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Anita Sarkeesian looks back at GamerGate

The game industry’s silence was shameful

Anita Sarkeesian behind a podium at the Women’s Media Center
Anita Sarkeesian receives a Women’s Media Center Award in 2016
Photo: Mike Coppola/Getty Images

No look back at video games in the last decade is complete without an honest, clear-eyed reckoning with GamerGate, the massive, decentralized hate-mob temper tantrum that upended people’s lives in the late summer of 2014. Nor can we ignore the game industry’s complicity in GamerGate, through its shameful silence in the face of a reactionary mob of “gamers.”

In August 2014, game developer Zoe Quinn’s ex-boyfriend posted a vicious screed falsely accusing them (Quinn goes by they/them) of trading sex for positive reviews of their game, Depression Quest.

Quinn was immediately attacked by a vicious online hate mob with an all-consuming vitriolic rage that is hard to succinctly describe. The seemingly endless death and rape threats they received forced Quinn into hiding. To all those who went reaching for torches and pitchforks in the wake of this post, it didn’t matter that the game was free, or that there was no review to speak of. To them, the facts were irrelevant, because the rage and fear expressed by the men (and it was overwhelmingly men) who rallied to the GamerGate banner existed long before the post went up.

That hateful post offered those men the pretense of a legitimate narrative and cause; “ethics in games journalism.” But the real cause was a silencing and shutting out of women, people of color, trans people, and other marginalized folks who had started making their voices heard in gaming culture.

GamerGate’s real goals were expressed in the explicit racism, sexism, and transphobia of the memes the movement generated, and the posts its supporters wrote on the message boards where they organized and strategized. Later, the flimsiness of the “ethics in games journalism” pretense would became a mocking meme signifying a bad faith argument. It would almost be funny, if GamerGate hadn’t done so much harm, and caused so much lasting trauma.

It can sometimes be difficult to explain just how vicious, violent, and cruel GamerGate was. Or how it has metastasized across our culture. Online attacks like these have become increasingly common; odds are that you’ve witnessed or read about one in the last couple of years.

Whether it’s the tidal wave of racist and sexist abuse comedian Leslie Jones received for daring to be in the 2016 Ghostbusters remake or the sheer viciousness Congressperson Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez endured for having joyfully danced, ever, in her life, these attacks follow the same pattern. A mob, riled up by incendiary racist or misogynist rhetoric (or both), dogpiles a target’s social media accounts with death threats, rape threats, sexist, racist, ableist, transphobic slurs, and horrifyingly graphic images. They often feature endless, borderline incoherent YouTube tirades full of ridiculous conspiracy theories on why the person they hate that week is actually an evil demon sent specifically to destroy all that they hold sacred. Even if what they hold sacred is just a 1980s comedy or a beloved roleplaying game.

GamerGate was certainly not the first cyber-mob, nor the first online harassment campaign, but it is one of the most prominent and notable examples, because it received widespread attention from the international press and public.

While women were being attacked, enduring the emotional and psychological abuse of brutal, nonstop cruelty and dehumanization, and fleeing their homes in fear, the vast majority of the games industry stayed silent.

We risked so much by speaking up and shining a light on the most horrifying corners of the internet. We demanded that these boys and men be held accountable for their harassment and violence. We hoped that it was a small ask that the industry stand with us to simply say, “We will not tolerate harassment.”

But we were left out on that ledge all alone. Most major game publishers and developers remained deafeningly silent, and their silence spoke volumes about what really mattered most to them.

Much of the games press remained silent, too, until enough pressure mounted that they made statements, often milquetoast statements, that were insulting in the face of what so many women had endured.

Thankfully, in the years since, we’ve seen real change begin to manifest in games, but we’ll never know what impact it may have had if the industry had roundly condemned GamerGate at its peak.

And here’s the really disturbing thing about all of this: We can now draw a pretty direct line from GamerGate to the Trump administration. After all, it was Trump’s former chief adviser, Steve Bannon, who hired a “tech editor” for the far-right publication Breitbart News, though that “editor” didn’t only write about “tech.” He routinely wrote posts about GamerGate and antifeminism that would bring readers into the “alt-right” fold.

Not that GamerGaters needed much convincing; GamerGate was an inherently conservative, reactionary movement, a desire to return to some imagined, idealized past in which games culture was entirely the domain of straight white men.

We see the parallels between GamerGate and the conservative political movements of recent years not only in how some conservatives joined in and actively worked to fuel the hate campaigns against many women, but in how they emulated the exact same strategies and tactics GamerGate had used in their own efforts to mobilize disaffected white folks to vote for Trump and support his deeply oppressive policies.

Women, especially women of color and trans women, had been speaking up for years about this aggressive, rising hatred, but no one was listening. We shouted from the highest rooftops we could find. And still, at that time, even with all the mounting evidence, the games industry couldn’t be bothered to support women.

If the games industry had taken a bold stand during GamerGate then subsequent events may have taken a different course. Maybe the later alt-right campaigns would have felt less emboldened or been less successful. Maybe major players in the realms of social media would have felt obliged to make real changes and take real substantive action. Maybe it could have all been different. But that isn’t the reality, and we can now say for sure that the games industry was on the wrong side of history for this one.

So as we prepare to bid farewell to one decade and to embrace the possibility of another, we have to remember the lessons of the past. We have to remember that games don’t exist in some kind of vacuum, that all of this isn’t just child’s play. We have to remember that standing up for women, for queer and trans folks, for people of color and other marginalized people in our spaces, is essential, whether it’s at a gaming conference or on the national political stage. The time for staying silent in the face of hatred is over. We can’t afford it any longer.

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