Ever since its birth eight months ago, GamerGate, the online gamers' movement that calls itself a revolt against corrupt journalism and oppressive political correctness, has been assailed as a misogynist mob out to terrorize female videogame developers and feminist critics—a narrative picked up by most of the mainstream media and even dramatized on Law & Order: SVU. The "Gaters," meanwhile, have always claimed that they were being unfairly painted as harassers when they themselves were frequent targets of harassment and threats in the culture war over gaming. And now, GamerGate's first American meetup in Washington, DC this past weekend has ended in a bomb scare—after an attempt to bully the venue into canceling the event.
As one of the few journalists who gave GamerGate positive coverage last year, I had been invited to attend the Friday night gathering, organized by scholar and dissident feminist Christina Hoff Sommers and Breitbart columnist Milo Yiannopoulos. That afternoon, Sommers emailed me to say that Local 16, the restaurant hosting #GGinDC, was being bombarded—as it were—with angry messages via phone, email, and Twitter.
At the center of this kerfuffle was Arthur Chu, the controversial former Jeopardy! champion, writer, and self-styled GamerGate nemesis. (When not warring against GamerGate, Chu can be found smearing Charlie Hebdo as a racist rag, inveighing against the debunking of fake statistics that help righteous causes, or musing that as a feminism-loving dude, he sometimes wants to "join all men arm-in-arm & then run off a cliff and drag the whole gender into the sea.") Shortly after noon on Friday, Chu tweeted at Local 16 about an "Internet hate speech movement" meeting on its premises; then, he sent an email, later publicized by Yiannopoulos, haranguing the owners about hosting a "right wing hate group" and "letting anti-feminists gather to celebrate the harassment and intimidation of women in tech." When the management didn't budge and Sommers's tweet about Chu's efforts sparked a backlash, Chu posted a petulant response: "Whatever, it's ending tonight with them meeting up there." Some GamerGaters took this as a bizarre threat, though I assume he meant simply that the issue would be over.
On my way to Local 16 shortly after the gathering's official 9:30 starting time, I braced myself for a protest; but the scene was remarkably peaceful. That is, until a little after midnight, when the revelry was interrupted by a sudden announcement from a staffer that everyone was being asked to evacuate the building. The guests were reassured that this was simply a "fire drill"; but the explanation seemed rather fishy, especially when I was not allowed to retrieve my jacket from the meeting's second-floor main room before heading downstairs. (Fortunately, a friendly gamer rescued it for me.) There were police officers outside, but no sign of firefighters.
When I got back to my hotel room and checked Twitter, there was chatter about a bomb scare; apparently, there had been a tweet threatening to detonate "multiple bombs" if the #GGinDC meeting was not evacuated. On Sunday, Washington, DC's Metropolitan Police Department confirmed that it had received information from the FBI about the Twitter threat and had contacted the management, which made the decision to to have the premises cleared and checked for hazardous materials (none were found). According to the MPD, "the incident remains under investigation."
Yiannopoulos has described the incident as a "bomb threat from feminists," which certainly sounds like a rush to judgment; meanwhile, Chu has been lamenting the unfair blowback against him. There is a definite element of poetic justice here, since GamerGaters have repeatedly insisted that they were being wrongly blamed for acts of harassment perpetrated by unknown trolls and have had a hard time getting the media to listen (despite actually tracking down and identifying one prolific online harasser of feminist game critic Anita Sarkeesian).
Sorting out the rights and wrongs of Internet wars is a thankless task; particularly with a leaderless, unstructured hashtag group such as GamerGate, it is near-impossible to determine for sure whether a particular instance of harassment is connected to the movement or is the work of outside trolls. Are there actual GamerGate supporters who have engaged in abusive behavior online? Very likely so. But there are many documented instances of anti-GamerGaters using startlingly violent language and making presumably non-literal threats toward "Gaters"; some of them have been compiled by British left-libertarian journalist Alum Bokhari, also a guest at the DC meetup. Ironically, as Bokhari demonstrates, last February GamerGate archfoe developer Brianna Wu expressed alarm over tweets jocularly threatening a sarin gas attack at the Penny Arcade Expo under the mistaken impression that it was a threat from GamerGate; after realizing that was a threat against pro-GamerGate "idiots," Wu deleted her post.
Meanwhile, the mainstream media have continued to recycle the "misogynist hate mob" narrative of GamerGate—most recently, with a long article by Zachary Jason in Boston Magazine melodramatically titled "Game of Fear." Jason focuses mainly on the story of game developer Zoe Quinn and her ex-boyfriend Eron Gjoni, whose long blogpost about Quinn's liaisons with people in the gaming industry and the gaming media was the spark that eventually ignited GamerGate. It's an incredibly convoluted saga in which the charges and countercharges would short-circuit the brain of Sherlock Holmes. (Gjoni offers his rebuttal to Jason's reporting on his blog.) But in at least one instance, Jason cites an example of alleged GamerGate harassment that has already been disproved: a YouTube video in which a hammer-wielding man in a skull mask calls for "the death of Brianna Wu." More than two months ago, BuzzFeed, no friend to GamerGate, revealed that this video was the work of a "trolling sketch comedian," Jan Rankowski, whose intent was to satirize GamerGate.
As it happens, Jason contacted me for comment while working on his article; in early February, he emailed me a list of questions and a reminder a few days later. On February 14, I sent back a two-page email answering his questions but also noting that I thought many of them were based on a wrong premise: that GamerGate is an anti-woman harassment campaign. I mentioned instances in which people involved in GamerGate—including women such as Lizzy Finnegan, who is no longer directly involved with GamerGate but is still sympathetic to the movement and who now writes for the gaming culture magazine The Escapist—were not only subjected to severe verbal abuse in the social media but had their personal information disclosed online. I also suggested that he talk to two other female journalists who have written fairly, though not uncritically, about GamerGate—TechRaptor's Georgina Young and Canadian feminist TV host and author Liana Kerzner. That was the last I heard from Jason; he never contacted Young or Kerzner, and did not quote a single word from my email. He did, however, quote Chu.
Will the #GGinDC meetup affect the mainstream narrative? Perhaps; the gaming site Polygon, which generally embraces a "social justice" agenda in culture and entertainment and has been virulently negative toward GamerGate, ran a surprisingly unbiased account of the event. Bomb threats and harassment aside, it was difficult not to be impressed with the genuine diversity of the GamerGate crowd at the meetup. And yes, there were quite a few women in attendance—including at least one lesbian couple—who were definitely not animatronic sockpuppets. Some of these women may identify as "anti-feminist"; but clearly, what they oppose is the illiberal feminism of people like Sarkeesian who sneer at "hyper individualism," dismiss personal choice, and treat Western women as helpless puppets of patriarchy.
GamerGate is certainly not above criticism. For my taste, it has not been willing enough to disavow the creepier denizens of the "manosphere" who have been riding its coattails, from acolytes of pick-up artist guru Roosh V to weirdo ultra-reactionary blogger Vox Day. Unfortunately, any movement that takes on feminism—even feminism in its extreme forms—is likely to be a magnet for genuine misogynists. But the "social justice warriors" on the anti-GamerGate side, who regularly get a pass from the media, are quite toxic themselves.
If I had any doubts about defending GamerGate from its detractors, #GGinDC put them to rest. The men I saw were not creeps, and the women I saw were definitely not doormats. And while the bomb threat was fake, the meetup was a blast.
Top photo: Lizzy Finnegan, Christina Hoff Sommers, and Cathy Young.
Bottom photo: Lizzy Finnegan, Lauren, and Cathy Young.