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.
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Blogger Andy Baio tweeted a chart showing that a huge number of the people talking about GamerGate on Twitter were doing so from accounts created within the time frame of the hashtag's beginning. You can look directly at the IIRC logs from the beta release of GamerGate -- the 4chan #burgersandfries channel -- and see members discussing the best way to impersonate women and people of color in sock puppet accounts in order to lend diversity to the movement. In that dense wall of text linked to members discuss whether using a Sailor Moon or a Bratz avatar would make for a more convincing impersonation of the account of a teen girl while others brag about showing up in blackface.
From the very beginning there were two sides of GamerGate. On one side were indie game developers, media outlets, media critics, and industry people who could be interviewed and examined. On the other was a wall of anonymous puppet accounts created by 4channers that couldn't. Reporters could never be sure of the credentials of the person they were talking to on Twitter and could never verify facts. There was just a soup of throwaway Internet chunks called GamerGate. Is it any wonder that instead media chose to focus on the more relevant and compelling story of harassment of women in the gaming world?
Eventually some people did stand forward and put their names and reputations behind GamerGate but it only made the problems with the movement worse, not better. There was reporter Milo Yiannopoulus, who started giving GamerGate favorable coverage through Breitbart.com after previously calling gamers "pungent beta male bollocks-scratchers and twelve-year-olds". He's also famous for the controversy he started by saying that "girls" were well-represented in the tech industry because so many work in public relations and attempts to actively draw more women to other aspects "positive discrimination" and wasting time on a "problem that doesn't exist". When your movement is already accused of harassment of women and misogyny this is not a good representative.
Christina Hoff Sommers also openly supported GamerGate despite having no connection to video games whatsoever. The author -- who calls herself a feminist but who is best-known for writing books about how feminism destroys boyhood -- was enthusiastically welcomed by GamerGate and given the moniker Based Mom. Sommers released a video claiming to rebut claims of sexism and misogyny in gaming, but relied mostly on ad hominem attacks on critics, conflated misogyny and violence, and waved away criticism of content because games are marketed to men anyway. Again, this is not a strong spokesperson in a movement already under attack for its attitudes against women.
The list went on to include author and game maker Vox Day, who has claimed a woman accusing a white man of rape must be lying because only black and Hispanic people are rapists and remains the only person ever kicked out of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Houston's own Paul Elam, founder of A Voice for Men and de facto head of the Men's Rights movement also voiced support. Roosh V, a pick-up artist who authors what critics call "rape guides", went so far as to build a site dedicated to games that live up to GamerGate ideals.
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That collection of named GamerGate supporters gives a lot of weight to another major failing point in the movement. GamerGate was not a new thing. It was just a new word for something that had been going on in games for at least a decade and in the general world for much longer. The harassment of Anita Sarkeesian -- including being forced to cancel an appearance in Utah in response to a mass shooting threat -- only escalated from GamerGate. It had already started happening two years prior when she first spoke out. Likewise Zoe Quinn was already experiencing threats and harassment before her ex-boyfriend posted his bizarre manifesto that spawned GamerGate in the first place.
GamerGate was a battlefield in a culture war, not the war itself. The heavyweights like Yiannopoulus and Sommers who waved flags are old soldiers when it comes to fighting for regressive social policies and the fortification of patriarchal dominance. The only reason the portrayal and involvement of women in the video game industry is being discussed now is because of the maturation of gaming as an artistic medium and its wider-than-ever accessibility on a variety of devices. These are discussions that have otherwise been happening in other forums for many years while gaming was growing up.
You can view the drive behind GamerGate best through the lens of the man that got it started, Eron Gjoni.
Margaret Pless at the blog Idle Dillettante laid out the origin story of GamerGate with a wall of screencaps showing the length Zoe Quinn's ex-boyfriend went to ignite a wave of online harassment against Quinn, with 4chan as his cat's paw to distance himself from any repercussions. It's a gripping and frightening read of a man who aimed from the very beginning to destroy a former romantic partner. He posted to 4chan...
TLDR Zoe Quinn, a rabid feminist SJW GAMUR GIRL who made a shitty non-game called Depression Quest, just got outed for BRIBING THE MEDIA INTO LIKING HER SHITTY NON-GAME WITH HER VAGINA BY cheating on her boyfriend with 5 other guys, including Kotaku staff members who defended her online and reviewed her game and HER MARRIED BOSS. She is a manipulative liar and a sociopath.
...and linked to his 9,000-word novella of accusations regarding his ex. From there he egged on 4channers about the best ways to infiltrate Quinn's life and watched it grow into the eventual explosion it became.
Gjoni never cared a bit about improving the transparency in the relationship between gaming journalism and game developers. That idea took root as #burgerandfries grew and blossomed when it became GamerGate, but the primary goal of Gjoni and the online mob that he enlisted was the harassment of a feminist woman in gaming that Gjoni said had wronged him. It was the same story Sarkeesian and other women in gaming had already told countless times before but given juicy tidbits involving personal drama and sex for maximum draw.
Using the mask of ethics in video game journalism was meant to shield GamerGate from accusations of misogyny, rape threats, and sexism. The rhetoric was powerful enough that a fair number of gamers did indeed rally to that cause. There were plenty of naïve, outraged people to recruit.
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Shortly before GamerGate came about Leigh Alexander of Gamasutra published a very well written opinion piece regarding the idea of a gamer identity that included the phrase "gamers are over". To anyone with a modicum of reading comprehension it was clear that she was talking about the coming death of the male-dominated space involving scantily-dressed girls and big guns as the defining aspect of gaming when so many other diverse niches were opening up and thriving.
There are 1.2 billion gamers in the world right now. If gaming were a religion it would be the third most popular religion in the world. That's an awful lot of different people wondering why all the big money games tend to star violent American white male power fantasies.
Still, there's no argument that gaming has largely been about that for most of its artistic life thanks to the decision to market the Nintendo Entertainment System as a toy for boys when the industry rebranded in the '80s. The coming changes feel like an attack on a beloved institution to the dwindling percentage of gamers for whom that is all they know or want to know. A piece like Alexander's when coupled with the soap opera narrative of Zoe Quinn and the razor-sharp criticism of Sarkeesian regarding the dangers of misogynistic tropes made for great enlistment material.
Suddenly it became the fight to protect a culture, further reducing the seriousness with which the 1,199,780,000 gamers who don't post to /r/kotakuinaction could ascribe to GamerGate. Gaming didn't need protecting against The Man anymore than all the hair metal bands in the '80s needed to rally to protect rock and roll. The vast majority of gamers aren't just that or even primarily that. They're people playing a few rounds of Candy Crush on the bus or logging onto World of Warcraft after a hard day. Most of them game because they always have, no different than going to the movies or watching TV.
In other words they're generally grown-ups and grown-ups have a hard time believing that ethics in video game journalism is worth sending death threats to a feminist on Twitter. It's entertainment journalism. It might as well be E!, and the absolute worst thing that can happen is an undeserved game gets a good review or a great game gets trashed. Is that unethical if the opinion of the reviewer has a conflict of interest or has been compelled to do so by a game studio? Sure, of course it is, but that story will never, ever be more important than, say, Felicia Day saying she's afraid to comment publicly on GamerGate because she might get harassed and then immediately getting called a stupid cunt and having her home address posted.
One of those is a real news story demanding immediate attention, and the fact that so many people chose to double down that the journalistic ethics concerns were of equal weight made GamerGate look entitled, childish, and most of all mean.
Something Anita Sarkeesian summed up nicely on Colbert back in October.
GamerGate was started and planned in plain sight by a vengeful ex-boyfriend and bolstered by an online community ready to tear into a woman in gaming. It jumped the harassment train that was already chasing Sarkeesian, and before her Dragon Age writer Jennifer Hepler, and so on and sadly so on. It was supported by a collection of social regressive media personalities and attempted legitimacy on an issue gaming and people in general ranked very low on the totem pole. Certainly far less than the larger discussion regarding gender representation in gaming and the industry.
With no central voice or guiding activists to control or regulate the movement it devolved into actions like a bizarre, crowd-sourced book that actually used a cover inspired by Mein Kampf for a time. No one could ever nail down the "real" GamerGate we were all told was waiting somewhere to have his or her or its story told, and all that was left was to talk to the people who found themselves under a mountain of chilling tweets containing the hashtag #GamerGate. It never represented the growing gaming world, and its failure to understand that doomed it to irrelevancy.