A Harassment Campaign Against Kallie Plagge Shows Us GamerGate Is Still Undefeated

Another episode of GamerGate unravels, courtesy of yet another disgruntled straight white man.

Gaming provocateurs have been somewhat of an interesting manifestation of gaming culture ever since the height of the GamerGate movement in 2014. Their videos tend to be characterized by a somewhat recognizable pattern of blame-assignment right on the thumbnail, and the content itself is just a bland regurgitation of many criticisms one could make about any video game and still make it sound contextually-appropriate when it is otherwise not. For those two reasons especially, and many more, I’ve been reticent to embrace provocateurs as an integral part of gaming culture, not because they don’t define many of its parameters, but because they’re a part the larger public doesn’t like to acknowledge exists at all. Console manufacturers, publishers, and developers alike would all prefer to pretend that provocateurs have absolutely no sway over the gaming public, but in the detail-heavy discourse around nerd culture as a whole and gaming in particular, provocateurs have a tendency of occupying a very toxic space–if not a tad unnecessary when journalists do so much better in comparison.

This onslaught of attacks on gaming journalists has its roots deeply planted in the GamerGate movement. While its facets remain largely unchanged, it’s the tactics that are constantly being altered to accommodate for the changing landscape in YouTube algorithms, and the way social media weaponizes the emphasis of social capital, encouraging its users to indulge in more toxic behavior than would be elsewise preferred. But even though there’s a lot we can blame on the way YouTube has been constructed, and the way social media makes it so easily accessible for anyone to harass someone they don’t like by performing a simple search, there’s a lot of individual responsibility to go around, and it unfortunately tends to fall down on provocateurs most of the time, against their better judgement.

The first gaming provocateur I ever came across was DownwardThrust. His content seemed so innocent at first, and from what little I watched when I was still invested, I did appreciate his ability to churn out content on the regular while maintaining some semblance of editorial integrity. His videos didn’t seem rushed, and the endless quest to the heavy hitter didn’t bog down his bottom-line–being the perfect mishmash between video game review websites, and the daily update format we’ve seen the likes of IGN pioneer for so long.

However, after a few months of regularly putting on a video of his on my TV and watching it, a certain familiarity started to settle in–the videos followed a clear path, and that path was starting to become more of resentment, and a fundamental misunderstanding of how video games were developed, made, and iterated upon. Shortlist demands would be made as if implementing them were just as easy as inserting a few lines of code, and whenever a developer had made a mildly unpopular stance amongst the gaming community, DownwardThrust would be one of the very first ones to ride the wave of that negativity. The breaking point for me was when I realized that he wasn’t being genuine anymore–he admitted it too. The videos were less designed around what he genuinely thought of video games, and was rather starting to become algorithm cattle for errant souls to feast on.

It was after I was so deeply disappointed by DownwardThrust’s…downward thrust, that I realized I could no longer aimlessly cape for personality-based video game reviewers without looking at the meat of their content critically, and truly evaluating whether they had anything to say of worth in a sea of so much mediocrity and algorithm-exploitation. But that was a realization I made very quickly, and unfortunately so for many others, that discovery wasn’t made available just as swiftly, and a lot of the gaming community on YouTube remains stuck in that cycle of anxiously scoping out their next target.

The GamerGate movement often veils itself in grandiose statements about “Ethics in video game journalism”, but when examined very closely, it turns out not only that most of those assumptions are wrong, but the main driving force behind them isn’t any more noble than the very practice of journalism they claim to be in defiance of.

It’s of no particular surprise to hear that journalism is experiencing a bit of a recession. Online ads aren’t just bringing as much money as they used to, and many are seeing the shrinking size of newsrooms as an opportunity to maximize profits. That motivation isn’t all that dissimilar from what YouTubers are doing in order to preserve their business model by providing a subscription link to their Patreon, or dowsing their videos in thick coats of advertisements or clever product placement. It’s why you see bottles of G-Fuel all over the place in popular streamers’ bedrooms, and it’s why exploitative schemes to game the YouTube algorithm exist in the first place–it’s to make money.

We’re all trying to make money in this world, right? I don’t fault YouTubers for milking Analytics for every last drop of relevant metrics to extract every last bit of engagement they can, but it’s important to realize that when someone paints a target as being “fake”, or somehow ethically defunct (the presumption here that whomever is calling the other fake, is not a fake), they run the risk of subjecting themselves to higher ethical scrutiny. And that poses its own set of challenges.

Kallie Plagge, Reviews Editor at GameSpot, has recently been the target of such an attack. It has been one on her integrity, but perhaps most important, it’s one that’s been prefaced by the oh-so-dreadful aforementioned “fake” denomination by one gaming provocateur called “the Quartering”.

The Quartering presumably, is a YouTuber of much higher tenure than Kallie Plagge, so let’s actually look at his recent list of videos and try to see of there’s perhaps a more nuanced brand of journalism Kallie is ought to learn and develop her skills from.

Oh… Okay. So he basically abides by the same shtick we’ve seen in gaming YouTube for so long–attach a recognizable face to a thumbnail, paint who exactly are the villains in the title of the video, and use popular meme templates to maximize engagement and give a heightened sense of social awareness to videos they might not actually have.

So maybe perhaps that wasn’t the best example to showcase what great work the Quartering has been doing for the gaming community. Let’s actually watch a recent video of his and see how he fares on the verbal communication side of things.

“Let’s not contact Kallie. I know it’s fun to poke fun directly, but, I’m asking that, we don’t reach out to her. Why? Because that’s what they want”.

The Quartering.

Ok so hold on, wait a second here. There’s perhaps something I’m missing, but did the Quartering just make a video with hundreds of thousands of views, claiming a journalist is fake, broadcasting their name publicly for everyone to conveniently seek, but now that he’s gotten flack for it, he’s retaliating back by shifting blame away from the agency of his own editorial decisions and the viewers he mobilized, onto the very victim of the harassment campaign he led in the first place? That’s just demented.

Doing further research online, it seemed that what little I looked at wasn’t only a fluke–it seems like Jeremy Hambly’s online brand is very much that of drama. And as is customary with drama channels on YouTube, drama isn’t available in abundance, it’s rather artificially sought out.

For my own sanity, I decided not to venture any further because I’m fairly sure there’s very little substance beyond the quite a few shallow judgments of character made on behalf of a very superficial read of a review that is otherwise very thoughtful, and quite aptly detailed. That’s not GameSpot’s first harshly-rated video game either–the website has made a reputation for itself being the antithesis to the let-loose IGN, being incidentally one of the very few to have given God of War a sub-perfect score.

I find the few sentences I quoted so illuminating in breaking down how this toxic behavior in the gaming community has come to permeate so much of the current discourse. Not only because the conversations surrounding the very journalists in supposed involvement of its destruction are so surface-level to the point they’re virtually useless, but also because it informs the attitude many seem to be having of women and minorities in fields historically dominated by straight white men.

The Verge’s PC hardware reporter Stefan Etienne was terminated out of a job after a slew of attacks of racial character on his own person, and his integrity as a journalist. There’s no telling whether the harassment campaign led against him informed in any way The Verge’s decision to fire him, but there’s definite telling that it did not help.

Attacking journalists to prove a point doesn’t only contribute to a larger overarching weakened sense of job security, but it also reinforces the very stereotypes gaming provocateurs try to paint as being of broad applicability when it pertains to journalists. There’s this narrative where the provocateur is an unmistakable saint fighting to the masses’ benefit against the unjust hands of a plotting gaming media, except when looked at more closely, we see the illusion of self-righteousness being reduced to ash as the audience realizes they’re being sold a fraudulent story where they can only play hero, and the punishment they inflict upon their victims is wholly justified behind layers of erroneous self-rationalization as their leaders are praised for upholding uttermost moral integrity.

I’ve discussed this with a few of Kallie’s dissenters, and the argument brought up often was that she imbued too much of her own political self into the review that it overshadowed the rest of the propos she was trying to communicate about the game. Moreover, the slights made to her own integrity as a journalist, were reduced down to criticism even though watching the very first minute of the video victimizing her shows otherwise.

Those two main contention points don’t exactly compute for me, and it’s for a few notable reasons.

The first is that I tend to think quantitative proportional analysis of things being said in a story are not linear indication of the importance such an aspect occupies within it. This is something I’ve learned to grow a more complex understanding of in my two years of regular writing, but what this basically means, is just because you talked about something however many times less than another, doesn’t mean that you think it’s any less important. Rather, what this tends to inform more than anything, is the framing. I had thought from all the criticism she’s been getting that she explicitly mentioned the race of zombies in the review as a negative, but I learned later on that it was a tweet of a few things that didn’t make it into the review. Usually, things get removed from the final story for a reason, but I can’t exactly trust GamerGaters to know them since they indulged a movement predicated on ignorance in the first place.

So it wasn’t only that the criticism made was extra-textual, but it was also just wrong. If you read the Twitter feeds of many journalists, it’s not all that uncommon to see tweets occupy the space of a live notebook, or just a public forum for ideas to be thrown around to gauge reactions. Even if the tweet was not made in jest, it still had no right to account for what intentions we couldn’t possibly know. There’s no telling what Kallie had insinuated through that tweet, and any extrapolation made further is pure speculation.

The second is that the Quartering and his fans kept repeatedly referring to Kallie as “biased” and unprofessional in voicing her own opinion about the game’s lackluster proposition, and honestly? I find it incredibly disingenuous, if not intentionally malicious.

Take Tucker Carlson for example. He’s a FOX News anchor, and has been recently weathering a wave of criticism after his hateful remarks towards minorities have come under fire. He’s constantly calling out reporters on the “liberal” side as being part of the intangible “elite”–a gang of unnamed borders and parameters only Tucker Carlson can deliberately expand and contract whenever he so wishes. He infamously invited Lauren Duca to the show, who wrote at the time for Teen Vogue, and criticized her political positions by telling her to “stick to the thigh-high boots.”

In that way, Tucker Carlson mobilized a plethora of his own followers to go make Lauren Duca’s life a living hell–and indeed they did. She’s since emerged victorious and is now regularly writing serious political commentary for the Atlantic, but it wasn’t without its own pains and trepidations. The order for making it alive out of a hitjob can be so tall that it’s insurmountable, but Lauren Duca did it–that withstanding, not all female reporters are afforded the softest cushions to land smoothly on their backs as they’re smacked head on. Sometimes the going is so tough, that the only way out, is to truly be out.

The Quartering in a way, is an opinion-shaper, and what he says is taken by his many thousands of subscribers as gospel. So when he issues a call of action to the collective betterment of the gaming community at the detriment of a reporter who found herself in the thick of a controversy just by doing what she does, it raises some questions about the ethical pedestal some commentators and provocateurs try to put themselves on when they can’t hold a candle to the slightest amount of journalistic scrutiny.

To write a review isn’t simply to fill out a checklist of the most technical terms you could come up with and blast through dozens of pages of documentation on Unreal Engine just to command a respectable amount of jargon for a review that would ultimately become bland as water as a result–you simply can’t subjugate video game journalism to something that the nature of video games challenges in the first place. It isn’t either to make an objective statement about an artform that is so inherently subjective. Nor is it the vapid pursuit of an unknowable scheme of arbitrarily-set metrics by which aspect X versus aspect Y should be talked about in proportions pre-determined.

When I write my own reviews, I have absolutely no conception of what’ll come out on the other end of an empty Microsoft Word document. It can be beautiful, possessing a life of its own, and brimming lush with so much detail that I’d have to cut from it just by sheer bloat, or it can conversely be something that I’ve seen a million dozen times and other websites and would have to settle by then that not everything I write would have to be original. The struggle of coming up with the perfect narrative to tell when writing a review can be hard to resolve, but also, no reputation of a product being reviewed is worth protecting over one of a reviewer’s.

It was then that the pieces all started to align and the motivation for attacking Kallie was starting to make itself clearer.

The hate directed towards Kallie might not consciously misogynistic, but it is functionally very much rooted in misogyny. From the Quartering’s videos’ thumbnails alone, one can see a disproportionate number of women being depicted in standoffish, or an elsewise condescending manner. The message here essentially is “These women are out to get your hobby, and I, righteous protector of your hobby, shall guide you on how to claim it back.”. You might be told otherwise, but that’s just yet another apparent bias used to hide a subconscious one. It very much errs on the side of self-ascribed virtue, and it tells me more than anything, that whoever wills it, is looking for momentary glory rather than the worthwhile pursuit of a strengthened sense of ethical integrity when reporting on video games.

It is often said that the greatest success of the modern far-right movement, is that they managed to veil their hatred in broad proclamations of moral virtue around the ideals of freedom, prosperity, and equity. What I find it so incredibly similar when examining GamerGate’s latest spur of attacks on a game journalist who’s been doing great work for quite some time now, is that showing any kind of dissent to the statements made, will yield you a debate upon which grounds you cannot win: Call them misogynistic and they’ll say you’re a white knight. Call them disingenuous and they’ll claim you’re taking sides. Call them hateful, and they’ll say it’s deserved retribution. Say that they don’t understand journalism, and they’ll refer you to a definition of journalism only their lauded commentators have signed off on.

Brood “shot caller” David Bartol (middle) poses in a prison yard with Kyle Brewster (left) and Kenneth Mieske, former leaders of the neo-Nazi skinhead group East Side White Pride, who were convicted of beating to death Ethiopian immigrant Mulugeta Seraw in 1988.

And here’s the thing: Even if you disagree, it’s entirely possible to make that disagreement known without playing into the dicey politics of online vigilantism. The criticism made about the zombies’ model even outside the realm of the review is fairly potent–for anyone who knows even slightly about Oregon’s white supremacism problem and biker gangs’ likening to the idea of racism, inadvertently reinforcing the notion that those only who’re affected by a virus outbreak could only have possibly been white is dangerous. The only sliver of dormant life of a times past is melanin-deficient, and that — whether intentional or not — ends up telling a very skewed story that plays into the very narrative of Oregon’s biker gangs the game is trying to so conveniently erase.

The criticism made by Kallie Plagge — or so I’ve gathered — is not that the zombies aren’t diverse enough, it’s that the implied subtext of them being exclusively white means the societal construct pre-zombie outbreak has been fairly homogenized. This is a trend game-designers have been trying to fight off in the last little while, and pointing out is not lousy journalism–if anything, it’s remarkably poignant, and well-deserving of praise as someone who might’ve never deeply contemplated the race of walking corpses before.

Another factor to consider is the pre-existing bias some gamers have over bad video game review scores–to have that review posted without a review score would have made things significantly different. It would’ve stripped anyone the ability to look at how the reviewer quantified either their affection, or disdain for the experience they’ve been through. But since that score is denoted very clearly at the bottom, its sight is inescapable from anyone who tries to make a point of showing why said writer might be biased — even though that’s a non-criticism — or otherwise swayed one direction or the other through an arbitrary judgement of what role each of their biases has determined in setting the score.

Ever since scores have been eliminated from a few of the websites I’ve so frequented, I’ve seen nothing but benefits for writers who are trying to distance their stories from as much an objective metric as possible, and while it could be a short-term solution for a culturally-pervasive problem, it certainly will not change the fact that gaming provocateurs will sift through the web just to find a vulnerable target to prey upon. Doing anything to remedy the situation but to address it directly is merely putting bandages on a a massive wound bleeding its host out.

Even if all Kallie Plagge’s criticism was valid and well-constructed–it is still not worth the effort to consciously seek out her Twitter page, and post passive-aggressive comments about her review that will become news of the past in but a mere two weeks. But my fear is that this wave of harassment will not cease until either Kallie Plagge is out of a job, or GameSpot comes out with a public apology about their reporter’s behavior–neither of, are an ideal solution. What GameSpot should rather do, is double-down and defend their reporter through thick and thin–give the loud message that dissent against any of their writers’ opinions, will not force them to bail out of a review. I’m still waiting on it, but I’m not holding my breath either way.