you want a glimpse at the mindset GamerGate comes from.) Things quickly ramped up from there. Over the next few days, waves of hatred were spewed at Zoe Quinn over social media, culminating in the posting of her personal information online as well as the personal and financial information of one of her friends, indie developer Phil Fish, who had spoken up in her defense. The doxing and harassment triggered Fish to declare his company up for sale to any reasonable offers. He was the first person to leave the industry due to the harassment targeting Quinn and her supporters.
After several days had passed, Stephen Totilo, the editor-in-chief of Kotaku completed an investigation into the accusations against Nathan Grayson and found no basis for them. Grayson wrote one article for Kotaku that involved Quinn, a story about the spectacular implosion of an overly ambitious game jam. The only other time that Grayson had ever written about Depression Quest or Zoe Quinn was for Rock, Paper, Shotgun in a wrap-up of fifty games that were going through the Steam Greenlight process. Part of the accusations against Quinn was that she had started a romantic relationship with Grayson for a positive review of Depression Quest, no such review exists (Also note that these are accusations against Zoe, not Grayson, who hardly received a fraction of the outrage that was directed toward Zoe Quinn). Despite being directly confronted with this information, the harassment against Quinn continued and gained momentum. Nude photos of Quinn were sent to her colleagues in the gaming industry, her address was posted, and strangers called her parents to tell them awful things about their daughter. She began staying with friends out of fear that someone might come to her home.
Around this time stories began circulating among those tossing out accusations and harassing Zoe Quinn that she had ruined a charity event put on by a group called The Fine Young Capitalists. TFYC were attempting to put together an event where five female nominees with ideas for games would vie for the most votes. The winner would have their idea made into a full game, receive a portion of the revenue, and retain rights to the game while the remaining money would go to charity. Quinn became involved when she called out TFYC for the wording of their policies as they regarded trans-women. TFYC claimed that they reached out to Zoe to officially work with them and in return that she doxed them, ruined a charity event, refused to contact them, and essentially stole money. None of those claims appear to be true. For a while, the two sides seemed to come to an understanding and parted ways, but the show runner of TFYC reopened the wound by posting part of their private correspondence with Quinn via Twitter. In response, Quinn has released the full conversation with TFYC (Warning: Contains coarse language) as a means of clearing her name. At the time, many on 4Chan took the rumors circulating at face value and collectively donated $17,000 to TFYC in an effort to spite Quinn. TFYC reached their fundraising goal and 4Chan took the opportunity afforded to them by the amount of money they raised to create Vivian James, a female character to be included in the completed TFYC game. Vivian is meant to appear as an average female gamer and she was quickly taken up as a mascot of sorts for the movement against Quinn and the growing of cries for more "ethical" video game journalism. Having a cool new female character seems great, right? Well, it turns out that the colors green and purple on Vivian's hoodie are a deliberate reference to the Daily Dose, an infamous rape .gif that circulates on 4Chan.
On August 25, Anita Sarkeesian posted her latest episode of Tropes vs. Women in Video Games. In it, she examines the implications of using female NPCs as background decorations and how that is problematic. For better and worse, this particular video was picked up by prominent voices. Many, like Avengers director Joss Whedon, praised her work, but a seemingly large number of anonymous members of the gaming community felt outraged and attacked. Sarkeesian was hounded and sent threats so explicit that she fled her own home to ensure her personal safety. The familiar cry that she had faked the threats for attention went out and it was erroneously reported through faulty and incendiary channels that Sarkeesian had never filed a report with the police or FBI. It was later confirmed that a report was on file and that the FBI was investigating the threats.
After 2,500 words, we are just now arriving at the actual creation of the GamerGate hashtag.
On August 27, the actor Adam Baldwin, famous for his role as Jayne in Firefly, tweeted out the first use of the hashtag which included links to two Internet Aristocrat videos. The day prior an anonymous message was sent out from someone who claimed to be a "reformed" supporter of Zoe Quinn who had come around after her treatment of The Fine Young Capitalists. Shortly after this long form tweet was brought to the attention of Baldwin, he coined #GamerGate.
The day after GamerGate received its name, video game journalists and critics decided to speak out. Nine articles went up on August 28 and many more were published in the days following. There are a couple points that I've seen many people within GamerGate use to justify their support of the movement. First, the number of articles appearing at a similar time is taken as evidence of collusion, as evidence that journalists from many major outlets were collectively pushing an agenda. That was not the impression I got from the outcry. My takeaway from the articles was that critics and journalists were frustrated with the state of the industry. I know that exasperation. Is it really so hard to imagine that, after a week where a critic is forced to flee her home fearing for her life because her audience disagrees with her opinion, journalists might want to speak out? The other point that I've seen many people in GamerGate bring up is that this is a backlash against journalists who have said nasty things about gamers. On a surface level, I can understand why these people might feel jilted. Considering yourself a gamer and seeing articles like 'Gamers Are Over' or 'The Death of Gamers and the Women Who Killed Them' might not feel like the most welcoming headlines. Some of them were strongly worded, probably as a result of witnessing so much rampant harassment in the industry. I read a few of the articles, admittedly not all of them (I only have so much free time), and my impression wasn't that these articles were slurs against the gaming community, but rather saying that the old use of the term 'gamer' was opening up to more people and what it means to be a gamer is more inclusive than it has ever been. Yes, many articles were angry, but I tend to think it is somewhat excusable to be angry when fellow critics are fearing for their lives because they hold an unpopular opinion on video games.
It seemed that around the same time that these articles began popping up, the cry that GamerGate was about ethics in video game journalism was redoubled along with a number of additional targets coming under fire for a variety of reasons. Jenn Frank, a nine year veteran of freelance journalism who won an award for excellence in games journalism in 2013, decided to leave the industry because she's a great writer and can use those talents in fields that don't single her out for abuse. She was targeted because a piece critical of GamerGate was published by The Guardian in which she mentioned someone whom she supported on Patreon without disclosing that connection. To GamerGate proponents, this appeared to be a conflict of interest. It didn't matter that Frank had intended to add a blurb at the end of the article making known that relationship, but The Guardian hadn't thought it worth mentioning. Art critic/writer/game developer Lana Polansky faced harassment after supporting Zoe Quinn, as did Mattie Brice. Disturbing discussions within GamerGate regarding Zoe Quinn continued (Warning: graphic language). In response to the backlash from the media, GamerGate created Operation: Disrespectful Nod, a campaign to implore advertisers to remove ads from sites who had published articles critical of the movement. In response to Leigh Alexander's opinion piece on Gamasutra, advertiser Intel was flooded with requests to abandon the outlet to which it eventually capitulated. Intel later released an apology of sorts, but did not resume advertising on Gamasutra.
While conversation continued on the boards of 4Chan, much more insidious dialogue was moved to IRC chats. One such chat was called "Burgers and Fries," a reference to Eron Gjoni's initial post regarding Quinn. Zoe Quinn was aware of these chats and recorded many of the conversations that happened there, many of which focused on how best to proceed with their campaign of harassment. Some refer to the events that were unfolding as their "war" against SJWs (a short-hand for the Social Justice Warrior, a term meant to be derogatory). Quinn compiled a number of screenshots (Warning: coarse language) and released them on September 6th. A number of 4Chan denizens claimed that some of the screenshots were out of context and misrepresented the chat. In a statement to The Escapist, one anonymous member claims that, "We want the same thing as the entirety of #GamerGate - less clickbation sensationalism, a step up in terms of journalistic integrity and transparency of their reporting." However, despite anonymous claims to the contrary, it appears that 4Chan (Warning: coarse language) was the first to suggest the use of #NotYourShield as a means of defending the movement from accusations that it was made composed predominantly of straight, white men. While some of the Twitter accounts that have used the hashtag appear to be real, there are a startling amount that are being reused from a previous 4Chan lark codenamed Operation: Lollipop. Ironically, the hashtag would become one of the movement's biggest shields, despite it being the social media equivalent of saying, "We're not racist/homophobic/sexist! We have friends in those categories."
On September 19, 4Chan's admin, Moot, released a statement that further talk about GamerGate would not be tolerated on the site. Moot claimed that there were simply too many violations of the basic rules that govern 4Chan, specifically the directive that no one should post personal information, raid, or call for invasions against others. In other words, many of the GamerGate supporters on 4Chan, the Mos Eisley of internet, had become too extreme for the site's tastes. The banishment from 4Chan motivated GamerGate to relocate to 8Chan, a website that has even less rules than 4Chan. This is where we have people openly discussing how best to murder Anita Sarkeesian, posting Zoe Quinn's personal information and leaving it up for months or refusing to take it down. That is where GamerGate remains to this day.
8Chan, where speculating that someone would murder a critic to frame GamerGate is an accepted practice. LW is short for Literally Who, a title given to people GamerGate wishes to distance itself from. Literally Who 1, 2, and 3 refer to Zoe Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian, and Brianna Wu, respectively.
In early October, outspoken indie game developer Brianna Wu began to receive harassment for retweeting a meme poking fun at GamerGate that one of her followers had made. She was subsequently doxed, attempts were made to ruin both her personal and corporate finances, and incredibly graphic threats were made against her life. She contacted the police and has gone into hiding. However, this has not prevented her from appearing for interviews on major news networks to speak out against the culture of harassment that GamerGate has created and sustained. Alongside Wu, Anita Sarkeesian has made appearances in the mainstream media in the wake of the USU shooting threats.
As I have been writing this, two things happened. First, GamerGate supporters rallied to donate over $13,000 to PACER's National Bullying Prevention Center, an organization that seeks to reduce bullying among children and young adults. I fully support this course of action as it seems like it would benefit kids who might otherwise be ostracized and scarred. I would feel even better about it if it was made in completely good faith, but it appears that the donations were made at least in part to spite and shame Gawker writer Sam Biddle. Biddle tweeted "Bring Back Bullying." Biddle has since apologized, claiming that it was a poorly made joke, and requested that people not take their anger out on his colleagues.
I suppose I would also feel much better about the funds raised by GamerGate if I hadn't seen Todd in the Shadows' foray into GamerGate. For those who don't know, Todd in the Shadows is a music critic and for the last couple weeks he has been attempting to open dialogue with people in GamerGate. He noted the anti-bullying fundraising and suggested that, since many within GamerGate have claimed that the movement is not about harassment and that the harassers represent a tiny minority, a charitable course of action to diffuse negative press would be to donate to the people who had been driven out of their homes by the harassment and threats coming out of GamerGate. Specifically, that it should be a move to show goodwill toward Anita Sarkeesian, Zoe Quinn, and Brianna Wu. An hour and 90 replies later, not one response suggested that maybe helping the women who have feared for their lives due to harassment from individuals within GamerGate might be a good idea.
This is where we are.
Media outlets outside of gaming are looking into this mess in the video game community and they see GamerGate as a hate group. It is hard for me to disagree with that conclusion. Many of the same people who harassed Anita Sarkeesian during her Kickstarter campaign two years ago, many of the same tactics of intimidation, victim blaming, and conspiracy theories, have come out of the woodwork to support GamerGate. Why wouldn't they? It legitimizes and normalizes their hatred of these women. "GamerGate does not condone harassment," has become a common quote when allegations of abuse crop up. I find that hard to believe. The goals of those who harass and send death threats and the goals of GamerGate are the same. Those harassers are comfortable in GamerGate; there is no reason for them to feel unwelcome. People on the GamerGate forums celebrated when Anita Sarkeesian cancelled her talk at USU because of the school shooting threat. Defending this movement after two months of this behavior is giving tacit support to an environment that encourages harassment of women in the video game industry.
The origins of GamerGate proper lie in a bitter tirade directed toward an ex-girlfriend, designed to set off abuse. When the Eron Gjoni's accusations triggered the wave of harassment against Zoe Quinn, the movement used the cry of "ethics" to cover its intentions. The people behind GamerGate knew how it would look and decided to try and skew the story. Despite the call for more ethical video game journalism, their first target wasn't the accused journalist Nathan Greyson, but Zoe Quinn, the indie game developer. Since the beginning, GamerGate has only ever responded to Quinn and those that defend her. The outcry from journalists made them fair game because they spoke up on her behalf while trying to rationalize the campaign that had been targeting her. It is curious that the people who have been hardest hit by harassment have mostly been women who are not video game journalists, who hold very little influence in the wider industry, and are financially vulnerable. From what people in GamerGate have told me, they certainly believe that the last two months have been about ethics. From my perspective, I've seen precious little in GamerGate that is about ethics, and that's a shame because there are certainly conversations to be had about video game journalism's ethics. In two months the only accomplishments to come out of GamerGate have been the people leaving their jobs due to harassment, women fleeing their homes, and $13,000 raised out of spite in order to shame someone who made a tone-deaf joke. All the evidence presented to me that "proves" corruption consists of a private mailing list between game journalists, speculation that posting articles on the same day is a form of collusion, dissection of tweet times, and that some writers didn't disclose support of small developers via Patreon. None of those things constitute corruption. The only thing these topics accomplish is to obscure the real issue, which is harassment. The voices GamerGate supporters hold up as the articulation of what their movement is about are unpleasant at best and appalling at worst. Some seem to be actively attempting to incite viewers to get angry and lash out at targets like Quinn while also spreading misinformation. This all comes together to create a confusing situation because of GamerGate's structure. Never forget that GamerGate is a campaign run by an anonymous mob. While some members forcefully declare that it really is about ethics and denounce the harassment, others in the movement carry out the dirty work of sending death threats and abuse. This works because each person can say that GamerGate is about something different than someone else. The anonymity gives members deniability.
After two months it seems very clear to me that ethics was never the priority for GamerGate. Reporters and observers outside the video game industry don't see it as a movement for ethics either. The New York Times, Time Magazine, The Rolling Stone, The BBC, NPR, major outlets have looked into GamerGate and come to the conclusion that it is a hate group. I cannot support a cause that actively contributes to fear among my friends and colleagues in this industry. The past two months have left my heart aching. If all of this were truly about ethics in video game journalism, the movement would be able to let go of its hatred for people who are not video game journalists. It cannot and will not do this because hatred of Zoe Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian, and anyone who speaks up for them is coded into the origins of the movement. There can be no dialogue with people who refuse two months of evidence that highlight the strain of hatred that runs deep in GamerGate.
More than anything in the world right now, I just want to talk and write about cool video games, but I will not silently abide a rising tide of hatred that causes those I care about to live in fear.
Originally appeared on GameInformer.com 10/20/14