What ‘GamerGate’ Reveals About the Silencing of Women

An outgrowth of the latest abuse hurled at critic Anita Sarkeesian and developer Zoë Quinn, GamerGate was apparently a deliberate effort to purge women and people of color from the fledgling world of independent gaming criticism through harassment and accusations of fraudulence.

GamerGate was apparently a deliberate effort to purge women and people of color from the fledgling world of independent gaming criticism through harassment and accusations of fraudulence. diplomedia / Shutterstock

For years, the online gaming community has faced criticism for its often abysmal treatment of women. But even more evidence of this systemic sexism has emerged in recent weeks, prompting a wave of denials and counterattacks from a huge number of gamers. Their vitriol, in turn, provides an excellent example of what crowdsourced silencing of already marginalized voices can look like—and how chillingly effective that silencing can be.

Just a few days after credible, violent threats drove independent critic Anita Sarkeesian out of her home in late August, Depression Quest developer Zoë Quinn withstood a deluge of online harassment, which included the publication of her phone number along with nude photographs. This fury was sired by a bitter online missive from an ex-boyfriend, who accused her of cheating on him and, in a claim he later retracted, sleeping with a journalist, implicitly in exchange for favorable coverage of one of her products.

What began with a series of moralistic, slut-shaming attacks on Quinn for her supposed infidelity soon turned into unfounded accusations of corruption throughout the industry—trading sex, and personal relationships in general, for good reviews. Those then metastasized into #GamerGate: a social media-fueled movement whose supporters, mostly young men, pledged to expose supposedly unethical practices in the world of games journalism and media. In truth, however, the campaign was apparently a deliberate effort to purge women and people of color from the fledgling world of independent gaming criticism by tarring them with allegations of fraudulence.

In a stunning report, Quinn announced this past Saturday that she had been lurking in a planning room of the popular online message board 4chan for the last few weeks. Her screenshots expose what appears to be a sprawling campaign that weaponized unwitting anti-corruption gamers against any writer who mentioned so-called social justice issues, such as homophobia, racism, or—you guessed it—misogyny.

According to Quinn’s logs, 4chan, an anonymous forum that has become infamous over the years for organized trolling and “raids,” provided public-relations instructionscreated hashtags, and even encouraged forum users to impersonate people of color, all in order to sow dissension. And their tactics worked. By the time of Quinn’s exposé this weekend, many women had already vowed to leave the industry.

Opening the “FloodGates”

The case of critic Jenn Frank, who wrote a short op-ed for the Guardian about the harassment Quinn and Sarkeesian faced, is illustrative of how this organized silencing worked. The GamerGate crowd argued on social media that, in their view, Frank had a conflict of interest in writing the Guardian piece because she was acquainted with Quinn and had financially backed her work via a crowdfunding campaign. This was in spite of the fact that the Guardian’s legal team had reassured Frank that there was no such conflict; she also included a disclaimer on her article mentioning her minor monetary support of Quinn. Even so, GamerGate supporters filled her Twitter feed with such aggressive threats that she formally announced, two days later, that she was quitting game criticism after a decade.

Or consider Leigh Alexander, who has long been one of the most vocal opponents of corrupt practices and sexism in the industry; GamerGate allies targeted her, too, ostensibly because she runs a consulting firm for game designers. Once again, however, no evidence has surfaced suggesting she has ever engaged in any impropriety, save a couple of tweets promoting a game on which she had also been a consultant—a fact that she had made fully transparent in the same posts.

Quinn’s leaks this Saturday provide elucidating context: The purpose of this operation was evidently to disguise a purge of critical voices as a grassroots movement. A cadre of angry young men scapegoated women for the sins of an industry and got away with it, until screenshots finally revealed the crusade for what it was. And again, it has been effective. While Alexander hasn’t left, many others have.

Part of the campaign’s power was that it keyed into shared cultural nightmares among gamers—that someone, somewhere, was going to take video games away, whether it be censorious politicians, money-grubbing executives, or invading “outsiders” like women, queer people, or gamers of color. GamerGate’s instigators conflated those very different figures into one common enemy.

Time and again, memetics crowded the #GamerGate hashtag, claiming that the movement did not rely on harassment (even if this was demonstrably false), and that it was not about misogyny. Its agitators posted pictures of women developers they approved of, congratulated supporter Christina Hoff Sommers for being a “true” feminist, and used the #NotYourShield hashtag as a, well, shield against all cultural criticism. After all, if some women and people of color supported the movement, they reasoned, GamerGate was inoculated against prejudice.

These arguments were seductive, convincing many gamers that it was “social justice warriors” who were taking away gaming by colluding with developers and media to impose their “agenda” on everyone else. Without entirely realizing it, even well-intentioned allies of GamerGate—the ones Medium referred to in one piece as “fair-minded”—confused corporate corruption with independent designers and journalists who can barely make rent.

The bell curve of the movement’s many supporters thus pressed violently against the least powerful voices in gaming, and those who may not have otherwise condoned the persecution of strangers rallied to defend their culture against a straw villain.

The Epidemic of Silence

By the GamerGate thought-leaders’ twisted logic, any woman who speaks as a gaming critic is automatically presumed to be corrupt because she—like almost anyone who puts pen to paper—knows people and has contacts in the realms she writes about. To add biting salt to the wound, many of us who write about harassment in gaming know each other and became friends because of the harassment; we banded together to fortify each other, and as is often the case, some of us liked one another enough and shared enough common interests to become friends. But now the abusers appear to have realized that this, too, can be weaponized under the guise of “ethics.”

Harass us, and then condemn us as ethically compromised for refusing to submit to the harassment by ourselves.

These double binds even persist when simply speaking of one’s own hardships. Over the course of the last fortnight, angry gamers have lambasted Quinn for raising public awareness about these latest rounds of attacks; they have accused her of making it up, provoking the onslaught, feeding the trolls, profiting from them, or just “attention-whoring.”

However, to avoid speaking publicly about the persecution makes those who do not confront it on a daily basis more likely to dismiss it—or, in the case of GamerGate, to propagate behavior that worsens it. Much like street harassment, it depends on the silent submission of its targets, the passive pseudo-consent of accepting such behavior as the backdrop to everyday life. Sexual harassers on the street want to use women as props to bolster their sense of virility. Political harassers online want their target to be quiet and go away, an anathema to anyone who makes her living by speaking in public.

When one refuses to comply, though, one’s attackers treat that defiance as a further provocation. Twitter harassment has become akin to voting someone off the island on a reality television show: The will of the group is absolute, and the person being targeted has no say. But when the woman in question reveals the patchwork of her daily abuse, and when she dares to contextualize it as a problem, the mob is incensed. The woman is not behaving as she should. She was supposed to yield to their imperial might; she was supposed to shut up. By refusing to do so, she is challenging their sense of absolute control over her behavior. And so the attacks against her grow even more charged.

Regardless of our political affiliations, the Internet can empower us to indulge in fantasies of invulnerable might. For those who form angry mobs online, though, that sense of security has led to the belief that the only viewpoints worth hearing are their own. This culture makes women’s voices an almost personal offense to the men who want to still them. The cost of opening one’s mouth as a woman was always to provoke bottomless sinkholes of anger; now, the instantaneous call-and-response atmospheres of Twitter and other social media just make it easier than it has ever been for crowds to swarm upon individuals.

Double binds abound. Women are damned if we face abuse alone; damned if we face it with friends and defend one another. We are damned if we say nothing; damned if we draw attention to what’s happening.

And although the harassment of women in some spaces, and its attendant silencing effect, is a more prevalent problem by dint of sheer numbers, the attacks men withstand for standing up for us are noteworthy, as well. Amid GamerGate, the men who supported Quinn and Sarkeesian, such as Phil Fish or Tim Schafer, sustained no small measure of attempted intimidation for their trouble. A GamerGate-circulated list of people in the industry to boycott because of their “social justice” leanings, too, included quite a few men.

Even so, this response is itself often bound up with gender politics. Men will find themselves struck by accusations of feminization, “white knighting,” taunts about their genitalia, and so forth; their detractors see men’s association with an apostate woman as especially damning. Hell opened up for Fish and Schafer only when they defended Quinn’s fundamental humanity.

The Writing’s on the Twitter Wall

What’s happening in the world of gaming should concern everyone. The community does not exist in a vacuum, after all: Its members are products of popular culture, and their policing tactics reflect strategies used throughout the virtual and physical world.

Even the aforementioned “fair-minded” good guys of GamerGate—those reportedly provoked into massing by 4chan bigots—had muddled aims that betrayed little knowledge of how journalism works. Some GamerGate supporters, for instance, openly stated that they want games writing to be “objective,” which would obviate the very criticism of the industry they claim is necessary (could we accuse Pauline Kael or Roger Ebert of objectivity?). And, again, the called-targets were disproportionately independent writers who are not plugged into the nexus of the gaming world’s richest developers—in other words, they are not the people about whom true anti-corruption activists should be worried.

Writing about the impact of this abhorrent mélange of good intentions, trolling, and naïve politicking, critic Lana Polansky argues, “The terrorism of this campaign has actually accomplished its goal: to make us suspect our neighbors; to make simple associations possible conflicts, particularly among the least protected and thus most politically threatening group of people.”

We should not delude ourselves into thinking this can’t happen elsewhere online in other outposts of “new media,” with the same twisted logic used to attack the integrity of other independent writers and journalists. GamerGate’s thought-leaders’ tactics of disguising the persecution of minority voices with faux-inclusivity and sunny rhetoric could easily be exported elsewhere. Indeed, one 4channer, in the wake of Quinn’s revelations, suggested that everyone should try again next year.

GamerGate was a profoundly terrifying elaboration of the mechanics of silencing, which arrayed a variety of horrors beneath a thin veneer of moral crusading. It showcased the myriad ways that well-intentioned people are sucked into lending their energies to organized hatred. This social dynamic is what the continued silencing of women, and the men who support us, depends upon.

What GamerGate showed us was how a small group of angry 4chan users apparently convinced a horde of well-meaning people to believe that they should silence certain women for the good of all. The willingness shared by too many of us to believe that the ends justify the means was ruthlessly exploited here. Attention must be paid.

This will happen again.