In recent weeks a number of people have tried to explain #GamerGate. You can check out "Why Bother with GamerGate?" or "What is GamerGate, and Why? An Explainer for Non-Geeks" for some primers. Now that The New York Times is running headlines that read "Feminist Critics of Video Games Facing Threats in 'GamerGate,'" public attention to the rise of menacing, intimidating, and graphic online comments about disfigurement, rape, mutilation, and murder addressed to Anita Sarkeesian Zoe Quinn, Brianna Wu, and others is spurring a broader discussion about harassment, gender, and digital culture.
If you are interested in primary sources, it's useful to look at the testimonies of the women themselves. Quinn has written about being the Internet's "most hated person" here, Wu describes being driven out of her home here, and Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency explains becoming a villain in a kind of nightmarish massively multiplayer game in this TED Talk.
#GamerGate is a hashtag used by participants to talk about a supposed conspiracy that is allegedly endangering the future of video games. In the paranoid universe of GamerGate in which "social justice warriors" (often abbreviated to SJW) collude to deprive gamers of the aggressive games of violent machismo that they love, independent developers like Quinn are to blame for threatening a multi-billion dollar industry of big AAA franchises and their acolytes.
I'll admit that I wasn't a fan of Quinn's Depression Quest, which seemed too simple and predictable, as well as typical of many serious games in lacking subtlety or nuance, but I understand why it might have merited have merited a review in The New Yorker, even independent of the newsworthiness of the threats to Quinn's safety. Unfortunately for Quinn, many have attributed her critical attention to her personal relationships with game journalists and have supported the online vendetta of a vengeful ex-boyfriend who has accused her of offering sexual favors as a way to solicit good press. The power laws of social networks led to cascading effects, particularly after actor Adam Baldwin encouraged his libertarian followers to adopt the #GamerGate handle, which was tweeted almost a quarter million times in the first week. Eventually Quinn was doxxed on Reddit. With details about her private personal information made public, including her home address, the specificity of threats intensified. Soon GamerGate was a story that the Washington Post was following.
Although her rhetorical technique may be a bit heavy-handed, I think that many of the videos at Sarkesian's Feminist Frequency are worth watching. What is easy to miss if you haven't watched the actual videos is the fact that Sarkeesian doesn't just criticize the games industry for being sexist: she criticizes it for being derivative and relying on recycling the same motifs.
So what else is #GamerGate about? As Ian Bogost pointed out at the alternative games festival IndieCade, it has become a "Voldomortian" entity that many critics would rather just ignore in the interests of avoiding its wrath.
But here goes.
It's about feminism. Tags like #SJW or #notyourshield make it seem like women are either among the aggressors or merely serving conveniently as human shields to protect corrupt interests from exposure and expulsion. Many #GamerGate advocates deny that their movement is misogynistic and claim that they are keeping the encroachment of feminism in check rather than harassing women. In some ways feminism has become more visible with feminists gaining access to new social media venues for publishing content online, but so has virulent antifeminism. For every "I need feminism" selfie campaign there is an "I don't need feminism" campaign in which women seem compelled to be participants in their own subjugation. Even this female game developer denies the accusation of misogyny and claims that trolls merely "lack social skills" rather than "hate women." Nonetheless, "the silencing of women" seems to be an obvious theme, given how Mattie Brice and Jenn Frank also felt targeted.
It's about journalism. The status of "journalism" in online discourse with the rise of user-generated content has been an issue for a while. For over a decade, in the "are blogs journalism?" debate, magazines and newspapers have been bemoaning "journalism without journalists," and legal battles have been waged over the question. Blogs are accused of delivering subjective reportage rather than objective reporting. At the same time, those who favor the anonymous over the personal insist that transparency groups like WikiLeaks do the work of a "fifth estate" by letting whistleblowers leak evidence more safely and directly than they can as confidential informants to the press. #GamerGate enthusiasts use a range of blogging and leaking techniques, as the diatribes of Breitbart.com about "Angry Feminists, Unethical Journalists" may indicate.
Of course, for those who have visited large game conventions, such as E3 and GDC, these charges about ethical lapses among game journalists might seem laughable, given how little influence independent game developers have in comparison to the might of the corporate manufacturers of big budget titles. AAA titles have the means to offer the parties, perks, and enticements associated with good reviews, and obviously they provide the advertising that allows game reporting to be a viable profession. As a sign of where monied interests lie, Intel has already pulled ads from Gamasutra in response to calls for a #GamerGate boycott, and Kotaku may be pulling some support for crowd funding independent games.
It's about definitions of "gamer" and "game." At a deeper level many might argue that #GamerGate is about who is a gamer and what games are. GamerGaters have seemed particularly enraged by having game journalists opine that they are a vanishing breed in articles like "Gamers Are Over," "The End of Gamers," and "We Might Be Witnessing the Death of an Identity." GamerGaters also defend "real games" over imitations and phony products, and much of the wrath of the group is consequently directed at independent and alternative game producers.
As members of the feminist game collective Ludica note in their challenge to define games differently, "The Hegemony of Play," narrow definitions of games, gaming, and gamers privilege white, male hardcore gamers and exclude the play experiences of women and other perceived minorities -- despite the fact that though those who play online card games, casual games, dress up games, simulations of playing house, and other forms of feminized recreation may often be a relatively silent majority to which the industry is finally paying attention. Furthermore, surveys indicate that game developers themselves are finally seeing sexism as a problem in the field.
It's about militarism. This might be more of a stretch, but I might argue that it's no accident that "real" games are often military-themed games such as Call of Duty in the #GamerGate universe or the fact that Leigh Alexander (who can be seen in the documentary Joystick Warriors) becomes the "worst game critic in the world" in the minds of GamerGaters. Even a fan of CoD who claims in a fan film that #GamerGate is "not that big of a deal" might repeat many of the allegations uncritically and add more insults to the women involved.
It's about embodiment. For a while now people in media studies have been talking about how experiences of digital media are not very virtual at all. No longer do television commercials promote the idea that people have no gender or race online. The bodies of these women are very much of concern for GamerGaters as objects of sexual violence or rape fantasies, as inanimate objects that can be criticized for being ugly, or as passive objects of aggression, as in the case of a Flash game that invites users to punch Sarkeesian in the face. The marvel of heroic mission games is having an invulnerable, unkillable, infinitely replaceable body in the most unlikely of circumstances in battle, and some first-person shooter games don't even let you see your feet.
It's about language. The language that people use to register their presence (and absence) in digital environments may spread across the whole continuum from instrumental trash talk, which functions as what Lisa Nakamura calls a "procedural strategy" in many gaming communities, to online hate speech that is intended to victimize others. Some might understandably call GamerGaters a hate group, but policing language can also be problematic. Schools and authoritarian regimes use filtering software to focus on offensive terms, but it may be difficult for even humans to identify context.
It's about metadata. To get this many people to use this hashtag, it shows a group capable of making canny decisions about how to label their content and how to direct people to using a particular naming convention. #GamerGate gets attention because it is distinctive, easy to spell, and alliterative. It is even shorter than the equally alliterative #feministfrequency, and it takes advantage of the common scandal-signifying suffix "gate." ("Gate" as a signifier for scandal even appears in stories about the new iPhone with #bendgate or #seamgate hashtags.)
It's about collectives. The term "online community" is eschewed by many critics who argue that online networked publics lack the social cohesion, public culture, and rituals of inclusion of traditional communities. Instead, the coordination of large groups of supposedly otherwise autonomous individuals can be seen as representative of everything from smart mobs to hive minds. #GamerGate sympathizers may be promised free Steam codes, and many of them may be mere sock puppets rather than real people, but a volunteer spirit and an ethos of independence seems to motivate many GamerGaters to participate.
For its fortieth anniversary the journal Camera Obscura is celebrating the theme of collectives, but collectives aren't necessarily progressive entities, as the work of Megan Boler, Gabriella Coleman, and many other net critics indicates.
Those who want to organize collectively toward progressive ends against the nefarious GamerGate collective are encouraged to perform mass coordination by using their own hashtags (including #StopGamerGate) or to give to crowd funding efforts by visiting the donation pages for game critics. Over a thousand developers also signed this open letter "to the gaming community."
Oddly #GamerGate is also about imagined collectives. Sargon of Akkad has argued -- quite improbably -- in this YouTube video that DiGRA is secretly a feminist cabal. GamerGaters have compiled lists of "SJW Game Journalists" supposedly in cahoots. There is even a satiric game where you can be turned "into a crusader for online morality, a champion of internet justice, and the lone defender standing valiantly against the encroaching morass of willful human ignorance."
It's about rights. Women's rights are not ones that I take lightly or rights to privacy, security, and safety. But it might be important to pay attention to rights-based claims that GamerGaters make too, even if they seem like ludicrous demands for "men's rights" that ignore the benefits of male privilege or the right to bear arms that made it impossible for Sarkeesian to speak at a public university in Utah, where a school shooting was threatened if she appeared.
It's about values. The conversation about values is going on in a number of places, including FemTechNet. The question will be if this conversation can be both widely accessible and broadly constructive. We'll see.