What Is GamerGate?
It’s the Tea Party of video games. And Zoe Quinn is its Benghazi.
Okay, But What Is GamerGate Really?
GamerGate has been disingenuously framed as a grassroots campaign of gamers “concerned with the quality and integrity of video game journalism.” The campaign is, in truth, an effort to fold in, rehabilitate, and retroactively justify a previous campaign of blatant gender-based harassment against a female videogame developer for the capital offenses of having (a) a vindictive ex-boyfriend and (b) friends within the industry.
GamerGate is a campaign run by people who don’t understand what a real conflict of interest actually is, and who would institute standards of disclosure and prohibition on reporting so restrictive as to essentially disqualify all actual journalists from the space. They sincerely believe that the mere act of patronizing a developer precludes one from objectively reporting on that developer - a standard more stringent than that found in political reporting, and for a field of journalism that is far less important.
Yet even if GamerGate’s proposals were reasonable (they’re not), it wouldn’t matter, because no matter how noble its purported aims, the campaign sprung up from one of the most noxious onslaughts of sexism to rock the gaming industry in years, and a not-insignificant number of its proponents continue to engage in that harassment to this day, tarnishing the rest by association. #NotAllGamers, you say? Tough. Welcome to the word of open-invite politics, where anyone who lays claim to a movement is technically part of that movement. See also: the Tea Party. You live and die by your worst members, and right now, your worst members are utterly and openly putrid.
Admittedly, the Tea Party has managed to do well for itself in certain parts of the United States, so why couldn’t GamerGate? The answer is simple: The stakes are too low to stomach the vitriol seeping out of the movement’s underbelly. The Tea Party, laughable as it may be to some, seeks to address real-world issues impacting the country at large, where lives, jobs, and communities are actually at stake. That people within the games industry sometimes hook up doesn’t quite rise to that level of seriousness.
GamerGate, at its core, is about a woman being denied sexual agency. Yes, there is high-minded rhetoric about a lack of integrity in journalism, but with a curious inability to point to any examples of inaccurate journalism that can be traced back to any sort of influence-peddling. It is impossible to see the tenuousness of these claims and the ferocity with which they are made as anything but overcompensation for what gamers have done to Zoe Quinn. And the refusal to admit this is only making it worse.
The Unflattering Genesis
For those unaware, GamerGate can be traced back to a single event: The Zoe Post.
In short, indie game developer Zoe Quinn was recently made the subject of a novella-sized blog entry by her scorned ex-boyfriend (“The Zoe Post”), who laid out a sordid and overwrought tale of interpersonal betrayal. His professed goal was to “warn the public” as to what kind of person Quinn supposedly is. The immediate reaction was predictable: burner Twitter accounts began to pillory Quinn with cruel invective, memefying her alleged infidelity and hounding her on every corner of the Internet.
Around this time, digital hazmat teams were deployed by many websites to stop their message boards from being used as coordination hubs for harassment campaigns against Quinn. The hue and cry of “censorship” reared its head, forming one of the core conspiracies of GamerGate: that the upper echelons of the gaming industry attempted to suppress any discussion of The Zoe Post to protect “one of its own.”
This is where accusations of corruption begin to fall apart. Zoe Quinn, while certainly a colorful personality in the gaming industry, is not by any means a power-player, and her peers are not beholden to her from any sort of financial or publicity standpoint. How easy would it have been for Kotaku et al. to run stories on The Zoe Post and rake in easy ad revenue thereby? They forfeited these opportunities, however, in the name of integrity and an attempt to elevate the collective image of the gaming industry – to show the world that we are not captive to sub-TMZ levels of malicious voyeurism.
Yet as the old adage goes, you can’t save someone from themselves. With members of the press refusing to validate The Zoe Post as an actual story, schoolyard cruelty turned to outright animosity. The details of this chapter are highly disputed, yet simultaneously unimportant – whether Quinn was “doxxed,” or doxxed herself for attention, there is no doubt that the campaign against her hit a fever pitch of venom and outright misogyny. One way or another, gamers were going to make Quinn into a headline.
And it worked.
The press finally took notice, but not for the reasons that GamerGate proponents wanted – they had unwittingly become Exhibit A for why the gaming industry was still widely considered a cesspool, unbefitting the respect accorded to traditional media. Quinn was a victim, and the gaming community her assailant. Well done, gamers!
The Incredulous Transformation Into GamerGate
To most outside observers, the discussion of Quinn was not only highly offensive, but downright embarrassing for the community at large. It was a tawdry affair with no real public interest component, one conducted with a high school-level of maturity, and the fact that so many gamers seized on it with such fervor only reinforced the “man-baby” image that our industry has been trying to shed for years. The refusal of the gaming press to validate it was, in fact, an attempt to save the community from itself. But the community made clear that it wanted nothing more than to set itself on fire.
At this point in time, it was safe to say that the campaign against Quinn had been a failure. If the intent was to ruin Quinn’s personal life, her detractors certainly came close – she and those around her endured weeks of harassment and personal threats, made even worse by the suggestion that they not “feed the trolls” by fighting back against the torrential abuse. Yet Quinn’s professional life had never been more secure. Her Twitter followers went up by 50%, Patreon funds flowed in, and the industry realized more than ever how much it needs people like Quinn – people capable of revealing just how much adolescent rage and misogyny still exists amongst rank-and-file gamers.
Quinn’s detractors quickly found themselves on the receiving end of some well-justified scorn for how they had collectively conducted themselves. They realized that, in order to gain any sort of foothold into legitimacy, they would have to shift focus away from “Zoe Quinn is an awful person” as their mantra, as too many of their members could not resist dragging Quinn’s irrelevant sexual exploits into the discussion. Instead, they attempted to seize on the one kernel of The Zoe Post that might conceivably serve as a springboard for objective critique: Zoe Quinn once dated a video game journalist.
Seriously. That’s all they had.
Gamers Put On Their Journalism Hats
The story goes that Quinn got into a relationship with a guy shortly after he wrote a piece on her involvement in a scrapped webseries. The guy then went on to write for Kotaku, where he never reported on Quinn again. Somehow, this non-story got spun into a whole web of accusations about bias and corruption in the media, failing to identify a single instance of alleged bias in the journalist’s writing. Even now, people still accuse Quinn of sleeping with journalists to generate good press and/or reviews for her games, yet have been unable to provide any examples of this actually occurring.
The hysteria of GamerGate has, amongst other things, reduced the concept of a “conflict of interest” to absurdity. Are gamers simply unaware of how industry - not just video gaming, but any industry - functions? Do they think restaurant critics are not friendly with chefs? Film critics with actors? Music critics with musicians? Without relationships, there can be no reputation-building, no insight, no nuance or holistic understanding of subject matter. To reduce every point of interest to a presumptive conflict, as GamerGate does, both fundamentally misunderstands and kneecaps journalism, and will inevitably result in journalists getting worse, not better.
The unfortunate thing is that there is certainly corruption and a lack of ethics in many pockets of the video game industry’s journalistic wing. Suspect sponsorships and payola have been standard for years; anyone remember when Jeff Gerstmann got fired from GameSpot way back in 2007 after writing a middling review of Kane and Lynch, advertisements of which were plastered all over the website? Where was GamerGate back then? Why did it take The Zoe Post, a story utterly bereft of actual corruption, to galvanize gamers into pushing back against these entrenched practices?
No matter how desperately GamerGate proponents try to sweep this detail under the rug, the fact is that they only got truly interested in this subject when there was a woman to sexually shame for it. And that’s more damning than anything in The Zoe Post.
The Oppressors As Victims
Right out of the gate, GamerGate has only managed to find traction as a data point in a wider discussion of sexism and persecution in the video game industry. It is a desperate attempt to put a constructive gloss on what started and continues to operate in the shadows as a vehicle for gendered abuse and scorn. And so the narrative has taken another turn, this time towards “gamers” as an oppressed minority, vilified simply for wanting a certain level of decorum in discussion of them and their activities.
I’ll let the irony sink in for a moment.
The big problem with that angle is that GamerGate proponents conflate the act of gaming with their self-ascribed identify as gamers. Gamer doesn’t simply mean “one who plays games” – rather, it describes those who build a lifestyle around games, who emotionally invest in gaming subculture, and who take an active interest in the internal politics of gaming. And many of those so-called “gamers” are, in fact, the ones who were first to seize on The Zoe Post in its nascent, most prurient stage. Before anyone was interested in “journalistic integrity,” it was gamers launching incendiary volleys of slut-shaming Quinn’s way, choking her Twitter feed with blatant harassment.
Gamers are not being vilified for the mere act of playing games. They’re being vilified for constructing and nurturing a subculture that readily allows fiascos like The Zoe Post to take hold. One simply doesn’t see this level of sustained, community-based harassment in other spheres of media; not even comic book nerds would have the gall to conduct themselves in this manner. To throw up one’s hands and whine “#NotAllGamers!” is to abdicate any responsibility for taking care of one’s own house - a house that desperately needs tending before termites destroy the whole foundation.
Video gaming has come a long way in the past decades, from being a niche nerd hobby to now constituting a multi-billion dollar global industry. Attempts to shed its reputation as the #1 hobby of stunted man-children, however, have been regularly stymied by the “core” fanbase of gamers who perceive any critique of their subculture as a personal affront, one requiring not merely a retort, but retaliation. It is this childish mindset that prohibits many gamers from perceiving what is and isn’t fair game in a discussion.
In case they need it spelled out, the number of people someone has slept with isn’t fair game. Nor are weak gestures at legitimate issues when they operate as Trojan horses for gendered animosity. And until a sufficient number of community members digest that lesson, the remainder must accept that they will be judged alongside their brethren.
Don’t like it? Tell your brethren to knock that shit off.
Why GamerGate Won’t Succeed
The preceding should make it abundantly clear that the ostensible overarching goals of GamerGate have been entirely subverted by the muck and mire it crawled out from. The prevailing headline is not about any journalistic crisis in video gaming, as the GamerGate community has failed to provide any journalistic product that demonstrates inaccuracy linked to bias. Instead, the headline is about how gamers attempted to destroy a woman’s entire life (additionally targeting anyone in the blast radius for the sin of proximity) largely based on alleged crimes of gender.
(Again, #NotAllGamers is irrelevant. They were gamers. They came from the gaming community. They did it in the name of gaming. And they get away with it because of the nature of the gaming community’s prevailing subculture, which many gamers continue to defend in substance, if not in form. The community is culpable for what it births, and that culpability grows every time its member try to sweep the abuse under the rug.)
Whether or not you agree with the preceding capsule summary is irrelevant – that’s the headline. It’s the one that’s been carried from The Guardian to Time Magazine, with only a handful of low-level webzines and YouTube channels buying the GamerGate version of events. And every subsequent attempt to change the narrative has only collectively dug the community in deeper as it runs from one corner of the Internet to the next, desperate to avoid a mea culpa - to find something, anything, to exonerate it, instead of lifting a finger to try and help the people hurt by its own members.
This is the conduct of children. This is the conduct of screaming toddlers unable and/or unwilling to admit the extent to which they transgressed, desperately deflecting to purported issues of substance in the hopes that enough flailing and kicking will make everyone forget what got them in trouble in the first place. This is why gamers are infantilized – because they so often act like infants. And GamerGate won’t change this perception, because it’s an extension of that infantile aversion to responsibility.
Let’s not mince words: GamerGate is stillborn. It will not be salvaged by a public relations cleanup. No number of cute mascots or appeals to broader principle like censorship or journalistic integrity will negate the damage its members have done to their own cause, simply because the cause is not one of sincere origin. It would be as if the Ku Klux Klan (or a group that includes members thereof) tried to convince the public that their real concern is high levels of inner city crime created by low-income residents – knowing where the Klan came from, why wouldn’t their superficially legitimate concerns immediately be seen as suspect?
(A note for the slow: No, this is not to compare all gamers or GamerGate proponents to Klansmen. It is to say that the foundational movement of GamerGate, borne of The Zoe Post, is a heinous one, and the linkage between the two still manifests to the detriment of every single constructive element of the campaign’s current form.)
If gamers really want to make a positive impact on the perception and function of their community, they will get their priorities straight. The first goal should be to make sure what happened to Zoe Quinn can never happen again – at the very least, not on the appalling scale that it did. After that, maybe we can start to talk about those ”standards of conduct” that were curiously absent from GamerGate’s entire first act.