Since it began in August, proponents of the online movement Gamergate have insisted that their chief interest is in exposing corruption in the press. Look closer, though, and you’ll see it’s just a front for a toxic smear campaign.
Allow me to explain.
Gamergate is a sizable online community of videogame fans who are upset about growing criticisms of their favorite hobby, especially claims that today’s games often depict women in demeaning ways. Complicating the matter further, Gamergate advocates say the debate about women in gaming is being enabled by a weak and corrupt gaming press.
There are, in fact, problems with the media. Games companies wield great power over influential sites like IGN, Gamespot and Game Informer (along with many others), which even industry insiders refer to as the “enthusiast press” for their often uncritical spin on the news.
But that’s not what Gamergate has shown it cares about in practice. The labels of “ethics” and “corruption” are, to date, a thin veil over an ongoing attempt to undermine women in the gaming industry and the games press. Anyone who advocates for gender equality, or better representation, or even just a more open discussion is considered an enemy to be bullied, boycotted or, in some cases, harassed.
Gamergate has even gone so far as to convince chipmaker Intel to pull its advertising from a gaming site seen as sympathetic to women gamers.
And why? Because their voices are seen as a threat to the gaming community. In a twisted way, Gamergaters are battling a “corrupting” influence in the gaming press and its adherents, but that influence isn’t corporate scheming — it’s social progress.
Let’s rewind and retrace how we got here.
In August, Eron Gjoni, a robotics and AI programmer, publicly accused his ex-girlfriend Zoe Quinn, an independent game developer, of cheating on him with five men, including a writer for Gawker’s gaming blog Kotaku, Nathan Grayson. This was the start of Gamergate, with Gjoni deciding Quinn’s private sex life was a public controversy. His followers, in turn, accused Quinn of trading sex for a favorable review of her game, Depression Quest, from Kotaku.
In truth, Grayson never actually wrote a review of Depression Quest for Kotaku, and only mentioned Quinn in an article about a failed reality show. In his previous gig as a writer for the PC gaming blog Rock Paper Shotgun, he wrote two articles that mentioned Depression Quest, neither of which were reviews. And after investigating Gamergaters’ allegations, Kotaku concluded that the latest of these stories — the reality show piece — predated Grayson and Quinn’s relationship.
But never mind all that. This idea of sex for press coverage took root, and is still being repeated in Gamergate circles to this day.
Gjoni continues to insist that Quinn is a “pathological liar and hypocrite,” and argues that she tricked journalists into siding with her. In an email to Re/code, he said Quinn could have “nip[ped] harassment in the bud by issuing a public apology to the fans she’d misled.”
Gjoni dubbed his invented controversy “Five Guys Burgers and Fries,” after the five alleged sexual partners, and wrote more than 10,000 words on the topic. Only at the end did he try to disclaim any interest in harassment, later telling a receptive Vice reporter that he “very much align[ed]” with the social justice movement.
“My own personal goal was just to warn people about Zoe, and let them make their own decisions about the information presented,” Gjoni said in his email to Re/code.
I’ve reached out to Quinn for comment on this, and have not yet heard back. But the role Gjoni created for himself here — as a sort of whistleblower — doesn’t really add up. Even if Quinn were the person Gjoni and his adherents claim she is, she’s a person, not a government or multinational company; her only impact on the public was being a female game developer who made an atypical, critically acclaimed game. Her accuser comes off more as an angry, unbalanced ex than a responsible watchdog.
Still, in very little time, Gjoni’s blog post was a runaway train. The “Five Guys” meme proliferated in private chat rooms and public social forums, and geek-beloved actor Adam Baldwin (Jayne Cobb from Firefly) popularized both it and the hashtag #Gamergate to his nearly 200,000 Twitter followers.
I’ve written previously about another target of Gamergate, feminist academic Anita Sarkeesian, who publishes the video series Tropes vs. Women. Sarkeesian has critiqued the prevalence of sexist tropes in games for years, and has been hounded by activist gamers for just as long, but the latest round of threats was intense enough to temporarily drive her out of her home, and is now being investigated by the FBI.
As one of the more popular videos about Gamergate shows, it objects to the growing coverage of social issues like feminism in gaming.
“Gaming journalism has reached a low point over the last five years,” YouTuber InternetAristocrat says in the video. “It started with pieces that had nothing to do with gaming or game reviews, nothing to do with software or hardware, nothing to do with events or expos. It started to travel off into the areas of social justice and feminism and opinion pieces and op-eds that had nothing to do with gaming.”
At the risk of being redundant: This is what Gamergate means by corruption. Not the sway that the games publishers might hold over writers, but the growing interest among online journalists in issues that make some readers feel uncomfortable. The video (which is coming up on a million views with a 96 percent like-dislike ratio on YouTube) goes on to berate those “hypocritical cunts at gaming journalism sites” for criticizing the gaming audience and questioning its tastes.
This is not corruption. It’s writers covering relevant topics on their beats, and they’re not even writing about those topics all that much. Morgan Ramsay, a writer who maintains a full-text archive of 23 gaming publications, reported recently that only 0.41 percent of all articles in a recent one-year time frame referenced feminism, sexism or misogyny.
Gamergate’s targets have also included writers — both male and female — who have dismissed the movement and its goals. These writers, advocates say, are using the issue to further their own feminist agenda.
One of the most-discussed reactions by people following Gamergate was this column, written by Gamasutra editor-at-large Leigh Alexander in August, urging game developers to turn their backs on the “gamers” who only wanted a consumerist, socially ignorant press.
With the rise of games as a multi-billion dollar industry, she wrote, gamers “had marketers whispering in their ears that they were the most important commercial demographic of all time.” They came to believe everything else was irrelevant, a problem to be pushed aside. In this light, Gamergate was an attempt to get everyone back on yesterday’s pre-approved message, even though the industry and its audience has changed and is changing tremendously.
Naturally, the movement then zeroed in on Alexander. A weeks-long email-bombing campaign notched a major victory last week after it convinced Intel to drop its advertising on Gamasutra because of how Alexander “insulted gamers.” Like Sarkeesian, she went off message, and the mob decided she and her employer had to be punished.
Intel, despite apologizing for any potential offense it may have caused by conceding to Gamergate, said last week that it would not reverse the ad pull. Reached for comment, a company spokesperson said Intel had nothing new to add since then.
The reactions to this turn of events have been fascinating to watch. In particular, I’ve been intrigued by all the rationalizations for why Alexander was supposedly in the wrong, when all she did was write an opinion piece about a newsworthy event.
For many Gamergaters, Alexander’s public face on Gamasutra and Twitter — a clever, sarcastic, sometimes sharp-tongued critic — made her fair game for backlash. Along with the organized email campaign, which was explicitly about gender issues and Alexander’s supposed “hatred” for the gamer audience, they dredged up past tweets and comments that made her appear rude or mean. Especially popular was a tweet (since deleted) from 2010 where she sounded off on “hood men harassing me from cars.”
“Racist!” they cried. (Wait, when did this stop being about ethics again?)
The numerous invocations of the “hood” tweet, in which Alexander frustratedly calls for a “violent cultural backlash,” were only part of the story. Gamergaters have also insisted that their movement and Intel were in the right because Alexander’s words were somehow too dangerous to be left alone.
“Have you even read her stuff?” one person tweeted at me. “If you really think a man could’ve gotten away with those opinions, you’re crazy.”
Hello from crazy-ville, then. A male writer, Dan Golding, came to a similar conclusion as Alexander in a widely-shared blog post called “The End of Gamers.” So did this man. And this man. This one, too. And many, many, others.
Of course, Gamergate doesn’t see these similar articles as a consensus — to them, it’s just proof of a journalistic conspiracy.
The truth is Alexander, Quinn and Sarkeesian were singled out because they are saying and doing things the gaming mob disagreed with, and are women to boot. You don’t see that mob up in arms about a dumb vaguely racial comment some guy made years ago; in all three cases, it all comes back in the end to who these people are and what they represent: Change.
If change in the gaming industry that leads to more diverse games and more inclusivity is “corruption,” then I don’t want to be clean.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.