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The year of GamerGate: The worst of gaming culture gets a movement

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2014 was the year I had to reach out to local law enforcement to explain that a group had threatened to "SWAT" me, an act that consists of sending a false report to the police in the hopes that a SWAT team is sent to a specific address. This led to a conversation with my children about what to do if the police stormed in due to such an attack.

It's been a stressful year.

GamerGate began as an attempt to shame and harass a female developer, and has since spread to include many other targets, including this outlet. The guise is always "ethics," but the weapons are always terror. Addresses are posted online, anonymous threats are made, and lately members of the group have been shown up at people's workplaces.

The threat is clear: We can get to you. We can hurt you. We don't stop. The educational video series Folding Ideas created perhaps the best "explainer" about what GamerGate is and how it operates.

This wave of harassment led to actress Felicia Day writing a heartbreaking story about being scared of people who identify of gamers for the first time in her life. The result was her personal information posted in the comment section of the story. The message was, once again, clear: You have reason to be afraid. We know where you live.

The movement had a few limited successes in having advertisers pull support from outlets they didn't like, but companies quickly learned how bad it looks when you appear to support a group of misogynist bullies.

GamerGate's lasting legacy will likely be the fact they've made harassment of women in the video game industry impossible to ignore. There may have been threats of school shootings if cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian were to speak, but the actions of groups like GamerGate pushed the issue into the mainstream. It became talked about enough that Sarkeesian appeared on the Colbert report.

GamerGate began as an attempt to shame and harass a female developer

The women GamerGate targeted have spent the year speaking to the press about the reality of harassment in gaming, and companies are listening: Patreon has adjusted its guidelines and Twitter is working with a women's advocacy group to look at the abuse the takes place on its service. The International Game Developers Association is working with the FBI to help deal with the rise of online harassment.

The individuals in the industry GamerGate had hoped to silence were in fact given an enormous soap box on which to talk about their experiences, although that platform came with a personal and professional cost that is far too high.

Wikipedia's Jimmy Wales has become an outspoken critic of the GamerGate movement after members of the group complained that, without any respected sources willing to say GamerGate is anything other than a hate group, they couldn't get their Wikipedia page updated to be more "fair." Wales had little patience for the tactics GamerGate used to fight back.

GamerGate's latest attempt to raise money for charity turned into another debacle that somehow included porn, threats and attacks on the charity itself. Influential gaming forum NeoGAF named GamerGate its "fail of the year."

Every so often someone tries to convince me that GamerGate really is about ethics, and why don't I just talk to them? The movement's problem is hard to solve: They have no leaders and no actual goals, and the industry and press' primary means of interaction with the group is the daily threats and harassment that must be cleared out of email inboxes and Twitter feeds.

If you get punched in the face every time the doorbell rings, and in the evening someone knocks on your door to explain it's not really about the punching, you're going to have a hard time believing them.

The latest issue that GamerGate has taken up is, incredibly, barely-legal child pornography. Members of the group have recently written rape fantasies about one of its targets and briefly sold them on Amazon. The response to these situations is always the same: The group isn't responsible for what some of its members do.

An insular network of paranoid, reactionary gamers

As the year draws to a close it's very likely you're unaware that GamerGate is still active unless they target you, or you follow members on Twitter. It's become a completely insular network of paranoid, reactionary gamers who just want things to go back to the way things were, before they had to exist in a world where women played games and outlets wrote about more than just "fun factor."

By embracing the absolute worst of gaming culture and online trolling they've become radioactive, and any real message is lost in the noise of harassment and attacks. But maybe that's the point, and it really is just about hurting people and scaring them into silence.

2015, if nothing else, will likely be loud. GamerGate is just going to have to learn to deal with it, as social networks and law enforcement learn how to deal with them.

This piece is part of Polygon's 2014 in Review series. Throughout December we'll be exploring the games, people and events that shaped gaming in the past year. You can check out more 2014 in Review stories in our StoryStream.