Critical Rebellion, Critical Revolution: An Exploration of the Group Dynamics of GamerGate and the Gaming Community

Note: This was my senior thesis, which I finished in May of 2016.  As such, some of the references to more contemporary events may be outdated.  I just never got around to posting this.

Introduction: Division

In early 2012, I joined an online community of gamers after playing a few rounds of an online game, Guns of Icarus ​with them. The group was made up of thirty to forty people, and, following my joining the group, many of us would hang out nearly every night using a voice chat program called TeamSpeak. For around an hour or two a day, we would log into TeamSpeak, play some games, talk about our lives, and generally just laugh, relax, and enjoy ourselves. The group started as a fairly casual coalition of online friends, none of whom knew each other outside of this space, but eventually grew into a tight-­knit group of friends. As the hours I spent on TeamSpeak increased, I grew closer with more of the members of the server. Over the course of three and a half years, I friended many of the members on Facebook, swapped real phone numbers with them, and became closer to what might regularly be called “real friends”. The group became incredibly important to me. I met one of the members at an In-N-Out Burger in Los Angeles, since we both happened to be passing through at the time. One member was the best man in two of the other member’s weddings. We stopped using our in­game handles and started referring to each other by our first names. In short, this TeamSpeak became my core friend group.

As of today, April 2nd, I have not logged onto their server in four months. I occasionally talk to one of the members over Facebook, but our conversations rarely go beyond, “So what games are you playing these days?” As far as I know, most of the core members still spend time on the server, but I have all but left that community. The reason for that is complicated, but it began in late 2014 after the cultural event of GamerGate, a ­social media harassment campaign against women and minorities in games. This has been the single most divisive event in the history of the gaming medium, with a very clear line drawn between those who support and oppose GamerGate. GamerGators, as they call themselves, are not an organized group; they congregate on forums and message boards such as Reddit, 4chan, and 8chan, and for about half a year, made it their goal to harass women and minorities with an overwhelming amount of highly­specific death and rape threats. The movement forced multiple women to leave the industry as a result of the harassment, forced four women to leave their homes when their address and personal information was released, and has polarized the community to a degree never before seen in the medium’s history. GamerGators see themselves as fighting against the corrupting influence of social justice in games media. They believe that developers, journalists and gamers themselves are being forced into accepting progressive politics, when, in their minds, these issues are simply not a problem. GamerGate has made it very difficult for me to say to others that I love games. It has divided the community so thoroughly that any discussion I find online can quickly devolve into a virtual shouting match. And it found its way into my community, on TeamSpeak. I rarely discussed political issues with my TeamSpeak friends, but after GamerGate, the topic came up much more frequently, and the arguments became much more vicious. There were three women in my TeamSpeak community before GamerGate, already an alarmingly low number. All three of them have now left. There used to be a diversity of beliefs and political views in the community. Now, all of the members who opposed GamerGate, myself included, are gone. However, these discourses and fierce opinions did not come out of nowhere; they had been growing for years before GamerGate began. The GamerGate movement was a response to the growing cultural and social criticism of a medium that had, for most of its lifetime, faced almost none of either, and the mundane events that started it served as a scapegoat and a catalyst to allow the gaming community to release years of pent up anxieties about the changing world and market that games now face.

 

Section I: A Climate of Distrust

Long before the prime movers of GamerGate were even well­-know, others were setting the stage for its arrival. Games writer Katherine Cross linked the origins of the movement to events that happened long before the foundation of the internet communities that would eventually start it, such as lawyers and politicians attempts to ban and censor games in the 1990s. Like with all new mediums, games were, at first, viewed as a corrupting influence, and many attempts at adult content were met with great hostility. The earliest major attempt to censor games came as a result of the controversy surrounding the 1992 game, Mortal Kombat​, a fighting game which featured graphic violence through their now infamous use of fatality finishing moves, in which, in a particularly gruesome example, the winning character would rip off the head of the losing one, with his spinal cord dangling underneath. Such violence was pixelated and almost parody by today’s standards, but still made a large impact.

The controversial fatality in Mortal Kombat​, 1992

Games were, and in many cases, still are, viewed as a child’s toy, something aimed at a younger demographic that should not be presenting such content. Graphic violence, nudity, drug use, and other traditionally adult themes were not seen as acceptable subjects by the general public. As a result, the game was banned in many countries, and lead to the creation of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, a self-regulatory organization that issued rating similar to the MPAA, in order to prevent government censorship. Additional attempts at censorship followed in the early 2000s, as politicians and lawyers such as Jack Thompson attempted to legally censor and ban such games on the grounds of obscenity laws. Thompson’s major target was the often controversial Grand Theft Auto series, which, in its third installment, gave the player free reign over a city where they could, infamously, hire a sex worker, then kill her to steal their money back. Such activities were optional, player-selected actions allowed but not encouraged by the system, but its presence in a medium still struggling to shake off the label of child’s toy was enough to cause a stir. Though Thompson was never successful or even really taken seriously (he was subsequently disbarred for unrelated allegations of professional misconduct), the threat of him and the lawyers and politicians like him created a climate of fear among gamers. While no game has ever been banned in the United States, American gamers still felt that their medium was under siege, and they were not entirely mistaken in this regard. Video games never faced any true threat in a real court, they did face a great deal of scrutiny in the court of public opinion. Today, over 50% of American adults play video games ​(Remo, 2008), and the stigma against the medium has mostly subsided, but in the early 2000s, it was at its strongest. The medium was, in the public eye, thought to have no artistic merit, and the men, women, boys and girls who played video games are often viewed as immature, emotionally stunted, and wasting their time. Each of these factors resulted in a generation of gamers who grew up feeling that their medium of choice was under attack, and that they would constantly need to defend it. For many gamers, this was an opportunity to teach others about the greatness and potential of the medium, but for others, this lead to the belief that those outside the gaming subculture did not understand it, and that the only reaction towards games from non­-gamers would be ones of condemnation, belittlement, and censorship.

As a result, gaming grew up with very little serious outside critique. While other mediums emerged with a great deal of serious cultural and social criticism, gaming ended up devoid of much of it. By the late 1990s, games were roughly sixty years old; by this point in the history of cinema, film had long since reached the mainstream, garnering cultural acceptance and criticism, and having produced many of what we now consider the medium’s masterpieces. But because of gaming’s evolution as a subculture, it did not receive much of the same criticism that film did, and, largely as a result, did not grow in these areas anywhere near as much as it could have. Rather than social or artistic critiques, the criticism games did receive was usually in the form of technical analysis. The game industry was born out of the software industry, and as a result, games were often viewed more as boxed products than works of art. Early games journalism discussed games in this manner as well, asking questions like, “Did the game run well?” “Do the gameplay systems work?” “Does it look alright?” rather than “What are the core themes brought up by the work?”. This is not to say that great games that embraced the artistry of the medium did not exist, however. The 1970s saw the creation of early text-­based adventure games, such as Infocom’s Zork. These essentially functioned as playable novels, later earning them the moniker of “interactive fiction”. This later evolved into graphic adventure games, such as Roberta Williams’s famous King’s Quest​ series. These titles were popular and well-­received, and the adventure game genre they created was very lucrative for much of gaming’s history. While most games focused on with system mastery, quick reflexes, and pattern memorization, adventure games focused on mood, themes, story, characters, and complex, if convoluted, puzzles. Gaming journalists of the time praised these works, but often missed the artistry and craftsmanship of the work.

This disconnect between the emerging potential of the medium and the planned, product ­review style of the journalism is largely a result of early games journalism not really being journalism. Hobbyist, enthusiast magazines were common enough on their own, but the majority of games content written before the explosion of online journalism was almost entirely the trifecta of product­-based journalism: previews, reviews and interviews. Many of these outlets were owned by the publishers of the games they were reviewing, such as Nintendo Power, Official Xbox Magazine, and Official Playstation Magazine. This created an enormous conflict of interest for the magazine’s writers, mostly crippling the institution for decades. As games increased in popularity, much of this writing was able to shift towards independently ­owned outlets, but these publications still had very strong ties to the publishers and developers they were covering. The market for games content required exclusive content and preview issues, which would be much less plentiful for publications that were more critical of these games. As a result, independent games journalism was largely viewed as an extension of the marketing for a big ­budget release. Gamers wanted to read this content, and enough of them paid for it to sustain the system as it was, but this lead to many of them developing a hesitance towards the integrity of the publications they were reading from. Many gamers had at least a suspicion that there was too much corruption in journalism, even well into the late 2000s when the internet allowed independent publications to become more profitable. These suspicions were justified in 2007, when GameSpot editor Jeff Gerstmann was infamously fired from his position for giving a game, Kane & Lynch​, a low score (Plunkett 2012). GameSpot had a marketing deal with the publishers of the game, Square Enix, and after Gerstmann’s low score, the company demanded that he be fired. This became the most visible example of corruption in the industry, one that is still referenced today. It is perhaps the biggest contributor to the belief among gamers that the games press was not acting within even the loosest journalistic standards, creating an air of distrust that undoubtedly set the stage for GamerGate.

 

Section II: Anita Sarkeesian & Feminist Frequency

Criticism, as a whole, was something that the gaming community was very skeptical of. Growing up in a climate where the rest of the world seemed to want to censor and ban games, and the gaming press was beholden to publishers, gamers held a strong distrust of criticism of their games both from outside and within the medium. So, the idea of serious social criticism of games was not something gamers were likely to react positively to. But it was into this climate that Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist media critic with a focus on geek culture, entered to create her series Tropes vs. Women in Video Games​. The series began with a Kickstarter campaign on May 17, 2012, with a modest goal of $6,000 to create five videos critiquing the depiction of women in video games. While she had created feminist content in the past, Sarkeesian had largely gone unnoticed by the gaming community as a whole. She had attracted a modest following, but was by no means popular. Academics and advocacy groups had been making feminist critiques of games for years, such as Women Against Pornography’s criticisms of the 1982 game Custer’s Revenge​, which allowed players to rape a captive Native American woman (Dworkin). But focused, and more importantly, popular, critiques, were almost nonexistent. The average gamer had most likely not heard much feminist criticism of games beyond an easily ­refutable claim of, “All video games are sexist and turn people into women­-hating, basement­-dwelling sociopaths.” So, as games critic Ian Danskin explains in his series on GamerGate, Sarkeesian’s points were not new, and, in the larger context of feminist thought, they were certainly not radical, they were new and radical to an average gamer who had never heard a feminist critique that they could not easily ignore. However, Sarkeesian was not a high-­profile media critic who suddenly decided to turn her eye towards video games, she was a self­-proclaimed geek who was critiquing a medium she loved but felt excluded from. She wasn’t writing in academic journals or on popular websites, she was posting videos to her small YouTube channel. By all accounts, she should have gone unnoticed; her campaign should have reached its goal, she would have made her videos, and not many people outside of her existing fan base would have seen them. But that is not what happened.

From a casual observer’s perspective, Sarkeesian’s campaign seemed to be going much better than expected. She reached her requested $6,000 by the end of the day, and twenty­-two days in, was at $48,000, 600% of the original funding goal. However, with a few weeks remaining in the campaign and all of her funding and stretch goals far surpassed, Sarkeesian posted an update to the campaign website detailing a loosely organized harassment campaign against her as a result of her project. She linked to thousands of angry Tweets and YouTube comments, filled with hate speech and personal attacks, showed that her Wikipedia page had been vandalized with pornography and racial slurs, and posted traffic showing that her website had been taken down by a DDoS attack (Sarkeesian, 2012). This was overwhelming and unexpected, but it was nothing compared to the harassment that followed her post. Several news sites began picking up the story of the harassment against her and the campaign, leading to a huge influx of backers that saw the campaign close at $158,922 (Sarkeesian, 2012), over twenty-­four times the campaign’s initial goal. However, it also brought in an even larger influx of harassment. This cycle has continued in the years since her campaign beginning, where Sarkeesian will post references to threats and attacks against her, news sites will pick up the story, and even greater harassment will follow. Her attacks are filled with angry, violent death and rape threats, include content that is unquestionably misogynistic, and are unrelenting.

Tweets directed towards Sarkeesian

To this day, Sarkeesian receives multiple threats daily. Her personal information has been hacked and posted on forums and other websites (a process referred to as “doxxing”), leading to highly-­specific death threats that Sarkeesian now forwards to the FBI as part of an ongoing investigation (Crecente). Some of her harassers created a video game where players could beat up a picture of her face (Sterling). Others sent a bomb threat to the Game Developers Conference if they gave her an award, which the conference later did in spite of the threat (Totilo). The harassment against Sarkeesian is so broad and far reaching that it would be impossible to document all of it, but suffice it to say that this campaign was unlike anything seen in gaming before.

Perhaps the biggest question asked in the wake of this harassment was simply, “Why?” Sarkeesian was a largely unknown personality, and it was unlikely that her critiques would be heard by many outside her existing community of fans. She was not the first feminist to critique games, not the loudest and not the most radical. So, “why her, and why now” (Danskin)? In a vacuum, this question is nearly unanswerable, but in the context of the larger history of gaming, it starts to make a great deal more sense. With a history as problematic as that of gaming’s, this seems bound to happen at some point. Here was a medium with an almost nonexistent history of strong, literary criticism, one where women as a demographic were considered unwelcome, even as they remained present as both developers and players throughout its history. Here was a medium that had faced the stigma of being a toy for children, and, as a result, had largely been ignored by cultural critics, leaving it with the critical base of actual children’s toys. Gaming had not been thoroughly examined by brilliant media scholars the same way film had, and thus generations of gamers grew up without ever having to apply the skills of literary analysis and media literacy that they learned in high school and college to the games they spent so much time with. Games, in short, went unchallenged and uncriticized, evaluated as apolitical, boxed products. The only criticism the medium faced was from outside of its borders, by uninformed reactionaries whose critiques were so baseless that they could be ignored. Gamers learned about games in an environment with weak, ignorable criticism, so, in their minds, any criticism towards games would continue to fall under that banner.

But the gaming landscape was not going to stay that way. Improvements in technology and distribution, the enormous growth of markets, and the increasing age of the average gamer meant that gaming was, at some point, going to have to face criticism as a real art form. And it was wholly unprepared for this. Gamers reacted to cultural criticism that would have been considered healthy in other mediums with a ferocity rarely seen outside its own medium. Critiques of trends in their medium were seen as attacks on the medium as a whole. This is why so many of Anita Sarkeesian’s critics say, unironically that she “wants to destroy games” or “ban all games”; they refuse to understand the difference between criticizing and banning, because the only critiques they had experienced towards games in the past were calls for censorship and banning. Sarkeesian was not unaware of this predisposition, and it is why, in the description of the series itself, she states, that “that it is both possible (and even necessary) to simultaneously enjoy media while also being critical of it’s more problematic or pernicious aspects” (Sarkeesian). Gaming was a powder keg, ready to explode at any moment due to the messy combination of a history devoid of criticism and the growing demands for that criticism to finally be recognized. However, Sarkeesian’s videos and the horrific response they received were not what finally set it off. If anything, it only helped to further prepare the industry for something bigger.

After the first few months of Sarkeesian’s videos and Kickstarter, lines began to be drawn. Sexism and representation of women were now talked about issues in the gaming space. Sarkeesian received an Ambassador Award at the Game Developer’s Choice award (Makuch, 2014). The gaming community was now actively discussing these issues, when before they had been mostly silent. But this only served to further intensify the divides in the culture. The worst parts of the gaming community now knew that their critics were inside of the community, as well as outside. This lead to further polarization of the community, with fierce debates breaking out wherever Sarkeesian, sexism or feminism were mentioned. In many ways, it set the stage. GamerGate most likely could not have happened the way it did without Sarkeesian bringing these issues to the forefront. If the gaming community had not already been discussing these issues, and if they had not already begun to polarize, those events might have played out very differently. But gaming culture was already deeply flawed before Sarkeesian’s work further divided it, and the next time the issue of social justice was brought to the forefront, the response was more organized, more focused, and much, much, worse.

 

Section III: A History of GamerGate

Like Anita Sarkeesian, game developer Zoe Quinn was not a particularly well­-known figure in the game world. Her most famous work, a game called Depression Quest, was first released in February of 2013 with initially little fanfare. Depression Quest is a work of interactive fiction, meaning that players spend their time reading passages of text and making decisions about what the protagonist should do next. The narrative reacts to the player’s choices, though not always in the ways they might expect. The game puts the player in the shoes of an

A screenshot of Depression Quest

undefined man in his mid-­20s who is struggling with depression and mental illness. As the game progresses, players are given choices based on how depressed their characters are, and are asked to role­play as the character, making decisions they think he might make. The game has almost no discernable feminist content, and focuses almost entirely on the mental illness and how to deal with it. Regardless, Quinn was faced with a wave of harassment in response to the game when she entered it into Steam Greenlight, a program that allows lesser-­known developers to publish their games on Steam, the world’s largest PC gaming distribution platform. The harassment centered around the idea that, as Quinn eloquently summarized, “women can’t be depressed what a cunt”. The harassment came primarily from a site called Wizardchan, which describes itself, quite seriously, as “an anonymous community for male virgins” (Wallace). Quinn publically talked about the harassment, the distress it caused her, and how she believed internet culture as a whole as, in part, responsible for this kind of behavior. Her comments and the story of her harassment appeared on a few news sites, but did not traffic very highly, leaving her with a bit of fame, but nothing significant. By and large, the internet should not have cared on August 16th, 2014 when Zoe Quinn’s ex­-boyfriend posted a 9000­-word attack against her, but, for some reason, it did.

By all accounts, Eron Gjoni’s blog, The Zoe Post, should have gone ignored. It was the self-­indulgent ramblings of a heartbroken ex, littered posting of personal information, gross hyperbole, and an overwhelming sense of self-importance. In it, Gjoni goes into disturbingly personal detail about his allegations that Quinn had cheated on him with five different men at different parts of their relationship. He provides screenshots of personal text and facebook chat logs with Quinn, convoluted timelines, and personal pictures. The writing is dramatic, to say the least, which each section of the post carrying a title such as, “Whereof One Cannot Speak, Thereof One Must Be Silent” (Gjoni). Again, most of this seems forgettable; allegations of the unmarried infidelity of a small-­time game developer. This certainly does not seem like something that could serve as the starting point for a huge sub­cultural movement. However, at one section in the post, Gjoni alleges that Quinn had an affair with Nathan Grayson, a contributor at gaming website Kotaku. With the timeline he provided, Gjoni also alleged that Grayson wrote a piece about Quinn’s game, Depression Quest, during this time. Long after the post blew up, Gjoni later called this “a typo” (Gjoni). Further investigation, mostly a series of quick google searches, revealed that Grayson did write about Quinn, but it had nothing to do with Depression Quest, and instead was him reporting on a game jam that Quinn and others had organized. This article was written before Quinn and Grayson’s affair and barely received any views. This is all that The Zoe Post, despite all of its flaws, claims; something that, again, should have gone unnoticed.

Initial reactions to The Zoe Post were fast, explosive, and chaotic. Reddit, Twitter, 4chan, and other social networking sites and message boards exploded with links to the post, usually with sensationalist titles along the lines of, “GAME DEV SLEEPS WITH JOURNALIST FOR POSITIVE COVERAGE!!!!!!!”. A handful of YouTubers created long, meandering videos, such as the now­-removed video by Internetaristocrat, titled “Five Guys: The Quinnspiracy”. The reaction, obviously, was accompanied by a torrent of misogyny and hate speech, but before this solidified, many members of the gaming community saw only the headline, namely, “sex for positive coverage”, and were not immediately opposed to the concept. In the early days and hours following the post, the lack of information meant that many people outside of the explicitly misogynistic were angry at Quinn. The general low quality and expectation of corruption in games journalism meant that even reasonable onlookers could see just a headline and not underlying sexism that had created it. At the time, the backlash was chaotic and unorganized, but Quinn was hit with a wave of harassment that far exceeded that which she had received earlier for Depression Quest. In less than two weeks “[on] August 27, actor Adam Baldwin became the first person to use a hashtag for the movement (#GamerGate) when he linked to two videos attacking Quinn” (Chess & Shaw, 2015, p208), comparing it to the infamous Watergate scandal. For whatever reason, the community settled on its name. #GamerGate was, officially, created.

In the days following the post and the initial reaction, GamerGate quickly began to radicalize. As members of the games press began to examine the narratives of the posters, and fact-­check the post itself, the holes in the story quickly emerged. As soon as it became obviously apparent that the worst of the allegations could not possibly be true, any rational foundation for the movement had collapsed, and the growing community surrounding GamerGate began to produce more and more ridiculous theories. After a few weeks of radicalizing and establishing, GamerGate mostly settled around a narrative that Zoe Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian, all of the staff of Kotaku, Polygon, and other social justice-­focused games sites, were engaged in “a conspiracy to destroy video games and the video game industry” (Chess & Shaw, 2015, p210). This conspiracy, so the narrative went, was designed to “infect” the industry and the medium with social justice, and any attempts to make the industry more inclusive were the actions of others trying to force their politics on others. That fact that the majority of their targets just happened to be women or people of color was purely a coincidence. “Targets” was not an accidental word, supporters of GamerGate deliberately used militaristic language, most apparently in their “CENTRAL OPERATIONS ARCHIVE”, which is linked in the references section. They named each effort with militaristic, revolutionary titles such as “#OperationVoxPopuli” and “Combined Arms”. A great deal of these operations were attacks of specific targets in the gaming community, almost exclusively women. Their primary targets were Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian, though that list quickly expanded. After their personal information, including home addresses, were posted, Quinn and Sarkeesian fled their homes after highly-­specific death threats and pictures of their houses were posted. Both of them still receive such threats at the time of writing. This continued to intensify, destroying any notions that the movement would eventually burn out, and was eventually picked up by mainstream news media, including the New York Times, who wrote an investigative piece on the issue that many hoped would serve as a nail in the coffin of GamerGate, but seemed to be nothing of the sort. As the general public became more aware of GamerGate, the movement radicalized further, insisting that any site that had written negatively about them was colluding with other Social Justice Warriors (SJWs), as they derogatorily referred to them. The message kept increasing in severity, but somehow they still had enough members to continue it.

GamerGate, the harassment group, has largely not gone away. But “GamerGate, the cultural event is over” (Danskin). It is difficult to find an exact end date, but the end began when late­-night television host Stephen Colbert invited Anita Sarkeesian onto his show and publicly skewered GamerGate. That public mockery essentially meant the end of a larger involvement in GamerGate by more average gamers. They still held the same belief, but found participating in GamerGate itself to be too publically humiliating. And so, while the division in the gaming community is stronger than ever, the overwhelming, targeted harassment has died down significantly. This is not to say it has stopped; many of the women deal with harassment and threats daily, but the cultural event itself has slowed to a stop. It still regularly flares up, when a developer publishes a game with particularly egregious representation of women or people of color, many outlets will respond, and many former­-GamerGators will respond more loudly. Gaming sites and communities are heavily defined by which “side” they are on, and neutrality has become an increasingly difficult position to take. GamerGate may be over, but its effects are stronger than ever, and the gaming community has become increasingly radicalized and divided as a result.

 

Section IV: Why and How?

While the context of gaming’s history and the world’s changing approach to social issues did provide a perfect setting for GamerGate to happen, it still does not explain the immediacy, ferocity, and focus with which the event started and continued. GamerGate, while its goals were scattered, did not feel like a purely random grouping of people, it seemed to have at least some direction. The core of this direction is, surprisingly, not very difficult to find. In the weeks after the harassment campaign against her began, Zoe Quinn investigated chat rooms and message boards run by the higher-­ups in the GamerGate community, and what she found was more disturbing than even the ferocious public face of GamerGate would imply. While it is difficult to find an exact beginning to GamerGate, the earliest and most often pointed­ to source is this one from the website 4chan:

TLDR Zoe Quinn, a rabid feminist SJW GAMUR GIRL who made a shitty non­game called Depression Quest, just got outed for BRIBING THE MEDIA INTO LIKING HER SHITTY NON­GAME WITH HER VAGINA BY cheating on her boyfriend with 5 other guys, including Kotaku staff members who defended her online and reviewed her game and HER MARRIED BOSS. She is a manipulative liar and a sociopath. (Archive.is)

This post demonstrates the clear misogyny and disregard for facts that became emblematic of the movement, but further investigation in private IRC chatrooms revealed more sinister motives. The chatlogs Quinn posted were filled with some of the following messages from higher­-ups in the 4chan and GamerGate community:

Aug 18 20.10.06 i couldnt care less about vidya , i just want to see zoe receive her comeuppance

Aug 21 17.23.31 The problem is that making it about Zoe sleeping around amounts to a personal attack which, while funny and something she totally deserves, will hurt our chances of pushing the other point …

Aug 21 17.23.38 ./v should be focused on the implications of gaming journalism … Aug 21 17.23.47 Because SJWs will cherry­pick the /b/ shit posting and say “See? It’s sexist MRAs!”

Aug 21 17.48.06 I’m debating whether or not we should just attack zoe …

Aug 21 17.48.29 push her… push her further….. further, until eventually she an heroes …

Aug 21 17.48.51 … What makes you think she has the balls to kill herself? Aug 21 17.48.57 I kind of want to just make her life irrepairably horrible …

Aug 21 17.49.45 The more you try to attack her directly, the more she gets to play the victim card and make a bunch of friends who will support her because, since she has a vagina, any attack is misgony

Aug 21 17.49.48 ./v should be in charge of the gaming journalism aspect of it. /pol should be in charge of the feminism aspect, and /b should be in charge of harassing her into killing herself (Futrelle)

While GamerGate reached far beyond these chatrooms and message boards, these were the ones who ran the movement, set the tone, and, from there, organized the events. There are not contained opinions, either. For example, 4chan’s /pol/, or politically incorrect board, is run by a self-­identifying white supremacist, holocaust denier (Outlaw10), a move that makes even GamerGate’s most ardent supporters uncomfortable. This highlights an important distinction between two groups of GamerGate, namely, the extremists, and the more moderate members that they surrounded themselves. The extremists are the ones who actually want Quinn and her allies to commit suicide, who are white supremacists, and who actually could not care less about the state of games journalism, and only want to use it as an excuse to force women, minorities, LGBTQ people, etc. out of the medium. The average GamerGater, however, was not like this. They genuinely believed in the cause of “ethics in games journalism”, even if the leaders of the movement did not. The leaders played on fears that these average GamerGators had about the emerging presence of feminism, social justice advocacy, and progressive politics in the medium, and packaged it with an issue that actually is a problem in the industry to make it more palatable. “Ethics in games journalism” eventually became a joke for this very reason, as GamerGators would claim that their attacks and arguments were not about harassment, but ethics, with a justification so flimsy that GamerGate’s opponents mocked them for it. “No really guys, it’s not about excluding women, it’s about ethics in games journalism” is, to this day, a running joke in the anti-­GamerGate community.

However GamerGate would not have reached the intensity that it did if “ethics in games journalism” was not an actual issue. The most recognizable ethical violation is the previously mentioned firing of Jeff Gerstmann from GameSpot for his low score of Kane & Lynch​,but there are many, many others. Games critic Leigh Alexander helpfully documented a great deal of them in her piece, “List of ethical concerns in video games (partial)”, which serves as a searing and continually relevant critique of the games press. In spite of this, Alexander was one of GamerGate’s main targets after she wrote the piece, “’Gamers’ don’t have to be your audience. ‘Gamers’ are over.”, explaining that the traditional stereotype of a gamer is no longer the only audience in gaming. Ethical concerns in games journalism are massive, widespread, and completely valid, and it is precisely for this reason that “ethics in games journalism” worked so well as a frame narrative for GamerGate. While many of the average GamerGaters did honestly believe that they were fighting for ethics in games journalism, the narratives fed to them by the higher­-ups was tinged with sexism, and the targets of GamerGate were almost exclusively women and people of color. This specific type of online phenomenon is distinctly new, but the group psychology behind it, however, is most certainly not.

The study of group formation, one of the core aspects of social psychology, asks questions about why people form groups the way they do, why different people join different groups, and how different groups function. The website Fractal Sauna explores these ideas and tries to categorize different reasons why people join groups and the different kinds of groups themselves. Many of the points provided are very relevant to GamerGate and the way its various groups formed. Fractal Sauna lists one of the reason people join groups as, “Cognitive: needs to understand the environment: The theory of social comparison says we clarify our minds by comparing our world­views with others in similar situations” (Fractal Sauna, 2013). In this method of group formation, people join groups to help understand the world by finding like­-minded people and comparing and contrasting ideas. However, the site warns of “groupthink”, where there is strong pressure towards unity of thinking inside the group” (Fractal Sauna, 2013). These ideas are very apparent in GamerGate’s formation. The gaming community as a whole had, by the time GamerGate happened, developed a mindset of a group under siege, worried about outside influences trying to tear them down. This lead to the creation of a worldview that was hostile towards outside criticism, or indeed criticism of any kind, and created a cognitive need for validation among the community, a need that was filled by members of GamerGate when the group began to form. The allure of a group that provided that validation, that helped members frame their insecurities towards the changing social climate as an attacking force, could allow them to look past the disdainful actions of other parts of the group. Many of the more moderate GamerGaters argued that there was nothing they could do about the group’s harassment and more radical ideas, and argued that those outside of GamerGate were refusing to listen to them because of the actions of these radicals. This belief created a tone of complacency towards harassment, racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. in their community, where otherwise, these same people might not have tolerated it.

Fractal Sauna also offers a useful framework that could help in understanding GamerGate’s progression as a group. The site references psychological researcher Bruce Tuckman’s outline of these stages, namely:

Forming: People are confused, goals and leadership are unclear, if there is a leader there’s strong dependence on that leader

Storming: Conflicts arise, different opinions, rebellion, leaders and goals are challenged, unclear roles and norms

Norming: Conflicts are being handled, norms and roles are established, people start to support each others and learn how to work in openly manner

Performing: Beneficial structures of human relating are forming, division of work is optimized, roles are flexible.

Adjourning: Tasks are finished, goals are achieved (or not), people move on to new challenges, celebrations and remembrance. (Fractal Sauna, 2013).

Each stage traces fairly cleanly to GamerGate’s progression. The early days of the movement were filled with confusion and lack of central focus, allowing the acts of extreme harassment to go unchecked as the group was not centralized. The Storming phase did address these issues in some ways, such as some GamerGaters condemning harassment, setting new goals and trying to make their movement more socially acceptable, but the lack of organization and formal structure of the movement made this difficult, and many of these problems continued. By the time the Norming and Performing stages were reached, the movement was so divided, publically disliked, and fragmented, that it was hard to consolidate as a single movement, as they had only a hashtag and a loose set of beliefs to gather around. Finally, the Adjourning stage was reached, sometime around when Anita Sarkeesian was invited onto the Colbert report and GamerGaters were publically mocked. To a certain extent, this phase is ongoing, as the movement, while much smaller in size, is still planning and acting. For example, on March 30th of 2016, Nintendo employee Alison Rapp was fired after a months-­long, GamerGate-­related harassment campaign against her. While the majority of GamerGate members stopped participating in the movement and entered the Adjourning phase in in late 2014, many of the group’s more radical members are continuing their campaign as vocally as ever.

 

Section V: Conclusion

With the field of social psychology continually working to understand how group formation has changed with the ubiquity of the internet, GamerGate serves as fascinating case study. It touches on topics such as group formation and cultural conflict, that are essential to social psychology, but provides an understanding of how they are have both changed and stayed the same over the internet. However, what I find most important about GamerGate personally was its ability to massively shift the dynamics of an entire culture. The culture surrounding video games was always problematic, but GamerGate brought those problems so strongly into the forefront that these topics cannot be discussed in the gaming world without an explosion of controversy. And what makes this intensification of previously dormant beliefs so important to me is that it affected me personally; it caused me to leave a friend group. The world of video games is a difficult one to love, and I have had much more difficulty loving it since GamerGate began over a year and a half ago. It has made discussion that would be commonplace in other media become polarizing, uncomfortable, and difficult. It has forced groups to pick sides, and allows for very little mixing of worldviews and room for compromise. These phenomena have been documented before; it has happened to an untold number of groups throughout history, but GamerGate affected my group, my medium, and my friends, and that makes it all the more relevant to me. As I said before, the cultural event may be over, but the damage has been done.

GamerGate did a great deal to weaken my faith in the gaming community, but, despite the movement’s intentions, brought forward aspects of the community that I do value. The emergence of a fiercely anti­-criticism group lead to other members of the community listening to voices with powerful forms of criticism. It forced those who care about games to focus more on issues of social justice, and to keep demanding that we look at games with more criticism. GamerGate’s actions amplified the voices of those on both sides of the issue, but that amplification of GamerGate’s opponents lead to many of them simply being heard in the first place. Much of the community now makes a great effort to listen to writers who are women, people of color, or LGBTQ. In short, by creating an environment where criticism as a concept was under vicious attack, GamerGate brought out defenders and advocates, thinkers and critics. In his video on Anita Sarkeesian, Ian Danskin says that, in what he thinks was accidental, Sarkeesian’s harassers would inadvertently create the next week’s Sarkeesian talking points, making harassment that had previously been ignored become the focus of discussion. In spite of all of the damage it did to the gaming community, GamerGate may have accidentally strengthened the critical community surrounding games. The group dynamics of GamerGate and the gaming community are complex, twisted, and often, deeply flawed. But their actions may have brought forward some of the very things they were trying to destroy.

 

 

Works Cited

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