Why #GamerGate Failed: A Look Back at 2014's Most Ridiculous Movement

Update: The original version of this story used a screenshot of Lewis Denby and Ashton Raze's Richard and Alice instead of Zoe Quinn's Depression Quest. Thanks to commenter LionUCS for pointing out the error.

When media critic and creator of Feminist Frequency Anita Sarkeesian appeared on The Colbert Report near Halloween it seemed to come out of nowhere. Sarkeesian herself only announced it hours before it was to air, and Twitter and Reddit lit up as detractors to her Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series discussed what she might say from the forum regarding the GamerGate phenomenon that had recently gained national news.

In all honesty neither Sarkeesian nor Colbert said anything particularly new or noteworthy for either of them. Colbert danced the line between playing his characters and reaching for understanding as always, and Sarkeesian brought a travel-sized version of her regular talking points. What it did do was drag the essence of the gory GamerGate mess into the spotlight for five whole minutes and revealed to the mainstream how utterly toxic and ridiculous it truly was.

It was a mortal wound for the movement and signaled its slow demise. A look at the hashtag's usage on Twitter shows a rallying spike around the discussion on Colbert, but then a slow, steady decline that continues as we head into 2015. America got a good look at GamerGate and pretty clearly it didn't think very much of it.

So why did it fail?

One of the chief reasons is that the movement's own insistence on being a leaderless collective completely crippled any attempt to refine or control the message being sent out under the banner. Time after time supporters would argue about what GamerGate really was about but there was no handbook to weigh it against or authority to lend it orthodoxy. If someone sent a tweet containing the hashtag he or she might get an argument about ethics in video game journalism in response from one person, a link to a bizarre New World Order anti-feminist meme from a second, and bizarre cartoon pornography from a third. How do you tell which is the real GamerGater and which is the heretic?

There was a lot of call for someone to tell "the other side of the story", meaning the one that didn't agree with Sarkeesian or denounced developers Zoe Quinn and Brianna Wu. Journalists were constantly derided as lazy and partisan for not including the voice of supporters. My response is this; we tried and it was impossible.

Shortly after the Colbert appearance I took to Twitter and asked a very simple question; "Who is the GamerGate version of Sarkeesian that I can interview in response?" I wanted someone to offer to speak for the group, to rebut and offer commentary. Quickly it became apparent to me that no such person existed. One user told me that the best thing to do would be a "man on the street" sort of thing in an online forum, but it would only net the same random sampling of people and no defining voice.

Quinn, Sarkeesian, Wu, and people like game journalist Leigh Alexander are known quantities. They have backgrounds, bodies of work, paper trails, friends, co-workers, and resumes. They also have verified online identities so when someone tells you they said something a reporter can check if they did. The vast majority of people tweeting and promoting GamerGate could have literally been anybody and a great deal of those people weren't people at all. They were just accounts.

This story continues on the next page.

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Jef Rouner (not cis, he/him) is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner