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How did GamerGate become a lightning rod for violence — and is social media helping or making it worse?

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Every now and then, the roiling sea of bitterness and even outright malevolence that lurks in the dark corners of the internet gets forced out into the open, and the latest example of this phenomenon is GamerGate. It’s a term that has developed multiple meanings, depending on who is using it, but in general it refers to a wave of controversy that has swept through the game industry, and resulted in a campaign of harassment aimed at female journalists, gamers and developers.

This campaign — which independent video-game developer Zoe Quinn alleges has been orchestrated by a group of misogynists within the 4chan community, using a series of sock-puppet accounts and some online sleight-of-hand — has resulted in a number public threats of violence and even death being made towards several female participants.

Among those who have been threatened are feminist cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian, who was recently forced to cancel a speech at Utah State after the school received warning of a mass shooting, and university officials couldn’t guarantee that no guns would be present (due to the state’s “open carry” laws). Game developer Brianna Wu was also driven from her home in Boston, Mass. last week after she was threatened with violence.

So how did we get here?

In many ways, #GamerGate (a tag that appears to have been coined by actor and gamer Adam Baldwin) is just the most recent example of an ongoing tension between fans and game reviewers in the largely male-dominated video-game industry — which has grown over the past couple of decades to the point where it rivals the motion-picture industry in terms of revenue and influence — and critics (some of whom are female) who argue that many video games are demeaning towards women, if not blatantly misogynistic.

Video game sexism

The most recent flare-up of this tension occurred several months ago, after Quinn broke up with her boyfriend, a programmer named Eron Gjoni — who subsequently posted a variety of personal information about Quinn, including allegations that she had slept with a writer for Gawker Media’s gaming site Kotaku.

This triggered an outpouring of abuse against her on a number of sites including Twitter, YouTube, Reddit and 4chan. As with other examples of the GamerGate phenomenon, accusations about infidelity were mixed in with criticisms of the potential journalistic conflict of interest that stemmed from her alleged relationship with the Kotaku writer, as well as anger over the intrusion of feminist principles into the world of gaming (Quinn wrote a piece for Cracked about the effect that this had on her personal life).

As sociologist Jennifer Allaway described in a recent post at Jezebel, the way that GamerGate has developed is similar in many ways to the formation of any other hate group, including an orchestrated campaign designed to unite true believers around the idea that they are under attack by a more powerful group.

Ethical conflicts and sexism

The theme of ethical conflicts in the game-reviewing industry got some more fuel when the existence of a private email list called GameJournoPros was revealed — a mailing list where game journalists and in some cases game developers and others who work in the industry could discuss various topics. Although many argued this was harmless, it was seen by some as evidence of collusion and a concerted attack on hard-core and/or male gamers as a group.

At about the same time that Quinn’s harassment was reaching a fever pitch, Sarkeesian released a new episode of the YouTube video show she hosts, called Feminist Frequency. Her coverage of the sexism inherent in the video-game business has led to harassment of her in the past — including death threats, and the release of a video game called Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian in 2012, after she criticized the industry for its attitudes. The video she released during the Quinn uproar seemed to fan the flames even further.

But the main conflict within gaming culture, of which GamerGate is a subset, is between a traditional view of what a video game should be — one with male heroes, villains, damsels in distress, shooting, science-fiction or fantasy-inspired plots and so on — and new kinds of games, including Quinn’s Depression Quest (which allows the player to experience what depression feels like) or Gone Home, an interactive mystery story about a young woman who finds love with a lesbian partner.

A war of hashtags and GIFs

In many ways, GamerGate is also just the latest example of a much broader culture clash at work: namely, a clash between the sub-culture of the internet — as represented by sites like 4chan — and the mainstream of society, to which members of the sub-culture see themselves as fundamentally opposed. This attitude is behind incidents like 4chan’s tormenting of Jesse Slaughter and the recent release of nude photos of celebrities, things that are often done just for what 4chan devotees call “the lulz.”

Members of these groups may be small in number — as Deadspin notes, the GamerGate forum on Reddit only has about 10,000 members — but many have a lot of time on their hands, and are well versed in social-warfare tactics, including the use of hashtags, dummy or sock-puppet accounts, email campaigns and so on.

Quinn has collected evidence of the orchestration of some of the attacks against her and Sarkeesian — and in some cases GamerGaters appear to have attacked other defenders of video-game culture (through fake accounts) for being gay or people of color, in order to create a kind of “false flag” operation, with the intention of demonstrating both how hypocritical GamerGate critics are for attacking the industry and how broad-minded gamers are.


GamerGate also seems to have gained some steam, and some prominent support, from elements of the conservative political movement in the U.S. (including Adam Baldwin) who argue that the problems stem from the efforts of “social justice warriors” on the left, who want to destroy the rights of freedom-loving gamers. In that sense, it shares some DNA with the Tea Party or “birther” movements.

The social-media maelstrom

Like many other issues that have gotten derailed once they became a Twitter hashtag, the GamerGate phenomenon has arguably generated a lot more heat on social media and very little light: as someone once said, 140 character messages are good for bumper-sticker style pronouncements, but not terribly good for discussions of complex topics like the role of sexism in mainstream video game development.

Is every debate over such issues destined to turn into another Tea Party-style pit of vipers, as Kyle Wagner argues in his Deadspin piece? Is there something about the anonymity of online behavior that encourages violence, or at least makes the repercussions of violent statements seem less severe?

One thing is becoming clear: For every positive use of social media campaigns, such as the recent #YesAllWomen movement against sexual abuse, there is a GamerGate just waiting around the next bend. And once it has exploded in every direction, it’s very difficult (perhaps even impossible) to put all of that rage back in the bottle. It’s not so much about the technical flaws in social platforms as it is about human nature — and that’s not easily fixed.

Here’s a list of some of the news articles, blog posts, Storify collections and other pieces I came across that I think are worth reading about GamerGate — if you have any to add, feel free to leave them in a comment:

The Future Of The Culture Wars Is Here, And It’s Gamergate — Deadspin
#Gamergate Trolls Aren’t Ethics Crusaders; They’re a Hate Group — Jezebel
What’s Happening In Gamergate — The Verge
5 Things I Learned as the Internet’s Most Hated Person — Cracked
Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest — New Yorker
In Defense of Gamers — Jacobin
What Is Gamergate, and Why Is Intel So Afraid of It? — Re/code
The only guide to Gamergate you will ever need to read — Washington Post
Why nerd culture must die — Pete Warden
#GamerGate: Here’s why everybody in the video game world is fighting — Vox

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Thinkstock / Boarding1Now, as well as Flickr user Anna Fischer and Thinkstock / Ten03

34 Responses to “How did GamerGate become a lightning rod for violence — and is social media helping or making it worse?”

  1. johnberk

    I’m sure that we need more women-oriented games in the industry. On the other hand, is it really necessary to talk about violent environment, when the vast majority of males who are involved just don’t care. Don’t get me wrong, I know there have been some serious problems with violence and the morality of many commentators is rather disputable. But yet still, many of us just want to spend their leisure time with our gamepad. I hope games will become less violence oriented and will provide more of an interesting stories. I would particularly like some kind of gamification of the virtual reality topics that was presented in Her. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to be trying to resolve social problem instead of a murder or kidnapping?

  2. Doesn’t gamer gate also have something to do with gaming journalists being in bed with the developers and fixing reviews or am I confusing situations here?
    Also loving how all your extra articles on the subject have no real actual gaming publications view on it

  3. William Monty

    I think the Nazi party was something that could be accurately be called a hate group. It is intellectually dishonest to claim that a large and loosely affiliated group like the gamergate’rs are hateful based on the actions of a few. It is fine to disagree with what they take issue with but you lose all credibility with a silly statement like this,

  4. Jorge Orduna

    By proliferating the constant use of the term “gamergate” and marginalizing anyone that has an opinion contrary to the initial question of journalistic ethics, regardless of gender, one cannot get away from the reality that this all smells too much as something that has been blown way out of proportion. Much like the political issues that were surrounding “Watergate”, this constant push and article writing rehashing the same information over and over again without any real details, and casting blame on “men” as if they can’t be stopped or they are mindless idiots and drones is just getting tired.

    Then again, I’m sure Ingram gets paid to write these topics, and it’s not like it’s what he really wants to do with his life, commenting on what has already been commented on, discussed, beaten to death by others. As long as we keep coming back to the same ideas, recycled over and over again, this topic will not have a good discussion or even closure. It speaks volumes to how easy it is to get attention, maybe I should write a post on this so I can get to the front page of Digg too.

    Elitist tripe. Tired of seeing this, time to walk away.

  5. It seems to me, as a female gamergate, that the reports of mysogyny are just those same journalists that we called for some ethics, striking back in an unethical manner

    After all, their figurehead, Zoe Quinn was responsible for the first doxxing and death threat towards a charity for female programmers. We haven’t seen them report on that

  6. CrashOverride

    “GamerGate also seems to have gained some steam, and some prominent support, from elements of the conservative political movement in the U.S. (including Adam Baldwin) who argue that the problems stem from the efforts of “social justice warriors” on the left, who want to destroy the rights of freedom-loving gamers. In that sense, it shares some DNA with the Tea Party or “birther” movements.”

    Why am I not shocked you decided to drop this part near the end of the article? GamerGate is not political, and as such, shouldn’t be viewed through this prism.

    Then you lump Tea Party in with conspiracy tin foil hat nutters like the “birther” people?

    In the wink of an eye, you completely lost all credibility with me when you tried to make this issue a political one.

    • Amy Bellinger

      I’m just beginning to acquaint myself with this whole firestorm, but I have to say that the more I read about it, Tea Party comparisons keep occurring to me: the mens’ rights aspect, Palin-like “Don’t silence me; I won’t sit down and shut up,” redirecting the spin with the #gamergate hashtag (only it was lots more successful than Ted Cruz’s lame effort to call the government shutdown #HarryReidsShutdown, and more.

  7. Pinning the actions of trolls who have been trolling both sides of the issue on a single group is about as devoid of ethics and journalists integrity as it gets. Do some research please. It takes literally 2 min of searching to see gamergate deplores harassment and even tries to help the opposition uncover who is behind it.

  8. Cyberdactyl

    I have no idea if Anita is guilty of self-threats, but she HAS been shown time after time to be dishonest regarding claiming game play-through footage as her own, and shown to manipulate games to appear misogynistic, such as the case with the game ‘HITMAN’. You can find old video of her saying she is not a gamer and doesn’t really care for games, yet also find her saying she has played games since she was a little girl and loves to play. Then there’s the more subjective dishonesty of her getting $160,000 for her kickstarter campaign to start a “series”, yet has made about 5 low-budget videos for Youtube over the last 18 months. She has turned of comments and ratings to her videos since almost day one, yet “begs” for a community “conversation”.

    I believe ALL gamers ask is HONESTY about her “research” (none of the references she links is peer reviewed or considered academic papers) and quit relying on mis-truths and hypocrisy as her method to sell her arguments.

  9. Rapscallion

    Pleased, stop parroting this false narrative. The low-lifes who perpetuate that kind of violence are unanimously despised by GamerGaters and do NOT represent the movement at all. Those are extremely likely to be black bloc/false flag tactics and you are falling for them hook, line and sinker. You have a responsibility as a journalist to not mispreresent your subjects on purpose.

  10. DyreTheStranger

    Yeah, read up on all the gamer-gate supporters who’ve been doxxed and threatened–including but not nearly limited to: women, a trans teen (who was outed by said threats), and a child–before you post such a one-sided article.

  11. William Ganness

    What a dishonest article. Until you dont know who made the threats you cannot pin them on gamergate or anyone else. Who stands to benefit the MOST from these empty (Source FBI/Utah Police) threats? Anita herself in my opinion. And there is evidence that she has done this before. You are proving more and more to the masses that we cannot rely on the media to report stories correctly.

  12. What you are all missing is this is not sexism in action. It is simply trolls latching onto this particular issue to cause trouble.

    What you are ALSO missing is that some of the death threats have been shown to be sent by the targets themselves in an apparent attempt to drum up publicity.

  13. Anonymous

    GamerGate hasn’t become a lightning rod for violence.

    The argument you’re using can also be used to say that all Ferguson protestors are violent looters and rioters because a handful of people smashed some windows.

    GamerGate is about exposing journalistic wrongdoing by a handful of people, both male and female.

    • OutPastPluto

      There is a lot of stuff being muddled together here. There’s professional trolling masquerading as journalism. There’s the persistent “anti-geek” narrative that the media has been pushing for a number of months now. And there is the usual sexually repressive feminist busybody nonsense that goes back to Steinem.

      Games have been a business for a long time. Cater to the customer. Don’t let any fascists tell you what you can or can’t sell. Don’t tolerate the fascists when they try to wrap themselves in some legitimate looking cause. If jerks annoy your paying customers, then deal with them as you see fit.

      If things spill out into the real world, then that is a gender neutral law enforcement problem that needs to be addressed as such. Credible death threats are not a “women’s issue”.

      If you post inflammatory bullsh*t, there will likely be a backlash. It’s been this way since the dawn of time when you had to troll someone to their face.

  14. Martin Hernandez

    So if a Game Company bribes a journalist to receive a favorable review, and that gets exposed all we would be critical of the company and ethics of the journalist, and that is fine with everybody.

    But when Zoe Quinn gets into a relation with a Journalist (verified by the Journalist himself) to have a favorable review (objectively the game is nothing as great as the biased journalist described it), and this gets exposed, all we should see to other place because she is a woman or she is a feminist?

    Sex is a corporal currency, to receive sexual favors in exchange of a favorable review is a bribe as any other paid with Paper Money, Stocks, Products or different services; it is a dirty practice and it deserves to be punished as any other kind of bribery.

    This Journalist fails to mention these details so obviously has no ethics and Gigaom should remove this article until it explains how Zoe Quinn got into trouble and how she used the DMCA to remove hundreds of threads about this incident.

      • The man she slept with was not the one who wrote the reviews – that doesn’t eliminate bias. People seem to be clinging to this argument as if it completely eliminates any chance of bias.

        Gamasutra’s sister sites all make a point of making ‘full disclosure’ notes in their articles while discussing Gamasutra’s issues – mentioning that they are connected to the site and therefore biased. But with your logic it’s perfectly ok to have intimate relationships with people your company is reviewing and providing free media coverage for – and you’re splitting hairs over who actually wrote the article?

        I don’t know if Kotaku truly got their hand caught in the cookie jar or not – it seems suspicious but plausible that some people in the company had relationships with a developer while other entities in the company provided suspiciously positive reviews of a game that most of the community hates – but I do find it suspicious that their first response is to cry ‘sexism!’ in response and then highlight every example of sexism they see – completely ignoring anyone who tries to ask in a serious tone why the hell their journalists are sleeping with developers they’re reviewing.

  15. why the gamergate articles are always so one sided? They only seem to provided the narrative from the likes of anita or zoe but what about the other side? You provided a lot of links at the end but they are all the same.

    Why no one ever takes a second to see things from a much more broader perspective? Like, how do you explain all these women defending #gamergate at the HuffPost Live?

    • RFO Jefferson

      Yeah! Right on! You’re no idiot! It’s just like the women who wore the Rice jersey to the Ravens games, that shows how great Rice’s behavior is in women’s minds! No, you’re no idiot! Right on! Go all 70 IQers!

  16. EscapeVelocity

    Here are some articles you missed.

    #GamerGate Is Not A Hate Group, It’s A Consumer Movement by Erik Kain @Forbes

    GamerGate an issue with 2 sides – Techcruch

    GamerGate: Part 1 Sex, Lies, and Gender Games by Cathy Young

    Interview with 3 Female GamerGate Supporters at HuffpoTV

    Lots of in depth coverage from The Escapist Mag

    In depth analysis from Nichegamer

    List of Milo Yianoppoulous articles at Breitbart

    Erik Kain, Greg Tito, & Totalbiscuit discuss GamerGate

  17. Anonymous

    “Anita Sarkeesian, who was recently forced to cancel a speech at Utah State after the school received warning of a mass shooting”

    You mean the one she sent herself? She’s already done it once.