New Identities and the Cultural History of #GamerGate

If you have an ear to the gaming world, you might have recently read about the #GamerGate campaign and the furious debate between its supporters and opponents. Both sides hold complex opinions that are blurred by the variety of individuals supporting them – it’s hard to pin down what each actually represents. The diversity of positions and actions taken in the name of one side or the other obscures any claims to the debate’s cohesion. To better understand #GamerGate, we turn to cultural historians to shed light on the problems raised by the messy divides of the newest “culture war” in 2014.

The hashtag #GamerGate was coined in late August of this year in reaction to a series of allegations surrounding video game developer Zoe Quinn and video game journalists. The gaming community exploded in reaction to the revelation. Online, #GamerGate advocates – adopting the famous –gate suffix of Watergate fame –highlighted the shocking revelations that video game developers and journalists were corrupted by the gaming industry they were meant to police or at least stay distant. Some gamers condemned Quinn as dishonest and unethical and demanded accountability in video game reviews and news articles. A minority reacted violently by harassing Quinn and other women involved in the gaming industry. They were sent sexual and violent threats online, which in turn brought greater news coverage of gamers’ negative reaction in the mainstream press.

The ensuing feeling of prosecution and misunderstanding spiralled out of control. Supporters of #GamerGate claimed to defend journalistic ethics in video game journalism – insisting the violent reaction is from a small minority – and feels as if media outlets are unfairly portraying gamers as women-haters. The #GamerGate opponents believe the campaign reveals a serious flaw in a gaming community that refuses to allow respectful and open representations of women in video games. The attacks against Quinn and others demonstrate an endemic misogyny in at least part of the gaming community that has one clear message: women are not allowed.

All of this is set against the backdrop of growing tension in the gaming community over the role of women in the industry and their representations in video games themselves. In 2012, Anita Sarkeesian began producing YouTube videos examining female tropes in games, which eventually resulted in Kickstarter funding for her video series. The reaction then was similar to the one Quinn faced in August 2014 – hundreds of comments denouncing Sarkeesian’s work and women in general. Again, the negative reaction attracted media attention and news coverage, and consequently helped raise awareness for Sarkeesian’s campaign. Other incidents continued to highlight the hostility towards women from the gaming community, but Sarkeesian’s videos began to crystallize two opposing sides and sadly continues to be a victim of harassment.

It is difficult to fully capture either the pro- or anti-GamerGate side, even after researching them. Neither side can claim to be monolithic – instead there is an array of individuals who express support online for the campaign, and within that, a smaller group that acts on their beliefs for better or for worse. Each also claims not to be represented by the “bad minority” that harasses the other side, but it is one which inescapably falls under the same label as its more moderate advocates.

The controversy has even reached the pages of mainstream newspapers. Alyssa Rosenberg argued in the pages of the Washington Post that GamerGate is just the next American “culture war,” much like one witnessed in the 1980s and 1990s. Then, Americans debated “decency” in media, though often through the lens of representations of women just like today. A better summary from Deadspin reflected on the deeper meaning of GamerGate and “how these [culture war] skirmishes will unfold in the future—all the rhetorical weaponry and siegecraft of an internet comment section brought to bear on our culture, not just at the fringes but at the center.” Kyle Wagner writes of a divided gamer culture that refuses to accept social-justice activism in video games as epitomized by Sarkeesian’s campaign. GamerGate’s misogyny is merely a symptom of “the desperate efforts of the privileged, in an ever-pluralizing America, to cling by their nails to the perquisites of what they'd thought was once their exclusive domain.”

One day historians will have a difficult time unraveling GamerGate’s significance for digital Western culture. It is hard enough for us to figure it out today – imagine doing so without the cultural guideposts about the larger debate over feminism or video games that we recognize unthinkingly. Trevor Owens has written on the wonderful history-meets-gaming (or gaming-meets-history) blog, Play the Past, about how researchers are already preparing digital culture archives for future scholars. The American Folklife Centre announced that they would collect records of digital culture online in June 2014, and its scope was expanded in September as well.

Cultural historians will likely grapple with the 2014 culture war using many of the same approaches they use today. The first “culture war” (or at least, where the term originated – some have argued culture wars are present throughout history) in the 1980s and 1990s reflected American society struggling with the changes of the tumultuous years during the 1960s and 1970s. New concepts of race, gender, and religion entered our societal consciousness through media, school education, and books. The tension between these new ideas about who someone could be invariably were contrasted against older and more rigid conceptions of gender and racial identity. The “war” was not quite a strictly defined conflict, as it was a space where individuals reacted to these ideas. Today, this space for interaction now primarily exists within the digital sphere. New ways to express yourself via social media has consequently changed the nature of the “war” and added to the variety of sometimes contradictory positions within it.

What are some likely ways a cultural historian would approach GamerGate?

Changing our perspective to that of the historian lets us approach the topic more easily. Cultural history first began as a history of culture – better understood as a “civilization” perhaps – but has evolved to be a broader analysis of cultural products. It can be art, music, television, writing, or individual experiences. Essentially, cultural history examines (often unintentional) meaning given to these cultural products. They ask who is doing the construction? Under what constraints? And in what context? The Mona Lisa, for instance, means different things to its artist, Leonardo DaVinci, than to contemporary observers, and its meaning changed throughout its history. We value the Mona Lisa within a context that DaVinci could never have understood. 

In the same way, the discourse surrounding a particular cultural product, video games, has turned towards a topic immersed in the context of our time. GamerGate is ultimately about video games and the gamers who play them. Some are clearly resisting the acknowledgement that video games are sexist, or at least, resisting the movement to adapt their production to a wide market that goes beyond 20-something white males.  But like comic book movies, Star Trek, and other bastions of white male culture, it has become “popular culture” and appeals to a much wider audience. Changes to those cultural products are inevitable, if not necessary.

While the internet allows for many different groups to create and consume what they want to hear, it can also bring together criticism that would have previously been isolated to one or two key figures.  Now there are hundreds or thousands of figures involved in the movement. Thus historians could also narrow their scope by examining GamerGate through other types of cultural products they would call “ego-documents.” Originally a term for diaries, memoirs, and other first-person perspective documents, today it could be broadened to apply to Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites driven by the decisions of a single individual. The history of GamerGate could be told through ego-documents like tweets from single participants as much as news stories.  It would be the story of individuals interacting with each other, rather than the wide strokes of a cultural movement.

A micro-history would no doubt paint a different picture of GamerGate than the larger view. What seems like ideological differences or conflicting cultural values in the broad swaths, at the individual level becomes a series of disagreeing beliefs about a range of issues involved: ethics in journalism, the treatment of women, misogyny, and other distinct points of conflict. Like any war, the reasons for fighting it can vary greatly. This difference is precisely why it’s so hard for us to understand GamerGate today – its form and purpose can change depending on what scope of analysis you use and the sources you examine.

Or historians might turn to GamerGate and “heteroglossia.”  It’s a mouthful, but it is a useful term created by linguist Mikhal Bahktin to refer to when there are multiple voices in a single text. If we were to consider the pro- and anti- side to GamerGate each as a single entity, understanding how and when differing voices can coexist within it would be helpful.  Examining their co-existence and dialogue allows the historian to approach the movement without being stymied by the contradictions of individual positions within it.

Though GamerGate seems incredibly important now to its participants (and maybe not at all important to those not involved), realistically it is just one instance of a far greater “cultural conflict.” White males, often catered to and pampered as a large, monolithic consumer bloc by companies, must now contend with, at the very least, white females’ impact on cultural products once marketed solely to them.  Or, ideally, other ethnicities and genders as well. In the age of consumer culture, culture is produced with the intention of consumption in exchange for money.  Companies make games, toys, books, movies, to entice people to spend money on them. Perhaps cultural historians will examine how new ideas about identity were incorporated into our culture via these products – and the reaction against them.