The details pertaining to the events of Gamergate have been discussed in detail by several papers (Perreault and Vos, 2016; Mortensen, 2016; Braithwaite, 2016; Massanari, 2015; Chess and Shaw, 2015), but it is necessary to give a brief account here. In doing so, this chapter explores professed GamerGaters’ motives, the communities in which they gathered, and the organisational structure of their movement. After establishing these facts, this chapter demonstrates how the reactionary, defensive nature of GamerGate caused its members to disengage from the influence of the mainstream press, and open themselves up to the influence of alternative media outlets.
What is GamerGate?
The term GamerGate (GG) was popularised on the 27th of August 2014, when actor Adam Baldwin used it in the form of a hashtag (#Gamergate) on Twitter. The tweet, since deleted, linked to videos attacking independent game developer Zoe Quinn (Perreault and Vos, 2016, p. 8; Chess and Shaw, 2015, p. 210). Although Quinn had been the subject of harassment for over a year, due the release of her game Depression Quest (Parkin, 2014), the videos Baldwin linked referred to comparatively fresh accusations made by a jilted ex-boyfriend of Quinn’s. The allegations, made on a blog post that was shared widely (Gjoni, 2014), included claims that Quinn had slept with five gaming journalists for favourable reviews, most notably Nathan Grayson of the gaming website Kotaku (Perreault and Vos, 2016, p. 2; Chess and Shaw, 2015, p. 210). The favourable reviews did not exist (Mortensen, 2016, p. 5), and the accuser, Eron Gjoni, later retracted the claim (ibid., p. 6). In spite of this, the accusations persisted, and remained an important rallying cry for the movement that formed under the GamerGate banner (ibid.).
The persistence of the Quinn accusations is explained in part by the phrase “ethics in games journalism”, which became intrinsically tied into the GG rhetoric (Tsukayama, 2014). The idea of a developer sleeping with a games journalist for a favourable review elicited an emotionally charged response that surpassed the need for truth or accuracy. The campaign “defied rational argument and criticism” (Mortensen, 2016, p. 3), and the altogether vague notion of ethics in games journalism appealed to moral outrage while simultaneously resisting direct scrutiny.
The movement was largely formed of anonymous people, with no official leader, quantifiable goals, or even a coherent structure (Chess and Shaw, 2015, p. 210). The result was what Mortensen terms a “swarm” mentality, which “allowed all participants to determine their own motivation” (Mortensen, 2016, p. 7). This leaderless state is touted to this day by the subreddit KotakuInAction, one of the most popular GG hubs, which lists its over 78,000 subscribers as “leaders of Gamergate” (reddit, 2017). These factors made GG difficult to comprehensively report on, a problem that would come to be exacerbated by the many stories of harassment that came to be associated with the movement.
The harassment linked to Gamergate most commonly involved venomous comments over platforms such as Twitter and YouTube, often including threats of rape, death, or both (Edwards, 2014; Dockterman, 2014). This tactic was augmented by doxing, meaning to “search for and publish private or identifying information about (a particular individual) on the Internet, typically with malicious intent” (Oxford Dictionaries, n.d.). This method gave an element of reality to what might otherwise be perceived as empty threats.
Subjects of GG harassment typically fell into two categories: Outspoken women, and media outlets that supported their work. Gender politics proved to be integral to the GG narrative, which Perrault and Vos say would otherwise have been “a classic journalistic ethical controversy” (Perreault and Vos, 2016, p. 2). GamerGaters were invested in a hobby that was culturally shifting towards a wider audience (Chess and Shaw, 2015, p. 216). Acting defensively, GG framed their conflict in stark terms of identity, drawing a distinction between themselves and the vast Other (Massanari, 2015, p. 5); they considered themselves to be ‘true gamers’ and non-traditional gamers (women) to be ‘outsiders’ (Braithwaite, 2016, p. 4). Socially progressive criticism of gaming, especially of a feminist nature, was designated a threat to the gamer identity and “actual evidence of conspiracy” (Chess and Shaw, 2015, p. 201). Those that espoused progressive views were pejoratively labelled ‘Social Justice Warriors’, or ‘SJWs’ (Braithwaite, 2016, p. 1). In GG’s rhetoric these SJWs were not acting independently, but were “part of an insidious plot to destroy gaming entirely” (Braithwaite, 2016, p. 6).
GG’s choice of harassment targets is reflective of this tribalistic mentality, and betrays the comparative insignificance of the ‘ethics in games journalism’ credo. The three most prominent examples were Zoe Quinn, feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian, and game developer Brianna Wu (Mortensen, 2016, p. 7). All three were advocates for a socially progressive agenda. All were women. None were games journalists. The more self-aware GG followers, in an attempt to distance themselves from these figures, gave them the dismissive title of ‘Literally Who’ (Singal, 2014). This attempt at deflection does not hold up to scrutiny. After the alleged incident that sparked the GamerGate controversy, a study commissioned by Newsweek found that, in tweets made with the GamerGate hashtag over the six-week period after its popularisation, the conversation revolved around Quinn and not the journalists to whom ‘ethics in gaming journalism’ would logically apply (Wofford, 2014). Quinn had been mentioned fourteen times as much as the most prominent journalist involved, Nathan Grayson (ibid.; see Figure 1).
As the graph also displays, GamerGate mentions of Sarkeesian and Wu far exceeded those of Quinn. In observing this, Wofford of Newsweek noted that GG had accused neither of any ethical violation; they were simply outspoken critics of the movement (Wofford, 2014). Nonetheless, harassment escalated to the level of terrorist threats, as was the case when Utah State University enlisted Sarkeesian to speak on their campus. They received an anonymous email which threatened “the deadliest shooting in American History” unless the event was called off, with detailed descriptions of the planned attack (Wingfield, 2014; Tassi, 2014a). The talk was cancelled. Through a combination of threats and doxing, Quinn, Sarkeesian, and Wu were each driven from their homes on separate occasions (Totilo, 2014; Robertson, 2014; Edwards, 2014). Two other women, games journalist Jenn Frank and game designer Mattie Brice, left the industry entirely due to harassment (Phillips, 2016, p. 109). Even female scholars who wrote on gaming were targeted, including Mia Consalvo, Adrienne Shaw and Torill Elvira Mortensen (Mortensen, 2016, pp. 2–3).
Understandably, these events received significant media coverage that expanded beyond gaming-specific outlets (O’Rourke, 2014; Chu, 2014; Brooker, 2014; Alexander, 2014). GamerGate was repeatedly mentioned side-by-side with harassment, and GG followers fought against what they perceived, through disassociation, to be wilful ignorance and unjust treatment. In turn, their protests were met with little sympathy; they were disorganised, their stated purposes were evidently disingenuous, and their rhetoric was laced with prejudice. In attempting to report on this confusing, self-contradictory, and conspiracy-minded movement, the mainstream media became part of the monolithic Other that GG considered their adversary.
GamerGate vs. Mainstream Media
Two months after GamerGate began, reporter Jesse Singal wrote about the journalistic difficulties of talking about GamerGate: “Whenever I [write about GG], I find that gamergaters are unhappy with my representation of their movement; they feel I am fundamentally misunderstanding it” (Singal, 2014). In an attempt to clarify his understanding, Singal visited the GamerGate subreddit KotakuInAction and made a screenshot of the six most popular posts at the time (ibid.; see Figure 3). A sample size of six is not in itself a compelling study, but when considered next to other research, these post titles provide context for understanding GG’s enmity with the mainstream media.
The general tone of the posts is defensive, negative, and focused almost entirely on parties considered antagonistic to the movement. The supposedly irrelevant Wu is, like in the Newsweek statistics (see Figure 1), the most popular point of discussion. Sarkeesian also features (under her twitter username, @femfreq), as does the broader antagonising force of SJWs. Even the name KotakuInAction is a literal product of finding identity in common opposition (being named after the gaming journalism website ‘Kotaku’). GamerGaters considered themselves a marginalised group. Similarly to how some marginalised groups use ‘counterknowledge’ conspiracy theories as a coping mechanism against persecution, GG resorted to conspiracy to cope with perceived persecution (Fiske and Hancock, 2016, p. 191; Chess and Shaw, 2015, pp. 216–217). They were largely privileged, but saw themselves as cultural outsiders due to their hobbies being “marked by the dominant culture as odd or weird” (Massanari, 2015, p. 4). As self-defined underdogs, they blamed individuals and groups for the widespread changes to gaming culture (Chess and Shaw, 2015, p. 215), and the notion that they, themselves, were persecutors, was met with scepticism and vitriol (Massanari, 2015, p. 4).
This constructed sense of victimisation explains how post titles (see Figure 2) such as “we’re not the only ones who have been affected by SJW’s[sic]” could coexist alongside accusations that the opposition was fraudulently promoting a victimisation narrative (“ … avalanches of threats she pretends to have”). Harassment of women in the gaming industry, the primary product of the movement, was incompatible with that same movement’s idealistic vision. The mounting evidence of the reality of this harassment was countered with yet more conspiracy. The term ‘professional victim’ was deployed against targets of GG harassment, implying their claims were exaggerated or fabricated for the sake of wealth and attention (Robertson, 2017; Mortensen, 2016, p. 16). People like Quinn and Sarkeesian were supposedly secretly rich, a theory that invoked ideas of a class dispute (Mortensen, 2016, p. 16). To justify its existence, GG created a world of myth, filled its pantheon with ‘SJWs’, and centred its attention on the very figures it professed to ignore.
The GG obsession with their own perceived antagonists extended to their accomplishments. As news outlets inside and outside the gaming sphere began to report on the movement in what are colloquially termed the ‘gamers are dead’ articles (Goodchild, 2014), GG responded with a weaponised form of crowdsourcing. They coordinated mass emails to advertisers, pressuring them to withdraw partnership from offending publications (Tassi, 2014b); the post in Singal’s screenshot which reads “KEEP EMAILING ABOUT BULLYING” (see Figure 3) is likely referring to this practice. In some cases they were successful, and these instances were lauded as cultural victories (Yiannopoulos, 2014a).
GamerGaters routinely disassociated themselves from harassment, while also claiming responsibility for any resulting developments they deemed to be positive (Mortensen, 2016, p. 8). Negative media coverage was thus deemed inaccurate, unfair, and even the product of collusion (ibid., p. 5). By contesting the most basic realities of the claims against them, GG perpetuated conflict and ironically served to solidify harassment as a defining aspect of their movement. As their antagonistic relationship with the mainstream media continued to intensify, so did feelings of disenfranchisement and distrust. As one of the top post in Signal’s screenshot phrases it, GamerGate caused many to lose “all faith in the main stream media” (see Figure 3). As the next chapter shall explore, the conflicts stoked by GamerGate made many of its followers particularly susceptible to media outlets that catered to their outsider status.