The Hashtags and Death Threats Behind #GamerGate, Gaming's Latest Controversy

#GamerGate went from a movement about gaming journalism ethics, to a full-fledged war against prominent women in the industry. This is how it happened.

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Image via Complex Original
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“I have at my disposal a semi-automatic rifle, multiple pistols, and a collection of pipe bombs,” the email begins. “This will be the deadliest school shooting in American history and I’m giving you a chance to stop it.”

The email was sent to Utah State University under the name Marc Lépine—who killed 14 women in a Montreal shooting in 1989 before he killed himself. The threat came in response to an event Wednesday that featured the prominent feminist vlogger Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency at the university. “I am a student here. You will never find me, but you may all soon know my name. Feminists have ruined my life and I will have my revenge, and for the sake of all the other they’ve wronged.” It's Elliot Rodger-esque in its tone, and it successfully pressured Sarkeesian to cancel the event after police wouldn’t prevent gun carriers with permits from attending the talk.

This message isn’t far different from other threats that have come her way. Right now, Sarkeesian is in the middle of #GamerGate, a movement by a relatively small but blossoming group of male gamers that have used the Twitter hashtag—coined by actor Adam Baldwin—to attack and ostracize her and other female gaming personalities from the community. Social media amplified the mix of voices within GamerGate​, which have blended into a stew of anti-feminism, hatred, and violent threats. It started when an indie game maker named Zoe Quinn created the early 2013 game Depression Quest, which doesn’t follow the traditional mechanics of gaming, like running, jumping, or defeating bosses. Instead, it’s entirely text-based, and is meant for users to feel what it’s like to suffer from depression. The game was never going to take off like Angry Birds, but what it lacked in mainstream appeal it had in uniqueness. A few gaming sites gave it positive reviews, others panned it, business as usual. Then Quinn’s ex, programmer Eron Gjoni, published long blog posts that claimed she had slept with a gaming journalist at Kotaku in order to get a good review of her game. Sex-shaming at its essence.


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The gaming community, then, seemed to have a legitimate concern: If journalists were helping developers by giving positive reviews in turn for favors, then gamers are screwed when buying a game that didn’t live up to its review (something that’s subjective to begin with). But the seeds of what would become a bigger problem branched off from this point: gamers focused their energy on Quinn’s sexual exploits and attacked her, though Kotaku’s investigation concluded that their journalist, Nathan Grayson, and Quinn’s relationship didn’t influence their review of the game. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a problem with companies and journalists being too friendly. A Reddit thread a few weeks back called out writers from Polygon and Kotaku for writing articles about games that they had personal investments in, either monetary or through friendship, and this made both websites alter their policies for more transparency. Dialogue around this started early on when Rab Florence criticized this image of a prominent games journalist next to a table of Doritos and a Halo 4 poster in 2012:


There are other interesting topics about the changing environment of gaming that those behind GamerGate wanted to discuss. But those conversations grew dim when the attacks on women grew fierce and garnered media attention.

Women in many types of industries have had their sex lives publicly revealed and questioned—from Katie Couric to Jennifer Lawrence—at the hands of gossip columns or tabloids. With Quinn, things took a vicious turn that revealed the misogynistic grasp on gaming that many male gamers think they’re entitled to. The gamer community quickly “doxed” Quinn—releasing her contact info, address, and nude photographs. Around this time, Sarkeesian released one of her collections of videos that critique the ways women are portrayed in media. Though her videos were often the focus of hateful comments (there was even a video game made that let people punch her), some of the community behind GamerGate upped the vitriol to new levels and greater frequency, leading most recently to the threat of violence at Utah State University.

This week, another female game developer, Brianna Wu, and her husband fled their home because of rape and death threats after she tweeted anti-GamerGate messages:


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"I am not going to get bullied out of this industry by some people that are this threatened by women that just want to sit here and make video games," Wu told CNN. "You have players which are taking in these unconscious messages—women are not welcome here, this is our turf, this is our space — and then as a result of that we have a very hostile culture toward women."

GamerGate supporters started “Operation Disrespectful Nod,” an attempt to attack the advertising revenue of sites that published articles that talked about the changing face of gamers—specifically, how gamers now make up different genders, ethnicities and sexual orientations, and not the typical white male gamer.​ They've tried to pressure Sears to pull ads from Kotaku, and successfully had Intel remove their ads from the gaming site Gamasutra after they rallied against an article by Leigh Alexander called “Gamers' don't have to be your audience. 'Gamers' are over.” Afterward, may accused Intel of taking sides, and the company issued an apology, though they didn't reinstate their ads on the site. All the while game companies like Electronic Arts have remained quiet on the issue as the holiday season approaches.

The question of gaming identity was brought up: in 2014, what makes a gamer? What makes a video game? The word "gamer" has become a title of pride in the last decade. Well, to those who played games, it was always a point of pride. What seemingly pisses some in this group off is that more and more people are calling themselves gamers as video games move into the mainstream. For those who might not understand it, it's essentially the argument that "diehard" sports fans make when a "fairweather" fan says they support the same team: they say they're not "real fans." The so-called diehards, which have traditionally been young white guys, are mad that the new group of kids—who don't fit their definition of gamers—have moved onto the block with no signs of leaving. And there's no reason that they should. It's a virtual “He-Man Woman Haters Club," if the Alfalfa used rape and death threats to keep Darla out of the gang. 



Will GamerGate come to an end? That’s a tricky question. It’s not like misogyny in the video game community started with the hashtag, it was just illuminated. So when the hashtag starts to fade from trending charts (which will hopefully be soon), the followers will likely spread their filth in message boards and other areas. This, like other issues of fair representation—minorities in film and television, women in Silicon Valley—will take time, but will happen. 

When I sat on my living room floor as a kid, playing NES classics like Mega Man 6, M.C. Kids, Kirby’s Adventure, and Wild Gunmen, the concept of what the Internet or a personal computer was, or the impending revolution that would come with their combination, were as foreign an idea to me as college or a job. Video games were as much of my life as running around a Los Angeles park, reading a Goosebumps book, or devouring Saturday morning cartoons. And with each cartridge that made its way in and out of that black and gray console, the Christmases that gave hope of seeing a new video game waiting beneath the festive wrapping paper, the levels completed, bosses defeated, and pages of Nintendo Power read and re-read, I always had one person by my side: my sister.


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Though I wouldn’t know it then, video games would remain a thread throughout our lives. More so to hers. What I also didn’t know, or failed to notice, is that the games we played were being made and marketed for me, not her. It’s unsurprising now that the character that remained my sister’s favorite is Kirby, a pink creampuff of a creature who, for more or less, is gender neutral. Games then lacked playable female characters in important roles, aside from Samus in Metroid and Princess Peach in Mario games and spin offs. Years later we would get Joanna Dark of Perfect Dark, a sexualized protagonist in Lara Croft, and Faith Connors of Mirror’s Edge. It’s been sluggish, but female characters have made their way from being the "damsel in distress" to being major players in the story arcs of their games. Just take Ellie in The Last of Us.

If there is something surprising about gaming culture in my home today, it’s that while my sister is by far the most dedicated gamer of the family, it doesn’t mean I’m next in line. That goes to my mom. Playing Farmville is what initially got her to use a computer, and by association, got her to start interacting with long lost friends on Facebook. Now Candy Crush and other games take up most of her evening before she goes to sleep. The majority of female gamers in my home is nearly a reflection of gaming as whole: today, 48 percent of gamers are women.

The hashtag #StopGamerGate2014 was trending for most of Wednesday, in response to Sarkeesian​'s cancelation of her event. As GamerGate has received more traction, so did the movement against it, and the treatment of women in the gaming industry—in the actual games and out of them—is getting the attention that it deserves.

For a brief time the movement had a focused argument about journalism ethics in the video game industry, and changes did happen after those publications were put on the hot seat. But it was overcome by trolls who used the hashtag to promote sexism, misogyny, and scare tactics. In that sense, #GamerGate's original vision is already dead. It has taken on an entirely different face from its conception. So for those in the gaming community who say that GamerGate is solely about ethics, abandon the hashtag and use a different one. This is a prime example of the problems that arise when weaponizing a hashtag on social media—the message gets muddled. You don't need the branding of what it's become to continue your points, and journalism that's not influenced by outside companies is something we can all benefit from.

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