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GamerGate: What Is It Really About?


Cal Russell-Thompson takes us through the history of GamerGate, its multiple origin stories and tries to work out what it’s about.

GamerGate has only a faint whiff of the Watergate scandal on which its name is based. No President Nixon to give jowly denials. No bugging offices. No constitutional crises. But somehow it polarises anyone who has heard of it. Opinions fizz and spark off each other.

Maybe they should, too, for it has become a sweeping, complex argument about gender, journalism, and the roles these things play in the biggest entertainment industry in the world. Just be aware, before you pick a side, that nobody can win at this game.

We didn’t start the fire


But a powder keg had been lit somewhere.

As some tell it, GamerGate was started by a woman. In 2013, game developer Zoe Quinn published Depression Quest. It got big. Game development is seen as a boys’ club, but commentators celebrated Quinn’s success as a diamond in the rough. Depression Quest showed up on popular gaming service Steam, and got bigger. Inevitably, foul play was suspected.

Others reckon a man started the fire. Quinn’s jilted ex-boyfriend published a series of allegations about her in August 2014. Quinn, he said, had slept with the journalist Nathan Grayson in exchange for a favourable review. This allegation was false: a thorough investigation by his employers determined that Grayson had never written such a review. Many were just disturbed by the invasion of Quinn’s privacy

But a powder keg had been lit somewhere. After a wave of chatter on myriads of different internet forums and private channels, a movement was launched. Adam ‘Jayne from Firefly Baldwin tweeted a link to a video accusing Quinn of a “Quinnspiracy”. He christened the allegations with the hashtag #GamerGate; before long, hundreds of thousands of people had seen it. The rest, as they say, is on the GamerGate Wikipedia page

Heat exhaustion

Both sides speak completely different languages

I could write pages and pages on the events of GamerGate without touching on what it is really about. Zoe Quinn, Brianna Wu and Anita Sarkeesian have been forced into hiding because of targeted harassment campaigns. Websites of every ilk are still braced for impact. It’s just too much to explain. Even its supporters can’t really explain it.tumblr_lyfwsqNRzO1qzado8o1_500

So let’s look away from this relentless march of action upon action. Let’s focus instead on what makes this debate so hopelessly polarised and unwinnable: words. Both sides speak completely different languages.

A war of words


GamerGate does not exist.

GamerGate does not exist. It is a fluid collection of individuals, united by post-Quinnspiracy buzz. They drift through the internet like a sand-dune, shedding and gaining agents of change, many parts contributing to a whole. The only statement uniting them is an aspiration towards ethics in games journalism

As a slogan it’s a brilliant piece of engineering. Have any two people define “ethics” and they are likely to reach different conclusions about what it is. Nevertheless, many will assume that their idea of ethics is the same as yours.

GamerGate is striving towards a common, objective ethical code.

Hypothetically, GamerGate is striving towards a common, objective ethical code. Hypothetically, this is a good idea. The gaming media should agree on a set of common standards – indeed, with many gaming sites receiving special treatment from developers while others are blacklisted, such an agreement is overdue.

However, interrogating the sexual and professional histories of women, sending SWAT teams to their homes and releasing their addresses online is not exactly within the license permitted by the word “ethics”. It An ethical course would be one agreed by a majority to be the least harmful to others. But this isn’t about ethics: it’s a video game, in which “Social Justice Warriors” (SJWs) are the bosses. Kill them with fire. This is dehumanising in the extreme

 Some GamerGaters have a semantic concern of their own

Some GamerGaters have a semantic concern of their own: the use of phrases like ‘check your privilege’ is a major bone of contention for many of them. Although intended to make speakers aware of the things that might give them a social advantage or limit their understanding of certain issues, many GamerGate supporters consider this censorship. They rally against the idea of male privilege just as feminists, ‘SJWs’ and others did against GamerGate’s use of words like ‘ethics’.

If you reject even the words someone is using in an argument, it isn’t an argument anymore. It’s war.

It’s not about winning

Whether you consider GamerGate to be about ethics or feminism

Whether you consider GamerGate to be about ethics or feminism, it is impossible to successfully communicate your point of view while you’re trying to “win” the GamerGate debate. Until both sides can agree on common definitions and uses for the words they’re arguing with, the GamerGate controversy will always consist of two echo chambers running almost entirely separately from one another. Neither side will ever challenge its own beliefs or anyone else’s.

Perhaps I lied a little. I think there can be a winner. The real “winner” of any argument is the party who expands their worldview. Even if that involves admitting to being wrong; after all, learning is all about being wrong. Put to one side your warped definition of ethics, or try to get past your subjective perceptions of privilege. Just for a moment. And ask yourself: ‘but what if, even in some little way, I’m wrong?’

Related Links: 

‘We Need Talk About Gender (And The Media)’ by Nat Jester

‘Five Video Games Better Than Books’ by Jack B Coll

‘Story-Dwelling: The Big Adventure Games Revival’ by Cal Russell-Thompson