As GamerGate slips quietly out of the headlines, one may note the curious timing of the controversy; despite the major events in the background (such as Anita Sarkeesian’s 2012 Kickstarter campaign) having happened a considerable time ago, the media explosion of coverage waited until the clock began ticking down to the 2014 midterms, which coincidentally bore the “War on Women” narrative as a Democratic Party theme. With the election over and media coverage fading, we may reminisce that what GamerGate is or was about has been a hotly contested point throughout, as control of that narrative has objectively been the nature of the struggle since its arrival in the public conscience.
One side, initially consisted of mainly feminist activists and their allies, maintains that the verbally violent misogyny exposed by GamerGate demands confrontation, to make the gaming industry a safer place for women. They have enjoyed the majority of the sympathetic media coverage, understandably. Threats of violence are of great concern, and their perpetration undercuts the morality of any person or group found guilty of their use. The other side, consisted of a leaderless conglomerate of self-professed gamers, maintains that the true message behind GamerGate is that of a corrupt gaming media, which turned against its own customer base to sacrifice them on the altar of social activism.
Behind the scenes, the probability exists that much of the controversy was initially generated by the anarchic denizens of 4Chan, an online no man’s (or ma’ams) land. That site has existed seemingly agelessly along the periphery of the mainstream internet, where anonymous users, cloaked in a superior anonymity by the use of layers of proxy IP addresses among other tricks, have endlessly sought to wreak havoc on the more urbane users of the internet for their entertainment, or “lulz.” In one of the site’s darker moments, a story currently making headlines involves the appearance of photos, apparently taken by a murderer of their victim’s corpse, being posted to 4Chan just moments after the brutal crime had taken place.
4Chan defies portrayal as completely evil, however, because in the function of any societal mirror, its reflection shows a diverse and complicated reflection of humanity. Two teenage girls in Florida were brought to justice for their abuse of animals because of the “doxxing” efforts of 4Chan users, and Anonymous, a hacktivist group purportedly created from 4Chan, actively opposes online pedophilia and child abuse. By and large, many online events that originate from 4Chan are the chaotic result of a particular brand of keyboard-in-mouth syndrome, egged on by the pubescent rebellion that invariably occurs in the absence of authority figures or social maturity.
The site’s intersection with GamerGate seems mostly to be in the form of provocation and exaggerated concern over the professed poor quality of Indie game developer Zoe Quinn’s production, Depression Quest, and her alleged affairs, as brought public by ex-boyfriend Eron Gjoni. Let it also be said that in some small display of humanity, 4Chan’s collective conscience kicked in later. Patrons of the site collected tens of thousands of dollars for a venture operated by feminist group The Fine Young Capitalists to fund female game designers, though it is worth speculating that part of their motivation was to refute burgeoning media coverage portraying them as misogynists.
Zoe Quinn’s saga of earning enmity online apparently was the catalyst which broke the story. There was jealousy, perhaps, over how her simplistic text-based game could garner the coverage that hers did. When Gjoni’s bitter breakup post got around, complete with name of a current gaming journalist who Quinn was allegedly sleeping with, it was blood in the water. Although shortly into the media life cycle of the GamerGate story, gamers would abandon Quinn from being part of their narrative, this is basically where it became a story to begin with.
Enter Anita Sarkeesian, previously noted for a Kickstarter campaign to fund her media brand, Feminist Frequency. Her brand had been in operation for years prior to the events of GamerGate, and had previously generated negative attention of its own. Sarkeesian’s Kickstarter campaign was posted with an initial stated goal of raising $6,000 to help her with the production of videos designed to highlight misogynistic themes existing in video games. It eventually grew to some $160,000 as outside money from feminist groups poured in to support her against online misogyny in 2012. Now, many are wondering what happened to the money, as after she raised it, her pace of video production actually slowed rather than increase. Instead, Sarkeesian has spent the majority of her time of late becoming a celebrity figure and travelling the lecture circuit a la Sandra Fluke. Likely, she simply misplaced the six-figure sum under a couch cushion, easily lost among the vast sums of financial support accompanying being a public figure for the activist community.
Sarkeesian has ironically seen her popularity flourish after stepping into the GamerGate scene, in the wake of alleged death threats, including one in which she cancelled a public speaking engagement at Utah State University. While University staff had increased the events’ security in the wake of allegations, they released a statement claiming not to have found credible information that would support cancelling the event entirely. Sarkeesian ultimately claimed that her withdrawal was due to the police’ refusal to search for and confiscate concealed weapons, which would have been a violation of state law.
Death threats are serious, indefensible, and in no manner a protected form of speech. They are rather the antithesis of democracy, each one a minor tyranny enacted at the threat of violence, to silence opposing voices. One baffling result of GamerGate so far, however, is that while death threats have been the primary moral currency, none have resulted in charges being filed and rarely have police or the FBI been notified. As sad a statement as it is of contemporary culture, death threats are a simple part of the landscape of being a public figure. The biologist who recently made headlines when he photographed a puppy-sized spider has received death threats from environmentalist groups. A 14-year-old girl, likely with a poor personal understanding of the situation and simply trying to make her conservative christian parents proud, received death threats for speaking against gay marriage in Maryland. The exclusion of death threats from GamerGate would, truthfully, be more exceptional of an event than their inclusion, as poorly as that reflects on tolerance in America today.
The death threat phenomenon has struck both sides of the issue in their day-to-day lives across the internet. One example on tumblr.com has been the user Plebcomics, whose often self-deprecating cartoons mocking hypocrisy have struck at nearly any imaginable political identity, but especially infuriate the radical feminist community of the site. Plebcomics has attracted considerable aggression, especially from a comic depicting Sarkeesian engaging in the very type of trope that Feminist Frequency purports to fight, swooning into the arms of sympathetic male gaming journalists.
As mentioned in the introductory paragraph, the timing of the chain of events of the emerging GamerGate story coincided with the 2014 midterm elections in an interesting way. There could be no proof outside of a “smoking gun” that any collusion occurred, and it is entirely possible that any appearance of impropriety is coincidental. However, the most likely explanation is that GamerGate was exploited out of convenience rather than collusion, in serving the dual roles of providing profitable click-bait journalism at its cheapest, and boosting the “War on Women” narrative to help Democratic candidates, to whom many of these media outlets give their sympathies. Either way, GamerGate attracted its first rumblings among niche publications in August, and eventually climaxed with a softball interview featuring Sarkeesian on Steve Colbert’s comedy central show on October 29, days before the election. It is nearly impossible to make the claim that GamerGate was not inflated into a political construct. While many of the gamers that GamerGate is supposed to stand for have come to rally around the call for better ethics in gaming journalism, it is fair to suppose that they would have preferred that none of this had happened. Be it from radical feminism or 4Chan’s agents of chaos, gamers were caught in the crossfire of a culture war.
Opinion by Brian Whittemore
Photo by Official GDC – flickr License
Left Inset by CGSaw – flickr License