Many gamers see their favorite games as a place to escape politics. Nonetheless, politics and video games often collide. And there is no better example of this than Gamergate, the 2014 harassment campaign against women in the video game industry.
Gamergate was a cultural phenomenon that burned bright and burned out. It also burned many of the people involved. And now that the smoke has cleared, we can look back at what this controversy meant for games, gamers, and the entire gaming industry.
What Is Gamergate?
Contrary to popular belief, Gamergate was never much of an organized group. Instead, it was a culture centered around a hashtag and held together by resentful fans and charismatic provocateurs. Supporters would clash with gamers, game developers, and cultural critics online. However, the exact endgame of this group was never quite clear.
It all started when game developer Zoe Quinn and boyfriend Eron Gjoni had a messy breakup. Gjoni ended up writing a nasty revenge post online that alleged that Quinn had slept with a Kotaku writer, Nathan Grayson. Gjoni alleged Quinn was trying to get positive reviews and press coverage for her newest game at the time, Depression Quest.
The problem with his claim? Her game, Depression Quest, was never reviewed on that site. Despite this obvious lie, Quinn and Kotaku remained part of the rallying cry for changing the state of gaming journalism.
Because supporters ignored that their origin was a lie, critics of Gamergate had no choice but to assume a more sinister motivation. It seemed like little more than a culture war outlet where supporters could attack women, minorities, LGBTQ+, and allies as “SJWs.”
This effectively drew battle lines. Gamergate supporters claimed their later posts, videos, and harassment campaigns were all in the name of improving gaming journalism. But critics quickly noted that women were the most prominent targets. This made the entire movement seem like it consisted of game-loving incels.
No great drama is complete without its players. And while we don’t have space to list everybody involved in this controversy, here are some of the people involved from the very beginning.
We have already mentioned game developer Zoe Quinn and her resentful ex Eron Gjoni. Culture critic Anita Sarkeesian (most known for her Kickstarted Youtube show Feminist Frequency) was also a frequent target of Gamergate.
Eventually, Gamergate began targeting others in the gaming industry. This included doxxing Polytron CEO Phil Fish and driving game developer Brianna Wu from her home.
While the movement would later have prominent political figureheads, much of this coordinated harassment came from corners of the internet such as 4chan and Reddit. This provided some plausible deniability when critics started talking about the harassment campaigns. The average supporter could then claim this was just a handful of bad apples that were distracting from the movement’s real purpose.
Ethics in Gaming Journalism
Believe it or not, Gamergate had an actual rallying cry: “it’s about ethics in gaming journalism.” This simple claim helped deflect from the obvious lies and harassment and instead focus people on fixing the game industry.
This is where things get shaky. What, exactly, did Gamergate want? While improving journalism is a laudable goal, the disconnected and decentralized nature of Gamergate meant that everyone wanted something different.
And it seemed that many supporters of the movement simply had an ax to grind against specific sites and writers. Ironically, this served to bury the kernels of truth in their criticism.
Kernels of Truth
Here’s the thing: there really are problems in much of gaming journalism. For one, it’s an open secret that journalists need access to do their jobs. But if a blockbuster game gets a bad review, the game developer may stop sending review copies to that website.
And more reviewers are branching out into Patreon, Youtube, and so on. It’s tough to believe they are giving an unbiased review if a part (sometimes a major part) of their livelihood comes from corporate connections, industry favors, and so on.
So, saying there are problems with how the industry reviews video games is actually correct. However, Gamergate’s methods meant we lost any genuine criticisms or thoughtful voices in hateful rhetoric and harassment.
New Players Emerge
So far, this may sound like standard “culture war” stuff. So, what was it that helped this movement (and criticism of the movement) go viral? Celebrities, of course.
“Gamergate” was a term coined by Adam Baldwin. He is a prominent conservative and actor best known for playing Jayne in the short-lived Fox show Firefly.
Firefly came from Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon. When Gamergate criticism of Anita Sarkeesian intensified, Whedon spoke up on her behalf. So did Wil Wheaton, best known for playing Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Former Breitbart writer Milo Yiannopolus started writing in support of the movement. Mike Cernovich, a lawyer and MRA activist, became one of the prominent figureheads of the movement.
Eventually, everything reached a kind of critical mass. Nobody could be neutral or undecided: it seemed like every gamer had to make a statement on this movement and its underlying principles.
Things Settle Down
No cultural movement lasts forever. And a cultural movement founded on hate, fear, and harassment could only last so long.
Gamergate had its heyday in 2014. Less than two years later, most people assumed the movement had died. And while this isn’t quite true, there was certainly less online clashing using the hashtag or celebrity thoughts on the controversy.
In some ways, Gamergate got what it wanted. A few sites changed their review systems to be less number-driven and more qualitative and holistic. Many movement supporters saw this as a step in the right direction. Similarly, many sites forbid writers from making extra money via sites like Patreon. This, too, seems like a step in the right direction.
At the same time, the most prominent Gamergate targets are still doing their thing. Zoe Quinn and Brianna Wu are still developing games and even comics, and Anita Sarkeesian is still recording cultural criticism of games and other media.
So, half a decade after the movement started, things may seem pretty quiet. But Gamergate has left an interesting (and problematic) legacy.
Gamergate still lives on in various capacities. Its subreddit is still alive, and fans use the hashtag #GamerGate every day. And, of course, angry YouTubers associated with the movement keep doing their thing, unwilling to lose their existing fan base.
The movement inspired others, though they have generally been less successful. For example, Comicsgate took a stance against what they saw as too much social justice in comics. And this has spawned many Comicsgate creators to churn out content as an alternative to mainstream comics.
More recently, #IStandWithVic has served as a flashpoint in the anime community. These fans support anime voice actor Vic Mignogna (accused of sexually harassing workers and cavorting with underage fans) in his lawsuits against Funimation and fellow voice actors. Despite losing on all 17 of his claims, these fans continue to hope for Vic’s success on an appeal.
It seems that the culture wars never really ended. Instead, only the battlefields have changed.