In December, Slate dubbed 2014 “the Year of Outrage.” Their extensive documentation makes it easy to see why. Of the hundreds of examples to choose from, some trivial and some much more serious, none was more convoluted or unexpected than the controversy that came to be known as “Gamergate.”
The most unusual aspect of the Gamergate controversy is that it didn’t originate along conventional political fault lines. As Reason outlined in May, video gamers are generally left-libertarians. Their opponents in this controversy were also social liberals, and yet before the dust had settled, large numbers of video gamers found themselves labeled variously as “a terrorist movement,” “a hate group,” “a bunch of fascists,” and “recreational misogynists and bigots” by their political neighbors. What led to the rift? Answering the question is worth our time, because the Gamergate flare-up of last year has ominous implications for the new one.
The explanation starts with the organizational dynamics of the contemporary social justice movement. All organizations have two objectives. The first is to accomplish their stated goals and the second is to perpetuate their own existence. In organizations that are predicated on removing or solving a problem (such as the social justice movement’s dedication to ending social injustice), these objectives conflict. Eradicating the problem removes the reason for the organization’s existence, thus undercutting the livelihood, social status, and personal investment of everyone associated with the organization. Success is suicide.
This usually results in perversely ineffectual bureaucracies such as those associated with the Wars on Poverty, Drugs, and Terror. The perpetual warfare paradigm allows for apparently successful battles (which establish the institutions’ efficacy) to coexist with a sense of constant peril (which establishes the institutions’ indispensability).
The modern social justice movement’s insistence on a narrative of historical continuity severely exacerbates this routine dysfunction. In comparison with past battles against slavery or Jim Crow, the complaints of modern social justice advocates can seem small. This is not to say our society is perfectly just, even if we ignore such horrific injustices as elective abortion (as the social justice movement does). It is simply to observe that the modern social justice movement chooses to live in a very long shadow.
This problem is particularly acute as the victory of the gay rights movement’s signature policy—same-sex marriage—appears both imminent and inevitable. The sense of impending total victory erodes the relevance and indispensability of the modern social justice movement which, like apocryphal Alexander, has run out of lands to conquer.
A mature social justice movement would react to impending victory by abandoning the perpetual warfare paradigm and choosing to engage remaining injustices—which are often subtle and systemic rather than explicit and intentional—with the nuance of a scalpel instead of the brute force of a sword. That has not happened. Instead, the modern social justice movement magnifies real problems or invents false ones to justify the warfare paradigm and maintain its status.
In short: The social justice movement is a victim of its own success, and the same could be said for the other participants in the Gamergate controversy—the gamers. For a long time being a gamer was expensive. Video games and the equipment to play them were financially expensive, the games required extensive practice to master the basics, and there was also the cost of social stigma. The internal costs and external disapproval combined to mold gamers into a subculture.
Now that Silicon Valley has taken over the world and geeks are cool, however, the external disapproval is gone. And now that smart phones with stunning graphics and easy-to-play games are cheap and ubiquitous the internal costs are lower. This success is an existential threat to gaming as a subculture, and gamers have reacted the way subcultures always react to mainstreaming: by withdrawing, defining boundaries, and gatekeeping to try and keep their identity from being appropriated and diluted.
As an example, gaming in the past required people to learn the arcane details of BIOS and registry setting in order to maintain their computers and install video games. Technical expertise was revered by the community because it was essential. None of that esoteric knowledge is required to play modern games, but gamers have clung to technical know-how as a costly cultural signifier. You used to need to know computers to be able to play games. Now, you don’t, but you still need to know computers (at least more than the general public) if you want to call yourself a gamer.
The result is a two-tier structure within the gaming community. Core gamers are the continuation of gaming as subculture. They spend a lot of time and money playing difficult games on hardware purchased just for video games (like video game consoles or custom-built PCs). Casual gamers are the newcomers to the pastime who spend small amounts of money and time playing easy games on multi-purpose hardware they already own (like mobile phones or off-the-shelf PCs). These are commonly known stereotypes that have been empirically validated by surveys like this one from market research firm NPD. And there’s one more thing that NPD and everyone else knows: core gamers are “comprised mainly of men” while casual gamers are “overwhelmingly female.”
At this point it’s possible to see trouble looming on the horizon. On the one hand we have an aggressively hypersensitive social justice movement spoiling for a chance to burnish its relevance. On the other hand we have a legendarily vulgar and insensitive subculture that sees differentiating casual gamers (who happen to be mostly women) from core gamers (who happen to be mostly men) as critical to its survival.
The conflict wasn’t inevitable, however. Casual movie goers (who want to see summer blockbusters) don’t generally have any issues with core movie goers (who want to see experimental film at art house cinemas). Are females over- or under-represented in one demographic vs. the other? If there is a gender disparity, it’s flying underneath the radar for now.
What brought the gender disparity among gamers to the forefront was the ham-fisted attempt of industry trade groups like the Entertainment Software Association to pretend it didn’t exist. They did this in glossy fact sheets which covered up the gender gap by lumping casual and core gamers together into one group. One big audience is worth more than two smaller audiences, after all, and narratives of unexpected gender parity make for good press. It seemed like a twofer, and initial mainstream press (like this article from PBS) was reliably favorable.
It backfired, however, because lumping core and casual gamers into one demographic is exactly the kind of appropriation that core gamers resent. Casual gamers, for example, share none of their cultural assumptions about the connection between technical know-how and gaming culture. To elide the difference between the two groups is therefore to negate part of what being a gamer means to core gamers. They rejected the idea that there was just one category of gamers, and in so doing they enacted cultural barriers that kept a predominantly male group on one side and a predominantly female group on the other side. This was catnip for social justice advocates who needed a new battle to fight, and this was the environment in which Gamergate erupted.
The inciting incident was an August 2014 blog post by jilted ex-boyfriend Eron Gjoni revealing that independent games developer Zoe Quinn was having an undisclosed sexual relationship with video games journalist Nathan Grayson. For core gamers, it was proof positive that social justice advocates were colluding to undermine the distinctive identity of gamers, since Quinn’s and Grayson’s social justice politics were well known. (Ironically, Gjoni also identified as a social justice advocate.) For social justice activists, on the other hand, publicly revealing the sexual misdeeds of Quinn was a blatant salvo in the war on women.
Video game journalists as a group aggressively took up the social justice advocates’ perspective on the problem and rapidly used their near absolute control over the media portrayal of the story to launch a coordinated and ruinous attack on Gamergate supporters. (The term “Gamergate” was invented later, by libertarian actor Adam Baldwin.) The narrative of video game journalists was just a magnification of their initial concern: Gamergate was a bunch of misogynist gamers banding together to intimidate females in the gaming community with death threats, rape threats, and doxxing (the public release of private information like phone numbers or addresses). A series of female game developers and critics, most famously feminist game critic Anita Sarkeesian, made mainstream media headlines when they temporarily moved out of their homes or canceled public speaking engagements in reaction to these threats.
Harassment and intimidation are unforgivable, but what was hidden from the public was that these tactics weren’t one-sided. Members of Gamergate, including female core gamers, were subjected to the same harassment and intimidation. The sad reality is that any online fight will eventually involve harassment and intimidation, especially of women.
Online harassment is a legitimate cause for concern. It simply isn’t an issue that has anything in particular to do with Gamergate. Consider, for example, the way that a completely innocuous Internet celebrity like Alex from Target was targeted with for the exact same intimidation and harassment as Gamergate supporters and critics. (The New York Times covered the threats and release of public information on him and his family.) Gamergate supporters also banded together to try and police their own movement, but this effort was completely ignored by a hostile media.
Before writing this piece, I contacted several gamers that I used to work with to get their impression on Gamergate. They were a fairly representative and diverse sample, but they all said the same thing: Gamergate is dead, and the truth is irrelevant. Regardless of what gamers did or didn’t do, they were successfully painted as vicious thugs, and now the term “Gamergate” is toxic. A few holdouts remain, but there is no hope of support from a sympathetic public because the PR war was lost, and it was lost decisively.
The lessons of Gamergate are clear: a hostile and aggressive social justice movement is actively looking for vulnerable targets far outside their usual hunting grounds. Sharing a common political outlook is no protection. Once you become a target, the debate will become an exercise in character assassination. Most ominous of all, however, Gamergate was the second time this story played out in 2014. The first happened a few months earlier and centered around the sci-fi community and the annual Hugo Awards. It ended similarly, with victory for the social justice advocates by silencing most of their opponents. Who will be targeted in 2015?
I write not because I am a Gamergate partisan—the movement was largely over by the time I had thoroughly investigated it—but because Mary Eberstadt is right: silence emboldens the practitioners of the New Intolerance. Gamergate was not a perfect movement, and neither was the loose coalition of conservatives, libertarians, and contrarians who opposed the social justice incursions into science fiction. But someone ought to speak out. If we wait for a perfect victim to emerge, we will be waiting forever.
Nathaniel Givens writes at Difficult Run.