Opinion The Darker Side of GamerGate

How a sexist #GamerGate-related tweet proves that the problem isn't gamers.

Liana Kerzner

Published

By Liana Kerzner @redlianak

It's not good for a journalist when they become the story. Sadly, in my attempts to report on #GamerGate, I have become part of the story. The online harassment I've received has been some of the worst I've ever experienced, and as I write this, 8chan is tearing into my life, posting false information about me and my husband online. Some of what they're posting is based on misinformation from a disgruntled former employee and is, unsurprisingly, totally false. I don't care about the crap people say about me.

But I never signed my family up for the abuse, so consider this my exit piece on this topic. There are a lot of good people participating in GamerGate, but there's also a lot of bad behaviour on both sides too. GamerGate has mimicked the cycle of the French Revolution, complete with the heads rolling and the rise of a Napoleonic Emperor. In GamerGate, that Emperor's name is Nero (Milo Yiannopoulos in real life), and one Twitter exchange with him was the beginning of the end for me. One does not survive long in a mob when one says the Emperor has no clothes.

The Darker Side of GamerGate

Milo Yiannopoulos is an Associate Editor at Breitbart, a conservative "news and opinion" website that leans toward lurid unproven conspiracy theories involving leftists. His past work is a cavalcade of identity politics, including the weird assertion that redheads are uniquely attracted to radical Islam. He bills himself as "one of the best known technology and media commentators in Europe." Before this, I'd never heard of him.

Before and during GamerGate, Yiannopoulos made very serious allegations against other people, and at least some of them turned out to be false. For instance, he circulated the theory that Feminist Frequency host Anita Sarkeesian had lied about calling the police in response to a credible threat made against her. He later recanted, admitting that Sarkeesian was dealing with the FBI.

On September 19, I had a heated online exchange with Yiannopoulos where I accused him of editing evidence by revealing only one side of a conversation including Polygon's Ben Kuchera. In that excerpt, Kuchera was reaming out another person because of actions that had caused stress to Kuchera's family. It was an out of context tirade that seemed more concerned with making Kuchera look bad than reporting a newsworthy story. Yiannopoulos himself said the authenticity of the excerpt had not been verified.

My irritation with Yiannopoulos' habit of tearing into people's lives got the better of me, and I should have chosen my words more carefully. In that case, he hadn't edited evidence. It turned out that had been the only side of the conversation Yiannopoulos received.

So I was wrong. But that, and tactics, aside, I still believe it was in the public interest to challenge Yiannopoulos. His track record was spotty regarding attention to detail during GamerGate. He'd added emphasis to published emails without noting the changes, framed casual chat groups as proof of wide-ranging conspiracies, and accidentally published people's phone numbers in an email dump. I acted out of frustration, but it was sincere frustration. Speaking truth to power isn't an exact science.

In response, Yiannopoulos got extremely offended, and tweeted what you see here.

Yiannopoulos later apologized for "the Mediterranean temper" he exhibited. I've never heard that term before, so I don't know what it means and why it makes a person unnaturally fixated on breasts. It really doesn't matter, because the damage was done. Twitter went crazy.

Many condemned Yiannopoulos for the comment, proving that GamerGate is not made up entirely of misogynists. However, many people also thought I deserved it, even self-identified feminists. I'd "baited" him. I'd "provoked" him. I reject these assertions on principle, and this has made it impossible for me to continue to cover GamerGate through an impartial lens.

I've been heavily criticized by many involved in GamerGate for "not letting this go." I do not accept those criticisms either. Not holding a grudge and refusing to talk about it aren't the same thing. On a personal level, I'm mostly over it. On a professional level, it's my job to talk about this stuff, using concrete examples from the real world so we can understand each other better. This is about the issues surrounding that tweet, not the tweet itself.

After Yiannopoulos sent that tweet, anonymous message boards started scouring the Internet for naked photos of me. I personally don't care whether they find a frame off a DVD or a page from an art book where my breast was exposed, because those images were already available to the public. The point is that the only reason that people online do this is because it's potentially humiliating. That's cyberbullying. So let's stop that now. Check out Ed the Sock's Crap You Haven't Seen DVD. There are four frames on it where a chainmail bikini broke and exposed one of my nipples. I just saved you some time. You're welcome.

Nasty Milo Yiannopoulos tweet

Lessons Learned

Even before this, abuse was flung around by all factions. C-bombs and the word "bitch" were dropped in chats the way rabbits poop. But I didn't really take those insults personally. Whether or not I'm a "bitch" is subjective. It's objectively false that I show my boobs for a living. Even if true, being topless for a living wouldn't revoke my right to an opinion in a very public debate on journalistic ethics. The "don't tell me how to do my job" line was especially ridiculous, considering a core part of GamerGate is precisely about the public demanding better standards from journalists.

So I decided to listen to that, and write this piece despite fear of online repercussions. There's currently a huge distrust among hardcore gamers of gaming journalists due to a perceived lack of authenticity. It doesn't matter if we feel that's fair or not. We have to at least try to win that trust back. In striving to show video games as "art" perhaps coverage has slipped too far from dealing with video games as games. I don't know. I'm just one writer, and at the moment, I'm a pretty exhausted writer.

What I do know is this: what I've gotten out of GamerGate is that many gamers believe it's their right to try to destroy us because they think we tried to destroy them. They expect us to be brave in the face of that and do our jobs.

So here's my contribution to that. I will write what I believe. What I believe regarding the treatment of women in video games and the video game community is that video games are unfairly targeted as misogynist. Misogyny exists in video games, but to no greater degree than it does in the larger world. Video games are a reflection of our various cultures, not drivers of them.

And Milo Yiannopoulos is proof of that, because he's not a gamer. He is a "self-confessed right-wing bastard" according to his own words in his Open Letter to The Video Gaming Community on September 9, 2014. Before GamerGate, he exhibited open hostility to gamers. He even claimed that gamers were "dorky deviants" who raped 12 year-olds in Grand Theft Auto V. And because he's not a gamer, he's proof that sexism isn't a gamer problem. Sexism is a human problem.

I want to be clear, Yiannopoulos has not apologized for his gender-charged tactics. He apologized for losing his temper. This strongly implies that he thinks it's okay to insult what a woman does with her body when he gets angry. Think about that.

Getting angry should not require an apology. I feel very strongly that criticizing people for sincere emotions is an unhealthy modern habit. In fact, it's so unhealthy for men that too many of them commit suicide instead of showing vulnerability. No one should bottle up their emotions. No one. But plenty of people get angry without resorting to identity politics.

I feel very strongly that criticizing people for sincere emotions is an unhealthy modern habit."

Gamers believe in experiencing emotions. Gamers are leading the way in suicide prevention. GamerGate itself raised thousands of dollars for a suicide prevention charity. Part of the problem with the way certain people on the political left are coming at games is that they miss the fact that violent video games are one of the few remaining places where we're allowed to be aggressive, yell, and get angry without anyone really getting hurt. It's not like sports where an overly aggressive play might physically hurt someone. The worst thing we gamers risk is carpal tunnel syndrome.

That's why GamerGate is so loud. Because the assault on violent video games isn't actually correcting something that's bad for us. Instead, it's trying to thought police something that makes people feel better. I think it's important for developers to go with their consciences and make kinder, gentler video games if that's what's in their hearts. I'm a huge supporter of those games. But sometimes I just want to rip off a fake person's head because of guys like Milo Yiannopoulos. He's powerful enough to deprive me of some worth through his words because he has enough of a mob behind him to make it stick. There's nothing I can do about that. But in a video game, I have control for a few hours. I can fight back in a game like I can't in the real world, and it makes me feel better. Video games must remain populist entertainment because they provide empowered escapism to the powerless. Anger is real and has to go somewhere.

So back off, partisans of both stripes. You may have infected television with your polluted news services, and you may be infecting the Internet with your toxic websites. You've even gotten your mitts on films because you're got enough money to do it. I think I speak for a lot of people when I say that when you start to infect my video games with your ideological nonsense, I stop playing those games. I actually like political examinations in my games like what we see in Assassin's Creed. But those games are character and story driven, and the mechanics support an artistic vision, not politics. Proof? Assassin's Creed Unity: they didn't include female multiplayer characters because the multiplayer in that game is embedded in the story. Every individual player's perspective is that they continue to play as Arno Dorian in the multiplayer, so Arno's story doesn't stop when the multiplayer begins. That's uniquely important in the Assassin's Creed franchise which is, as much as anything, an experiment in minimizing ludo-narrative dissonance. Arno suddenly having a sex change would be pretty major dissonance. The Assassin's Creed Unity decision to not include female playable characters was an artistic choice, not a political statement. I completely support Ubisoft's commitment to art, especially in light of the fact that they have had a female Assassin that was a good character, not a box on a political checklist.

I've covered GamerGate because I believe the demand for better factual video game writing is extremely, desperately important."

As someone who has been a gamer all my life, I'm sick to death of the thing I love being used by every charismatic alpha dog that will give gamers a bit of temporary, false, relief from the constant stigma we face. These alphas may take the form of Liberal feminists or Conservative "bastards," but in every instance they are authority proxies that give a segment of the gaming population the hope that someone listens and speaks for them, instead of telling them they're bad people.

Here's the thing: why do we give one hairy damn what Leigh Alexander, Anita Sarkeesian, Milo Yiannopoulos, or any other single opinion writer says about what we do? Why are some of you so angry about what I think? I'm not forcing you to think the same way I do.

A handful of huge egos have begun to dominate the public discussions of video games, and with them come the hordes of sycophantic followers who feel the need to tear "the enemy" down. Their horrors are seen by many as the focal point of the debate, while the real moderate movement has gone underground. That's where you'll find the real GamerGate now. The substantial conversations are happening in private, away from the bullies. Pastebins and chat logs are teeming with content. Good conversations are still happening. Some people have worked very hard to understand views different from their own. These people deserve to be rewarded as much as the thoroughly rotten acts of others deserve criticism.

I understand that some people still believe strongly that the number of "gamers are dead" articles appearing on August 28 is too large to be coincidence. I personally think the articles were the results of an echo chamber, not a conspiracy. We can't change the past. We can't change the declarations that the gamer identity was dead on August 28. We can't change the DDoS attack on the Escapist website. We can't change any the gross invasions of privacy, posting of personal information, smearing of reputations, unfair accusations, and thousands of horrible, hurtful words. People kept using the word "war" to describe GamerGate. I kept telling myself that was hyperbole, but sometimes... wow, it felt like one.

So what can we change?

Most importantly, the very real ideological gatekeeping going on in video game journalism. Perhaps this can set an example to other types of news, which are much more biased than games could ever be. Actually, that's not true. I forgot about what the Comics Code did to comic books. We must remain vigilant.

Many gaming websites have tried so hard to be "caring" and "smart" that some have rewritten pieces of my opinion articles and insisted on changes based solely on ideological grounds. Sometimes I've even been censored regarding whether a game was good or bad. Sometimes I've felt comfortable enough to insist that my words to be my words, but I admit I've caved to censorship on more than one occasion because I just didn't want to fight.

On the other hand, every time I've worked collaboratively with an editor at a major website it's made my work better. This includes working with Ben Kuchera and Ian Miles Chong, two figures who have been thoroughly hated by GamerGate. The criticism they've received is fair comment. The personal attacks against them have not been fair. Furthermore, saying what a person did right is as important to true fairness as what they've done wrong, so I want to call it as I see it. Kyl Orland, Greg Tito, Alexander Macris and others have stepped up and listened to GamerGate's complaints. They have apologized and offered information on what happened. Michael Futter of Game Informer took the time to clarify his statements that appeared in part in a Breitbart story. Journalists are speaking to GamerGate. This deserves praise, as much as our collective journalistic screw ups deserve condemnation.

And here's the general screw up as I see it: some editors are overstepping. They're not doing it to be power hungry, but it's happening. Before GamerGate, I thought that my aversion to it was just my own ego rebelling at correction. GamerGate's blunt, loud, diverse, and sometimes abusive debate has made me realize that I had a reason to be bothered, and it goes back to that tricky issue behind Nero's tweet: the fact that whenever you're a minority somewhere, some people will use that against you if they can, they don't even know they're doing it sometimes.

Some have rewritten pieces of my opinion articles and insisted on changes based solely on ideological grounds."

Diversity

Women are still a minority voice in video game thought, which means that our opinions will often not match those of "typical" gamers. I'm an especially weird voice in gaming, because I think Gears of War, Skylanders, and Gone Home are all equally amazing in very different ways. I believe I have something unique to offer, and when people rewrite and censor my work, I feel like I'm losing the uniqueness of opinion that makes me deserve a spot as someone gamers want to listen to. I feel like, to use the GamerGate term, a shill. A face that makes the appearance of a website seem more diverse, more so than the content.

Most people I talked to said that they have no objection to women rising through the ranks of gaming. They object to the idea that some women haven't earned the rise based on merit. Granted, merit is subjective, but there seemed to be a huge difference in perception of systems that included women and projects that were for women only. That may seem like sexism to some - after all, there are plenty of men-only game development teams - but it's actually an aversion to fast tracking through a system. Gamers could easily and quickly list female video game music composers, artists, writers, and developers, and more importantly, they got excited while doing it.

They expressed a desire to have access to a greater diversity of thought within gaming websites. They don't like websites that speak with one voice. They want more discussion of how gameplay works in harmony with the plot and themes of a game, and less lecturing on why a game is "important."

Gears of War 3 - Anya Stroud

Things are moving forward

I think that the video game industry is doing an incredible job diversifying, refining, and improving, and gamers are not opposed to change. They're just opposed to change for the sake of change. The wars over sexism, racism, homophobia and transphobia have been brought into the video game community. These wars did not start in the video game community. Some have been going on since before video games existed.

What we're laboring under is the perception that bigotry is somehow worse in gaming. Is there evidence for this? Very little. There's no published evidence that playing video games increases anything but the most benevolent kind of sexism: the kind that involves opening car doors for women, and generally being politer to women than men. There has been no firm proof that playing video games increases the hostile form of sexism that we collectively agree is a problem. Instead, sexist people seek out and make sexist content. A capitalist society cannot seek to stamp out sexist content completely, since there will be sexist consumers and therefore a free market demand for sexist games. However, numerous video game companies are producing products with better-written female characters and less meatheaded men. Both sexes are benefiting.

But if things are getting better, why is there so much negativity? It could be connected to the online communication tools gamers use, not gamers' inherent attitudes. A study by Cornell University in May 2014 determined that the down-voting feature used by many websites actually leads to detrimental behavioural changes. Those who received negative feedback contributed more moving forward, but the contributions were of diminished quality and negativity spread throughout the community. Interestingly, the most polarizing opinions were the ones that had fairly equal numbers of positive and negative votes. Meaning? If you want the Internet to completely freak out, take a moderate stance.

That gives journalists quite a challenge, since we're supposed to strive for minimal bias. Someone described it to me as writers being "True Neutral" alignment in Dungeons and Dragons. True Neutral characters like druids are some of the hardest kinds to play in D&D, but I never applied that to the real world before. Druids, throughout fantasy literature, are distrusted, feared, and shunned, in part because they're extremely difficult to predict... kind of like ethical journalists who don't just tell people what they want to hear. So, okay, maybe us game writers can't hope to be very well liked if we do our jobs properly, but we can, perhaps, aim to be respected.

So this is what my gamer identity has taught me regarding this personal GamerGate fiasco: I shot off my mouth intending to do good. Some guy told me I get my tits out for a living. Other people piled on like schoolyard bullies. It hurt. A lot. But in the long run? Big deal! I'm a frickin druid, man! That's cool!

Images courtesy of LucasArts, Ubisoft, and Microsoft Studios. GamerGate collage copyright 2014 Metalater Media.