My GamerGate silence helped elect Trump (and other truths)

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I was working in games journalism when GamerGate became a thing, but I didn’t really write much about it. In fact, I purposely kept pretty quiet about the whole thing. If you are curious, here is a small piece I wrote at the time when Sony came out against harassment in gaming, and an article about Mike Bithell we should basically just stop fighting and play games. I wrote three separate articles about the Law & Order GamerGate episode, and a couple posts about events that were cancelled as a result of the movement. Finally, I did a breakdown of the promises made in Anita Sarkeesian’s Kickstarter and what she ultimately delivered.

In essence, I danced around the issue for a number of reasons. First of all, GamerGate was never really that clear to me. Like any leaderless movement, it seemed to mean something different to each and every person involved. One member of GamerGate might say it really was about ethics in games journalism, a feeling that collusion between content creators and the game makers was unethical and led to deception of the gaming public. Others seemed to jump on the GamerGate bandwagon as a reason to harass women, minorities and the LGBTQ community for perceived destruction of gaming. I felt it was impossible to respond as a general rule – not just because of the amorphous quality of the movement itself, but also because I was a member of that evil grouping as a woman. I wanted to continue to be seen as one of the “good” women, not to speak out against a movement that appeared mostly awful but also sort of based on some good ideals.

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However, as I read an article this month in Games Industry, I felt my heart sink. The article subheading sort of says it all, “Games & Politics in 2016: The movers behind this year’s resurgence of fascism cut their teeth radicalising young men in videogame communities”. It includes this section that seemed to cut right to the core issue:

2016 has been a rough year in many ways, especially economically and politically, but what is most notable and most disquieting from our perspective is that it was the year in which tactics field-tested by videogame-related hate groups came to be writ large on the political stage. In a superb piece for The Guardian earlier this month, Matt Lees described Gamergate as “the canary in the coalmine” for the fascist, white supremacist movements that have wracked the United States this year and threaten to engulf several European states in 2017.

That the paths of fascist figureheads such as Steve Bannon and Milo Yiannopoulos ran through Gamergate is no coincidence. The strong online communities formed by videogame culture lacked immunity to their tactics. What began by stoking the flames of the “edgelord” trolling groups that have been the disaffected, grotesquely bigoted underbelly of the gaming world for years ballooned into something far more dangerous as the self-appointed leaders of the movement realised that the balkanisation of media consumption left many game consumers willing, even happy, to believe even the most facile and easily disproven lies, as long as they supported their personal biases and narratives.

Every time this year that you read about how political discourse has become “post-truth”, about “fake news” flooding the Internet and the worrying degree to which people seem unable to judge the reliability of their sources, remember that it started in our communities, with game consumers. Gamergate didn’t invent online mobs, and it certainly didn’t invent the resurgence of fascism, but it was the proof of concept for turning those things into tools of a mainstream political campaign. Gamergate took disaffected, bored youths – primarily white, male, straight and harbouring discomfort with social progress and its impact on their personal social standing – and it radicalised them. It fed them a diet of dishonesty, reinforcing the importance and closeness of their community and then lying to them about malicious conspiracies designed to destroy that community.

I love gaming, I have ever since I was old enough to hold a controller. I have considered myself a gamer, and in fact I’m happily spending our time off playing Watch Dogs 2, Stardew Valley and cleaning up some final achievements in Final Fantasy XV. I have never thought of gaming as a zero sum game. For those who didn’t study politics, this means that I didn’t think that there was only so much power or exposure to go around. Instead of one group’s gain coming at the loss of another’s, I have always felt that there was room in gaming for everyone. Just because women, people of color or LGBTQ communities might achieve better representation in gaming didn’t mean that the old, traditional games wouldn’t be made. There will always be room for hack ‘n slash, shoot ’em up or high fantasy games. It’s just that gaming has also been moving towards including more nuanced female leads, more three-dimensional people of color.

It’s about including more people, not excluding those who were already represented.

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And yet, I didn’t take the time to clearly state this. I didn’t take the time to reassure the existing gaming community that we weren’t going anywhere. I will still drink a beer with you at a gaming event, I will still talk strategy or storyline, I will still boast my low crew death-rate in Mass Effect or celebrate how I overcame FPS nausea thanks to some awesome community members. The community of gamers isn’t at risk, it is growing and changing, but that isn’t a threat – it’s a triumph.

Unfortunately, I might be rejoicing in our community too late. Not our community, because if you’re reading this you probably read the other words that appear on this site and know just how much we love and celebrate our community members. But to gamers at large, the gamer community as a whole, GamerGate made everyone fear that gaming was under threat, that we were all at risk of losing that which we hold so dear. And so many gamers were radicalized, were made to believe that they had to act or lose it all. They had to take a stand before gaming was forever lost, and that stand was against (not all) women, people of color, etc.

As a general rule, I think the GamerGate thing has calmed down. People have realized that gaming isn’t going anywhere, that they will still be able to play games that they love and ignore the stuff that they don’t like, and those who were aiming for more representation are slowly seeing more games they can identify with – even if those titles are as mediocre as any other title in that genre.

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Unfortunately, GamerGate went on to be a proof of concept. It wasn’t about truth or proof or legitimacy, it was about the power to get people to take action against perceived threats. GamerGate proved that if people are told their precious community is at risk, even if that risk isn’t real, they will do whatever is necessary to protect that grouping they love. It proved to politicians around the world something that they already knew – people are so desperate to be a part of something, that if someone tells them that their very way of life is at risk, they will vote for someone who promises to restore their pride, restore their “rightful” place. It’s the promise Napoleon, Lenin, Churchill, Hitler and many other charismatic leaders have made – don’t be upset if things aren’t as great as nostalgia tells you they used to be, we can bring a return to that former glory. It’s a great story, it’s what people want to believe, and it’s an easy way to radicalize a vast population.

I don’t have any illusions that I would have made a difference during GamerGate. So many voices were swirling at the time, I doubt that mine would have changed the tide or made people pause to think about their actions or assess where things were going. That said, I do wonder if I – and other people with a voice – had done more, and sooner, if it would have changed perception and helped people retain some of their critical minds.

Last Updated: January 8, 2017

Zoe Hawkins

Wielding my lasso of truth, I am the combination of nerd passion and grammar nazi. I delve into all things awesome and geek-tastic. I believe people should stop defining themselves and just enjoy playing games, so let's get on with it!

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