What Is GamerGate?
Misogyny in the gaming community is nothing new, but since August, it’s been raging under the hashtag #GamerGate.
First, a quick refresher: A group of mostly young, mostly male gamers started using the hashtag #GamerGate (coined by conservative actor Adam Baldwin) to protest what they claim is the corrupt, progressive agenda of the gaming press. Their protests have been marked by abuse and online attacks against women in gaming — including threats of violence. Yesterday, we got another example of how this looks when actress Felicia Day posted on her Tumblr in support of women in gaming — and was almost instantly “doxxed” (meaning her personal info was hacked and posted online).
In truth though, GamerGate is just a term that describes the recent attempt to rebrand a long-standing culture of hate directed against women online. Just ask Anita Sarkeesian, who’s been the target of this kind of abuse since 2012, when she started her YouTube channel, Feminist Frequency, protesting the use of women as "backdrops" in gaming. (A particularly horrific attacker created a game to mock beating her up.) The difference with GamerGate is that the problem has permeated the mainstream in a big way, bringing to light the violent, sexually-charged abuse that men use to make women feel uncomfortable and unsafe. GamerGate is about way more than gaming; it’s about how misogyny works in the digital era.
"Any woman in gaming experiences rape and death threats; it’s just a fact of life in this industry," says Brianna Wu, a prominent Boston-based game developer. She says this harassment is a tool used by gamers to keep the industry how it once was: an all-boys club. But, against the odds, women have slowly been carving out a place for themselves in the gaming world. Today, 48% of players and 21% of game developers are women.
And, this female posse is changing the identity of gaming. Female developers have also crafted new kinds of games that are a far cry from first-person shooters like Titanfall and Call of Duty. Last year, Zoe Quinn, who’s been at the center of GamerGate, developed a game called Depression Quest, which walks players through the inner workings of depression. Given what we now know of gaming culture, it comes as no surprise that both Sarkeesian and Quinn have been the targets of misogynistic abuse for their work.
Wu tells me that women in the gaming industry have no choice but to develop a thick skin to cope with the psychopathic emails and tweets they receive everyday. But, with GamerGate, the sheer volume of hate speech directed at women has spiked. Things have also gotten more personal and more dangerous. For instance, GamerGate supporters have posted Wu’s address on Twitter and 8Chan message boards. For the first time ever, she’s felt the need to flee her home.
Wu seems to be keeping it together, in spite of the psychological anguish of the last two months. But, she does become emotional when she describes the flood of emails she’s received from other women who say they cannot deal with the harassment and are ready to leave the industry altogether. "Thirty women a day are writing to me, telling me they’re ready to quit," she says. "It’s heartbreaking." But, rather than giving up the struggle, Wu is determined to redouble her efforts and fight even more fiercely.
Who’s Behind The Rape & Death Threats
The women who have criticized the GamerGate movement and highlighted the sexism in gaming continue to face rape and death threats every day. On comment threads on Reddit, 4Chan, and 8Chan, GamerGate supporters have described the various ways they will sexually assault, kill, then disembody prominent women in the gaming industry, including Zoe Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian, and Brianna Wu. Commenters are also publicly posting nude images, addresses, and other sensitive personal information about them online, making it easy for an unhinged gamer to act on his threats.
After Brianna Wu tweeted a joke making fun of the GamerGate movement, GamerGate supporters threatened to castrate her husband and force her to choke to death on his genitals. They threatened to kill her future children. They threatened to hack into her company’s financial assets. "We’ve become paranoid," Wu told me. "The other day I thought someone might be lurking in the house we’re staying at, when it was just the dog. Sometimes I feel like I’m losing my mind." Wu has gone to the police and the FBI is currently investigating her case.
She’s also independently researching who her harassers might be, digging into the metrics surrounding the GamerGate hashtag and identifying the source of threatening tweets. After all, the threats she's receiving are so psychopathic that anyone who expressed them in public would be immediately locked up in jail or a mental hospital. How many of these crazy people are there?
"It’s very clear to me that there is a well-oiled machine behind this abuse," Wu says. "The people behind it are very skilled at the tools of hacking."
From her preliminary research, she believes that there might be a group of about 100 hardcore GamerGate supporters who are responsible for the worst and most terrifying threats. But, there is a wider net of about 3,000 gamers who are not quite as criminal, but are still deeply unhappy about how women are changing the gaming industry, and feel that feminist advocacy has no place in the gaming world. "These are guys who are very angry and abrasive to women in ways that they are not really thinking through," says Wu. "They don’t like the idea of women game developers winning awards or creating female protagonists in games."
While this movement is relatively small, Wu believes that it is been artificially inflated by fake accounts. "In some cases, the handles tweeting at me have four followers and five thousand tweets; they’re obviously using bots," Wu says. She also says that those at the command center of the GamerGate campaign are highly trained hackers who are experts at anonymously carrying out harm on the Internet. To them, this kind of harassment may just be another weapon in their arsenal to achieve their goal of keeping women out of the gaming world.
In the midst of this overflowing misogyny, some GamerGate supporters make the case that the movement has gotten away from its roots. Adam Baldwin, the actor who coined the term, argues that GamerGate was always about the noble fight to uphold journalistic ethics in the gaming industry. While Baldwin and others are trying to distance themselves from the harassment, it is getting increasingly difficult for them to do so. Whether they like it or not, GamerGate has been co-opted by a small group of extremely misogynistic supporters who have changed the direction of the conversation.
The Tides Are Turning
Quinn, Sarkeesian, and Wu, along with other prominent women in the gaming industry, are refusing to let GamerGate win. And, they’re using a multi-pronged approach to fight back. They’re calling on big gaming companies to take a stand and call out this behavior. They’re also getting the authorities involved: The FBI and the police are currently searching for the culprits behind the threatening tweets and emails to bring them to justice.
While women in the gaming industry are generally strong supporters of Internet privacy, they recognize that part of the reason for the harassment they have experienced is that privacy laws allow people to say abusive and threatening things anonymously, and without the fear of being discovered. Women under threat are taking their concerns to their state officials and the White House. "I don’t think this is a true/false equation," says Wu. "The law is much more interesting and nuanced than that. I have faith the people who work on Internet jurisprudence can make smart policies that allow Internet users to maintain their privacy while also preventing men from terrorizing women online."
The battle is far from over, but the tides appear to be turning. GamerGate has jumped from an obscure struggle within the gaming community to a widespread discussion in the mainstream media about how women are made to feel unsafe on the Internet. Early on, GamerGate supporters appeared to have the upper edge, going so far as to bully major corporations like Intel from advertising on female friendly gaming sites. (Intel has since apologized and avowed its support for women in gaming.) But, now, as women in the gaming community tell their stories on major newspapers and TV shows, they are receiving more support than ever before. GamerGate represents the growing pains of an industry in the midst of a transformation, as brave women begin to topple strongholds in a male-dominated space.