GamerGate, A Look Back
Its Effects on “Gamer” Identity, Women, and Minorities
What was GamerGate? How did personal attacks devolve into something criminal and how did women in geekdom react? Explore what can happen when fun and games turns ugly.
Editor’s Note: For clarity and ease of discussion the terms male, man, and men will be used to denote masculine identifying people in this article. The terms female, woman, and women will be used, likewise, to denote feminine identifying people.
Ethics in gaming journalism and game development is still a hot-button topic that draws some of the most polarizing opinions. The GamerGate saga opened with an accusation that a game developer traded sexual favors for positive game reviews [ 1 ]. It goes without saying this would be unethical—that has never been seriously questioned. Honesty and integrity are invaluable in journalism, including reporting on games and other media. However, once threats of rape and murder are introduced, the discussion has gotten out of hand. When we talk about ethics, it is important to have the facts and not rely on hearsay and rumors. GamerGate took common sense and respectability out of the debate over Zoe Quinn’s game, replacing it with a truly epic amount of hate-fueled ad hominem attacks on her as a person—or, more specifically, a woman.
Thinking back on the mess that has become known as GamerGate feels a bit like an out-of-body experience. What started out as a semi-rational conversation about ethics in gaming and journalism quickly devolved into mindless hatred and misogyny. It stopped being rational; it stopped being a discussion about ethics altogether. Instead, it became criminal.
Making matters worse, when the people who received these criminally violent threats did go to the authorities to report the rampant, unwarranted abuse, they were turned away with, “It’s the internet; we can’t do anything about it.” This is a fallacy at its core, as written and verbal threats are supposed to be taken seriously by law enforcement. Yet somehow, they were not. It’s almost as if the complaints of women and people of color are not treated as importantly as their white, male counterparts.
What is GamerGate?
Simply put, GamerGate was possibly the biggest controversy in recent nerd culture history. It all started when Eron Gjoni accused his ex-girlfriend, Zoe Quinn, of trading sexual favors for game reviews and recommendations. These accusations were proven false, as none of the men she was accused of sleeping with ever reviewed her game. As a result of the initial accusation, Quinn began receiving death threats, rape threats, and general harassment.
At the time, Quinn was trying to publish her text-based game, Depression Quest, which dealt with her own battle with depression [ 2 ]. Many criticized this game by saying it “wasn’t a real game” and “it’s just words on the screen.” These people had obviously forgotten about Zork, a text-based grandfather of modern gaming and more generally the text-based gaming genre [ 3 ].
Gjoni was upset over the breakup. Understandable, to a point. He decided to start a smear campaign against Quinn. Not understandable. Healthy people do not rally the internet against their ex, no matter how wronged they feel. Because of the harassment and threats Quinn began receiving, other notable women in the gaming and nerd community started voicing their opinions. Their experience is one shared by many women who have spoken up online, especially in the gaming community. They were the target of insults, online bullying, and even outright threats. This is where right or wrong, ethical or unethical, was thrown out the window. It became less about ethics and more about shutting up women who supported Quinn.
#GamerGate became so pervasive that the hashtag is still being used today. It’s mostly in parody now, but there are still those who use it to mock and discredit people who have a differing opinion [ 4 ]. During the heyday of the movement, the vitriol that was spewed forth on anyone who disagreed with the prevailing opinion—that Zoe Quinn was some sort of vile Vagina Monster, some modern-day Whore of Babylon that was using her feminine wiles to pervert the pure, virginal innocence of white male gamers everywhere—was immediately lambasted for not holding that opinion themselves.
And at its heart, that is what GamerGate was about. It’s perfectly fine to have differing opinions. The key distinction is that “I don’t enjoy FPS games” is an opinion. “You’re a stupid c–t and should die” is not so much an opinion as a basis for contacting law enforcement. This is not new or revolutionary. It is tired at this point. When a person uses threats to “back up” their criticism, they lose all credibility. Sadly, this is tactic is way too common in all nerd spaces, making it harder to navigate these spaces safely.
GamerGate was a complicated and ever-emerging incident. I could spend several articles chronicling the back-and-forth, as many journalists already have. For brevity, however, I will mostly be discussing the negative backlash that many received for standing up for women in gaming.
Threats as Censorship, Meninist Philosophy, and the Destruction of Creative Thinking
An accusation levied by many in the gaming community was that any positive coverage of Depression Quest was an example of “forced diversity” and “pandering to feminists.” This idea that having a non-white, non-straight, non-male protagonist will somehow ruin a game is not new. In fact, it touches the basis of a particularly toxic philosophical evolutionary dead-end known as Meninism [ 5 ]. Meninist philosophy can be most succinctly described as thinly veiled misogyny; an idea expressed by Meninism—one relevant to the discussion at hand—is that a white, straight, neurotypical male is the “norm” for society and media depicting anything else is a product of “political correctness” and pandering. Meninism makes it difficult to discuss geek culture and diversity, as anything that isn’t straight, white, cis, and male is “forced diversity”.
Requests for diversity in Triple-A gaming are most often met with the same response. “Make it yourself if you want it so bad” is an oft-repeated quote from the depths of internet message boards from IGN to 4chan. Meanwhile, as GamerGate shows, when women or minorities do go so far as to “make it themselves” they are accused of pandering or shoving their identity down the throats of so-called real gamers, with these “legitimate” Meninist gamers acting as gatekeepers to the entire toxic community. This idea of identity politics is used against women and people of color to delegitimize their talents and abilities.
This is the basis of GamerGate: a woman made a game that she wanted to make. It dealt with a very personal struggle in a simple and straightforward manner. Regardless of what her ex’s accusations might have been, the threats she received were wildly disproportionate to the point of criminality. These threats were not acceptable then and they continue to be, despite the insistence of men everywhere that they were appropriate. In fact, these same men doubled down on the threats and other criminal behavior: when other people, mostly other women, came to her defense, the same people began to threaten them in turn.
This experience is often the default when it comes to women and people of color in gaming. They tend to learn quickly that in nerd culture their “otherness” is bad and, that if they want to see themselves in gaming, their very presence is “pandering” to an audience that doesn’t deserve the attention, and that they do not deserve to see themselves in the games they play.
Far be it to believe that this is a new phenomenon, GamerGate is, in fact, just the most recent incident in a long line of women being bullied into silence in fringe, underground countercultures like nerd, geek, and gamer culture. Women’s contributions to pop culture are largely erased or ignored. A classic example of this is Lucille Ball’s contributions to television history—without the I Love Lucy star, we wouldn’t have Star Trek [ 6 ]. Likewise, female fans of Star Trek spearheaded the letter writing that kept the initial show on the air into its third season. Some of the most well-loved Star Trek episodes were written by Dorothy Fontana (who had to seek work as “D.C. Fontana” [ 7 ] to conceal her gender).
Yet, despite these contributions, the fandom is pervasively considered a male interest. With the controversy of GamerGate, we see another example of women being silenced using fear tactics. Many women, even now, three years after GamerGate, are afraid to voice any negative opinion, or in some cases even positive opinions, because of the threat of retaliation.
You can see this in 2016’s Rogue One. The film stars mostly non-white characters and has a female lead. While critics and fans alike praised the film, there was a large group that decried the film as “SJW propaganda” and “political correctness gone rogue” (that particular pun may or may not have been intended) [ 8 ]. Sitting back and looking at the film with a critical eye, what truly is wrong with it? It fits well in the Star Wars universe, it fills in some gaps from A New Hope, and we get to see some old favorites. What is wrong here? The real complaint was that white, straight males were not the focus. They were not the heroes. We saw a Pakistani man, Riz Ahmed, playing a skilled pilot. We saw Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang as skilled fighters and friends (maybe more than that, if the subtext is to be looked at). And, with the current political climate in the U.S., maybe the most inspiring role, Diego Luna, as a rebel leader. This movie, with the roles recast as white, would get rave reviews by that group of fans I mentioned earlier, but with this casting, it is just a little subversive, a little nuanced. A little bit better.
How does this relate to GamerGate? It is fairly simple; anytime “others” are cast, it is propaganda. GamerGate was a rally for basic white dudes to “criticize” others. As was stated previously, this controversy wasn’t about ethics. It was about silencing the voices of women and minority peoples in nerd culture, yet another attempt to keep the gates of straight, white paradise closed to anyone with the wrong skin color or set of genitals—an attempt that involved doing anything and everything to win, up to and including threatening their opponents with violence.
For a long time, the easiest way to silence someone was to complain loudly and viciously. To threaten and humiliate the “others.” To make sure your voice was the loudest, even if it was incoherent. And the hashtag GamerGate gave people the platform to do just that. Whenever an “other” has opinion, they call it “playing the (race, sexuality identity) card.” Women and minorities aren’t allowed to have an opinion that disagrees with the status quo. In the world of the white male, these women and minorities should be happy with what they were given—what the patriarchal powers that be have decided they deserve—and not expect anything else.
Going Forward: What Has Changed and What Needs to Change?
Where does this leave us? We are in a prime position to effect real, positive change in the gamer/nerd community. Instead of silencing women and people of color, giving them a platform to speak is of utmost importance. And maybe ensuring that the response to that platform is to not threaten people with death and rape; that would be a nice start.
We need to make the gaming community a welcoming space for all people, regardless of race, gender, identity, or sexuality. Being a nerd has always been a safe haven for those on the fringes of society. And yet, nerd is now the mainstream. Movies like Ready Player One make hundreds of millions worldwide [ 9 ]. Geek-centric television shows are wildly popular; The Big Bang Theory alone had an historic run with 279 episodes over 12 seasons. Yet despite this new cultural acceptance, nerds are becoming the very bullies they hid from in high school. A subculture that banded together initially because of the social ostracism they experienced at the hands of the “cool kids” is now visiting those horrors on others. Instead of sitting back and listening to the many different views of the community, they are bullying and silencing a huge group of people, all due to a misguided idea that welcoming these others into the community will make it less for them instead of more for everyone. The nerd and gaming community is a huge, beautiful mess of opinions, infighting, and some of the most creative works of art ever produced. Excluding anyone for these most mundane and ridiculous of reasons must end—everyone needs to feel welcomed.
- “It’s not without some irony that the phenomenon has now had books published about it, like this piece by Kevin McDonald, available on Amazon.” amazon.com/GamerGate-First-Battle-Culture-War-ebook/dp/B07PJ7PQCB
- “An exemplar of the issues in nerd spaces, the Origins exhibitors’ hall in 2007 showcases the distinct lack of diversity.” wikipedia.org/wiki/Origins_Game_Fair#/media/File:Origins_Exhibitors_Hall.jpg
Courtney is a writer, editor and videographer for Steam-Funk Studios. Passionate for fashion design with nerdy flair, her family has always nurtured her love for speculative fiction and creativity. Joining the firm as a writer, Courtney’s distinguished herself as editorial staff and as a production assistant for The Living Multiverse’s photography shoots. She has also participated in and acted as assistant troupe manager for our performers and panelists, at shows like C.O.G.S. Expo and PhilCon.
- Hathaway, Jay. “What Is Gamergate, and Why? An Explainer for Non-Geeks.” Gawker, Gawker, 10 Oct. 2014, gawker.com/what-is-gamergate-and-why-an-explainer-for-non-geeks-1642909080.
- Quinn, Zoe. “Depression Quest.” Depression Quest, 2013, depressionquest.com.
- Barton, Matt. “The History of Zork.” Gamasutra. 28 June, 2007, gamasutra.com/view/feature/1499/the_history_of_zork.php
- Baio, Andy. “72 Hours of #Gamergate.” Medium, The Message, 27 Oct. 2014, medium.com/message/72-hours-of-gamergate-e00513f7cf5d.
- Warren, Rossalyn. “Men Are Calling Themselves ‘Meninists’ To Take A Stand Against Feminism.” Buzzfeed, Buzzfeed News, 18 Dec. 2014, buzzfeed.com/rossalynwarren/men-are-calling-themselves-meninists-to-take-a-stand-against.
- Miller, John Jackson. “How Lucille Ball Saved ‘Star Trek.’” Entertainment Weekly, EW, 8 July 2016, ew.com/article/2016/07/08/lucille-ball-star-trek.
- Healy, Matthew J. “D.C. Fontana: The Woman Behind Star Trek.” The Sydney Feminists, Blogspot, 12 Jan. 2017, thesydneyfeminists.blogspot.com/2017/01/d.html.
- Surrey, Mile. “‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’ Is Pissing People Off With Its Female Lead, Felicity Jones.” BDG, Mic, 7 Apr. 2016, mic.com/articles/140160/rogue-one-a-star-wars-story-is-pissing-people-off-with-its-female-lead-felicity-jones#.jI6mtPx2Z.
- Mendelson, Scott. “Box Office: Steven Spielberg’s ‘Ready Player One’ Races Past $300M Global.” PARS International Corp, Forbes, 6 Apr. 2018, forbes.com/sites/scottmendelson/2018/04/06/box-office-steven-spielbergs-ready-player-one-races-past-300m-global.