GamerGate’s base assumptions create a world view that enables and justifies harassment and terrorism.
This is what we’re going to talk about, but it’s going to be a long road because I want to run through the whole process from start to finish.
And it gives us a great reason to talk about critical tools. This is actually a subject that I’ve wanted to bring up more often for a long time, pretty much since the show started, but I’ve never really gotten around to it. I mean, it’s been there in bits and pieces, but let’s really crack into one because this is a perfect time.
Let’s talk about base assumptions.
Base assumptions are the things that you, I, everyone, takes for granted about the world, they are the things that default to yes or no until proven otherwise. These are the things that we believe are “just the way things are.” In fact, even more than that, they’re often things that we don’t even consciously believe because they’re frequently things we’re completely oblivious to. They’re invisible, unquestioned, part of the background. Believing is active, you’ve encountered something or been taught something and thought about it and, yes, you think that’s how things work. Base assumptions are typically passive. They’re just “there” as the rules that everything else is built on. They are one of the major things that form what we consider to be “normal”.
Alright I know a bunch of you are thinking “well, what is normal? Maybe the crazy people are normal and the normal people are the crazy ones?” And that’s good! I’ve wondered the same thing myself in the past. It’s wrong, for a variety of ontological reasons, but it’s a good starting point because it’s being critical about assumptions that drive daily life, recognizing that many, many things in society are more or less arbitrary constructs. They may exist for a reason, but those reasons aren’t natural law.
Take traffic lights, for example. Why are they red yellow and green? Why not blue, orange, and hyperviolet? Turns out the answer is pretty typical. Back in the 1800s the railway industry started using those colours and they just kinda stuck. Red already has a history as a warning signal and green was chosen because it looks very different from red, and yellow because it looks different from red and green. As long as you aren’t colourblind, that is. Right there we’ve hit a basic assumption: the chosen colours assume you aren’t colourblind.
So there are reasons underpinning the choice of traffic light colours, there is a logic there, but that logic is arbitrary. Traffic light colour isn’t dictated by the force of gravity or the speed of light or some other immutable fact, it’s a decision someone made over a century ago that stuck because traffic rules need to be more or less standardized so that drivers know what to expect of others and what others expect of them in order to minimize how often they ram into one another.
So that’s a tiny example that has nothing to do with narrative, but it’s a good demonstration of how something just becomes “the way things are.”
Let’s apply the same to narrative.
First thing’s first, let’s talk vocabulary.
Today’s kitchen vocabulary word is “text”
In colloquial use “text” refers to writing, like, printed words, but here we’re going to be using it to refer to any cultural work taken as a whole.
So a book, the whole book, is a text, as is a game, or a movie, or a song, or an album, or a tv show, or a video on the internet. While the text of a book is more or less limited to the, well, text, and any pictures that happen to be included, the text of a film includes the dialogue, the cinematography, the music, the pacing, the colour pallette, and, really, any other form of language that the movie uses to convey meaning. The text of a game includes all of that plus the gameplay itself and the ludonarrative created by the same.
Because the principles and theories we’re going to be talking about apply more or less uniformly to all of these different media we’re going to be using this word to refer to all of them at the same time.
In order to evaluate the base assumptions of a text it can be helpful to anthropomorphize the text, think about it as though it were a person and figure out what its priorities and beliefs would be if you could talk to it. This is useful as a device because it can help separate what exists in the text from assumptions about the motives of the people who made the text. That’s valuable because while authorial intent can be insightful or interesting in the end only audience remains and it’s entirely possible for well meaning people to create problematic texts through accident, inattention, or carelessness.
I’m picking out an example that I touched on ever so briefly before in my longer rundown of Man of Steel.
How does Man of Steel feel about the military?
Military authority in Man of Steel always goes unquestioned. When Zod launches a coup attempt no one criticizes his right to authority. He is never stripped of rank, he is never accused of dereliction of the ethics and morals of his position, and he is never challenged for his claim to leadership.
Something very, very important to remember, before we go any further with this, is that every text is political by nature. As creators and audience we all exist in a political context. It is inescapable. Even an attempt at creating something apolitical is ultimately political because it is a priori a rejection of the political. Man of Steel, which has some decidedly political motives of its own, is at the very basic level an expensive consumer entertainment product created in a capitalist system. It cannot help but reflect that system, push and pull off of it, any more than a swimmer in a pool can avoid disturbing the water.
That is a massive subject of its own, if you want to go deeper then you should start by watching Slavoj Žižek’s documentary A Pervert’s Guide to Ideology. It’s on Netflix.
Back to Man of Steel.
This uncritical opinion of military authority is also reflected in the human elements of the film, and drifts from underlying assumption up to the surface. Superman explicitly condescends himself before the military. Yes, it’s an ineffectual prostration, but that’s basically the textbook definition of a symbolic act. It’s a token effort, a small throwaway that represents something much larger. In that act he legitimizes their authority.
The underlying assumption at play is that the military is a legitimate locus of power and that we, as the citizenry, should defer to that power. It doesn’t say as such, but that is the world that the text builds. That is Man of Steel’s “normal.”
Understanding that “normal”, being able to pull it out and look at it, is an invaluable skill in communications, opening up new and interesting meanings and messages, bridging gaps between cultures that may seem to be at odds, revealing conflicts that were previously invisible, and paving the way for empathy and understanding.
Now we can talk about GamerGate.
There are some things that we need to say about GamerGate first. This is not a new phenomenon. These ideas and beliefs did not spring up in August 2014 with GamerGate any more than GG’s most odious ideologues or the women that they target. They were already here.
In this regard GamerGate’s core assumptions are not unique, but are reflective of attitudes and opinions within society at large, attitudes that view the status quo as the natural, inevitable result of apolitical forces. Davis Aurini, Jordan Owen, John Bain, Phil Mason, Dean Esmay, Paul Elam, Jason Pullara, the denizens of 4chan, they already had an axe to grind. GamerGate is nothing more than the new name for a long standing resistance to the increased visibility of minority voices in society at large.
If we look at GamerGate as a text, look at their message boards, their IRC channels, their blog posts, YouTube videos, claims, priorities, and target selection we can drill down to the following base assumptions about the world, the GamerGate Normal
- there are no real problems with inclusion or representation in gaming
- Any problems that do exist don’t matter because that’s just market economics appealing to the majority of players
- The status quo, as they perceive it through the lens of assumptions 1 and 2, is a natural state, thus any disruption is inherently artificial.
This is the bedrock of the movement’s ideology. The core here is that from their point of view the criticisms directed at video games and the community are fundamentally unnecessary, that nothing is wrong with the way things are, and that any problems are the unavoidable result of natural processes. This is what drives the vitriol against Anita Sarkeesian, Zoe Quinn, Brianna Wu, and others: they are seen as pretenders, if not invaders, their criticisms as wholly out of place, unnecessary, and artificial. GamerGate actively seeks to have these voices silenced and expelled from the industry.
This perception, that their natural state of normal is being invaded, feeds and internally justifies the use of militaristic rhetoric, constant references to being “at war”, and organizing under names such as Operation VoxPopuli and the hilariously named Operation ShillsOfShilliconValley. The use of harassment and abuse tactics such as dogpiling, sea lioning, Gish Galloping, and gaslighting, are seen as acceptable means justified by the ends, wherein invaders are purged and the natural state of normal is restored. The use of terror tactics, such as death threats, doxxing, hacking, and the tacit threat of mobbing, while engaged in by the minority, creates an environment of fear that all members enjoy the privilege of, whether they engage in them or not.
I’m going to restate that, just because of how important it has been in the course of the last few months: the use of terror tactics, even if only by a minority, has created an environment of fear that all members enjoy the privilege of. When people are unwilling to engage because they are afraid that “they’ll be next”, that their websites will be attacked, that their information will be stolen, that their employers will be harassed, that they’ll have child pornography tweeted at them or sent to their email, all members benefit from that person’s silence, even if they were not personally responsible for the harassment.
One of the major ways that GamerGate enables harassment is through its anonymous swarm mentality. GmaerGate, at every turn, claims decentralization. Like being attacked by a swarm of bees, rarely does any one person inflict a particularly grievous wound, each individual being able to dispute their own involvement, or cite the timidity of their contribution. This allows for perpetual deflection of real harms because it is difficult to summarize the cumulative impact of hundreds of messages implying you are liar or obnoxiously asking for “proof” of well-proven facts. Additionally the swarm is exploited by constantly claiming that anything particularly bad is not the work of a “true” GamerGater.
This is, of course, a fallacy as by definition a swarm has no one to dictate its overall form, thus no one to say what is or is not a “true” GamerGater. Either everything is in, or everything is out.
Even within the more benign aims of the movement these underlying assumptions are present, the primary targets of “corruption” and conspiracy accusations being women, queerfolk, and their allies. Particularly insightful in this regard is GamerGate’s use of codewording.
Zoe Quinn, as persistent a target of harassment at the core of GamerGate, GamerGate itself being a term coined by Adam Baldwin in reference to the Quinnspiracy videos, was eventually given the code name Literally Who in an attempt at deflecting very true accusations that the movement largely revolved around demonizing and punishing her, as well as temporarily confounding attempts to parse the massive volume of data produced by IRC chat logs and imageboard churn. It also serves as a symbolic excommunication, an ex parte declaration of Zoe as a nonperson, stripping her of name and identity.
However, as additional targets accrued the codename was expanded to include, dehumanize, and expel others, barcoding each additional target as LW1, LW2, LW3, and so forth. While no formal list was kept, there were, at one point, 7 people codenamed as “Literally Who”, all women. This list eventually collapsed, at the time of publication having been reduced to LW1 through 3. Zoe Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian, and Brianna Wu.
The perception, the base assumption, is that these women, none of whom are technically journalists, represent the invasion into the cultural space; an invasion of gender, race, sexuality, and class issues, politics, and awareness.
They couch this idea in conspiratorial tones, assembling lists of supposed collaborators and drawing out complex webs of accusations implying that these minorities are all outsiders looking to hijack games as a platform for political ends.
This is, of course, all utter nonsense. Women, queerfolk, transfolk, racial, ethnic, religious, and political minorities have been playing games all along. They have been here all along. They did not, as 4chan summarized with this image,
suddenly start playing games in 2007. Also, as we’ve already discussed, games are and were already political in nature, because all culture is unavoidably political. What they see as an invasion is little more than the players who have been present all along finding a voice in the market to discuss politics that were already there.
This fact, along with the core assumptions, creates an interesting contradiction in the companion hashtag Not Your Shield.
Not Your Shield was conceived of as an effort at creating a controlled counter narrative, something that’s known as culture jamming. Originally an astroturfing campaign, creating the illusion of a grassroots movement, the hashtag gained traction beyond channers and sockpuppets. The idea is that by having minority allies the ideological force of GamerGate would be able to deflect criticisms of their bigotry by pointing to supporters and saying “how can I be racist if my best friend is black?” You may notice that this is what’s often called “using someone as a shield.”
Before we can go deeper into this issue we need to discuss more of GG’s ideological roots. GamerGate spawned from the 4chan boards /v/ and /pol/, and of particular relevance to us is the gender constructs held by those spaces expressed with the memetic idea of “there are no girls on the internet, tits or GTFO.”
“Tits or GTFO” is an enforcement mechanism protecting the status quo. The idea, as explained in a particularly popular post, is that due to the anonymous nature of most interactions over the internet no one will know if you are a woman unless you specifically mention it. Moreover, even if you claim you’re a woman you have to prove it, hence “tits or GTFO.” While 4chan interprets this as “everyone is anonymous” a more accurate reading is that “everyone is default until proven otherwise.” By retaining anonymity you enjoy the protections inherent to membership in the majority. This is, obviously, of some appeal to individuals who are otherwise marginalized, the only cost is the annihilation of one’s own identity, or at least a willingness to subsume those aspects that are out of harmony with the GamerGate Normal.
GamerGate’s ideal woman is one who is passive, conventionally attractive, and generally voiceless.
This is actually a provable point because GamerGate has provided us with their ideal woman in the form of mascot Vivian James.
Really this is opening up a rabbit hole all its own. I could go on for hours about the semiotics of this character and how she’s represented in the myryad comics that have been made featuring her, but the crux of it is that she’s an expression of the ideal emergent from the base assumptions of their world view. Their ideal woman is one who never imposes herself or her identity into the shared space. If she were on the other end of a game you’d never even know she wasn’t a dude.
This ties directly into conflicts that arose repeatedly within the NotYourShield hashtag, as GamerGate ideologues turned on and excommunicated individuals who criticized sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and racism within the movement. The message was loud and clear: minorities are welcome, as long as they leave their identity at the door.
The perception of diversity is incredibly valuable specifically because it could function as a shield to jam criticism, but the exercising of that diversity still had to conform with the base assumptions: nothing is wrong with the way things are. To insist otherwise is to become an invader.
Why is it so important for Anita Sarkeesian, et al. to be invaders?
The reason is in assumption number two: any problems in the industry are the natural result of market forces. Much of GamerGate has revolved around game reviews and the content therein, namely the reviewer’s political ideologies impacting the review. This is critical because GamerGate accepts reviews as sacred. Within their construct the free market is the arbiter of culture, the status quo exists because the market is responding to the Normal. So much of their identity as “gamers” is tied up in materialism. Nevermind that it’s a consumer demographic, an artificial construct of marketing think tanks looking to maximize user investment and retention by crafting a narrative that spotlights the customer as a unique member of an exclusive club based largely on a shared fiction. That aspect isn’t considered a negative, because it already conforms with their politics. The culture of gaming is a culture of ownership, and the priests of that culture are the reviewers who tell them what to buy.
This is why GamerGate seeks to purge all conflicting ideologies and demographics: because the free market is their god. If Anita Sarkeesian isn’t an invader then she is a customer, just like them, and has equal right of access to the market.
Games changing to include more diversity is painted as capitulating to “outsiders” because it otherwise means that the market is simply catering to new customers.
The reviewers who disagree with them, or hold alternate views on politics, must be invaders, because otherwise it means that there are other customers being served, which demolishes the GamerGate Normal.
A common sentiment passed around is that gaming sites that entertain discussions about misogyny, gender presentation, sexual identity, and propagandistic motives underlying partnerships with armed forces are alienating their customers. The belief is
“If I’m not their customer, then who is?”
GamerGate, at its core, does not believe that anyone outside the Normal has an authentic interest in video games. This is, of course, hogwash. The outrage, the histrionics, are wholly unmerited, if not entirely illegitimate.
That anger is still felt authentically, even if it is not legitimate.
Even though the proximal justifications for their actions have been routinely demonstrated to be false, either because they are root misinterpretation or even total fabrication by opportunistic ideologues, the sense of hurt, of violation and marginalization, the sense that their space is being invaded, isn’t fake. The motivators are not true, most all of the people who they have accused of ethical violations have proven to be exemplars, the Byzantine conspiracies have been exposed as flim flam, but the sense of hurt is real.
And this is how GamerGate’s base assumptions create a world view that enables and justifies harassment and terrorism. It indoctrinates them to believe that they are under assault, that games don’t need criticism, that criticism is unwelcome, inappropriate, misplaced, or useless. It tells them that everything is fine. It takes an authentic hurt and targets it at imaginary thieves. It takes vulnerable people with authentic pain and points them at women, at queerfolk, at transfolk, and tells them “they are trying to take your stuff!”
Because the underlying motivations are ultimately the protection of an aggressive, isolationist status quo, any support becomes support in the service of those assumptions. It is support of a world view where the marginalized are unwelcome unless they first obliterate themselves on the altar of the Normal. It is a world view that demands conformity and will aggressively shout down, harass, abuse, and exile those who resist.
This is really just scratching the surface of all of this. As I said earlier, GamerGate is really a microcosm of larger societal issues, and as such it reaches out and touches many subjects that I haven’t even had room to reference in this episode, such as masculine identity, the formation of subcultures, the process of indoctrination, the adoption of cultural jargon, the implications of GamerGate’s militarized ideation, the fact that while claiming to reject politicization there are reactionary ideologues actively politicizing GG supporters for their own ends, the at best shaky understanding of ethics, and so on and so on and so on, but I hope, I hope, that this exercise has been illustrative of the value of critical tools beyond simply picking apart movies and games.