Over the past several weeks, the online video game community has become ground zero for a series of heated discussions and arguments about, among other things, sexual harassment, feminism, and journalistic integrity. These are big, meaty topics, so naturally, everybody was completely civil and thoughtful in their discourse.
Not really. The ongoing war — which has, at this point, led Intel to pull sponsorship from gaming news site Gamasutra after an organized pressure campaign — has been centered on Twitter under the hashtag #Gamergate. But what is #Gamergate? Well, you've come to the right place.
What is #Gamergate?
Like all hashtags, #Gamergate has come to mean about 500 different things to thousands of different people. But at its heart, it's about two topics:
1) The treatment of women in gaming: The start of the story (which is actually the latest permutation of a long-evolving firestorm) came in late August after indie game developer Zoe Quinn and gaming critic Anita Sarkeesian were both horribly harassed online. The same harassment was later lobbed at award-winning games journalist Jenn Frank and fellow writer Mattie Brice. Both Frank and Brice say they will no longer write about games. The FBI is looking into harassment of game developers.
2) Ethics in games journalism: The Gamergaters argue that the focus on harassment distracts from the real issue, which is that indie game developers and the online gaming press have gotten too cozy. There's also a substantial, vocal movement that believes the generally left-leaning online gaming press focuses too much on feminism and the role of women in the industry, to the detriment of coverage of games. (One of the sites mentioned in this debate is Vox's sister site Polygon.) These concerns exploded after programmer Eron Gjoni, who had dated Quinn, posted a revenge blog accusing her of cheating on him with Nathan Grayson, a writer for the influential games website Kotaku.
The Gamergaters have some actually interesting concerns, largely driven by the changing face of video game culture. But those concerns have often been warped and drowned out by an army of trolls spewing bile, often at women.
So who is Zoe Quinn?
Quinn is a game designer whose most famous creation is Depression Quest, co-created with Patrick Lindsey and Isaac Schankler, that uses a multiple-choice text adventure (a game told entirely through words) to simulate the experience of having depression. It's a beautiful, brutal experience, but it's also one that doesn't really offer much in the way of traditional "gameplay," since you are, after all, making selections from a menu of options.
For a time, Quinn dated a programmer named Eron Gjoni. Things ended badly. Gjoni wrote a series of online posts about the end of the relationship (collected here). He released personal information about her. And then all hell broke loose. (Gjoni has since distanced himself from everything that followed in this Vice interview.)
Gjoni said that Quinn had cheated on him, and one of those instances was with a writer for the influential games website Kotaku. Kotaku investigated, finding no wrongdoing on the part of either its writer (Nathan Grayson) or Quinn.
Thousands of comments on the matter were expunged from normally freewheeling 4chan and Reddit for reasons that weren't immediately clear, and a DMCA takedown notice was filed against a YouTube video using footage from one of Quinn's games. Quinn was harassed endlessly via Twitter, her phone, and other modes of communication.
Some gamers were upset that the press didn't report more on Gjoni's accusations, accusing the journalists of covering for one of their own. But, of course, journalistic outlets don't make habits of reporting on the personal lives of those they cover, unless those personal lives are somehow specifically notable.
In the weeks since the Quinn story broke, #Gamergate supporters have claimed the continual focus on her in articles like this one is a false flag, an attempt to make the issue about something other than journalistic ethics. But as Quinn herself proved (by luring in a #Gamergate IRC chat room), a substantial portion of the response has been driven by an attempt to push back against her personally.
Who is Anita Sarkeesian?
Sarkeesian is a popular, prominent feminist critic of all forms of media, who writes and hosts the YouTube show Feminist Frequency. A few years ago, she launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for a new series on female characters in video games, focusing on how many of them fell into harmful tropes. The Kickstarter was wildly successful — and it took advantage of the predictably misogynistic backlash, with supporters motivated to donate by the tons of hate-filled comments and anger directed Sarkeesian's way (up to and including the creation of a game in which players beat her up).
Since then, Sarkeesian has mostly released her videos to more subdued (though still present) vitriol and the occasional smear campaign. But one of her most recent gaming videos was released right as the Quinn story was boiling over, resulting in even more harassment than the original one.
The threats were so specific that Sarkeesian feared for her life and went into hiding. Avengers director and Buffy creator Joss Whedon tweeted her some words of support, while Star Trek: The Next Generation star and online nerd icon Wil Wheaton angrily chastised gamers for their treatment of her.
All of this led to a series of essays published on the "death of the gamer" as an identity. To anyone in the online media industrial complex, this will just look like the typical swarm of think pieces trying to find new things to say about the same topic. But to a lot of Gamergaters, it looked like collusion — an attempt to silence them and deny their right to exist.
What is GameJournoPros?
This also explains the anger #GamerGate supporters feel over the revelation of a private email list called GameJournoPros, which was a forum where writers covering the industry (and a few within the industry) discussed topics and issues of interest. In and of itself, GameJournoPros is essentially a trade discussion group and wouldn't have prompted much irritation at all had it been uncovered at another time. But the discovery of it coming when it did prompted cries of collusion. Ars Technica's Kyle Orland, who founded the list, apologized for some of the more clumsily worded emails, but did not apologize for the list itself, claiming it had helped him cover the industry better.
What should video game journalists actually cover?
This is central to the debate. A large part of #Gamergate stems from a fundamental disconnect between what those who read gaming media believe journalism to be and what it actually is. Put simply: Cultural journalism (which includes video game journalism) is bound by the same strictures as traditional journalism — get the facts right, don't plagiarize, don't write glowing stories about friends or family, etc. — but at the same time, its very existence denotes a kind of built-in critical judgment. Put bluntly: If a cultural journalist writes about a game or movie or book, the implicit assumption is that this is worth you knowing about on some level.
But when that springs up around nontraditional games, it leads to a disconnect between the primary audience of gaming publications and those who write about games. In his What Culture piece, Ephraim brings up the game Gone Home, about a young woman returning to her house after time away. It was roundly lauded in the gaming press, but Ephraim singles it out as something that was praised only because it engaged with LGBT issues (whereas most of the reviews actually suggest the game was appreciated because it did something very different from other games).
In an email to me, Ephraim said the problem is just one of nomenclature, something very important in a subculture that is endlessly fond of making lists of things:
People, gaming journalists included, are allowed to have their own opinions on whether ‘art' games are good, and healthy debate and discussion should spring from this. The main problem is that games like Depression Quest and Gone Home are called 'games' in the first place. As I said in my article, there needs to be serious consideration of an official genre called ‘Walking Novels' for Gone Home and ‘Interactive Novels' [for something like] Depression Quest.
All branches of journalism have to wrestle with the question of friendships between journalists and those they cover. But it's particularly acute in the gaming press, which evolved from an enthusiast press — that is to say, it was originally written by people who really liked gaming, for people who really liked gaming — that was often a publicity arm of the games industry for many years. (Game companies would use magazine "previews" as essentially giant advertisements.) In many respects, the rise of online outlets, which are more skeptical of the industry, has been a boon to good, objective games journalism.
But it's also led to more and more articles about the poor relationship individual titles and the industry as a whole have with women and minorities. These articles are often poorly received by the core audience. This has slowly but surely widened a divide between those who might just want to hear about how video games are awesome and those who want forthright coverage of problems within the industry. (And, arguably, having those close relationships between reporters and sources has led to better coverage of those problems, though it's also led to situations where journalists have known about a newsworthy event about to happen and haven't reported on it.)
Can games be art?
Yes. And, really, a big part of this debate is about how games are allowed to be art. The indie game scene stretches the definition of games in an industry dominated by massive action blockbusters. Depression Quest and Gone Home keep coming up in this debate because both are, for the most part, devoid of traditional gameplay mechanics. They're less about getting you through a gameplay narrative and more about making you have a particular experience. They're about personal, artistic expression more than a carefully controlled story that apes big-budget movies.
"In the past, there was this fictional conception that a reviewer could apply an ‘objective' score to a video game, untainted by any personal bias. Given that games are highly subjective, experiential things, and not mobile phones, this idea is a bit silly to begin with," Alexander said. "But then you add into the mix that the historical model of games coverage involved bargains struck between marketing departments at big games companies and the advertising departments of niche games magazines, and it's stunning that the biggest ‘ethical concerns' our audience has ever raised come from an environment where people now do personal, creative writing about independent games."
The film industry is a good comparison point here. That's a world where there are both huge blockbusters and smaller, more intimate films that take chances with the form. Video games are getting there, too. This is, ultimately, just a part of that evolution. And as long as that evolution continues, there will be this sort of fractious debate. Because what #Gamergate is all about isn't who is or isn't a gamer, or what role the press should play. It's about what games should be and who they should be for. And that's worth a real discussion, not just a hashtag.
Do politics play a role in this?
Yes, of course. This is the United States. #Gamergate really took off once Adam Baldwin got involved, and it's led to articles about the situation on sites like Breitbart. The Breitbart article is actually headlined "Feminist Bullies Tearing the Video Game Industry Apart."
Plus, because of the video game controversies of the ‘90s (when games were frequently blamed for things like school shootings), the community is already primed to think that any discussion of games in a sociopolitical context means that talk of banning them isn't far behind.
The #Gamergate arguments, particularly on 4chan, reference the term "social justice warrior" frequently and often. What this means, usually, is someone — often a woman like Sarkeesian — who is pushing for games to become more diverse or representative of viewpoints other than that of a young white guy. And there are huge portions of the #Gamergate world that are angered by this (though not all, by any means; McCatty told me he likes Sarkeesian's videos for how they point out tropes the industry leans on too often).
But if much of #Gamergate is about railing against the evolution of gaming journalism from enthusiast press to something closer to genuine press, or about lamenting the evolution of games from product to artistic statement, then it's also about pushing back against the medium's evolution from one that's just for the "gamer" demographic to one that's more inclusive. And while that doesn't describe everyone involved in #Gamergate, such defenses of the status quo have always overlapped with political conservatism.
What do the Gamergaters ultimately want?
This is what isn't as clear, and it really differs based on which #Gamergate supporter you talk to. If it was just to bring attention to Quinn's personal life, that's already happened. If it was to create better ethical disclosures in online journalism, that's happening, too. The Escapist is drafting new guidelines, while Kotaku is now forbidding its writers from financially supporting independent designers on Patreon, a popular method for backing independent artists (unless the site's writers need to donate to Patreon for coverage purposes, since many developers release material first to their Patreon backers). And Vox sister site Polygon requires disclosures of this sort of support.
For his part, Ephraim thinks the movement has succeeded: "I'd say #GamerGate has already been successful. One of the main points was to promote skepticism about videogame journalism, and considering how much the topic has been trending, it's safe to say it was successful."
But a lot of what Gamergaters really want seems to be about things that are so nebulous as to be meaningless. "Better objectivity" is all well and good, but what it often seems to mean, functionally, is a return to the days when the gaming press was filled with borderline press releases about upcoming games, which is sort of the opposite of objectivity. There's also a desire for gaming sites to stop covering issues of female representation in games, but given the increased prominence of women as both game players and people within the industry, this is almost certainly not going to happen.
#Gamergate supporters have found success with targeting advertisers on the sites they find particularly troublesome. Intel dropped its ads from Gamasutra in connection to an article by Alexander on the death of the gamer, and Gamergaters have since moved their focus toward such companies as Nvidia and, oddly enough, Sears, pressuring the latter to stop advertising on Kotaku.
So, in essence, #Gamergate has "won," superficially, but it can never really win. The movement is probably too big now to accomplish all of its goals, much less concretely articulate them.