By David Futrelle
I recently appeared on the Australian radio show Stop Everything to talk about the poisonous legacy of Gamergate. (You can listen to the archived episode here.) So I thought I would expand a little on some of the notes I made for myself before doing the show, and get into a little more detail on some issues I wasn’t able to talk about during the show itself.
It’s been five years since the supposed movement for “ethics in gaming journalism” began in the form of a harassment campaign against game developer Zoe Quinn. The movement, such as it was, faded out some time ago. But its unfortunate legacies live on.
So how did Gamergate poison online discourse? Let me count (some of) the ways.
One: It turned political and cultural warfare into a game.
You may remember the infamous — and much mocked — copypasta that made its way around the internet in the days of Gamergate.
They targeted gamers.
We’re a group of people who will sit for hours, days, even weeks on end performing some of the hardest, most mentally demanding tasks. …
These people … think calling us racist, mysoginistic, rape apologists is going to change us? We’ve been called worse things by prepubescent 10 year olds with a shitty head set. …
Gamers are competative, hard core, by nature … this is just another boss fight.
Like most people who read this overblown rant at the time– and this is a drastically shortened version — I laughed. But it turns out that people who treat cultural warfare as a game to grind away at turn out to be remarkably … persistent adversaries. Something to (sadly) keep in mind the next time you’re swarmed by sockpuppets on Twitter.
Two: Gamergate weaponized lying and bad-faith arguments, helping prepare the way for our current, and seemingly endless, “post-truth information warfare,” to borrow a phrase from New Yotk Times writer Charlie Warzel.
As Warzel points out in his recent overview of Gamergate and its legacy, the movement began with a lie — with easily disproven allegations that Zoe Quinn slept with a journalist to get a good review for one of her games. (The guy in question never reviewed her game.) And it thrived by portraying itself, dishonestly, as some sort of campaign for “ethics in gaming journalism,” when in fact it was little more than a harassment campaign writ large, an online lynch mob with memes.
Three: it helped to further blur the line between politics and harassment.
While Gamergate, in theory, was a crusade to improve game journalism ethics and, more broadly, to rid the game world of the allegedly sinister influence of so-called Social Justice Warriors, in practice it was a harassment campaign aimed mostly at a small number of women who had offended self-described Gamers in various ways.
Obviously, Gamergate didn’t invent the online pileon, or smear campaigns in general, but it did make these strategies central to a certain kind of reactionary cultural politics. It’s a small step from attacking Zoe Quinn for her alleged Crimes Against Gaming to attacking Brie Larson for her cultural crime of portraying a comic book superhero while female.
And you can see the legacies of Gamergate clearly in the online, er, actvism of reactionary disinformation warriors like Mike Cernovich and Jack Posobiec who have launched sometimes remarkably successful smear campaigns against political foes ranging from Hillary Clinton to John Podesta. It’s hard to imagine Pizzagate and QAnon taking off as they have without Gamergate.
Four: It weaponized white male nostalgia for a past that never was.
Gamergaters regularly hearkened back to what they saw as a lost utopia – the days when gaming was allegedly a “safe space” for (mostly white) male geeks ostracized by the larger society. Never mind that girls and women (and people of color) have always been a large part of the gaming world. Never mind that putting playable female characters in some video games is hardly a threat to any male gamer (and one of the most pathetic things for grown men to become exercised over).
Five: It created a new and potentially lucrative career path for right-wing ideologues and grifters.
Who could have predicted that a weird, fringe movement as Gamergate could make so many media careers? Well, Milo Yiannopoulos, for one, and a whole host of rising YouTube stars like Carl “Sargon of Akkad” Benjamin. These new “harassment influencers” — to borrow the language of Syracuse researcher Whitney Phillips — lived lavishly on the Gamergate dole, and helped to inspire a new generation of right-wing grifters. Gamergate also helped to revitalize the flagging career of old-school ideological hacks like think-tanker Christina Hoff Sommers, who reinvented herself as the not-quite-hip-but-trying “Based Mom.”
Six: It opened the door for fascism.
In 1995, writer Umberto Eco sketched out what he saw as the essential characteristics of “Eternal Fascism.” Gamergate ticked off almost every box on Eco’s 14-point list. It was at the very least a fascist movement in embryo.
Like the original fascists, Gamergaters were driven by personal and social frustrations. They were obsessed with what Eco called “the cult of tradition” (in this case, white male nostalgia); with the “fear of difference” (in this case especially the feat of the female other); “with “the rejection of modernism (or in this case postmodernism); with the notion of “life as permanent warfare” (“they targeted gamers”).
Gamergaters worshiped “action for action’s sake.” They were forever in motion, constantly on the lookout for things to be ostentatiously offended by. They were obsessed with conspiracies, and in retrospect it seems all too obvious that they were primed to go from imagining games journalist plots to embracing outright antisemitism and the mythical notion of a Jewish scheme to lead the west into “degeneracy” through so-called “Cultural Marxism.”
I could keep going, but you get the point: Gamergate was, in its very essence, a deeply fascistic movement. It helped to bring about the revival of fascism in American and world politics today, and gave the new fascists many helpful techniques to use in promoting their brand of hate.
Gamergate takes Karl Marx’s famous pronouncement on history repeating itself and turns it on its head: It began as a farce, at least for those who were not its direct victims — but its legacy has been one of outright tragedy.
NOTE: I did a somewhat more extensive catalog of the ways Donald Trump matches up with Eco’s 14 points here. It’s a little outdated in terms of examples (I wrote it just after the 2016 election) but its general points still stand.
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