Actually, it's about ethics in affordable dining.

A virtual room of one’s own: Why GamerGate hates crowdfunding

(Image credit: 3dtotal.com)

Crowdfunding is not a panacea to the economic inequities of the world; but if GamerGate is any guide, it’s certainly a devil of some sort. In the tangled thread of gendered pathologies that this three-month long yarnball of fury has gathered lies the movement’s shocking antipathy to crowdfunding, with one twitter user sneering that it was “welfare for hipsters.” 

A few days ago, I had occasion to share a dinner with game developer Brianna Wu (read my interview with her here), which she then tweeted about. Almost immediately, men from GamerGate descended, sneeringly asking whether Patreon or Kickstarter had paid for the dinner (not, apparently, fully understanding how crowdfunding works). When I snarked that the Illuminati had actually picked up the tab, another gentleman skated in to tut tut me for not taking the inquiry seriously, accusing Ms. Wu and myself of failing to act professionally. It was, after all, about ethics in games journalism.

The antipathy runs deeper still. In a cosmic display of irony that excels even the movements most ferrous moments, one 8chan thread hundreds of posts long plotted to find some way to “take down” Patreon because it was such an important funding source for many of their targets in the gaming industry. They were, apparently, unaware that 8chan itself is funded through Patreon donations.

Actually, it’s about ethics in affordable dining.

To be certain, many of the independent developers, journalists, and critics that GamerGate has targeted have been crowdfunded in some way. Back in August and early September, it was commonplace for Gaters to suggest that there was an ethical conflict inherent in a journalist covering a game developer that they had donated to in some fashion, or a journalist covering a developer who had donated to them. Strictly speaking, this is not an entirely unreasonable concern on its face — even if, like most GG forays, it gets at corruption by attacking the little guys first — but in addition to there being no evidence of quid pro quo or wrongdoing, most of the targets were women or pro-feminist men, the vast majority of whom were by no means rich or influential.

Gaming websites, like Polygon and The Escapist, even tried to offer an olive branch to the Gaters by rewriting their ethics policies to include disclosures on crowdfunding donations. Kotaku even outright prohibited their staff from writing about games they had donated to.

I felt that these moves, while well intentioned, were sops to the angry mob that had harassed Jenn Frank mercilessly and drove her from games criticism because of her so-called “conflict of interest” in writing about the harassment of Zoe Quinn; she had donated to Quinn’s Patreon account, you see. These tenuous connections, gossamer-thin threads spun into a thick rope of corruption by GamerGaters, were used as licence to viciously assault and malign anyone that said a word against them. The Escapist’s co-founder and general manager Alexander Macris, meanwhile, who had expressed pro-GamerGate views and provided a platform for Gater independent developers (and known harassers) on his website, was not similarly excoriated for the fact that he had given to an IndieGoGo campaign for developer James Desborough’s  game set in the flagrantly misogynistic Gor universe.

Instead of starting a constructive conversation on the matter, games websites either bowed to hordes harassing women, or remained silent.

The Habit of Artistic Freedom

“[If we] have five hundred a year each of us and rooms of our own; if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think; if we escape a little from the common sitting–room… then the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down.”

~Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

So why the double standard? Misogyny, yes, but as always it’s more complicated than simply attacking women because they’re women.

The contempt for independent crowdfunding, especially when done by women or queer people, is more global than a single debate on disclosure, which GG’s petty hypocrisies reveal to be a smokescreen anyway. After all, crowdfunding is a marvellous innovation because it leaves creators less beholden to powerful interests than they have ever been; the whole point is that it remunerates creators for their work while not tying their food/rent money to the whims of a large corporation or advertisers. This liberates creators — whether they are writers, artists, programmers, or academics — to speak more, not less, freely. This should be good news for those concerned about the genuine ethical issue of intellectual freedom athwart the necessities imposed by a paymaster.

I would contend, however, that it’s precisely that freedom which GamerGate fears.

Crowdfunding means that someone challenging the status quo can get an income. Without being beholden to the sclerotic interests of the industry at large, they’re free to make games how they want, criticise how they wish, and write without fearing advertisers. It is that efflorescence of speech which scares GG, because it means they can no longer rely on the industry to snuff out dissent on market-unfriendly political issues — be they talk of working conditions in the industry or frank engagements with the discourses of race and gender in gaming, or critiques of aspects of gaming’s consumer culture.

I do not mean to lionise crowdfunding; many good critiques have been made of it and it does not fully level the playing field. But it does offer a source of income that did not exist before, one less ethically-fraught or compromised that permits the very thing that GamerGate claims to support: artistic freedom.

As per usual, GG is offended that a woman they disagree with is able to support herself at all through her work. There’s a lot here about this mysterious economy of what is deserving and undeserving; the meritocracy of arcane standards. GamerGate’s adherents do not hate crowdfunding per se as much as they feel it somehow circumvents “legitimate” market pressures that would otherwise suffocate people like feminist critics or artsy avant-garde game devs. To them, it breathes life into things that the industry edifice, operating with unimpeded capitalist physics, might otherwise crush out of sight and out of mind, never able to discomfit the worldview of GamerGate’s easily offended lot.

Artistic freedom for all, except critical women or queer people, or the occasional male ally, lest they say something that slanders a young man’s favorite game.

There’s a reason that Virginia Woolf described freedom as 500 pounds a month and a room of one’s own with a lock on the door. Freedom from want, from what Hannah Arendt called the demons of “necessity,” are preconditions to meaningful political action. Until that needful day when we are all freed from these demons, long live crowdfunding.

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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