How did GamerGate become a lightning rod for violence — and is social media helping or making it worse?

Every now and then, the roiling sea of bitterness and even outright malevolence that lurks in the dark corners of the internet gets forced out into the open, and the latest example of this phenomenon is GamerGate. It’s a term that has developed multiple meanings, depending on who is using it, but in general it refers to a wave of controversy that has swept through the game industry, and resulted in a campaign of harassment aimed at female journalists, gamers and developers.

This campaign — which independent video-game developer Zoe Quinn alleges has been orchestrated by a group of misogynists within the 4chan community, using a series of sock-puppet accounts and some online sleight-of-hand — has resulted in a number public threats of violence and even death being made towards several female participants.

Among those who have been threatened are feminist cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian, who was recently forced to cancel a speech at Utah State after the school received warning of a mass shooting, and university officials couldn’t guarantee that no guns would be present (due to the state’s “open carry” laws). Game developer Brianna Wu was also driven from her home in Boston, Mass. last week after she was threatened with violence.

So how did we get here?

In many ways, #GamerGate (a tag that appears to have been coined by actor and gamer Adam Baldwin) is just the most recent example of an ongoing tension between fans and game reviewers in the largely male-dominated video-game industry — which has grown over the past couple of decades to the point where it rivals the motion-picture industry in terms of revenue and influence — and critics (some of whom are female) who argue that many video games are demeaning towards women, if not blatantly misogynistic.

Video game sexism

The most recent flare-up of this tension occurred several months ago, after Quinn broke up with her boyfriend, a programmer named Eron Gjoni — who subsequently posted a variety of personal information about Quinn, including allegations that she had slept with a writer for Gawker Media’s gaming site Kotaku.

This triggered an outpouring of abuse against her on a number of sites including Twitter, YouTube, Reddit and 4chan. As with other examples of the GamerGate phenomenon, accusations about infidelity were mixed in with criticisms of the potential journalistic conflict of interest that stemmed from her alleged relationship with the Kotaku writer, as well as anger over the intrusion of feminist principles into the world of gaming (Quinn wrote a piece for Cracked about the effect that this had on her personal life).

As sociologist Jennifer Allaway described in a recent post at Jezebel, the way that GamerGate has developed is similar in many ways to the formation of any other hate group, including an orchestrated campaign designed to unite true believers around the idea that they are under attack by a more powerful group.

Ethical conflicts and sexism

The theme of ethical conflicts in the game-reviewing industry got some more fuel when the existence of a private email list called GameJournoPros was revealed — a mailing list where game journalists and in some cases game developers and others who work in the industry could discuss various topics. Although many argued this was harmless, it was seen by some as evidence of collusion and a concerted attack on hard-core and/or male gamers as a group.

At about the same time that Quinn’s harassment was reaching a fever pitch, Sarkeesian released a new episode of the YouTube video show she hosts, called Feminist Frequency. Her coverage of the sexism inherent in the video-game business has led to harassment of her in the past — including death threats, and the release of a video game called Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian in 2012, after she criticized the industry for its attitudes. The video she released during the Quinn uproar seemed to fan the flames even further.

But the main conflict within gaming culture, of which GamerGate is a subset, is between a traditional view of what a video game should be — one with male heroes, villains, damsels in distress, shooting, science-fiction or fantasy-inspired plots and so on — and new kinds of games, including Quinn’s Depression Quest (which allows the player to experience what depression feels like) or Gone Home, an interactive mystery story about a young woman who finds love with a lesbian partner.

A war of hashtags and GIFs

In many ways, GamerGate is also just the latest example of a much broader culture clash at work: namely, a clash between the sub-culture of the internet — as represented by sites like 4chan — and the mainstream of society, to which members of the sub-culture see themselves as fundamentally opposed. This attitude is behind incidents like 4chan’s tormenting of Jesse Slaughter and the recent release of nude photos of celebrities, things that are often done just for what 4chan devotees call “the lulz.”

Members of these groups may be small in number — as Deadspin notes, the GamerGate forum on Reddit only has about 10,000 members — but many have a lot of time on their hands, and are well versed in social-warfare tactics, including the use of hashtags, dummy or sock-puppet accounts, email campaigns and so on.

Quinn has collected evidence of the orchestration of some of the attacks against her and Sarkeesian — and in some cases GamerGaters appear to have attacked other defenders of video-game culture (through fake accounts) for being gay or people of color, in order to create a kind of “false flag” operation, with the intention of demonstrating both how hypocritical GamerGate critics are for attacking the industry and how broad-minded gamers are.

Gamer

GamerGate also seems to have gained some steam, and some prominent support, from elements of the conservative political movement in the U.S. (including Adam Baldwin) who argue that the problems stem from the efforts of “social justice warriors” on the left, who want to destroy the rights of freedom-loving gamers. In that sense, it shares some DNA with the Tea Party or “birther” movements.

The social-media maelstrom

Like many other issues that have gotten derailed once they became a Twitter hashtag, the GamerGate phenomenon has arguably generated a lot more heat on social media and very little light: as someone once said, 140 character messages are good for bumper-sticker style pronouncements, but not terribly good for discussions of complex topics like the role of sexism in mainstream video game development.

Is every debate over such issues destined to turn into another Tea Party-style pit of vipers, as Kyle Wagner argues in his Deadspin piece? Is there something about the anonymity of online behavior that encourages violence, or at least makes the repercussions of violent statements seem less severe?

One thing is becoming clear: For every positive use of social media campaigns, such as the recent #YesAllWomen movement against sexual abuse, there is a GamerGate just waiting around the next bend. And once it has exploded in every direction, it’s very difficult (perhaps even impossible) to put all of that rage back in the bottle. It’s not so much about the technical flaws in social platforms as it is about human nature — and that’s not easily fixed.

Here’s a list of some of the news articles, blog posts, Storify collections and other pieces I came across that I think are worth reading about GamerGate — if you have any to add, feel free to leave them in a comment:

The Future Of The Culture Wars Is Here, And It’s Gamergate — Deadspin
#Gamergate Trolls Aren’t Ethics Crusaders; They’re a Hate Group — Jezebel
What’s Happening In Gamergate — The Verge
5 Things I Learned as the Internet’s Most Hated Person — Cracked
Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest — New Yorker
In Defense of Gamers — Jacobin
What Is Gamergate, and Why Is Intel So Afraid of It? — Re/code
The only guide to Gamergate you will ever need to read — Washington Post
Why nerd culture must die — Pete Warden
#GamerGate: Here’s why everybody in the video game world is fighting — Vox

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Thinkstock / Boarding1Now, as well as Flickr user Anna Fischer and Thinkstock / Ten03