Thoughts on GamerGate and Reactionaries

I’ve not written much about GamerGate on this blog. If you don’t know what that is, you’ll get a brief explanation here (and then some).

Rather than reinvent the wheel, I’ll point toward RationalWiki’s mercifully brief synopsis:

  • Video game designer breaks up with her boyfriend.
  • Boyfriend posts bitter screed about her, hoping to use the Internet as his personal army.
  • Internet Hate Machine™ obliges.
  • Peoples’ privacy destroyed, lives ruined, careers in gaming industry ended.
  • Ensuing mess fuels massive flame war.
  • MRAs, reactionaries, neoreactionaries, anti-progressives, anti-feminists, and other groups that hate the current direction of the Culture Wars (plus disgraced game developers) co-opt the whole mess.
  • Everyone sane realizes how shitty everything that just happened was, tries to stop it.

Though snarky, it cuts right to the chase. Whatever one might personally think of Zoe Quinn–the initial target of all this–it’s hard to imagine a reasonable justification for what she and countless others have had to endure for the sake of being involved with video games. Leigh Alexander, another target of the hate mob calling itself GamerGate, moved on to other things. She didn’t specifically blame the endless waves of vitriol heaped upon for daring to be a woman who wrote critically of video games, though it would have been completely understandable if she had. Quinn, for her part, has tried to make lemonade out of shit mountains. She created Crash Override, an organization dedicated to helping the victims of online abuse regain control over their lives. It’s a disgrace that such an organization is even needed–a sign of how thoroughly cultural norms, institutions, legal systems, and government processes have failed to address it. Online abuse has been around in myriad forms for many years, and yet there were no major organizations dedicated to helping victims of such behavior until last year. We have a long way to go, to put it mildly.

One might say that someone who has been targeted for online abuse should pursue recourse through the legal system. It sounds like a good idea, on paper. Quinn herself tried it, and at this point has given up. We’re talking about events that first unfurled in August of 2014, and a woman who has spoken before the United Nations, done countless interviews for TV, print, and online media outlets–someone who has now had a considerable amount of exposure, and developed access to more resources than most victims are likely to have. And yet, the system cannot help her. If it can’t help her, what hope does anyone else have?

When I have tried to explain GamerGate to the uninitiated–people who either don’t play a lot of video games, or don’t pay much attention to video game media or culture–reactions are incredulous or perplexed. “All of this over video games? Who would really do this?” As the RationalWiki summary notes, it’s not really about video games, and it never was. It was (and is) about the collective angst felt by mostly young, mostly white, mostly heterosexual men. There have, of course, been some women involved, and even some minorities, but they have never been the core of the movement. Even the events described above, though the precipitating incident for what was soon named GamerGate, were only one more chapter in a story that’s been developing since at least the 1990s.

The Culture War kicked off in earnest when Bill Clinton was elected President–perhaps a bit earlier, when he was still campaigning. The Culture War is, after all, an outgrowth of the conservative movement, which has long stood against feminism and anti-racism. “Political correctness” became a buzzword in that era–the idea that if one said the wrong things, the thought police would drag you through the mud and destroy your reputation. This was always envisioned as formerly underprivileged demographics taking their revenge upon (usually) white male oppressors. In popular culture, this anxiety was characterized by films like Disclosure, in which a powerful man is falsely accused of sexual harassment by a female coworker he spurned. It threatens to destroy his career. This is precisely the sort of false allegation that fuels panics over political correctness, and has manifested in GamerGate over and over, with claims such as:

  • Zoe Quinn had sex with game reviewers to get positive press (untrue)
  • Zoe Quinn was never harassed by anyone; she harassed and doxxed herself (untrue)
  • Zoe Quinn has organized harassment against other innocent people (untrue)
  • Zoe Quinn is using her power in the industry to drive people she doesn’t like out of it (untrue)

In this strange, parallel world, all power dynamics have been inverted and the boys’ club that is the gaming industry (and press) is held to the cruel whims of a woman who, up until GamerGate exploded, was best known for making a free text-based game about suffering with depression. Clearly, an industry giant who can destroy lives with the flick of her wrist. But that’s how these movements–indeed, all movements driven by privileged reactionaries–operate. The powerful think themselves victims of the very people they’ve systematically oppressed. Trying to make sense of it is enough to give anyone a headache. But there is a broader point here, as well. The irrational, incoherent demands of a movement like GamerGate–best summarized as “let game creators make the games they want unless those games have feminist or other social justice themes, and listen to your audience, but don’t listen to anyone in the audience who might suggest toning down sex or nudity or violence or racism or any other ‘edgy’ content, but do what will make you the most money, as long as it’s not something that will make us angry, and we have no idea what that might be until we see it”–have parallels and linkages with other contemporary political urges.

I mentioned political correctness, which has been brought back into the vernacular at least in part due to GamerGate, but also as a result of ongoing conflicts between conservatives and establishment liberals on one side, and progressive activists on the other, who are using the Internet and social media to push back against a constellation of injustices perceived to exist at every level of society and government. I don’t think the progressive side is always right, but it generally has the right idea: the perspectives and needs of people of color, of women, of non-Christians, and many others have long been neglected, cut out from and ignored in the public discourse, and having found a voice (or rather, their own vast sea of diverse voices), are intent on using it. Those accustomed to getting their own way find this threatening, even though it is the essence of “free speech.” There is no “marketplace of ideas” if the doors are only open to those who’ve always set the agenda. GamerGate reactionaries, MRAs, and all cut from that cloth exhibit the most basic hypocrisy: they demand that they and their desires not be censored, but will also brook no criticism. And then, when faced with even mild critique, unleash a torrent of fury that less resembles free speech than it does a frothing mob out for blood. There is, it must be said, no right to hurl insult and abuse at people for expressing themselves.

This is the same mentality that gave us Donald Trump. His supporters feel oppressed, victimized, and powerless, while he calls Mexicans rapists and drug dealers, and suggests that Muslims are, as a whole, trying to destroy America. His policy ideas–unworkable as they are–are supported by because they validate the fears of mostly white, middle-aged Americans. There are parallels in Germany, as well, with regard to the refugee crisis. Just today, there was this gem in Der Spiegel:

Frauke Petry had yet to make her controversial comment about the use of firearms against incoming refugees when she stepped up to the podium at a restaurant in the city. Some 400 AfD followers had come to see her speak while outside, police were trying to keep a left-wing, anti-AfD demonstration under control. For a solid hour, Petry decried all that was going wrong in Germany: the refugee crisis, problems with the education system, the “premature sexualization of children.” The audience listened intently and applauded occasionally. Then, during the question-and-answer session, tempers flared. A man asked how the AfD planned to prevent German schoolchildren from “being beaten and extorted by the foreigners.”

Petry was clearly surprised by the question. She said that in such instances the parents’ association must get involved, as should teachers and school directors. “Democracy is slow,” she said. “Those who make such claims have to prove they are real.” The hall erupted, with furious shouts piercing the air. The man who asked the question yelled: “Our country is facing an emergency! Millions are coming to us! It’s crazy what is happening!”

Amid the applause, Petry tried to regain the crowd’s attention. “Let me just …” But she was ignored. “You can’t just beat around the bush and sugarcoat the problem,” the man called out. “We want concrete proposals. How can we get black Africans to stay in their home countries?”

These are people who simultaneously demand answers and solutions while denying the complex realities of the world around them. There is nothing to reason or bargain with–there is no basis for discussion, because there is nothing rational to engage. The reactions are similar whether it’s young men worried about breasts being removed from fighting games or middle-aged men discomforted by an influx of the unfamiliar. There is this outsize sense of danger, of imminent threat, when calm discussion and examination are warranted. These situations perhaps illustrate a bit better what I was attempting to nail down yesterday, with regard to the ways in which emotional reactions shut down more thoughtful approaches.

It was thought that, at some point, GamerGate would fizzle out, the way most online outrages do after a day or two. But the tensions that underpin the actions of those who claim it as their banner are very personal and very persistent. They sense a changing world, and rail against. They imagine the power they used to hold–or might have held, given the chance–and see it slip away into the hands of those they think unworthy and undeserving.

Unfortunately, for the most part, there is little recourse but for history to roll over such people. They cannot easily be ignored–they shout too loudly, and sometimes behave too violently, for that to be an option. This leaves efforts to contain and minimize their damage. Legal systems are ill-equipped to address large scale incidents of lashing out, which leaves social norms and more informal institutions. Changing those is mostly a matter of checking the behavior of your peers. I used to let casual displays of ignorance, bigotry, or reactionary attitudes pass without comment; I am far less inclined to do so now. A moment’s discomfort on my part (and, indeed, the offender’s part) is nothing compared to the broader effects of those attitudes, allowed to run rampant. It may eventually lead to a better world–or maybe it won’t. But we have to start somewhere. GamerGate adherents, like all reactionaries, are convinced that they’ll “win.” It’s up to everyone else to prove them wrong.

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James

James runs this blog and likes to write about society, culture, politics, science, technology, social justice, and pretty much anything else. Rumor has it people read his posts sometimes.

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Thoughts on GamerGate and Reactionaries

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