Actually, It’s Not About Ethics in Video Game Journalism: A Reconsideration of Gamergate

The purpose of this article twofold: first, to correct and respond to the piece published in the December issue of The Amherst Student on the Gamergate controversy and second, to dispel notions of the movement as a positive force for any greater good. Bluntly, the Gamergate movement is not actually about ethics in games journalism. Because the movement is still unfolding, it is difficult to tell an accurate story of both what has occurred and what is occurring; nevertheless, if The Student’s retraction of the piece tells us anything, it is that the previously reported “facts” were nothing of the sort. The purpose of this piece is not to attack the author of the previous article, but serious interrogation of his claims is in no way off limits — we do not consider the author’s brushing aside of the death threats, harassment and pervasive misogyny associated with Gamergate to be acceptable. Below its veneer of ethical concerns, the Gamergate movement is a disorganized and deeply conservative campaign of misogynistic harassment, a panicked lashing out by a predominantly straight white male subset of video game culture toward an industry that is leaving them behind.

Though a comprehensive historical reconstruction and factual analysis of Gamergate would fill several volumes, there are key facts which must be made clear. Foremost is the origin of the hashtag: the first use of #GamerGate was by actor Adam Baldwin, a staunch conservative with a corresponding history of Twitter harassment. The hashtag was in reference to a pair of (now removed) YouTube videos analyzing the personal life of Zoe Quinn, a little-known indie game developer whose alleged relationships with several members of the gaming press were detailed in an angry blog screed by an ex-boyfriend. From day one, tweet one, Gamergate has been inextricable from sexism and problematic conservatism.

As far as Gamergate’s alleged focus on journalism goes, a cursory glance at the majority of the movement’s targets is enough to raise dozens of red flags. The majority of high profile victims of Gamergate death threats, doxxing (the Internet practice of researching and releasing an individual’s personal information) and the like have been women and, most damning, not members of the gaming press. Zoe Quinn is an independent developer; Brianna Wu, who reported she was forced out of her house after her home address was posted online alongside violent threats, is likewise an independent developer; Felicia Day, whose personal information was leaked after she publicly condemned the movement, is an actress; Anita Sarkeesian, whose speaking engagement at Utah State University was cancelled due to a shooting threat possibly associated with Gamergate, is an academic theorist. This is not to imply that journalists are not targeted, quite the contrary. Yet the profiling pattern continues: the most high-profile journalists attacked are predominantly female and progressive. Leigh Alexander, a contributor to enthusiast site Gamasutra, was the victim of relentless online abuse in the wake of an op-ed condemning pernicious gamer culture, while Jenn Frank, a notable freelancer and regular contributor to The Guardian, quit gaming journalism altogether after a torrent of social media harassment. These assaults are not the actions of enthusiasts concerned about the state of gaming journalism; this is the impotent outrage of a conservatively normative and hyper-masculine subculture, fighting tooth and nail against its inevitable irrelevance.

It is telling how irredeemable Gamergate is that this misogynistic harassment barely scratches the surface of the reprehensible acts carried out under the Gamergate banner. From “swatting” (a practice where misinformation is given to law enforcement in order to send a SWAT team to a victim’s house) to hacking and directed denial of service attacks, Gamergate is the Internet pariah to end all pariahs. The movement is so poisonous that 4chan, one of the Internet’s most notorious lawless forums, banned all discussion of the topic within days of the movement’s genesis, kicking its proponents to the metaphorical curb.
One might object to almost any conversation on the “ethos” of Gamergate because such conversation assumes a monolithic movement: as there is no single banner under which Gamergaters operate, an argument, at most, can target only segments of the movement. There is no unified set of demands or opinions, no mission statement; however, this in no way precludes a discussion on Gamergate taken in its entirety. It is possible to tease out argumentative trends in the movement from both grassroots discussion (found on NeoGaf, 8chan, Reddit, etc.) and professional articles (from sources as disparate as The New York Times and Kotaku), which, considered together, sketch a general outline of the opinions fundamentally associated with the movement.

Though masquerading as apolitical — ostensibly the movement takes issues not just with “progressive” gaming websites but with any outwardly political gaming journalism — Gamergate is staunchly conservative. For most Gamergate supporters, video games ought to be a non-political space. This majority of the movement tries to distance itself from the more radical members and their explicitly conservative politics, but they fail to recognize that their own stance, their opposition to “politicizing” video games, does nothing more than enforce an implicit conservatism in gaming culture. Like most popular media, video games are racist, sexist, and homophobic. They often reinforce white supremacist narratives, patriarchal structures, and heteronormative frameworks, and by ignoring this and arguing against political and cultural considerations in video game reviews and culture, Gamergate only perpetuates the conservative state of contemporary gaming.

Along with a general apoliticism, Gamergaters have pushed specifically for “objective” video game reviews. What exactly an objective review might consist of is left up to the imagination of the reader. As with all art and entertainment, engaging with a video game is a subjective experience. There is no art style inherently better than another, no gameplay type with a legitimate claim to the best, no genre necessarily more fun than all others. Gaming is a deeply personal experience that speaks to players at their moment of play. It is an individualized experience insofar as no playthrough of a game is the same as another and as such, an objective review is impossible.

The call for objectivity in reviews then is nothing more than another manifestation of political conservatism masquerading as ethical concern. A review is unacceptable to Gamergaters if the reviewer’s subjective experience with the game takes into account lived experiences or politics different from their own. An “objective review” is, in reality, a subjective review that conforms to the Gamergater’s own subjectivity; anything else is decried as biased or unethical. Or what is unethical about subjective reviews is their refusal to pander to the conservatism and immaturity of Gamergate’s demographic.

Amidst this quagmire of vitriol, harassment and hypocrisy, it is worth noting that there are legitimate concerns regarding the state of video game journalism. The relationship between the press and publishers can be questionable, even shamelessly corrupt at its worst. For example in 2007, GameSpot writer Jeff Gerstmann was fired for publishing a negative review of Kane & Lynch amidst pressure from the game’s publisher. Or consider Famitsu, Japan’s largest gaming magazine, which awarded a rare perfect score to Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, while its presdient appeared in the game’s advertising campaign and a copy of the magazine showed up in the game itself. Make no mistake, the credibility of the gaming press is very tenuous. However, while certainly worth discussing, no matter how concerning these ethical transgressions may be, Gamergate is not the place to have that conversation, and it never was. Even if there are members of the movement who believe they are fighting for press reforms, the well has been poisoned from the start by the heinous actions of the visible majority waving the Gamergate flag. A few questionable charity drives notwithstanding, nothing positive has come of the disorganized movement. Developers have been chased from their homes by death threats, countless people have had their personal information compromised, hate speech has spread across social media like wildfire and nothing has been gained. Plain and simple, Gamergate is a petulant campaign of harassment, a witch hunt born of flimsy sexist conspiracy theories, wrapped in a paper thin disguise of ethical concerns. No good has come of it, and no good ever will ever come of it or the toxic mentalities from which it spawned.

At its core, Gamergate is sexist, conservative and deeply disconcerting. It is an embarrassment to the little cultural and artistic credibility that the medium has managed to find in recent years. It is a troubling but not inaccurate snapshot of a largely white, male and adolescent American subculture and it is a reaction to the fear of cultural assimilation to the mainstream. As the December article notes, there are no winners in Gamergate. But there are losers, who, like ourselves, participate in and personally identify with gaming culture.