Why I disagree with GamerGate

I oppose GamerGate, and I’d like to explain why. Please be aware that much of what follows is unpleasant and NSFW.

GamerGate began on unsound foundations

GamerGate started off with Eron Gjoni posting an angry rant about his ex-girlfriend Zoe Quinn. Zoe Quinn was accused of using a sexual relationship with journalist Nathan Grayson to obtain favourable coverage for her work.

This claim isn’t convincing: Grayson never wrote a review of Quinn’s work, and the article that he did write which mentioned her work was published before they were in a relationship.

But even if these claims were convincing, GamerGaters targeted the wrong person. Grayson was the journalist, yet Quinn was the target of vitriol. If GamerGate is a movement about ethics in games journalism, I would have expected it to focus on the journalist.

I don’t think that policing the sexual conduct of one female indie game developer is the best way to make the case for ethical improvements to games journalism. If you are concerned with unethical actions of games producers or publishers, I think it’s much more useful and courageous to focus not on minor indie developers, but on big AAA publishers. These are the companies who have the power to undermine ethical games journalism, and who actually have a track record in doing so.

There are real, known ethical issues in games journalism, but GamerGate doesn’t seem to be focusing on them

GamerGate did not arise in response to the following ethical breaches:

  • A retail chain owning a gaming publication. (The same company owns Game Informer magazine and Game Stop games stores.)
  • Journalists being fired for standing up to the demands of a publisher. (Jeff Gertsmann being sacked from GameSpot after posting a negative review of Kane & Lynch)
  • Product placement in Youtube reviews. (Geoff Keighley being interviewed by Pixel Perfect with product placements for Halo 4, Doritos and Mountain Dew)
    Geoff Keighley product placement
  • PR companies controlling the editorial output of reviews. (Plaid Social requiring Youtube reviewers of Middle Earth Shadows of Mordor to submit their reviews for approval before publication.)
  • Certain publications being granted exclusive early preview access, incentivizing them to produce positive copy. (Eg IGN First.)
  • (See also Leigh Alexander’s list of ethical concerns that have not led to furious activity.)

Out of concern for journalistic ethics, GamerGate has challenged journalists using Patreon, which has led to Kotaku banning its journalists from using Patreon, and to Polygon requiring staff to disclose Patreon use.

But this relatively small area of attack doesn’t address the above concerns. Nor does it identify or seek to challenge the key conflict of ethics at the heart of games journalism. As this article published on Deadspin puts it: “From the top down, publishers ranging from AAA behemoths like Electronic Arts to the IndieCade crowd do in fact enjoy symbiotic relationships with gaming media outlets, and if it came down to nothing more than sex and petty corruption, that would be nice, because the problem would certainly be a lot more easily solved.” In short, games companies have a vested interest in supporting journalists to promote their games. Changing Patreon policy in a few places doesn’t challenge this core problem.

So far I haven’t seen GamerGate seriously engage with ethical questions in games journalism. But I have seen GamerGate actively working to attack journalistic ethics.

GamerGate’s main campaigning effort directly opposes journalistic ethics

Gamergaters have attempted to punish sites that they disagree with, by acting to remove their advertising revenue. As a result of Operation Disrespectful Nod, Gamasutra lost advertising from Intel; Gawker lost advertising BMW, Mercedes (later reinstated, I believe) and Adobe.

If GamerGaters are unhappy that the press is not sufficiently independent and principled, attempting to influence publications by lobbying advertisers to withdraw their adverts seems like an odd move. The aim of Operation Disrespectful Nod appears to be to make the press less independent and to intimidate journalists who hold opinions that GamerGate supporters disagree with. In other words, this course of action suggests that GamerGate is opposed to ethics in games journalism.

I want to look at sexism now, as it’s a dominant theme of GamerGate.

GamerGate is an opportunity to attack women

GamerGate coincides with a wave of threats of violence against women. Zoe Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian and Brianna Wu have recently left their homes in response to threats of violence.

Some people have dismissed these threats as publicity stunts: e.g. “Let’s be honest. We’re all used to feeling a niggling suspicion that “death threats” sent to female agitators aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. And indeed there is no evidence that any violent threat against a prominent female figure in the media or technology industry has ever been credible.”

I strongly disagree with this. If someone is making something up they probably wouldn’t go to the FBI with evidence. And violence against women is a big problem, and not just something that people make up on the internet to get attention. In Britain, more than a million women experience domestic violence each year. The UK government reports that approximately 85,000 women are raped on average in England and Wales every year, that over 400,000 women are sexually assaulted each year, and that 1 in 5 women (aged 16 – 59) has experienced some form of sexual violence since the age of 16. We need to take threats of rape and violence seriously, not as the currency or cost of online discourse.

Some people have said that the women being attacked online have brought things upon themselves. e.g. “goading people into making unpleasant remarks and then using those statements to publicly beg for sympathy and cash,” or “They’ve become professional victims.” I think this is incorrect. I haven’t seen any deliberately inflammatory material put out by Sarkeesian or Quinn prior to their being attacked. Rather, I think that their main ‘crime’ has been speaking about and analysing games. Regardless, nothing justifies rape or death threats. To say that Quinn, Sarkeesian etc have brought things on themselves is to harness a common misdirection in our culture: blaming the victim of a crime rather than the perpetrator. In GamerGate as with society more generally, it’s wrong.

Anita Sarkeesian should have nothing to do with GamerGate. Her Kickstarter-funded project Tropes vs Women in Video Games is an example of open, clean funding for independent journalism. But Sarkeesian has been under attack since before GamerGate, and things have intensified:

Women engaging with GamerGate in a cautious, neutral fashion are being attacked. Felicia Day aired her concerns about being attacked if she shared her views on GamerGate: “I realized my silence on the issue was not motivated by some grand strategy, but out of fear that the issue has created about speaking out… I am terrified to be doxxed [having your public contact details / address shared] for even typing the words “Gamer Gate”. I have had stalkers and restraining orders issued in the past, I have had people show up on my doorstep when my personal information was HARD to get.” Day’s article included passages like “Games are beautiful, they are creative, they are worlds to immerse yourself in. They are art. And they are worth fighting for, even if the atmosphere is ugly right now.” She was doxxed shortly after publishing this post.

Jennifer Allaway was working on a study to understand “the importance of diversity in game content to game players, and whether or not the game industry is able to predict this desire.” Gamergaters discovered her survey and spammed it with loads of sexist entries. “if you’re even asking about equality or diversity in games, being shouted down in a traumatizing manner is now a mandatory step that you have to sit back and endure.” “Had #Gamergate participated in my survey honestly, as a researcher, I would gladly have taken their data… But instead, #Gamergate left me with hundreds of replies consisting of bald-faced mockery and threats.”

But men are safe to participate in online discussions about GamerGate, even if totally inflammatory.
Chris Kluwe, former American Football player, wrote an article on Why #Gamergaters Piss Me The F*** Off, in which he called GamerGaters “Basement-dwelling, cheetos-huffing, poopsock-sniffing douchepistols”, and a load of other things, and did not get doxxed.

I haven’t seen sexualised, violent abuse and doxxing levelled against JonTron and Adam Baldwin, prominent figures in the pro-GamerGate movement. This suggests that there is a problem with the treatment of women in GamerGate. As such, I was not convinced when Huffington Post Live asked two women who support GamerGate whether equality is important and needs talking about, and the response was that “This has nothing to do with women. It is about journalistic integrity,” and that sexism in gaming “isn’t really an issue”. From the evidence I’ve seen, I disagree. Of course, not all GamerGate supporters are sending rape and death threats. But GamerGate supporters do seem to have a women problem. Gender seems to be more of an issue than ethics here. Where’s all this gender stuff coming from?

GamerGaters feel that (feminist) critics are vilifying gamers

Lots of the complaints against Sarkeesian or ‘Social Justice Warriors’ are based on the idea that gamers are being vilified and victimized because some material in games is being called out and analysed as sexist:

  • e.g. “culture warriors, who thrive in an atmosphere of fear and moral condemnation … the entire gaming community is attacked as a pack of bigoted savages corrupted by gaming tropes”
  • e.g. “#GamerGate supporters are constantly being told they’re horrible, misogynistic, gross nerds who just want to harass women, so they’re perpetually on the defensive.”
  • (Around 22:40 in this Huffington Post Live video) “We just want to enjoy games without being told we’re horrendous people for doing so.”

I don’t think that this stance stands up to scrutiny. Anita Sarkeesian is not calling gamers terrible people in her criticism. (NB that criticism in this context means “intellectual analysis” not “saying something is rubbish”.) At the start of each of her Tropes vs Women in Games videos, she says that “It’s both possible, and even necessary, to simultaneously enjoy media, while also being critical of its more problematic or pernicious aspects.” Sarkeesian’s criticism is calm, evidenced, and highlights some games as positive counter-examples:

Similarly, Rock, Paper, Shotgun, a news site that has been attacked by GamerGate, responded with an assertion of values saying that “It is possible to criticise games and gamers, while at the same time being a gamer, loving games, loving gamers.” This is a really important point.

There is a real sense of gendered grievance in GamerGate, so let’s explore it a little more.

GamerGate is a reaction against feminism, ‘social justice warriors’ and the broadening of what is meant by games and gamers

GamerGate opposes a perceived intrusion of a liberal/left-wing social agenda into gaming and games criticism. In the words of some male developers surveyed by The Escapist:

  • Daniel Vávra: “The root cause of Gamer Gate [is that] people had enough of those hypocrites that started to inject their ideology everywhere… accusing millions of people of misogyny…”
  • Xbro: “I’ve personally been against the phenomena of ‘social justice warriors’, as well as the path certain gaming publications have taken in recent years (more and more discussions on morals, feminism, misogyny and other non-game related issues, and less talk about actual games and the industry).”

In the Huffington Post Live interview (about 9:40) one participants argues that it isn’t appropriate for a game to be criticised for being sexist in a review, that reviews should be objective and about mechanics.

I disagree here. Criticism should be, and always has been, about more than mechanics. Criticism is also about theme, dialogue, writing, art direction and pace. And if a game is sexist or racist or homophobic, I’d want to know about it because that’s a factor in how much I’d enjoy the game – and in some cases whether I’d even play the game at all.

I support criticism of games, and greater diversity and more inclusiveness in games, because it’s good and because it makes games better

I’m pleased to see games increasingly subject to intellectual and cultural analysis – it’s a sign of the medium becoming more respected. I’m also pleased to see games becoming more diverse in their subject matter, themes and mechanics, and in games being produced by a wider range of people for a wider range of purposes. The demographic of gamers has shifted so that it’s no longer male-dominated. The majority of gamers are now women (see research by the Internet Advertising Bureau and by SuperData Research).

No one’s going to stop people playing Call of Duty – particularly not as it remains massively profitable – but maybe we can consume other games that are totally different. As games become more diverse, we can play through a broader range of exciting, interesting, challenging stories and challenges. I’m pleased to see journalists respond to this change.

Rock, Paper, Shotgun stated that “We’d love gamers to mean ‘everybody’. It can mean everybody, if we let it.” I hope and expect to see games continue to develop and grow as a unique and awesome artistic medium. But to fully realise this, we need to let everyone speak, think and create. If we want gaming to flourish, let’s take ethics seriously and build an open, critical, loving community.