The “Good” Gamer’s Dilemma
For over two months now, the video game community has been tearing itself apart over the “GamerGate” scandal. At their worst, supporters of the movement have mobilized online lynch mobs harassing prominent gaming figures they dislike, particularly women, to the point where a growing list of victims fear their lives are in danger.
However, on September 6, Zoe Quinn, the independent game developer who involuntary helped spark this mess when a vengeful ex-boyfriend shared her personal games industry relations online, tweeted the following: “Sorry to all those who actually care about ethics in #GamerGate. You were played.”
This was in reference to internet chat logs presented by Quinn that seemed to expose much of the scandal as the work of coordinated groups solely interested in besmirching Quinn. But while it’s easy to condemn these obviously awful originators, Quinn’s tweet also acknowledges a more complicated problem. What about the later, more moderate members of GamerGate who honestly believe that all their cause seeks to uncover is the corruption plaguing games journalism? Can these claims, dubious or not, about something as apparently honorable as ethics ever separate from the appalling underbelly of the movement, or are they forever tarnished due to association alone? Is that what they even deserve?
To help find the answers to these questions, answers that will determine GamerGate’s place in the history of this maturing medium, I wanted to talk to supporters of the cause who sincerely believed in its focus on ethics. And while GamerGate has no true leadership or singular voice and vision, one of its most fundamental problems, I also wanted to find supporters with personas large enough that they would feel comfortable letting their own words and personal opinions be used as fair, rational, and respectful representations of the best the larger movement has to offer. Ultimately, I had two lengthy conversations with Stephanie Anne and “Mundane Matt.” Anne is the Editor-in-Chief of GoodGamers.US, the most notable new gaming website to emerge in GamerGate’s wake. Matt, who declined to provide his real name, is a vocal supporter of Anne and a prominent YouTube personality in his own right. Through these conversations, I learned much about the motives, self-awareness, and implicit politics behind the side of GamerGate that just wants to be good.
At the very least, no one could deny this pair’s passion for gaming. “I’ve been playing games my entire life,” says Anne, who by day works in product management in her D.C. suburbs hometown. “One of the first games my dad got me when I was really little was Myst. It was on like floppy drives. It was incredibly hard and I got totally addicted.” However, besides running her high school newspaper, her previous editorial experience is limited to frequent blogging.
Matt meanwhile has had a lengthy career as an actual games journalist covering major industry trade shows. “I’ve attended E3 since 2000. When I first went the Nintendo 64 was still on display,” he says. “I understand what the journalists have to do, trying to stay relevant so they can keep their job.” Matt, like many rising gaming personalities, has migrated to YouTube and its lucrative audience. The YouTube crowd in general appears more sympathetic to GamerGate, perhaps seeing traditional games journalists as the last foe to slay before fully claiming games coverage for themselves.
As for how they got roped up in the scandal, as Matt puts it, he’s actually the “catalyst” for the entire eruption. “My fans send me obscure links that they come across. So one of my friends, who is a game developer, sent me this link.” The link was to the infamous August “Zoe Post,” describing, among other things, Quinn’s alleged infidelity with other members of the games industry including reporters. “There are problems here. There’s conflict of interest. I don’t care how you want to spin it. And that’s the video I put out.” The video spread quickly, given Matt’s over 37,000 followers, and was fundamental in constructing the oncoming conspiracy. Quinn would later have the video removed due to copyright infringement over its use of footage from her game Depression Quest. Matt feels this was censorship.
Anne on the other hand entered the controversy through a different avenue. “What I had seen was people were upset about the journalistic integrity and the fact that it had become this crazy clique. All of these indie developers who were acting like they were a small tiny group but they were purchasing out all of these other people,” says Anne. “I didn’t learn about the Zoe Quinn stuff until later.”
During this time, a crowdfunding campaign emerged trying to research the possible corruption. However, after it imploded, ironically enough to apparent ethical issues of its own, Anne commented on the mess. But miscommunication led to Matt then criticizing Anne on one of his videos. Ultimately though, Anne came on the show to clarify things and the two have shared common ground ever since. As Matt says, “Stephanie is very proactive in terms of defending her image and I give her absolute props there.”
Of course, as GamerGate supporters, that common ground includes distrust for the current gaming media. “These sites operate within their own echo chamber. They already are. They’re not writing articles for the gamer, they are writing articles for themselves,” says Matt. And in Anne’s opinion, while a site like IGN may do “a fairly good job at staying impartial,” Kotaku, owned by the Gawker Network, is “pretty bad about it. Not just the gaming stuff, anything on Gawker.”
In the interest of full disclosure, considering the nature of the conflict, I told both Anne and Matt that I had previously written for Kotaku, The Escapist, Paste, and other sites frequently disparaged by the movement. Not only that, but some of the work I’m most proud of, including pieces on race and other social issues GamerGate dreads, has appeared on those sites. I even gave a positive review to Revolution 60, the debut game of Brianna Wu, a developer forced out of her home due to online threats she received moments after her personal information was released on the GamerGate board of the 8chan forums. However, they had both keenly uncovered those facts before our interviews hoping to figure out what viewpoints I would bring to the debate. Not that I have anything to hide, but that act, along with other discussion points, demonstrated just how much thought and independent research the two had honestly put into solidifying their stance on games journalists.
And while some criticisms came off as needlessly dismissive, casting all writers as unregulated, untrained, “glorified bloggers” in “a little San Francisco bubble,” others were slightly more credible. Specifically, concerns over the economic influence of advertisements in modern online journalism, whether it’s the insidious native ads and common clickbait designed to drive up traffic, represent the kernel of truth used to mask the less savory parts GamerGate. And it’s not just limited to writers. Matt says the “same process applies” to YouTube stars who have also faced payola accusations, like popular personality John “TotalBiscuit” Bain recommending games on the Steam store he has been paid in the past to promote. Anne adds, “If you are getting ad revenue for something, or getting paid to do something, ethically you should say it regardless if you are a journalist, or a YouTuber, or a blogger.”
But to humor these claims that “actually it’s about ethics in game journalism,” would be to accept the lie that GamerGate wasn’t built on a massive foundation of sexism and hatred towards one relatively powerless female developer they continue to obsess over, not actually unethical institutions. And even if one does choose to conveniently ignore those problematic roots, the “issues” the movement constantly begs listeners to consider still come off as very conspiratorial:
“Polygon posts something and then Destructoid will take a piece of that story and then expand on that with their own personal opinion and then link back to the original Polygon story, but then Kotaku will take Destructoid’s piece and take off that little piece. It becomes this game of telephone. You have to keep following it from site to site to site to get the whole story, which might be part of their plan.” – Matt, seemingly wondering why game sites do not just parrot press releases verbatim.
In regards to the “reveal” of a publically known shared private games journalist Google discussion group, “That’s colluding with the competition. I don’t know any other industry that does that. In politics they have “Take out the Trash Day.” Because nobody reads the newspaper on Saturday, what they’ll try to do is release all of these press releases on Friday night after work because no one is going to be reading it. But that’s just one person trying to manipulate the news cycle. These are the actual journalists manipulating the news cycle.” –Anne.
In regards to the video Anita Sarkeesian, feminist pop culture commentator and another frequent GamerGate target, posted during the scandal and the subsequent harassment she received, “If you really want to break that down, Anita does a video every three to five months. Her timing was two months from her previous video to that video in the middle of this heated debate about a female developer. I’ve followed Sarkeesian for two and a half years now. You can see that she broke her own pattern and came out in the middle of this and just kind of glommed on. Anita Sarkeesian, and you can absolutely quote me on this because this is a credit to her in my opinion, is an extremely calculated person.” – Matt, whose history with Sarkeesian involves a series of incredibly angry videos aimed against her during the beginning of his YouTube career two years ago, decisions he now regrets.
But while discussing the theories over the purge of GamerGate threads from infamous anonymous image board 4chan, possible due to law enforcement investigating the legitimately stolen private data, Matt skeptically says, “People are looking for connections I don’t feel exist.”
Out of all this launched GoodGamer.us on September 11 with the goal of bringing new creation instead of more destruction to the games journalism landscape, “All of the gaming news, none of the bullshit,” even if that includes creating some distance from explicit GamerGate branding. “It was definitely born from GamerGate,” says Anne. “But we just want to provide an alternate.”
Among those alternatives are a few intriguing feature ideas like a series on historically overlooked Adults-Only games, a rundown of Humble Bundle deals, a first-hand account of life as a game design student, and an examination of just how far players can get in so-called “free-to-play” games without spending any money. Even overtly opinionated editorials, the bane of GamerGate, will have their own section, just ghettoized from the rest of the content. “You need to talk about these things, but you can’t phrase it like ‘This is going to be a game review and oh by the way here are my personal beliefs on the matter,’” says Anne. “You have to say in an article this is my opinion and this is why and by the way this is an opinion piece. That’s one of the reasons I think GamerGate blew up.”
However, GoodGamers.us has already faced some controversies during its brief life. Its review of Corruption of Champions, while widely read, was criticized for its discussion of rape, a core part of the game. Anne believes the gulf in traffic between this article and the rest proves why other outlets gravitate toward sensational outrage.
What’s been more ironic though is the criticism the site has faced for not living up to its promise of being the “objective alternative” to the “corrupt” games press elite. While Anne has tried to keep the site’s methods as open as possible, like leaving typos in articles and allowing readers to vote on whether reviews should have number scores, she says comments claiming pieces, like their Watch_Dogs review, contain too much of the writer’s opinion frustrate her. “A review by nature is always going to have some kind of opinion in it. Otherwise you’re just looking at game specs,” says Anne admitting that “I think the word we’re looking for is transparent, instead of objective.” The distinction is accurate, seeing as GamerGate tends to conflate the two, but the need for such a rhetorical pivot coming from an ostensible supporter of the movement highlights the ridiculousness of GamerGate’s demands for “objective” reviews.
However, that’s not the only demand with a shaky basis in reality. Even from before GamerGate, self-described gamers have insisted on better representation from gaming sites. They believe traditional gamer interests, like objective game coverage, are being crowded out by an unfairly disproportionate amount of outside social issues only tangentially related to games. “Other gamers are tired of always reading that kind of content and being told they are the problem,” says Matt using “gamer” as a rigidly constructed consumer identity with highly specific tastes even while praising the supposed inclusivity of the culture. “They don’t want to go to those sites anymore, and now they have the opportunity to go to a site like GoodGamers to get that non-editorialized content.”
However, Anne was much more self-aware of the shifting, expanding demographics that have rendered the audience she seeks to serve increasingly obsolete. “The social share on those kinds of blog posts or videos is huge,” says Anne. “If I posted this one article about women in gaming and all of a sudden all of these women picked it up and oh by the way they don’t use Adblock and that’s driving my revenue for this month, of course you’re going to redo that and keep doing that. It’s kind of on gamers who don’t want content like that to provide profit for the other side.”
The issues of “sides” came up often in these discussions. For both Anne and Matt, condemning the harassment wasn’t enough, the fault of “both sides” always had to be acknowledged as well. “Too many people have tried to make it about something it isn’t on both sides,” says Matt. “A lot of people are on a witch hunt right now on both sides. I’ve seen people on the pro-GamerGate side that have been doxed [document traced] by anti-GamerGate people.” Meanwhile, when asked if she feels the negativity surrounding the movement has irrevocably tainted its name and image, Anne replies, “I think it does but I think it’s equal on the other side. I’ve been called some really horrible names since I launched the site and I’m not even talking about politics on the site. I think it’s disingenuous to say that it tarnishes GamerGate but it doesn’t tarnish the other side. I think that both are equally as bad. A pox on both of their houses.” And while Matt would say the Zoe Post itself was “unfortunate,” Anne, who finds Quinn’s work mediocre, says, “It sucks that her ex-boyfriend posted that, but I don’t particularly think she’s that stellar of a person.”
Considering the way they both describe themselves politically, optimistic centrists caught up in an unwanted Cold War between raging “Men’s Rights Activist” and “Social Justice Warrior” ideologues, these opinions made some sense, at least in the microcosm of games culture. They believe we could solve a bunch of problems and find out who “the real assholes are” if we all just sat down and had a civil discussion, something I hoped to accomplish with these interviews. And there might be some credence to that. An attack on the Escapist forums was apparently targeting a pro-GamerGate thread. And beyond this issue, for years sites like Polygon and writers like Ben Kuchera have been savaged from every direction even though their convictions seem to be, however flawed, at least nominally progressive.
However, seeing yourself as the perfect midpoint between ideological extremes, and wishing others would calm down and talk in ways you find acceptable betrays an unexamined privilege. This was clear when I asked Matt what if most of the gaming audience actually did want the kind of content GamerGate rejects? What if he was in the minority? “That’s very interesting. I probably haven’t looked at it from that perspective,” he says after a brief pause, a moment of unexpected empathy and introspection. “You would probably fight harder to get your voice heard. I get the underrepresentation part. I think that my approach would probably be a little different, a little more vocal and louder and angrier if I felt completely disenfranchised.”
And the fact is, no matter how apolitical some supporters would like to be, the larger political forces coming to their aid have been overwhelmingly right-wing. Most notable are Milo Yiannopoulos and his constant, pandering games journalism coverage on Breitbart, as well as his new, ad-supported radio show. Christina Hoff Sommers, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, has also weighed in with her pro-GamerGate opinion, admitting that she’s not a gamer but in her view neither are most women. Through games, conservative are trying to connect with disgruntled young people in ways no Republican not named Ron Paul has ever been able to do. It’s like GOP Teens but real. We live in a world where an IP address from Congress tried to add “part of a vast conspiracy to promote Cultural Marxism through video games” to Kotaku’s Wikipedia page.
To their credit, Anne and Matt have both noticed this trend and are appropriately wary of it. “I don’t look at Breitbart every day for my news. I take everything I read there with a grain of salt,” says Anne citing her experience living in a place as politically cynical and polarized as the nation’s capital. She also made sure to call out Salon as Breitbart’s equally conniving counterpart. “We have free speech. You can say what you want. It doesn’t mean I have to agree with it.”
Matt agrees saying, “Everything brings baggage. Everyone is going to have their own opinions and experiences and it’s going to alter how they view things. We’re not all thinking the same which is good. But at the same time because we’re not thinking the same we’re not all working towards the same goal.” And as for Yiannopoulos specifically, to some a hero of GamerGate come to justify it at last, “I don’t know what his endgame is yet. I haven’t been able to figure that out. And until then, I don’t necessarily trust a lot of what he’s doing,” says Matt, who felt my right-wing Rock the Vote theory was “on the right track.”
Several times Anne compared GamerGate to the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, once again using the both sides strategy, as a cool grassroots effort that got unfortunately co-opted by larger political interests. But while Occupy Wall Street’s lack of leadership and cripplingly vague demands for reform echo throughout GamerGate as well, thinking more about the analogy reveals the Tea Party as the more apt comparison. Co-opted or not, behind all the “SJW” rhetoric is a simple, old-fashioned distaste for leftism. Like the change-fearing Tea Party, the enemies GamerGate rages against just want to push culture, whether it’s games culture or American culture at large, forward and away from regressive forces of the past, not hold it back there. Both movements simultaneously try to twist progressive language to paint themselves as the oppressed while simultaneously claiming that it is their right as the majority to shape social spaces as they and they alone see fit no matter who is victimized, that their voice is all that matters.
And like the Tea Party, GamerGate ignorantly and inadvertently acts against its own interests in favor of corporate machinations, the real oppressors unlike poorly-paid writers and indie developers. Like the blue-collar workers who blame desperate illegal immigrants instead of ruthless companies for their job woes, GamerGate will only strengthen the corporate corruption that exploits them by blaming the messengers and the marginalized instead. Art and critique are symbiotic. Dissent does not censor creative works, it helps them improve. To suck the artistic criticism out of game reviews for “objective” spec sheets would just lead to technically perfect but utterly soulless games made by assembly lines purely for AAA publisher profit. GamerGate may want games to be taken as seriously as art, but apparently it wants them evaluated solely as products. And personally, having reviewed both games, like A Life worth Dying For, and products, like a pair of headphones, games have long since matured into art, so fans need to do the same and accept the responsibility that brings.
Whether or not they realize the implicit politics that fuel them, what is now driving GamerGate supporters apart is simply the inherent fractured nature of the internet. “The downside to the movement on the whole is that it’s become this shapeless blob that doesn’t have a direction,” says Matt who rejects “Game Ethics,” a short-lived alternative hashtag attempting to redirect the concern, for its connection to journalists he felt were trying to derail the real conversation. Having no direction also leaves more peaceful supporters trapped with their hostile, volatile siblings, or at least it perpetuates that larger perception. Both Matt and Anne agree that the cause needs to rally around a leader, even though neither of them desires the mantle, with a clear plan to create tangible financial impact on corrupt games media, instead of issuing empty threats to boycott publications like The New Yorker. But can that ever happen? “I don’t know. I’d like to say so. But it’s the internet,” says Anne. After all, others in the movement fear solidarity behind a leader, not just a cartoon avatar, would limit their ability to flow through their opponents’ rhetorical traps, like water. “Anytime you get on the internet and have this anonymous idea of I can say whatever I want you’re always going to get assholes. I’m losing faith in the internet as a good medium for social or idea spreading.”
But while tracing GamerGate’s lineage, it’s hard to imagine what that unified purpose could even actually be. What started with the screed of one bitter ex-boyfriend turned into blind anger over the mere presence of certain types of people in the game industry before finally morphing into vague accusations of journalistic corruption to somehow validate the previous irrational feelings, feelings that were apparent even before this particular incident.
Maybe this glaring need for course correction is another factor that drew Anne to the movement. “You put a problem in front of me I’m not just going to sit there and complain about it. I try to fix it,” she says. “Even if sometimes they don’t want me fixing it.” The desire to find solutions is admirable and understandable. And that’s why GoodGamers is one of the more intriguing things to come from GamerGate because it is at least trying to build rather than burn. But when the perceived problem is made unsolvable by design, it just creates an excuse to angrily demand impossible answers forever. I understood this after asking Anne how larger gaming sites could try to improve by adapting her model, which isn’t terribly different from the legion other small gaming fan sites where “corrupt” professionals often get their start. Her site is run by volunteers and although it does receive some ad revenue, Anne expects to ultimately lose money through the project. That’s all well and good for a labor of love, but what about sites that want to foster full-time careers for dedicated games journalists? How can they become more ethical? “I don’t think they can,” says Anne. She feels the limited audience of a niche, even a niche as big as gaming, creates so little room for growth that sites are forced to implement these shadier, ad-driven tactics to sustain themselves. And while she felt subscriptions models and dedicated games reporters in the traditional mainstream press may have potential along with volunteer sites like GoodGamers, when asked if she felt it was literally impossible for gaming journalism to be objective and still exist, Anne says, “more or less.”
No wonder then that after multiple months, an eternity in internet time, so many in GamerGate are now exhausted over this apparently Sisyphean task of games journalism reform. It’s understandable why those under siege like Quinn would be tired, but those on the offensive who felt their cause was righteous should be more fired up than ever, no? However, attacks aren’t what are draining GamerGate, and neither is the futility of its mission. Having to constantly defend itself as gaming media, mainstream media, and public perception alike continue to denounce it is the real culprit. “There were ten articles saying gamers are dead, the identity is dead, in 24 hours,” says Matt. “There were others at the same time coming out saying 4chan was behind the entire thing because of some IRC logs from a public chat,” logs where members publically discussed raids on Quinn and strategies like #NotYourShield to create the illusion of diversity within GamerGate. “They look at the harassment. No matter how many people tweet at these journalists saying, ‘Please for four seconds can you just not do that? Don’t go after the low-hanging fruit. There’s more to look at than just this.’ But it feels like they are pushing these narratives.”
While this plea argues that these are nothing more than just narratives, not truths, it also expresses an embarrassment with the part of the moment that does embody these harsh stereotypes. You can’t wish to disassociate from something that’s not real. The more upstanding members of GamerGate want their lesser compatriots to grow up so they can all be treated fairly, seriously and with respect. If only they realized that’s all their opponents want for gaming culture as a whole. However, as the underlying politics become more explicit, the conflict grows more irreconcilable, and hope for mutual understanding becomes insignificant.
And ultimately, even GamerGate’s most intellectual claims still spin this flimsy web of conspiracy and cynical nihilism about games journalism that fits too snugly in the worldview of someone so immature and lacking in empathy that they would blast hacked nude photos of a woman throughout the internet, trying to ruin her life because of petty disagreements over entertainment. The nastiness of one side leeches off of the apparent legitimacy of the other, the purpose for which the latter was created. And even the valid ethical concerns, because games journalism is definitely not above criticism, are overpowered by the wrongness at the core of the movement’s reasoning. So-called moderates that fail or are unwilling to see this, even after so many have tried to explain it with empathy and understanding, damn themselves through association and have no one to blame but themselves.
Being a good gamer is easy. It’s just an identity that means you like games. There shouldn’t be any inherent morality tied to it. However GamerGate does carry a stigma brought on itself from the start. So navigating through and escaping from that baggage is the dilemma of members of GamerGate who wish to be good. But then that just begs the question, why be a part of GamerGate in the first place?
Teetering on the Brink of an Epiphany
On September 5, Twitter user @yezzer posted an image of a tweet that read “My biggest problem with Anita [Sarkeesian] is that if I used her logic I could see sexism everywhere” with the comment “Teetering on the brink of an epiphany.” This phrase came to mind during two telling moments with Matt. The first was when I asked him to consider life as a minority. The second is when I asked him about his video where he seemed to disengage from GamerGate and whether or not he and those like him and Anne, the reasonable ones, should just abandon ship. “That’s the question of the hour. A couple days ago, I might have argued for a clean break. I got a backlash off of that video that I was expecting, but also not expecting. And the thing is I was very close to just saying I’m done with it,” he says. “Why am I even sticking around for this thing because obviously people are so primed to fight they can’t see past the edge of their own hatred.”
However, his faith was restored after Escapist founder, and GamerGate sympathizer, Alexander Macris explained how the movement could actually impact gaming websites by driving down their traffic rankings. This gave supporters a tangible goal to work towards and hope, however true or false, that their actions did matter and could be fruitful. Some even believed they could already see the results, unaware or unwilling to admit that gaming websites typically get visited less often in the summer because big games come out in fall. But in their minds even this coincidence helped give them the recognition they desperately craved.
So Matt got back into action, reaffirming his plans to support sites like GoodGamers but more importantly ignore the corrupt, agenda-pushing larger sites. But what he said next, although it was targeted towards journalists, I couldn’t help but read it as fascinating, if unintended, final self-commentary on GamerGate itself. “We all should be given the opportunity to change. Everyone deserves a second chance. I’ve made mistakes in the past and I acknowledge those mistakes,” he says. “We’re only human. It’s not hard to get swept up in a mentality we don’t necessarily echo in our personal lives. And so it’s not hard to get lost in that sea, but when you surface and you get clearheaded and you realize holy crap maybe I’ve done something stupid, you can maybe find a way to make it right, to make it better. I think that’s what we all need to do.”
And again, while this was originally said as a critique of games journalists, it’s easy to imagine how it can really apply to GamerGate. “Their tweets and posts and all of these things show they have no intention of being introspective and looking at their own content to see whether or not they’ve done right or wrong. And until they can do that, I don’t want to give them any support,” he says. “It’s something they need to learn on their own.”
UPDATE: On Friday Oct. 31, Stephanie Anne stepped down as Editor-In-Chief of GoodGamers.US. No explanation was given at the time.