Saturday, November 1, 2014

#GamerGate has won a few battles. It will lose the war.

Actress and entrepreneur Felicia Day had her personal information exposed after posting an incredibly mild critique of #GamerGate. Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Felicia Day is, by any measure, a geek hero. She played a recurring role on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and her online programming efforts have included the beloved web series The Guild. Her production company is even named Geek & Sundry. So she's got cred. And on Wednesday, she posted a mild response to the #GamerGate brouhaha that has ripped through the video game community — and the world at large — for nearly two months now.

Day's comments were, by the standards of the #GamerGate war, restrained. She said she was sad #GamerGate had made her, as a woman, suspicious and scared of fellow gamers. And she said she hoped the community could once again unite around everything that was good and beautiful about the medium that brought it together in the first place.

Within an hour, her home address and other personal information had been posted in the post's comments.

#GamerGate says that it is a movement of video gamers uniting to question problematic relationships between games journalists and members of the independent video games scene. And yet, Day's experience was simply the latest example of how the #GamerGaters harass and intimidate women even tangentially connected to the controversy. The attack on Day was followed by Tara Long, co-host of the YouTube series Rev3 Games, saying she, too, had had her personal information bandied about on Twitter, followed by rape threats, after she brought up #GamerGate. She was told, by a supporter, to "show some respect."

Consider this from another perspective: as former Minnesota Vikings punter and highly visible gamer Chris Kluwe pointed out on Twitter, his own incredibly scathing takedown of the movement did not result in the publication of his personal information, despite his decision to call #GamerGate by the harshest, most profane names he can think of.

Similar sentiments were shared by Polygon's Phil Kollar. (Polygon is a sister site of Vox.) The same goes for men who have written in condemnatory tones of #GamerGate throughout the internet.

Now, to be sure, the movement has struck back at criticism of it from men, but in far more roundabout ways, usually by threatening the advertisers of the publications they work for with boycotts.

But make no mistake. The fullest brunt of #GamerGate harassment has fallen almost exclusively upon women who dare criticize the movement. #GamerGate's most prominent targets are all women. It wants them to be quiet, unless it can use them as a convenient shield to prop up its own points.

Every single question of journalistic ethics #GamerGate has brought up has either been debunked or dealt with (as when Kotaku and Polygon clarified their policies for writers contributing to individual developers' Patreon donation accounts). At this point, #GamerGate seems to keep raging simply to do two things: harass women and endlessly perpetuate itself so it can keep harassing women. There is absolutely no center to it — save for the harassment of women.

And the hardest thing to stomach about it is that it might be working — at least in the short term.

How #GamerGate is winning

But let's briefly return to the idea of threatened boycotts to see just why the movement is surprisingly effective. This week, the movement managed to get not just a writer from Gawker but Gawker Media's editorial director himself to apologize for a couple of (not particularly tasteful) jokes that the writer made last week.

The tweets were read by #GamerGate supporters as support for bullying of members of the movement. While joking about bullying anyone is a bad idea, the self-righteous bluster kicked up by #GamerGaters has been particularly rich, considering the movement has driven three separate women from their houses thanks to harassment that goes so far beyond bullying that it is arguably criminal.

But what #GamerGate has also found is a vulnerability in the digital press more generally. The world of online media doesn't have the twin pillars of a subscriber base and advertisers to fall back on when it comes time to pull in income. That has always been the case with print media, which is one reason boycotts of the New York Times or Washington Post's advertisers are generally ineffective.

Online media, by contrast, has to rely almost solely on advertisers to pay employees' salaries, which means that when advertisers start to pull ads or apparent corporate support from sites (as Mercedes Benz and Adobe did for Gawker after #GamerGate complaints poured in), it scares the hell out of online outlets.

It's hard to get upset with #GamerGaters for threatening boycotts of advertisers to particular sites, no matter how much it might disgust me. Boycotting advertisers of publications you disagree with has long been a tool of political movements hoping to wage war against media outlets they deem blasphemous. What's different here is how successful #GamerGate has been with this technique.

Gawker doesn't apologize. It didn't apologize to Blake Lively when it implied she was in favor of a return to the days of slavery, and it didn't apologize to hashtag activist Suey Park during this year's earlier #CancelColbert campaign, when Gawker sister site Deadspin called Park a racial slur in a headline. But now it apologizes? For a tweet?

Or forget Gawker. For as much as those tweets might seem like a joke to me or you, they are easy to literalize and make seem far worse than they are.

Look, instead, to Gamasutra, which saw advertiser Intel cut its funding over a pointed editorial by Leigh Alexander (another woman who's endured massive amounts of harassment from #GamerGaters) entitled "'Gamers' don't have to be your audience. ‘Gamers' are over." The piece was widely re-circulated by #GamerGaters as one that said gamers were dead, despite the fact that Alexander never says those words or anything close to them.

Alexander holds up gamer culture for heavy (perhaps unnecessary) mockery, but her call that "'Gamers' are over" refers less to the end of video gaming itself and more to the expansion of the medium to a much larger audience, something that is indisputably true, thanks to the rise of mobile games and platforms like Nintendo's Wii, which was more welcoming to a wide audience.

And yet Alexander's piece — and others like it — has taken on a central role in the larger narrative #GamerGaters tell themselves about why they're fighting, despite the fact that they've completely and utterly misread it. (For more analysis of this point, look at the absolutely essential Tumblr blog of Pixie Jenni, an academic who's talked to a great many #GamerGaters to attempt to figure out their goals and wishes.)

#GamerGate likes to talk a big game about being all about inclusion, but the tangible effects of its campaign have all been those of exclusion. It refers to those who use its hashtag to harass women as bad apples, while never understanding how bad apples spoil the whole bunch. It is, at all times, a defense of the video gaming status quo, one that is less interested in genuinely dissecting questions of journalistic ethics than it is simply shutting down opinions it doesn't want to hear, whether by harassment or by boycott.

Winning battles; losing wars

#GamerGate might be effective in the short term, but it will not win in the long term. It cannot win.

Its stated goals are too nebulous, and its implicit goals — the abolishment of any discussion of women's issues or feminism in video game spaces — are impossible to achieve. Its desire for so-called "objective" reviews is ludicrous and impossible in a format that necessarily requires subjectivity, and its hope for no "politics" in game discussion completely ignores how asking to preserve the status quo at all costs is perhaps the most political statement one can makeEven #GamerGaters might eventually realize so much of this is driven by what media scholar Jason Mittell calls "taste privilege" and abandon some of their harsher stances.

As Arthur Chu points out in a brilliant essay connecting #GamerGate to the disco demolition night of the ‘70s, the forces of change always win in pop culture, because pop culture dies when it stops evolving. This, too, will happen to gaming.

But right now, the audience outside of women that #GamerGate is attacking the most is the audience of gamers themselves. The numbers who actively post and organize under #GamerGate are small, compared to the gaming community at large, but they tarnish all gamers with their brush, whether through spreading vituperation or by confirming the worst stereotypes of those who never thought much of gamers anyway. And by scaring so many women away from gaming in the short term, it may be depriving gamers of so many potentially great games as well as essays and articles on those games.

#GamerGate deserves nothing more than that, but the gaming community at large has always deserved something better. That it's being robbed of that opportunity by a small gang of loudmouths who turn every camera in their direction is too bad. But such is life in our new culture war.

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