Through The Gate: What’s next for geeky feminism after GamerGate

Discourse aplenty has resulted from GamerGate; a campaign meant to silence women and critics has, in some cases at least, succeeded in having exactly the opposite effect. 

The cyber commons of Twitter has played host to a remarkable series of discussions held under not-inconsiderable duress, ones worth listening to. Storifies of peoples’ opinions on GamerGate have mushroomed across social media, providing taut summaries or essays done in 140 character bursts that have gotten to the heart of a number of issues raised by this now three-month-old campaign of harassment and terror. Those in GamerGate’s line of fire often became citizen journalists providing a record of recent events.

But there are also a lot of complex discussions that we are unable to have under the current climate of necessary defence. With so much energy being spent on defending our right to exist in the gaming space, cyber feminists have been unable to continue having the trickier and more intricate debates—both among ourselves and between us and others in the gaming universe—that best define our unique contributions to this space. GamerGate’s furious harassment campaign has brought us all together in mutual defence (I’ve certainly been heartened by the number of cis women, for instance, that have taken the brutal harassment of trans women by GamerGate seriously and accepted it as being akin to their own), but that is not enough.

As I wrote recently at Global Comment, we will need to have a serious rethink about how we in the gaming community engage with harassment victims and with the wider world of feminism. But there are also key areas of positive development that we will need to focus on in the post-GamerGate world; there is renewed focus on the myriad sicknesses of the gaming industry, its lackadaisical attitude to the many people in its orbit or employ who’ve been viscerally threatened in the name of video gaming, and on online harassment as a social phenomenon of our age that demands a response.

So, where to for us cyber-feminists?

1) Reclaim the “ethics” discussion.

“Actually, it’s about ethics in gaming journalism” has become a punchline big enough to be used on The Colbert Report without any added context, and inspired one of the most amusing memes of the season. This is supposedly GamerGate’s raison d’etre, the noble fight for there to be more ethics in gaming journalism, revealed as farcical to any outside observer who has had a chance to actually dive into the online meeting places of GamerGaters who, from the start, deliberately confounded “ethics” with “driving social justice warriors out of gaming.” GamerGate’s “consumer revolt” is premised on the idea that “real gamers” are entitled to reviews and gaming criticism that does not challenge them or offend them in any way.

We know, point blank, that one of the real ethics issues in gaming is that large studios allow this obsessive consumerist culture to fester, in the hopes of cultivating a loyal base of buyers. Their employees, an army of community moderators, developers, writers, and artists, are somewhat more expendable, meanwhile—they are expected to take a certain level of abuse from “passionate fans” who send them hate mail, threats, and just generally riot over the smallest changes to or problems with a game they happen to be playing. Even if the issues of gender, race, or sexuality never come up, the same people now participating in GamerGate were often the same people who would whine about how their “15 dollars a month” in World of Warcraft entitled them to a game uniquely tailored to their every whim, and damn any moderator or customer service rep who thought otherwise.

Feminists must recognise the connection here between this out of control consumer-king mentality and the sexism that has come to define the most toxic corners of gaming. We are, yes, faced with an enormous problem of prejudice, wherein any critic who does not check her identity at the door (be it race or gender), is set upon violently as an outsider trying to destroy gaming with her “politics.” But this is a refraction of prejudice through the lens of consumer entitlement, which manifests itself in a number of other ways.

The real ethics scandal is that far too many gaming studios and corporations have allowed this to happen. GamerGate is merely the apotheosis of long-running trends where those of us employed in the gaming community pay a profoundly personal price for this salutary neglect.

Beyond that, we must also follow the lead of critics like Leigh Alexander who have written witheringly about the impoverishment (literal and moral) of gaming journalism, and the industry culture of overworking and underpaying people on the basis of their “passion.” For those of us who are lifelong gamers, an industry job was the definition of a “dream job”—and gaming companies exploit this to impose brutally long hours on their employees, treat them as expendable before the Zerg horde of angry online commenters, and render gaming journalists mere pawns or mouthpieces. These issues all play their role in policing women’s participation in the industry and shape the “it’s just a game” culture that acts as a tacit licence for so much subtle prejudice directed at minoritised people in gaming.

We need to be more aggressive about this than ever before.

2) Be a supportive but critical voice about proposed anti-harassment laws.

GamerGate has lit a flame under discussions about finally getting serious on combatting online harassment with a proper legislative response. This is eminently necessary: law is an expression of our values and must be seen to take harassment, particularly the heinous variety directed at women, people of color, and LGBT people, as extensions of pre-existing hate crimes frameworks. They are criminal violations that impose a kind of terrorism on larger communities and act as obstacles to the full exercise of our rights and liberties.

But, as we all know too well, so too do the police and criminal justice system. We must acknowledge that part of the reason local police forces fail to take online harassment seriously is not only because of a lack of knowledge, but for much the same reason police fail to take rape victims seriously, shoot men of color, rape black women, or arrest transgender women on suspicion of being sex workers before beating them; their entire worldview is structured around a definition of order that is fundamentally opposed to our liberty.

We must be wary of empowering the police to arrest or incarcerate more black and brown people. (Lest we forget, more than a few people say they felt “harassed” by women of color on Twitter who were merely calling out clear instances of racism among, say, white feminists.) Whatever the expressive legal response is, it must be inoculated from the start against that kind of misuse; any legal loophole will be large enough to drive a truck laden with institutional racism right through.

There is broad support for anti-harassment legislation growing across the political spectrum as a result of GamerGate, but as feminists we have a special responsibility to ensure that it does not become yet another manifestation of what has aptly been called “carceral feminism.” Penalties for online harassment should not involve jail time except in extreme circumstances where clear threats of rape and death have been made; we should look instead to restorative forms of justice that compel the online criminals to enroll in programs designed to teach them to be humane actors on the internet, mandatory mental healthcare, or some form of community service. There must be consequences for hate crimes in cyberspace, but ideally they should not involve adding to our country’s already catastrophically high prison population.

Amid GamerGate, a number of people of color and trans people were viciously harassed by these ugly elements of gaming culture, and we must not allow our collective response to be something that could be weaponised in such a way as to re-victimise those same people.

Our cyber-feminism must attend to this, or it will squander the promise that has emerged from this hellish mess.

Katherine CrossKatherine Cross believes “ethics” are more than just a meme or a smokescreen for hate.

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.

Read more about Katherine

Join the Conversation