Many people have never heard of Gamergate, a 2014 online skirmish about harassment and sexism in the video gaming world that began when a man posted a long account on the web forum Penny Arcade about his relationship with his ex-girlfriend. The post spread to other forums such as 4chan, and soon his ex-girlfriend, video game developer Zoe Quinn, was being harassed, doxed, and threatened by anonymous online trolls who accused her of having had sex with a gaming journalist to get better reviews for her video game, Depression Quest.
As anyone who has spent even a moment online knows, harassment is not unusual on the Internet. What was unusual was how quickly an insular and controversial debate in the gaming world (about sexism and gaming) became a stand-in for a larger culture war.
This past Sunday, the New York Times revisited the controversy with a series of articles advancing the claim that “Everything is Gamergate.”
What the Times contributors mean by “everything” is, however, highly selective. Times opinion writer Charlie Warzel describes Gamergate (whose byzantine timeline and many still-disputed facts should make anyone who tries to summarize it hesitate) as “a leaderless harassment campaign meant to preserve white male internet culture, disguised as a referendum on journalism ethics and political correctness.”
This is both highly misleading and perfectly on-brand given the way the Times generally covers sexism.
It’s misleading because Gamergate ended up becoming a proxy for a much larger culture war about “toxic masculinity,” call-out culture, and political correctness. It’s on-brand because the Times contributors to this retrospective reveal glaring ideological blind spots in their coverage of the story.
Consider Mr. Warzel, whose criticism of Gamergate’s impact on how news and disinformation spread online is limited to calling out only the behavior of those to the right of him politically. He uncritically regurgitates the feminist narrative about Gamergate—namely, that it was proof of rampant sexism online—while ignoring evidence to the contrary.
For example, Warzel calls American Enterprise Institute scholar Christina Hoff Sommers, who defended the vast majority of male gamers against claims that they were all violent misogynists, “far-right” when she is, in fact, a classical liberal who has long been a sharp critic of the excesses of the feminist movement. He calls out Breitbart News and Milo Yiannopoulos for fomenting anger online by supporting Gamergaters, but not Salon columnist Arthur Chu, a vitriolic critic of Gamergate who tried to get a local D.C. bar to shut down a meet-up of some Gamergate supporters. He laments the bullying and combative online culture that helped Donald Trump get elected while failing to acknowledge its twin on the left.
If you’re going to spill thousands of words hand-wringing about the dangers of a “post-truth information war,” then at least acknowledge that in wars, both sides tend to field unscrupulous mercenaries.
It’s also worth noting that the Times doesn’t go anywhere near uncomfortable information that might undermine their narrative about sexism in gaming, such as the fact that plenty of women gamers on platforms like Twitch are happy to dress provocatively to gain followers (and money). As one female gamer, Kristen Pickle, who streams under the name KittyPlaysGames, told a reporter about some female gamers’ choice to dress and behave in sexually provocative ways, “For a lot of streamers, it is an easy way to get a large audience and a lot of attention,” she said. “That is a huge market for a lot of streamers on Twitch.”
A second essay, by game developer Brianna Wu, claims to be concerned about the “online radicalization of young men” and “disinformation campaigns.” Wu was among the handful of women in the gaming world who faced online harassment and anonymous threats during the height of the Gamergate controversy–threats she thinks were never adequately dealt with by law enforcement or the gaming industry. “Why was there no reckoning?” Wu asks.
But it’s not clear what a “reckoning” in this case would look like. Did she mean more aggressive affirmative action hiring policies in the gaming industry? (Yes, Wu says, “the number of women promoted to senior positions and studio heads is still dismally low”). Does she want stricter efforts to police harassment from platforms like Twitter and Reddit, or greater efforts by law enforcement to track down and arrest people who make threats online?
If so, Brianna Wu is not the best champion for this cause. As Cathy Young noted in Reason, not long after the Gamergate controversy broke out, “Gamergate archfoe developer Brianna Wu expressed alarm over tweets jocularly threatening a sarin gas attack at the Penny Arcade Expo under the mistaken impression that it was a threat from Gamergate; after realizing that [it] was a threat against pro-Gamergate ‘idiots,’ Wu deleted her post.”
Evidently, online threats only count if they are made against your side. If there is a reckoning to be had, it should include the threats (including bomb threats) made by social justice activists who opposed Gamergate as well as those who supported it.
Finally, Times editorial board member Sarah Jeong wrote about the fallout for Zoe Quinn, the ex-girlfriend about whom the original Gamergate missive was written and whose life was turned upside down by the harassment she received. What she doesn’t discuss is any contradictory evidence of Quinn’s dishonest dealings during Gamergate; or her tendency, even now, to embrace illiberal tactics to silence her critics.
In a 2017 interview with Vox, for example, Quinn argued, “We don’t have to be tolerant of other people’s intolerance. That’s bullshit, frankly, and I’m disgusted every time I hear some variation of this attitude.” Asked by the interviewer, “I wonder how we actually do that without making the internet unfree? Should we just shut down the Twitter accounts of assholes whenever they start insulting people?” Quinn answered, “Yes.” Quinn has frequently expressed sympathy for Antifa violence on her Twitter, arguing “rather than ruling out violence entirely, imo we need to focus on accountability & responsibility re: when we use it.”
None of this is acknowledged by Jeong, who really just wants to talk herself. When Jeong was hired by the Times, you’ll recall, she was criticized for the many racist tweets she had posted over the years, with sentiments such as #cancelwhitepeople and “fuck white women lol.”
Jeong grants herself a full pardon, saying that her racist tweets were merely “irreverent jokes” and “parodies,” and she shouldn’t have been criticized or harassed for making them. Had those same words been written by, say, a white man about a minority, we all know what would have happened (he certainly wouldn’t be profiting from his racism by giving lectures at Yale about “Gamergate and the New Media Paradigm”) As Andrew Sullivan noted in New York magazine soon after Jeong was hired, the non-apology apology she issued and the Times’ defense of her was “the purest of bullshit.”
And so it is ironic to hear Jeong sternly lecturing others about the dangers of online mobbing when she has long been an avid practitioner of the art herself—at least when the person getting mobbed has different political beliefs (she called the online mob that harassed her Times colleague Bari Weiss, who is conservative, “not a big deal,” for example.)
One thing that should be clear five years after Gamergate? Rape and death threats are inexcusable; so is doxxing and swatting and the many other ways people harass others online. Unfortunately, people on both sides of the Gamergate debate have engaged in these activities.
If you use social media to be provocative (and get attention), some of the attention you get in return is likely to be negative (and a smaller subset of that might even be threatening). If you weaponize your words online to make a point, people will respond–and not always politely.
Barring some future act of unilateral disarmament, however, complaints from the left about how everyone to the right of them uses the internet (and vice-versa) are little more than political posturing. The Times is correct that there are important questions to be raised and lessons to be learned about online behavior from the Gamergate incident. It’s too bad they missed an opportunity to explore them.