What GamerGate Teaches Us About Partisanship

The flame war that is GamerGate has been raging since mid-2014, and with a recent influx of attention from major media outlets and entertainment, the fire shows few signs of dying down. To any casual observer, GamerGate–the debate itself, and not the eponymous group of aggrieved gamers–is a scarred battleground. Both sides are deeply entrenched. GamerGaters hide amidst the nebulous idea of journalistic ethics in gaming, and so-called GamerGhazi members are shrouded by pop sociology and the aegis of media and celebrity sympathy. And the volleys keep flying, with the rhetoric getting nastier and more ideologically charged by the day.

It’s taken me a while to make up my own mind about this whole event, and it hasn’t been easy. I mean, John Scalzi (currently one of the best writers around) and Wil Wheaton (formerly Wesley Crusher) want me to believe one thing, and Adam Baldwin (he was on a show about space) is backing another? That’s not fair. So now I have my own opinions about the people involved on both sides and the sometimes-repugnant tactics that are getting flung around.

And, yeah. Battleground. Nothing good can come from this. Or can it?

There’s not much new or valuable coming from either group at this point. They’ve been fighting for some time. But there’s still a lot to be gained in looking at this whole fiasco as an object lesson in the accouterments of partisanship, and how it affects us. Here are some insights gleaned from the bizarre-but-predictable behavior that has come to define the GamerGate controversy.

Messengers often outshine their message. And not always in a good way. Since the beginning of this conflict, GamerGate has been dogged by accusations that their membership has doxxed–that is, released private information publicly about–its female opponents. This has proven to be a hole from which the movement can’t escape. It’s live ammunition for the gaming media’s concerted efforts to demonize GamerGaters. Add to that the fact that the sole major media outlet backing GamerGate is Republican rag Breitbart, which is basically the textbook image of questionable ethical integrity, and you have a problem. The message of journalistic integrity is but a squeak amidst this cacophony. That has hampered GamerGate’s efforts to do much more beyond getting advertisers to pull their support from a few sites here and there.

If you have a message, make it clear. What is GamerGate fighting for? From a multi-day perusal of both the GamerGate and GamerGhazi home bases on Reddit, I’ve garnered two different stories. According to the former, journalists are too cozy with the gaming industry, which has led to inflated reviews, scandalous dealings, and, in total, a system where gamers can no longer trust what’s written about the state of gaming. The other side claims that this these are excuses to lend legitimacy to a group of men’s rights activists whose real problem is with women tainting their industry. GamerGate’s message is unclear, which allows room for all sorts of interpretation.

Being a victim does not make you a saint. Let me clear when I say that no level of perceived immorality or lack of integrity excuses threats of rape, murder, or bodily harm. None. However, having been threatened should not be a permanent shield against criticism. Anita Sarkeesian has been attacked and that’s inexcusable. That shouldn’t mean that no one can take issue with the questionable accuracy and poor methodology present in “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” without being called a de facto misogynist. Sympathy doesn’t require one to overlook personality flaws or inappropriate behavior.

You can’t control everyone in your movement, but you can control its atmosphere. GamerGate claims it doesn’t support doxxing. Unfortunately, to an outsider, it’s a little like watching someone walk with their vicious dog off its leash. “But I couldn’t stop him from attacking you!” they say. Much of the rhetoric on the GamerGate forum is fueled by anger at feminists, but sometimes it bubbles over and becomes straight-out misogynistic. With the number of toxic creeps that fester in the swamp of the Internet, it’s disingenuous at best to say that the movement bears no responsibility for the actions of its members.

There are always opportunists. Flashy issues like this have always attracted people with a desire for power, fame, or infamy. Some people are thrust into the limelight, like Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn. Others are people who viciously bait their opponents and then play for sympathy when said foes respond in kind. That’s what an opportunist looks like. This trick only works so many times before people catch wise to you. Hopefully.

You can agree with someone and not support them, and vice versa. This isn’t even matter of a blind squirrel finding a nut once in a while. Both sides put forth some really good, unassailable points a lot of the time. But supporting them, buying in to their message and foibles part and parcel? That’s not required.

Chris Kluwe, someone whom I respect(ed?) greatly due to many of his stances and his incredible penchant for foul language, informed me on Reddit a couple weeks ago that on the subject of GamerGate, “There isn’t a ‘moderate’ stance. Either you condone harassment, or you don’t.” Seriously? Fuck you, Loate, and the talented, handsome kicking horse that you rode in on. I can recognize that women are underrepresented in gaming and that the relationship between the gaming media and game studios is uncomfortably cozy and seedy. Neither of those informs my unapologetic ‘nay’ stance on the abuse of women.

The argument’s rarely just about the argument. There is no conflict between the ideas of journalistic ethics and minority representation in games, because there is no conflict. These are two goals that are not mutually exclusive, and should widely be accepted as laudable. Instead, we’ll see GamerGhazi members laugh off the very idea that gaming journalism possesses some questionable ethics when incredibly one-sided pieces classifying all GamerGaters as murderous neckbeards are flying around. And there are GamerGaters who scoff at the idea that women, who represent just 11% of game designers and 3% of game coders, are underrepresented in the industry and that those numbers represent a problem. The ideological conflict has subsumed these inarguable points. This is how we get climate change deniers and anti-vaxxers.

We’re unlikely to gain anything from the GamerGate conflict, but we can learn from it. It’s an argument full of sound and fury, but it signifies how people behave when they feel like they’re backed by the strength of a righteous cause: poorly. GamerGate is a petri dish that’s grown a fascinating collection of human behavior, and if we learn from some of the foibles on both sides, it’s not a wasted effort at all.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to Redchanit to, I dunno, hack or something.

Logging out and leveling up,

Shadowling