Visitors to New Discourses are likely to be familiar with the Evergreen State College protests, a series of incidents in 2017 that arguably arose by teaching students to be activists for intersectionality under the umbrella of Social Justice. This is an ideology obsessed with identity and demanding equity in all areas on the basis of innate traits, like race. Innate traits either make a whole identity group “marginalized” or “privileged” according to the ideology.
As many will be aware, the scholarship underlying this ideology stands on very shaky ground, however. This was exposed with great clarity by Peter Boghossian, James Lindsay, and Helen Pluckrose and their Grievance Studies papers, published in 2018 to highlight the weaknesses in the academia that promotes this ideology. Throughout this time, more and more people have become aware of its regressive and illiberal mindset. We are now witnessing in real time how this identity focused ideology is used to harass and intimidate innocent people and offer up amoral justifications for the burning of businesses.
I’d like to position the eruption at The Evergreen State College as a canary in the Woke coal mine—a warning about what could happen to any institution that takes on this ideology to a significant enough degree. Moreover, while the Evergreen protests are the most recognizable such canary, others preceded it, and these are not necessarily as well-known as Evergreen has become.
Two Prior Canaries
For example, one of the earliest large-scale rumblings of this ideology reared its head during Occupy Wall Street in 2011. The intersectional “Progressive Stack” was introduced there as a means to prioritize speakers based on innate traits, and this approach undermined egalitarianism and naturally favored special interests. The goal of Occupy Wall Street, to tackle financial corruption and wealth inequality, quickly became fragmented by ever more divisive subsets of identity politics, and the movement eventually fell apart without achieving much beyond further frustrating those who believed in it.
In the same year, there was the “Elevatorgate” drama, as it was called, that contributed to the fracturing of the skeptic and atheist communities and eventual collapse of the New Atheism Movement. It is not well-known, but the New Atheism movement is probably the first very clear example of a Critical Social Justice takeover that led in a causal way to its collapse. In that sense, the New Atheism Movement was among the earliest of the canaries in the Woke coal mine to drop dead.
Though the point of this piece is not to tell that story in full, it deserves some telling in brief. Rebecca Watson is the founder of Skepchick, “skepticism from a woman’s perspective.” The “Elevatorgate” scandal erupted after she made a “vlog”-style video in a hotel in Dublin, Ireland, in which she sought to address how being asked to coffee in an elevator at 4 a.m. after a party at the conference she was attending made her uncomfortable—a discomfort she projected onto all, or at least most, women and used to accuse the Atheism Movement and community of sexist and misogynistic biases that prevent the advancement of women within the movement’s ranks. “Guys, don’t do that,” she scolded, patronizing (atheist) men as a group.
Under already mounting tensions from feminists in the Atheism Movement, this particular video resulted in a backlash, which Richard Dawkins eventually participated in. Dawkins, finding the juxtaposition of Watson’s momentary discomfort in an elevator in a highly progressive environment laughable given the treatment of women under Islamist theocracies, penned a mocking open letter, “Dear Muslima,” by way of reply, indicating that her plight under Islamist misogyny has to be set aside because of the ostensibly greater plight of young Western feminist women getting asked out in hotel elevators at progressive conferences in nice hotels in the West. This letter then led to a backlash to the backlash from figureheads in the community, which began to fragment around the issue as people rapidly took sides that were quickly cast as being anti-sexist and sexist. Those who didn’t take Watson seriously were, at best, labelled “privileged,” and this drama spiraled out even into defining conventions, their speaker lists, and their policies (which we would now understand as “inclusion” policies).
By the next year, in 2012, the fracturing of the skeptic and atheist communities continued as “Atheism Plus” (or “Atheism+”) came on the scene. Atheism Plus was an attempt to make atheism more than just disbelief in god/s and define what it means to be a good atheist. The plus meant Atheism PLUS feminism and atheism PLUS social justice, and it was declared “the name for what’s happening” by one of its early adopters, the historian Richard Carrier (who was later pilloried by it on accusations of sexual misconduct within the Atheism Movement). The spaces for advocates of Atheism Plus were described as “safe spaces” and made hostile to outsiders, with crudely phrased rulebooks including policies against “JAQing off” (Just Asking Questions). Atheism Plus did not like to be questioned, and its most obvious activity was attempting to problematize the luminaries and lights of the movement, which it still continues to this day (despite the movement having effectively dissolved almost five years ago).
A Niche Canary
Among the canaries in the Woke coal mine that fell dead before Evergreen, there was at least one more significant case that, perhaps because (like with New Atheism) it happened within a rather niche affinity group. This was “GamerGate,” as it was called, and we have just passed its sixth anniversary. GamerGate is the primary topic of this essay, as I believe it will be instructive to the reader to understand more about what a Woke takeover looks like to try to bring its details to broader attention.
GamerGate took place in the world of video gaming (or just “gaming”), and it arose through gaming journalism and gaming academia, which is to say (mostly feminist) media studies as applied to the media of video games. These fields dedicated to analyzing gaming have been rife with ethical conflicts of interest, demands for censorship, and conformity to their ideology. One feature that makes GamerGate different from other canaries in the Woke coal mine—which could be very instructive in our present situation—is that gamers fought back with considerable success. In significant numbers and with significant influence, gamers rallied around the term “GamerGate” and stood up for their hobby.
To be clear, while I’ve referred to gaming as “niche,” it is anything but. It’s merely a somewhat paradoxical hobby where people who aren’t involved with it are generally unaware of its significance, scope, and influence. The scale of gaming is, in fact, enormous. The video game industry is currently outpacing every other creative medium, with more than 2.5 billion players and the industry set to reach a worth of $256.97 billion by 2025. What non-gamers may not realize is the sheer breadth and depth of creative quality that has been available in video games for decades, and the resilience of the gaming community to previous ideological demands for censorship and moral panics.
Put in that light, GamerGate can be understood to have been a massive consumer-based revolt—indeed, a rebellion—that transcended borders, nationalities, political affiliation, and identity. GamerGaters rebelled against the faux-authority of corrupt journalists and the biased scholarship they leaned upon. They rebelled against a clique of abusive and connected individuals trying to cloak their misdeeds in the language of intersectional “Social Justice.” In reply, GamerGate supporters stood up for the spirit of individualism, egalitarianism, and free expression that defines the gaming community and the broader political mood in which it resides.
Supporters of GamerGate also understood what was at stake and therefore took a stand that had incredible longevity and popularity and gave voice to people with who had been denied a platform by an insular press. GamerGate supporters made successful use of social media via YouTube, Reddit, Twitter, and the “Chan” boards to counter a moral panic narrative set against the gaming community. There were also in-real-life meetups in different countries. They created a mascot in Vivian James when 4chan’s /v/ board donated $23,000 to The Fine Young Capitalists, a women-in-gaming group that was attacked by high-profile Social Justice trolls. Vivian James is, as a result, seen across much of GamerGate’s artwork.
More than that, GamerGate was expansive, occupying an incredible amount of activity across a very wide audience that was largely unnoticed outside of gaming due to the peculiar insularity of gaming as an affinity. The issue was addressed—and battled out—on social media to the tune of many hundreds of thousands of tweets per month (on Twitter alone) over an extended period of time.
For all of this activity, while GamerGate had achieved some important victories—changes to ethics policies across gaming sites, successful e-mail campaigns to the Federal Trade Commission, as well as e-mail campaigns to the advertisers of Gawker, and donations to charities among other achievements—GamerGate supporters paid the price in becoming a media boogieman and scapegoat: “Gamergate is loud, dangerous and a last grasp at cultural dominance by angry white men,” wrote feminist anti-GamerGater Jessica Valenti. This split outcome is typical of Woke hostility in an organization, institution, or affinity, and it is the reason many such entities, like the New Atheism Movement, don’t survive the attempted coup. When dealing with a slash-and-burn ideology like Critical Social Justice, it seems all victories on either side of the resulting culture skirmish are Pyrrhic.
I hope that the rest of this essay will help people better understand what GamerGate was, how it unfolded, and what its story as a canary in the Woke coal mine can tell us as we go forward. It has been said that “we’re all Evergreen now,” but it could likewise be said that we’re all GamerGate now.
For those who know anything about GamerGate, they know it has something to do with ethics in video games journalism (and related media scholarship). In fact, GamerGate arose out of a scandal in gaming journalism. Specifically, Kotaku journalist Nathan Grayson was giving coverage to games developer Zoë Quinn across multiple articles without disclosing their relationship, first in 2012 and then in 2014. They had a personal relationship since at least June of 2012, and Grayson had been involved with Quinn’s peculiar game Depression Quest, offering to consult, described as a tester by Quinn, and his name is in the credits. Grayson covered Quinn and her game in Kotaku, the biggest gaming journalism site, and Rock, Paper, Shotgun, with no disclosures across three favorable articles. The true nature of the relationship between Zoë Quinn and Nathan Grayson—and thus the unethical favoritism being showed to her—started to come to light at the end of August in 2014, when Eron Gjoni’s Zoe Post made the revelation. Quinn was in a relationship with Gjoni and cheating on him with Grayson.
A great deal of misinformation surrounds what lead to the GamerGate scandal. It is frequent to hear the talking point that there was “no review” of Depression Quest, despite the three articles. It is also common to hear that it doesn’t matter if there was coverage because the game is free (when in fact Quinn has received thousands of dollars in donations and therefore benefited from publicity). Another talking point is that the sexual relationship between Grayson and Quinn hadn’t yet started when Grayson wrote his coverage, something that isn’t clear from the timeline of events.
Now, while an accusation of trading sex for positive reviews of a very unlikely game in a major gaming outlet makes for salacious gossip, it isn’t actually relevant. His friendship with Quinn and apparent involvement with the game alone should have been disclosed by Grayson in his coverage. Many gamers were of the belief that this undisclosed relationship is possibly enough reason to conclude he was too close to Quinn ethically provide journalistic coverage—whether that coverage counts as reviews or not. This is a clear ethical standard, backed up by the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, as well as comments from the former SPJ President elect Lynn Walsh, who spoke at the SPJ organized event Airplay in which independent panellists listened to GamerGate’s case. “Act independently and be transparent. If there is a relationship between you or your company and the product, in this case a game, or the game developer, that should be disclosed. I would say to disclose that,” Walsh noted. (It bears remembering here just how big an industry and affinity group gaming is to understand the importance of these journalistic ethics.)
To provide context to this entire murky affair, behind the drama and the journalistic conflict of interest Gjoni exposed lurked a potentially relevant issue of an abusive relationship between he and Quinn, as much of the scandal involved taking the words of the relevant characters as it unfolded. Gjoni’s chat logs show a relationship in which Quinn constantly lied to him, manipulated him emotionally (including with the threat of suicide), and cheated on him with at least five different men. Furthermore, a consistent pattern appears throughout these chat logs; Quinn only owns up to the truth when Gjoni makes it clear he’ll break up with her, and even then she keeps more hidden that she thinks she can get away with. It is worth noting that Quinn repeatedly made the point that cheating is equivalent to rape, which calls into question her trustworthiness on the relevant claims.
This isn’t merely a matter of Quinn’s, or anyone else’s trustworthiness, however. As Social Justice and feminism are relevant to the entire topic, it is a matter of some significance. As we reflect on these events now that the sixth anniversary of the GamerGate scandal’s unfolding has passed, we see a risk of repeating the same misinformation and reliance upon semantic games characterizing descriptions of the Grayson/Quinn ethics scandal. These are the main pillar upon which the broader media has sought to rest its case that GamerGate supporters’ concerns are based on falsehoods, and upon which they make the case, using Quinn as sympathetic character, that GamerGate (as a movement) is characterized as a hate group against women.
Ethics in Gaming Journalism
There had been many infamous concerns of journalistic ethics in gaming prior to August 2014, when the scandal began. The firing of Jeff Gertsmann from Gamespot after giving a less-than-stellar review to a game heavily advertised by the site constitutes one example. These prior concerns, the revelation of Nathan Grayson’s conflict of interest, the subsequent censorship of discussion across gaming sites and social media, the uncovering of more cronyism in gaming media, and the demonization of those questioning the journalists involved all sparked GamerGate.
Actor Adam Baldwin first coined the term on the 27th August of 2014 in a tweet which linked to Internet Aristocrat’s “Quinnspiracy” videos. Amidst GamerGate’s concerns of cronyism and insularity, on August 28, 2014, ten different articles were released, all with the same negative narrative about gamers. That narrative has been dubbed “gamers are dead” and used to make Social Justice-related claims about gamers and the broader gaming community that are maliciously untrue.
Dan Golding, for example, wrote, “What we are seeing is the end of gamers, and the viciousness that accompanies the death of an identity…,” indicating that GamerGater’s complaints were not grounded in anything legitimate and were, instead, a reaction against their alleged loss of status as the true “gamer” identity. “Make no mistake: this is the exertion of power in the name of (male) gamer orthodoxy,” he went on, making the issue about sex-based identity politics rather than journalistic ethics.
Gamers against the emerging narrative were characterized even more maliciously by Leigh Alexander, who wrote, “These obtuse shitslingers, these wailing hyper-consumers, these childish internet-arguers—they are not my audience. They don’t have to be yours. There is no ‘side’ to be on, there is no ‘debate’ to be had.” This particularly malicious characterization was echoed by Arthur Chu, who claimed that the scandal was about male entitlement: “The subset of entitled, belligerent gamers convinced that being ‘objectively’ right entitles them to defend their rightness by any means necessary are overwhelmingly male.” One will note that even then, the Social Justice-related war on objectivity was already of some relevance.
Compounding the issue, many of the writers and editors who took part in “gamers are dead” narrative against skeptical gamers were also found to be members of a private mailing group known as GameJournoPros. This gatekeeping network was seen by many GamerGate supporters as confirmation that the same people engaged in journalistic malpractice and nepotism were also manufacturing an illegitimate moral panic around gamers. It quickly became apparent to many GamerGate supporters that the same framing around identity politics in gaming journalism—“scary white men who don’t want diversity”—was a growing problem across wider media, a dynamic we now see as routine, effective, and consequential.
Making matters worse, one of the ringleaders of the “gamers are dead” narrative, Leigh Alexander, simultaneously produced particularly egregious examples of unethical journalism. She was one of many gaming journalists who provided coverage to Quinn without disclosing their relationship, and she had developed a reputation for bullying gamers who she believed had the wrong views on these issues. As with Quinn, she also happens to be a woman, and is therefore frequently cited as an authoritative source on the alleged misogyny of GamerGate supporters. This is a common pattern in Woke takeovers, thus a key point in discussing canaries in the Woke coal mine: certain apparently dishonest actors are granted a special kind of identity-based immunity and use it to intimidate and bully any opposition.
Social Justice Moral Panic
The dynamic is both obvious and predictable (just like it played out in the New Atheism Movement). Article after article appeared, weaving a bogus narrative of an “overwhelmingly male” gamer identity that felt “threatened” by the inclusion of women into their sphere. Male gamers just didn’t want to change themselves or the gaming-community “status quo,” as though they’re afraid of being decolonized, if you will. Alongside these, others argued in contradictory fashion that most gamers are women anyway.
The gaming and gaming-community “status quo” is the most relevant of their targets, however. Part of this has to do with the way (male) gamers behave with each other and with (or around) female gamers. Another part of it has to do with the content of the games themselves. This brings feminist media studies to bear on the matter of gaming as a form of media, and it opens up a well-worn pathway to arguing that sexism, racism, and misogyny written into games with a variety of consequences, including socializing gamers into these attitudes (and violence) and making certain gamers feel like they cannot play the games and enjoy them. All of this is thought to be a self-reinforcing dynamic that keeps gamers and gaming communities overwhelmingly male and white and, to boot, hostile to women and minorities.
The philosophy that informs this ideological demand can be traced to critical theory and postmodernism, which hold the belief that issues like sexism are systemic. The language of postmodernism is laced through the work of academics at DiGRA (Digital Games Research Association). For example, consider this passage from Soraya Murray,
Using key concepts from critical whiteness studies, popular panics around the demographic shifts in the U.S. away from a white majority, and Richard Dyer’s theorizations, I show how “making whiteness strange” can decouple it from the normative, and rescues it from unattainable ideals and self-annihilating tendencies…
Whiteness operates in duplicitous ways as both a universal expression of humanity – which has ideological consequences – and as a specific form of identity politics that goes unrecognized as such. (“Playing Whiteness in Crisis in The Last of Us and Tomb Raider”)
Another clear example can be found in other DiGRA publications, such as,
‘Everyone in the room should be scared, as everyone in the industry is scared. Doing the right thing is going to hurt, but that’s the only way to make progress…’
‘Part of the reason to be scared is a perception of a lack of power, but we have more power than we think…’
‘Fear is actually part of the problem. Figure out what you have and how to best use it. How can you exploit the system and use it to your best advantage?’ (from The Playful is Political: A fishbowl conversation on Identity and diversity in game culture, DiGRA 2014)
This particular form of social theory tends to make people who believe it unable to understand genuine diversity of opinion because it ascribes specific types of unjust motivations to people who do not agree with it (which arises from the doctrines of false consciousness and self-interest of the privileged at the heart of the ideology). As a result, academics who investigated the issue of GamerGate are among the most confused and misleading voices to have weighed in on it.
For example, Darren Wershler is a Research Chair in Media and Contemporary Literature. There is audio of him discussing GamerGate with his students. The details of individual opinions and actions of genuine GamerGate supporters are therein showed to be irrelevant to Wershler; it’s the “larger systemic societal problems” that matter to him. This is, of course, absurd; it’s by looking at the details we know what happened. Nevertheless, Wershler declared these kinds of details are just the fluff—when it’s actually the entire conversation and its full context around GamerGate that matters—so he’s avoiding them.
Although they’ve become utterly commonplace by now, Wershler’s arguments were not easily grasped at the time. He engaged in the typical Social Justice unfalsifiable reasoning: we just know women and racial minorities in gaming present an “ontological threat” to gamers because “society is sexist,” “society is racist,” these are “systemic societal problems” that threaten established privilege.
When some students offer counter-arguments, Wershler tends to double-down into this unfalsifiable morass. This tendency is clearly audible in the recording. For example, a student states, “It’s my opinion not healthy for society to view certain things as set in stone and have it be presented to students and individuals in dogmatic fashion.” Another student says, “You’re saying this at the beginning, saying that we ‘live in a sexist society, we live in a racist society, full stop’ it kinda shuts down debate because you’re using your authority to basically shut down any dissenting views.” In an even more specific example, when a student raises biology as a factor for why people make certain career decisions, Wershler responds “biology is a discourse.” GamerGate being “sexist” and “racist” is, to Wershler, set in stone, yet biology is a “discourse.” It’s apparent he is frustrated by this student pushback. “I am the fucking professor,” he replies, appealing to his authority to dismiss disagreement.
Another example of this sort of authoritarian mindset appears in the case of Anita Sarkeesian, a controversial figure uniquely promoted and protected by games journalism and wider media. The (identity-based) special treatment of Sarkeesian’s anti-empirical arguments about sexism and violence in video games having real-world effects was yet another source of frustration for a large part of the gaming audience who disagrees with her. Anita is seen by GamerGate as a moral authoritarian who uses real life violence against women as a pretext for her moral criticisms of the content of video games. For example, she writes,
Games don’t exist in a vacuum and therefore can’t be divorced from the larger cultural context of the real world. It’s especially troubling in light of the serious real life epidemic of violence against women facing the female population on this planet…
It’s dangerously irresponsible to be creating games in which players are encouraged and even required to commit violence against women in order to save them. (from Damsel in Distress: Part 2 – Tropes vs Women in Video Games)
Of course, there’s no evidence for such claims, and some evidence points in the other direction as Sarkeesian claims. That doesn’t matter, though, because as is the case with DiGRA, Critical Social Justice postmodernism informs Anita’s positions,
I learned to see through a sociological lens and understand the world as it really exists as a series of intersecting social systems. Once you have a systemic and institutional framework you see how oppression manifests in many subtle ways under the systems of what bell hooks calls white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. So not only did I have to learn how to be a feminist, I also had to learn how to be a feminist who understands systems…
When you start learning about systems everything is sexist, everything is racist, everything is homophobic and you have to point it all out to everyone all the time… we have to understand this as systems… because that’s fundamentally challenging power dynamics. We don’t want equality within these oppressive systems, we want to create actual real equity.’ (from How to Be a Feminist Panel, All About Women 2015)
Sarkeesian’s answer to this alleged problem—again, which has no genuine evidence supporting it but is instead based in a theoretical view of the world that simply asserts these claims—is literally authoritarianism. She states, “We need to either make them fear in some way that they’re not going to sell their game or they could sell their game more if they did this. Somehow challenging them and making them feel like they have to do this, they have to include this.”
The theme, derived from an activist and postmodernist study of media (not evidence), is common in the GamerGate-relevant media. For example, there are many calls to make changes to video games on the Social Justice moral grounds, many of which take the form of click-bait articles. Polygon writer Colin Campbell offered a defense of censorship in his article lambasting Grand Theft Auto V for misogyny, writing,
Take-Two wants to frame a decision by Australian retailers (to take the game off their shelves) as an issue of consumer rights and free speech. It wants you to be mad at the gall of the petition that questions GTA 5’s portrayal of the brutal murder of sex workers.
Whether Campbell wants to acknowledge it or not, what he is demanding is censorship of an adult game whose players will clearly understand that it is about criminals. While there can always be room for an open and spirited debate about these issues, the reasons given to justify censorship—if and when they are appropriate at all—should still matter. They should be rooted in evidential arguments, when possible, and clear ethical precepts that admit discussion and debate.
A censor is “a person who examines books, movies, letters, etc., and removes things that are considered to be offensive, immoral, harmful to society, etc.” The reasons given for wanting to censor Grand Theft Auto V boil down to the game’s portrayal of the brutal murders of sex workers, which is, in fact, a possibility within the game. Bear in mind, however, that this is a game that was designed and designated for adults who will understand that the game places the player in the shoes of a criminal. That is, it is a game explicitly about engaging in criminal behavior, and players will know this going into it. It therefore bears mentioning that there isn’t any evidence that video games have any impact at all on the player’s actual behaviour in reality. No causation that players will be socialized into violence, as social constructivism maintains, has been demonstrated, and even correlation is absent. As video game sales have risen, youth violence has declined. Evidence linking video games to sexism is similarly lacking. The “portrayal” argument can be forwarded but depends upon a social theory that lacks robust support and that stands in the face of evidence, so many gamers have argued that it is not a sufficient cause for censorship of the game.
Furthermore, the typical Critical Social Justice double-standard (rooted in “systemic power dynamics”) applies in this case as well, further frustrating people who want fair treatment of their games. Grand Theft Auto V is a sandbox in which players can choose to make their pixilated avatar kill absolutely any non-player-character in the game, none of whom are real. The vast majority of fictional pixel characters the player has to murder to complete the game’s story missions are male, yet “brutal murders of men” is not how Campbell frames his concern. Instead, it is cast into the context of a moral panic about violence against women that, again, isn’t supported by any evidence whatsoever.
By comparison, consider some examples of violent non-video game media. Scarface. The Sopranoes. Breaking Bad. A litany of Stephen King novels. There are endless movies, television shows, and books that portray graphic violence done against innocent people, including women. Feminist media critics have gone after this media for decades, and, again, they have no evidence—only their social theories—to back up their claims. Accordingly, their arguments haven’t led to the kinds of changes they demand. Only age restrictions and ratings, which also apply to video games, stand up to scrutiny, and mature-rated media is not censored for violence of any kind. Thus, if we can accept video games as a valid medium for expression, we can accept that there will be titles intended for adults who understand the difference between fiction and reality and that fiction is not an endorsement of real world behaviour. A player could murder 10,000 digital representations of people in Grand Theft Auto V, and it would not become any more real.
These types of moral panics fall under the umbrella of what I call the Equilibrium fallacy. Equilibrium is a philosophical action film from 2002 that was heavily influenced by George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Equilibrium portrays a dystopian society in which art and emotions are banned under the premise that this would lead to a more peaceful society. In this world, art is dangerous as it risks provoking an emotional reaction, so it all must be burned. The fallacy lies in the belief that media socializes people into the kinds of behaviors that it depicts.
The act of censorship of art in reality, as it is in the movie, is highly degrading, repressive of the human spirit, which yearns for expression, and based on false premises. Media, fiction, and art can convey politics, as well as strong themes and emotions, but critics need to get a grip and understand their limitations and the contexts in which people engage with it. Acknowledging that media doesn’t have a “monkey-see monkey-do” effect on its consumers but nevertheless claiming “media’s influence is subtle and helps to shape our attitudes, beliefs and values for better and for worse” only puts the burden of proof back a step and puts a person in a position in which they cannot possibly anticipate which media is going to negatively impact them.
The Shame Game
By pushing itself through the emotions of moral panics about harms against perceived victims, the analysis beneath the failures that led to GamerGate lead to a widespread culture of shaming that points overwhelmingly in a single direction: from Social Justice to everyone they disagree with. Nathan Grayson, for example, has involved himself in the shaming of developers. Consider the following example from when he worked for the outlet Rock, Paper, Shotgun.
Shaming over “sexed-up female characters,” or the entire idea of making female characters in games sexually appealing is another significant aspect of the postmodern Social Justice criticism of gaming and, by extension, gamers. This also led to GamerGate and contributed to many of its core battles.
For instance, another game journalist took to social media in an attempted moral shaming of Yoko Taro, director of the game NieR: Automata, as well as a 31-year-old woman cosplaying as the character 2B from the game, who asked him to sign her thigh. The problem was alleged to be that 2B is portrayed in an overly sexualized way in wearing a short, high-split leather dress, black thigh-high stockings, and thigh-high leather boots, and therefore the older Yoko Taro, also the developer, acted inappropriately by signing her (a fan’s) thigh. According to the critics, these power dynamics needed to be critically interrogated, especially given the sexualized costume.
Aside from this condescending attempted shaming of consenting adults engaging in that behavior, the character design of 2B has faced claims it may be divisive merely for being too sexy, which is alleged to exclude women from enjoying the game. Yet NieR: Automata’s sales are over four million units, and it’s popular with women. The Social Justice clique has a remarkably prudish idea of “sexy = sexism”: that portraying characters as sexually attractive and provocatively clad (specifically women) is somehow disempowering to women—apparently because male players will find them interesting for their looks instead of their abilities.
As with the case involving Yoko Taro, this view opens up female fans to being shamed for liking the “wrong” kinds of media. It also ignores the opinions of and gaslights women who enjoy these characters, cosplay as them at conventions, and have a more complex view of sexy women in media than their Social Justice critics. There are women who are vocal about missing the classic sexy and confident Lara Croft (Tomb Raider), for example, and who are noticing that more recent Western character designs for women in games are becoming uniform and bland. This is reflective of the point of view of many women who voiced their support for GamerGate.
These ideas aren’t even limited to GamerGate supporters. As put by Melonie Mac, who has not expressed support for GamerGate at all,
Sexy and objectified are two completely different things… [On marketing] I don’t even think having Lara in a bath towel or topless on a beach is even objectifying at all. It’s sexy but in those renders she looks very confident and in control and not in some compromising situation…
[In response to Anita Sarkeesian] In my eyes saying a woman in shorts is objectifying is honestly an extremely oppressive message…
I love to see a variety of body types and a straight-up-and-down body type is a part of that… I love seeing it represented. However, it’s kind of that safe-zone at the moment and it’s starting to feel like most every progressive character is built this way now. If you look at Mortal Kombat 11 for example.
Female voices within the sphere of GamerGate support, like the commenter who goes by the moniker “ShadowWalker,” have put it even more directly: “I’m more of a sex positive feminist than a sex negative feminist. So, I don’t have a problem with boobs in video games.” The question is why opinions like these are expected to be discounted while those of the “Social Justice” feminists have to be taken on faith, and the reason is because their theoretical view of the world doesn’t allow for other opinions. This authoritarianism and shaming culture were central to many of the complaints of the GamerGate supporters. It was and still is a regular occurrence to see the ideologues making moral judgements about people enjoying content they don’t approve of.
Anita Sarkeesian replied characteristically in this vein, speaking about the issue in a totalitarian way that only admits one possible understanding, which is rooted in feminist media studies, which most people and most gamers do not accept or want forced upon them or their lives:
You can like the games, you can play the games, you can be a fan of the games, the games can have had a positive impact on your life but Lara Croft was designed specifically to be a sexualized object in order to appeal to male players. She is the definition of male gaze. These types of arguments, intentional or not, perpetuate the status quo by making excuses for sexism. You can like whatever the hell you want but don’t pretend water isn’t wet.
This kind of moral puritanism used to be expected from the right wing. There are many classic examples from the past, such as fundamentalist religious groups convinced Dungeons & Dragons would lead to satanism and suicide. Although, right-wing figures do still come out with some absolute whoppers of media moral panic, it’s just as wrongheaded, and wrong, whether it comes from the left or the right. (Take, for a good example, the tweet by right-wing critic Paul Joseph Watson that read, “Musicians who release ‘depressing’ music need to realise that they are making people kill themselves just to appear ‘edgy’ and ‘alternative’ while raking in millions of dollars. No. You need to stop being inauthentic zoomer killers. Try putting out a positive message. Frauds.”)
These kinds of connections between media content, morality, and real-world behaviour may seem intuitively obvious to people like Paul Joseph Watson and Anita Sarkeesian, but the evidence isn’t there that any of this matters at all. They haven’t fulfilled their burden of proof. Anita Sarkeesian cannot meaningfully distinguish her claims from Paul Joseph Watson’s concern that sad music leads to suicide, or that Dungeons and Dragons is satanic and also leads to suicide. In the words of Kyle from South Park, “Either it is all ok. Or none of it is.”
These kinds of unevidenced and totalitarian attitudes, moral panics, shaming behaviours, double-standards, and cronyist violations of ethics (particularly in journalism) are characteristic of what happened with GamerGate. They are symptoms of the underlying ideology and how it views the world and its role in shaping the world. Learning to see these patterns can help us understand ways that the Social Justice ideology can move into an organization or affinity group and tear it apart from within—even if people fight back.
One unfortunate aspect of it having been six years since GamerGate is that some videos that explain the GG view point are gone, deleted or removed, or made private, like the “Girls of GamerGate” series and Threedog’s GamerGate News Radio, which had some exceptional conversations that are now lost, though some videos still exist. Unfortunately, it can therefore be quite difficult—requiring deep dives six years back into the internet, often digging through archives—to find evidence of the diversity of GamerGate supporters and dispel the “GamerGate was angry white men against diversity in gaming” activist narrative. To counter this narrative, diverse supporters of GamerGate often rallied around the hashtag #NotYourShield. Gaming journalists and those indulging in identity panic often presume that they’re speaking for diverse identities and so presume to use them as a shield.
By considering examples of how the #NotYourShield hashtag was used, we can get some insight into the kind of diversity that ideological bullying by the Social Justice activists try to deny. Here are several examples:
“I’m the mother of two neuroatypical gamers. I support GamerGate and NotYourShield because I will not tolerate the vilification of autistic or neroatypical traits in gaming press and mainstream media. Social awkwardness is not a crime.”
“Hi, my name is Lauren, I’m a gamer and I’m NotYourShield. I don’t hate men, I don’t hate women, I hate unethical journalism and I want to see it gone.”
“I support GamerGate because I’m against corruption, lack of transparency and unethical behaviour from game journalism. I’m tired of the media misrepresenting me.”
“I’m Navisavvygamer. I am pro GamerGate and a supporter of hashtag NotYourShield. I have been accused of being a sock puppet account on multiple occasions and I’m tired of people deciding what I should think because I’m a woman. I can make decisions on my own. Thank you.” (from Giving Voice to the Voiceless: The #NotYourShieldProject)
The narrative that the Social Justice gaming activists wanted to forward is that GamerGate was just about straight white males who were angry that they were losing their privilege. This is a strawman, and yet where are actual straight white males left against this narrative? The demands of intersectional Social Justice are such that they’re to be treated with suspicion, derision, a lack of empathy, and accusations of privilege because of their identities, as are anyone who supports them. To bring up privilege on the basis of identity is often a conversation-ender.
Of course, these appeals to “privilege” are coarse, at best, and they contradict what Martin Luther King, Jr., stood for. That is, they go against liberal principles we’ve come to value and uphold because they work and because they are right. It is wrong to judge someone by their race or their sex. The idea that someone should hold a certain opinion about video games or a controversy around journalism because they’re a woman, or black, or a man, or white, or straight, or gay, is highly regressive and anti-individual. Still, the (truly diverse) supporters of GamerGate have faced constant derision, unfair skepticism, mistreatment, and regular accusations of being fake because they challenged that simplistic, illiberal view of the world. Many examples and counter-examples, in which people basically had to prove their identity to be listened to, can still be found in old tweets.
The activists who were attempting to take over gaming with their Social Justice ideology often relied upon manufacturing offensive “controversies” to complain about and leverage against game companies and other gamers. An example in which gaming journalists treated a developer with suspicion and moral accusations is the wholly invented “controversy” around the successful video game Kingdom Come: Deliverance. This game is set in 15th century Bohemia, and it has faced an almost endless litany of scolds prior to and since its release because of its racial homogeneity.
For example, consider the words of Joe Parlock,
Kingdom Come: Deliverance is the poster child of a school of thought that argues diversity is not needed in medieval settings because ‘there were no people of colour’ (or disabled people, or queer people, or anything like that) at the time.
Parlock’s argument is that a game that is set in what are now Germany and the Czech Republic six hundred years ago should feature more people of colour, disabled people, queer people, “or anything like that” on the grounds that portraying diversity is always important. Obviously, this means he believes it is more important than historical accuracy or having a believable game to play (surely while not making any of that diversity tokenistic, just to make it that much harder on game developers and players). That the team at Warhorse Studios hired historians and did painstaking research for their game doesn’t matter. Realism, accurate or not, is to be put second to ideology, and thus it was decried by another game journalist, Kristine Grøvli, who writes (translated from Norwegian), “In the spirit of realism, you take on the role of a white (of course) man (of course)… In the year of our Lord 2015, it is no longer good enough to be given a completely unrealized male, white gaming character without a shred of personal adaptation.”
Two points seem to stand out that might have brought about this criticism. One is the game’s success (it has sold over 3 million copies), which makes it a target for people who espouse an ideology that sees all success as unfairly gotten. Another is that the game director, Daniel Vávra, had publicly supported GamerGate. As he remarked,
This happened to many developers. Assassin’s Creed had 5 different articles about its lack of a female character on the front page of an industry website in one day. Five! Next to each other. And we can continue: The Far Cry 4 cover “scandal,” The Stanley Parable was accused of racism, Wildstar was accused of sexism, God of War, Hotline Miami, Bioshock, Divinity: Original Sin, Witcher… Nobody ever dares to argue or protect his art, because it would mean instant accusation of misogyny/racism/homophobia/sexism… And then you realize that the people who are accusing others everyday have terrible conflicts of interests and very weird ethics. The pot calling the kettle black.
Policing one’s associations and politics is very important to the Social Justice ideology because it is inherently cliquish and seeks to promote its own interests above everyone else’s. Patrick Klepek, writing for Vice WayPoint, cites Vávra’s support for GamerGate as a reason for why the outlet didn’t cover Kingdom Come: Deliverance. The tendency is for these “journalists” to act like moral gatekeepers and wag their finger of disapproval anything they don’t like or want to cut down (in this case Czech developers telling their own stories about their own history, set in 16 square kilometres of rural Bohemia in the year of 1403).
Though it shouldn’t need to be said, not every story has to represent every possible variation of human being (nor should they—even these activists would immediately cry foul about the presence of white characters in a video game set in the 3rd century Han dynasty). It is a mistake to believe that people who aren’t white are somehow excluded from the player base of a game set in a particular historical context that was overwhelmingly white. Not only is it a failure of realism and authenticity for an ideological agenda that isn’t helping, it is also a fundamental misunderstanding of the human ability to empathize, see ourselves in other stories, and put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.
Many of the same figures show up over and over in attempts at ideological clique enforcement. Anita Sarkeesian, Jonathan McIntosh, and Maya Felix Kramer all have ties with Silverstring Media—a consulting agency with ethical conflicts of interest and ties to DiGRA that has held workshops about “dismantling hegemonic masculinity.” Maya Kramer, along with Zoë Quinn, took part in an attempted take-down of the gaming group The Fine Yong Capitalists, which had to deal with the two spreading their private (doxxed) information and bragging about executing DDoS attacks on their servers. (Dox/doxxing is the act of searching for and spreading private or identifying information about an individual. A DDoS attack disrupts traffic to a site or service and makes it unavailable.) Even so, there is no mainstream coverage addressing Zoë Quinn’s participation in these abuses, or her previous links to a doxxing group.
Later in the development of the GamerGate controversy, multiple industry and journalist figures went after developer Tim Soret over his support for GamerGate. This appeared to be spearheaded by Zoë Quinn, who expressed outrage that Soret’s game The Last Night was on the stage of E3. This was a blatant attempt at clique enforcement, as summarized by Maya Kramer, who tweeted, “As developers, collaborators, publishers – we have to vet those we work with. If that sounds too bleak, you’re in a position of privilege.”
Subsequently, Polygon published a hit piece on Soret in which they quote an apology from him that seems to have been forced. It’s obvious from comments from the then senior editor of Polygon, Ben Kuchera, that this piece was part of a purely ideologically driven attack.
Given the financial tie between Ben Kuchera and Zoë Quinn at the time and his defensiveness of her in the GameJournoPros mailing list, the attack against Tim Soret has the appearance of being done at her behest, though this remains difficult to prove. Of course, Tim Soret’s point of view has never been anything other than measured and reasoned. (I’m reluctant to ask Tim for further comment to avoid dragging him through more controversy; I want to leave him alone to finish his game.)
GamerGate supporter James Desborough, author of Inside GamerGate, aptly describes the problem with this totalitarian ideology pervading journalism:
They’re calling everything and everyone sexist, racist, misogynistic, bigoted and a host of other damaging buzzwords. They’re trying to censor the very creativity that they once defended. The self-same creativity that I depend on to make a living, that they depend on to make a living. It’s a masochistic act of self-destruction, and they’re threatening to take a lot of other people down with them.
This behavior is, of course, increasingly familiar to anyone who has followed any of the “canaries in the Woke coal mine” events unfold.
GamerGate Is Liberal and Principled
Personally, I have always identified as left-wing and liberal. I have always understood that gay people can have relationships with any consenting adult they wish. I fundamentally believe people can do what they want as long as they’re not harming anyone else. I value free speech and free expression. Racism is irrational scientifically, ethically, and in every other sense. I have always enjoyed science fiction and have understood and enjoyed the messages of diversity, working together, understanding different people and perspectives, and messages of non-violence, and have appreciated deepening my understanding of these from multiple Star Trek shows (my favourite is Deep Space Nine), to Isaac Asimov.
I am not alone among GamerGate supporters in this disposition. Christopher Ferguson and Brad Glasgow co-authored a study analysing the social attitudes and demographics of 725 GamerGate supporters. I was one of the participants of that study. They find,
Although individuals fitting the constellation of Caucasian, male, heterosexual, and non-Hispanic were more common than those in other categories, only 303 (41.8%) of the sample identified as all of these categories, suggesting many members of GamerGate do not fit the stereotype of a heterosexual White man. Further, analysis of study participant attitudes suggest they tend to hold more liberal attitudes than the general population.
One of the principles that has guided GamerGate is the classic liberal value of free expression and a firm stance against censorship. Despite many GamerGate supporters professing to have left-leaning attitudes, we have consistently clashed with the far left and been called “alt-right,” “right wing,” “sexist,” and “racist” for it (like everyone else who clashes with the far left). It is true that GamerGate supporters have been politically diverse, but the characterization of “alt-right” doesn’t fit with the data in any realistic way, and neither do these other characteristics.
I think the woke left focus is exactly backwards, I think a handful of individuals have undue influence and that they have created a moral panic and a great deal of manufactured controversy, both of which they leverage to increase their own power. Online trolls repeat claims of “racism,” “sexism,” and “bigotry” against GamerGate supporters. There is no aspect of myself that fits that description. Perhaps it brings the woke left comfort to think of others as monsters. They think they have ownership over liberal messages in media, and yet I believe they would resent Isaac Asimov’s message that “violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.” I believe they would resent the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Drumhead,” which would be a mirror of criticism of today’s cancel culture. As we’ve seen with the attempted cancellations of The Fine Young Capitalists, Daniel Vávra, and Tim Soret, they aren’t interested in reality, only in their own power and advantage.
An Intolerable Act of Courage
Despite the fact that much of this will be new to many readers, there have been thousands of articles written about GamerGate, with new ones still cropping up. Many more may appear now that we have just passed GamerGate’s 6th anniversary. GamerGate has been blamed for everything from the election of Trump to a climate of hostility on social media. “Everything is GamerGate,” writes the New York Times. “GamerGate Comes to the Classroom. Students used to be blank slates—now they arrive with agendas,” we read in The Verge. After over half a decade, its GamerGate’s detractors that keep GamerGate alive. The rest of us just want to get back to our lives and our games.
It is these activist journalists and their agenda to discredit and silence everything they disagree with that keeps GamerGate relevant. They command a much wider influence over culture and discourse than can possibly be attributed to GamerGate, all the while keeping up the demonization of GamerGate supporters without significant evidence to back it up. Their sources are consistently the very people whose ethics and honesty GamerGate supporters called into question (this, opponents of GamerGate have in common with the mostly defunct Atheism Plus movement as well), and they routinely fail to ask those people the difficult questions they should be asked about their own abuses and conflicts of interest. Their articles then go on to get all the relevant details wrong, and they’re never held accountable for any of it. It is in that sense that even now, GamerGate remains relevant.
The fact that media outlets and twitter blue checks continue to invoke GamerGate in this wounded sense does lend credence to the view that something important happened. Though only a handful of writers, like Cathy Young (who I have previously interviewed), are able to articulate what happened with accuracy. We therefore still need acts of bravery, and we still need to help more people see this seemingly niche cultural event for what it really is: a canary in the Woke coal mine and an opportunity to learn how these cultural skirmishes play out.
GamerGate supporters, in many respects, won the battle, however, and from that we can learn a lot in our present broader circumstance. We are all GamerGate now, in some sense, and those of us who want to restore liberal principles to society can learn a lot from what GamerGate did wrong and what it did right.
Perhaps the most important thing GamerGate did well was to create an effective information-sharing network made up of people with attitudes towards “archive everything.” The people we were up against were not ethical actors, and it was never beyond them to slander and misrepresent the facts and then bury the evidence later. As you can see, many of the links to points of evidence throughout this article are links to the archive, as the originals tend to vanish before long. Evidence shows them up, however, so archiving is essential.
Another thing GamerGate supporters did well is to create platforms through social media in which people can remain anonymous. There, they can share information and offer support, both emotional and digital (being dog-piled on social media can be profoundly disorienting without support of both kinds, as can be being slandered by journalists). The GamerGate hub KotakuInAction has over 120 thousand subscribers. People who haven’t used the GamerGate hashtag in years or who rarely use it today are still able to recognize each other on social media and help each other in the act of sharing ideas and information. With no mainstream support, information is able to be spread to potentially hundreds of thousands if not millions of people. In this sense, sunlight is the best disinfectant, and when up against people who will dox you if you are too effective at criticizing them or pointing out their hypocrisies and failures of ethics, anonymity is a must.
That said, more people need to come out from behind the veil of anonymity. There are people right now in the gaming industry afraid to share their views for fear of crossing Social Justice activists and journalists, who will attempt to ruin them or bully them into apologies or silence. This requires bravery, and it is aided by the support networks just mentioned.
This isn’t to say that GamerGate “won,” not in the decisive sense one might hope. There are still absurd identity based panics in gaming journalism. There are also scandals that aren’t receiving the coverage they deserve. For example, no mainstream gaming journalism outlets have pointed out that Zoë Quinn hasn’t updated her $85k kickstarter in over 700 days. This is something in light of how the project was initially promoted. This point may not seem significant, but to those of us who are familiar with how GamerGate played out, it is a significant sign that gaming journalism is still possessed by a pro-Social-Justice bias and tendency to protect its activists.
To give you some idea how significant these lapses can be, it also lacks significant coverage that Quinn has gone on to found an “anti-harassment” organization known as Crash Override Network (CON), which was promoted by mainstream media. The Crash Override Network leaks, which revealed that the logs on the network were not a support group so much as a hotbed of unethical behavior including harassment, colluding to effect cancel culture, and even attempting to frame pro-GamerGate individuals with charges of child pornography, should have been a media scandal. Meanwhile, Quinn’s CON group remains connected to Twitter’s Trust and Safety council. No journalists have put the questions to Vijaya Gadde, Twitter’s lead for Trust and Safety, or Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey exactly how they can justify backing Zoë Quinn’s CON group as a Trust and Safety partner.
Similarly, the matter has not been pressed asking what business does Sarah Nyberg, a CON participant, have being anywhere near an anti-harassment organization considering her extensive history of pro-paedophilia posts? Far from being an anti-harassment organinzation, the CON membership list is a who’s who of abusive individuals with grudges against GamerGate supporters who shamelessly try to blacklist individuals with false rumours over the most minor of perceived slights—as they tried with Liana Kerzner. There are not enough journalists in media who are savvy enough or inclined enough to chase up on these serious issues, and these activists are extremely savvy at getting a sympathetic media to cover them favorably. And with the death (by suicide) of Night in the Woods developer Alec Holowka, it’s clear that influence over the gaming industry must not be in the hands of an ideological clique. A greater range of voices needs to be heard in the mainstream outlets.
That said, there’s also the need for faith that pushback can succeed. GamerGate won many of its battles with the activists. It has been years since Leigh Alexander has had influence in the gaming sphere. It seems Ben Kuchera is no longer with Polygon and is being lambasted by former collleagues. Vice WayPoint could not stop the success of Kingdom Come: Deliverance, and it appears that the individuals with a grudge against Tim Soret will be equally inept at preventing the success of The Last Night when it eventually releases. Many male feminist anti-GamerGate journalists and “influencers” have been found out to be sexual harassers, child pornographers, and criminals and outed as such—one of whom has even went to prison for making bomb threats. Their patterns of unscrupulous behaviour are becoming better known, and their unjust activism is accordingly becoming less influential.
Despite all the advantages of mainstream outlets repeating their narrative, the woke left in gaming have also been steadily losing influence. For instance, Kotaku UK, a source of many inaccurate hate-click articles, has closed down and their content is gone. Also, GamerGate supporter LunarArchivist has helped run a campaign to hold media broadcaster CBC accountable for their biased coverage of GamerGate. The more we stand together and support one another in this, the stronger we can be in turning the momentum back the other way, away from these bullying “journalists” and cliques. Anti-woke bravery needs to hit the mainstream.
If you’re concerned about Social Justice creep in your hobby, your creative outlet, your job, your university, or if you’re wishing to engage in discourse on social media there are a number of things you can learn from GamerGate. Archive everything and take screenshots (or make other records like audio recordings). Social media and the news cycle moves so quickly that it can be easy for vital details to get lost. If you want to share a ridiculous woke article, I recommend sharing an archive link and screenshots instead of linking direct to the article. Share information. You may well be able to share something that is a tipping point for others in recognizing the Social Justice ideology as a problem.
Also, act on ethical issues. GamerGate was able to change the policies of outlets as well as get the attention of the FTC, the SPJ, and advertisers because they were able to point to clear ethical breaches of conduct. You have the moral high ground, and once you realize it, it’s hard for the activists to make you lose your footing. Stand firmly on it, and stick with your liberal principles.
Treat media with scepticism. Whether left-wing or right-wing, there’s usually a bias at play. Be aware and take it all with a grain of salt. GamerGate supporters became so used to being lied about by so many outlets was a big alarm bell that alerted them to a larger problem. This shouldn’t be the way the world and journalism are, but for the time being, it is.
Finally, be brave. If you’re afraid to make your voice heard, you need to make your voice heard. If it starts anonymously, that’s fine, but we need more people who are not anonymous. It’s an incredibly blunt emotional weapon the woke left uses in labelling others sexist or racist if people don’t conform to their demands. As long as you know those claims aren’t true of you, you must stand your ground, do not apologize if you haven’t done anything wrong, speak clearly, point out contradictions and weaknesses in what they’re saying. When enough people say no to them, they lose their power. If you’re a creator (like a game developer), the woke outlets have little actual influence over what the gaming audience purchases. They only have the illusion of consensus through their nepotism and cronyism. Do not be intimidated. If your game (or movie, or music album, or whatever) is good, people will buy it.
There are many converging complex topics and hundreds of thousands of people from many diverse backgrounds with many diverse viewpoints who against the odds countered the mainstream narrative. GamerGate is the canary in the Woke coal mine that you’ve probably never looked closely at, but once you do, you see that it represents the victory of the honest person in the comments section winning over the dishonest journalist writing the article. They’ve never forgiven us for it. I can live with that.