What Was Gamergate Really About?

Between bigotry and alienation, the answer is quite complicated.

Like other movements deeply steeped in ideology, Gamergate represented a set of sentiments that were already prevalent in the gaming community prior, but never quite metastasized until the right conditions were present. The medium was growing increasingly welcome of minority voices, and since the demographic that gaming traditionally catered to was that of straight white men, it was only a matter of time until they lashed back hard. The toxicity that permeates so much of current online discourse can be easily attributed to the legacy of the Gamergate movement, well over five years after its inception.

But what doesn’t get talked about nearly enough in the case of Gamergate, is how exclusively centering the interpretation of events past on victims loses us a crucial piece of the puzzle–we’ve run the whole gamut of sociocultural analysis on what Gamergaters do, but the “why” always seemed far too elusive. As senseless as bigotry is, it is not without precedent, and its overflow from conversations surrounding Gamergate isn’t strictly tied to individuals’ own behavior, nor is it the sole responsibility of the system they grew up in–it is both, and so much more.

BreadTube personality Peter Coffin posited the theory that Gamergate might be partly a reaction to alienation under capitalism–in essence, white men felt naturally repulsed by a neoliberal brand of diversity, in which capitalizing on the popularity of games among women and people of color trumps any real desire to include them in the creative process as a matter of moral responsibility. Unsurprisingly, this take was interpreted with little generosity, and it made many of Gamergate’s victims feel invalidated, when Coffin merely sought to explain harassers’ ferocity as a response borne out of their own preexisting socioeconomic conditions.

In the same way that crime is often viewed as the compulsion of man to act against their own good nature, Gamergate is a perversion of what many in the gaming community view as railing against forces unseen within the media and the industry–it has the language of populism, which the far-right seamlessly co-opted. What motivates Gamergate — if ill-considered — is a fundamental misunderstanding of the incentive structures being created around their passion for games, wherein it’s easy to weaponize affront towards the dominant demographic in the industry, and turn it into a racist and misogynistic screed of pure hatred. Much like how Trump wields the language of xenophobia and anti-multiculturalism to create a narrative around the erosion of white christendom in America, one of Gamergate’s longest-standing beliefs is that the industry and the media alike are conspiring to strip away the straight white man his privileged status–much of it is informed by fear of the unknown, and it’s hard not to see why given gaming’s historical prisal of community — one they’d grown increasingly unfamiliar with — above all else.

For Gamergate to become undone, its motivations have to be decoupled from its desired finality. If the objective is to preserve straight white male hegemony within games, the impulse should be to showcase why that’s a net negative to the gaming medium, not just reject the statement on principle. A movement like Gamergate wouldn’t have been able to sustain itself without popular support, but it’s also true that those expressing their support aren’t always intellectually involved with the idea of Gamergate itself–it’s why it is possible to be a woman, a person of color, some flavor of queer, and still see the Gamergate movement as an entity worth supporting despite its active efforts to sideline these groups. To many, Gamergate has become not only an idea, but a group they feel a strong sense of belonging to–as such, they’re willing to put up with whatever ideological inconsistencies that idea has, in favor of a quick way out from the alienation they’ve been feeling under the crushing weight of capitalism.

Putting back the genie in the bottle at this point seems impossible, but heavily scrutinizing our own conceptions of what happened back in 2014 — and what still occurs today — is a worthwhile endeavor. Whenever essentialism takes over a conversation, those tasked to pick apart its intricacies can glaze over a lot of crucial nuance at the fear of upsetting the consensus–in that vein, we’re stuck debating a version of Gamergate that while actionable in its own right, doesn’t necessarily negate the need to explore other perspectives. I myself can feel that pressure setting in as I pen these words in defiance of the common narrative.

Now that Gamergate has decidedly lost the culture war it helped start, its next front of attack is making of every issue an item of culture war regardless of importance or merit. The movement’s most-prized achievement is without a doubt making the internet a volatile place to discuss much of anything with even the slightest political tinge. Under any other circumstances, Coffin’s interpretation would’ve been classified as a diverging path among many in our ever-so-hopeless quest to understand something as complex as Gamergate–instead, much ink was spilled, and very little constructive criticism was able to rise atop the sea of furor facing Coffin’s way.

If it feels like the discourse is echoing the political themes of the upcoming American presidential elections, it’s because it very much is. There’s a deep fissure in the left, between liberals who think the beginning and end of all that ails them is identitarian discord, and those left of them who emphasize of the ongoing conflict much more its class elements. Neither approach does a good job of representing why Gamergate was able to become the cultural behemoth that it is today, and that’s in large part due to reductionist analysis of any kind being backwards-sprung from a conclusion, and not the other way around as it should.

Much like the existing literature on Gamergate, this isn’t meant to establish a new paradigm or suggest that the preexisting one is defectuous–part of what makes the movement tricky to cover, is that we’re all compelled to prescribe our own medicine and declare it the only one of any effect. The theory of alienation under capitalism could very well be wrong, and the notion that bigotry is solely to blame could be just as erroneous, but a diversity of opinion is to be allowed first, lest we fall prey to emulating Gamergate’s toxicity in our very own circles.