What happens when a niche community of passionate pop culture fans hits the mainstream? In the era of the internet, the answer is apparently an explosion of anger and bigotry concealed behind online anonymity and justified by lofty claims about free speech. “Gamergate” was an illustration of just such a thing, and while it’s been years since the hashtag saw popular use beyond memes and documentaries, the movement marks a dark blemish in the history of both the gaming community and internet culture at large.
A Timeline of Events
In 2013, a free game by the name of Depression Quest was released by small-time independent developer Zoe Quinn. Unlike Quinn’s previous titles that remained relatively unknown, the game found a cult following of sorts as positive reviews came pouring out of major gaming news sites like Kotaku. Major scandal erupted, however, when in the same year, one of Quinn’s ex-boyfriends published a collection of blog posts accusing her of infidelity and using sex to get these good reviews and get ahead in the gaming industry. Despite a few of the men she was accused of sleeping with coming forward to deny the allegations, the damage had been done and the media blew up with what would become a protracted back-and-forth and, eventually, a large-scale political battle. Personal information and images of Quinn were hacked and posted online, fake accounts were created on Twitter, Reddit, and 4chan to spread the scandal, and Quinn herself received a variety of death and rape threats.
Anita Sarkeesian, feminist game journalist known for commentary on women’s role in gaming and game-related media, received similar threats as the Gamergate hashtag rose in popularity, and what would later be termed a radically right-wing online movement took hold. Sarkeesian, like Quinn, was forced to contact the FBI and even leave her home following disturbing anonymous remarks about what “feminist lies and poison have done to the men in America” as well as threats on her life. Several other critics (mostly women) who spoke out about this blatant abuse by the gaming industry were met with more of the same treatment.
While of course not all supporters of #Gamergate were violent misogynists, the issues in the movement’s early days definitely seemed to revolve around gender and politics. In a nutshell, some “traditional” straight, white, male gamers were uncomfortable with the rise in mainstream gaming popularity and the influence that women were beginning to have on the industry, and so took to social media to get out all the anger they couldn’t express in real life. Participants even reportedly harassed companies making ad money off of websites that hosted feminist or anti-Gamergate criticism. The movement became synonymous with harassment, gatekeeping, and ultimately, hate speech.
One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
Fast forward and we begin to see Gamergate spreading from a niche online movement to the broader sphere of culture and politics. Steve Bannon, former White House Chief Strategist and executive chair of Breitbart News, used his power on the platform to support Milo Yiannopoulos, who became among the most famous online Gamergate enthusiasts, and later, a champion of the alt-right movement. New guidelines were implemented among gaming journalism websites mandating that they be up front about any games or developers they were financially supporting through
Patreon or Kickstarter. Some media outlets have theorized about the connections between Gamergate and the political rhetoric used in the 2016 election — both were (on all sides) fraught with misleading social media campaigns and raised serious ethical concerns. Ironically enough, ethical issues were at the core of what #Gamergate was supposedly trying to combat.
Initially, the movement came about as a reaction to Quinn’s story as well as the journalists who covered its’ responses — gamers were apparently beginning to feel like, as scholars Gregory Perreault and Tim Vos put it, “gaming journalists were too connected to the gaming industry, actively colluding with the industry to promote a social justice agenda” (Perrault). So-called “Gamergaters” complained that these journalists were too involved in the support of social justice campaigns, perhaps even too political in general. They sought a reform of the industry, calling for “more transparent and ethical games journalism” (Braithwaite) which would shift the focus of gaming media away from what Gamergaters saw as an overwhelming amount of social commentary and limit it to simple facts about new games. From the perspective of a #Gamergate participant, the expansion of the field of game journalism into new and more interdisciplinary modes of discussion was at the core of the ethical problem — gamers didn’t like being brought into the mainstream, and apparently, the “boys’ club” (Galbraith) felt threatened enough to lash out with violence. If we look past the ineffectiveness and immorality of using hate speech as a means of inciting change, we are left wondering; was there any basis of truth in Gamergaters’ concerns? The fundamental question here is whether or not game journalists should stick to game reviews and leave out the social commentary. On the larger scale, do journalists for any niche industry have a responsibility to discuss political and social issues relevant to their community, or should objectivity be the standard by which they write?
The Real Issue
The gaming community has evolved from a niche group of passionate enthusiasts to now being a widespread, mainstream form of entertainment enjoyed by all walks of life. As such, the journalism dedicated to it has followed this evolution and is now being produced and consumed by a similarly wide variety of people. One of the natural outcomes of wider diversity in a community is a wider array of perspectives, greater potential for conflict, and more interest in the issues of the community at large as opposed to just the participants’ shared hobbies. Social justice, by one of its many definitions, refers to the “fair and compassionate distribution of the fruits of economic growth,” according to the United Nations. When we put gaming into an economic context, it becomes immediately clear why “compassionate distribution” is important — the video game market attracts a huge audience, especially impressionable young people, and games have the potential (perhaps, due to their interactivity, to a much greater degree than other forms of entertainment) to majorly influence gamers. Zoe Quinn’s indie game Depression Quest received criticisms for its focus on mental health and humanity; Anita Sarkeesian’s feminist criticisms received hate for pointing out the oversexualization and objectification of women in games; those who pushed back against death threats sent to female game journalists were considered by Gamergaters to be a moral force against which they must crusade. Clearly, the gaming community was (and likely still is) in dire need of some lessons on compassion. Gaming is no longer just for the nerdy straight white guys. It is now for everyone, and as such, the needs and perspectives of everyone must be considered. #Gamergate was, essentially, a resistance to change blown way out of proportion, and even further, a poignant demonstration of why that change was sorely needed.
In order to get to the bottom of this ethical dilemma, it might be helpful to consider what a few old-school ethical principles would have us think about. One such principle is Kant’s categorical imperative; the right moral decision is one that can be applied universally in all cases. Gaming is just one of the many fields of journalism, and Gamergaters took issue with the introduction of social justice (specifically, feminism) into the discourse. If ideas about equality and shared compassion, whether they be about race, class, gender, etc., should be left out of game journalism, the categorical imperative would force this rule to be applied to all kinds of journalism. Sports? No room for discussions of diversity on the teams. Hollywood? No need to talk about whitewashing in the Oscars. Here is where the logic behind #Gamergate falls apart. In any community of people, even if they all share a common passion, there will be conflicts and there will be issues of harassment and insensitivity. Without journalists who dedicate themselves to uncovering inequality and promoting compassion, communities become toxic. The very idea of ethics is nothing without prior discussion of what those ethics actually are.
Furthermore, Aristotle’s virtue-based system of ethics teaches that in order to maintain moral virtue, we must maintain temperance. He proposed that a golden mean always lies in the middle of two extremes. On the one hand, we have game journalists avoiding all subjectivity and social commentary, never supporting or promoting certain developers or political groups, and sticking to their original purpose — objective game reviews. On the other hand, we have an industry of game journalists that write about nothing but theory, taking explicit political stances and harping on about the implication of games on matters of social justice. Human nature suggests that these two extremes can probably never exist without one another — especially when the subject becomes widespread enough in the mainstream. Gamergaters wanted journalists to remain completely unbiased and show no respect or tolerance for intersectionality. Those who opposed the movement, however, at no point seemed to desire a removal of objectivity from game journalism. Nobody has an issue with simple game reviews. It’s the introduction of more that Gamergaters had an issue with — and, unfortunately for them, more just comes with the territory when your hobby goes mainstream. Since we cannot realistically expect social justice to stay completely out of game journalism (and we should be welcoming it in anyway), Aristotle would advise gamers to seek only balance — everything has its place, and the article about class discrimination in certain game companies’ business models is just as valid a discussion as the IGN.com review of the latest Call of Duty.
Where Do We Go From Here?
So what do Kant and Aristotle’s ideas tell us about our ethical question? Should game journalists, or any journalists covering a specific field in pop culture, stick purely to the facts? Of course not. Facts are great and there is nothing wrong with a simple review for the latest Fortnite season pass. But gaming has become such a massive community that limiting its journalism to pure objectivity begins to miss the point of a community — if subsets of it feel marginalized, they have a right to speak out. If some journalists choose to focus their careers on empowering these marginalized groups, they also have a right to do so. Healthy, mature discussions about social justice are a valid and extremely helpful part of journalism.
We can probably all agree that #Gamergate was not really about journalistic ethics. The movement sprung out of frustration, problematic alt-right beliefs, and misogyny, and even those that attempted to distance themselves from these aspects never truly found success in doing so. We might now be able to look back and appreciate how far we have come, but resistance to change is a constant in the human psyche and one of the many things that can prevent us from progressing as a society. As a community grows, certain discussions simply need to be had, and it is, in many ways, the responsibility of good journalism to provide a safe space for diversity and the forward momentum of social justice.
Bee, O. (2017, July 26). The Woman Targeted by Gamergate on Surviving a World-Altering Trolling Attack. Intelligencer. https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2017/07/zoe-quinn-surviving-gamergate.html.
This article for The Intelligencer digs into Quinn’s personal story, her experience with game development, game journalism, patriarchy in gaming and the media, etc. It illuminates the experience of one of the central figures of the issue and illustrates the massive impact online scandals and their treatment by the media and the public can have on an individual’s livelihood and life.
Braithwaite, A. (2016). It’s About Ethics in Games Journalism? Gamergaters and Geek Masculinity. Social Media + Society. https://doi.org/10.1177/2056305116672484
This journal article explores the misogynistic vision behind Gamergate and how it was justified by its participants. It offers definitions of some of the ethical standpoints the case presents as well as theories about why the movement was ineffective.
Dewey, C. (2019, April 28). The only guide to Gamergate you will ever need to read. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2014/10/14/the-only-guide-to-gamergate-you-will-ever-need-to-read/.
This Washington Post article provides a great general recap of the major events that started the Gamergate “movement” and how it developed. The article also offers insight into how the issue is ongoing today and what we can learn from it.
Dockterman, E. (2014, October 16). #GamerGate Sexism and Anita Sarkeesian Death Threats Explainer. Time. https://time.com/3510381/gamergate-faq/.
This Time article was written at the time of the first Gamergate scandal back in 2014, and is interesting in particular because it gives a sense of the media’s attitude towards the issue when it first began to unfold. The article also gives relevant background information on Anita Sarkeesian and the intersection between feminism and gaming.
Galbraith, P. (2017). Adult Computer Games and the Ethics of Imaginary Violence: Responding to Gamergate from Japan. U.S.-Japan Women’s Journal, (52), 67–88. Retrieved April 21, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/26401838
This journal article deals with the idea of “imaginary violence” and tackles the seriousness of online violence through social media, gaming, and online journalism. It also looks at a foreign perspective on America’s Gamergate.
Lees, M. (2016, December 1). What Gamergate should have taught us about the ‘alt-right’. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/dec/01/gamergate-alt-right-hate-trump.
This article from The Guardian relates Gamergate to the alt-right movement and explores the connections between the two movements. Media responses to both movements and how these responses perpetuated problematic ideologies are also looked at, as well as the shortcomings of popular media in its current state in covering scandals that take place largely online.
Perreault, G. P., & Vos, T. P. (2018). The GamerGate controversy and journalistic paradigm maintenance. Journalism, 19(4), 553–569. https://doi.org/0.1177/1464884916670932
This article discusses the importance of ethics in journalism, why it should be explored, and how Gamergate represents an ultimate failure of journalistic ethics. Perrault and Vos explain the idea of “paradigm maintenance” and compare media coverage of Gamergate with media coverage of Princess Diana’s death.
Rott, N. (2014, September 24). #Gamergate Controversy Fuels Debate On Women And Video Games. NPR. https://www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/2014/09/24/349835297/-gamergate-controversy-fuels-debate-on-women-and-video-games.
This NPR article gives extensive background knowledge about the initial interactions that started Gamergate, including quotes from Zoe Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian, and a few journalists who published opinions at the time like Andras Zecher and Leigh Alexander.
United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Division for Social Policy and Development. (2006). Social Justice in an Open World: The Role of the United Nations. New York. https://www.un.org/esa/socdev/documents/ifsd/SocialJustice.pdf
This document details the United Nations’ definitions and applications of social justice, providing important information about why it is an important topic to discuss.
(Image credits to Unsplash.com)