I have thus far been silent on TLF about GamerGate – not because I have nothing to say, but because I wasn’t certain that my lovely and fabulous editors wanted to deal with the potential backlash. But after a short conversation today, we decided that it would be better to say something than to remain silent. Much of this post has appeared earlier on my personal blog, with some additions and modifications to update and expand upon relevant points.
One of the big developments this week in GamerGate is that the world – as opposed to the internet – has taken notice. The “movement,” such as it is, has come into the public eye. Pieces have appeared in Rolling Stone, Newsweek, The New York Times, twice in The New Yorker, and five times on CNN.com (to say nothing of on tv), at least at my last count (which might be off). This is in addition to pieces on Gamasutra, Kotaku, IGN, GameSpot, and Polygon, which are too numerous for me to even think about linking. Celebrities like Felicia Day, Chris Kluwe, and even the Hulk* have weighed in, and others – like Joss Wheedon – have tweeted their support for those being harassed. (*Not the ‘real’ Hulk.)
And just this week, Anita Sarkeesian appeared as a guest on The Cobert Report. The important thing about the interview wasn’t anything in particular that was said. In fact, the interview itself was fairly lackluster for a variety of reasons, foremost of which was the fact that even the persona of Stephen Colbert couldn’t bring himself to go after Sarkeesian with his usual flair, which is understandable. After all, Sarkeesian has been the target of so very much hatred and harassment, that even satiric harassment seems inappropriately disrespectful. Furthermore, it’s difficult to make light of GamerGate any more than Colbert did (before she came on stage) – and that wasn’t much. In short, the segment itself wasn’t great – but it was great that it happened. And it was even better that the audience on the show was vocally and enthusiastically supportive of a woman who has seen far too little of that and far too much from the other side.
But before I launch into a discussion of the importance of media coverage of GamerGate, a little history. Just in case you’ve lived somewhere off-grid, GamerGate started as a hashtag from Adam Baldwin, ostensibly over corrupt gaming journalism ethics, and derailed so quickly that it never actually made it to any sort of legitimate discussion thereof. That’s not to say that there aren’t things to discuss concerning “ethics” and “games journalism,” just that the hashtag went off the rails so quickly that this particular discussion never went anywhere useful, actionable, or productive. Even the initial “scandal” which spawned the tag – that developer Zoe Quinn had exchanged sexual favors for a positive review from a journalist working at Kotaku – is blatantly factually erroneous (neither the journalist in question nor any journalist at Kotaku never reviewed her game, Depression Quest).
Since then, the internet – and Twitter especially – has exploded with pro- and anti-GamerGaters howling insults, sending threats, and generally behaving like infants, with a few staunch adults thrown in here and there. (For a sense of what the conversation on Twitter looks like, check out Andy Baio’s research project.) Many gaming, feminist, and pop culture outlets – like Feministing and Geek Feminism – have been cautious about engaging the discussion out of fear that they will become subject to the rage of Gaters – like Quinn, Day, and Sarkeesian. Others – like Mangotron – were covering GamerGate and withdrew that coverage because of harassment.
Many members of the gaming community – whether Gaters or not – have long been accustomed to the sense that they are screaming into the void. Recent news attention shows us now that the void has both eyes and ears – it has been watching and listening all along.
What remains to be seen is whether the creatures of the void are going to prove to be monsters or angels or something in between; whether the airing of GamerGate’s extremely dirty and smelly laundry will galvanize an army of detergent-wielding knights or coalesce into a stained-sock-golem that will wreak havoc on the gaming community.
Some, like The Verge’s Chris Plante, think that this mainstream media coverage is a sign that GamerGate is dead or at least in the last throes of dying. While Plante’s opening premise – “As an activist movement with the ability to inspire positive change, Gamergate is dead” – is not wrong, it is a tiny bit misleading, since I’m not convinced that GamerGate ever had the capacity to “inspire positive change,” given where it began. That’s not to say that the now-infamous byline of “ethics in games journalism” doesn’t need some “positive change,” just that I’m skeptical that GamerGate was ever really about that (also, that the kind of change that would benefit games journalism is what they were talking about in the first place).
His point that “GamerGate died ironically from what it most wanted: mainstream exposure,” is also accurate, insofar as it suggests that GamerGate is not benefiting from mainstream news coverage or the list of celebrities who have now spoken up against it or in favor of feminism (now including Stephen Colbert). And Plante’s quip that “When a fictional ideal of repressive rhetoric thinks your movement is too much, then it’s time to reconsider,” is amusing – although I would suggest that Colbert’s “response” was more in line with his actual politics than his persona’s.
The problem, as I see it, is that Plante’s piece is more hopeful than it is reflective of what’s going to happen within the GamerGate movement. As of October 30, for example, OperationDiggingDiGRA (more on that here) was still examining the work of games academics for signs of feminist conspiracies. GamerGate isn’t about journalism ethics anymore, if it ever was (a fact about which I’m rather skeptical), although the conversation about ethics in journalism is one that Plante rightfully suggests can take place elsewhere and in a healthier way.
GamerGate is about couching privilege as a “right” and defending that privilege as though it were the most basic tenet of human dignity. And it just isn’t. It’s about mostly straight white men desperately attempting to cling to the (oppressive) power they possess in a “culture” (is gaming really a “culture”? But that’s another post for another day) that they feel has always belonged to them. It’s about the deliberate exclusion of diverse voices in a medium that is rapidly expanding and already includes those voices – which is where the whole backlash came from to begin with. GamerGate, specifically, is about a retrogressive desire to maintain a fictional status quo that never really existed as compensation for perceived loss.
And I’m just not seeing that as “dead.” Women have been able to vote in this country since 1919, and we still don’t make the same amount as equally-qualified men. Jim Crow laws were abolished in 1964, and racism against African Americans continues to be pervasive and institutionalized. GamerGate isn’t on the same scale as these, certainly (although it is the product of a similar social problem), but it isn’t going to just go away in three months.
I hope Plante is right, and this is the beginning of the end for GamerGate. I’m just not going to hold my breath.