There’s a quote attributed to Voltaire: “I have never made but one prayer to God, a very short one: ‘O Lord make my enemies ridiculous.’ And God granted it.”
Voltaire might have had second thoughts if he’d lived to see #GamerGate. After a certain point, the ridiculousness of your enemies only makes their sustained, shameless attacks more painful rather than less. You kind of wish you had opponents worthy of respect; it would make feeling beaten down and exhausted by them a little more dignified.
I’m not going to bother explaining the basics of what #GamerGate is. That’s been done over and over and over at this point. It’s gone about as mainstream as any stupid Internet nerd fight can go, making it to The Colbert Report and The New York Times.
The problem with these high-level overviews of the topic—these broad summaries of hordes of angry video game consumers trying to take down what they see as a “corrupt conspiracy” of feminist, progressive voices in gaming—is that any summary of the topic that leaves out the details is going to give #GamerGate too much credit.
Because each and every one of the details is ridiculous and insane.
It’s a pattern that we’ve all seen before. The Tea Party comparison seems apt. The feeling of existential despair I have right now is similar to how I felt back when I realized American politics was, for the near future, going to be about debating birth certificates and death panels with deranged 18th-century period cosplayers.
Only it’s worse, despite being on a much smaller scale than the Tea Party, because it turns out everything becomes worse when it goes from being about actual political issues to being about video games.
Who are GamerGate? It’s one part entitled white guys claiming ownership over a subculture they feel is being invaded by outsiders. It’s one part entitled people who aren’t white guys who have, for one reason or another, made peace with being part of a white-guy-dominated culture and now enthusiastically join in trashing people who try to change it, for various complicated reasons. (GamerGate thinks the existence of such people is some kind of trump card against accusations of racism, hence the #NotYourShield tag—having been such a person in my life, all I can do is roll my eyes.) And it’s of course one part brazen opportunists with no prior interest in gaming seizing a chance to draw clicks while striking a blow against the left in the culture wars.
And who are “anti-GamerGate”? Developers, journalists, and activists—mostly women—who’ve been targeted by the mob and are fighting for their survival in the industry. Allies within the industry speaking up to defend their friends and colleagues.
And random consumers, like me, who had no prior relationships in this scene nor stake in this fight but who are shocked and revolted at the cancer consuming our hobby.
I’ve talked elsewhere about why, as a lifelong gamer, I got sucked into this drama laying waste to my community and its reputation. I spent weeks in the front lines on Twitter and elsewhere trying to argue with GamerGaters, trying to defend and support the people they were dragging through the mud and trying to make some sense or at least get some hollow laughter out of this whole dark episode.
It started as me just making random jokes, being a Twitter asshole, the usual. Making joke hashtags like #Quinnghazi to make fun of the original #Quinnspiracy hashtag, i.e. pointing out the insanity of claiming embattled feminist indie game designers were powerful puppetmasters of the industry. Creating the hashtag #TweetLikeNotYourShield to mock the inherent hypocrisy of #NotYourShield, GamerGate’s very own auxiliary force of women and people of color created to shield the racist, sexist words and actions of their ringleaders from criticism.
It escalated from there, as these things do, until I soon found I couldn’t go anywhere on social media—or, sometimes, even checking my email—without being asked to justify my horrid besmirching of GamerGate’s honor.
Hashtag activism may be pointless and self-indulgent, but don’t let anyone tell you it’s easy. It’s mentally and spiritually numbing, repeatedly pointing out things you’d think any decent person would find to be obvious only to have dozens of people start contacting you by every means they can find to demand that you publicly debate them on the issue (memorably satirized by this Wondermark comic that has earned GamerGaters the nickname “sea lions”).
I’ve talked about how, to use a gaming term, I was trying to “pull aggro,” trying to direct some of the Internet horde’s exhaustingly inexhaustible rage toward me instead of toward people (usually women) actually doing useful work within the games industry. After weeks of trying to pull aggro I was successful enough that I backed down, shaking, and took a break from Twitter, wondering at how women like Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian have survived this nonsense for months, years.
Because staring into the face of a mindless Internet hate machine is an experience I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. This is what happened.
Accused of being a pawn of the global media conspiracy
You guys remember the manufactured JournoList “scandal” when the Tea Party tried to define colleagues in journalism emailing each other privately as a “corrupt conspiracy,” only to be embarrassed when it was revealed right-wing journalists had a mailing list just like it, as do, in fact, colleagues in most professions?
Yeah, well, the enormous #GamerGate freakout over the “GamesJournoPros” mailing list where games journalists talked shop is similar, only worse, because, again, rather than substantive issues it’s about video games.
#GamerGate is convinced that there is a massive left-wing cabal in games journalism out to destroy traditional games culture. (Again, it’s just like Fox News except you put “games” in front of everything so it’s 10 times pettier.) I got fingered as a collaborator in a “coordinated attack on gaming identity,” the smoking gun of which is a bunch of articles that ran around the end of August claiming that “gamers are dead.”
This despite the fact that the article I wrote did not say that gamers were either literally dead or that the gamer “identity” was over—indeed, it took the much more pessimistic stance that gamers were infinitely respawning monsters. This also despite the fact that I was never on GamesJournoPros because The Daily Beast is not a games publication and I am not a games journalist—nor a writer at all, nor a person anyone had heard of until a few months ago, as the “leaked” email records from GamesJournoPros most likely show. (I wouldn’t know, because I’ve never read them.)
But conspiracies tend to grow in the minds of people who believe in them, and before long, just as the JournoList “scandal” mutated beyond Ezra Klein emailing his friends to being about George Soros’s secret puppeteering of all U.S. media, we got to the point where Nick Denton, CEO of Gawker, was for some reason orchestrating a conspiracy to threaten and silence #GamerGate by paying undercover operatives to post in the hashtag, pretending to support the cause but actually undermining it. How did GamerGate know this? A “leak” of a screencap of Denton’s Facebook status.
They say to never interrupt your opponent when they’re making a mistake, but I couldn’t resist pointing out all the problems with this on Twitter. Pointing out that Nick Denton writes and speaks like a literate adult and not like a 14-year-old in remedial English. That Nick Denton would, in fact, be unlikely to cast himself in the role of the Joker from The Dark Knight and literally refer to #GamerGate tweeps as “the Batman.” That it makes no sense that a company that’s notorious for not paying its actual interns would be giving a stipend to people for tweeting.
That if Nick Denton wanted to talk to his “cronies” he’d do so by email, not Facebook—and if he for some reason he wanted to communicate on a public social media platform he’d use Kinja, the service that Gawker flogs to its customers 24/7. And that the source of the “leaked” status update said that Denton had deleted his Facebook afterward… and his Facebook was not in fact deleted.
For my trouble, I was accused of personally being paid by Nick Denton to sow doubt among the ranks about this critical peek into the enemy’s operations.
Which was fine, because it just made it look even worse when the guy who “leaked” this information finally admitted it’d been faked. This was finally enough to get him kicked out of #GamerGate—the previous incident where he’d gone on a Holocaust-denying rant in the middle of a livestream, of course, had not been.
It bears emphasizing that not a single non-#GamerGate person I talked to took longer than five seconds to decide this “leak” was faked but #GamerGate was collectively obsessed with it for days. To the point where even more blatant joke posts mocking the idea of a Gawker conspiracy were themselves taken seriously as further evidence.
Reactionary movements are, first and foremost, not rational.
Confused about a totally different other Asian guy by people who totally aren’t racist
Ian Miles Cheong and I have a few things in common, I guess. We’re somewhat close in age, I think, and we’re both of Chinese ethnicity, I think (I don’t really know the guy at all).
There’s a couple of rather major differences though, like the fact that he has bleached/prematurely gray hair (not sure which because, again, I don’t know the guy). That his face is quite different from mine if you look for anything other than “Asian-ness.” That he’s worked in games journalism for years as the editor in chief of Gameranx and I’m just a guy who wrote a few blogs. Oh, and that his profile on Twitter and his name elsewhere say “Ian Miles Cheong” whereas mine says “Arthur Chu.”
Didn’t stop people interacting with me regarding #GamerGate from mistaking me for Cheong, over and over and over again—45 times by the time I stopped counting, and that was just counting direct interactions with me.
The first time I got accused of being a “neo-Nazi” it was shocking and disconcerting. After I figured out that they were trying to smear me with accusations about a totally different guy, for horrible things that guy said when he was a teenage troll in chatrooms 20 years ago, I found it pretty funny. At least for the next 10 times.
The next 10 times after that, it was just wearying and grinding. The next 10 times after that, the sheer repetition made it funny again, like the famous Simpsons rake joke.
After the next 10 times after that, I just started blocking people.
#GamerGate is aware that they have… a tough time noticing people of color, and therefore a tough time telling two Asian guys apart, but sees this as a PR problem more than an issue of actual unaddressed racism.
Reactionary movements aren’t very good at self-awareness either.
Raked over the coals over my personal life to make me look bad in an interview
So I don’t think very highly of The David Pakman Show on The Young Turks. Even though as a left-wing progressive I should think of Pakman as “on my side,” he seems to enjoy doing sensationalistic clickbait interviews for the attention and the fireworks, without considering whether they make any positive impact.
It definitely didn’t help when Pakman decided to do a whole two weeks of #GamerGate coverage essentially giving the lunatics in the movement exactly what they wanted—a platform from which they could intone their grievances and be “taken seriously,” to gain legitimacy for what they were doing.
And it reached a low point with his bringing on Brianna Wu, a game designer who has fled her home due to threats from #GamerGate. Pakman went so far as to crowdsource questions on Twitter from Wu’s harassers and then present them to her on video.
Unsurprisingly, after Wu was essentially put on trial before her harassers by proxy, she was unhappy with the interview, unhappy with the way Pakman marketed the video to his new #GamerGate fans, and unhappy with Pakman’s total failure to apologize for the renewed harassment she received because of it.
It was thus similarly unsurprising that no other “anti-#GamerGate” voices were willing to come on Pakman’s show. He made a big deal out of this fact on Twitter as well, riling up his #GamerGate followers into accusing their opponents of being afraid to debate.
So I stepped up, thinking what did I have to lose? If Pakman really wanted to air “the issues” rather than putting vulnerable women like Brianna Wu or Zoe Quinn on the chopping block, he could interview an outsider like me. I didn’t have death threats that people could accuse me of faking for attention, or a history in the games industry people could claim was “corrupt.” What did I have to lose?
Well, it turned out that there were uncharted depths #GamerGate was willing to plumb. The Ralph Retort, a paragon of ethical journalism websites, decided to make crowdsourcing stuff to discredit me into a project. The guy behind The Ralph Retort dug up the article I wrote after the Isla Vista shootings in which I admitted I’d known guys who were rapists and hadn’t done much in my social circle to speak up about it.
This got twisted into the idea that I had personally witnessed someone being raped and chosen not to intervene because “the rapist was my friend.” And #GamerGate decided that from now on whenever I said anything they should show up and call me a “rape enabler” and “rape apologist.”
Within the next few hours, I received thousands of messages on Twitter and elsewhere, calling me a rape apologist, a rapist, demanding to know “how I could sleep at night” knowing a rapist was “on the streets.”
It was a classic double-bind, of course. The framing was that I had the power to stop a criminal by putting him behind bars through direct eyewitness testimony. When I clarified—more than I had wanted to, because I didn’t want to talk in detail about personal issues—that I had nothing legally actionable because I had no firsthand knowledge—only, in one case, direct testimony from a victim who specifically did not want to go to the police—well, that meant I had been lying about “knowing” rapists in the first place.
It was deeply unpleasant. It kept going on all day, with me feeling like I had to explain myself dozens of times, and it being increasingly clear people were just intentionally striking a raw nerve in order to upset me and “throw me off” for daring to contradict them in public.
And it was monstrously hypocritical since one of the ringleaders of this little crusade, Mike Cernovich, before becoming a #GamerGate activist had written a guide for men to avoid conviction for rape and denied that nonviolent rape was something that ever happened.
So yes, afterward I was in a bad mood, and conveyed to David Pakman in our interview that I was in a bad mood, and was not amused by Pakman disclaiming all responsibility for pretending like pandering to a hate mob in progress and encouraging said hate mob to crowdsource questions to dig up “dirt” on his interviewees was normal, ethical journalism.
Afterward I was drained, I was exhausted, and I was seething with anger that something from my past that people knew nothing about had been so cavalierly weaponized. And #GamerGate, of course, was celebrating that they’d “beaten” another “boss battle.”
The most important thing about reactionary movements? There’s no low to which they will not sink.
My take, at the end of the day? After having it proven that #GamerGate is pretty much immune to common sense, public shame, or any norms of basic decency, I just don’t know what to do. I can try to analyze or try to empathize, but I can’t come up with any solutions.
People keep optimistically thinking the movement has run out of steam but, like all such movements, the more persecuted a zealot feels, the more hard-core he becomes. I had previously noted, with dread and horror, that gaming may have warped us gamers to automatically assume we’re the hero-protagonists and persistence on our part is always laudable and will always be rewarded. They openly brag about how gamers are “programmed to win” as a positive thing. They openly describe the other people in their community, with whom they disagree, as “NPCs,” non-player characters, to be exploited or defeated through persistence.
Well, they’ve got more persistence than I have, anyway. The one thing I can marvel at is how the women at the heart of this have persisted this long, and how they manage to stay upbeat, optimistic, even civil and kind at a point when I just want to scream.
One of those women is Randi Harper, whose “crime” was creating the one thing that’s made “aggro-pulling” by “white knights” like me unnecessary—a tool to simply detect which accounts on Twitter are GamerGaters and block them en masse, limiting their ability to stalk and harass targets through social media.
For this crime—not even committing any aggressive act against GamerGate, just giving people targeted by the mob the chance to live in peace without anyone having to pull their aggro and draw their attention—GamerGaters tried to get her fired, threatened legal action against her, and have sent her countless threats.
But the tool exists. It works. I’m using it now, and it’s the only reason I can feel safe and comfortable interacting with people online again, after the experience of being under constant assault by a pack of lunatics determined to discredit everyone who speaks up against them by any means necessary. That tool does far more to help people attacked by this mob than well-meaning interlopers like me—or, it bears noting, than any of Twitter’s built-in tools.
So that’s how I spent the past three months, gentle readers, watching a world I once called my home steadily consumed by madness and paranoia, trying to fight against it with words and realizing words don’t make a single dent against this kind of fanatical zeal.
I’m a louder and more eloquent voice (I think) than Randi Harper, but her little script does more to stop GamerGate than all of those three months of wearying denunciation and debate did. For someone who’s all too invested in thinking that these words I spew onto the Internet have value, that’s something to take to heart.