Skip to main content

Gamergate Is About Harassment and Exclusion, Not Ethics (Op-Ed)

Credit: pixinoo/Shutterstock

(Image credit: pixinoo/Shutterstock)

Hi! My name is Jill Scharr. I'm a staff writer at Tom's Guide, where I cover online security, 3D printers and video games.

I play a lot of video games. My favorite Pokemon is Vulpix. I've played through Skyrim three times. My Destiny character is a female Hunter that I designed to look like Barbara Gordon from Batman: The Animated Series. I'm what you would call a "gamer."

I'm not very happy with some of the things being done and said in the name of "gamers" lately, though, such as the so-called "Gamer Manifesto." Born of a movement called GamerGate, the Manifesto tries to create a single, narrow definition of video games while also quelling any disagreement by dismissing critiques as "radical ideologies" attempting to "demonize [gaming]'s past."

MORE: 12 Most Maddeningly Difficult Games of All Time

As a gamer, I have a lot to say about video games. As a woman, some of what I have to say has to do with gender, and not all of it is positive. I thought Ubisoft's excuse for not including female avatars in Assassin's Creed: Unity — because they were too expensive to render — was kind of weaksauce. I thought Watch Dogs' need to kill its female characters in order to motivate the male main characters was pretty awkward. I think media critic Anita Sarkeesian is just about spot-on in her YouTube series, Tropes vs. Women in Videogames.  

I'm trying to help broaden video game culture, not shrink it by "banning" games or elements of games that I dislike. Even if I had that kind of power, I wouldn't want it.

I only hope that gamer culture, whatever that is, is large and dynamic enough to accommodate my viewpoints, alongside those of the many other people who play video games, care about video games and disagree with me about certain aspects of video games. But that clearly isn't the case, at least among the members of the movement (and Twitter hashtag) known as GamerGate.

What is GamerGate?

GamerGate began last month as a response to alleged corruption in the video game press. Specifically, an ex-boyfriend of indie developer Zoe Quinn accused her of cheating on him with several other people in the indie-games scene. One of those people was a journalist at Kotaku, which prompted accusations that Quinn had begun the relationship with the intention of getting good press for her game Depression Quest.

I take issues of journalistic integrity very seriously. In this instance, I found no unethical journalism. The Kotaku writer wrote about Depression Quest twice: here and here. In each article, the author only mentions Depression Quest among lists that include several other video games, and both pieces were published before Quinn's relationship with the writer began. Even Quinn's ex-boyfriend said this. The writer did not, as many GamerGate supporters allege, ever review Depression Quest.

MORE: 15 Best Classic PC Games Gone Free

Yet since the accusations of infidelity were first made, Quinn has suffered an onslaught of online harassment. People send her nasty messages. They hack her online accounts and post her personal information online. They call her home phone and leave disturbing messages. They use any channel available to them to send her graphic, frightening threats.

Many of the harassers seem far more concerned with Quinn's personal life than with journalistic integrity. Others seem to just not like Depression Quest. The harassers were so persistent and lacking in factual basis that at one point Quinn tried to fight back by filing a DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) request with YouTube to take down a particularly slanderous video.

This video wasn't a review of Depression Quest; it was a slanderous video. Whether or not you agree with the ethics of DMCA requests, or the current state of United States digital-copyright laws, Quinn broke no laws and breached no trust by making this request. In any case, the attempt only brought more harassment down on her.

Even if Quinn were involved in unethical behavior, she wouldn't deserve the treatment she's experienced. Harassment is never OK. It's never just a joke. It's never the harassed person's fault for "being offended." Harassment hurts.

Next, GamerGaters in search of "corruption" decided that games journalists who had financially supported indie games via the crowdfunding sites Kickstarter and Patreon, and then later written about those games, were ethically compromised. These journalists had paid for games instead of getting them for free (as is standard practice among triple-A video games), but this was supposed to be evidence of corruption at work.

It's not about ethics

Some GamerGate supporters, maybe even many of them, truly do support the call for journalistic ethics and wouldn't dream of sending threats online. I sympathize with those people. But the bulk of the GamerGate supporters have no such ethical concerns, and they are simply defending their own definition of gaming from criticism or diversity of opinion.

This became clear about a week after the Quinn issue began, when media critic Anita Sarkeesian posted an unrelated video examining the ways women are treated in mainstream video-game narratives. GamerGate quickly rallied against Sarkeesian, and the harassment and doxxing (online posting of personal information) Sarkeesian experienced was so severe that she did not feel safe in her own home.

MORE: Most Violent Video Games of All Time

Why did this happen? Because Sarkeesian was challenging many people's definition of what is "normal" in games. As a result, GamerGate decided that Sarkeesian was not a "true gamer."

A few weeks after her own harassment began, Quinn revealed that she had been lurking on GamerGate-related message boards of the online forum 4chan. She got screencaps that, according to Quinn, demonstrate that members of 4chan were treating GamerGate not as a call for journalistic transparency but as a calculated campaign to torment women and drive them away from the video games industry.

Despite GamerGate's claims, I see no evidence of corruption in the group's allegations.  

What I see is a group of people who say: "I don't like this game, or I don't agree with this person. Therefore this game must be entirely bad, and this person must be entirely wrong. That means that anyone who does like this game or agree with this person must be getting paid to pretend that they do."

Aggressive intolerance

GamerGate also alleges that the increased number of writers considering issues of gender, race, sexuality and diversity in video games provides further evidence of journalistic corruption. To a GamerGater, any article that discusses diversity is nothing more than clickbait, or outrageous nonsense written for the sole purpose of getting page views.

Why? Because these GamerGaters personally aren't interested. And you know what? Maybe to some editors, that really is all these articles are. Some editors know that stories about women in games bring all the haters to the yard. But people like me, though?

When I see sites such as Kotaku, Polygon and even Gamespot writing about gender in relation to video games, I get excited, because I like to talk about and write about gender. Does that mean I'm not a "true gamer?"

MORE: Top 10 Video Game Female Protagonists

My second-biggest issue with the movement, aside from the torrent of online harassment, is how GamerGaters like the writers of the "Gamer Manifesto" define themselves as the only brand of true gamers. GamerGaters are people who think of themselves as what gaming should be, as the audience for whom games ought to be made.

GamerGate may claim to be accepting. But to many of its supporters, anything resembling a critique — whether it be a woman with opinions about gender in video games, or a video game in which you can't shoot people or score points — is met with hostility. The toxic elements of GamerGate often shut down any possible debate by claiming that, because I'm voicing an opinion with which they disagree, I'm the one being hostile.

I want to respect the people who actually are interested in journalistic ethics, so let me tell you about things I have done that GamerGate would consider a conflict of interest.

After writing about an indie game called Son of Nor for TechNewsDaily (now offline), I decided to support the game on Kickstarter, a sort of advance-purchase service. About a year later, I mentioned Son of Nor in an article about the Tobii eye-tracking hardware. I also supported upcoming indie game Dreamfall: Chapters on Kickstarter, where it raised over $1.5 million. I then included the game in a list of the Most Anticipated Games of 2014. Should I list every other video game I've ever bought?

I also regularly subscribe to articles by independent video game critics, scholars and writers via a paid service called Patreon. Should I list every other piece of video game-related writing I've ever bought? (I studied video games in college; it's a long list.)

I started this article telling you a little bit about me as a gamer. Here's another thing about me: The idea of writing this op-ed terrifies me. I know there are going to be folks out there who identify with the more exclusionary parts of the GamerGate movement, and who will harass me online for writing this. I might even get doxxed.

Fear of those folks isn't worth my silence. I'm a gamer, and I have opinions about games. Some people will disagree with those opinions. That's OK. Feel free to contact me to talk about it.

But before you tell me I'm wrong, take a moment to consider my point of view. You don't have to agree with my opinions. You just have to respect my right to have them.

Jill Scharr is a staff writer for Tom's Guide, where she regularly covers security, 3D printing and video games. You can follow Jill on Twitter @JillScharr and on Google+. Follow us @tomsguide, on Facebook and on Google+.