Arthur Chu, “The Jeopardy! Guy,” Talks About Gamergate And Web Harassment

Arthur Chu is best known for his odd – but winning – Jeopardy! strategy. He brought a web native’s attitude and methodology to win almost $300,000 on the show. He is now an outspoken anti-Gamergate writer and agreed to answer a few questions regarding his experience bearing the brunt of GG online attacks. You can watch Chu below talking about his strategy – a strategy that may have served him in his online sparring.

TC: You’ve become a fairly vocal anti-Gamergater. Tell us who you are and why this is important to you?

Chu: Well, I’m “the Jeopardy! guy” — that’s how most people know me, anyway. I won a bunch on Jeopardy this February-March, became “controversial” for my demeanor on the show and for my strategy, and as a result ended up being a kind of B-list “nerd celebrity”.

My claim to fame now, I guess, is “leveraging” that celebrity into speaking out publicly about things I care about. I’ve always been a fervent blogger/Internet commentator, as I’m sure everyone else is about things they’re passionate about, but being on TV and momentarily in the spotlight has gotten my foot in the door as far as people actually listening to me.

I was able to write some stuff for The Daily Beast and wrote one article that famously went viral in the wake of the Isla Vista shootings.

The issue of “nerd culture” and how our community has been really bad to the people who don’t fit into the “core demographic” of nerd-dom — how we’ve excluded women, people of color, LGBT people, etc. — has always been important to me. That article kind of pushed me into being a spokesperson for the issue from the POV of male nerds looking at our own sins, and I’ve been going along with the flow of that, trying to speak up where I think I can do good.

I thought, or at least hoped, that the Isla Vista shootings would provoke some self-reflection in the geeky male community about how badly we’ve gone wrong and how badly we need to fix that. And to some degree it has, but to a greater degree it’s provoked a huge wave of defensive reaction, and #Gamergate is one manifestation of that.

Games are really, really important to me. It’s a community I’ve been part of in some way since I was a small child. I proposed to my wife at a gaming convention, as I’ve mentioned before. I’m not an outsider here, so to see people I love and respect in the community painted as outsiders and to be painted as one myself for supporting them is really messed up and painful.

TC: What’s up with people? Has anyone figured it out?

Chu: Well, I wrote a couple things trying to figure it out. This one from Salon is indicative of my stance.

Basically it’s not unique. In many, many communities that see themselves as somehow marginalized or “fringe” you see a tremendous reaction to change, ironically often a very strong reaction against people within those communities who are trying to point out the way those communities themselves are elitist, unfair, exclusionary.

You see it in the science fiction community, with this huge backlash against LGBT writers, writers of color, women writers. There was a whole organized campaign this year at the Hugo Awards to “take back” the Hugos by nominating politically conservative white male writers as a kind of act of spite after no white men won any of the Nebula Awards earlier this year.

It’s a whole thing. I wrote about the Disco Demolition Night in 1979 and the anti-gay, anti-black, anti-woman undertones of the rock fans’ burning hatred of disco music as a genre, and how you see a resurgence of that with the anti-Lilith Fair backlash of the 1990s and people hurling bottles and rocks at Meredith Brooks to get her offstage.

What is special about gaming culture, and I wrote about this too, is that there’s this kind of concentrated toxic entitlement in it that outweighs a lot of other cultures. It’s hard to say exactly why. Gaming has always tended to attract people who feel particularly outcast by society, and in a perverse way has “trained” us to be desperately attached to “winning” in our little simulated realities, to being catered to and made to feel important. It’s a community that, because it’s been cut off from the “mainstream”, has been seen as a refuge for “un-PC” entertainment aimed at straight young men, filled with unapologetic sex and violence. And it’s a community that in the past united and rallied around resistance of Religious Right moral guardians like Jack Thompson, and through that battle kind of got the idea that anyone who criticized gaming on grounds of content must be “another Jack Thompson”.

A whole confluence of unfortunate factors. Who can say exactly why, but “gamer culture” is at this point defiantly and proudly regressive, deeply resistant to what it perceives as external influences and extremely focused on taking vengeance for perceived slights.

Gamergate” itself is not particularly new. It’s the same exact people as the ones who started a massive swell of harassment against Anita Sarkeesian for her Kickstarter. Before Anita had even made a single actual video criticizing sexism in games she got death and rape threats just for proposing to make videos criticizing sexism in games.

These guys have been hanging around in the background ready to spew vitriol on anyone they see as an external invading force “bringing politics into games” or “bringing morality into games”, even though in many cases they’re attacking people who’ve been in the community as long as they have or longer. Ironically they were the ones all on “games journalism”‘s side when they harassed Samantha Allen out of the industry for daring to criticize GiantBomb for its all-white all-male staff.

As always happens this kind of low-level harassment only becomes scary and worthy of attention when it rises to such a fever pitch that publications as a whole, including the privileged white guys who run them, are in the crosshairs. Now that they’ve reached such a fever pitch of paranoia and resentment that they’re attacking everyone in “games journalism” games journalism is fighting back — but those same outlets were all too willing to throw women like Samantha Allen under the bus in the past to keep the mob at bay.

Hell, you can even see it now — Mattie Brice under attack for being a judge for the Independent Games Festival and the IGF taking the coward’s route of proclaiming themselves above the fray so it’s Mattie who takes the brunt of the abuse and not IGF.

TC: Is this just an effort at trolling? Are gamers taking them seriously?

Chu: Not at all, in the sense that I think the emotions here are entirely sincere and the people are entirely earnest. Yes it is a troll, in the sense that these people are targeting individuals they don’t like and doing so in bad faith, and the “ethical” issues they’re bringing up as the justification for doing so are paper-thin and constantly morphing.

It’s absolutely absurd that anyone’s talking about “ethics in games journalism” and focusing their attention on tiny indie shops or individual indie developers who don’t have any money to bribe people with, as opposed to big AAA companies that openly bribe people all the time.

It’s absurd to use the word “corruption” for journalists having relationships/friendships with developers and basing their coverage around that — something that’s inevitable when you have an artistic/indie scene, that you can’t in fact have an indie scene without.

It’s absurd to say that “corruption” means having true, heartfelt moral/political beliefs that you express in a review, and to say that “objective” reviews are possible and should be held up as the ideal for reviewing.

What they want is, objectively, a more corrupt, less ethical press — one where because publications can’t “inject their own agenda” into reviewing they basically have no choice but to parrot the crap AAA studios push out in press releases and churn out reviews praising AAA releases for each new incremental “improvement” in games terms of technology. Turning games into a pure exercise in seeing who can push out the most expensive, bug-free tech and leaving the art out of it entirely — how is that “ethical”?

They directly contradict themselves — they want “unbiased” journalism but they want journalists to also live in quaking fear of their advertisers and to use advertisers to silence any journalists they don’t like. That’s not fighting against bias, that’s fighting for everyone to be biased on their behalf.

And that’s where you see the derangement — Leigh Alexander wrote a column pointing out that these guys and the culture they represent don’t represent gaming because gaming isn’t a monolithic culture and they went about with maximum zeal trying to prove her wrong, demanding to stay the “core demographic” at all costs.

The scary thing here is how much they’re *not* trolling, how desperate and how earnest they truly are, how sincerely they view themselves as a righteous minority with the world arrayed against them.

How seriously are they taken? Well, the core of Gamergate itself is absolutely ridiculous — one of their major voices is a Holocaust denier, they’re embroiled in constant internecine squabbles, their sense of reality is so far gone they’ll believe the most absurd conspiracy theories, including literally believing Nick Denton the CEO of Gawker is paying people on Twitter to pose as Gamergaters and undermine them.

None of the gamers I know in real life are “pro-Gamergate” — they either haven’t heard of it or are appalled by it. The vast majority of important people in the industry who’ve spoken out about it are unequivocally against it.

But that’s not necessarily a reason for optimism. GG itself is a crazy fringe group but it sprang out of fertile soil. Few people would join up with Gamergate to volunteer to spend day-long shifts terrorizing women on Twitter and blasting advertisers with e-mails telling them to drop certain sites. But a lot of people don’t particularly like feminists, don’t like Anita Sarkeesian, don’t have much of a problem with games the way they are and therefore don’t see why they should lift a finger to stop Gamergate from doing what they’re doing.

Just like relatively few Americans even in red states were ever “in the Tea Party”, but red-state culture still did a ton to enable the Tea Party and provide the fertile soil for it to grow in.

TC: What’s the solution here? What’s the endgame?

Chu: Gamergate’s never going to “concede” or “surrender” — anyone left in the movement after all the horrible stuff that’s happened is by definition going to be too entrenched to do any such thing.

But the movement’s gotten crazier and crazier over time and must of necessity eventually collapse under its own crazy. Some people say that’s already happened with the bizarre “Nick Denton is paying fifth columnists” rumor that sent everyone finger-pointing in all directions. Or with one of their major commentators going on a Holocaust denial rant that “split the base” over whether they should expel him or keep him over that.

I don’t know. I do think it’s important, as Brianna Wu said, to “draw a line in the sand” and make it clear that what they’re about is unacceptable and that if they’re going to continue to be about that they won’t find friends or shelter in the industry. Blizzard speaking out against them recently was very important.

I mean, the actual substantive damage they can do is FUD (spreading Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt). They’ve done what they’ve done so far by bombarding advertisers who aren’t aware of anything with e-mails telling them horrible things about their enemies and succeeding in getting advertisers to pull out — Intel from Gamasutra, Mercedes from Gawker.

But the more people hear about their awfulness, the more media coverage they get, the more in-the-know advertisers like Blizzard stand up and reject them, the harder that will be to get away with. I think it’s already not working as well — in-the-know tech and games companies are all ignoring them now and so they have to focus their letter campaign against non-tech companies.

Eventually once their reputation is shot enough, they stop winning regular victories and they start getting demoralized, people will peel off just from fatigue. This is always what’s happened with 4chan hate mobs before (including Project Chanology, the anti-Scientology 4chan “operation”, which is one of the rare ones I approve of).

I think Gamergate will always be around as a kind of “voting bloc” or base camp within our subculture, a sort of sub-subculture. But they can’t keep up this intensity forever, nor is it actually possible for them to “win” and achieve their goals, so in the end they become a bloc of perpetual grumblers, or “grognards” as they’d say in French — which is the slang term for the angry reactionary old guys in tabletop gaming like D&D. We’re just seeing what happened in tabletop gaming not long ago repeat itself in video gaming, only on a much larger scale because video gaming is a much larger industry.

TC: What can we do to prevent this sort of thing? Is there any sort of cure in the subculture?

Chu: I don’t think there’s any way to stop the sentiments that drive this sort of thing from welling up — you’ll never have progress without reactionaries. But the specific ways they have caused harm are the result of specific engineering decisions made in designing the social media sites we all use. It’s telling that they were chased out of Reddit, chased out of 4chan, chased out of comments sections and forums — but they seized on Twitter as the perfect tool for getting out their message, because blasting Twitter with noise is very easy. Twitter is almost designed to facilitate large mobs of anonymous people harassing high-profile targets — the ability for you to talk smack directly to a celebrity you don’t like is a huge part of Twitter’s appeal that Twitter won’t admit to.

If Twitter had much more robust blocking/filtering services so that it was easy to keep Gamergate from getting the attention and validation they crave by successfully disrupting the lives of people they hate, then Gamergate would be losing a lot more steam by now. But that’s a key facet of how Twitter works that the company seems to be unwilling to change because it directly impacts their business model.

We need to have a conversation, in general, about how women can’t go anywhere on the Internet without suffering this constant low-level degradation and abuse (that occasionally flares up into alarming, high-level degradation and abuse) and how the way we’ve designed our technological systems aids and abets the social systems that are the real problem. Soraya Chemaly’s written about this, and it’s become one of the major issues I care about in tech.