Empire of Dirt: How GamerGate’s misogynistic policing of “gamer identity” degrades the whole gaming community


As GamerGate’s cyber sandstorm rolls into its third month, the mainstream press has now covered it from virtually every angle conceivable, often with no small amount of frustration at its incoherence and nesting dolls of ideological self-delusion. Its cresting tidal wave of outrage has dredged up the worst sublimated impulses of a minority of mostly male gamers who made national headlines by driving developer Brianna Wu from her home, and threatening a terrifying mass shooting at a university where critic Anita Sarkeesian had been scheduled to speak. Many GamerGater’s protest that this does not represent the true face of their movement, but this is impossible to take seriously when so many of the movement’s nexuses are cesspools of rank misogyny and anti-feminism. They create an echo chamber of fear that, in much the same way far right extremist forums do, harden and amplify the violent tendencies of the already-prejudiced, feeding them a steady diet of manufactured outrage until they’re ready to burst. 

I myself regret not being able to cover GamerGate more fully for this website, but after the harassment received in the wake of an academic essay I wrote on the movement’s politics for First Person Scholar, I decided a break from the pressure of public articles was more than a good idea. GamerGate’s response to its critics is best summed up as a locust swarm of memetics and disingenuous loaded questioning, mixed in with a healthy dose of hatred and paranoid suspicion. One GamerGaterer, in an attempt to silence me, asked why I hadn’t revealed my “business ties” to Silverstring Media, a consulting firm that’s been a popular whipping boy in GamerGate conspiracies because of its progressive bend. I had not so much as heard of them before this whole mess, of course, much less had any financial interest in them. But such attacks on integrity are, more or less, GamerGate’s stock in trade. In general, their rebuttals to their critics are either the sonorous repetition of slogans that they think will be made true by the brute force of continuous use, or by insinuating that the critic is part of some vast conspiracy of interconnected, mutually-invested corrupt journalists seeking to silence them.

In both cases, the response of the movement is to flood critics with accusations and vitriol. None of their purported “scandals” have panned out, either.

In The Name of the Nerd

But I will not rehash the arguments against the movement’s tactics and pretensions—I and others have handled that quite effectively elsewhere. I would rather talk briefly this week about one of GamerGate’s central organising claims: that they are defending nerds and gamers from what they deem the organised bullying of the gaming press (and now, the wider mainstream media). To some in GamerGate, articles criticising subcultures of the gaming community for harbouring misogyny and toxicity, and the snark that some feminist critics employ in order to describe them (e.g. “misogynerd”), are redolent of high school style bullying against nerdy gamers.

GamerGate styles itself as a perverse kind of social justice movement for all gamers, constructing “gamer” as an oppressed class unto itself. They claim to speak for the forgotten and bullied nerd, the outcast and misunderstood hobbyist who just wants to play video games yet is scapegoated for various and sundry evils.

What this tidy narrative has always deliberately ignored is that all of GamerGate’s targets have been nerds and gamers.

From the start, when GamerGate’s energy first coalesced into a vicious assault on independent developer Zoe Quinn that continues up to this very moment (she is still unable to return home), this was an attack by an angry, violent minority of gamers against other gamers. From its inception, GamerGate launched a virulent assault on the people who make, write, and write about the games that make up their hobby, putatively because we were corrupt. It was why GamerGate propaganda painted its targets, especially feminist critics, as outsiders seeking to destroy gaming and unfairly profit from it at the same time. We were seen as callow opportunists who’d invaded gaming because we saw a lucrative opportunity. When GamerGate turned its attention to persecuting feminist academics, the claim was recycled: we were harvesting a sexy research topic and nothing more, we didn’t truly care about gaming.

GamerGate is, in truth, a movement built on a longstanding toxic tendency among some gamers to aggressively police the borders of “true gaming”—they see themselves as the appointed guardians of what it means to truly be a nerd or a gamer, and all outside their group are poseurs who, like body snatchers, are stealing their identities.

This, of course, dovetails neatly with the long standing “fake geek girl” obsession of so many frustrated men in nerd subcultures, and it’s little surprise that the most furious assault has been directed at women developers, critics, and academics who are tarred with the brush of not being “real” gamers. As we speak, one of GamerGate’s bigger obsessions is that Anita Sarkeesian “lied” about being a gamer, as if the use of that term were in any way germane to her criticism; “gamer” as an enthusiast identity is no longer a prerequisite to playing and thinking about video games. In a world where everyone has a game in their pocket, practically, the term is rapidly losing currency.

It is this rage at the dying of the light that has animated GamerGate. Like so many reactionary movements, they seem to be screaming at the heavens “where’s my country?” and finding people to blame for stealing it.

I am a nerd. I am a gamer. I am also a woman who has learned the hard way that “oppression” is not a toy term to be tossed about like a yo-yo at one’s leisure. As someone who was bullied for being a nerd—to the point where I was bodyslammed on a gym floor in 7th grade—I can say quite plainly that that does not in the least bit compare to the way the night changed for me when I became a woman, or the way that suddenly the anonymous faces of men in the street came to wear Cheshire grins as they sibilated harassment upon a body they thought was public property. I came to know what it was like to have my breast groped, endure rape threats, and hear slurs made sharp enough to cut because of their violent history.

To be quite frank, when my identity as a nerd is taken seriously, I’m treated with rapturous awe. Geek chic is real; we live in a very different world than the one I grew up in. My father went from threatening to break my Morrowind CDs to saying one of his greatest regrets was that he didn’t play more video games with me as a child; “the nerd” has gone from being a figure of fun to a triumphant corporate overlord with the worldwide-web on a string; gaming is now woven into the fabric of modern life with blockbuster-film-style releases and cheap mobile games ubiquitously advertised and downloaded. Gamers are not a persecuted, oppressed, or misunderstood minority.

As someone whose leg still aches from that terrible rendezvous with the gym floor, I can categorically say that of all the subjectivities I occupy that can disadvantage me, being a nerd and a gamer are not among them. Rather, GamerGate manipulates the histories of people like me, who did experience violent bullying, into justifying its own campaign of mass bullying and terror directed at those they disagree with. We should not take a movement’s anti-bullying bona-fides seriously when they welcome with open arms a right-wing anti-feminist who denies bullying is a serious problem, an extremist pseudo-journalist who believes trans people are “mentally ill,” a pugilistic lawyer who seems to spend all his time on Twitter spewing misogyny and driving mobs at dissenters, and countless others like them who operate under GamerGate’s auspices, shoveling heaps of slander at targets because of our political beliefs.

A still from an excellent video deconstructing GamerGate by Dan Olson at blip.tv, clearly outlining the first principles that most GamerGaters take for granted. Germane to this article, anyone who does not believe this is liable to have their nerd/gamer cred severely questioned. (http://blip.tv/foldablehuman/s4e7-gamergate-7071206)

A still from an excellent video deconstructing GamerGate by Dan Olson at blip.tv, clearly outlining the first principles that most GamerGaters take for granted. Germane to this article, anyone who challenges these assumptions is liable to have their nerd/gamer cred severely questioned. (Image source)

Gamer Over

The label “gamer” has, regrettably, become increasingly associated with toxicity thanks to GamerGate’s months’ long efforts. This movement, in seeking to monopolise rights to speak for the whole gamer community, has ended up tarring the entire world of gaming with petulant, entitled rage for the sake of rage. The people paying the price for this are themselves gamers and nerds, chiefly women and genderqueer people, but also quite a few men who have spoken in defence of feminism and inclusivity. I am surrounded by game developers telling me about death/rape threats sent not just to them, but to their families because of this mess, who are inundated daily with GamerGate’s fallout because they refused to remain silent about those threats.

Some people are even reconsidering their identification as “gamers” and I, frankly, cannot blame them. If GamerGate wants to reduce the “gamer identity” to an empire of dirt they’re doing a spectacularly fine job of it; the rest of us will just have to continue making games and writing about them as the hobby continues to evolve, with or without GamerGate’s eternally-aggrieved membership. GamerGate insists that it is an inclusive and diverse movement, and yet it is undeniable that there is a profound political motivation behind its target-selection and the memetics employed against them– “social justice warriors,” “PC police” and the like. One gets the sense that many in GamerGate are willing to destroy gaming (and gamers) in order to save them. To protect the essential purity of the gamer identity, which GamerGaters see as scrupulously apolitical and interested only in a narrow milieu of games, the movement is rapidly debauching the meaning and connotations of “gamer.”

Last night, famous gamer and actress Felicia Day released a statement on her Tumblr condemning GamerGate and the climate of fear it has created, explaining her own complex personal anxieties. She wrote: “I have tried to retweet a few of the articles I’ve seen dissecting the issue in support, but personally I am terrified to be doxxed for even typing the words ‘Gamer Gate’.” Not fifty minutes after posting this, someone did precisely that. When many, myself included, drew the understandable conclusion that someone from GamerGate was involved– a fact corroborated by the amount of spinning and victim-blaming occurring in the immediate aftermath (“It’s the internet, what can you expect?” is practically a GamerGate catchphrase now)– one supposedly moderate Gater wrote this open letter to Day as an act of outreach. In an attempt to explain to her what the movement that doxxed her was actually about, he said the following:

#GamerGate exists so that gamers may enjoy an unbiased, objective appraisal of video games.

#GamerGate exists so that gamers can enjoy video games without ideologues, hipsters, and cultural critics and their buzzwords of privilege and moral panic echoing in our ears.

#GamerGate exists so that video gaming culture can continue to grow naturally, and not forced by the words of a cowardly cultural critic who cannot answer criticism and their legion of well-meaning but ultimately destructive followers.

He seemed to mean this as a reassurance to Day, but it helpfully confirms the movement’s true and chilling aims, as well as illustrating the average GamerGater’s sense of where the boundaries of “true” gamer-ness lie.

What GamerGate cannot, and will not, believe is that all of its victims–the people our Twitlonging friend calls “ideologues, hipsters, and cultural critics”–are people who genuinely love video games. Every gaming academic, myself included, chose their research topic because of an abiding love for the medium, not out of spite or shallow opportunism (when one is married to your research you’d damn well better love it, after all). The critics they excoriate, and liken to the infamous conservative lawyer Jack Thompson who campaigned to ban video games, are the exact opposite of the old Christian torch and pitchfork brigades. We critique because we love this medium and believe in its potential; we want more people playing more games, not bans and other forms of censorship that narrow what is available. Many of us feminist gamers are here because we are as nerdy as the best of them, eager to make change because like any devoted fan we hope to see our hobby move on to bigger and better things, not merely remain trapped in a time warp of amber.

GamerGate refuses to confront the passion of its critics because it undermines their vulgar identity-politicking; it would force them to confront why they declared a war on their fellow gamers.

But what distinguishes us as nerds and gamers from those who populate GamerGate is that we have a sense of perspective. We know that video games are not worth dying for. We know that games are fun, amazing, and thought-provoking, but not worth threatening violence or peoples’ careers, or driving them from their homes. That is not a “passion” for gaming that we believe is healthy or desirable.

It should not be an act of courage to merely be an outspoken woman in this industry. You should not court threats because you apply the most basic forms of critique to what is, indisputably, an art form. Yet, here we are. Where to now?

Katherine CrossKatherine Cross is a proud nerd who believes games are worth living for, not dying for.

Katherine Cross is sociologist and Ph.D student at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City specialising in research on online harassment and gender in virtual worlds. She is also a sometime video game critic and freelance writer, in addition to being active in the reproductive justice movement. She loves opera and pizza.

Sociologist and Unofficial Nerd Correspondent.

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