Gamergate Never Died. It Merely Changed Face

It is very hard to argue against Gamergate’s impact on modern online discourse. Not necessarily due to games’ increasing popularity and them somehow permeating a greater space of online discussion than they did before, but simply because there’s a great overlap between fringe ideas, and the outside appeal a movement like Gamergate has. If the unpopular thing for a politician to do in the Bush era was to be anti-war, Gamergaters see themselves upholding a similar standard of contrarianism within the social spectrum of gaming-related issues, and specifically, their disapproval of the way gaming journalism has been moving towards a much-more subjective read of video games tainted by left-wing bias.

But of course, the history of gaming journalism, wasn’t really that apolitical, or devoid of subjectivity in the past. From 80s, well through the early 2000s, gaming journalism looked quite similar to what its current form is. The framing that vilifies gaming journalists, and stacks itself atop a very negative view of those who seek diversity in the gaming industry and analyze video games from a progressive perspective is the sole born of a concerted effort to silence the voices of whom Gamergate disagrees with, and part of that effort as of late, consisted of whitewashing the history of Gamergate as being something noble, or conversely, something you couldn’t have partaken in were you not present when all hell broke loose around mid-2014.

To understand why Gamergate transcends its historical component, and why current attempts of Gamergaters to distance themselves from the harmful legacy of the movement is even a thing, we must look at the fraudulent beginnings of it all, and specifically, why so much of what characterizes the movement’s criticism of the “other side” could just as easily be applied to them when the tables are flipped.

A post shared by @zoequinn

Zoe Quinn — arguably patient zero of the Gamergate movement — is a game developer who’d first started to gain some significant traction when their self-inspired game “Depression Quest” initially released in 2013 to be played on web browsers, was submitted on Steam’s Greenlight the following year, and awaiting approval, she’d gotten her first round of negative reactions from onlookers who’d obviously taken issue with the themes of the game and deemed it too much of a slight against their ideological framework. The game was eventually approved, but that didn’t seem to slam the breaks on the onslaught of hatred she’d gotten of similar tenure. What happened afterwards, is a bit of a tangled webby mess of misinformation and harmful contempt by both Zoe’s detractors, and a familiar figure from her own personal life.

Come August —incidentally when Depression Quest got approved for wide distribution — Zoe’s life changed radically for the worst. Her ex-boyfriend Eron Gjoni threw down the ultimate move, and aimed to smear her through a fraudulent recount of her relationship status and the circumstances leading up to their breakup. He alleged in a manner all-too-unfamiliar for contemptful men that she’d broken his trust by cheating on him, which then spurred rumors of the notion she’d done so over a positive review with Kotaku writer Nathan Grayson on extremist chat board 4chan. This is what the Guardian’s Keith Stuart relayed on behalf of Zoe in an interview about the whole situation:

“It was very precise and deliberate,” says Quinn about Gjoni’s blog post. “I fully believe it was there to ruin my life. As soon as it hit 4Chan, they went into ‘get this bitch’ mode. They started doxxing me immediately, asking who had hacking skills.”

Doxxing, or the public posting of a person’s contact details on social media, has become a favoured method of online intimidation. Soon Quinn’s home address, as well as personal photos, were all over the internet. The situation erupted. There were allegations that she had slept with Grayson in order to secure a favourable review for Depression Quest–though he never actually reviewed the game. A small but vocal minority harbouring a simmering resentment towards certain games writers and their relationships with developers bubbled over. There was a growing rabble mentality. A fury.

Similarly, and in a retrospective story about the history of Feminist Frequency — Anita Sarkeesian’s treasured child — Colin Campbell reported for Polygon that “she was threatened and doxed. Her face was pasted on to pornographic images which were posted online. She was stalked. She faced various bomb threats. […] At GDC one year, a security detail was assigned by organizers and venue security.” There was clear discontent with what Anita was preaching about anti-feminist tropes in video games ever since 2012, but the heights to which harassment against her rode, were decidedly looking steep. This wasn’t just the ire of a few disgruntled with the current state of gaming, it was volcanic eruption of bottled-up emotional pressure from a community who sought a unified sense of identity and belonging.

It is crucial to acknowledge Gamergate as an evolution of an already-dormant sense of discontent with the state of the modern gaming industry from gamers who feel excluded by the industry’s rush to adopt more inclusive measures towards its players, the stories it’s telling, and the marketing façade it puts up in front of the rest of the entertainment industry as a token of its growth and continued improvement over the years. Still, while existing research points to the contrary, Gamergate was absolutely convinced that the industry and the journalists covering it have gone above and beyond to assert their left-wing bias, therefore causing their favorite hobby to become perversed with ideas of social progress it once wasn’t privy to.

There’s at least partially a merit to Gamergate’s notion of the gaming industry–for a little while there, only the voices of straight white men were acknowledged as the main creative say, and women’s inclusion in the medium was only conditioned on the notion that their breasts be universally sculpted to the male gaze’s uttermost desire. They were treated as objects and cattle for gamers to salivate over, and for male developers to exert dominance over. Even though there was a great crowd of female — and otherwise female-presenting — players who’d absolutely love to have gotten an iota of a whiff of what male gamers were accustomed to through the ever-expanding catalogue of badass male protagonists, women were left with the tokens–only enough to maintain interest and be ostracized for protesting it, but not enough to warrant an even gender-split agnostic of genre and platform.

But what Gamergate had perhaps missed, is that the gaming industry doesn’t exist in a perfectly empty vacuum. The same currents of sweeping social change across America— where most concentrated efforts of the movement have been documented — were not simply going to feather video games without at least changing something along. What had to give is straight white men’s iron grip on the medium, and its avenues for progress were going to include everything from the text (the games themselves), the subtext (what they’re imparting upon), the paratext (literature existing around them) and also in much broader strokes, the public’s changing perception of the medium as no longer something you’d only touch in a fit of social isolation in the deeply buried basement of a house in a white suburban neighborhood, but an activity you’re in measure of doing regardless of race, gender, or religion.

As access to broadband became more widespread, and as online gaming was becoming less of a luxury and more of a commonality only a few can elect to deprive themselves of, more of who the industry had traditionally dubbed as a collateral clientele were starting to partake in the hobby just as intensely as those who initially monopolized it. Gaming was no longer a white man’s endeavor, and while that exception was only ever-so-casually broken in the quite peculiar East Asian market — more notably that of Japan — gaming was starting to become an industry rivaling that of TV and film in scope and overall revenue, and taking a few pages from its mainstream appeal in the process. Gaming was no longer the butt of the jokes.

That switch from a homogenized model into a substantially more-representative one of the gaming demographic caused a seismic shift in the way socially-dominant groups of gamers had view their hobbies–simply put, as more unfamiliar figures (including, but not limited to women and minorities) started to “infiltrate” the medium, Gamergate began to look for a solid thread to hang onto to legitimize their movement and paint their concerns as being nothing more than ethical in nature when in reality, it comprises a whole set of subconscious biases against women and minorities in ways more subtle than others. This dog whistle of “ethics in video game journalism” was born, and to some, it was seen as a noble rallying cry against the whims of a conniving journalism scene whose sole interest was morphing into a moral test for developers adverse to diversity, and it sprung subsequently the type of “common man vs machine” narrative that are populist in nature, but also somewhat adjacent to right-wing politics when they’re so heavily doused in constant contradiction and ideological inconsistency.

They use the third-person plural “they”, to refer to this collective of unseen conspirators. This very page has even been subject to accusations of corporate bias even as it occupies the quite rudimentary role of that of a blog. To Gamergaters, a consortium of progressive gaming outlets — of whom Polygon, Kotaku, and Eurogamer are most brought-up — are plotting secretly to destroy the fabric of white-male-centric stories we’ve so many of today, and when those demands aren’t met, their dissent can be surgically predicted and would instantly be dubbed as an appeal to progressive ideals, or at its worst, the product of “snowflakes”, and “SJWs” as tradition of calling them so has it.

The affect of Gamergate, as well as its perpetrators are two distinct entities: When YouTubers such as LegacyKillaHD, YongYea, It’sAGundam, Geeks + Gamers , the Act Man — plus a plethora far too many to fully recount — present their concerns before their audience, it’s usually done in a veil of professionality and virtue-signaling. Since there’s an unspoken contract between these content creators and their audience for them to continue delivering on their news in a tone that is à la fois condescending, but also demeaning of their behavior, it’s quite easy to see why few of them are afforded the leeway to even express remote approval of what gaming journalists do. That essentially makes Gamergate-adjacent YouTubers a lobbying body whose donors can pull out at any moment when their ends aren’t met. They are independent in the sense that no editorial bottom-line is at play, but their opinions are fully within the viewers’ control as dictated by their financial dependency on them.

Whenever anyone shows resistance to what these Gamergate-figureheads are doing, they’re instantly dubbed a journalist, or part of a greater conspiracy even when they’re not. Watch Cleanprincegaming’s video about a story I did on the disproportionate backlash towards Cyberpunk 2077 criticism, and you’ll see reverberations of that upheld ideal echoing throughout it.

What are the concerns? Well, they’re not all that dissimilar from what Gamergate had originally intended. If that can afford itself enough leeway to not call itself part of Gamergate, then neo-Nazis of the modern era can afford to do similarly only if they do not wear a Swastika, or plead allegiance to the now-fallen Third Reich. Modern Gamergaters try to trap that interpretation of the movement in the past, so their actions even when perfectly aligned with the tenants of the movement cannot be judged on its merits; but they are, and they should be. If indignation against modern gaming journalism can easily buy itself the benefit of the doubt of being a good-faithed argument in favor of transparency and “ethics in video game journalism”, then it shouldn’t have much of a problem justifying that. Only what often ends up happening, is yet another journalist ends up on the chopping block for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time and the wrong place, and their name becomes eternally synonymized with accusations of professional misconduct and questionable credibility.

Gaming provocateurs along that line of thought would posit their concern as a necessary safeguard against widespread “corruption” within gaming journalism, and whenever the reproach to comment on it is invoked, they’re very quick to retaliate. As evidenced by the aforementioned Cleanprincegaming video, it doesn’t take that much more than a negative mention in a story to rile Gamergaters up, and when the press is too hot for even a creator of his caliber to remove themselves clean of alleged libel, an ace is played in the form of financial predation on the side of the industry–supposedly, gaming outlets are running out of cultural stock, and their only way to draw back some of that lost viewership is to weaponize a controversy on something Gamergate feels currently passionate about.

But there’s a thread of inconsistency that doesn’t quite fit in with the running narrative: If that were the case, why did Gamergate deem it worthwhile to go after their ideological opposites in the first place, if their goal was only to complain about potential censorship in the form of demonetization later? In Cyberpunk 2077’s case, the story initially posted by Rock Paper Shotgun’s Matt Cox hadn’t gained much traction outside some quite insular circles before it had been picked up by the collective of fearmongers on YouTube. The same thing happened to my own piece when I initially reported on a harassment campaign against GameSpot’s Reviews Editor Kallie Plagge–the story had been read only a few hundred times, until it blew up following the Quartering’s commentary on it. Essentially what happens, is Gamergate-adjacent content creators — especially on YouTube — see an errant article that doesn’t fit their narrative, they publicize it whilst making it seem like its reach was already huge by the time they covered it, then they subsequently ostracize those who dare criticize their tactics even when they know full well the backlash is immensely disproportionate to the subject of critique more-often-than-not.

When I asked an ex-Gamergater — who for the purposes for their own safety will remain unnamed — about whether we live in a post-Gamergate world, they said that “[Gamergate] on the outside, the aesthetic and war cry of ethics is gone”, which due to close proximity with the current toxic environment I’m at least somewhat reserved towards, but they then added that “the core ideological aspect of it is still here. Like a snail or a crab getting a new shell. [The] outside is different but the core of [Gamergate] is still very much alive”.

This distinction is important to have been made because it is still being argued today whether Gamergate even still exists. But if the ideas purported by it still exist, does that truly make it extinct? Gamergaters would argue it does, but it makes it very hard to take them seriously since they’ve ample interest in distancing themselves from the negative connotation it lumped them along years following the controversy.

Five years have passed since mayhem broke out, and it still feels like the environment for discussing video games is just as volatile as it was five years prior. It is simply quite impossible to stray away — even a little bit — from the pack without fright of being badly bitten, and even those involved in the initial controversy still vocalize their concerns, much to their detriment. As recently as late-2017, while Zoe was promoting her post-mortem of the Gamergate tragedy, she expressed ample amounts of grief. And Anita Sarkeesian, had pretty much given up all hope on pursuing digital video as a fruitful avenue to communicate her message. The victims of Gamergate have undeniably lost more than they gained after the initial spur of vitriol directed at them, and all arguments made to the contrary overlook just how much more prevalent Gamergate-infused commentary is, compared to its more-progressive counterpart on various social media platforms, including the most popular website only behind Google–YouTube.

The prospects of change don’t look particularly bright. As the platform is weathering a potential antitrust probe by the Department of Justice, and is currently the subject of investigation by the FTC over widespread child predation claims, it’s unlikely that it will look into issues of harassment-coded gaming commentary as a worthwhile pursuit when bigger stakes are on the table. Pressure is mounting from presidential candidates — most notable of them is Elizabeth Warren — who are now including break up of Big Tech as part of a bigger platform for radical social change. And as worries grow over Big Tech’s hold on the global tone of online discourse, the world of politics will soon become inseverable from that of the allegedly-apolitical gaming landscape. Soon, the moral awakening of these platforms over concerns of surging scrutiny will reveal the true nature of Gamergate online–a temporary recourse to manipulate its audience into contributing large sums of money over a sham of a conspiracy against them. Journalists will be able to weather that transition just fine, but malicious content creators on YouTube will have to give a much better justification to their antics than “marketability” if they want to continue what they’re doing without journalists’ scold–which they’ve so rightfully earned.