behind the news

How do we know what we know about #Gamergate?

The media has flocked to cover a largely anonymous movement that has no clear aims, leaders, or organization
October 23, 2014

Gamergate is “a heated debate over journalistic integrity, the definition of video games, and the identity of those who play them,” according to CNN.  It is “a movement of sorts,” says The New Yorker. Its focal point is reported as a critique of ethics in video games media—or as a relentless campaign of harassment towards women.  Deadspin says its adherents are “a relatively small and very loud group of video game enthusiasts,” while Wired says it has “attracted a loose collection of misogynists, deposed kings of nerd culture and 15-year-old libertarians.”

Gamergate emerged about two months ago but vaulted to the front page of The New York Times last Thursday following the chilling threat of a school shooting. But if readers are still mostly confused by what it is, who composes it, and what they want, that’s because coverage of the so-called movement has been pieced together mostly from tweets under pseudonyms and anonymous chat logs on websites like 4chan-offshoot 8chan and Reddit.

“The closest thing we’ve been able to divine is that it’s noise. It’s chaos. And all you can do is extract patterns from the chaos,” says Chris Grant, editor in chief of video games website Polygon. “With no leaders, with no agenda, with no message, all you can do is find patterns. And ultimately Gamergate will be defined—I think has been defined—by some of its basest elements.”

The difficulty of reporting on Gamergate reflects faulty PR from the movement, but also the difficulty of covering any digital-era subculture that works in anonymity. Technology has the ability to outpace journalists’ ability to describe it, and explaining to the average reader NSA surveillance, net neutrality, and the hacker group Anonymous has proven challenging.

Gamergate is part of the new face of online advocacy whose ringleaders are unclear, if any exist. So is the size of the following (Deadspin predicts 10,000 based on the number of users discussing Gamergate on Reddit). And the aims of the movement often contradict themselves. They appear to be loosely coordinated online activists whose main talking point, writes Jesse Singal for New York Magazine, is “how mad and frustrated they were that progressive politics and feminism were impinging on gaming, which they saw as an area they had enjoyed, free of politics, forever.”

The multitude of explainers on the subject are testament to the complexity of defining Gamergate.  But what has been clear to the media is its effect. Last week, Anita Sarkeesian, a gaming critic, cancelled a speech at Utah State University after being warned by email that “the deadliest school shooting in American history” would follow.  Female game developers like Zoe Quinn and Brianna Wu have had their addresses posted online along with death and rape threats. They are part of a trend of abuse in digital culture; a Pew report released this week says a quarter of women aged 18-24 have been sexually harassed online. 

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At core, the movement is a classic culture war. Video games are becoming more sophisticated and appeal to a greater diversity of people. Naturally, debates about what is a legitimate game, who gets to be a gamer, and which critics get to define those terms arise—powerful questions for any evolving art form. 

The problem is that when anybody can tweet under the Gamergate hashtag, and no one wants to take responsibility for the movement, it becomes a challenge for reporters trying to nail down verifiable facts. When reporters characterize Gamergate as misogynistic, proponents say those views don’t represent the movement. Instead, many claim to be advocating greater ethics among the video game press. Yet many criticisms of press coverage by people who identify with Gamergate—about alleged collusion in video games between journalists and developers or among reporters—have been debunked.  Meanwhile, the abusers and the reasoning debaters cannot be separated.

Victims of harassment like Sarkeesian and Wu have publicized their attacks, using their real names, making them figureheads for anti-Gamergate sentiment. But in the absence of clear spokespeople for Gamergate, journalists have been left taking samplings of opinion from social media, and interviewing proxies like actor Adam Baldwin, who is “not an avid gamer” according to the Times, yet coined the hashtag #Gamergate.

“It’s just really hard when you can’t call up one of their members who’s officially a member and talk to them,” says Singal (who has contributed to CJR) in an interview. “If I talk to someone on Twitter or get invited into a Skype hangout, why does that person suddenly represent the movement?” 

Singal, who waded into Gamergate’s message boards and chatted with proponents, distilled the issue in his latest story, adapted from a Reddit post that addresses Gamergate directly:

“So what is Gamergate “really” about? I think this is the sort of question a philosopher of language would tear apart and scatter the remnants of to the wind, because it lacks any real referent. You guys refuse to appoint a leader or write up a platform or really do any of the things real-life, adult “movements” do. I’d argue that there isn’t really any such thing as Gamergate, because any given manifestation of it can be torn down as, again, No True Gamergate by anyone who disagrees with that manifestation or views it as an inconvenient blight from an optics standpoint. And who gets to decide what is and isn’t True Gamergate? You can’t say you want a decentralized, anonymous movement and then disown the ugly parts that inevitably pop up as a result of that structure. Either everything is in, or everything is out.”

To Polygon’s Grant, however, there is no clear resolution to reporting on Gamergate because the lack of coordination appears to be by design. “They resist cohesion, they resist leadership, they resist order,” he said.

Chris Ip is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @chrisiptw.