Opinion Gamers Live! An In-depth Analysis of GamerGate

A look at the controversy surrounding GamerGate.

Liana Kerzner

Published

By Liana Kerzner @redlianak

Metaleater has a mandate to enhance the experience of playing games. Many may not be aware of a phenomenon on Twitter called GamerGate, but it's likely we're all going to be affected by it. It's improving the ways games are reported on, and may change the ways indie games are funded. And it's been a roller coaster of an experience.

Before last week, I'd been aware of the controversy surrounding independent game developer Zoe Quinn, her pissed off ex, Eron Gjoni, and a writer for Rock Paper Shotgun and Kotaku named Nathan Grayson. I didn't think much of it, other than that it was highly ironic that the central figure in a debate about ethics in journalism was Quinn (who is a developer). It’s no longer important, since the allegations have already been investigated by both websites.

Accusations of sexism swirled. Conservative gaming series Feminist Frequency got pulled in when host Anita Sarkeesian claimed she'd received credible threats against her. Debate was stifled regarding the amount and type of criticism a female journalist can expect when having a controversial opinion, mainly because we don't yet have a forum to keep this debate civilized.

Gamergate-speech-bubble-1000

It would have ended there were it not for a collection of writers who, horrified by what they perceived as misogyny, attacked gamers as a whole in their columns. I initially dismissed these articles as hackneyed click-baiting, but these op-eds had really hit a nerve among gaming enthusiasts. Gamers didn't like the idea that there was propaganda announcing their extermination.

That turmoil has shifted into the Lord of the Flies-style Twitter battle that became known as "#GamerGate," a term possibly coined by Chuck and Firefly actor Adam Baldwin. Post deletions, blocking, banning, and other things ensued, even on open-access sites like Reddit and 4chan. What's ensued has been messy, angry, but undeniably passionate. In essence, gamers tend to hate each other because we love our games. The outcry about standards in gaming journalism may have started with a false accusation, but it's led to some soul searching by major gaming sites, and that's good.

Adam Baldwin
Adam Baldwin and Yvonne Strahovski in Chuck.

What's not good is what it took to get to that point. Multiple personalities were subjected to a potentially criminal form of harassment known as doxxing - the practice of publishing personally identifiable information: real names, addresses, phone numbers, sometimes even bank account info or business records. Both Quinn and an indie game developer (and regular troll target) Phil Fish got doxxed. Others who weighed in on GamerGate like a video blogger with the handle "boogie2988" were threatened with doxxing.

The so-called "mainstream gaming media," which is about as big a paradox as you can get, was accused of censoring dissent and muzzling coverage. Campaigns to promote alternative sites began, as well as an ad-blocking campaign designed to deny "enemy" websites of revenue. The sites targeted tended to be ones associated with "Social Justice Warriors" or SJW, a derogatory term used on social media to describe those who cynically use leftist social issues to raise their own personal profile. This eventually led to the #notyourshield hashtag, a response to the belief that columnists who were predominantly white, male, heterosexual and cisgendered (not transgendered), were cynically speaking for minorities instead of treating them as individuals.

And we are. But we already have a word to describe that. Leftists don't have the market cornered on hypocrisy. That being said, I've come to the conclusion that the intentions on all sides of #GamerGate are, for the most part, sincere. I believe everyone wants a free, safe, open and honest video game media and community. There is, however, a deep divide regarding how to go about that. So I present the pros and cons of a sampling of the major players.

The Gaming Sites

Rock Paper Shotgun, Gameranx (which has published some of my pieces), The Escapist (which has rejected some of my pieces), and Polygon (which I have submitted to) are some of the most prominent gaming sites that regularly cover social issues related to gaming. There have been accusations during GamerGate of mass block lists, poor behavior in IRCs, and other difficult-to-prove allegations. These allegations are the perceived justification for the adblock campaigns against these websites. (Note: the accusation that anyone who used the #GamerGate hashtag was blocked was false. I used it a lot, and was not blocked)

Pros:

These sites publish content under authors' real names, and have editorial vetting processes that many of these sites are actively reviewing in response to GamerGate. They accept article pitches from freelancers, and they pay fairly (though their rates vary). They take responsibility for minimizing the dissemination of things like libel, harassment, and other false and inaccurate information. They cover a wide range of socially engaged topics, but also have staff that do legitimately care about gaming. They have their own opinions about what constitutes "good journalism," but they are generally consistent in the application of those principles. They are an improvement from the highly corporate sites of the past, and they do have standards. Yes, there are politics, but the intents are good. The willingness to openly discuss social issues despite very real and very abusive backlash is important.

The gaming media has an important role in making sure that the dollars of consumers are respected. Without the press, there would be no system for separating fact from hype. Watching a press conference on a computer screen is not the same as being there, and watching a trailer for a game is not the same as playing a demo.

I've met some of the folks swept up in the accusations of conspiracy, and they're good people. Usually they're shy and introverted, and they care enough about games to overcome that, get out in the world, and cover the industry. Video game journalism has improved by leaps and bounds from when I first started. Many sites at that time barely grasped the basics of a story, never mind generate intelligent commentary. Part of the reason I shifted from television and music to gaming was because I saw a young, passionate community that was willing to have debates just like GamerGate. And I know there are others out there like me in the press. Reporters and editors are, at the end of the day, human beings with feelings. Those feelings sometimes cause them to say and write stupid things, but most of the time those feelings serve as an important moral compass to do the right thing.

Cons:

Their reaction to the uproar, while well-meaning, was seen as heavy-handed. Mistakes were made, and participants in GamerGate who were not part of 4chan did get banned due to guilt by association, which fed the anger. Mistakes in factual reporting were also made, forgetting that accusations alone are not proof of guilt. The collective response to the original Zoe Quinn / Anita Sarkeesian story was a series of shocking headlines that overpowered thoughtful analysis. One person who is apparently a well-known personality deemed GamerGate "worse than ISIS," which is inherently idiotic.

Clickbait is not an issue specific to gaming journalism, but at the end of the day, we still need to figure out how to do better. Both Kotaku and The Escapist have made statements that they have reviewed their policies and are making changes, and by the time this piece is published more sites may follow suit. From a branding standpoint, it was suicidal for these core gamer writers to decide they were no longer gamers, that the term "gamer" was dead, and people who still identified as gamers were bad people. People want news and opinion from people they feel relate to them, not people who are standing in judgement of them. While free speech means that columnists have a right to be wrong, editors usually have the last word on the headlines, so there is collective responsibility here.

Moving forward, there is still more work to do. Balance in coverage is important, and major websites still have work to do to achieve a diversity in their staffs that accurately reflects who plays games. Hiring practices need to diversify, or all the defense of women and minorities is just lip service. It's not enough to say that the voices of women and minorities matter. These services have to show that we matter by compensating us fairly for our knowledge and perspective. When a bunch of white dudes are trying to speak for us instead of letting us speak, and the only "acceptable" feminists are the ones on the conservative end of the spectrum, that seems odd.

4chan, Reddit and Other Image / Message Boards

Both 4chan and Reddit have a laissez-faire, user-generated approach to content, both allow anonymous posting, and both are breeding grounds for some pretty horrid behaviour due to this anonymity and lack of oversight. Both have also been sources for great grassroots campaigns, funny social commentary, and they legitimize fringe nerd things like cosplay in ways other services don't. For better or for worse, they are the biggest, most accurate way to get the pulse of what matters to today's geeky youth... if you don't mind sifting through huge doses of the most offensive words in the English language.

Pros:

The vast majority of the interactions I have had with 4chan and Reddit members during GamerGate have been within the bounds of civil Internet debate. Yes, they can be pedantic and limited in scope of argument, but there has, in general, been a basic level of mutual respect. Most of these anonymous users are not bad people, although they have a tendency to do bad things because they're disenfranchised. The younger 4chan and Reddit members are growing up in time when hope is minimal, conflict abounds, and accountability in their role models is at a low ebb. Teenagers today are not given the freedom to experiment in the real world, because adolescence has become institutionalized with standardized testing and diagnostic manuals. So teens turn to the Internet to discover who they are as people. I've been forcing myself to listen to what many have dismissed as aimless drivel, because I remember being a teenager and spewing that drivel myself. It was important to me then, just as it's important to these kids now. Being young does not mean you should be ignored.

My experiences with both Reddit and 4chan previous to this were terrible. The only time I crossed paths with these services is when someone was using them to rally others to fling abuse at me that was horrid enough to bother tracking down where it was coming from. I'm glad that I learned, through GamerGate, that 4chan and Reddit aren't just about that brand of hate, although I'm not fooling myself into thinking that I'm immune to the dark side of anonymous commenting in the future.

Cons:

The party line out of these groups is that they are not groups at all. Instead, they claim to be gathering places of individuals. That's all well and good, but gathering places where everyone is anonymous and no one is really in charge create no accountability, which is an important element when ethics are involved. Furthermore, when you won't put your name on something as part of a group ethic regarding free access, then the only name people have is the name of the group. Individual 4chan / Reddit handles are meaningless because we all know that isn't a real name, so the accountability rests with the thing that can be seen and quantified (and sued), and that's the website. When calling for change, individuals and groups must embody the change they want to see. 4chan and Reddit are not, as wholes, embodying this change while they fling accusations at the whole of the gaming press, so their protests against objectionable journalistic rhetoric are "do as I say, not as I do" arguments.

The accusations of misogyny, racism, and bullying against 4chan and Reddit and others are also warranted. I'm sure I will take crap for saying that, but GamerGate claims to want ethical journalists who tell the truth. The truth is that just by using the words "misogyny" and "racism," I risk being doxxed because someone may decide to lump me in with those they have declared the "enemy." That's a culture of fear that 4chan and Reddit share culpability in. One person posts something. Anger swirls. Calls to arms follow. Out of the hundreds who see the original posting, one cruel person decides to do something illegal and scary about it. This is how doxxing and death threats gestate in the 4chan community, and the community as a whole does bear responsibility for this. No matter how many times they told people to behave, there are minimal consequences when they don't.

Furthermore, people don't think when they feel persecuted. Most cyberbullies feel like they're "fighting back" instead of being the aggressor. So these anonymous groups who are feeding the anger are also feeding the most destructive powers of the Internet. Many believe that insults, trolling and bullying are just part of the Internet. It doesn't have to be.

Being young does not mean you should be ignored."

4chan Reddit logos

The Major Publishers and Developers

While GamerGate has been focused on the Indie sphere, there's a lot of movement back and forth with the major publishers, with indie companies sometimes getting acquired, and devs leaving triple A for the indie track. Furthermore, a lot of the stuff people are complaining about in indie gaming - conflicts of interest and nepotism, for instance - are direct results of indie devs twisting themselves into pretzels to get noticed with no money, no media contacts, and no massive franchises that sell themselves based on inertia. The major publishers are the true power brokers in gaming.

It's of greater financial benefit to a website to run a piece on a major game that will get picked up by the Call of Duty or Bungie community, posted on their message boards, and flooded with curious fans. Small companies don't have that people power, because they work with a player base of 500,000 as opposed to 5 million.

Pros:

The vast majority of developers working at major publishers are amazing people who really want to make great products. Even the worst companies have good, hardworking people employed. Every company has a theoretical commitment to excellence, even if they don't always meet it. Some of the biggest innovations in gaming, for instance, the Skylanders juggernaut, came through major publishers, and the sheer financial heft of these companies has legitimized gaming in the mainstream. Gamers have built their identities around huge multiplayer franchises like Call of Duty, Halo and Smash Bros., plus gamerscores and achievements - both inventions of big corporate gaming - are metrics that legitimize the best players. Furthermore, most developers and some publishers are very open to criticism, which is not common in mainstream entertainment. Some publishers are extremely good at accepting when they've screwed up. Most engage with their fans and the press during scandals, albeit not always well.

Cons:

Publishers still have carte blanche to cut access when they don't like what a journalist is saying about them. They may even punish an entire site for the opinions of one writer. The most common reason I'm given when an editor vetoes a critique of a publisher or developer is "we don't want to get our access cut." There's an element of cowardice in this, but it's also the reality of gaming right now.

Game journalism has been effectively reduced to game commentary, because most companies release news directly to their websites as opposed to formal press releases sent to the media, making exclusives rare and news a poor source of Internet traffic. Devs now also have their own communities with their fans, which is healthy but also gives developers a lot of power to coerce the press. Since they don't need the media to get their message out, developers are free to stonewall and mislead, with little vetting of their messages before they reach the public.

Sometimes, PR people don't respond to you even when you're pitching a puff piece, and slavish praise is often piled on a game even when the PR company stonewalls, because game reviewers are also gamers, and prone to fan bias. Furthermore, game journalists are constantly trying to strike a balance between rewarding good corporate practices and punishing a dev company for the incompetence or heavy-handedness of a publisher's PR department. Furthermore, does a website want to lose traffic, and therefore money, on esoteric principles compared to the ethics of keeping its employees employed? When you're considering the well-being of your employees and their families, taking a financial hit is a tough choice to make.

E3 2014
The Activision booth at E3 2014.

A YouTuber can sometimes get access while a major print publication can't, since a publisher can be reasonably certain that a fan from game message board is not going to ask tough questions. And these message boards are also sources of troll attacks, misogyny, homophobia and racism. The media dumps on 4chan, but some of these community websites are full of very hateful people too, and the community coordinators are not doing enough to weed this stuff out.

One troll attack I suffered started because someone posted an out-of-context segment of an academic talk I did on a developer's message board. The misogynistic vitriol I received was so bad that I disabled YouTube comments before 4chan even got involved. Fan boards are supposed to be moderated, so the fact that this happened is an indication that the community coordinator was not doing their job there. Troll attacks of this kind on journalists and academics are an attempt at censorship through fear, and game companies need to do more to move their fan bases away from that nonsense. Why? Because the mainstream press and schools won't incorporate your very expensive games if your fan bases are going to go to war against them over perceived slights. There are other things that can fill Arts sections and course lists that are far less trouble. Publishers keep saying they have to sell more games, so closing off avenues is short-sighted.

Gamers have built their identities around huge multiplayer franchises like Call of Duty, Halo and Smash Bros., plus gamerscores and achievements."

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare Skylanders Giants - Crusher Smash Bros.

The "Indie" Scene and Smaller Production Companies

Zoe Quinn has had every bad thing she's ever done eviscerated in a public space. Phil Fish is once again the Internet's whipping boy. The Independent Games Festival, Indiecade, and a production company called Silverstring Media have become the focus of ire because of various social and business connections that people find "suspicious." No wrongdoing on the part of these companies has been proven, but people are still digging.

The problem with the term "indie" is that the borders of the definition have very soft edges. There are indie companies that have Creative Directors with Triple A titles under their belts. There are other indie companies that are just a bunch of upstarts that never worked for a major company. The indie space should, by all accounts, be re-labeled "Small Business Gaming," based on the size of the company, or "Self Published Games." But I don't want to rebrand, so indie it is.

The very nature of the indie game community is now under fire because of the interwoven connections that small companies use to make their games and their content about games. Meanwhile, the EA studio system was formed because indie studios needed to turn into a Voltron-type beast to stay competitive. Current indie companies don't want to end up as an EA sub-label someday, so they're experimenting with other business models.

Pros:

These companies do obvious good, even if we may not agree with their political affiliations. As registered, accessible companies, they are sources of accountability for the media they produce and support. These companies are lifting both indie gaming and game criticism out of blogger culture and into something more structured. Without these structures, we can't have industry standards. They are an important part of the ecosystem. There is no doubt that indie studios result in innovation. They also salvage types of games that have fallen out of mainstream favor, like text adventures, survival games, and point-and-click adventures. Indie games, in many ways, saved Sony's soul, and now Microsoft is following suit.

Super Meat Boy
Super Meat Boy in the flesh.

Cons:

No one denies that the indie game scene has areas that are incestuous. It's so hard to get started that community and business become blurred. This is the same in indie music scenes, indie film scenes, and even the web series community. Similar spiderweb-like connections between people could be tracked in any indie scene because there's so little money in it.

When there is little money, passion and opinion fills the gap, and game hipsters are, hands down, some of the most annoying people on the planet. The infighting, backbiting, and cattiness is ridiculous and some indie devs take themselves way too seriously. Every measly thing does not have to be an existentialist commentary or some sort of trans-humanist statement of being. Even when a game goes smartypants, it has to be fun and interesting from a ludo-narrative perspective. I love Papers, Please, Gone Home, Super Meat Boy and Castle Crashers. Super Meat Boy and Castle Crashers are not lesser games because they don't have some element of social commentary. Go ahead and do your passion plays, but also remember that gaming's history includes yellow circles eating ghosts and plumbers jumping on walking mushrooms.

GamerGate seems to be a backlash against the intersection point of indie gaming, game journalism, and ethical hypocrisy. At the core of it seems to be the rightful complaint that making video games doesn't make you an arbiter of justice. There are folks that care very much about social issues, but they don't make it their identity, and they don't lose their senses of humor. I think that the backlash against the various indie game devs is because people have felt so lectured for so long. At the first sign of hypocrisy, a lot of people saw red and went for the throat. The next wave of lecturing just made the yelling louder. I care about social justice too, but I understand that my predominant role is to entertain and educate, not tell people how to live their lives.

Gamers Are People Too

The people at the core of GamerGate are the gamers, among which I count myself. GamerGate started because gamers felt attacked, so I'm not going to do a pro/con thing here. I'm just going to speak from the heart.

I have been playing video games since 1981. I remember when games required a quarter or a DOS prompt. I have seen gaming grow from a niche hobby to an entertainment superpower. I believe that the best stories in any art form are currently being told in video games.

I don't feel like I have to disassociate myself from the term "gamer" because I also believe in the dignity of all people. I do not condone the stigmatizing behavior of a relatively small portion of game enthusiasts, although I am prepared to accept that by standing among gamers, for better or for worse, I share responsibility for both what we do well and what we don't do well at all.

The misogyny within our ranks is real. The racism is real. The homophobia and transgendered stigma is real. The stigma against mental illness is real. Our juvenile relationship with sexualized violence is real. These things may only occur in small subgroups of gamers, but that doesn't give us the right to turn a blind eye to it. We shouldn't have to put "social" in front of the word "justice" to sound smart. We should just agree that all people have the right to play, and when someone voices a sincere complaint that something is making games less fun for them, that voice should not be shouted down.

The fellow gamers I feel the absolute most sympathy for in all of this are the "fat, white, heterosexual, cisgendered neckbeards" whose demographic was directly associated with bigotry. Columnists could have just said "misogynist bigots," but they didn't. They went after the teddy bear guys I stand in line with at every game launch, as if whiteness, obesity, or liking boobs made you, by default, a monster. Some people did and said horrible things. Many did not. The generalizations were unprofessional, anti-intellectual, and dehumanizing.

So, wearing my other hat as a member of the video game media, I am sorry for that. It was wrong, and you guys didn't deserve it. I have met you. I have talked to you. We usually don't agree on anything. But we don't have to. I see you as people.

Face to face dialogue and debate regarding video games is relatively rare. Instead, we're communicating in 140 character soundbites and amateur videos. When you sit down across from someone, you get non-verbal communication. You have to acknowledge the inherent humanity in the other person.

So here is my dose of humanity: I hope Zoe Quinn recovers from this and goes on to create the best game of her career. I hope Eron Gjoni recovers from his broken heart and meets someone more suited to him. I hope Phil Fish makes another great game. I hope 4chan and Reddit use this to understand that being anonymous does not mean you're not accountable, and that they take greater steps to stop the cycles of fear and intimidation so that the positive elements of these groups take center stage. I hope the game media and game makers remember that the people who buy games have boundaries they will defend, that they are watching, and that they want us to live up to the trust they put in us. I hope the innovations of tomorrow come from both the indie community and from Triple A games.

And I hope that we never forget that the best way for video games to change the world is by making it more fun.

Images courtesy of Warner Bros. Television, 4chan, Reddit, Activision, Nintendo, Microsoft Game Studios. E3 image and GamerGate collage copyright 2014 Metalater Media.