So Long #Gamergate. What Did You Teach Us?

Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a games industry consultant, freelance designer and the creator of leading design blog What Games Are. You can follow him on Twitter here.

The hashtag is still going, as are the fervent speculations and plans for operations on 8chan and Reddit, but the movement that is #Gamergate is exposed for what it always was: A core of angry men hidden within a softer (and far more naive) crowd that liked to think of itself as diverse. The shield dropped when someone went too far, someone threatened a school shooting. Someone else threatened another woman in games out of her home. And the response from the key gaters boiled down to an extended “I absolutely don’t condone that sort of thing even if they are asking for it“.

Yeah, that’s game over.

There was a point perhaps six weeks ago when some aspects of the Gamergate argument could be talked about. Perhaps there could have been a reasonable discussion about ethics in the media if that’s what the cause was ever actually about. But of course it wasn’t, as you all know. The doxxings continue and the deranged accusations still come (The latest? Accusing Zoe Quinn of actual murder.). The parrot repetitions drone on without anything approaching a shred of of substance. The tedious hypocrisy of the self-entitled and the ignorant demands to be heard and yet has nothing to say. To be identified as a Gamergater (or gater for short) has become the equivalent of being called a leper back in ancient Rome.

Gamergate is effectively dead. But what, if anything, did it teach us?

1. YouTube Has Become Talk Radio

A number of prominent YouTubers came out in support of Gamergate and helped to propel the message. Some, like Boogie2988 (2m subscribers) were moderates who tried to stick to the principle of the argument and argued against descending into hate. Some like TotalBiscuit (1.5m) were advocates for the intellectual argument behind the movement and sometimes controversial. Many of the smaller Tubers, on the other hand, were gleeful participants in the wackiness, doing their level best to attract subscribers by spinning yarns of blame and rage under the banner of supposedly reasonableness.

The lesson? Vlogging, it seems, is similar but different to blogging. Blogging is debate whereas vlogging is emotive. Blogging goes for the mind where vlogging goes for the heart. Blogging is for older people where vlogging catches the young. In a split very similar to that between conservative talk radio versus liberal written journalism, what we’ve seen is the emergence of a new media of talk radio style hosts on YouTube. Many of them haven’t the first clue what they’re talking about, but they’re speaking to large audiences nonetheless.

This we must all pay attention to, and I don’t just mean in terms of getting YouTubers to Let’s-Play our games. The youth conversation around the medium is happening in this realm more and more, and at the moment its idea spectrum ranges from the moderately conservative to the extremely conservative, and that’s a problem. Games need their NPR equivalent rather than asking Anita Sarkeesian to carry that torch all by herself.

2. Left Behind Syndrome

The typical gater seems to believe that his movement is diverse, his goals reasonable, his quest for objectivity justified and his viewpoint wholly (and conspiratorially) misrepresented by a self-defensive global media. And in this context a great many actions are either justified or tolerated. All sham evidence presented in support is taken on faith whereas all actual evidence against it is attacked on an ad hominem basis or ignored. As has been said by myself and several others, it’s a Tea Party dynamic, self-reinforcing, utterly righteous and highly misinformed.

The lesson? That gamers have long been tribal is not a new revelation, nor is the fact that those tribes are largely led by corporate heroes rather than people. It’s why I keep telling clients that they need a marketing story. Gaters, however, show the extent to which that kind of thinking has become allergic to criticism, and furthermore how perhaps in the rush to change academia and other intellectually rich forums have left them behind. The gaters seem willing to be sold snake oil as long as the seller speaks to their values, and that’s a toxic environment for them to be in.

So, even though it is difficult to contemplate, the largest task facing the industry’s media and educational sector is becoming one of exposure and education. Many of today’s younger gamers seem to only be hearing an inverted logic around their medium of choice and harboring a warped picture of what it is and how it works. We do have to take hearts-and-minds steps to change that.

3. Leigh Alexander Was Right

Leigh Alexander wrote the fierce column on Gamasutra that essentially triggered the Gamergate movement (and earned her endless abuse in the process). She penned this: “Traditional ‘gaming’ is sloughing off, culturally and economically, like the carapace of a bug.” and urged game makers to consider that the gamer-as-culture group didn’t have to be their audience.

Some gamers subscribe to a vision of reality wherein there are over a billion gamers (including iPhone, Facebook players etc – It all depends on your semantic definition of gamer of course, and how wide you cast that net). However any reasonable person would acknowledge that the wider you cast, the more the word itself starts to become normative (like reader, listener, viewer), less a mark of tribe and more an adjective of activity. This is the part that gamer culture does not want to acknowledge. Either gamer means “those who play” or “those who are enthusiasts”. It can’t be both at the same time.

Gamers tend to want to believe that they are at the center of video games (and gaters want to believe that they are the defenders of that center) but this hasn’t been true for a while. The gaming universe has no center, no single Iron Throne that governs the whole show. It is not one unit. It is not one simple duality between “hardcore” and “casual”. That mentality still persists in the gamer mind, but the reality is the market moved far beyond such simplicities a long time ago, and it’s never coming back.

The lesson? She used overly-strong imagery and emotive rhetoric perhaps, but – despite all the shouting and name calling that followed – Leigh Alexander was essentially right, and Gamergate proves it. It’s not a big movement in terms of user numbers, just a very passionate movement. It reflects a declining voice in the landscape of all things game, a voice that screams and resorts to extreme tactics to be heard, but still.

Which leads me to…

4. Reason Prevails

It seemed for a while there that the wider gamer community was either in lock step with gatering, or in tacit agreement. This led to private admitting of depression and doubt between many industry friends on Facebook. (Weirdly, Facebook has become the bastion of calm debate through most of this). We were appalled by the whole thing, embarrassed that it existed, galled by its actions and frustrated by what it said. To have believed that gaming had come so far only to be undone by a month of tween pique and cloaked misogyny is not a pleasant feeling.

And then came the school shooting threat. But after that, finally, hope. Another hashtag arose, #StopGamerGate2014, and with it a much larger volume of tweeters (the silent majority that gaters presumed were on their side) and responders moved to anger. Enough was enough, the larger collective said. So did the gaming media, which had been somewhat kowtowed by the movement because it stood accused. No more. Voice after voice spoke up, said the whole thing was just not okay, that this was not what gamer culture could be allowed to become.

The lesson? Reason finally woke up, as it always does. Much has been written about the capacity of Gamergate and its campaigns to seize agendas and bring the thunder but – as is often the case – what we’re seeing now is how such campaigns always implode. The Internet is not as broken as it appeared. The moderate view takes some time to find a voice, sometimes needing to be propelled by a trigger event that seems just too awful, but eventually makes itself heard. Much as the 2013 government shutdown and high drama over the debt ceiling had the effect of painting the Tea Party as simply irresponsible, the Utah/Sarkeesian and Brianna Wu events have had the same effect on Gamergate.

5. Twitter Is Broken (But Fixable)

Natasha Lomas touched on this already: Gamergate shows the capacity of some social networks to be put to acidic uses – particularly when hit in a co-ordinated fashion. We’ve all had to learn about two-factor authentication learn a new word: doxxing. We’ve seen target lists emerge, forums like 8chan act as hubs and lightning rods, and for a while none of us knew what to do about any of it. That fear is lessened (just say “No Gaters” over and over, adopt it as your policy) but the structural lessons need to be learned.

Especially on Twitter. Twitter is basically four things: The stream of people you follow, the retweet, the #hashtag and the @mention. Those functions provide the affordances of being able to say, to advocate, to join in a conversation and to reply to someone. The first two work well while the third provides much of the platform’s momentum. Like it or loathe it, #gamergate shows how and why hashtags have power.

The problematic function is the @mention. Anyone can @mention you. Anyone can send you a pointed remark or response that is worth considering. But equally anyone can send you a thoughtless insult, a trolling question, or even a stream of harassing tweets like death threats. Twitter pre-supposes consent to being treated thus and your only recourses in that scenario are to manually mute, block, report or take the nuclear option of making your stream protected. You can’t nip them in the bud. The troll, the sealion and the harasser get to damage to your mental state first, and then you have to block them out. This essentially means that Twitter is a bad experience for the power users who drive its use.

My ideal fix would be for Twitter to do these three things:

  1. Provide a “mention privacy” setting. Rather than having to make the choice to fully take your stream private (which defeats the purpose of using the platform to spread ideas) Twitter could allow users the choice of seeing all mentions, or filtering them based on people they follow or people that are verified.
  2. Expand the verified user program. Rather than just make it for celebrities, verified status could become a badge of civility. Twitter could open the program up so anyone could apply for it. And what do you need to do to get verified? How about uploading a scan image of verifiable ID? Then this mark could work with mention filters, and be withdrawn for bad behavior.
  3. Social blocking. The current system is too slow and places the burden on the harassed. Perhaps a group version of the Block function would work (as we saw with BlockTogether) whereby if your followers/followings block someone then Twitter goes ahead and blocks them on your behalf too. This would probably result in multiple groups of people collectively blocking one another, but would that be such a bad outcome? In the end of the day a social network is supposed to be somewhere you want to go rather than dread.

Perhaps then we’d see the end of sockpuppet and trolls accounts and a return to Twitter being used for the purpose for which it was intended.

6. The New Games

Perhaps the biggest lesson is how games themselves have changed. Gamergate is reactionary but that means it’s reacting to something. To what? The sense that games are changing of course. That we now exist in a medium that’s willing to accept personal expression games, games that aren’t conceived in a build-a-better-product mindset, games that don’t fit into the old review score structure that prized function over form.

So much of what Gamergate asserted about itself was that it wanted “objectivity” in journalism, but on closer examination this turned out to mean “function-first games reviewing”. That meritocratic way of looking at the industry and the medium has been with us for so long that for some it seems intrinsic. It isn’t. For the gaters games were presumed to be on a path toward play perfection and have somehow been waylaid by dark forces. In truth games have expanded and embraced, and become a better medium for it.

So much so that I’d call it “The New Games”. If Gamergate is the dying gasp of an old mindset, then these are the birth pangs of the new. We must do what we can to urge that new age in.