The Charge of the Troll Brigade: What to know about #GamerGate

Actually, it's not about ethics

There are two ways to think about #GamerGate.

The short version is that it's a loosely-organized mob of so-called "gamers" rallied around a Twitter hashtag focused on the harassment of women -- primarily, but not only, female game developers -- under the pretense of pushing for higher standards in video game journalism. 

The longer story is that the #GamerGate hashtag has all but taken over a large and growing corner of the web, starting back in August, when a jilted ex-boyfriend wrote a long (seriously, it's basically a novel) blog entry accusing his former girlfriend, independent game developer Zoe Quinn, of cheating on him with a video game journalist (in the spirit of disclosure, that journalist is a friend of mine) in return for positive reviews of her games. Never mind that the journalist in question had never actually reviewed one of her games -- the witchhunt was on. 

From there, things started happening fast. Quinn was at the receiving end of a cavalcade of Internet hatred from "gamers" who claimed to be worried about the sanctity of their hobby, but in practice seemed to be more worried about a woman who dared to invade their hobby. The movement got a name when extremely conservative actor Adam Baldwin, best known for playing Jayne on the short-lived cult sci-fi TV show Firefly, got involved on Twitter in support of the burgeoning movement with the hashtag #GamerGate. The hashtag stuck, if for no other reason than that people love a "-gate" suffix for anything remotely resembling a scandal.

Death and rape threats became the norm on Twitter and via email for Quinn, ultimately forcing her to move out of her home for her safety after self-described "gators" leaked her address and phone numbers, a tactic commonly referred to as "doxxing." 

And it hasn't been just limited to Quinn: Critic Anita Sarkeesian, host and producer of a series of popular YouTube series called Feminist Frequency that called out antifeminist tropes in video games, was also chased out of her home by death threats. More recently, a lecture Sarkeesian was supposed to give on a college campus in Utah was cancelled when threats of a mass shooting from persons identified with the #GamerGate cause spurred her towards cancellation. Developer Brianna Wu was -- guess what -- also scared into leaving her home after expressing support for the victims of this hate movement. 

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Anybody they deem a "Social Justice Warrior" -- their term for progressives who disagree with them -- is subject to the same harassment, and any news outlet that publishes something critical of the movement gets targeted by an organized campaign of letter-writing seeking quibbling "corrections" and loudly demanding that the truth as they see it be heard.

As for claims that it's about ethics in video game journalism, those claims don't really hold water: Despite organized efforts from the Gator crowd to obfuscate the issue by starting ancillary hashtags like #NotYourShield (as in, "feminism isn't your shield against criticism") and token donations to charity, a recent Newsweek analysis of  #GamerGate hashtag usage shows that most of the messages go towards video game developers, not video game journalists, and that of those, most of them are targeted at women. Just for starters, Quinn has received over 10,000 tweets with the hashtag, while the journalist she allegedly had the affair with has received around 700. While #GamerGate does have some high-profile supporters, especially among those who identify on the right of the political spectrum, it seems pretty clear where the real focus is. But any attempt to address this divide gets met with the now meme-worthy catchphrase "actually, it's about ethics in video game journalism," which has the nice corollary of disavowing association with people who make horrible threats without actually having to distance yourself from them.  

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For an object lesson in that regard, look at Chris Kluwe, formerly of the Minnesota Vikings, who wrote a scathing takedown of the #GamerGate horde. (I’d reprint portions of it here if not for all the cursing.) Meanwhile, nerd-favorite actress Felicia Day wrote about how uncomfortable the GamerGate movement makes her and how she was afraid to express any opinion for fear of kicking the proverbial hornet's nest; her home address and other personal information was leaked online within an hour of posting. 

Not that critics have been immune from #GamerGate's all-seeing, all-awful eye: When Gawker's Sam Biddle joked on Twitter that people sick of all of this should "Bring Back Bullying" to stop #GamerGate, the brigade descended in force to pressure Adobe into publicly disavowing the site. This was preceded by video game industry news site GamaSutra seeing Intel pull advertising after correspondent Leigh Alexander wrote about the death of "gamer" as an identity, which is pretty ironic considering that #GamerGate's stated goal of higher ethical standards in video game journalism would seem to be at odds with the tactic of getting advertisers to affect editorial content. But that's to be expected, given how each and every one of the Gators' claims about corruption in the games media has been emphatically disproven. It's also worth noting, in fairness, that both Adobe and Intel apologized for their parts in this, though Adobe never actually advertised on Gawker and Intel hasn't yet resumed its Gamasutra ad campaign

If this seems completely silly, you're not alone. Many try to couch Gamergate (the movement as opposed to the hashtag) as an "Us vs. Them" kind of thing, but it's really the one-sided campaign of terror perpetrated on the unwilling by bullies -- again, ironic, given the claims against Biddle and the repeated insistence that anybody who wants GamerGate to go away is bullying them into silence. For the case in point, satire site Clickhole summed it up nicely with a piece called "A Summary Of The Gamergate Movement That We Will Immediately Change If Any Of Its Members Find Any Details Objectionable."

This is all only the tip of the iceberg: Every time it seems like the #GamerGate tag is quieting down, another related outrage seems to come into the picture. It's a completely toxic culture that's festering on the edges of some of technology's most privileged corners, proving what happens if leaders like Satya Nadella don't take recent criticisms to heart and make a strong stand against sexism in the world of technology. GamerGate isn't going away any time soon, but it's not too late to work on changing Silicon Valley's culture and ensure it doesn't happen here, too. 

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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