Illustration by Stephen Maurice Graham
"So, there's this thing called GamerGate..."
Is usually how the discussions begin with friends who have only the most basic interest in video games. Sometimes the conversation ends abruptly: "Nonsense, mate. There are bigger things to care about in the world." No doubt. But increasingly, as GamerGate has made mainstream media headlines – from The New York Times to the Daily Mirror – people whose software library extends to Angry Birds and a dusty copy of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 that they forgot to throw away in the 1990s have become aware of a disturbance in the games industry.
GamerGate – which I previously wrote about here, if you need filling in on the details – has polarised the main players in today's gaming scene, namely those actively participating in the enjoyment of the games in question, and those whose job it is to inform might-be buyers of the so-called best new titles available to them, with a very real group of game enthusiasts who feel that the press isn't as ethically impeccable as it should be.
Oh, and there's the misogyny thing, the death and the rape threats, and the message to Utah State University promising a "massacre" if Feminist Frequency's Anita Sarkeesian went ahead with an arranged appearance. This shit gets incredibly dark incredibly quickly. Of course, the threats against lives and loved ones are not the whole story of GamerGate, but they make for the easiest headlines.
Not everyone who wants change in the gaming press is gunning for feminists – the most vocal violence is being preached by a minority group of militant anti-equality fucks. Popular YouTuber TotalBiscuit, AKA British games commentator and critic John Bain, wrote: "These actions are almost universally performed by lone online psychos. More often than not they are looking to provoke conflict of some sort, [and] if they can get you and a group fighting over something that frankly neither of you had any part in to begin with, that's a great victory."
His advice on what to do in the receipt of a death threat, "from the position of someone who received [them] on a monthly basis, of varying degrees, and is, as of yet, not actually dead", makes for interesting reading.
But what might have been a turning point for the games industry – where self-identified gamers took some power back from the press, publishers, PR agencies and promotional partners, and ultimately promoted a clearer picture of gaming's political state of play – has been hijacked by lunatics with Twitter accounts. Lunatics who, you never know, might actually one day go through with a threat to murder someone simply because their target believes in fairness for women in what remains a male-dominated industry.
It's this controversial side of GamerGate that has hooked the mainstream. I was invited to participate on the BBC World Service's "World Have Your Say" segment, on the 16th of October, where parties from both sides would debate the situation. I'd researched the ethical angle, how there have been previous examples of corporate compliance in the games press. But having introduced the discussion with a brief sentence or two on what GamerGate is at the moment – and bear in mind it didn't even have a name until August – I was relieved of my place on the panel as the presenter forged ahead with a single aspect: "I want to pull this back to the issue of misogyny."
Here is the problem with the explosive headlines: while it's right to highlight examples of intolerance, expressions of bigotry and misogyny, they can cloud what most on the pro-GamerGate side are, to their minds, striving to achieve. The hatred of women, inequality and discrimination of any kind should be stamped out across the media entirely. We're getting there – and in gaming, historically a male-dominated industry, changes are afoot. There are more female developers than ever today, comprising 22 percent of the workforce. More women play video games than ever before. Some of the very best critics and commentators in the games press are women – some of whom are VICE contributors (including Leigh Alexander, one of my favourite games writers). And many pro-GG participants are completely cool with this. They're not out for feminist blood.
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I exchanged some tweets with a pro-GG user called @maineventtv_aka after "World Have Your Say" aired. He's adamant that GamerGate is purely ethically centred – that "it's not a platform about anti-feminism". Here he is, on YouTube, expressing his perspectives, including some words on Sarkeesian: "She hates the damsel in distress role, but plays it oh so well. She incites you gamers to harass her."
I can't get with that, but during our tweets he messages me a sentiment I can side with, regarding the continual stirring of GamerGate by Twitter trolls: "Talk without progress becomes stagnant." Doesn't it just. It's important that we all find an ultimate point to these exchanges. And it was clear that there was some middle ground between us.
Somewhere, beneath the shit and the slurring, the hostilities and the hatred (and the frustration of having prepped 1,600 words of notes for a minute of airtime), there must be a purpose to GamerGate. Who doesn't want transparency in the press? I'm confident that most journalists can't be bought, or else we'd tear their reputations down. But there are those on the pro-GG side certain that writers have been towing an inappropriate party line for ages – that they're not being absolutely clear with what's led to positive coverage, to site-dominant spreads and sustained shout-outs.
And because of this group's affiliation with the bomb-threatening bellends seeding hate across social media, they're receiving not insignificant threats of their own. These are not being as widely reported by the press as those sent to Brianna Wu and Zoe Quinn, but why should one person's fear be a bigger story than another's? A death threat is a death threat, there's no real grey area here. I'm no fan of pro-GG journalist Milo Yiannopoulos, for example, but this is pretty fucked up.
I've received a standard spread of Twitter abuse lately – someone calling me a faggot, another user implying that I was a virgin and that my dad raped me (classic!) – but nobody's asking that I throw myself in front of a train, or threatening to come and do the job for me.
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YouTuber user Boogie2988, real name Steven Williams, is a pro-GG personality who has over 2 million subscribers. Sometimes he gets angry about stuff, purely for laughs. But while he's sympathetic to both sides of the GG discussion, he and his family have been on the receiving end of death threats.
Williams has also spoken about "gender identification and sexuality in gaming, and [tried] to encourage gamers to be better people, and to be inclusive and awesome". He seems like a guy just doing what he can to best express his passion for gaming in a way that doesn't offend anyone. He wants to emphasise fun, tolerance and openness. You can, after all, declare yourself a feminist and stand for GamerGate. Still, hate cascaded over the socials and into his smartphone.
"I've been accused of being a misogynist. I've had to defend myself on NeoGAF [and] 4chan [online forums used by gamers], because people think I'm an opportunistic shill, just trying to get views instead of doing what I want to fucking do, and help," he said. (That quote is from a video on YouTube listed as private, but linked to from another article highlighting the man's situation.)
He goes on: "I've tried to encourage gamers and non-gamers alike to be kind to each other. It's not us versus them, or these people versus these people. Every person you're interacting with... is a person with a life as rich and as important and as valid as yours. They may differ on these issues, but... we have to approach this issue with kindness and common sense and decency and love. And if we fail to do that, we will gain nothing. I don't understand why that can be an unpopular opinion."
He tweeted this, a day before his subsequent posts about receiving death threats:
In spite of his rag-losing YouTube "funnies", Williams' head is clearly screwed on – and he's endearingly self-deprecating, too; a great quality at a time of great unrest. A day after his threats, he posted the below:
Is there an end to all of this? To the hate that's plagued both sides of GamerGate? I reached out to Twitter user @_icze4r, who engaged with me after my previous article, and who has also received death threats. They are not comfortable with revealing their true identity:
"I would but I've already gotten doxxed [having personal details posted on the internet] once. They didn't do it right that time, but I would prefer not to give them any information to cross-reference," they told me. "I've received two rape and death threats recently and I'm not putting any more personal information out there. They targeted a family member through me and I cannot endanger their life with what I'm doing."
I wanted to ask how we can close out GamerGate without anyone actually being murdered just because they once made a game, played one or simply looked at a cartridge a bit funny one time. @_icze4r has been tweeting the #stopgamergate2014 tag – trending at the time of writing – alongside the likes of Sarkeesian, but is from the side associated with the wave of threats that prominent feminists have faced.
VICE: What needs to be done to ensure that GG moves on from threats and abuse, maybe to a thorough examination of journalistic ethics?
@_icze4r: First, we need Twitter's help. I'd heard in the news that they were going to add a "Report Abuse" button that would take care of this, making it easy to report rape and death threats, but I've reported both rape and death threats against me, and I only received two e-mails that stated that the account did not exist, or that they couldn't do anything because the user may have deleted the reported tweets. Others have come to me also confirming a lack of success in reporting threats made to them on Twitter.
It's very difficult to have a discussion when innocent people are being threatened all around you: there can be no civil debate if everybody's afraid. So I think something has to be done there. Twitter has to actually do something when people report death threats. I don't see how deleting a death threat is getting these people out of trouble, but apparently it is.
The reply that @_icze4r received in response to reporting rape and death threats
Brianna Wu told the BBC (1:26.20 here) that GamerGate is "really about taking out women". How do you respond to that?
I would say that it's not "about taking out women". A lot of people feel insulted by games journalists telling them that they can't dress themselves, that they do not know how to behave and that they're "over" or "dead". To many, it seems obvious that plenty of the games journalists talking about people who play video games seem to have no respect for them, and also, more egregiously, have no respect for basic tenets of journalism. Unethical behaviour is not to be dismissed as they have so dismissed it, and it's especially not to be dismissed while also telling their audience over and over that the audience is made up of bad people.
What is the major ethical problem with games journalism, as you see it?
In a keyword? GameJournoPros. GameJournoPros exemplifies every single major ethical problem with modern games journalism. This has happened before: JournoList. All the evidence and examples you need are in the leaked e-mails from GameJournoPros, and I really wish other news organisations would pay more attention to that.
Feminism is just equality, plain and simple. But it's become the focal point of GamerGate. Presumably it's not the case that most of you are awful misogynists? You have no problem whatsoever with a fairer representation of women in video games?
I personally have no problem whatsoever with fairer representation of women in video games, or in any other media. The quickest way to make me dislike a movie or a video game is to have underwritten female characters. We need female characters that are well written, and we need better-written video games in general.
When it comes to video games, I myself gravitate towards games with female protagonists, or with protagonists that seem sexless. A favourite game of mine is Final Fantasy XIII. People say it was a bad game, but it's the only game where I actually identified with the main character. I love Lightning. I actually would prefer if we had more female protagonists, and especially non-binary characters. I identified very strongly with Lightning.
Can you detail the threats you've received, as someone on the pro-GG side?
The threats are detailed below. It has been repeated falsely, time and time again, that GamerGate is made up of terrorists, that we're ISIS, that we're "house nigger[s]", that we're like or worse than the KKK, and that we're misogynists, to the point that people attack us now, thinking that they're fighting an evil, nefarious group of people, when they're actually just fighting us. We are normal people, disappointed with video game journalism and speaking out against it, and we have been branded as terrorists. It's insane.
Some people think GamerGate gives them a "free pass" to abuse us. I've even seen this happen on the other side, with #StopGamerGate2014. People have told me that I was a terrible person, and I did respond a few times with a "fuck you". It's very difficult to spend almost two months telling people that you're not a bad person, explaining time and time again the good things you've done [to help report instances of abuse against both sides], and then have them dismiss all that and call you a terrorist.
Do you feel it's become too easy to turn GG into a pro/anti-feminist debate, which takes away from the games themselves?
Yes, I feel that it has become too easy to make this into pro/anti-feminism. I am a feminist. Ever since I knew what one was, I've called myself a feminist. Feminism should address video games, but to say that GamerGate came to be, or even continues to exist, because it's fighting feminism, I can't say that.
GamerGate is ready, willing and able to debate anything, just as long as you provide evidence of your claims. No one in GamerGate is going to shut somebody down if they can prove what they're saying. It's been claimed that GamerGate is anti-feminism and misogynistic, but that's kind of hard to prove, especially given our relationship with Christina H Sommers. Though, some people have claimed that Sommers is an "Anti-Feminist", so even this is kind of confusing to me.
I came into it without even reading Eron Gjoni's Zoe post, and I have to admit something here: I have no desire to ever know what was contained in that post. I came into GamerGate because of Leigh Alexander's piece on "Gamers are over"; Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian are not even in the periphery of my focus when it comes to GamerGate. All of that takes away from why I'm in GamerGate: it's not relevant to what I'm doing. I myself have tried to get Zoe Quinn's "dox" removed from a website (unsuccessfully), and I've been reporting death and rape threats to Anita Sarkeesian, so consider where I'm coming from.
Can we find a mutual middle ground and bring GamerGate to an end?
A more sympathetic approach will facilitate clearer debate. There are apparently two sides now: GamerGate, and Anti-GG. Though the hashtag #GamerGate is necessary, because it draws many different people into the debate, I dream of a day when everyone can post in #GamerGate. By that, I mean that I hope that anti-GG people one day can bridge the divide between us. I've been trying to bridge the divide, because quite obviously, in reporting death threats and protecting people, there are no sides. My hope is that I can further erode the line between pro and anti until we can join together in cooperation, and point out games journalism's problems together.
We can never have civilisation when it's hate versus hate. There should be no attacks. Some of the best conversations I've had were with Anti-GG people who realised that we were not so different. Both sides will eventually become friends. We will resolve our differences and come together in order to cooperate, because it is the only way we're going to be able to protect each other effectively. The minute we all look out for each other regardless of whether or not we disagree, that's when this conversation can truly move forward. I will never support an endless "fight" where two sides just blindly hate each other.
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So what now?
The best judges of ethical standards within games journalism are the writers themselves. It's always been this way. It's right that gamers should be able to express their concerns if they feel that the press is compromised, just as it's right that games reviews should go beyond how pressing A does this wicked thing, exploring gender representation and politics and more Very Real World stuff that's being beamed into living rooms through the medium of games (so yes, I loved Bayonetta 2 as well, but I appreciate the reasons behind Polygon's 7.5 rating). The correct response to criticism of the press should not be to blanket perceive pro-GG as a gaggle of grotesques. Unfortunately, some individuals are using GG-related opportunities to spread hatred. But with both sides vigilant, there is hope that this can be monitored and, if not fully extinguished, at least contained.
I come back to what I wrote in my previous piece on GamerGate: that something much deeper than the GG situation has to die, and that's prehistoric attitudes that women don't have a place in modern tech and entertainment industries. Unfortunately, long after GG has simmered down to a background concern, women will still face discrimination in the workplace – and, more disturbingly, people who chose to express opinions that might not always be popular will receive threats and abuse over social media channels. GamerGate has illuminated one tiny corner of a much bigger picture. It's up to everyone on both sides to reveal the full extent of the problem – but it's imperative, too, that we're not entrenched in this idea that GamerGate is just about abusing women.
Well, it is about that, partially. But when that rightly reported side of GG is as close to controlled as anyone can get it, what comes then? I'm reminded of the splendid scene in Tim Burton's Mars Attacks, where Jack Nicholson delivers a powerful speech advocating togetherness: "Why can't we work out our differences? Why can't we work things out? Why can't we all just get along?"
Of course, Jack ends up dead on the floor, but at least he reached out. He tried to achieve harmony from chaos. I don't want anyone spread-eagled with an enemy flag protruding from their guts – and from what I can ascertain, nor do most over on the pro-GG side. It still seems so incredible that this can all flare up over what are, to a great many people who you enjoy the company of, toys.
Remember when you would argue with your friend in the playground because he was into Sonic and you liked Mario, and never the two would meet? Yeah, look what happened there.