If – like 99% of the planet – you have little knowledge of Western geek or gamer culture you’ll probably be unaware of the controversies raging over gender bias in what we used to call the video games’ industry, in particular the imaginatively named, ahem, “Gamergate”. The history of this ongoing scandal is rather complicated and there is more than a hint of people peering up their own rectums with undue interest. Gamers, like all self-selecting communities, have their own rules and mores, and unfortunately most of those currently derive from the United States and various American clones (and I don’t rule out Ireland from that description). This is not to say that the passions and prejudices found in gaming cliques are not universal. They most certainly are. However the toxic overspill of contemporary US politics gives this scandal a particular flavour all of its own. Kyle Wagner at Dead Spin has written as good an introduction to the hype-prone controversy as you are likely to find (online or off). Gamergate is certainly not as important as some interested parties wish it to be. However it does illustrate the influence of the broader “culture war” in the United States that many believe is being waged or seem determined to wage themselves. That’s its importance, however ephemeral the actual controversy itself will prove to be:
“Over the weekend, a game developer in Boston named Brianna Wu fled her home after an online stalker vowed to rape and kill her. She isn’t the first woman who’s been forced into hiding by aggrieved video game fans associated with Gamergate, the self-styled reform movement that’s become difficult to ignore over the past several months as its beliefs have ramified out from the fever swamps of the internet into the real world. She probably won’t be the last.
By design, Gamergate is nearly impossible to define. It refers, variously, to a set of incomprehensible Benghazi-type conspiracy theories about game developers and journalists; to a fairly broad group of gamers concerned with corruption in gaming journalism; to a somewhat narrower group of gamers who believe women should be punished for having sex; and, finally, to a small group of gamers conducting organized campaigns of stalking and harassment against women.
This ambiguity is useful, because it turns any discussion of this subject into a debate over semantics. Really, though, Gamergate is exactly what it appears to be: a relatively small and very loud group of video game enthusiasts who claim that their goal is to audit ethics in the gaming-industrial complex and who are instead defined by the campaigns of criminal harassment that some of them have carried out against several women. (Whether the broader Gamergate movement is a willing or inadvertent semi-respectable front here is an interesting but ultimately irrelevant question.) None of this has stopped it from gaining traction: Earlier this month, Gamergaters compelled Intel to pull advertising from a gaming site critical of the movement, and there’s no reason to think it will stop there.
In many ways, Gamergate is an almost perfect closed-bottle ecosystem of bad internet tics and shoddy debating tactics. Bringing together the grievances of video game fans, self-appointed specialists in journalism ethics, and dedicated misogynists, it’s captured an especially broad phylum of trolls and built the sort of structure you’d expect to see if, say, you’d asked the old Fires of Heaven message boards to swing a Senate seat. It’s a fascinating glimpse of the future of grievance politics as they will be carried out by people who grew up online.
What’s made it effective, though, is that it’s exploited the same basic loophole in the system that generations of social reactionaries have: the press’s genuine and deep-seated belief that you gotta hear both sides. Even when not presupposing that all truth lies at a fixed point exactly equidistant between two competing positions, the American press works under the assumption that anyone more respectable than, say, an avowed neo-Nazi is operating in something like good faith. And this is why a loosely organized, lightly noticed collection of gamers, operating from a playbook that was showing its age during Ronald Reagan’s rise to power, have been able to set the terms of debate in a $100 billion industry, even as they send women like Brianna Wu into hiding and show every sign that they intend to keep doing so until all their demands are met.”