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Critical Hit: What Gamergate Reveals About Sexism In Gaming

News & Features | April 13, 2015

Trigger warning: This article contains references to suicide, sexual assault, and gender based violence.

They are a group who believe they have been persecuted, targeted, and oppressed by society. They assert that they value “artistic freedom and equal opportunities.” They believe they have found an ethical problem in their community and are lashing out against it in any way that they can. They are the Gamergaters, and they have created more problems than they have solved.

Gamergate began on August 16, 2014 when Eron Gjoni published a blog entry about his ex-girlfriend Zoe Quinn, accusing her of emotionally abusing him as well as cheating on him. Quinn, a popular figure in the feminist gaming community, had already been under scrutiny online as a result of her publication of the game “Depression Quest,” a game that some video gamers found boring and unnecessary. Gjoni accused Quinn of cheating on him with five other men, including her boss, another game developer, and a gaming journalist.

After the blog was posted to the website 4chan, there was immediate backlash against Quinn for her actions. Some claimed that she had engaged in sexual activity in an effort to improve her own position in the gaming community. Suddenly, Quinn became a major target for harassment as well as threats of violent sexual assault and death, all anonymously made online. Her harassers published statements like “@TheQuinnspiracy could kill yourself [sic]. We don’t need cunts like you in this world. Trash is more worth than you” and “She’s a cunt. Pure and simple. This has been going on for ages. Her “game” is a piece of shit too. I jokingly remember saying ‘I wonder who’s [sic] dick she sucked to get this green lit?’” By the end of the month, she had been “doxed,” meaning that her private information (address, phone number, bank information, and social security number) had been released. As the threats intensified, she was forced out of her home and into hiding.

A “boring” game and a failed relationship do not seem like adequate explanations for what happened to Quinn. Gamers claimed that what Quinn did was indicative of a larger problem in the community. They believed that she had slept with Nathan Grayson, the gaming journalist from the website Kotaku, so that he might promote “Depression Quest” in his writing. They felt this was a threat to journalistic integrity. However, there is no evidence to support this speculation. In fact, Grayson never wrote about Depression Quest except for two articles that briefly mentioned the game, neither of which was published in the time in which they were allegedly involved.

Gamergate, whose name originated with a reference to the Watergate scandal, is a hashtag that came out of the Quinn incident. Gamers used the scandal to discuss an ethical problem in game journalism. Gamergaters argue that, whether the affair was confirmed or not, the problem lies in the fact that Grayson never disclosed that he had any kind of relationship whatsoever with Quinn. They claim that game journalists were getting too friendly with game developers and thus developing conflicts of interest. According to Gamergaters, the modern gaming community is fraught with these kinds of ethical dilemmas. They hope to rid gaming of these problems so that it can be a fairer community for all.

In the group’s main subreddit (a forum used over reddit.com) r/KotakuInAction, their mission statement reads, “We believe gaming is an inclusive place, and wish to welcome all who want to take part in an amazing hobby.” The movement generally seems to have good intentions. Corruption in journalistic standards and practices is certainly a problem and would require major change in order to be fixed. Unfortunately, another dilemma has come about, raising the question, what does “all” really mean? Though gamers claim that their attacks on Zoe Quinn were rooted in ethos, a different general trend seems more prominent: an attack on women in the gaming community.

It must be clarified that not all gamers are the kind of Gamergaters that I refer to in this article. Many of those who believe in the Gamergate movement align themselves with its ethical roots, but do not support the practices of doxing and harassment. Most gamers are largely unaware of the negative consequences the movement has caused. The angry Gamergaters are only a small, yet abrasively vocal minority of those who play video games, and they perpetuate the problem at hand.

Women have been the primary targets of the attacks rooted in the Gamergate movement. Take, for example, Anita Sarkeesian, another prominent figure in the feminist gaming community. Through her Kickstarter-funded video series, Tropes Vs. Women in Video Games, Sarkeesian targets misogyny in video games, pointing out how they misrepresent and disempower women. In the comments section of the video promoting her Kickstarter, she was subject to brutal harassment, with comments like, “I hate ovaries with a brain big enough to post videos,” and “Back to the kitchen, bitch.” Comments on her videos have since been disabled.

Another woman who has come under attack due to Gamergate is Boston-based game developer, Brianna Wu. After posting a series of tweets pointed at Gamergaters, she became their newest target. Wu has faced frequent harassment and even death threats online. In fact, she became the target of a man wearing a skeleton mask, who made a YouTube video detailing his plans to kill her. She has learned the names of some of her attackers and attempted to file restraining orders, though the harassment has not ceased and Wu blames the system in place both online and offline. In an op-ed written for Bustle, Wu wrote, “Women’s needs are not heard, our truth is never spoken. These systems are the next frontier of human evolution, and they’re increasingly dangerous for us.”

Recently, Massachusetts congresswoman Katherine Clark has taken up Wu’s call to action, encouraging the FBI and DOJ to take online harassment seriously, as nothing has really been done so far. In her own op-ed written for The Hill, Clark wrote, “While Gamergate has garnered headlines, the truth is that every day is a dangerous day for women online. Journalists, academics, and other professionals who dare to express an opinion—especially a feminist one—are routinely attacked. Young women are deciding not to pursue jobs in technology to avoid the crosshairs of men who don’t think they belong.”

Getting caught in these crosshairs comes at the cost of intense harassment. Twitter user @Adensma tweeted at Sarkeesian, “kill yourself feminists are a waste of air also more games should have girl characters half naked such as ‘Tomb Raider’ etc.” An account called “Death to Brianna” tweeted to Wu, “I hope you enjoy your last moments alive on this earth. You did nothing worthwhile with your life” and “If you have any kids, they’re going to die too. I don’t give a ***. They’ll grow up to be feminists anyway.” It becomes apparent that the Gamergaters’ battle is about their belief that people, most often women, are getting involved where they don’t belong. As a result of these events, many women previously involved in the video game industry have resigned. Tufts sociology professor Sarah Sobieraj is currently doing research for a book on online gender-based attacks on women and said that the entire phenomenon raises the question, “Culturally, what does it mean if women’s participation in public discourse is so uncomfortable that they begin to retreat or self-censor?”

The events of Gamergate have drawn attention to the need for gender equality. Contrarily, some Gamergaters have taken an opposing view. They see all of the negative articles written about gamers as oppression of their own community, claiming that the “gamer” archetype has always been ridiculed and persecuted, without any attention being called to it. So, they are lashing out now. Calling out their misogynistic comments and calling them white males, they say, is another form of racism and sexism. They believe that deleting their comments is a form of censorship targeted at gamers. They view people like Sarkeesian and Wu as “SJWs” or “social justice warriors” who have despoiled their community. According to reddit user “getintheVandell,” “Social justice is pushing the ideologue of destructive equality (‘take away the rights of cis white people more’) and/or muting censorship (‘this is offensive to me/someone and should be taken down immediately’).” They see game developers’ acquiescence to the demands for inclusivity as turning “art” into “propaganda.” Essentially, they believe that Gamergate is simply causing oppression of the male gamer.

On the subreddit r/KotakuInAction, popular comments look something like this: “What [Sarkeesian] and her co fail to realize is that this is why men have “better” written characters—it’s because there isn’t a quota or checklist of approval necessary to abide by. Men’s characters are limitless because of freedom.” “I never understand why we need to make women programmers feel ‘welcome’ … You want the fucking job you go take the fucking job. Stop asking for golden invitations and safe spaces.” “Real racists and misogynists would laugh in their faces from the first sentence. But groups like ours don’t like to laugh at people. We genuinely want to be inclusive and are very tolerant… This is why they attack us. They see an avenue they can use to dominate us. This is about power and control.” Gamergaters shirk all culpability in misogynistic or racist roles, though they are engaging in misogyny and racism.

So, why does such disconnect occur? How is it that Gamergaters make statements yet claim to be seeking inclusivity and tolerance? Looking through r/KotakuInAction, there are many discussions regarding exactly that. For example, in a thread called “I don’t get it… why do they think we’re bigots?”, reddit user Zero132132 writes, “SJWs consistently conflate not believing an environment is hostile to women/minorities as being misogynistic/racist. How does that make sense? Can anyone, pro or anti, explain it, even in their terms and their conception of how the world works?” Gamergaters claim that there is no problem in video gaming regarding equality, SJWs adamantly respond that this view reflects the misogynistic and racist nature of the community, and therein lies the problem.

There is a wide disconnect between the two “sides” on this issue (the Gamergaters and the SJWs), largely due to the obsessions within the video game industry. Gamergaters have become absorbed into the culture that they have created. In that culture, they cannot and often do not want to see the problems that SJWs point out. A game is art and only remains so as long as developers can create whatever they want regardless of its implications. The Gamergater sees changing content because it may offend somebody as a form of censorship. Thus, we can see where the problem truly lies. Gamergaters do not want to relinquish control of video game content in the face of other people’s demands, especially when they were happy with it exactly the way it was. However, when 59 percent of Americans play video games and 48 percent of those are women, changes must be made to the industry so that it is no longer the male-dominated space that it has been. Thus “SJWs” step in, advocating for inclusivity. The Gamergaters, though, see this as a breach in their dominance. So, they fight back in any means possible: harassment masked by anonymity is the least they can do to hold onto their place in the gaming community.

Even while writing this article, there was a moment in which I realized that I could become a target for harassment for the mere reason of pointing out the Gamergate problem. I realize that, because I am a woman of color criticizing Gamergate, I too would be seen as an “SJW.” If Gamergaters were to read this article, I would consequently be harassed as gamers see fit. This is the culture that Gamergate has created: one in which any kind of criticism is seen as censorship, calling forth backlash and creating fear. This phenomenon does not only apply to Quinn, Sarkeesian, and Wu, and their cases are not the only ones that matter. According to Sobieraj, “I don’t think it has to be at the point of a woman needing to leave their home for the online backlash to be upsetting, distracting or even terrifying. We tend to focus on these dramatic cases, and they are certainly important, but the myriad of women who experience lower-level gender-based hostility is something we need to take very seriously.” Gamergate extends beyond these three individuals to all women, and men, who have been affected by this atmosphere of hostility and culture of hatred.

This is not a problem specific to the video game industry. As women gain more opportunities for stronger roles in society, they are faced with pushback. This has taken place in business, politics, education, and countless other fields. Video games are only the newest frontier. As long as Gamergate remains unknown and the actions of Gamergaters ignored, the problem will continue to grow.