Late last week, after she posted links to a meme making fun of the #GamerGate movement on Twitter, game designer Brianna Wu had her personal information shared among supporters of the movement. Coupled with the endless stream of harassing tweets she had received in the wake of the memes and several that threatened specific acts of violence, it was enough to drive Wu from her home.
Unfortunately, this has become par for the course for the loose-knit #GamerGate movement. Ostensibly, it's a community of gamers who are concerned about ethically problematic relationships between independent game developers and the journalists who write about them. But in practice, the movement has mostly been about deplorable harassment and intimidation of critics — usually women — who dare to disagree with them. It has becoming a misogynistic mob masquerading as a social movement.
There are plenty of well-meaning, intelligent, thoughtful people within the #GamerGate movement, people who might not understand how journalism works 100 percent of the time, but also certainly don't bear ill will toward women. But the way #GamerGate keeps devolving into an incoherent, misogynistic rabble means those voices get choked out. As such, the movement is impossible to take seriously anymore.
Loosely affiliated political movements
In the process of researching and writing my piece attempting to explain #GamerGate, I talked to many supporters of the movement. I was struck by two things, time and time again. The first was that they all had articulately delivered concerns about the state of games journalism. Those concerns might not have always been strictly practical, or might have stemmed from confusion about how journalists who cover a specific industry operate, but they were real and at least understandable. And every time I asked about how the movement could deal with the harassment of women, I was told the harassment needed to stop because it was both wrong and a distraction from the real issues the movement hoped to uncover.
But I also noticed something else — something that explains why the movement always seems to devolve into fury. No two people I talked to could tell me the same goals for what a #GamerGate victory might look like. Some just wanted conversation around these issues. Some wanted games journalism to adhere to a strict code of ethics. Still others wanted "objectivity" in reviews (whatever that would mean, in a writing format that's inherently biased).
That made #GamerGate a loosely affiliated political movement, and the struggle of loosely affiliated political movements throughout history is that they tend to become defined in public perception by their worst adherents. As such, no matter how well-meaning the #GamerGaters I talked to might be — indeed, no matter how well-meaning the majority of participants in the movement might be — it is now impossible to hear #GamerGate and not have the widespread harassment of women be one of the first things you think about.
And, arguably, those who are using the movement as cover for their harassment have been more successful than those who simply want to talk about ethical concerns. The biggest success of the ethicists has had has been getting one advertiser to pull ads from one website (a move the advertiser immediately apologized for). Meanwhile, the misogynistic mob has driven several women from the industry they love, or from their homes. They've hijacked whatever conversation was happening and made it all about some of the worst impulses in human nature.
A horrific pattern
Time and again, the same pattern repeats itself. Someone — usually a woman — creates something that either mocks #GamerGate supporters in the abstract, or writes an article that mocks gamers as a subculture, as with the Leigh Alexander Gamasutra piece that led to Intel pulling its ads. But the response to this isn't, ultimately, a response in kind. It's to target specific women (and occasionally men) with specific threats of specific harm. It's to attempt to shut down debate through infantile, immature, dangerous tactics. And it's given the whole movement a bad name that it simply can't wash out.
Perhaps this was inevitable. Though the pivot to talking about journalism ethics came relatively early on in the #GamerGate saga (roughly after Alexander's piece appeared), the movement never started out as one about journalism ethics, like, say, the 2007 controversy over former Gamespot writer Jeff Gerstmann being fired for writing bad reviews of games that advertised on his site.
Instead, it began as an angry attack on Zoe Quinn, for the offenses of being young, female, outspoken, and sexual. (Quinn continues to receive harassment every day and still hasn't returned to her home.) And every time #GamerGate tries to evolve past those roots, its angry base keeps snapping it back to that core, which is driven less by frustration over anything concrete and more by terror that the "core demographic" of gamers might not always be young men.
Though #GamerGate has yet to uncover any legitimate ethical problems in the gaming journalism community, it's not as if discussions about the topic don't need to be had. (Alexander herself has a list of genuine concerns with ethics in gaming journalism here.) The problem with the movement, then, is that it's unable to transcend its horrible roots to have actual discussions. The only way to take the movement seriously would be if it had swiftly and quickly driven harassers out of its ranks, but the time for that was weeks ago, and it's clear by now that most #GamerGate supporters simply don't care if they share a movement with hardcore misogynists.
For those who genuinely want to use #GamerGate to talk about ethics and the changing face of gaming — and there are more of them out there than you might think — it's probably time to ditch the movement and the hashtag and find some new way to tackle these issues. For everybody else, well, don't be surprised if you're judged by the company you keep.