Heather N. isn’t buying into the idea that #GamerGate originates with certain handicaps of guys within gamer culture.
If you haven’t heard by now, Gamergate is a hashtag created to solidify the already troubling prevalence of misogyny, homophobia and racism found in gaming culture. It began with an angry ex-boyfriend’s screed against a woman game developer (Zoe Quinn). It’s only become more toxic from there. Quinn’s had death threats and people stalking her and folks actively planning to try to get her to commit suicide. Quinn’s been forced to leave her home. So has Anita Sarkeesian and a number of other people who have had their private information made public and used against them.
Beyond the simple fact that a lot of Gamergate supporters are abusive people, I’m interested in trying to understand how this so-called movement has become so large.
First, I’d like to debunk a certain myth I’ve seen floating around. Gamergate is not, as Noah Brand writes, the result of “people with certain handicaps” reacting poorly to society “failing to acknowledge and understand the world they live in.” Gamergate is not really about a lack of validated pain turned into rage. For one thing, gamer culture has recreated the older, non-gamer culture’s disdain for authentic expressions of emotion. Also, were Gamergate about a lack of validated pain, it’d be headed by a diverse group of marginalized folks who’ve had their pain invalidated and their attempts at creating spaces for themselves thwarted. In fact, were this about validating expressions of pain, Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest would be widely lauded by Gamergate supporters. After all, what is Depression Quest if not an expression of pain? Instead, Gamergate is headed by mostly straight white cis men who have targeted Quinn with online harassment since Depression Quest was first released.
The reason I point this out is not simply to critique Noah’s piece, but to examine what I think Noah (and others who have written similar pieces) are trying to do. I think they are all trying to humanize Gamergate. But as I’ve written before, humanizing someone who has done something horrible doesn’t mean creating excuses and absolving them of responsibility. The thing is, human beings are both individuals and social subjects. They both act on their own and are influenced by the culture around them. Gamer culture is, as Noah acknowledges, misogynist, homophobic and racist. But it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. So in order to truly humanize Gamergate supporters, we must examine the culture in which Gamergate exists.
Gamergate (and most of gamer culture, really) is the result of a group of young men who were rejected by toxic masculine, heteronormative, white normative capitalist dominant culture, and then collectively recreated that toxic masculine, heteronormative, white normative capitalist culture in such a way that they were no longer excluded from it.
Even that doesn’t quite sum up the situation given that gaming has become so ubiquitous. There are professional football players, like Chris Kluwe, who are huge gamers and the Green Bay Packers hold regular Settlers of Catan gaming nights. Being a gamer doesn’t really completely exclude people from dominant culture. If we open that up to talking about nerd culture as a whole we see that nerd culture already is dominant culture. The two are the same. Add onto that the fact that the gamer identity and the culture surrounding gaming weren’t really created by gamers; they were a marketing tactic. When we consider these things, it becomes clear gaming culture was a bill of goods sold to people who wanted more access to dominant toxic masculine, heteronormative, white normative capitalist culture than they had previously been granted.
Unsurprisingly, supporters of Gamergate have blatantly dehumanized those they are against. In fact, it’s a tactic Gamergate supporters use against anyone who disagrees with them. They label anyone they view to be against them “feminazis” and “social justice warriors.” Gamergate supporters put forth grand conspiracy theories where Zoe Quinn and other feminists who play, make and write about games control the entire gaming industry. Some Gamergate supporters even go so far as to use anti-Semitic imagery when discussing these conspiracy theories. Zoe Quinn (and other Gamergate detractors) aren’t human beings to Gamergate; detractors are all enemies and Zoe Quinn is an end boss. In fact, we see a repeated theme in pro-Gamergate media; that this entire series of events is a game that Gamergate will eventually “win.” This is part of how they rationalize doxing and SWATting anyone who speaks out against them.
Less obvious, however, is that the people people using the Gamergate banner actively seek to obfuscate their own humanity. Matthew Rozsa wrote about how Gamergate uses a mob mentality to erase the individuality of its supporters. However, I think that it goes further than erasing individuality. One of the Twitter hashtags that was created in parallel with Gamergate was #OpSkyNet. Skynet is a fictional artificial intelligence; it isn’t human. And there are plenty of other images and pieces of media that Gamergate uses which cast Gamergate supporters as something other than human. In their own minds, Gamergate supporters aren’t simply people; they are “noble paladins,” mechanized warriors, artificial intelligence, superheroes, etc.
Then there’s the fact that the mascot of Gamergate is the fictional character, Vivian James. Vivian James features prominently in a lot of Gamergate media. Sometimes she’s depicted as a little girl; sometimes she’s depicted as an adult woman; sometimes she’s overtly sexualised and sometimes she isn’t. She morphs into whatever the artist wants; she is purely a symbol of what Gamergate supporters want women to be. Even real women who support Gamergate, such as Christina Hoff Sommers, are turned into symbols by the group. Hoff Sommers, for example, has been dubbed “Based Mom.” And then there are the many minority game players who tweet under the hashtag #NotYourShield. Gamergate supporters actually end up using the few women, queer people, people of color, etc. who supporter Gamergate as a shield against critiques of the Gamergate. If any minority gamer players support Gamergate, they claim, then Gamergate cannot be hostile to minority gamers. This is the sort of attempt to use “pure logic” that results in Gamergate supporters being really quite wrong.
I mentioned above that Gamergate supporters fail to understand that they are social subjects; that they are part of a larger social context. This is nowhere more apparent than with their popular call for absolute and pure objectivism in all things. When interacting with Gamergate supporters on Twitter, I have occasionally asked for someone’s age or gender to better understand where they might be coming from. Most of the time these questions to give the the people on the other end of the computer social context are met with hostility. “A statement should be judged on its merit, not on who says it,” is the sort of thing I’ve seen said by many Gamergate supporters. Many Gamergate supporters seem to have a desire to separate themselves from their opinions. They wish for ideas to exist on their own, without having to contextualize them with the people who support those ideas. Again, this serves to dehumanize themselves.
Finally, there is the frightening contingent of Gamergate which has found its home on the /baphomet/ board on the website, 8chan. This is the board where Gamergate supporters spend their time sharing the private information of detractors and planning how to harass and attack their detractors. Ironically, many /baphomet/ users maintain their own anonymity while doxing others. Though anonymity itself can actually serve people (see: trans women finding safe spaces online); in this case it serves to further dehumanize the people using it. If no one can tie any of what is said in /baphomet/ back to real people, then the people in that board can abdicate responsibility. As an added note, Baphomet is a mythological creature and deity; this is yet another example of Gamergate creating a mascot for themselves that is at once dehumanizing and superhuman.
That Gamergate supporters have chosen superhuman identities for themselves makes a certain kind of sense when we consider how the gaming industry has catered to straight white cis male “gamers” as a core marketing demographic for decades. Consider the many ‘revenge of the nerds’ narratives that exist in gaming culture. Consider too the simplistic morality found in most AAA games. The playable character (usually a straight white cis man) is created to give the player (assumed to be a cis white straight man) a feeling of empowerment; a feeling that they cannot do any wrong. Look no further than the recent “PC Master Race” controversy to see how this power fantasy seeps into real life gaming culture. In a sense, this power fantasy serve to dehumanize the player; to divorce the player from any authentic emotion that does not serve the fantasy.
This gets to what is perhaps the heart of the problem. In order for games culture to ever get better, the people within games culture would first have to recognize their own humanity along with the humanity of those they consider ‘outside’ games culture. Yet big studio, AAA games (as they currently exist) largely de-emphasize the humanity of the player and encourage the perception of the player that they are superhuman. This isn’t going to change any time soon, I don’t think. Publishers make large amounts of money selling people the lie that they are better than non-gamers, that gamers aren’t really like other humans. So long as gaming culture centers on that superiority complex, it will be exclusionary along racial, sexual and gender lines.
Photo: Flickr/Matt AndersonJanuary 26, 2015 Author Edit: I originally made reference to ObjectiveGameReviews.com as an example of Gamergate and gamer culture’s wish for objective game reviews. Actually ObjectiveGameReviews.com is a satire of gamer culture. That sentence has been removed.