GamerGate: Part I: Sex, Lies, and Gender Games

A controversy over videogames has become a battle in a larger culture war.


jontintinjordan / Foter

A controversy over videogames may seem an unlikely candidate for a big story, especially with everything else in the news. Yet an epic Internet drama known as "GamerGate," now in its second month, continues to get media attention and fuel animated debate. (In its latest flare-up, Intel found itself in the crossfire last week when it pulled its ads from Gamasutra, a gaming webzine at the center of the quarrel.) While this saga has everything from sex to alleged corruption, GamerGate has also become a battle in a larger culture war. To the liberal and progressive commentariat, it's part of a reactionary white male backlash against the rise of diversity—in this case, "sexist thugs" out to silence and destroy women who seek equality in the gaming subculture. To conservatives and right-leaning libertarians, it's a welcome pushback against left-wing cultural diktat, particularly in the area of gender politics. Meanwhile, gamergaters themselves—who seem to lean left-libertarian—say that what they want is ethics and transparency in the gaming media. 

As often happens, reality is more complex than any of these narratives. While the gamers' revolt has very legitimate issues, is also true that it has been linked to some very ugly misogynist harassment of feminists. It also seems clear that the overwhelming majority of GamerGate supporters reject such tactics—and that harassment related to this conflict has been a two-way street. For a supposed misogynist "hate mob," GamerGate includes a lot of vocal women—and they have their own complaints of gender-based abuse, such as being called gender traitors or even "male sockpuppets." Finally, the feminism GamerGate rebels against is not simply about equality or  diversity; it is an authoritarian, far-left brand of gender politics that views everything through the lens of patriarchal oppression and tolerates no dissent.

A disclaimer is in order: I am not a gamer, unless you count playing Space Invaders and Millipede at the student center arcade in college and a mild Tetris addiction after I got my first home computer. While I have no experience with role-playing videogames, I have some knowledge of them thanks to several (mainly female) friends who play and one who writes videogame-based fan fiction.

I do have personal experience with the gamers' mortal enemies, the so-called "social justice warriors," to know they can be a highly toxic Internet presence. Those who voice their loathing of "the SJWs" are not simply talking about people sympathetic to socially progressive causes but about cultist zealots who enforce the party line with the fervor of Mao's Red Guards, though luckily without the real-life power. In social-media discussions of art and entertainment, the "warriors" can be found sniffing out and attacking such ideological deviations as liking a heterosexual love interest for a character perceived as gay, liking or disliking a character on the wrong side of race-and-gender identity politics, or (I kid you not) using the "ableist" nickname "derpy" for a klutzy pony on the TV cartoon My Little Pony.  Let them gain enough influence in an online community, and they will poison it for anyone who wants to talk to other fans of their favorite shows, movies, or books—or games—without relentless hectoring about "privilege" and "oppression."

Back to "GamerGate" and its tangled web. (A fairly detailed, straightforward, and balanced chronicle of the events can be read on the Know Your Meme website.) The drama began in mid-August, when Eron Gjoni, a programmer and ex-boyfriend of videogame developer Zoe Quinn, made a massive blogpost accusing her of infidelities and deceptions, with screenshots of their online chats as corroboration. Quinn, a vocal "social justice" Internet activist, had numerous enemies—many of them on the notoriously anarchic, anonymous 4Chan message board. They were quick to seize on the disclosures, portraying this as an ethics issue because some of Quinn's liaisons had possible implications of favoritism. One of her partners was later a judge in an independent videogame festival that had just bestowed an award on Quinn's game, Depression Quest; another was a videogame journalist who had given her a couple of positive mentions. Threads discussing this dust-up, some of them quite nasty, proliferated in a variety of forums.

With the focus on Quinn's sexual conduct and allegations of using sex for professional gain, the "Quinnspiracy"—as it was initially known—was inevitably seen as a sexist attempt to take down a female developer. In late August, the controversy got a boost when actor Adam Baldwin, whose politics lean right, took interest in it and tweeted links to some YouTube videos critical of Quinn—also coining the #GamerGate hashtag. Around the same time, feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian, whose Tropes vs. Women video series critiquing sexist clichés in videogames had made her the gaming community's bête noire, reported that she had left her home as a precaution after a Twitter user sent her a string of rape and death threats which included her address.

For some, the attacks on Quinn and on Sarkeesian became a perfect storm of gaming-culture misogyny. On August 28, Gamasutra ran a blistering attack on "game culture" by feminist cultural critic Leigh Alexander, declaring that "gamers are over" and ridiculing them as socially inept, badly dressed young males addicted to mindless gadget-buying and "getting mad on the Internet." This was followed by a spate of online articles—both on sites devoted to gaming or "geek culture" and in general-interest publications such as Vice and The Daily Beast—attacking gamer culture or announcing its demise. The gamers struck back in the social media, finding supporters in gadfly tech blogger Milo Yiannopoulous of Breitbart London and dissident feminist/critic of feminism Christina Hoff Sommers.

Sorting out the charges and countercharges in this still-ongoing war, with its claims of chat room conspiracies, manipulation of electronic records, hacking, harassment and other malfeasance, would be a gargantuan task. But here are a few facts.

1. The "Quinnspiracy" was not just—and not even primarily—about attacking Zoe Quinn as a woman.

To be sure, discussions of the Quinn drama in free-access, unmoderated chatrooms can be easily mined for crude, hateful, disgusting comments. However, GamerGate blogger J.W. Caine makes a strong case that those chats reveal far more interest in attacking the "social justice warriors" and SJW-friendly tech media than in targeting Quinn herself. Indeed, many discussants warned that personal and sexual attacks on Quinn would undermine the larger effort—a fact conceded even by writer/blogger Jon Stone, a passionate GamerGate opponent.

It is also absurd to suggest that Quinn was disliked simply for being an award-winning female videogame developer. (There have been no hate campaigns against far more prominent women in the field such as Ubisoft executive Jade Raymond, who helped create the hit game Assassin's Creed, or Kim Swift, designer of the highly successful Portal.) For one, long before the latest drama, Quinn had been widely seen in the gaming community as a beneficiary of gaming-media favoritism. The glowing reviews and awards for Depression Quest, a text-only game that has the player make day-to-day choices as a depressed person, rankled gamers who felt that it wasn't even a real videogame but a (dull) interactive fiction. There was a widespread feeling that it was getting praised due to "political correctness"—partly for promoting the socially conscious cause of mental health awareness, partly because of Quinn's earlier, widely publicized claims of harassment by users of a forum for depressed men.

Was the resentment against Quinn at least partly related to her gender? Perhaps—though a male game developer widely seen as receiving undeserved acclaim, Phil Fish, was more or less driven from the field last year by relentless Internet abuse. (Having made a semi-comeback, Fish was recently targeted by hackers after publicly supporting Quinn—an incident that has been cited as proof that men in the gaming world only get ill-treated when they speak up for women. But Fish's troubles with haters long predated the Quinn brouhaha.)

In any event, at least some of the anti-Quinn sentiment stemmed from an incident in which she appears to have engaged in truly appalling behavior—and which had nothing to do with her gender or sex life and everything to do with "social justice" zealotry.

Last February, Quinn learned about a women's videogame contest sponsored by a charity called The Fine Young Capitalists, or TFYC—artists and entrepreneurs who seek to encourage the creation of videos and videogames by women and minorities. Women were invited to submit ideas for videogames; the winner was to work with TFYC's designers and programmers to develop her concept into a game and get a cut from its sales. Quinn was outraged by what she felt was the contestants' "unpaid labor"—but even more so by the rule requiring transgender participants to publicly identify as female prior to the start of the contest. In dozens of angry tweets, Quinn accused TFYC of exploiting women and "policing transwomen's transition points," then gloated over accidentally crashing their website with her Twitter storm. (In August, Quinn claimed that she had only "posted 4 tweets saying I didn't know how I felt about their approach.") In a recent interview, a TFYC spokesman said that Quinn later continued to publicly attack the contest as "exploitative" and "transphobic," resulting in online harassment toward the group, loss of financial backing, and the cancelation of several planned articles about the project. Quinn and her supporters have cited a conciliatory statement TFYC issued in late August as a rebuttal of those accusations; but that statement was a "peace treaty" TFYC withdrew a few days later, saying that Quinn had not held up her end of the bargain.

Of course none of this justifies harassment or threats toward Quinn. But the full story does not make her a very sympathetic figure. All of this complicated history has been almost completely erased from GamerGate coverage in the "progressive" media (gaming and mainstream), which reduced the Quinn saga to prurient revelations about her sexual exploits.

Which brings us to the next point:

2. The media ethics issues raised by GamerGate are valid, not just an excuse for bashing women and their supporters.

The ethics issue is not that Quinn supposedly slept her way to good reviews (she did not). Rather, it's excessive coziness between journalists who cover the videogame industry and certain game developers who have a "progressive" cachet, a problem acknowledged by Kotaku editor Stephen Totilo. Among other things, GamerGate drew attention to the fact that Quinn had received contributions to help finance Depression Quest through the Patreon crowdfunding platform from a Kotaku editor and from a staff writer for another major gaming website, Polygon, who went on to review the game. Due to these concerns, Kotaku banned such contributions by its staff while Polygon adopted a policy requiring reviewers to disclose them. (Incredibly, one leftist commentator, Samantha Allen, took to Twitter to attack these policy changes as motivated by anti-female animus: "These people did not care about journos being friendly w/devs until those devs were women.")  The extremely one-sided coverage of the "Quinnspiracy" certainly supports the charges of cliquishness. Thus, Kotaku reporter Jason Schreier contacted TFYC after their fundraising page was hacked in apparent retaliation against hacker attacks on Quinn and her supporters—but never published anything about their situation or their conflict with Quinn.

3. GamerGate-related harassment and online abuse have happened on both sides.

The TFYC hacking was just one of many disturbing incidents directed at GamerGate supporters. In late September, there was a "doxxing"—net-speak for public release of private information—directed at six prominent GamerGate supporters including Yiannopoulous and Baldwin, with their "crimes" listed alongside their home addresses. Yiannopoulous also received a jiffy bag in the mail containing a syringe. Oliver Campbell, a black male videogame journalist, has written about being harassed and threatened on Twitter after he spoke out in support of GamerGate.

A young female gamergater who wanted to be identified only as Lizzy F.—she says there have been attempts to hack into her email and Twitter account—wrote to me in an email that she has experienced a stream of harassment:

I have been told to drop dead on multiple occasions, and received a threat of "I hope your windows are secure." The last statement was sent from someone who also threatened to release the home address of another female supporter. I have been called a gender traitor, a "token," all off the female derogatory slurs in the book, and even had my "woman card" revoked, somehow.

Most hurtful, Lizzy says, was the accusation of "internalized misogyny" and tweets dismissing her as a male troll posing as a female. Like many other women involved in GamerGate, Lizzy had to resort to posting a photo as proof of her womanhood.

That brings us to one more highly relevant fact:

4. Many of GamerGate's most active supporters and sympathizers are female.

Here's a fun fact: Adam Baldwin's role in GamerGate started with retweeting a post by "concerned feminist blogger" Ariel Connor (a pseudonym), or "MissAngerist" on Twitter, who wrote that she had been wrong in her earlier negative view of the anti-Quinn backlash and in her defense of Quinn. She has become one of many strong female voices on GamerGate's side.

Some feminists such as blogger Rebecca Watson have responded with a blanket dismissal of the women of GamerGate as dupes "stupid enough to join" a misogynist campaign. But a look at what these women have to say shows that they are more than capable of thinking for themselves.

One such woman, Sabrina Harris, a British technical writer and self-described "general consumer of traditionally nerdy things," recently published an essay asking writers who depict GamerGate as misogynist to "please stop erasing us." In an email to me, Harris stressed that she has never seen GamerGate support misogyny or harassment of women and that "plenty of people on the tag have actively policed" such comments when they do show up.

Interestingly, Harris not only considers herself a feminist but is quite willing to acknowledge that there are real issues of both sexism in gaming culture and sexist depictions of women in videogames. Yet she strongly believes that most feminists currently addressing these issues are doing so in a counterproductive way.

What's the real story on videogames, women, and feminism? Stay tuned for the second and last installment of this article.

Note: This version of the article incorporates a minor correction to the original, which incorrectly stated that the Kotaku editor who contributed to Zoe Quinn's crowdfunding account went on to review her game. It also contains some additional information in the first paragraph on the political profile of GamerGate supporters.

Also see Reason's Video Game Nation coverage of gaming issues.