Does Someone Have to Die Before GamerGate Calms Down?
Bomb threats and misogyny are distorting a potentially valuable debate on gaming ethics.
An illustrated depiction of a misogynist being horrible to women online (Image by Cei Willis)
Brianna Wu is a developer and writer who's penned pieces on the gender imbalance in modern video games and the harassment women in the industry continue to receive as part of their daily business. She heads up the small studio Giant Spacekat, makers of Revolution 60, a mobile game received as both "a most triumphant and excellent adventure" by RPGfan.com and "a bland, uninteresting, feminism circle-jerk" by Metacritic user Realgamer101. I'm guessing that's not his real name, but there's no guesswork required as to the poster's sex.
On the 11th of October, Wu tweeted the below screenshot – a series of threatening messages she'd received from another Twitter account that's since been suspended.
Before we go any further, it's important to judge whether or not you want to read anything more on GamerGate. Simply by you being on this page, chances are you're aware of the sides that have come out fighting, as well as the problem with giving GamerGate any further coverage: that these words represent further fuel for a fire that needs to die down before anyone can properly discuss the more pertinent points raised by a still-evolving debate.
If that means nothing to you, here's a summary. A (once) low-profile indie developer named Zoe Quinn created and released a game called Depression Quest. Some people argued that it wasn't a game at all – but that's not the controversy. An ex of Quinn's published information in August of 2014 implying that she had slept around to secure positive review coverage for Depression Quest. There's no evidence connecting any promiscuity – which is nobody's business apart from those doing the screwing, anyway – with the reception for Depression Quest, but the conversation quickly turned to ethics: as in, some games journalists were seen to be favourable about particular projects that they were incredibly tenuously linked to. That could be chipping into a Kickstarter pot, or having long ago worked on a collaborative venture together. You get the idea: Person A once spoke to Person B, and for that reason Person A's recommendation of Person B's new Game C is clearly completely corrupt.
It goes on, encompassing advertising campaign pulls and C-list actors involving themselves as self-elected standard-bearers. Regarding ethics, every journalist worth the measly fee they're taking home to write about video games is completely in support of fairness in reporting. Every journalist who covers games – or music, or film, or television, or football, or property, or gardening – for a living knows better than to risk their livelihood by taking backhanders. But if they do, they're soon exposed by their peers (Dorito-gate wasn't that long ago). You don't need a formal qualification in journalism to know where ethical lines are drawn – it should be instinctive once you've been on the job for two minutes.
But the ugliness of GamerGate has absolutely nothing to do with ethics. On that front, debate is always welcomed, ideally in a forum beyond Twitter; online, a cavalcade of contrasting voices quickly becomes a cacophony from which no reasonable progress can be made. It's the ripples – sorry, the tidal waves – of outright misogyny that have tarnished the GamerGate situation. Which brings us back to Brianna Wu. Nobody should ever have to face death threats, however hollow they might be, because they make video games that not everybody enjoys. Or – as Wu did, prior to receiving these offensive messages – because they've poked a little meme fun at those making the most noise about the slightest little things.
Sadly, Wu isn't the first to have been targeted in such a worrying way. Quinn received a barrage of both death and rape threats – she spoke to VICE about the ordeal here – and prominent voice for greater gender equality in gaming, Feminist Frequency founder Anita Sarkeesian, was rightly concerned by comparably grotesque correspondence (which she later tweeted, below). The FBI has since become involved, and is currently investigating her harassment and further cases.
Understandably, many on the side rallying against what they see to be a shortage of ethical values in the games press have spoken out against this kind of hostile communication. Let's be clear: pro-GamerGate people, those for change in the press, are not all horrendous misogynists. Some of them are even female. And yet with every instance of straight-up hate against women, most recently with Wu's case, there is some strange "they brought in on themselves"-style reaction. Some have suggested Wu baited the GamerGate community, or even orchestrated the whole thing – which seems bizarre, but I suppose the adage of no smoke without fire can present itself in the most unlikely of circumstances. Truth be told, I'm not picking a side here, beyond stating for the record that sending that kind of hateful shit to a stranger, be they female or male (but, be honest, it's entirely directed at women thus far), is irredeemably abhorrent.
Not choosing which side of the fence to camp on is problematic with GamerGate, though, as The Escapist has discovered. In trying to present an even-handed assessment of "the controversy" so far, it interviewed individuals both male and female, albeit with more of the former and none of the latter choosing to identify themselves. Female developers were grouped as that, "female developers", while the male contributors were originally (since amended) called simply "developers". Which was problem number one. Secondly, the site entirely bodged the timeline of GamerGate – again, it's since been removed – which led to some flummoxed responses.
Best intentions, poorly realised. One of their male interviewees was Slade Villena, AKA Twitter user RogueStar. His contributions were removed from The Escapist after, says site editor-in-chief Greg Tito: "...we've received evidence that he has harassed some contributors to The Escapist. Due to our strong policy against all harassment and abuse, Villena's opinions will no longer be presented alongside those of his colleagues." Naturally, Villena has since published his own account of what may or may not have gone on, but again: own goal, guys.
Nevertheless, some credit must go the way of The Escapist for at least aiming for equilibrium amid the turbulence. They didn't nail it, but it's a start. One fears for the worst should GamerGate be allowed to run without further efforts to qualify the key conversations and quell the hate – something that might be dismissed as trolls taking things too far, if it wasn't for the repeated instances of shit going beyond online insults.
Back to Sarkeesian, tweeting on the say day that Wu revealed her abuse:
Sarkeesian is more used than Quinn and Wu to being a target for misogyny, having endured it since 2012, if not before. That year, when she was Kickstarting her "Tropes vs Women in Video Games" series, a flash game appeared offering the opportunity to beat her up, and her Wikipedia entry was vandalised. But bomb threats? That's a properly next-level situation.
However, the apologists keep on coming. British journalist Milo Yiannopoulos, seen as a champion of the cause by a large proportion of pro-GamerGaters, responded to Wu's revelations with what could be perceived as a complete lack of sensitivity:
Those tweeting their desire to "drink the blood" out of female journalists' private parts and sending emails to the organisers of the Game Developers Choice Awards threatening to kill "at least a dozen people and injure dozens more" are likely sad, lonely people on the periphery of GamerGate, using the umbrella to spread their brands of excessively violent trolling. But what happens if someone really does show up at Sarkeesian's house and attack her? What happens if Quinn commits suicide, as some of her attackers have hoped for? What if ChatterWhiteMan is real, and his intentions sincere?
Does somebody have to die before everyone stops being imbeciles and begins to consider: hang on, are games not suppose to be fun, and even more so when shared with others? Isn't there space in an industry so new, so vibrant, as games for every person under the same sun to co-exist? We don't all have to play the same way. We don't have to get along. Ever since life learned to communicate, it's argued with itself. The internet is an amplifier, not a source. Brianna Wu can make her games and it's absolutely OK that they're not acknowledged as the greatest thing since The Secret of Monkey Island. Equally, it's fine for millions of gamers to gun each other down on the next Call of Duty. There can be a thousand more Gone Homes, but they're never going to replace triple-A shooters bristling with machismo.
GamerGate, to date, has taught us nothing. Okay, something: certain men are horrible and have no shame in announcing their hatred of women to the world in the most hideous manners available to them and their smartphones. I am a man – I'm reminded of that every time I go for a piss. I'm also a feminist – but to date I've not received a single death threat. Is that because I'm someone with a penis who believes in equality, rather than someone with breasts who thinks that women deserve a fairer deal? Of course it is. If GamerGate really was about ethics, we wouldn't be seeing Wu or Sarkeesian tweet what they have.
Until female developers, critics, columnists, bloggers, presenters, etc, feel comfortable doing their jobs – the sole intention of which is only ever to further the reach of gaming and have it embraced by wider audiences – the ethics debate will be backgrounded by boisterous boys complaining that their toys aren't how they used to be: made by dudes and played by dudes. Sisters had their Cindy, brothers their Sega. That's the past. Today, Peach can spank Bowser's backside on Super Smash Bros.; one of the highest-rated action games of 2014 features a kick-ass woman protagonist; and 52 percent of gamers are female.
Something, not someone, has to die – something that goes deeper than GamerGate. I don't have the answer to the question of how we prevent bias in the media, but I sure as hell know that we can't sit idly by and just hope that the hatred goes away, heads in the sand and arses to the sky. Gaming hasn't even reached the middle of its own excellent adventure, but it's gonna suck if it doesn't pick up more princesses along the way. So how about we all calm the fuck down before someone really gets hurt?