My encounter with #GamerGate, Social Justice, its Warriors and big time Roger Murtaugh feeling.
“There may well be something, this seems to hold true. Our hypothesis is correct!?!”
That’s me recently, as my team and I rerun complex statistical analyses of our results. We may have found something of value in the overwhelming fight against cancer.
“Aww, the concern troll is very concerned right now. How cute.”
These words resonate. Weird. Out of context. Out of grasp with reality. I’ll go about the context later.
But these words are not directed at me, the real me. But to my avatar. On Twitter.
The scary figure of the manly Big Boss from Kojima. Few people, very few in fact, will see the underlying drawing from Enki Bilal, the magician of the French comics scene (side note: if you don’t know, really give it a try).
A testimony of my deep attachment to gaming as complex, respectable art. I gamed all my life.
1. Online culture, this big unknown:
By Internet standard I’m old. I still remember the days when it didn’t exist. The era of the Minitel, then the super-slow net when seeing an image was taking a very very long time.
But I’m especially old when it comes to its culture. For me, Internet is a useful mean of communication, especially of scientific content. My work is indexed on major sites, and it makes the life of the research team so much easier as access to knowledge is possible and fast.
But “online” was never part of my identity, something that could define me, what I do, who I am.
As tech savvy, I follow the trends of course. I know of apps and saw the emergence of social media. Friends through Facebook, working relationship through LinkedIn.
Then came Twitter for me. I created a profile just to follow news and things about gaming, it was fun to “follow” great creators, those I admired for so long. Icing on the cake was the fact that you could “capture” the attention of said creators, making you feel 13 at a concert again.
The near real time information was also fascinating, especially being so used to my monthly gaming journals! I ended up following many game journalists, most of which I didn’t know as I barely followed English sites beyond IGN. I particularly enjoyed Leigh Alexander, whose two books I purchased and Erik Kain, an interesting and smart writer from Forbes. I was able to have deep exchanges with him, based on his subtle often intellectually provocative meta-articles.
And then #GamerGate happened.
2. #GamerGate, GamerGate and the challenge of defining what doesn’t really exist:
Twitter relies heavily on #, a way to signal and link people around a topic of interest.
In the present case, this hashtag was created by a Hollywood actor, Adam Baldwin, who is often using Twitter to discuss/share his political view, leaning on the right of the U.S. politics. He created it to reflect on his observation of the emergence of “Social Justice Warriors” and their influence in the field of gaming. This is a politically rooted hashtag.
The background of this observation is more complex and murkier, a confusing mix of truth and lies, abuse and misogyny, misandry and overall… hatred.
When the hashtag was created I didn’t know of it. Many gamers didn’t know of it.
A series of inflammatory articles popped up very quickly after the “birth” of GamerGate, focusing largely on the description of a subtype of gamer, aggressive male, white and heterosexual, anti-diversity, anti-minority and globally anti-progress. Quite specific, but by lack of subtlety common in modern journalism, overall called Gamer.
Anyhow, reading the articles to the end revealed the specificity of their intent, but the terminology was nonetheless unpleasant if you were male, white, heterosexual gamer, the “dominant” demographic in gaming, therefore quite a lot of people.
Interestingly, this journalistic response came from the so-called SJW (we will accept that imperfect terminology for convenience).
This is when I became aware of GamerGate, although the background was unclear.
What followed was confusing. On one side, people would start to investigate the behavior of journalists to look for ethical misconduct. As the field is immature, these breaches were easy to find, necessary disclosure being rare. But the focus of this search was mostly motivated by the underlying political belief of the journalists. Anyone with a progressive vision would be a potential target. As often with groups of common world views journalists and developers sharing these views would be very close, too close sometimes. This lead to some mass-campaign, often involving “harrasment” in the form of large amount of individuals tweeting their disagreement, sometimes inappropriately, their sum being too much for the receiver.
On the other side, the journalists targeted by these “campaign” were not exactly subtle in their response. They stoop quite low, not elevating the debate. They were reacting on instinct, fuel of fire, inflammation trying to treat a disease. The lack of centralized high level structure able to take over and release the pressure was striking.
From there, things got worst and worst. Every time GamerGate was discovering breaches, a campaign, attracting not-so-nice people, would happen. This would reinforce the concept of abusive gamers. Especially as some media-critics would be targeted with no real link with any ethical discussion, but because people didn’t like their idea and reach. There is a lot to say about the shortcomings of these progressive critics, but the conflation opinion/ethical breach would be a fatal flow of the movement.
Simultaneously, the SJW also assembled in a common front, with journalists and developers. They would ignore the complexity of the # and focus on a convenient monster, both true and practical as justification and righteousness of their action. This increased the feeling of collusion basic foundation of the #. Both ways, actions would prove the preconceptions right.
3. Modern journalism, click-baiting and being timely more than being right:
I very recently came across an article from an ER doctor criticizing an article from a NYT journalist relating a dramatic medical story about a member of her family.
The subject itself isn’t interesting here. But the critique used words like: click-bait, lack of fact-checking and disingenuous.
Modern journalism likely faces a huge challenge. How to stay relevant when information and analysis can come from everywhere and in real time. You can’t be the second to share a story, and people will quickly move on the next story before yours has matured.
So when time is your only relevant metric, what’s gonna give? Quality.
This is a constant, in almost every field. For journalists, it means less time for investigation, fact-checking and writing. This is common nowadays, and you will see many updates after updates as more truth emerged, truth than often should have been known prior to publications.
Reporting about GamerGate and progressive critics followed this pattern. One side of the story, the idea of angry gamers, white men bullying women and minority away from gaming was an appealing story. Something engaging, especially for a non gaming audience. After all, this was in line with general belief about gamers in normative society, for many a group of nerds, often bullied in the past but justifying said bullying because of their attitude. Nothing more comforting for a naive audience than to get your preconceptions validated by outlets, especially with a shock factor. This is how GamerGate was painted, the media self creating the truth that would follow the phenomenon, a reference to future references.
And part of it was true. Harassers, misogynists existed using this hashtags, there was no entry ticket, it was structureless. Many of these people were “trolls”, we will talk about them, they are important.
4. Social Justice and the Warriors, noble causes, noble actions?:
Social Justice is a word I didn’t know existed until few weeks prior to the arising of GamerGate. It covers the idea of equality, feminism, diversity, racial and gender oppression, its goal is to correct inequalities and aims for a fairer society.
Technically my vision of the world. I also know that there is a lot of wishful thinking in it too, as the complexity of both the world and human nature preclude simple solution to utterly intricate problems.
It was unfortunately not that simple. Instead of stating or analyzing these differences, a fairly large group of people were quite antagonistic in their approach. The Warriors.
Groups were now structurally described as fundamentally against each other. Especially heterosexual white men were described as responsible for many injustices in the world. The analysis was sociological, rooted in the ideas that everything is social construct and that a group was fighting to keep things in their state, the status quo, because they benefited from it. This was the basis of a very strong activism, often surprisingly aggressive. The concepts of oppression and privilege were key and justified aggressiveness from the oppressed and unprivileged as the request for better behavior was a reflect of the power-structure.
These ideas could be seen everywhere online, from the blogosphere to social media. A weapon of these neo-activists was online shaming campaigns (specifically justified and praised by prominent activists), en mass aggressive tweeting/posting regarding a sexist/unfair/racist behavior from someone/structure, usually white and male or seen as composed of or supporting white males. Interestingly many of them are white males themselves, behaving much like the “Guild of Guilt”. No one would be spared, and evidence needed to start such campaign most limited. Every areas of society were covered, from police to university professor, to campus to… gaming.
Yes, gaming was in fact a tiny area of interest for this wider movement, and the critique what not very specific. In fact the initial reaction to GamerGate was globally a “copy/paste” of these theories.
So, beautiful ideas, noble and what we should all aim for, but questionable methods, unlikely to accomplish anything but reinforce unfairness by making the holly beds of populists.
5. GamerGate part 2, the culture war, raise of the identity politics:
Over time, as both the Gaters (people so involved in the # that it became a priority, an identity) and Warriors were engaging in recurrent and nastier interactions, the overall feel of the controversy changed. One Warrior created a tool, the blocklist, allowing “good people not to be harassed by bad people”. It was arbitrary and purely probabilistic. In itself, why not? But as usual online it was used both a proof that those who were blocked were harassers and that those using it were disingenuous. Because that’s the thing, when things are out for too long online, they just become tools of confirmation. Cherry picking what floats your boat is the norm. Some “bigger names” tried to ask people to be reasonable, but they would be smeared, asking for reason was being part of the problem.
The focus on ethics faded, and despite people in GamerGate swearing that they didn’t want politics in gaming, they opened the door for very political people to be involved. This was especially the case for journalists of Breibart, who saw the controversy as natural field of their chronic fight. And gamers as allies. The Warriors were already their enemies. GamerGate was a small drop in a larger pond. GamerGate was now part of a deeper, larger fight, rooted in politics, in identity politics. Gaming was no longer a focus, sometimes just here by accident.
More confirmation, more bias, more nastiness. Hyperboles and ad-hominem were expected.
Something called Poe’s law, idea that extremism and derision of extremism can’t be differentiated based on content, was very prominent. Parodies would be predictive of what would really happen couple of days after. It was both puzzling and quite entertaining.
Both the Gaters and the Warriors would call the others by the same names: terrorist, nazis, ISIS, sub-humans, etc… the idea was to push the de-humanization to the maximum. Beware if you were a significant voice against GamerGate, investigative journalists would track your past, look for your flaws and report on them.
All this lasted for months. It became quite routine, quite annoying, especially for anyone interested in gaming. Some people would join, some people would leave, some people likely lacking any significant actuality would try to gain exposure from it. Some positives were more general adoption of disclosure policies. Some negatives were a return to the public image of gaming as problematic, responsibility shared by so much incivility.
And then THIS happened.
This was chaos. Thunder shattering the menacing sky. Someone from the “good” side, major critic of GamerGate from the start, which recurrent action was to subtweet the most obnoxious people posting with the hashtag, was unmasked as having posted in the past unspeakable things, or as was presented, recovering from being an edgy “troll”. Asking questions about this event, raising moral and ethical concerns got me to be called the “concerned troll”.
GamerGate didn’t make much sense anymore. We were now in muddy, creepy, unstable territory, but it showed that we were in fact in it for a while.
6. Trolling, the incredible excuse for everything, but like everything:
If there is something I learned since following GamerGate, is that the “online culture” is quite strange. As said earlier I wasn’t raised with online interactions as part of my life. My friends were real physical persons, so were my “enemies”. We knew each-other, had eye to eye interactions. We were sometimes silly, but within reasons, as there was no audience.
I met the “channers”, people using sites such as “x-number”chan. It’s a real subculture on its own, with inner language and regulation. For the outsiders, or “normies”, they are very quickly offensive. They don’t seem to know limits and like to out-do one another. When you speak with them directly, they are often quite smart and insightful, sometimes not, not that different from the normies. They are just used to these intense stimuli, they are desensitized to them. Interestingly, I can see why someone sensitive from a minority oppressed background could feel overwhelmed by such environment. Maybe this is the true root of the emerging concept of “safe-space”?
As said, the more and more personally you know them, the more “normal” they appear. Just a language to learn. If you want to oppose them, it’s extremely easy to use their saying as first degree and make a case about their “abusive behavior”. But that’s a misunderstanding.
I also met “the trolls”. One step up. People taking pleasure in being disruptive, atrocious, and morally corrupted. They likely aren’t really, although at times it’s very difficult to ascertain, and I suspect that some have indeed no real concept of basic decency. They can and will use dangerous weapons, at the border of virtuality and reality such as Doxxing, swatting and overall anything that could frightened or destroy their victim. They are paradoxically the worst threat to freedom of speech because they turned it in a destructive, questionable asset. They will be the justification of comments turned off on articles and online content. They will be the proof, justification of any attempt at censorship.
Trolling is also a concept allowing to explain online phenomenon without understanding them, looking at their root. For example, tweeting abusive misogynistic threats to female writers is trolling. Asking difficult questions about controversial content in an article written by a female writer is trolling. And writing paedophilic comments on a forum, using very specific details is trolling… Trolling has turned both in the easy way to condemn, and the easy way to excuse.
I don’t know what you think, but these seem very different occurrences to me. Each requiring its own name, analysis and course of action. What do they have in common?
7. The person behind the avatar:
You readers are unlikely to know me, the real me. But at least you have more than hundreds of characters to make an opinion. But this opinion is still based on a fraction of my inner complexity, my doubts, my wishes or actions. It’s at best based on a projection of me, and you may react solely on it.
It’s worse on social media. People are very quick to judge based on one occurrence, one tweet. They ignore the fact that a human is on the other side, not a bot which sole function is to be there doing seemly good or awful things. It’s both depressing and convenient. Depressing because it paints a sad image of our interactions, a pit of limbic driven aphorisms, and convenient because it makes it easier to talk about the end-product rather than to the person.
The truth is that, when I took the time, I discussed with very interesting people, very decent and well-meaning, both supporters and opponents of GamerGate.
GamerGate, the phenomenon as a whole may be an example of broken communication, of the short-coming of the online culture. Both too permissive and limiting, promoting easy short but shocking concepts over deep lengthy but possibly annoying thoughts. A culture where “feeling right” maters more than “being right”. A culture where I am a “concerned troll” because I wanted to reach a deeper level of consciousness. Yes, you can both condemn a hateful vengeful mob AND the horrifying content written by the person bullied by the mob. This is not trolling, just being a moral thinker.
“Aww, the concern troll is very concerned right now. How cute.”
These words resonate. Weird. Out of context. Out of grasp with reality, my reality.
I’m trying to stay level-headed, offering what I hope is felt as a “make sense, decent” approach. But it’s tiring.
The best answer to all this, last words of this very long post, will be these of the good Roger.