My first exposure to Gamergate was in the research I did for my English 105i term paper (the one that inspired this very blog, as a matter of fact). While the paper itself focused more on Lara Croft as a representation of what future female game protagonists could look like, I read a lot of articles, both scholarly and not, about the Gamergate controversy and what it looked like for women in gaming in the initial stages of research.
What first appeared like another Watergate rip-off — incidents likened to the Nixon scandal by the –gate names that have becoming increasingly (see: too) common over the years — morphed into a reactionary flood of antifeminist and anti-diversity sentiments.
It started with Zoe Quinn, an independent game developer, and the 2013 release of her game “Depression Quest.” While some argued that the game drew ire because of its unusual format — it’s extremely nontraditional, a “game” where players read and then choose text “actions” based on an evolving story paired with a moving soundtrack — the closer you look, the more it becomes about gender and about the angry white men that make up the “traditional” gamer demographic.
Shortly after her game was released, an angry ex-boyfriend, Eron Gjoni, posted a series of blog posts about Quinn’s alleged emotional abuse and infidelity. In a scathing six-part series, he explained that Quinn slept around with industry leaders, including a Kotaku game writer, in order to get ahead, claims both Quinn and the writer, Nathan Grayson, denied.
While Gjoni’s posts can easily be read as the ravings of a mad ex-boyfriend, some Twitter users took his view and rolled with it, spouting off claims of journalistic misconduct and ethical violations. Some took it one step further, making anonymous usernames and taking to Twitter and 4chan to harass Quinn, posting her address online, leaking nude photos on social media and even sending her death and rape threats, some of them so vile and specific she was forced to flee her home.
At the time, most Gamergate supporters tried to minimize the latter part of their “movement,” emphasizing that the real problem was the journalistic misconduct and that the threats were just the protests of a small minority group. But the “minority group” then turned their sights on another independent developer, Brianna Wu, and feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian, making the Gamergate conversation less about journalistic ethics and more about gender and inclusion. Or rather, the extreme resistance “traditional” gamers had to it.
It’s important to remember that none of this would have been possible without the protective cloak of Internet anonymity.
Walter Isaacson of “The Atlantic” described anonymity as the “bugs in the foundation, bats in the belfry, and trolls in the basement” of the Internet and online communities.
“For years, the benefits of anonymity on the net outweighed its drawbacks,” he continues.
But if Gamergate has taught us anything, it’s that the opposite is becoming true in an era where claims of alternative facts and fake news dominate information cycles with increasingly regularity.
While it’s true that there are people willing to share their vile beliefs in person, in public, without any regard to who might or might not be listening – the Pit Preacher at my school and the things he screams at passing students is proof enough of that – Internet anonymity makes it frighteningly easy to do so without any of the traditional repercussions the public sphere provides.
Internet culture has created a “boy’s club” environment that is characterized by hostility towards women, gay men and other minority groups. It’s gotten better in recent years, but there’s no denying the fact that while the Internet may provide important and unprecedented avenues for interpersonal connectivity and expression, it has also allowed mean-spirited trolls to flourish anonymously with no real repercussions for their actions.
Which brings us to this: Why is Gamergate still important?
For one, Gamergate never really went away. It just kind of receded into that dank, dark Internet hole trolls and offensive memes hide in, just waiting for the right time to rise and strike again.
You can see it resurface from time to time in anonymous hate directed at female industry leaders, characters and players, and those who critique existing and upcoming games. You can see also it in the number of female video game professionals: 22% compared to a male 75% according to a 2015 international survey. You can see it in the “buxom babes,” “femme fatales” and “damsels in distress,” or the persisting female stereotypes as outlined in “Pixel Pinups: Images of Women in Video Games” by Nina Huntemann.
More importantly, you can see it in the larger divisions in our cultural dialogue, beyond just those concerning video games, the male demographic readily involved in Gamergate, and gender and gender harassment.
Caitlin Dewey of “The Washington Post” said it best in her analysis of Gamergate, “The only guide to Gamergate you will ever need.” In her article, she described the movement as a question about “how we define our shared cultural spaces, how we delineate identity, [and] who is and is not allowed to have a voice in mainstream culture.”
“It’s about that tension between tradition and inclusion,” she continued. A tension that is still relevant – and painfully present – in our culture today.
In order to alleviate that tension — or, at the very least, allow us to talk about it civilly and humanely — Internet anonymity needs to be reconsidered and revised. Isaacson suggests a number of reforms in his article “How to fix the Internet,” including a voluntary system of identification and authentication. But any real proposal to reevaluate and rectify our divisive Internet culture would need serious consideration by industry professionals, users, and government officials.
At its heart, Gamergate was a confluence of antifeminist sentiments from a white male demographic afraid of female power in “their” industry and small-minded hatefulness made possible by Internet culture and anonymity. It’s important today because the hateful discourse at the center of the Gamergate storm is still on the Internet, indiscriminately targeting online communities over a variety of social issues from feminism to birth control to abortion to gay rights to #BlackLivesMatter to intersectionality to equal pay to trans rights to bathroom bills to any number of social and political issues.
Gamergate isn’t going away. And it shouldn’t.
It should serve as a reminder to us all about what happens when you allow the very worst of humanity free reign over a powerful and influential media like the Internet. It should also serve as the motivation for a better Internet, one that isn’t defined by anonymous hate groups and their rage.
Until we have that kind of Internet, game on and let the power of Lara Croft be with you.