Exhuming Gamergate: A Look Back At A Dark And Extremely Muddied Page In Internet History
My reason for writing this blog is that there is a lot of misinformation muddying the discourse when it comes to the subject of Gamergate, and the impact it has had on society. In large part this is due to lack of knowledge (or interest) in the subject by the general populace, but a fair share of it is also due to a deliberate campaign of misinformation waged by Gamergate supporters to try and draw people to their side. As such, this article will try to comprehensively lay out the journey Gamergate went through on the internet, and its impact on social discourse in general: starting from its inception, to its peak, and finally to its current state.
While many people believe that Gamergate was the primary catalyst for the abundance of misogyny present on the internet, this is only half-true. While it certainly did see an explosive increase following the start of the movement, misogyny has always been a part of the internet. All Gamergate did was reveal the extent of this hatred to the general public, yet women and minority groups always knew that this was merely the result of a structural problem that had existed for years. One need only look at the horrible case of Kathy Sierra, a well-known figure in computer programming, who was forced into hiding by an angry (male) internet mob.
The origin of Gamergate can be traced back to August, 2014. Eron Gjoni, an ex-boyfriend of game developer Zoe Quinn, went to a variety of gaming forums to publicly accuse Quinn of having cheated on him during their relationship. Gjoni’s tirade did not last long, as he was quickly banned from a number of these forums.
Not to be deterred, Gjoni proceeded to write a lengthy blog post, going into extreme detail on his relationship with Quinn and the ways in which she, according to him, betrayed his trust and took advantage of him. Gjoni has since been accused of actively courting the more extreme reactionary outlets on the internet, such as 4chan’s /r9k/ (a board to post random stories), to target and harass Quinn. He did this with the full knowledge that Quinn was already a popular target of these reactionary forums, ever since her release of her critically acclaimed game Depression Quest.
Utilizing Gjoni’s blog post, baseless accusations were made that Quinn had slept with gaming journalists in exchange for favorable reviews on Depression Quest. Despite not having a shred of evidence, this theory widely made the rounds on the internet, to the point that even today, many people believe that Gamergate’s origins were wholesome, as they only sought to stop fraudulent reviewing. This led to the infamous “its about ethics in games journalism” slogan that would be their main tool to obfuscate their true intentions. Certainly, many people who were unfamiliar with its true origins were pulled in this way.
Gjoni, meanwhile, watched his project unfold with glee. In a since deleted tweet, he proclaimed that his goal was to break Quinn psychologically and push her into therapy. This is especially egregious when one considers Quinn’s previous struggles with depression.
Not being content to just watch the internet ruin Quinn’s life, Gjoni would frequent 4chan boards to encourage its posters to continue their harassment campaign against Quinn
Gjoni’s tactic worked horrifyingly well. The internet hordes of angry trolls and reactionaries, spearheaded by 4chan, went after Quinn with a vengeance, without any regard for privacy or, indeed, human decency. For instance, when they had managed to uncover nude photos of Quinn, they were sent to her family and her employers. She regularly received threatening calls, as well as hundreds of death threats and rape threats. Forums online would discuss the best weapons to bring to events that Quinn would attend.
Gjoni and his rabid followers would coordinate their tactics on an IRC channel called #BurgersandFries, a reference to a joke Gjoni made in his blog on the number of people Quinn slept with. Quinn released screenshots of these gatherings, proving that there was indeed a harrowing internet campaign to ruin the lives of various women involved with gaming. The actual name ‘Gamergate’ was adopted after actor Adam Baldwin started tweeting #BurgersandFries conspiracy videos with the hashtag ‘Gamergate’. From then on, this would become the official name of the movement. Indeed, the name is itself a misnomer, as it suggests that, like the Watergate scandal, there was a real conspiracy in gaming journalism that needed to be uncovered.
The cruel voracity of the campaign became even more evident as Quinn’s allies began to be targeted, all in a concentrated effort to socially isolate her. Phil Fish, owner of Polytron, had his personal information, including his finances and social security number, spread on the internet simply for defending Quinn. This damaged his career to such a degree that Fish was eventually was forced to sell off his company.
Another person close to Quinn, her then boyfriend Alex Lifschitz, was similarly targeted for harassment. A potential company he was looking to work for backed off after being flooded with threats. Eventually, Quinn and Lifschitz home address was uncovered, and they were forced to go into hiding.
Yet Quinn did not collapse under the weight of the abuse she suffered. As has been hopefully proven, this was certainly not due to lack of effort on the part of the Gamergate movement. Rather, it can be attributed to an immense fortitude on the part of Quinn. Indeed, she would speak out regularly, giving interviews on her own personal experiences, as well as the state of gaming communities in general. Quinn would compile her stories in a book, Crash Override: How Gamergate (Nearly) Destroyed my Life, and How We Can Win the Fight Against Online Hate, which received positive reviews and was nominated for a Hugo Award.
While Gamergate truly took off following Eron Gjoni’s blog post in 2014, its roots can be traced back to 2012 (and, some would argue, to 2007 and the Kathy Sierra incident). Anita Sarkeesian, feminist critic and creator of the Youtube channel FeministFrequency, announced her new project to create a series of Youtube videos analyzing video games from a feminist perspective. Sarkeesian had previously done another series, Tropes vs Women, in which she analyzed stereotypical portrayals of women in cinema.
Sarkeesian’s Kickstarter campaign to begin her new series received its target funding on its first day, eventually receiving almost ten times more donations than was necessary. Following this, Sarkeesian became the target of an online hate campaign, receiving death threats, threatening phone calls, rape threats, and all manner of other threats to her well being.
Far from being cowed into submission, Sarkeesian channeled this virulent hate in a productive manner, utilizing it to show the sheer extent of misogyny present in gaming circles. This, in turn, lead to an increase in donations for her projects but likewise also an increase in the abuse she was forced to endure.
Yet the worst of the threats were still to come. After releasing a new video at roughly the same time as Eron Gjoni posted his blog post on Zoe Quinn (purely coincidental), Sarkeesian found herself attacked by these same violent reactionaries that had targeted Quinn, with a fervor that went beyond any sense of reason. In Sarkeesian’s videos, these groups saw the realization of their deepest fears that gaming was being taken over by feminists and cultural critics.
In a lengthy blog post following her own experiences with internet abuse, Kathy Sierra noted that arguably the most dangerous time for a woman with online visibility, is when she starts to acquire followers. This is then seen as a threat by her detractors, a direct attack to try and get people to drink the “Koolaid”(a reference to the Jonestown Massacre, where its inhabitants were manipulated into committing suicide via poisoned Flavor Aid). There is a burning need for these people to try and stop this woman. To do this, they utilize the primary tool at their disposal: the internet.
Why Anita Sarkeesian’s ostensibly innocent project sparked such a violent reaction from the Gamergate movement can perhaps be explained by looking back in time. Alice Marwick says that the early internet promised a utopia where everyone was anonymous and thus equal, eventually getting rid of bigotry and discrimination altogether. The reality, however, was that everyone was assumed to be a white male by default. Thus, those people who drew attention to racism or misogyny were accused of stirring up trouble where there was none, of trying to tear down the peaceful status-quo.
The abuse directed at Sarkeesian steadily increased in scope. Terror threats were called in to events she would speak at. At one point, Sarkeesian was forced to leave her home town and go into hiding. That her only ‘crime’ was posting YouTube videos analyzing video games from a feminist viewpoint shows that her harassment, so similar to what Zoe Quinn endured, was virtually entirely fueled by violent misogyny.
Sarkeesian has since become the ‘face’ of Gamergate, more so perhaps than Zoe Quinn. YouTube reactionaries have released a plethora of videos targeting her specifically, treating her analysis of video games as an attack on gaming culture in general. Sarkeesian has, for her part, received an outpouring of support, and continued her series undeterred, seeking to expand it to also include positive representations of women in video games.
Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian might be the most well known victims of Gamergate, but they are most certainly not the only ones. From video game developer Brianna Wu, who made the ‘mistake’ of publicly speaking out against Gamergate and suffered extensive abuse as a result, to actress Felicia Day, who merely espoused her fears about Gamergate’s tactics, many people, primarily women, have had their lives thrown into disarray merely for speaking up. If I were to name every person who Gamergate has targeted in their campaign to, as they claim, protect the integrity of the gaming world, this blog would need an extra ten pages.
To limit Gamergate to the realm of video games would be a gross mistake. The impact it has had has traveled far beyond the bounds of the world of gaming, and actively impacted the public discourse for years to come.
In a 2014 interview, Anita Sarkeesian noted that the hatred and abuse propagated by Gamergate was merely a symptom of a larger problem of abuse targeted at minority groups, often women, in male dominated fields. Gamergate seemed to have perfected the preferred tactic for dealing with these ‘issues’ of unwanted figures encroaching on ‘their’ turf; violent harassment.
As the article points out, Gamergate, which has historically consisted of young, white men, legitimatized the strategy of reacting with excessive force when they feel they are being targeted. That these feelings of victimhood are supremely ironic did not seem to register with them. Yet one person who actively encouraged and fostered this victim mentality with Gamergate supporters, is Breitbar editor-in-chief turned (temporary) presidential adviser, Steve Bannon.
Contrary to popular belief, Bannon’s involvement with Gamergate was not his first foray into the world of gaming. In 2000, Bannon was part of a company that, among other things, offered World of Warcraft gold in exchange for real world currency. In later years, Bannon would also stand at the basis of such hugely popular websites as WowHead and TF2Outpost (though these sites have long since changed ownership, and are no longer affiliated with Bannon).
After becoming head of Breitbart, Bannon used the platform to publish articles in support of Gamergate. A leading figure in this campaign was Milo Yiannopoulos, a writer for Breitbart’s tech corner. Though Milo had in the past blamed gaming for the brutal killing spree of Elliot Rodger, he quickly changed his tune when he realized the potential the budding Gamergate movement offered. Milo would become Breitbart’s primary figure for everything Gamergate related, and he was quickly embraced by a movement seeking mainstream validation.
Having had previous experience with the gaming world, Steve Bannon was aware of the potential Gamergate offered. Here were a group of young, impressionable, generally well educated, and most importantly angry young men who, if properly guided, could prove a powerful tool to further Bannon’s main objective. And this objective was the rise of the alt-right movement.
Bannon has made it no secret that he champions the alt-right, describing Breitbart as a “platform for the alt-right”. When looking back at Gamergate, one sees startling similarities to the collection of movements that would eventually define itself as the alt-right.
Like the alt-right, who believe that white men are actively being marginalized and that diversity has gotten out of control, Gamergate adherents believed that there was a culture war going on inside the gaming world, a war waged by ‘SJW’s’ (Social Justice Warriors) and feminists against gamers.
Like the alt-right, who hide behind various euphemisms (‘race realism’, ‘ethnonationalism’) and utilize misdirection to conceal their often bigoted motives, Gamergate followers hid behind their infamous creed “it’s actually about ethics in games journalism”, as they continued their campaigns of harassment. Many a person, especially those who could not be bothered to delve further into the subject, were fooled by this slogan into believing that, behind the hate and the abuse, Gamergate ultimately had benign intentions.
Like the alt-right, who loudly denounce media critical of them as ‘fake news’ and often try to deflect accusations of violence and hate, when people would point at the plethora of evidence that showed the absurd amounts of hate and abuse that victims of Gamergate had to endure, it would often be dismissed as fake or, indeed, Gamergate followers would proclaim themselves to be victims of abuse. Gamergate supporters on Youtube would make videos decrying the mainstream media’s coverage of Gamergate, showing a startling similarity to the alt-right’s rejection of traditional media outlets.
Indeed, the Gamergate crowd has been embraced by a variety of conservative figures, such as popular anti-feminist Christina Hoff Sommers, who released a YouTube video on the matter, and prominent figures in MRA (Men’s Rights Activists) and The Red Pill (a misogynistic movement based on emotional abuse of women and promotes traditional masculinity) circles.
While the rise of the alt-right can be attributed to a wide variety of things, it cannot be denied that Gamergate is one of these phenomena, and an important one at that. With Steve Bannon’s overt support of Gamergate on Breitbart, and his own admission that he used the site to breed the foundations of the alt-right movement, it is not hard to see how the hordes of angry, young white men made for easy pickings for Bannon. When looking at the ways in which the alt-right has impacted the public discourse in the past few years, those knowledgeable on Gamergate surely must have felt a disconcerting stab of familiarity.
One might wonder if Gamergate is truly all bad news. Surely they also achieved some positive things. The answer is a bit more complicated than a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. There were indeed moments where Gamergate adherents donated to various organizations and charities which, from the outset, had little to do with the movement. Yet a deeper investigation shows that this was all yet another smokescreen in what was an undying vendetta against Zoe Quinn and the dreaded ‘SJWs’.
The Fine Young Capitalists (TFYC) was one of those organizations that received donations from Gamergate. Ostensibly an act of charity to help a (supposed) feminist gaming group, the reality of the situation quickly became apparent: TFYC had a previous quarrel with Zoe Quinn, who had called them out on some of their business practices. This simple fact was all that was needed for Gamergate to donate to TFYC en masse, all in an effort to spite Quinn. It was also through this false attempt at charity that Gamergate’s official mascot was created. Smart enough to understand that an openly misogynistic figure would be counterproductive, they settled on the figure of a young girl who enjoys video games, further creating the illusion that there was no way that they could be misogynystic. After all, their mascot was a woman!
In this manner, there have been many examples where Gamergate tried to muddy the waters by pretending to support diversity and feminism. In a collection of screenshots, Zoe Quin revealed that such ‘grassroots’ movements as #notyourshield, supposedly meant to defend minority groups in gaming circles against exploitation by rabid social justice groups, were in fact carefully planned by forums like 4chan.
Through carefully planned operations like these, Gamergate managed to draw in people to its ‘cause’, both by obfuscating their true intentions, and by minimizing the extent of the abuse they hurled at people, calling it the acts of a few ‘trolls’. By pretending to champion causes that are generally associated with leftist ideology (battling corruption, standing up for the small man), many people were fooled into supporting a movement that had tried, and in some cases succeeded, in ruining the lives of those they deemed their targets.
Gamergate has lost in influence and strength since its early years. The fall from grace of Milo Yiannopoulos was a large blow to the remaining credibility of the movement, and various social media organizations, such as Twitter (who, it should be noted, had been criticized for allowing earlier abuse to stand) clamped down harder on bullying and harassment. With their main tools being taken away from them, and public discourse turning against them, Gamergate followers retreated to their online safe spaces. With 4chan no longer a welcome haven to them, Gamergate followers left for the more extreme 8chan. Another remaining bastion of the movement is Reddit’s /r/kotakuinaction subreddit. Ostensibly created to decry the poor state of gaming journalism website Kotaku, from its inception it was always a tool to spread more hate towards Gamergate’s targets, and to coordinate operations. Indeed, it has even been denounced by its original creator.
Gamergate was, and in some ways still is, one of the darkest chapters in the history of online gaming, as well as the internet as a whole. It has shown the results of what happens when one ignores structural problems in any community: they explode in your face with the right trigger. Yet at the same time, one should be morbidly thankful to Gamergate. It showed the true extent of misogyny in gaming circles, and it has pushed companies to invest more into diversity. Yet the sheer fact that it took such an extreme occurrence for these male dominated fields to finally acknowledge that there was a problem with severe misogyny, makes one fearful of what will be needed for them to acknowledge other systemic problems.