Speaking of the use of personal characteristics: GamerGate lore now holds that any woman with dyed hair is an attention-seeker to be feared and mistrusted.

Scrutiny: Some thoughts about thick skin

“Grow a thicker skin”: this admonition is given to pretty much anyone that spends even a micron of their time in the public eye of Sauron. It’s been on my mind a lot lately due to the GamerGate business that’s wracked the video game world of late. As a result of that groundswell, I was subjected to a slew of truly awful harassment and bigotry, hands down the worst in both volume and cruelty that I’d seen in my career. Just the other night I was derided as “the post-op tranny” by some random Twitterer– and that’s one of the nicer comments I’ve received.

But is this so unusual? And is it really unique to women? These are more complicated questions than they first appear to be. The simple answer to both is “no,” the internet has opened up the gates of comment Hell to anyone who puts pen to paper. Public responses have become both nastier and less accountable than they’ve ever been, making the cesspool of Letters to the Editor look like a marvel of civil philosophic discourse in comparison. But the long answer is that while facing such fury is not unique to women, it is often more intense and damaging to us.

Commenters online, both anonymous and otherwise, feel drawn to the faux-democracy of the internet where everyone is equally subject to the vitriolic ridicule of the divine vox populi. But the truth is, calling a trans woman “tranny” does rather different work than calling a man a “dick” or an “asshole.”

The trollish side of the web’s egalitarian culture holds that all idols should be vandalised equally, and believes that any characteristic of a fair game target is available for mockery — weight, education, language-use, hair, et cetera. Behind that idealism, however, is the fact that the weapons available to cut a woman down to size, or a person of colour, or an LGBT person, are often sharper and far deadlier than those available to do the same to the more gainfully privileged among us.

Accusing a woman you disagree with of having attained her status by “fucking her way to the top,” for instance, has a very different signification than simply calling a man you dislike a “stupid fucker.” One of those insults is stickier and keys into a commonplace prejudice that often hurts women’s careers, and a deeply popular cultural myth to boot. A man being called a “shithead,” by contrast, has little more than hurt feelings to contend with — though internet denizens’ lust for hurting the feelings of others is a problem all on its own.

Speaking of the use of personal characteristics: GamerGate lore now holds that any woman with dyed hair is an attention-seeker to be feared and mistrusted. Calling a woman an “attention-seeker,” especially on the basis of her appearance, does far more damage to her credibility in our society than calling a man a “neckbeard,” say.

At the Threshold

Many people do grasp this, but there’s more going on here: the thresholds for deeming a woman worthy of vitriolic attack are lower in every way. She does not need to be as famous as a comparable man might, she does not need to be as controversial or aggressive as a comparable man might, and so forth. The threshold at which you become a target, then, is not hard for women to reach, as I learned the hard way. I am by no means famous, and my harassment peaked when I wrote a lengthy academic essay for a relatively obscure website in the gaming sphere.

But the threshold for controversy is lower too. The point where the faceless online swarm feels the need to “punish” someone who said something they disapprove of is much nearer to the ground for women.

GamerGate is rich with examples of the double standard at work, regrettably, as this week has furnished us with a number of cases where women were aggressively punished for things that men got away with. Gaming critic Mattie Brice, for instance, was harassed out of being a judge for the Independent Games Festival when she jokingly tweeted about how she would “downvote” every game with a male protagonist. For this, she was swarmed by GamerGate and the IGF itself fumbled its response to the situation, which was far too placating to the harassers– all the while, a male judge made a similar joke and experienced no auto da fe at the hands of the Gaters.

Leigh Alexander, meanwhile, has become the face of the “Gamers Are Over” controversy — wherein GamerGaters fatuously claim she and other critics ‘erased’ the gamer identity and ‘insulted their core audience’ — while Dan Golding who wrote a similar article at the same time as Alexander’s received virtually no outpouring of hatred on a par with hers.

Also this past week, the gaming mecca convention BlizzCon was opened by Blizzard CEO Mike Morhaime making an impassioned speech against harassment that was clearly about GamerGate in all but name. When Wowhead site director Rhea Monique liveblogged the fact that “Morhaime just took the time to address ‘GamerGate’ and say BlizzCon is the antithesis of what that movement is” and tweeted that he “nodded” in response to a question that thanked him for speaking out against GamerGate, she was immediately swarmed with four days of intense harassment– up to and including death threats. Morhaime, meanwhile, who actually made the speech, was not.

Notably, though Monique is one of two directors of one of the largest WoW fansites, she was minimised by GamerGaters as a forum moderator. She was falsely accused of having deleted threads on Blizzard’s hub forum Battle.net, despite not working for the company at all.

The threshold for hate is much, much lower for women, in general.

“No Skin Thick Enough”

Things like this are on my mind when I wonder if I haven’t been too sensitive to all the flaming wreckage hurled my way, from false accusations of having “financial ties” to something, to conspiracy theories about my “Cultural Marxist” brainwashing research, to just the slew of pettier insults directed at my writing, academic credentials, or the simple fact that I’m trans, or the fact that they ignore my being Latina in favour of calling me white because it better fits their narrative. Am I just too sensitive? Some painfully sententious chaps on the political right would be quite happy to tell me that I am.

For the most exaltedly famous amongst us — high profile politicians, athletes, celebrities, or media personalities — there is often an infrastructure in place that can buffer them against the expected excesses of public scrutiny, like people whose job it is to monitor and filter incoming correspondence and so on. But what is striking about the women who’ve suffered most during GamerGate is that they were not famous. Some, indeed, came into wider prominence because the harassment against them became a conflagration visible from space. Many of us who have spoken up against this organised hate mob simply do not have the tools to confront the aggressive fusillade of hate that being an opinionated woman often occasions. and sheer emotional fortitude isn’t enough.

Many times over the last month I’ve asked myself whether I am too sensitive to carry on with this job, whether having a byline on several websites is worth the trouble. Is the scrutiny applied to my whole life and career, merely for writing an occasionally disagreeable thought about video games, worth it when I cannot employ a battery of human and technological defences against hate mobs?

Months before being driven from her home by death threats, developer Brianna Wu argued passionately that there is “no skin thick enough” for what we are made to endure both online and in the workplace. This game of thresholds to which women are subject, where the slightest excuse, the slightest presence, the smallest syllable uttered out of place, is taken as a green light for dogpiling on a woman in particularly damaging ways is not just the awful background radiation to which we are all subject in the information age. It is an order of magnitude worse, and in some ways, it’s getting more awful still.

What the technologist Kathy Sierra aptly called the “Koolaid Point” — the point at which you are perceived by an online mob to be an acceptable target because you are peddling snake oil to a receptive audience — is lower for women, to the point where it feels like if any woman has even a small clutch of people paying attention to her, those who disagree with what she says feel she must be obliterated for the good of all.

Put simply, thicker skin won’t fix that.

(Correction: The original version of this editorial mis-identified Rhea Monique as a journalist at WoWInsider, rather than executive director of Wowhead, as well as incorrectly reporting that she had deleted her article. I sincerely regret the error.)


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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