The Paranoid Style in Gaming Misogyny

Michael Handler
14 min readSep 9, 2014

Freemasons, Catholics, Communists, and women in video games

Credits first: I wouldn’t have written this if not for the excellent and incisive essays of Liz Ryerson (“On Right-Wing Video Game Extremism”) and Katherine Cross (“The nightmare is over: They’re not coming for your games”). As I was writing, Liz Ryerson published a highly relevant follow-up (“On ‘Gamers’ And Identity”) to her previous essay. I believe they are particularly critical sources if this topic is of interest to you; if you’re short on time, please read their works instead of mine.

And so, we have come to this moment:

August’s shocking upwelling of online harassment against women in video games — directed at two individuals in particular (summary by Andrew Todd @ Badass Digest) — seems to have been at least temporarily blunted. In a satisfyingly cinematic fashion, their most recent primary target monitored the IRC discussion channel of the perpetrators (where attacks, “investigations”, and courses of action were discussed) for over three weeks, and eventually released selected logs of some of the worst and most damning interactions.

With their purported #GamerGate “PR initiative” dramatically undercut by inconsistency, contradiction of their public statements, shocking amounts of epithets, and open discussion of illegal and immoral hacking attempts, the participants paused, and then opened a new line of “attack”, this time against supposed corruption in the judging of the Independent Games Festival.

This notable public shift in fortunes provided an opportunity for a little introspection about the particular nature of what had transpired over the past month. Comments about the particularly paranoid nature of the entire event began to appear with increasing frequency, and suggestions that the whole “discussion” would be more appropriate for media outlets like Alex JonesInfoWars surfaced, first as sarcasm, then seriously. The GamerGate’s Original Sin tumblr declared “[GamerGate is] the Tea Party of video games. And Zoë Quinn is its Benghazi.”

That commentary is more than sufficiently accurate for general purposes, but as I and others noted, there’s a potentially much deeper historical resonance that is worth investigating.

In 1964, Harper’s Magazine published “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”, an essay by the American historian Richard Hofstadter. At the time, America was wracked by a particularly intense period of cultural and political upheaval; the “Second Red Scare” post-WWII had finally run its course, only to be replaced by the rising tides of the civil rights movement, gay liberation, and feminism. Sweeping changes in closely contested areas of social structure could not help but summon a conservative backlash, and Hofstadter turned his eye to examining the particular characteristics of that counter-movement.

Hofstadter reviewed prior reactionary panics in American history (fear of Freemason and Illuminati influence around 1800, anti-Catholic sentiment in 1835 and 1890), and showed how patterns in ideology, organization, and epistemology (which he dubbed “the paranoid style”) recurred through those prior concerns, now flowing through to the core ideologues of the far-right anti-Communist anti-liberal movement of his time. A post on the Harper’s Magazine blog in 2007 gives an excellent modern overview of the essay, but in brief:

An adherent of the paranoid style believes — consciously or subconsciously — that:

  • Our unifying structure (the newly founded country of America; the power structures of American life circa 1950; the video games that we play, and how we like to play them) is under attack from outside forces, and is threatened with total destruction or restructure into a completely unrecognizable form. Our way of life is at risk of being lost forever.
  • Our enemies (Freemasons; Catholics; Communists; feminists) are shadowy operatives who operate in isolated cells. They possess special powers of influence, persuasion, control, and seduction which allow them to secretly infiltrate the structures of power that surround us, and undermine us from within.
  • The conflict between us and our enemy is zero-sum. No compromise, evolution, or dialogue is possible, and they must be destroyed utterly, or driven back to their own borders, forever.

If you’ve read about, seen, or experienced for yourself the extent and viciousness of the seemingly unending attacks on Anita Sarkeesian (summary by Ian Steadman @ The New Statesman), Zoë Quinn (summary by Owen Grieve @ Midnight Resistance), and their friends, associates, and fellow travelers (summary by Carolyn Cox @ The Mary Sue), and wondered what could possibly motivate this level of continually hateful effort, I submit that their actions and tactics are perfectly calibrated and consistent (and perhaps horrifyingly inevitable) if you view the responsible parties as partisans of Hofstadter’s “paranoid style” of politics.

A brief disclaimer: It’s unquestionably obvious that the behaviors and concerns discussed here are not shared by all people who play video games or identify as gamers, or by all people who find things to strongly disagree with Anita Sarkeesian and Zoë Quinn’s works.

That said, I do assert that the overall nature of the attacks clearly parallels the historical precedents and styles detailed by Hofstadter in his essay. This is the source of my thesis that a particularly vicious core of individuals involved in these events (hereinafter “gamer misogynists”) should be identified as partisans of the paranoid style, and additionally that they are substantially responsible for (or perhaps effectively in total control of) the particular character of the recent harassment.

But, the use of that label arrives with a specific caveat from Hofstadter, which I feel is important enough to reproduce here in full:

“In using the expression “paranoid style” I am not speaking in a clinical sense, but borrowing a clinical term for other purposes. I have neither the competence nor the desire to classify any figures of the past or present as certifiable lunatics. In fact, the idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to men with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.

More specific parallels between gamer misogynists of now and Hofstadter’s paranoids (all quoted sections are from his essay):

Why the relentless viciousness of the worst of the attacks: doxxing, hacking, death threats, creation of violent images featuring their targets? Because the enemy must be destroyed at any cost, irrevocably, never to return:

“As a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public, the paranoid is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated — if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention.”

Why can’t Anita Sarkeesian simply be an academic and a video essayist, sharing her critical analysis with the wider world? Why can’t Zoë Quinn simply be a small scale indie video game developer and writer, creating games and sharing her thoughts with those who may be interested? Because they are the all-powerful leaders or designated public agents (impossible to tell which, given their organization’s shadowy structure!) of the feminist enemy vanguard, and it is from their work particularly that the corruption and destruction will flow:

“The enemy is clearly delineated: he is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman — sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history […] he manufactures […] or tries to deflect the normal course of history in an evil way. He makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys and profits from the misery he has produced. The paranoid’s interpretation of history is distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone’s will.

Particularly resonant to the prior quote: the nauseatingly salacious obsession with Zoë Quinn’s personal life, and the perpetual unfounded accusations of greed and fraud thrown at Anita Sarkeesian for the success of the Kickstarter for her video series.

Why are the attackers organized in a loosely-coupled, publicly leaderless, largely anonymous and pseudonymous movement centered around 4chan and Reddit? Because they presume that the “Social Justice Warriors” they clamor about also exist in similar secret organizations, and emulating the devious structure of their enemy is the best way to avoid infiltration, compromise, and exposure:

“It is hard to resist the conclusion that this enemy is on many counts the projection of the self; both the ideal and the unacceptable aspects of the self are attributed to him. The enemy may be the cosmopolitan intellectual, but the paranoid will outdo him in the apparatus of scholarship, even of pedantry. Secret organizations set up to combat secret organizations give the same flattery. […] The John Birch Society emulates Communist cells and quasi-secret operation through “front” groups, and preaches a ruthless prosecution of the ideological war along lines very similar to those it finds in the Communist enemy.”

That Zoë Quinn monitored the discussion group where her attackers plotted against her (and speculated about her relationships and mental health in vile terms) adds a weirdly circular through-the-looking-glass quality to this particular cognitive distortion of the paranoid style. Her actions could inevitably only reinforce to them the need for secretive organization and compartmentalization, despite only being triggered by the dramatic nature of the attacks on her and her friends.

Less overtly hostile members of the anti-Sarkeesian and anti-Quinn cohort disclaim particularly vicious attacks or death threats as the work of unknown individuals from outside the video games community, or “false flag” operations by their targets or allies designed to garner public support for their work by manufacturing sympathy and favorable media coverage for faux harassment. (Accusations that Anita Sarkeesian faked much or all of the harassment she received online have been a staple of this “discussion” for years.) Even more notably, a particularly fevered assertion that Zoë Quinn planned to stage a false physical assault on herself at the PAX gaming convention surfaced publicly at least once.

While not directly covered in Hofstadter’s essay, it’s also impossible to not draw parallels between the attacks on Zoë Quinn and their unbroken yet implausible chant of “this is about corruption, integrity, and ethics” (summary from Matt Lees and Owen Grieve), with the witch hunt to ferret out purportedly terrifying and omnipresent “communist influence” (particularly in the entertainment industry!) during the Second Red Scare.

And finally, what of the countless numbers of “gotcha” YouTube response videos attempting to show a pattern of deliberate deception or basic errors by Anita Sarkeesian in her videos? Or in the case of Zoë Quinn: purported positive coverage of her games by people she was intimately involved with; a network of Patreon connections (documented in plain sight); friendships, acquaintances, social connections in work contexts, Twitter conversations? And for their friends and supporters: what quid pro quo occurred such that two notable video game journalists garnered a listing in the “Thank You” section of a much-loved indie game’s credits? (Spoiler: They’re all friends, and have been there for each other during times of emotional difficulty, and like each other.)

“A final characteristic of the paranoid style is related to the quality of its pedantry. One of the impressive things about paranoid literature is the contrast between its fantasied conclusions and the almost touching concern with factuality it invariably shows. It produces heroic strivings for evidence to prove that the unbelievable is the only thing that can be believed. […] The difference between this “evidence” and that commonly employed by others is that it seems less a means of entering into normal political controversy than a means of warding off the profane intrusion of the secular political world. The paranoid seems to have little expectation of actually convincing a hostile world, but he can accumulate evidence in order to protect his cherished convictions from it.

Here, gamer misogynists differ from Hofstadter’s generic paranoid, likely due to the much-changed nature of the media landscape since 1964. In contrast, having seen other public movements achieve at least some level of political success and positive coverage via concerted social media outreach, they expend a great deal of effort attempting to share their “evidence” with the wider world, or at least to assert, via sheer volume, that there might be a story of interest here to media outlets with greater reach.

Regardless, the videos and “evidence” presented in these cases bear no weight, carry no integrity, and present no substantial response to the bodies of work of their targets; their content is so far removed from the expected contextual structures of academia, academic criticism, intellectual debate, and journalism as to be laughable. But they do serve several useful functions to their creators and propagators:

  1. Effectively, a distributed spam flood of anti-intellectual and ad-hominem attacks directed at their targets, aimed at burying any reasoned discussion that might popularly occur in response to their work, discouraging them from continuing their efforts.
  2. Helping maintain and increase the population of gamer misogynists, recruiting new members to “join the fight” (even at a basic level) by convincing them that the very real unease they may feel actually constitutes an an existential threat. Additionally, the constant flood of response videos, annotated screen captures or photo collages, maps of purported conspiratorial connections that are nigh indistinguishable from the work of modern descendants of the anti-Freemason partisans — all are taken as new and additional “evidence” that all prior concerns about their conspiratorial enemy are valid and true, and that the threat continues to grow in both size and complexity.
  3. Even though each new addition to the ever-growing pile often adds nothing of substance, and may just be circularly self-referential to prior “evidence”, it suffices to dampen opportunity for any critical analysis which might question the overall conclusions and the forward inertia of the movement. The constant appearance of new “evidence” is necessary to maintain the epistemic closure which prevents the gross inconsistencies, logical fallacies, and overall thinness of substance at the movement’s intellectual core from becoming all too apparent.

So, other than an opportunity for me to demonstrate slight cleverness by linking our present circumstance to a fifty year-old essay, why does this matter? If I am correct in my assertion that gamer misogynists have a lot more in common with anti-Freemason, anti-Catholic, and anti-Communist witch hunts than anyone should be at all comfortable with, what can we learn?

I think we benefit from acknowledging that the attacks of the gamer misogynists may feel eerily familiar because they are likely of a type that we have seen before, and will experience again in the future. That can provide a useful clarifying focus in how we perceive and choose to respond to the situation, and may also suggest additional tools and mechanisms that have been successful in combating prior clashes of this type.

But, more importantly: Hofstadter notes that the paranoid style is not prone to choosing objectives with any reasonable likelihood of success, and which would allow an eventual end to the perpetual vigilance and paranoid readiness their worldview requires:

“This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration. Even partial success leaves him with the same feeling of powerlessness with which he began, and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.

Even the most bald gamer misogynist partisan must admit, at least internally, that even if Anita Sarkeesian and Zoë Quinn capitulated immediately, disavowed their previous work, and foreswore any future interaction with games forever, that this would not provide the final victory required for respite. While they (and countless others, less visibly) would have been driven away, a new generation of women passionate about the future evolution of video games would inevitably arrive, ready to pick up where their predecessors had left off.

An intolerance to even the slightest presence, positive discussion, or analysis of games unlike what they are used to leaves gamer misogynists in a position of eternal vigilance, on a perpetual war footing, forever and ever, without end.

So then: what can we do?

Originally, here I had planned to branch out into more obviously subjective and complicated sociological issues: Why might the culture of video games have been a particularly fertile soil for a misogynist strain of the paranoid style to take root? Does the misogynist nature of our current concern (directed against apparently any woman, rather than shadowy overseas “foreign elements” like European Freemasons, the Catholic hierarchy, or Asian and Russian Communists) give us any insight to explain the particularly vicious and personal nature of the attacks, grossly out of proportion to the apparent stakes?

This essay is long enough already, and those musings are much more subjective and personal, so I’m going to close here, and possibly address the above in a follow-up essay. I do feel those topics are of critical importance to further understanding of where we find ourselves, and I very much want to see discussion of them continued, by others or myself.

Hofstadter’s essay came to an elegant and pointed end, which I can do little better than to reproduce here, albeit with a grim addendum:

“A distinguished historian has said that one of the most valuable things about history is that it teaches us how things do not happen. It is precisely this kind of awareness that the paranoid fails to develop. He has a special resistance of his own, of course, to developing such awareness, but circumstances often deprive him of exposure to events that might enlighten him — and in any case he resists enlightenment.

We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.

Now, many more are also double sufferers through no fault of their own, via the consequences of the fantasies that the paranoid have thrust upon them, and by extension, all of us.