#GamerGate Is The Future Of Troll Politics

I’ve refrained from talking about GamerGate because the entire thing has been so baffling. The hysteria and name-calling seemed counter-productive and, as a veteran of many flame wars (see BlackBerry, Notion Ink, and Palm) I saw all the signs of a tempest in a teapot that was run through forums and IRC channels and dedicated to putting down dissenting views in favor of self-aggrandizement and claims of victimhood.

So I ignored it. And ignored it. And ignored it. But now I’ve seen the movement’s true goal and I think it’s time to engage.

I’ve been playing games for thirty years. I loved gaming but I was never a dedicated gamer unless you counted hours spent playing Civilization, Skyrim, and Destiny. I introduced gaming to my children and now they are as obsessed as I was back in the NES days when I’d spend months on Zelda and Metroid. But games are entertainment and, in a few rare situations, can be termed art. Art is culture. So why would GG folks refuse to accept the evolution and criticism of their obsession?

Then I read this. And this. And these two articles and I’ve finally come to understand that GamerGate is corrosive and horrible and is actually not about gaming at all. It’s an effort to troll the Internet and has been hijacked by experts in the medium.

To understand this, we must understand that GG supporters are trolling. This is a form of political theatre. Like so many groups before GamerGaters, the goal – if there is a goal – is to confuse and cloud issues and simply have fun. There is nothing serious behind this group except the severity of their threats and bullying. They are a chat room gone out of control and every media reaction, including this one, feeds their glee.

Ostensibly GG is about “journalism bias” in gaming, an issue that deserves inspection but is not as widespread or as damaging as many assume. Gaming journalists and the industry they cover may seem, on the outside, as a cozy pair and we can assume that collusion and marketing dollars steer media opinion. However, I would argue that the truth is far more mundane. Gaming sites sell ads, journalists get paid. If everything is working correctly, there is little connection between the two except for the transfer of cash. However, gaming journalism is a form of access journalism and you are perceived as a failure if you don’t get the hot “scoops” spoon-fed you by PR people. I ran Gizmodo for a few years when access was hard won and often pulled on a whim and when Michael Arrington refused to accept embargoes a few years ago it affected our work at CrunchGear and TechCrunch because we couldn’t get the hot new gadgets when everyone else did. We are not immune to this either but it’s been my goal throughout to move as far from the PR spin cycle as possible.

This is the problem with access journalism – if you don’t get the news directly from the source, you miss the news. Access journalism happens in every industry and in every section of the newspaper including this one. Political reporters depend on relationships just as gaming journalists do. To see this as collusion is naive. Access journalism is frustrating but it’s hardly the Teapot Dome scandal.

The SJW/Feminism/Gaming Change thread is also worth further investigation but is hardly the real issue. That gamers want games to change is not a revolutionary concept. To look at the major blockbusters over the past few decades we can assume that gaming is frozen. Excepting a few hundred indie titles, some MMORPGs, simulation titles, sandbox games, and some excellent RPGs, most games are the same. Imagine if the film industry simply remade the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Commando over and over again with different settings and actors. That’s what the majority of games feel like right now. There are outliers and the outliers are amazing. To state these issues and to ask for indie gamers to get a chance to change this industry is important and good and hardly a reason to threaten a school shooting. If more people feel welcome to play games, the industry can raise money for more games.

So given the paucity of real issues here and the severity of GG trolling, even to the point of death threats, what has happened? The hashtag has been taken over by true trolls who enjoy getting a rise out of people. It happens over and over. Check this out for example. GG supporters attacked Anil Dash, pestering him to admit various things and telling the world that he’s in the pocket of Big Gawker. His only crime was being popular. You can read about one of his accusers here. All of this is an effort to bother someone online and, now that online interactions spill over into the offline world, we are entering dangerous territory.

As an aside, I think the story of writer Kathleen Hale going to track down an online critic is an excellent example of what happens when online trolling spills out into the streets. Hale found her attacker’s address and visited and called her. Many are calling Kathleen mad and a stalker but I would argue she’s simply trying to discuss her issues to a prominent critic who reveled in the attention given her by her unpopular opinions and felt safe in her anonymity. Whether you agree with Hale’s decision to knock on her troll’s door, we can all understand her impetus.

The goal of trolling isn’t to make a point. The goal is to bother someone and watch someone squirm. It happens over and over: like a baleful eye of Sauron, the GG crowd turns to a topic or person and gleefully watches as its messages, emails, and tweets begin to affect the conversation. The Internet gives the voiceless great power and it also gives the troll a great bludgeon.

GamerGate is dead. We’re all catching on. But, as Kyle Wagner writes on Deadpan, we’re going to see much more of this:

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.

Online politicking is not new. But online politicking via the techniques of trolling – the use of pointless arguments to confuse subjects, the desire to get a rise out of the Internet, and the careful management of media through threats and calls of bias – are all coming into the mainstream. GG is a testbed for these tactics. It will be frightening to see these tools being used to address serious subjects and without self-control and granular filtering tools, we’re doomed. I’m not calling for censorship, I just want to be able to ignore the trolls.

GamerGate isn’t about gaming. It’s an embarrassment to gamers and if it truly represented all gamers I would pull the iPads out of my kids’ hands this instant. Good gaming is about creation, wonder, and exploration. Consider my own children: they live in a house where almost every modern game is available to them. I have all of the new consoles and some solid gaming PCs and a fast Internet connection. What are they playing? Minecraft. They love it. When I was a boy I led Link on an adventure into pixelated mountains that my imagination turned into granite peaks. Now, my own kids are exploring worlds of their own creation and oftentimes dream in blocks. Gamers who support GamerGate, for whatever reason, should take note: your kind is aging and your interests are no longer paramount. Troll at your peril because soon you’ll be trolling alone.