The Voices of GamerGate, Five Years Later
A Series of Six Interviews in GamerGate’s Continued Aftermath
I decided to be a game writer during my senior year of high school. I’d wanted to be a writer in general since I was about four years old, but the game aspect didn’t come into play until later, when I realized that games could tell rich, beautiful stories.
The first person I chose to tell about this was my English teacher. During a period in my life when my confidence was at its lowest, he encouraged me to write and feel comfortable with who I was, and I’ll always be grateful to him for that. I thus wanted to tell him first about my decision, as he was trustworthy and I knew he would be honest with me.
He was super excited for me, asking about I had come to the decision and saying it was great that I was so happy with the idea. But then the conversation took a turn.
“Have you ever heard of GamerGate?” he asked.
I shook my head. I was a frequent traveler on the Internet in those days, but I hadn’t yet made the leap into the pit that I’m in now.
My teacher explained what it was, as GamerGate had just started before I made my career decision in August 2014. We had a serious discussion about what this meant for the game industry I was planning to enter and how it would affect me as a future female developer. He didn’t try to dissuade me from my aspirations but instead advised me to be careful and aware of the environment I would be getting into.
I promised him I would, not really understanding what that meant.
Five years later, I get it.
To give the briefest of overviews, GamerGate was an online movement that was, on the surface, aiming to talk about “ethics in game journalism.” It quickly turned into a mob of harassment toward women in and outside of the game industry, including verbal assault, doxxing, and threats of violence. It was, essentially, a mess, and it raised questions about sexism in the game industry, toxic masculinity in an online space, and the treatment of marginalized people.
That’s a lot to unpack, to say the least. And this essay could’ve been that — deconstructing everything GamerGate was in an attempt to understand where we are now. But everyone else has already done that, and what interested me was not the overarching narrative of GamerGate, but the impact it has had on individuals. People who were involved in the industry or are just starting their careers now. People who were on Twitter when it all went down or don’t really remember all the details. People who have their own stories about how they’ve interacted with games in the aftermath of one of the biggest online harassment scandals.
Without GamerGate, I never would have had that conversation with my English teacher. Without GamerGate, I never would have tried to write about it.
But here we are. And here are the personal stories — the ones that aren’t heard in the larger narrative of GamerGate. The small craters that GamerGate has created over the past five years, and perhaps will continue to create.
I don’t want my voice to cloud anyone else’s, so these are presented without much interruption on my part. I simply want these stories to speak for themselves.
Greg Bemis is a professor of Game Design and Game Programming at Champlain College in Burlington, VT. He experienced first-hand the initial wave of burgeoning game developers in the wake of GamerGate.
Ever since I was a young lad with my Atari 2600, I’ve always loved video games, always been fascinated by them. When I was going to school in college, my major was Television Production. But I even found that, even while I was doing that in college, and then in the real world, before doing games, I always tried to sort of push what I was doing into the game space. It just seemed like a thing that I was always interested in.
After working in software development for a while and trying to sort of merge my love of media and my love of games and just trying to always make it work, I realized what I actually wanted to do was teach. I really just loved being involved with it and working with people who were interested in it just seemed like a natural fit, and that’s kind of how I ended up here.
What does being a “gamer” mean to you?
Oh, I hate the word “gamer” so much. I don’t like it because I think it has a lot of negative connotations and it feels exclusionary to me. It feels like you need to have some sort of level of passion to be “qualified” as a gamer, and it’s always bothered me. I just think life’s too short to measure people that way.
What do you remember about GamerGate when you first learned about it?
Well, I was teaching here. I actually remember when the whole thing kind of dropped, and it had been a long time coming. There’s always been this faction of people who play games — and we’ll call them young men ’cause that’s kind of where it is — where they kind of felt like, “This is my safe space. This is where I’m finally accepted.” And that’s great! That’s a good thing. But to the exclusion of other people.
So there was this feeling that there were all these people that loved games, and if you didn’t fit their preconceived notion of what a game player was, well, then you were ostracized for doing the exact same thing that they accused others of doing to them.
I found that [with] the incoming freshman class of designers, game development students at Champlain, there was a really weird, palpable feeling that this was going to be an issue. That there were some students who absolutely felt like games were going in the wrong direction and suddenly, “Now it’s going to be nothing but these social justice games and I’m not going to be able to play the games that I wanna play!”
As teachers, we had to really find a way to unpack this with the students because it seemed weird. There’s no shortage of games. In fact, there’s too many games for any one person to play, and to even have this notion that “they’re taking my games away” is just absurd.
Fortunately, I found that after about a year, two years of that, it all… not that it died away, but there was a sense of, “Oh right. I can still play my Batman games, and I can still play Street Fighter. And maybe all that’s being asked of me is just to be more aware that there are other people who maybe like different things, or even like the same things I like but are different people.”
How have conversations around GamerGate changed at all, if at all?
For me personally, I don’t want to engage with [GamerGate] on that conversation because I just think it’s disingenuous. When they talk about what it means to be a “real gamer” or something of that, it’s like, I can’t engage with you on that because it’s such an absurd conversation.
Where do you think the game industry’s gonna go now in the aftermath of this whole thing?
I think there’s been a lot of soul-searching. And I think it’s not gonna be a one-shot deal. It has to start from a young age. Kids have to understand what’s appropriate and what’s inappropriate in an online, game space. And then they have to carry that with them into the adult world and when they’re working in a job.
We have to teach our children to have more empathy for others and to be better. And on that side, I feel like, okay, I can do something, I have two kids. I think that’s the only way to do it. You can try to legislate it, you can try to say, “We’re gonna have rules!” But you have to invade that culture from the ground up and make the change that way.
Sara Gonia is a senior-year Professional Writing student at Champlain College. She has a minor in Communications and she is currently the Vice President of the Game Writing Club. Sara is also a big fan of Funimation, but they dealt with a writing-related issue right as GamerGate was happening.
[Being a gamer to me] means being immersed in games themselves and actually being able to collect, and buy, and experience it, but also being part of a group of people and a community. Being able to talk about games, about what it means to be a gamer with other people, your ups and down. We can learn so much from other people just by experiencing a little niche part of the gaming industry. Like I’ve learned a lot from Ross Scott’s videos, Accursed Farms — he does “Freeman’s Mind” — and other kinds of gaming videos, from essayists to weird shit on Polygon.
What do you remember about GamerGate when you first heard about it?
I only heard the whispers [that] some female commentator said something weird and also people starting blowing up about girls in the game industry. It’s like, “Oh. Girls are being shit on again. That’s a tale as old as time.”
It was very hard to read about it because the language was so difficult to pick up on. If you read any of the tweets at the time when GamerGate first blew up, it was so hard to really understand.
What kind of impact has GamerGate had that you’ve observed?
It’s two-fold. First, female gamers in the industry are being more presented and in the general view of the gamer community. Like, they were there but not really. It became more of an issue in being more like, “We need to be more aware that there are women in the industry that are being misrepresented and we need to change.”
Second thing, though, is how people respond to things that they don’t really understand. One writer for one of the episodes [of Prison School] decided to write a joke about GamerGate because it was during the beginning of [Funimation’s] simuldub. And people lost their minds. “That was a terrible joke, you probably shouldn’t be joking about that.”
Long story short, the writer had to go on Twitter and apologize. It blew up. It was such a sensitive topic when they did that. It was only a couple weeks after but it was still so sensitive. And if they made that joke a couple years later, it would be lame but also safer.
Skot Deeming is a professor at Champlain College’s Montreal campus. He’s currently a doctoral candidate in the Individualized Program at Concordia University. GamerGate is constantly associated with Twitter trolls, but what isn’t heard in that narrative is that of game scholars and those in academia.
Being a grad student at that time… how do I say this? GamerGate basically almost broke game studies. Maybe the culture of game studies, like the academic culture around studying games.
Clearly, we’ve recovered and moved on, and some people, like the queer game studies people, they’ve really kind of been more emboldened after the fact. They’re far more visible. And I think that visibility is very good.
I can also say that I think one of the problems with it is that it eroded a lot of trust between people who were allies and people who either identify as women or other genders. It became a very scary place. One of the people on my Ph.D. committee was the head of Daedra at the time, and she was a target. So they were looking at her research, which a lot of it was about player communities and gender.
Looking at the political spectrum now, too, there is not a lot of trust between people. On the left and on the right, we know about that polarization, but also polarization between people further on the left and people further toward the center politically. There’s no trust there, either. And that didn’t use to be the case. And I think GamerGate actually is one of the events that we can look to as one of the instigators of that rift, honestly.
Being there and seeing what’s happened and seeing where we are politically, I feel like, without GamerGate, we don’t get Donald Trump as President. Generally, I would say that GamerGate was one of the first real major post-Tea Party moments that kind of led us politically down the road we are now.
How have conversations around GamerGate changed in the past five years, if they have at all?
There was a while where GamerGate was like Voldemort. It was “They Who Must Not Be Named.” When it was happening, people were talking about it a lot. After it started dying down a little bit, people were talking about it less, but they’d also internalized a lot of grief and trauma.
As GamerGaters as an organized effort started fading away, there were people that were really concerned and scared to the point where video game studies conferences were trying to avoid gamer things like the hashtags so they wouldn’t get picked up on. They’d have their social media conversations without GamerGaters getting involved.
But in terms of a discussion, I haven’t had a discussion with anybody about GamerGate for literally two or three years. And maybe it’s because I sort of withdrew from university and academic culture a little bit just to work on my own, which is where I’m more comfortable right now.
How do you think the word “gamer” has changed, if it has? What do you think about the word?
I think it’s always been really contentious anyway. Because if we’re doing critical analysis of the term and you’re looking at the discourse, there’s the vernacular, popular discourses around the term, and then there’s the academic discourses. “Gamer” is generally a word that people self-identify with, rather than a label that’s put on them.
It’s never been a term or a label that I’ve really identified with all that much. I mean, I play a lot of games but I feel like when you use a word like “gamer,” it sounds like a profession. Like I’m a runner. I’m a painter. I’m a sculptor. It’s interesting because it’s one of the few terms that I think exists in a creative medium where it’s actually not about the creation of said thing but about the consumption of said thing. It’s a consumer identity more than anything else, and I think that’s why I don’t identify with it.
Both “gamer” and “GamerGate” is simply about people’s sense of consumer entitlement. The “ethics in game journalism” and all that bullshit is all about consumer entitlement.
Sometimes when I think “gamer,” if someone self-identifies that way, I have to admit, I think of all those other instances of — I don’t even call it toxic masculinity anymore, I just call it bullshit masculinity. It’s thinking that you have some kind of moral authority because you’ve been part of the dominant hegemony for I don’t know how long.
Could you expand more on the academia side of things that happened with GamerGate?
Academia is, unfortunately, a thing that happens on Twitter. I’ve been on leave for my Ph.D., so this is anecdotal, but I left Twitter. I quit Twitter! But at the time [of GamerGate], if you were an emerging scholar, you needed to have a Twitter account and a Facebook account.
GamerGate people knew very much about that. I don’t know about the organization of the movement itself but I know they started going into the DiGRA database, downloading papers and reading all these papers and then talking about how the academy was trying to influence the industry to make it more inclusive.
They started also targeting people on Twitter, even started contacting, as far as I understand it, institutional administrators and being like, “You shouldn’t be teaching their bias! They have an agenda! What happened to objectivity?” Basically the same kind of “ethics in game journalism” question but in academic study. If you know anything about the academy, you’d know that nothing is objective, there’s always bias, and you’re making an argument in a particular direction.
Several people I know who are graduate students here in Montreal and a member of my supervisory committee for my Ph.D. all sort of ended up being targets. …A GamerGate person actually showed up at a public event once. And I wasn’t there, I heard about it. But they had to call security. So that was as close and as dangerous as it got here in Montreal, but that’s still pretty bad. And this kid was apparently, like, 18? He didn’t really know much about the world at all.
…How do I put this? I don’t wanna be insensitive, right, because I understand the anxiety that was born out of [GamerGate]. But if you’re an ally, basically the only way that you can be an ally is if the people who you are allying yourself with get to dictate what it means to be an ally now. Which is a really weird thing to say. It’s like saying if you’re a fan of a sports team, the team gets to tell you how to behave as a fan. It’s not the best analogy, but it’s kind of a similar idea.
But the public shaming thing that started happening, which is exactly what GamerGate was trying to do, isn’t the right tactic. Corrective discussions are. We’re shifting into a new sort of hegemonic regime and people have to be eased into that sometimes, and you need to correct behavior by just saying, “Hey. Just so you know, this is how I identify. This is how I live.”
…There was a time when we had given people the benefit of the doubt and trust was given until it was broken. Now it’s given when you prove that you’re trustworthy.
Julia Wolniewicz is a senior-year Game Art and Animation major at Champlain College. Her major concern after GamerGate that still carries into today is with archiving video games and the attitudes surrounding it.
When I was at a piano lesson, I would always bring video game-related things. And then [my piano teacher was] like, “Did you know that in Burlington, Vermont, there’s a school and it does game stuff? And you do game stuff!” And then I visited the college and I was like, “This is pretty cool.”
What kind of impact has GamerGate had that you’ve observed?
People take us less seriously now because GamerGate, from what I remember, was a shitshow. [GamerGaters] were being super sexist about the whole situation. Then people were like, “Wow, these people are assholes and gamers are assholes and we should not think very highly of games, even though some games are very cool and should be thought highly of.”
I remember reading an article years ago where we were getting closer to seeing games as something valuable and something that should be archived, kept in stock and in museums. So I feel like we took a step back.
The versions of the games owned by the people who made the games, the original copies, [they’re] distributed on the cartridges and stuff. But the original, if that’s lost, then you can’t put it on the cartridges anymore, and you need to make a copy of that original and archive it so that we can have it for the future. And I know for a fact that sometimes people make things just in general, and then they’re like, “I don’t think this will be of any value in the future.”
I remember my parents telling me about this because we’d always watch the Rankin and Bass Christmas specials. And when they made the puppets for Rudolph and everything, and they were like, “Oh, we made it for the short. We don’t need these afterward.” So they got chucked somewhere.
When they were found again later, they were in shit condition because no one thought that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer would become a huge yearly tradition for people and that people would think fondly of it. And now it’s like, “Oh shoot. Now these puppets that were used to create this piece of art are now in bad condition because no one cared about it.”
If something happens to, I don’t know, let’s say… Nintendo, their building goes on fire and they lose all of their archived copies of all their games. There’s a lot of ROMs online, but not everything is readily available because there’s a weird, strange Mario game that everyone fucking forgot because there’s so many Mario games. You think you know them all, and then it’s like, “Oh, you forgot about Super Mario Bros. All Night, where it was a variation of Super Mario Bros. but related to some late-night TV show in Japan.” If you lose that, you’re never gonna play Super Mario Bros. All Night ever again.
So the push for archiving video games is to prevent that and have copies of things. And to do so, sometimes extra help is needed by people who are good at archiving things. It’s good to display things and show people, “This is the history of gaming. We have it because we held onto it and we saw importance in it.”
We were getting kind of close to that, and then GamerGate happened, and then people were like, “Oh wait, games don’t have that much value.”
Also, something to think about is that not all cartridges are going to last forever. Eventually, cartridges will stop working, CDs get scratched and stuff. We usually distribute games digitally now, so there’s no physical form, so if we lose the digital version, poof! It’s gone.
I used to play Super Mario World all the time when I was a kid. That was my first game. Imagine a world where I can no longer play Super Mario World because it’s just gone. That’s really fucking frightening.
Jonathan Vogt is a senior-year Professional Writing major with aspirations toward becoming a narrative designer. He’s found GamerGate’s repercussions on YouTube, where he spends much of his free time creating or watching videos.
What does being a “gamer” mean to you?
It’s like that one video… You got your blue Hanes hoodie and kind of the brown hair, and he’s a really pasty white guy.
What kind of impact has GamerGate had that you’ve observed?
It launched the careers of a lot of skeptic YouTubers, and it created a fucking cancer on YouTube. It was trendy at the time and the shift of YouTube skepticism went from criticizing the religious right to the social justice left, and that has dominated much of the 2010s.
How have conversations around GamerGate changed in the past five years, if at all?
I avoid ‘em.
Do you have any personal anecdotes about GamerGate?
[A fellow student] mansplaining for two hours. He just led me into his room and started lecturing me about GamerGate. Yeah, because he lived right next door. “Lemme explain this to you, lemme tell you about that!” I just let him.
Amanda Crispel is a professor and the Assistant Dean of the Game Studio at Champlain College. She’s been waiting for change since GamerGate, but that change hasn’t yet appeared in the industry or otherwise.
I started out as an artist, working at a company called Brøderbund Software back in the Dark Ages, like the late 1980s, and moved from the art space to the game design space. I’ve been a designer ever since.
What made you decide to pursue a career in games?
Sheer dumb luck? I was an artist and I had a lot of experience with a piece of software called Adobe Illustrator, back when it was a brand-new tool, and Brøderbund — at that time I was working at a newspaper because my undergraduate degree was in Graphic Design — hired me to make clipart in this piece of software that was new.
I had no thoughts or plans of working for a game company, it just sort of happened where I landed. After that, it was like, “This is really cool! I like doing this!”
What does being a “gamer” mean to you?
It has a variety of connotations to it. Some people use it very negatively, trying to evoke the image of some poor lonesome person sitting in a basement somewhere.
I tend to not use that word around here. I call everybody game developers, although some of our faculty will use it as a shorthand, so I’ve kind of learned to accept it. But when I was working in the industry, nobody called anybody a “gamer.” We were game developers. So I avoid it like the plague.
What do you remember feeling about GamerGate when you first learned about it?
Appalled. Saddened that we hadn’t gotten very far. Unsurprised because the Internet has unleashed a beast of anonymity that has allowed people to let their uglier sides step out and be exercised. We all should be held a little more accountable to be decent to one another.
And then, you know, how things were handled here at Champlain, it was a rocky… there were moments but overall I was actually really impressed with how our students dealt with it, how they engaged in dialogue about it, how people stepped up and responded to people that were using really ugly language or ugly opinions out in our social forums.
How have those conversations around GamerGate changed in the past five years, if they have at all?
All of the faculty in all of the Production classes, we talk about inclusivity, the need to be open and accepting of people and their opinions, as a means for having a productive team. The team dynamics are really important, and if you’re shutting somebody down, or you’re being derogatory, or you’re marginalizing them, or you’re making them feel unwelcome, then that team is not going to be successful.
It happens. I’m not gonna say that it doesn’t. We have our challenges. Our cohort is mostly male, we’re at about 85% male over 493 students.
Unfortunately, I often hear about [a Production team issue] well after the fact if it’s a really ugly happening, ’cause people still are not necessarily really comfortable ratting each other out or they just sort of set it aside and say, “Okay, I’m just not going to deal with that person.”
Students also get reputations, so if they’re being derogatory toward someone or they’re being misogynistic or they’re exclusionary or arrogant or anything like that within our small community, we’re a tiny village. Everyone knows everyone else’s business.
Where do you think the game industry’s going to go moving forward in the aftermath of this?
Honestly, I haven’t seen a whole lot of change since I first went to [the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco] back in the 80s, unfortunately. The percentage of women in the industry is still pretty low, at about near as what we have here at Champlain. The one ray of light I think we have right now is that our Game Artists are at about 50% female, so that’s really exciting. But the rest of our degrees are still pretty low.
Some companies are making pledges to change that. It’s a very hard thing to change unless their hiring structure first tips the balance in the direction of women. You also have to have women who are training to do those jobs. Then you have to have a pretty vigilant process in the work environment to make sure you don’t have misogynistic behavior within teams.
It’s a very hard needle to move. I think where you find some changes are in the tablet and mobile space because a lot more of the content is actually directed at women. You have more female companies, founded by female developers, and you have more developers that realize if you’re going to develop a game for a primarily female audience, you probably should have some female developers on your team. There’s probably a little more hope there, but it’s still a long slog uphill for that to change.