Editor’s note: Allum Bokhari is a political consultant who plays far too many vidya games. After graduating from the University of Oxford with a BA in History & Politics, he spent some time interning with a Government minister in the United Kingdom. Having also worked for an investment bank, he expects to be appointed to the ranks of the Illuminati in due course. Although he leans libertarian, he remains a big fan of the Bioshock series. INTP, obviously.
Nearly a month after it began, GamerGate is a fire that refuses to go out.
The hashtag campaign has opened up a chasm between the gaming press and their audience. Currently standing at close to a million tweets (over twice that of #Destiny), #GamerGate shows no signs of stopping. A related tag, #NotYourShield, has cleared 120,000. But what lies behind it? Why did it come about? And why are people so angry?
If you were to believe Tadhg Kelly, it’s a reactionary, right-wing movement of white, male gamers trying to protect their hobby from an invasion of women and minorities. On the other hand, the games editor of Cinemablend claims it is a multi-gender, multi-ethnic uprising against corruption and nepotism. Meanwhile, David Auerbach of Slate suggests that it is simply a predictable and justified response to a press that regularly professes to hate its own readership.
These competing opinions are hard to unravel, because they are a symptom of something that has up till now been blissfully absent from the world of gaming.
I should know. I work in politics for a living. Gaming was once my escape, but unfortunately, this no longer seems to be the case.
The Reds and the Blues
Here’s how politics works. There are always two sides. Let’s call them the “reds” and the “blues.”
If you’re a red, the goal is to make the blues look as bad as possible. If you’re a blue, the goal is to make the reds look as bad as possible. If they do something good, you ignore it. If they do something bad, you let as many people know as possible.
Have they raised money for a mental health charity? Don’t report that! Did they kickstart a project to help young women get ahead in game development? Definitely don’t report that! Did one of them send someone a death threat? Stop the presses, we need to get the story out now!
The psychology behind this is interesting. Bias isn’t something that people are consciously aware of. It happens automatically. One of the only ways to become aware of it is through exposure to someone with a competing bias. This is often a very uncomfortable experience, but it it is also one of the few ways to expose yourself to new information.
Political biases are more resistant to this process than most.
In politics, bias isn’t a bug – it’s a feature. Advocates for one side or the other do not tend to see their bias as a simple prejudice to certain types of information over others – instead, it’s a matter of morality. People who share the Red bias are good. People who share the Blue bias are evil. Eliezer Yudkowsky was not exaggerating when he said ‘politics is the mind-killer’.
However, most ordinary people are not political. They dislike agendas. In an age of unlimited information, it’s relatively easy for readers of an article to find out when a story they’ve been told is one-sided, or omits information. It’s also relatively easy for them to complain about it. This is why “don’t read the comments” has become such a popular slogan among those bastions of bias, political op-ed writers.
If journalists drift too far towards the reds or the blues, their accounts will come to represent a smaller and smaller minority of viewpoints. Confirmation bias will become increasingly severe.
Non-political readers will notice. Try and suppress their criticism, and they will rebel, forming their own biases in the process.
That is #GamerGate.
To better understand the political (or, more accurately, anti-political) attitudes of gamers, we have to rewind the clock to 2005.
In 2005, gamers and gaming journalists stood united against a common foe. His name was Jack Thompson. Thompson was an old-school, ‘family values’ conservative. He didn’t like video games, he didn’t like rap music, and if truth be told he didn’t like much about modern pop culture at all.
Despite being a lunatic, he used his considerable legal skills to provide no end of grief to the gaming community. According to him, games like Doom and Quake were ‘murder fantasies’ that were the prime reason behind America’s problems with violent youth. He accused rap music of promoting sexual assault. He filed endless lawsuits against the music and video games companies who he accused of promoting violence.
Thompson’s overall argument was that video games — like music and film — all too often promoted a “culture of violence” that led to real-world crime.
Naturally, his views attracted widespread ridicule. In some cases, this turned into hate. Thompson received death threats, rape threats, and all manner of unpleasantness.
The gaming press did not seek to excuse these attacks. But they did not seek to make Thompson a martyr either. Some of them reported the threats in neutral terms. Others urged a stop to the harassment, because they were “giving fuel to his arguments.”
Once news of the threats had subsided, the gaming press continued to ridicule him. While it was possible to sympathize with Thompson over the way he was treated, it didn’t make his views any less ridiculous. So, alongside gamers, they carried on the mockery.
But imagine if they hadn’t.
Imagine, instead, that prominent game journalists embraced Thompson’s core argument – the one about games normalizing violence. Imagine, furthermore, that they began to rally mobs of activists on social media to pressure other websites into censoring dissenting opinions. Then imagine that the moderators of gaming communities and comment sections declined to allow any critical discussion of Thompson and his work.
If that had happened, #GamerGate would have arrived several years early.
Critics of GamerGate argue that the revolt is nothing more than a pushback against a ‘broader’ audience. They say it’s anti-diversity, anti-inclusive. Most often, we hear it’s ‘toxic’.
Dozens of articles have been published in this vein. They have been a long time coming. For years, politicized games journalists have harbored a simmering mix of contempt and fear of the current gaming audience.
The problem with this narrative is that it mistakes opposition to culture warriors with opposition to diversity. It mistakes a disdain for ideology with a disdain for inclusivity.
Odd behaviour for a movement that is allegedly hostile to women and minorities.
These awful, anonymous misogynists have ploughed close to $23,000 into The Fine Young Capitalists, a charity project to help women design video games. Not only that, but they created an entirely ordinary, non-idealized female role model to be used as a character in their videogames. Those bastards!
Anti-gamers would like to characterize the current divide as one between inclusivity and exclusivity, but reality will always confound this narrative. Men, women, minorities, left-wingers, right-wingers, and even feminists have taken the side of GamerGate in recent weeks. It’s hard to find a movement that is more open to diversity – both of opinion and background.
This is in stark contrast to the intolerant lock-step of their opponents, who have sought to shame and browbeat developers and other journalists into accepting their worldview.
One of the reasons why TFYC’s popularity continues to grow among gamers (and decline among their opponents) is precisely because they do not use these methods. Despite holding almost identical views to the ‘Social Justice Warriors’, they find themselves excluded from the activist clique due to their relatively tolerant attitudes. They are against attacking gamers’ current choices, preferring to create new ones alongside them. They do not seek to ferment fear and panic, or shame existing developers into altering their design process. They don’t want to ‘change the world’ – they just want to add to it.
Gamers will always welcome new people and new ideas with open arms. What they will not welcome is a Thompson-like war for cultural hegemony, regardless of whether it comes from the left or the right.
In a way, gamers of all races, genders and orientations would like to exclude a minority. That minority is the culture warriors, who thrive in an atmosphere of fear and moral condemnation. They are an ill wind that blows no man or woman of any ethnicity any good.
I am keenly aware that many critics will protest that they do not wish to create moral panics; they merely want to observe and analyse. I sympathize with these arguments.
However, when art is accused of perpetuating violence, sexism, or racism, it has strayed beyond artistic critique and into the realm of political argument. “Subjective analysis” cannot be used as an excuse when historical and sociological arguments are being presented. Furthermore, when the entire gaming community is attacked as a pack of bigoted savages corrupted by gaming tropes, it is not even an argument. It’s a panic.
And as the examples of #NotYourShield and The Fine Young Capitalists show, it’s also wrong.
There has been an awful lot of hate on both sides of this divide. As with the allegations that gamers are “anti-inclusive,” there is more than one side to the story.
Gamers are “worse than ISIS,” according to one journalist. Another implies she will sink the career of anyone who brings up the topic. “F*ck you, you self-hating b*tch,” says one activist. “Toxic parasites,” says another. “Let’s expose their personal info.” Death threats. Racism. Doxxing. And general unpleasantness.
These are just a small selection of the hatred spewed over social media during the past few weeks – often by professionals who should know better. This was accompanied by a deluge of articles in the gaming press declaring (in a stunning example of wishful thinking) that “gamers are dead.”
The most notorious example of culture warrior attacks, however, was the DDoSing and hacking of the Fine Young Capitalists.The allegations of its founder, which he details in this interview, are also quite shocking.
The attacks on TFYC lodged particularly strongly in the minds of GamerGaters due to the double standard at work. Double standards are of course a natural symptom of political bias, but that doesn’t stop them being infuriating.
On the face of it, TFYC were doing everything a social justice movement should be doing – except attacking the other side. They sought to build bridges rather than burn them. They believed in social justice, but they did not want to wage a culture war. And so, in a typically brutal and unforgiving fashion, the culture warriors turned on them.
Most media accounts of GamerGate have assumed that abuse and attacks were only coming from a single direction. A more sensible analysis of the situation would point out the obvious: that this is an issue with two mutually hostile sides. Both sides will inevitably produce hatred.
Insinuating, as critics of GamerGate do, that one side is responsible for all the vitriol is a classic consequence of political bias. Our side good. Their side evil. Any information to the contrary is filtered out.
If there is an imbalance, it does not lie in the levels of hatred, but in the levels of reporting. Given the large number of journalists and PR professionals in the anti-GamerGate camp, it is fairly predictable that they would be better at getting their side of the story into the mainstream press.
And that’s why gamers are still shouting. Because they have yet to be heard.
[Since I wrote my initial draft, reports have emerged of increasingly worrying attacks on GamerGate supporters. A friendly reporter had a suspicious syringe sent to his house. There have been real-life threats. People have received intimidating phonecalls and text messages from complete strangers. An academic who supports GamerGate was doxxed and received a violent threat. Major games publications have yet to report on these attacks against their consumers.]
When I began writing this article, I was pretty sure that GamerGate was a serious and multifaceted enough issue to write about. Enter Julian Assange, answering a question on GamerGate-related shadowbans on Reddit, confirmed it beyond all doubt.
It’s pathetic. But censorship by companies control privatized political space is now almost a norm. Facebook is implementing its own “laws” for social behaviour and politics. Even Twitter has now folded; censoring for example, leaks about the New Zealand prime minister just this week and some time ago banning Anonymous Sweden after a request from that country. High volume publication + control of publication by powerful organisations = censorship, all the time. We have to fight to create new networks of freedom. The old and powerful always become corrupt.
This was followed up with tweets on the #GamerGate hashtag by the official WikiLeaks account:
Unsurprisingly, Twitter went mental.
GamerGate is a warning of the perils of unaccountable and secretive moderation systems. The initial days of the controversy saw false DCMA notices, a culling of 25,000 user comments on Reddit, and a mass-banning of users on neoGAF. Users continue to be shadowbanned on Reddit. Even 4chan’s /v/ board initially prohibited threads on the topic.
Once it became clear that the story could not be suppressed, some communities relaxed their policies. But it was too late – censorship of the story became central to the story itself.
Critics will argue that someone banned on Reddit or neoGAF can simply go elsewhere on the Internet rather miss the point. Censorship is about denying certain views of an audience. Giving someone the freedom to speak in a deserted forest (or an unvisited website) doesn’t actually mean a great deal.
Like GamerGate, the issue of online censorship has been simmering for a while. The balance between moderator power and user power in online communities is entirely one-sided. Users have no power to hold their moderators to account, and there is typically no user oversight regarding whose content gets removed and who gets banned.
It’s unclear whether communities like Reddit censor out of a desire for a quiet life, or whether it is the simple product of a moderator’s whims. Either way, it is clear that the system is entirely unaccountable to users.
As Slate’s David Auerbach put it:
If you hand power to a small group of people with zero transparency and oversight, mistakes will go un-corrected. People rarely acknowledge mistakes unless there is a mechanism for others to correct them. In many online communities, users have no way of raising issues about moderation without the risk of being banned themselves.
The system is not sustainable. As the actions of moderators become increasingly driven by personal biases, more and more information will accumulate in unmoderated spaces. Meanwhile, those who confine themselves to moderated spaces will become increasingly unaware of the wider picture. The ultimate result is heavily biased groups of people who essentially live in different and mutually opposed realities. Conflict and hatred is inevitable.
One site that appears to have realized the danger is The Escapist. As well as recognizing the bias of the prevailing media narrative, the magazine’s editor also recognized the danger of shutting down dialogue between competing sides.
There’s nothing wrong with ensuring civility in a discussion. Too often, however, this is used as an excuse to exclude people who simply disagree with the prevailing opinion. “Troll” has become synonymous with “person I disagree with.”
This is a problem that goes far beyond gaming. It is a problem faced by any website that has a system of banning and moderating. In tackling the problem, website owners would be wise to look to The Escapist as a guide.
Gaming has become pretty serious over the past few weeks.
Two sides have emerged, which believe in completely different realities. If you are to listen to the extreme of one side, you will hear that gamers are reactionary right-wingers who excuse harassment. If you listen to the extreme of the other side, every critic of GamerGate is a brainwashed activist who thinks liking Hitman Absolution or GTAV makes you worse than Hitler.
Holding up the extremes of both sides is a great way to avoid dialogue. It’s politics – not, as Tadhg Kelly suggests, in the sense of liberals versus conservatives, but in the more fundamental sense of “my side” versus “your side.”
In this article, I’ve attempted to dispel some of the myths that one side has been able to successfully promote in the media, and outline some of the more moderate complaints of GamerGate. To briefly summarize, they are:
- The rise of moral crusaders, with little to no opposition from the gaming media.
- Accusations that gamers are “anti-inclusive,” despite ample evidence that this is not the case.
- Demonization, mischaracterization, and abuse from members of the press.
- An inability to discuss any of the above issues on many popular online communities.
- A press that fails to report on both sides of a contentious story.
TechCrunch, at least, can escape that last charge. But many publications can’t. If there is any way out of this mess, the gaming press has to acknowledge its mistakes.
Gaming shouldn’t be about politics. But so long as it is, be aware that there will always be two stories, not one. At its core, politics is about competing narratives.
If you want a full understanding of GamerGate, be sure to hear both of them.