On the nature of Gamergate

If you haven’t read this post, please do so first. Thanks!

Hi, how’s it going? Me? Oh, I’m great. Ok, this is going to be… interesting.

So I’ve been looking into Gamergate in the past few weeks. I’ve read a lot of articles about it, neutral, pro and con. But I haven’t limited my edification to “press” sites or blogs; I’ve gone through the hashtag on Twitter on a regular basis, I’ve browsed through Reddit and 8chan boards, I’ve read literature and documentation and watched videos that were linked from there, and more.

I honestly think I’ve done my homework, and I honestly believe I understand a reasonable amount of what makes the Gamergate movement. I’m sure many people will disagree with my characterizations, probably on both “sides” of the issue, and that’s fine. This is my assessment, and I believe it to be accurate, but you don’t have to agree.

One thing I would encourage you to do though, is to read the full article before commenting or deciding that I’m wrong or right. This is a very, very complex topic, and you can’t get the full picture by just reading the first few sentences.

Also please note that I’m not doing a “History of Gamergate” here. I’m just trying to give my understanding of what it is and how if functions today.

Ok, first things first: what is Gamergate?

Here is the easiest way I can summarize it: at its core, it is a hashtag that anyone can use to speak up, and that most are using to voice concerns that have to do with gender issues and ethics in gaming.

Who are the people who are part of Gamergate?

Members of the Gamergate movement are the people who identify themselves as members of the Gamergate movement.

That’s it. There is no official structure or organisation, and it can be anyone who uses the hashtag. Which is why it is also so difficult to understand.

How big is this movement?

Nobody knows. A few dozen thousand people maybe? Hard to say. The Gamergate hastag has seen over two million Tweets in two months, and is still active. Let’s say each Gamergater averages 10 to 20 tweets per month; we get 50 to 100K individuals. But really, this is shoddy guestimating. Again, nobody knows. What we do know is that it’s not an insignificant number of people.

What does Gamergate want?

Nothing. Everything. Ethics. Justice. For women activists to stay out of our damn video games. To express their anger and frustration. It changes depending on who you ask, which makes this so much… “fun”. What does Gamergate want? God only knows. Literally.

I’m not kidding: nobody (but God) can know for sure. This is because the movement arguably has no leader and no demands, so its exact goal is very difficult to pin down. The term participants usually use to define the nature of the movement is “a consumer revolt”, with no fixed structure. Think #OccupyWallStreet.

Where it gets interesting is that there has even been an active rejection of the idea of setting goals or formulating demands (as seen in this document, which used to be shared amongst Gamergaters, although it does seem to be less prominent now). So, again, with no goal or demand or philosophy, and the active refusal to set them, it is impossible – almost by design – to say what the movement actually stands for. Of course this makes talking about the movement’s goals tricky, for good or ill. But mostly for ill: if it’s cool, then it’s cool, end of story. But if it isn’t cool, then there’s no representation to address, no body to debate with, no clear point to refute. And participants make the best of that “flaw”.

I have, more than once, heard Gamergaters say that you shouldn’t believe what you read or hear, but rather “ask the people”, because this is a people’s movement. This was usually in response to accusations that Gamergate promotes harassment of women. As there is no leader or list of demands to point to and explain that this isn’t what Gamergate stands for, individuals who want to refute these accusations are left with no choice but to assure you that this is not what they, as an individual, stand for. And that you’d know that if you bothered to ask.

The reasoning here is that people making those accusations are making gross generalizations based on anecdotal evidence. And it is also often implied that most of Gamergaters don’t stand for and aren’t conducive to harassment either (which is, quite ironically, a generalization based on the individual’s anecdotal evidence as well).

So what you’re left with is a disparate group of several dozen thousand people that purposefully don’t set goals or objectives and have no leaders, and that advocate that you can’t understand what they want unless you essentially speak to each of them individually. Needless to say, this is an unsolvable problem.

As I said, Gamergate is a hashtag any individual can use, and nobody can say with certainty what Gamergate really, truly wants. Not even “people who identify as Gamergaters”.

So how can we know what Gamergate is about?

The only way I can think of to understand what Gamergate is about is to look into the places that seem most central to its activity. The Twitter hashtag is at its core of course; a simple search will tell you a lot (although I would recommend repeated the search multiple times to get a wider sample), and the 8chan messageboard’s Gamergate board (same remark).

If there is a better way of sampling what this movement does and stands for, I’m all ears. But for now, this is how I’m analyzing it, and I honestly believe there isn’t really a better way (short of interviewing 50.000 to 100.000 people individually).

Well, I heard it’s about journalistic ethics.

Yeah… It really isn’t. I know I just said nobody can know “for sure”. I stand by that: any time you say “Gamergate is about X”, someone who identifies themselves as a Gamergater can tell you: “no it isn’t, how would you know, it’s a consumer revolt”. And they would be right; we can’t know for sure what each of the 50.000 or 100.000 people think. But there very consistently recurring themes in its main representative outlets. One of them, probably the most common in that context of asking “what it’s about”, is journalistic ethics.

So… Wait, it is about ethics then? – you might ask. Well, no, it still isn’t.

See, it is usually “about ethics” in the context of women and gender issues. Going through the hashtag and the popular Gamergate related boards, these questions are not only overwhelmingly central, there are also at the core of the whole “ethics” debate. The genesis of the movement was about a woman’s relation with a journalist. The core of the ethics debate is about the media “fairly” reporting or not reporting on pro or anti gender related issues discussions. The fuel of the movement’s anger is the change that feminists want to see in female characters in games.

Remember, nobody can say what Gamergate is or isn’t. I’m sure some people will read this and think “you are wrong, we talk about ethics all the time”. I’m sure they do. And actually, I have also seen a lot of actual talk about actual journalistic ethics. albeit in a somewhat superficial way (which usually involves taking individual points of data into conclusions about the entire industry – again an issue with generalizations, ironically). But I would submit that these “serious” discussions came as a way to legitimize, or even harness the power of, a discussion that was solely about “ethics as it relates to women”. I would even guess that this was done half consciously to clean up a debate that most participants were starting to see for the unacceptable mess that it was. But I’m veering into speculation here, let’s get back on track.

I also want to say this: while those genuine debates about ethics might represent a (small) part of the movement, that is not what I see when I try to understand its overall material and activity. What I do see are women being discussed everywhere. Maybe you don’t, but you also don’t own the movement any more then any other Gamergater does… That’s the trick: when you try and say this is a “leaderless consumer revolt”, it works both ways. And if I can’t define it as “not being about ethics”, you can’t define it as “being about ethics” either. With this core issue, all we’re left with is what we see, and this is what I see. And again, I’m not talking about “pro-feminist press slander” here. I’m talking about the hashtag and about 8chan. If this isn’t representative of what Gamergate discusses, then nothing is.

And just to bring the point home: what I almost never see are substential “discussions” about journalistic ethics. Sure, I see professional code of ethics thrown around here and there, with the empty preface of “we want journalists to be ethical, like THIS”!, and there are videos that list a few issues of corruption in journalism (which aren’t anything new and have been appropriately addressed already). These don’t hold anything of substance, other than a pretty obvious attempt at obfuscating the relationship the movement has had with the issue of women from the beginning, and the the painful platitude that “journalists should be ethical”, which nobody has ever disputed. There would be a lot of serious things to say about ethics in games journalism, but that isn’t the focus of what is being discussed in the Gamergate space, as far as I can see.

What *is*central and heavily discussed however, is, again, how journalists are unfairly treating this issue of women’s representation. Which is, of course, because they don’t have ethics.

So in my opinion, Gamergate isn’t about ethics. It could be argued that it’s about ethics-as-it-relates-to-the-issue-of-women’s-representation-in-games. Maybe. But even then, I’m sorry to say, that’s not ethics.

And besides… Ok, let’s get back to reality for second here: as important in game journalism is (and it *is* important, don’t make me say it isn’t), I don’t think these issues would warrant such incredible rage and anger. I mean, we’re not talking about political conspiracies or debates about the death penalty. And for the amount of serious “scandals” people bandy around as examples of corruption (single digits I guess), the reaction would seem disproportionate even if it was justified. Which suggests there is a deeper issue at play.

So it’s about women and feminists?

Yes it is. Most Gamergaters will tell you it isn’t. Just as they will tell you it’s about ethics. I disagree here too.

Again, I know I said you can’t really define Gamergate. But again, I think you can look at the nature of the discussions and the central topics. The question of representation of women in game is everywhere, and the question of the feminists that are arguing for a better representation of women in games is too.

Let me take the “LW” example, which I think is emblematic of the broken logic that sits at the core of this issue.

LW stands for “Literally Who”; a way to designate the main advocates of the question of women’s representation in games, who are also the most visible women in the whole debate. The argument is that these women are unfairly targeting the Gamergate movement, trying to get more attention than they deserve, and placing blame where there is none. So the response of the movement has been to obfuscate their names, and replace them with “LW”. Of course there is more than one of these women, and so there is more than one LW. We have LW1, LW2 and LW3. There are being referred to all the time. But it’s also very confusing, so they are also explained again from time to time: “LW1=Z, LW2=A, LW3=B” (those stand for Zoe Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian and Brianna Wu, which anyone who follows the movement knows).

If it looks silly, it’s because it is. And as I was saying, this is emblematic: it seems people in the movement actually believe that using an established code name for someone is somehow equivalent to not talking about them, or denying them the attention they “seek”. I haven’t seen many people arguing that “if the movement isn’t about them, then we really shouldn’t be discussing them at all”.

Some might say they are being discussed because they keep dragging in Gamergate in their discussions, when really Gamergate has nothing to do with them (it’s really about ethics, remember?). But if the movement can’t be defined and some people use its main conduit to harass them, isn’t the movement effectively about that, partially at least? And besides, you can’t say this isn’t about women, and then be discussing women all over the Gamergate affiliated outlets, and then be surprised when people don’t believe you. And looking at the material the movement produces, this is exactly what we see: women’s representation in games, and those that want to discuss that issue, are still central.

With the argument that if the “LWs” get their way, games will be negatively impacted (artificially changed).

So Gamergate is about the fear of a negative impact on games?

Yes. I think most Gamergaters would agree to this. Until they remember they’re actually all about ethics.

The issue is thus: “Some people say there is an issue with women’s representation in games, but there really isn’t, and the changes they are demanding would change (“destroy”) the games we love.”

If this is true, I sort of can understand the frustration. Only I don’t believe it’s true. I believe there is an obvious issue with women’s representation in games, and it’s a worthwhile topic to discuss. Again, we get back to women’s representation in gaming. We always do.

The only thing I’ll add here is to address a recent argument I’ve read from Gamergaters: when people claim that games won’t really be negatively impacted by more female representation, they answer that “this isn’t really the core concern, but rather that the worry is really the impact on the artistic or design intent of the developer”, giving examples like an the alteration of female clothing in a game.

This sort of implies that they don’t really have a problem with having more female characters better represented as a principle, but that there is a fear it would pervert the artistic integrity of the those games.

Well, I’m sorry but you can’t have it both ways: if the “artistic integrity” is what is causing the issue, then you can’t keep protecting it because “it is the artistic intent”. I would even argue most of those aren’t “artistic integrity” but rather an unintended consequence of a specific culture, which is very very different.

If there is an issue with women’s representation in games, then there is an issue with women’s representation in games, and we have to address it. Including by changing the way female characters are… represented in games. It comes with the package. It IS the package. So let’s decide whether or not there is an issue, why don’t we? We can have that discussion.

Except we can’t, because this isn’t what the movement is about. Indeed, we should not forget: it’s about journalistic ethics.

What about the harassment thing? Are Gamergaters responsible for this?

I know some people won’t agree with my answer here, but I’d say they aren’t strictly responsible. Not directly.

In recent weeks there has been an incredible increase of condemnation of abuse and harassment to women on Gamergate outlets. Every other post includes a “we don’t like them, but we strongly condemn any harassment”. I don’t believe those are fake or completely insincere.

I’m sure that the overwhelming majority of individual Gamergaters want nothing to do with people who threaten to rape and issue death threats. Here again, they will say, not without reason, that the hashtag is available to anyone, and that they are not responsible for what a few extremists will do with it.

Things are that simple though. The Gamergate movement isn’t advocating violence, but it is aggressive towards women. It is full of negativity and single-mindedness. I believe that this isn’t a healthy debate, but an echo chamber that fosters anger and even hate. Some might say “welcome to the Internet, duh!”. I don’t think that’s quite right though. The Internet doesn’t create movements like that, it “only” allows them to express (and amplify) something that is already there. So what’s already there? Gamergaters will say: “Ethics! We’ve been telling you this for weeks!”. But that’s not what I’ve seen. What I’ve seen is privilege, and the inability to understand that it has to go away, because it is unfair. To women.

I think this is where the line of communication will break down for good: Gamergaters simply won’t accept this has merits. And that’s ok, I’m fine with people disagreeing with me, obviously.

So at a deeper, probably unconscious level, I think this is a disproportionate reaction to the fear of losing something as central to your identity as your “place in the world”. And yes there are women who are Gamergaters, but in truth we are touching on the issue of the place of women in society as a whole, and that is a much bigger and far reaching issue than that of video games.

Gamergate looks to me like a political front, outraged that immigrants are coming to take our jobs. They are loud, active, determined and angry. The galvanize and rally the troupes, because this is an important issue, and these immigrants are threatening our way of life and, quite frankly, they suck. They repeat this among themselves, to each other, to anyone that wants to listen, and even to those who aren’t interested. And then some moron skinhead goes and stabs an immigrant. Is it the political front’s fault? Well, not directly. But they’re not “not responsible” either.

Is Gamergate responsible for the revolting amounts to psychological battery aimed at the women who dare to try and stand for themselves? Maybe not. Not directly. But they’re not “not responsible”. The Gamergate movement does, in my opinion, foster an environment that is toxic to women. And I also think Gamergaters are aware of it, at least on some level, and this is why they are focusing so heavily on saying the movement is about ethics, when the material it produces seems inextricably linked to the question of women.

Please make no mistake: I’m not saying Gamergaters are racist, or as bad as racists. I’m not even saying they’re really misogynistic. I don’t think they should be censored either. Serious threats and crimes should be investigated and prosecuted; I think everyone will agree there. But I think Gamergaters will dislike my hypothesis even more than claims of racism: I think they’re the victims of a society and culture that doesn’t recognize the heavy inequalities women face ever day. At work, at home, in movies, in advertising, and yes, in video games. And when someone says we have to change that world, they react… strongly.

Brand me a feminist, I’ll wear that badge proudly. Because we don’t just have a problem with women’s representation in games, we have a problem with women’s place in our world. And we need to fix it. And we will! It won’t happen today, and it won’t happen next year, and I don’t believe will happen violently. I believe it will happen because we’ll teach our daughters that they don’t have to be the princess in the castle, but they can be Thor if they want to. It will happen because we’ll show our them, and our sons, that girls don’t have to study literature, but that they can be a kick-ass physicist if they want. It will happen because we will let our coworkers know that objectifying our female colleagues at the water cooler isn’t “cool”, just like calling someone “gay” isn’t cool.

And yes, it will happen because we will slowly be correcting a representation balance that has been completely out of whack in the video games industry, and because one day, hopefully soon, the games women will play will finally make them feel as great as men have for the past 30 years. To be honest, I think that change is already happening, and I don’t think there is a lot anyone can do to change it.

But these aren’t things you can fault someone for. Not really. People are just living in the world the way it is, and sometimes even realizing that there is an issue is difficult when that’s what you’ve known your whole life. It just feels natural, because it is. Once the question is raised however, once the issue is exposed, then we have a choice. And I believe that the way we handle these question is what defines our character as people.

Isn’t there more to say about this?

Yes there is. There would be a lot. I could talk about Adam Baldwin, about the “gamer identity” issue, about the gamejournopro mailing list, about comparison to “video games making people violent”, about SJWs, about the horrendous, unacceptable and relentless harassment women in this industry and female gamers are facing, for speaking up and making their voices heard as they should, or simply for joining voice chat in an online FPS… There would be a lot to say about that, and about so much more. But this is already very long, and I think the key questions have been addressed.

The one thing I would like to add is this: Gamergate is giving gamers a bad name, and it makes me sad that my pride is being muddled by all this anger and intolerance. But I believe it won’t last. Because this is exactly the opposite of what we are. We are the group where some kid you’ve never heard of can win a world tournament through sheer skill. We are the group where people play with friends from countries they’ve never even heard of every night to take on the greatest challenges. We are the group that discovers this random person we thought had nothing in common with us actually loves gaming, and we end up talking about that and everything else for hours on end.
Ultimately, we are understanding and inclusive. We love video games and we are brought together in that passion. It is our generation’s form of entertainment, and it is an incredible one at that. It’s also becoming an new and real form of art, with all that it implies – including the difficult but necessary discussions. And our community will be stronger than any angry debate, as we, all of us, one by one, choose to spread love instead of rejection. We are gamers, we are not Gamergate.

As I conclude this article, I would like to thank everyone for reading it, pro something, against something, or neutral everything. I would also like to reiterate that these are my honest opinions, and my heartfelt attempt at understanding what Gamergate is and how it functions. And I thank everyone who will chose to comment to do so in a civil manner.

Thank you, and game on.

October 30th, 2014