One of the most frustrating things about talking to people is when you can't agree on the basic premises of what you're talking about. Consider the question of whether oranges taste good. You like oranges because they're sweet and they have just the right amount of acidity to be crisp and refreshing. I recoil in disgust and say "gross, I'd never eat a bug!" You gently remind me that oranges aren't bugs, they're fruits. Then I retort that some butterflies and scorpions are orange. At this point, you probably decide to stop the "conversation" because it's obviously not going to go anywhere.
GamerGate is a perfect example of people talking past each other and failing to agree on basic premises. If you don't know what GamerGate is, consider yourself lucky. It is an overtly misogynistic, racist, and transphobic internet-based harassment campaign designed to silence and intimidate women, people of color, and transgender individuals in the gaming industry and related fandoms. It is also the most noble, heroic, and important consumer rights movement of the past 20 years pressing for ethics and accountability in gaming journalism. It's kind of like a choose your own adventure book except you only have two options and you can never, ever, ever change your mind or look for a more nuanced view on the subject.
Theoretically, it could be both of those things; there's nothing mutually exclusive about being a woman-hating member of the Ku Klux Klan and wanting some gosh darn honesty in your video game reviews. It could involve bits and pieces of both. It could also be neither of those things. And then it could just be a convenient excuse for people with little or no interest in video games looking to increase their own notoriety (and possibly their net worth) by latching onto something that's being talked about by a lot of people on the internet. In the same way that the Spanish Civil War was the prelude to World War II, the issues surrounding GamerGate and the subsequent discourse (to put it politely) on the internet would be a preview of the 2016 United States presidential election.
There is no easy or linear way to explain all this crap. In a way, it's like trying to summarize the Romance of the Three Kingdoms and then saying "fuck it, just read the book yourself." Gamergate has no book, though, so I'll have to do my best.
The explosion of GamerGate as an issue that large numbers of people felt compelled to offer their unsolicited opinions on has its origins in what would otherwise be an obscure 2013 text-based video game called Depression Quest. Even calling this a "video game" is controversial, since it literally is nothing but text and choices based on text. Regardless, it's designed to give people an insight into what it's like to deal with severe depression on a daily basis. It was written and designed by Zoë Quinn and received relatively good reviews from critics when it was released as a browser game and later on Steam in 2014. However, user reviews were not anywhere nearly as enthusiastic, with many people unable to comprehend why it received so much critical acclaim when it wasn't fun or entertaining in any traditional sense of the term (it is perhaps worth noting that it is intended to be neither of these things).
The question was (seemingly) answered in August of that year when Quinn's ex-boyfriend posted a series of images and documents on his blog alleging that Quinn had been repeatedly unfaithful during their relationship, including with someone who had promoted her work on the video game website Kotaku. For a lot of people, this explained why it was Depression Quest got good critical reviews but performed poorly with consumers. Over the following weeks, the blog post was heavily circulated and somehow made its way to the actor Adam Baldwin, who posted a tweet about it, ending it with the hashtag "#GamerGate."
Now frankly, I find the public airing of this sort of thing to be kind of trashy. I get that when people are upset about a relationship ending they can do some trashy things. I don't believe for a second that Eron Gjoni, Quinn's ex-boyfriend, was motivated by anything other than bitterness in putting all this out there. I truly doubt he was in any way concerned with bringing to light the fact that professional gaming journalism is largely a clique comprised of a relatively small group of people who see themselves as the arbiters of what constitutes good taste. In this regard, gaming journalists are not much different from most other types of journalists. But in any case, this was the very first line in the sand of GamerGate: did it shed light on corruption in gaming journalism since the writer(s) in question did not disclose their relationship(s) with Quinn at the same time he was praising her or was it a textbook case of slut-shaming with no real relevance to video games other than the fact that it involved people who work in the gaming industry?
As it happens, it's likely a bit of both. Kotaku and the writer in question stated that it would have been impossible for any disclosure to have been made since they did not enter into a relationship until after the article was released. It doesn't change the fact that the guy might very well have been interested in her, but it's not an ethical lapse to have a crush on someone. It would not, however, have been the first instance of a major conflict of interest involving video games. Probably the best known antecedent of the GamerGate controversy was the 2007 firing of writer Jeff Gerstmann from GameSpot. Gerstmann had written a less than flattering review for the game Kane & Lynch: Dead Men, a boring and generic third person shooter that also happened to have been very heavily advertised on the GameSpot website before its release. In 2012, Gerstmann would confirm publicly what everybody who followed the incident already guessed: he was fired after the game's publisher, Eidos Interactive, threatened to withdraw advertising revenue from GameSpot if the situation were not rectified.
Obviously there is a major qualitative difference between Depression Quest and Kane & Lynch. One is an indie game that could conceivably generate enough revenue to let the creator put food on the table for a month or two and the other is (supposed to be) a major title that could generate millions of dollars in sales. But the underlying connection between the two issues is the idea that people who review and promote games are not doing it because they like the games but because they like the people or the money associated with them.
At the end of August and at the beginning of September, however, several major video gaming websites released what are collectively called the "Gamers are Dead" articles. No fewer than eight of these articles were published on August 28 with several more to follow in the next few days. The basic theme of all the articles was the idea that the "gaming community" as popularly understood is toxic and outdated, and that video game companies ought to market their products to a wider and more diverse group of consumers. Predictably, this caused an immediate backlash from the pro-GamerGaters who contended that the close timing of the release of all of these articles vindicated their belief that gaming journalism was rife with collusion.
At this point, I should introduce you two of the biggest beneficiaries of GamerGate: Anita Sarkeesian and Milo Yiannopoulos. Sarkeesian is the creator and host of the web series Feminist Frequency, which examines various forms of media from a feminist perspective. Milo Yiannopoulos was a writer for Breitbart who offered a rather, shall we say, flamboyant take on modern conservatism. Both were fairly obscure before GamerGate and both had previously expressed a lack of interest in video gaming. However, Sarkeesian had previously been a target for harassment due to some of her videos and had the misfortune to release a game-related video right around the time this was all happening. For his part, Yiannopoulos exposed the existence of a large mailing list used by a number of gaming journalists from various outlets after the Gamers are Dead articles were released, and many of the authors of those articles were on that list. The latter fact was used as evidence that the articles had been coordinated.
Now I mention this here because this introduced the next line in the sand for people on either side of the GamerGate issue: politics. If there had been a political undercurrent before, it was now a full-blown tsunami. From the start, many of the people who would go on to be GamerGaters had complained about the "SJW" aspect of the criticism they were receiving. It was still very much presented as a background issue, although for some people (particularly on YouTube and 4chan) it was clearly becoming the real cause. With Sarkeesian and Yiannopoulos entering the fray, the people who genuinely felt this was about ethics in journalism completely lost control of the "movement" from both sides.
I won't even try to go into a comprehensive description of the entire controversy since it involves a lot of petty and relatively minor internet drama. However, some of the "highlights" include:
- Phil Fish cancels his upcoming video game Fez 2 after receiving backlash for saying that people spreading the Quinn stories are "witless manchildren."
- Zoë Quinn or someone working on her behalf allegedly masterminds a press blackout for a game jam that she did not like the concept of.
- Various websites, including Reddit and NeoGAF, get accused of censorship for deleting GamerGate-related posts critical of Quinn.
- Posters on 4chan doxx or attempt to doxx people on the anti-GG side. In a surprising move, the owner of 4chan bans GG-related threads, causing a mass exodus to 8chan.
- The Guardian publishes an article about the controversy and the author quits after receiving harassment.
- Everyone gets death threats, including a bomb threat against a venue that Sarkeesian is speaking at. Yiannopoulos receives a syringe in the mail (????).
- Mentions of and references to GamerGate appear in mainstream media outlets like the Guardian, MSNBC, the Washington Post, and New York Magazine, among others.
- Various companies stop advertising on both pro-GG and anti-GG websites, presumably because they want nothing to do with the clusterfuck that is erupting.
- Various outlets, such as PC Gamer, state that they will update their policies to require writers with connections to particular individuals, games, and/or publishers to disclose such relationships in future articles.
- And on and on and on and...
And so it went. The pro-GG side suffered an existential crisis, with some supporters maintaining that it should restrict itself to concerns about the journalistic practices of sites like Kotaku, Polygon, and others, while another group thought the mission should be expanded to combat what was perceived as the SJW infiltration of gaming in general. This second group tried to start GG-like movements in comic books and heavy metal, so now we have Comicsgate and Metalgate (neither of which I will get into because even though there is a lot of overlap, I don't want to make this a 10,000-word essay). A somewhat related "movement" was Pizzagate, which centered around a pizza restaurant in the Washington, D.C. area that allegedly was ground zero for a child sex trafficking ring utilized by rich and powerful Democratic Party operatives. A guy showed up there with a gun to "liberate" the child sex slaves supposedly being held captive in the basement of the place. That went about as well as you would expect.
In any case, both pro and anti factions hummed along through 2014 and 2015. Likely as a result of her raised profile due to her willingness to publicly discuss the threats and harassment she received, Anita Sarkeesian has been able to crowdfund hundreds of thousands of dollars for her various projects. Milo Yiannopoulos was able to bring Breitbart's web traffic up pretty significantly and he was able to parlay his new stardom into a speaking tour, a book deal, and multiple appearances on cable television. Appropriate for someone of Greek descent, however, Milo's hubris would get the better of him when -- like Icarus -- he flew too close to the sun and made some, uh, unfortunate comments about homosexuality and the nature of age-gap sex between adults and teenagers. Yiannopoulos still does some stuff here and there, but to say that he has been largely relegated to Bill O'Reilly levels of irrelevance and de-platforming would be accurate.
One could be forgiven for thinking that finding social justice-oriented conspiracies in everything is the hallmark of paranoia. One could also be forgiven for thinking that finding racism and sexism in everything is the hallmark of a person just looking for a reason to be offended. The truth is that while the representation of women and people of color has been historically poor in video games (with some notable exceptions like Metroid or Prince of Persia), that's due more to historical demographic realities than to intentional attempts to make people uncomfortable or underrepresented. But gaming demographics have changed since the 1980s and 1990s and the people making games didn't keep up. The push for diversity we're seeing now (not just in gaming but in other outlets) might be interpreted as hyper-correction. For example, the 2018 action role playing game Kingdom Come: Deliverance received criticism for its lack of minority characters. The game takes place during the 15th century in the Holy Roman Empire. Now there is no way to say with metaphysical certitude that there was not a single black person living in the Holy Roman Empire at this time, but I'm going to take a wild guess and suppose that people of color were not exactly common there. This would be an example where I would not consider the particular criticism valid, just like I would not consider criticism of the original Assassin's Creed game valid if it focused on the fact that it took place in the Middle East in the 12th century and featured a Muslim protagonist as opposed to a Christian one (the frustrating contradiction between Altair being a badass assassin but completely unable to swim would be a valid critique to me, however).
Complaints about "forced diversity" in games became common. "Why does this character have to be gay/black/female/trans? These types of characters should appear organically instead of being forced into the game." Well, unfortunately, all video game characters are forced into their games because someone has to intentionally make them. You can't "accidentally" make a video game. The real issue should be whether these characters are well-written and well-rounded as opposed to being tokens, which to me is probably worse than not including them at all. I think realistically this is more or less what most people (pro and anti) want but they have no way of elucidating it without getting caught up in the rest of the GG baggage. But make no mistake -- there are people out there who simply don't want diverse characters and narratives in video games, regardless of how well-crafted they are. And there are also people who think any representation is good representation, which is wrong ("what do you mean there aren't any parts for black actors on TV? There's drug dealers, teenage hoodlums, rappers, government employees, prostitutes, older ex-military guys..."), but not quite as wrong as the desire for there to be no women or minorities in games.
Even though it would be wrong to say that GamerGate has fizzled out, it's not anywhere nearly the same hot topic that it used to be. In what ought to be considered a major victory for the pro-GGers, the disclosure of financial/personal relationships between writers and the people/companies they write about has become more common in gaming journalism. The pro-GGers are still on the hunt for what they see as extreme left wing views in the video game industry. This can take the form of complaints about character skins in the new Battlefield game or anger about the fact that semi-pornographic games made in Japan are now getting more scrutiny before coming to the West (if they come at all). Anti-GGers are keeping the faith and calling out any criticism of a woman in the video game industry as misogyny.
I have an idea: if you don't like it, don't buy it. Nobody is forcing anyone to buy games that are either too diverse or not diverse enough. Nobody is forcing anyone to buy games that do not feature your preferred political narrative. Nobody is forcing anyone to even play games in the first place. That's one of the benefits of having a free market: you can vote with your wallet. Same thing with Kotaku, Polygon, Twitter, YouTube, 4chan, 8chan, and every other website on the internet: if you don't like it, don't read it. If you're afraid that your hobby is being killed by people who don't share your values, don't buy their products. Alternately, start your own company or website to make these games and/or review them.
Clearly this is all easier said than done, because the truth of the matter is you're never going to stop unbalanced people doing unbalanced things (e.g. death threats) except through the legal processes in place (and even then, that won't stop everyone). Likewise, the political aspect of GamerGate and its related movements will probably never be resolved either. This is especially the case when people can't agree on what GamerGate actually is. The aspect of it that revolves around fighting actual, genuine corruption (or at the very least impropriety) is good and should continue. The aspect of it that revolves around banishing certain political beliefs doesn't appeal to me because I think everyone should get their say and the consumers should decide what's worth supporting. The aspect of it that revolves around threatening and intimidating people is wrong and should be stopped and, if necessary, punished to the full extent of the law. Ironically, depending on the reader's own personal preferences, this summation could be used to make me out to be either pro-GG or anti-GG. So I'll leave everyone with a relevant quote:
If when you say whiskey you mean the devil's brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty, yea, literally takes the bread from the mouths of little children; if you mean the evil drink that topples the Christian man and woman from the pinnacle of righteous, gracious living into the bottomless pit of degradation, and despair, and shame and helplessness, and hopelessness, then certainly I am against it.
But, if when you say whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips, and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes; if you mean Christmas cheer; if you mean the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman's step on a frosty, crispy morning; if you mean the drink which enables a man to magnify his joy, and his happiness, and to forget, if only for a little while, life's great tragedies, and heartaches, and sorrows; if you mean that drink, the sale of which pours into our treasuries untold millions of dollars, which are used to provide tender care for our little crippled children, our blind, our deaf, our dumb, our pitiful aged and infirm; to build highways and hospitals and schools, then certainly I am for it.
- Noah S. Sweat
Timeline of Gamergate from an anti perspective
Timeline of Gamergate from a pro perspective (Original website down; archived version.)
Fuck it, just read the book yourself