If you know what #GamerGate is, I don't have to tell you. If you don't know what #GamerGate is, any description I give you will be attacked by hordes of partisans saying that I have described it unfairly and that the sources I have linked are biased. So I'm going to treat you, dear readers, as if you know what it is. Clark wrote a post about it last week. My take is different. I'm not going to offer you a timeline or an attempt at a definitive "what happened" or "who is right." Instead I'm going to rant about ten ways that this controversy illuminates how we're screwed up.
1. 95% Of Label-Based Analysis Is Bullshit.
GamerGate is label-heavy, and labels are lazy, obfuscating bullshit.
Labels are supposed to be shorthand for collections of ideas. I might say "I am libertarian-ish" because it's not practical to go around announcing the whole array of views I hold about demolishing public roads and privatizing the air force and so forth. This, up to a point, is useful.
It stops being useful when we argue over labels instead of over ideas. Take, for instance, "feminist." A person who describes themselves as "feminist" might associate that term with their grandmother being the first woman in the family to go to college and their mother defying a sexist boss in a male-dominated job and the development of laws saying women can't be relentlessly harassed in the workplace or fired for being women.1 Someone who routinely criticizes "feminism" might be thinking of Andrea Dworkin saying all heterosexual sex is coercive, or that time a woman snapped at him when he held a door open, or the time someone embarrassed his friend by saying his joke was sexist. When these two people use the term "feminist" in an argument, they are talking past each other and engaging with strawmen rather than ideas. The feminist is engaging the anti-feminist as if he opposes women in the workplace or supports gender-based hiring, which he doesn't necessarily. The anti-feminist is engaging the feminist as if she thinks all marital sex is rape and as if she thinks jokes should get him fired, which she doesn't necessarily. Neither is really engaging in the particular issue at hand — because why would you engage with a person who holds such extreme views? Why would it matter if the person you are arguing with has an arguable point on a specific issue, if they also necessarily (based on labels) stand for everything you hate?
Labels also make us lazy and insecure. If I identify myself as Libertarian — rather than libertarian-ish — then instead of asking whether an idea has merit, I might lapse into asking whether libertarians believe in that idea or not. But libertarians might be wrong about that idea, or their position on that idea might be some accident of history. Yet instead of focusing on substance, if I depend on labels I will be gripped by fear and cognitive dissonance. If libertarians believe in this, and I don't, does that mean I have to rethink my entire belief system? Will other libertarians reject me? Will Nick Gillespie stop letting me touch his leather jacket? It will be much easier and more comfortable to stick with whatever view is associated with my label.
#GamerGate dialogue relies heavily on labels — feminist, gamer, MRA, SJW, and so forth. That's why it's mostly noise. I've used labels before, and when I have, what I've written has been mostly noise. Labels are an excellent way to vent outrage, but a lousy way to argue about ideas or facts.
2. Timing Matters. So Does Your Chosen Vehicle.
At least some advocates of #GamerGate tell us that it's about ethics in game journalism. I'm willing to accept that some people saying that are sincere, and don't associate themselves with the hashtag because they like demeaning women.
But here's the thing: people will draw conclusions about your motives based on your timing and your chosen vehicle.
Video game journalism has been ethically troubled for decades. There was controversy in the 1980s, when I was reading Computer Gaming World on paper like a caveman, over game magazines reviewing the same games that they were advertising. Suspicion that dollars drive game reviews have persisted, and with good reason.
So if you choose this particular historical moment to become Seriously Concerned About Journalistic Ethics, and your timing just happens to coincide with a related pushback against women's activism in the gaming community, and just happens to be triggered by a campaign against a particular controversial woman, and just happens to be congruent with 4chan's declared campaign against "SJWs," people are going to draw conclusions about you. This is especially true if your sudden fury about ethics in journalism appears to focus on the coverage of tiny indie games instead of big-money games, which is just odd. It also doesn't help when your lists of demands for ethics reforms sound suspiciously like "apologize for hurting my feelings and only report on the things I want."
It's reasonable for people to draw conclusions from timing. If, immediately after the shooting of Michael Brown, I started a vigorous campaign calling on society to protect convenience-store clerks from assault, people would reasonably suspect that I had a political agenda related to the shooting, not a sincere concern for the welfare of convenience store clerks.
Moreover, if you chose the label #GamerGate as your vehicle, people are going to draw conclusions. If I put a Westboro Baptist Church bumper sticker on my car, people will draw conclusions no matter how carefully I explain that their children's choir program is awesome. That's because the Westboro Baptist Church label is very specific. It's not something broad like "Baptist" or "Agnostic" that you'd expect to encompass a wide range of views. #GamerGate is very specific too. The label #GamerGate has its origins in a freakout over a woman in particular, and gender issues in general. If you decide to adopt it, people are going to wonder if you mean to associate yourself with its origins, in a way they wouldn't if you chose a broader label.
When people complain that they are being associated with misogyny and threats for waving the #GamerGate banner, I feel (on a different scale) about the way I do when people complain that they are being misjudged for flying the Confederate battle flag. Sure, maybe it means Southern pride and heritage to some of them. But I'm not sympathetic when many see it another way based on its history. If you fly the Confederate battle flag, people may reasonably think you intend to send a message that contradicts your spoken claims of harmony and equality.
3. People Are Going To Say Things You Disagree With, And You Need To Get A Fucking Grip About It.
Critiques of games and game culture also seem to provoke bizarre, disproportionate outrage. I find it very difficult to take that outrage seriously.
This is inexplicable, even in a subculture that already has people who are rendered unaccountably twitchy by bad reviews.2 I've viewed Sarkeesian's videos, and I've read the criticisms of her: that she's not a gamer, that she doesn't truly know her subject, that she uses unfair examples and ignores counter-examples, that she has an agenda, that she generalizes, and so forth. I think some of these criticisms are apt and others aren't. But my reaction to all of them is the same: Judas Priest, have you never encountered any form of cultural or literary criticism before? That's what it's like. Whether it's people saying that Harry Potter promotes witchcraft or other people saying that the Lord of the Rings is a racist allegory or Dan Quayle saying that a fictional character's fictional life choices disrespect American fatherhood, cultural and literary criticism is often stuffed taut with bullshit, no matter who produces it or what it's about. When it's good, it's provocative, and when it's bad, it's that essay you threw together through your hangover at three in the morning on the due date about what Shakespeare thought about Jews, writ large.3 Seriously. If Sarkeesian enrages you, don't let anyone show you Foucault or Derrida or you're going to have an aneurysm. And please don't come back with "but Sarkeesian fooled people into giving her money for her videos." Jack and Jill made $150 million, motherfuckers. People pay hundreds of dollars to see Nickleback in Temecula. Why are you freaking out over how people spent their money this time?
People are going to say things about your favorite parts of the culture. Some of these things will be stupid or wrong. It is swell to use more speech to disagree with, criticize, or ridicule the criticism. But when you become completely and tragicomically unbalanced by the existence of cultural criticism, or let it send you into a buffoonish spiral of resentful defensiveness, people may not take you seriously.4 Rule of thumb: a reasoned rebuttal of wrong-headed cultural criticism mostly likely won't require you to use the word "cunt."
I anticipate a response to this point: aren't cultural critics (for instance, people who offer gender-related criticism of videogames) also losing their shit and overreacting to stuff? No doubt some are. Let's make fun of them, as we would anyone else being silly. But for the most part cultural critics of games are complaining about things like how women are portrayed in games and how women are treated in the industry, not having a cow about being disagreed with or having their hobby critiqued. When cultural critics do pitch a fit about their views being disagreed with — say, for instance, Amanda Marcotte flaming out because people disagreed with her nasty totalitarian rumbling about the Duke lacrosse case — then by all means, mock away.
4. Live by the Sword, Die By The Sword.
If you encourage a cultural trend involving calling out behavior, you may not like the way it is used by others. This seems obvious, but apparently it's not.
If you encourage the overuse of the term "bully" until it means nothing, you can expect the term to be co-opted and aimed at you sooner or later.
If you cultivate a culture in which people react disproportionately to stupid or offensive jokes, sooner or later someone else is going to be freaking out — sincerely or cynically — over someone "on your side" telling a stupid joke.
If you cultivate a culture in which the internet lands on someone like a ton of bricks for being an asshole, sooner or later some segment of the internet is going to decide that you are the asshole, and pile on you.
Stretching words like "bullying" for political purposes, calling out people for stupid jokes, participating in gleeful pile-ons, and organizing boycotts are all classic free speech. They are a more-speech response to speech you don't like, a good alternative to government censorship, and an example of social consequences for speech. I'm not telling you to stop. I'm not saying all speech we decide to condemn is morally equivalent. I'm not telling you that such techniques are morally wrong. I can't, credibly, because I have participated in all of them. I'm reminding you that all speech has consequences, and all modes of speech have consequences. The consequence of gleefully piling onto some douchebag is that you normalize and model gleefully piling on someone you find offensive. The consequence of abandoning proportionality is that someday some segment of the internet may wig out and lose all proportionality about you or someone you care about. Recognize cultural cause and effect.
You're going to say "but the people I was piling on/freaking out about/boycotting are totally distinguishable from the people being victimized now by piling on/freaking out/boycotting." How nice for you. Explain that distinction to them and let me know how it works out.
(Clark has been making this point for quite some time.)
5. Your Insult-Parsing Is Bullshit.
Critics of gaming culture assert that demeaning people based on attributes like gender, ethnicity, race, and sexuality is wrong. I agree.5
But too many critics of #GamerGate seem to view it as a fine opportunity to demean both groups and individuals based on attributes like weight, appearance, social isolation, and non-neurotypical status. People (including, occasionally, me) employ "fat, smelly, basement-dwelling Aspie neckbeard" rhetoric to talk about misogyny or harassment in gaming.
If you engage in that rhetoric, many people will think that your objections to demeaning language about women is contrived and tribal rather than sincere.
I'm sure you can construct an excellent argument about how demeaning language against women occurs in a historical context and in connection with a power structure and patriarchal vertices and thus-and-such, and that it is simply different than making fun of people for being fat or unattractive or autistic. That's swell. It would get you a solid A- in your sophomore seminar at Brown. But most of the real world thinks it is an unconvincing rationalization.
Insulting people can be fun. A well-crafted insult is a pleasure. A stinging mockery can be very expressive. It's unflattering, but it's true. But speech has consequences. The consequence of indulging yourself by mocking people for being fat/unattractive/socially awkward/non-neurotypical/etc. is that people aren't going to take your indignation about gendered or racial insults particularly seriously. You may think that's unfair, but it's how people are. Govern yourself accordingly.
6. The Enemy Of Your Enemy Is Not Your Friend.
Social strife makes strange bedfellows.
It's a good thing to read the opinions of serious people "on the other side." They might be right about something. You might be wrong about something. You might improve your understanding of issues.
On the other hand, it's always good to exercise skepticism about how your anger about an issue is being monetized or weaponized by others.
In the #GamerGate context, take Milo Yiannopoulos, who writes for the Breitbart sites. Yiannopoulos has hurled himself into #GamerGate like a stoned bassist into a mosh pit. That's clearly because #GamerGate advances his chosen narratives, and Breitbart's: the media is a bunch of biased liberals! Feminists are destroying society! Progressives are fascists!
Some fans of #GamerGate have reacted with uncritical delight, increasing his traffic and praising his work.
Yet before #GamerGate, Milo was happy to use gamers for another purpose — to advance the cultural conservative narrative "Gamers are freaky dorks!" He says he's a non-gamer. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that, but weren't people just criticizing Anita Sarkeesian for being a non-gamer?
Look, if you see #GamerGate as a vehicle to advance cultural conservative messages that you believe in, more power to you. That's free speech. But if you are genuinely someone who only cares about journalistic integrity, and you promote Breitbart and Yiannopoulos, aren't you being a useful idiot?
Yiannopoulos is by no means the only example. There's also the feculent two-faced pack of scribblers at Gawker Media. Gawker Media, through Kotaku and Gawker and Jezebel, is consistently outraged at the misogyny of #GamerGate, and has retreated into pearl-clutching couch-fainting at the attacks it has recently endured on its own work. But Gawker Media loves feminism like a glutton loves his lunch. Gawker poses as high-minded for the outrage clicks, then returns to its cash cows: self-righteously promoting revenge porn, ridiculing women based on their appearance, paying sociopaths to describe the pubic hair of women they don't like, gleefully outing people, shrugging at systematic harassment of its employees, leering at hacked nude pics, and generally being about as progressive as a late-night advertisement for Schlitz. If you rush to Gawker Media's defense because it's #GamerGate who is attacking them, aren't you being a useful idiot?
If #GamerGate is wrong-headed, it isn't because Yiannopoulos supports it or Gawker Media opposes it. But when someone enthusiastically agrees with us, and seeks to leverage that agreement for profit, perhaps we should be skeptical about their motives, and resist citing them as support.
On the other hand, it's also good to be a little skeptical of the "you are just pawns of [interest group]" rhetoric. Sometimes very different people reach the same conclusion for different reasons and with different motives. Much of the "you're a pawn" rhetoric is just a way to dismiss viewpoints without engaging them. For instance, I remember how irritated I was when a pair of notorious hacks suggested that outrage about TSA fondling was just astroturfed to undermine public unions. Ridiculous. I've hated the TSA and our subservience to it for years. I hate public unions for completely different reasons.
7. The Media Is Usually Banal, Not Motivated Enough To Be Conspiratorial, And Not Your Life Coach.
Some supporters of #GamerGate like to point to an abrupt flood of "anti-gamer" articles that hit early on during this controversy. They assert this is proof of corruption, collusion, agenda-driven journalism, and attempts to impose new norms onto a culture.
That's giving journalism too much credit.
Look: journalists are herd animals. They tend to write about the same thing other journalists are writing about, because they tend to have many of the same cultural and social values, and tend to be aiming at the same thing (prestige and more readers). In the 1990s, when the media started to tell us that crack babies were going to become "super-predators" and kill us all in our comfy beds, it wasn't because journalists had conspired to become racist or gullible or stupid. When the media jumped all over "Satanic abuse" panics, it wasn't because they all abruptly became born-again Christians. When the media stalked the Casey Anthony murder trial like they expected Jesus to show up and give out free Teslas, it wasn't because there was some collective decision that this was a legally significant case or a vehicle to send a coordinated message. It's about greed, ego, and a shocking lack of imagination. The media conspires to tell the same story in the same way that the TV networks conspire to flood the schedule with CSI clones.
Does the media tend to have a bias? Sure. It trends towards white, college-educated, middle class, and interested in telling people about things and having them listen. But saying it has a "liberal bias" is a oversimplification. The media has a pro-media bias, a corporate culture bias, a self-indulgent my-views-are-objective-truth bias. If it pushes a "OMG gamers harass women!" story, a large part of that is because stories about sexism sell, even if they are completely wrong. There's nothing "liberal" about having your lips planted firmly on the sweaty ass of law enforcement, yet the media is too often deferential to law enforcement, because deference gets access and access gets blood-and-guts and blood-and-guts sells.
So, when #GamerGate fans talk about media conspiracy, I really have to wonder whether they have ever observed the media before.
Then there's the fundamental question about what you should expect from the media. Do you want ethics? Fine. Would you like fairness? Great. But are you in the market for a fluffer? Look elsewhere. Some elements of #GamerGate, with their Nixonian enemies lists and concern with being "insulted" by the media, strike me as very entitled. Maybe it's because I'm a lawyer, and used to being automatically categorized as a scumbag by the media and society, but I think the "game blogs have been hurtful to our feelings" is unbecomingly needy.
If you don't like the views of the media, there are ways to handle it without being entitled. Are media generalizations of gamers bogus? Then take the example of Anita Sarkeesian — produce more detailed speech saying exactly what's wrong with them. You're on the internet, for God's sake. You have historically unprecedented publishing power. Be like the #GamerGaters who have decided to start their own what-we-want-to-hear review sites. Take a page from political conservatives, who went from ineffectually mewling about media liberal bias to creating the implacable-if-somewhat-dim media juggernaut that is Fox News. But if you want to stand around and insist that the media not run any stories that you don't want to hear, and that they apologize for being mean, or else you'll boycott their sponsors, or tell game companies not to work with them, I don't see why I should take you any more seriously than anyone else who does that. I don't have any respect for someone who wants a code of journalistic ethics that boils down to "don't challenge me or insult me."
Also: some of you — you know who you are — stop saying that the media is censoring you by criticizing you or your viewpoints. Speech is not tyranny. Criticism is not censorship. You don't have a right to be liked, taken seriously, respected, or agreed with.
8. Women, Minorities, and LGBT People Are Not Magic.
The "#NotYourShield" hashtag is apparently intended to convey that #GamerGate can't be sexist or racist or anti-gay because there are women and minorities and LGBT people who support #GamerGate.
This is an irritating and faintly condescending fallacy that pops up now and again. Look! Bill Cosby criticized "black culture!" It must be right because he's black! Look! Morgan Freeman criticized black history month! It's convincing because he's black! Look! Christina Hoff Sommers criticized feminism! Her criticism has added weight because she's a woman!
It's as if people are trying to apply some twisted rule of evidence in which a statement by one member of a group is a binding admission on the whole group.
But people can be wrong whatever gender or color or orientation they are. Doubt me? Let me ask it this way: are Michael Moore's generalizations about white Americans automatically more right because he's a white American? How about Nancy Pelosi? Noam Chomsky? No? No. Because that's obvious bullshit.
A woman saying she supports #GamerGate and doesn't find it misogynistic firmly establishes only that this particular woman hasn't experienced misogyny, or didn't perceive it misogyny, or didn't care. She doesn't speak for all women any more than a "SJW" critic of #GamerGate. Everyone's millage may vary.6
Ironically, the #notmyshield meme repackages a notion that you'd normally expect to hear from "SJWs" — the idea that only whites can be racist and only men can be sexist. This is a cherished doctrine in academia but provokes eye-rolling nearly everywhere else.
Also, different people have very different tastes about what is offensive and demeaning. I'm crazy, and don't find the term "crazy" offensive. Some people face mental disorders and find such language extremely hurtful. Neither of us is "right." I'll probably keep saying "crazy," at least about myself, but I'll probably avoid using that term against someone who finds it hurtful. Unless, of course, I'm trying to be a dick. As Oscar Wilde said, "a gentleman is someone who never hurts anyone's feelings — unintentionally."
9. Stop Trying To Be A Special Snowflake.
You are not the first to discover journalistic corruption. You are not the first discover media bias. You are not the first to discover media double standards. You are not the first to have the media generalize fecklessly about you. You are not the first to discover activism. You are not the first to discover free speech. Stop pretending otherwise. It's embarrassing and juvenile. Hippies and Ron Paul supporters are cringing.
10. On Threats.
There's no excuse for threats to anyone, whatever "side" they are on. Posting someone's home address or private phone number or financial details will almost never be relevant to a good-faith dispute7 — it's clearly intended to terrorize, and it risks empowering disturbed people to do real harm. These things are wrong no matter who does them, no matter the motive, and no mater the target.
Yet those things are common in the gaming community. They've been familiar in the context of casual contact for some time, and more serious and frightening threats have become more and more of a problem. That's why I think the claim "these people are making up the threats" is unconvincing — it's happened before under even less controversial circumstances. Whether or not more women are threatened than men, numerically or as a percentage, being a woman and articulating a viewpoint seems like a very reliable way to get threatened. You may not be happy that it is an element of gaming culture, but it is.
The reaction is disappointing. We're seeing a lot of "you're making it up" or "it happens more to our side" or "men get threatened just as much" or "they did it first" or the like. There's an undercurrent of "they made up all those things, which they deserved." We're also seeing people attempt to discredit the discussion of threats by using the word to describe mere insults and criticism.
Most people say they oppose the threats. How many mean it? How many of you think that death threats and having a Google Earth picture of your house is just "part of the game," like towel-snapping in the locker room?
I'll start believing that people are really against threats and doxxing when they act like it. Would you be a member of a club that routinely tolerated members posting death threats against a rival club on the club's bulletin board? If not, why do you participate in sites where such threats are an accepted part of the culture? Do you know people bragging about terrorizing enemies with true threats? If so, why haven't you turned them in? Do you continue to treat people who use threats and terror-doxxing as friends, or do you treat them as pariahs? If you are proud of your l33t hacker skills, do you use them to attack those who say things you don't like, or do you use them to identify the people who make true threats and threatening doxxes?
I'm a rather strong supporter of free speech. I donate a lot of effort helping to protect it. But true threats are not protected by the First Amendment. They represent an effort to silence speech through physical fear. I'd like to see more done to fight the people who use them. Help stomp some cockroaches.
So, What Now?
So how will this play out, and where do I stand?
Some people assert that #GamerGate would end quickly if game journalists would simply articulate and hew to satisfactory ethical standards. No doubt some people would be satisfied with that. But I think that many supporters in #GamerGate — egged on by cultural conservatives who view the movement as a ideological opportunity — will not be satisfied unless "journalistic ethics" is interpreted to mean "don't discuss cultural issues and don't say things about my community I don't like." Some won't be satisfied until only approved bien-pensants are game reviewers, and companies restrict access to only those reviewers who don't discuss social issues. On the other side, the fight will be bitterly extended by the self-indulgent frothing by a civic illiterates who see it as an ideological opportunity. Too many enjoy the fight for the sake of the fight.
What am I going to do? I'm going to call out idiots and assholes and thugs. I'm going to watch, with interest, for game reviewers saying meaningful things about journalistic ethics. (For instance, I'd love to see a major site dish on how game companies have tried to influence their reviews, or confess times they caved, or a discussion of how a site separates out its editorial and advertising functions.) Even though I am interested in that subject, I am sure as hell not going to associate myself with #GamerGate. I'm going to watch, with interest (and skepticism), to see how #GamerGate responds to reviewers that articulate ethical rules but continue to talk about social issues. I'm going to watch, with interest, whether #GamerGate focuses on big money corruption, or whether it focuses on indies that just happen to feature women or social issues. Will #GamerGate be vigorous in pursuing how, say, Sony tries to get good reviews, or is it going to be oddly preoccupied with how an obscure indie developer was once a walk-up apartment roommate of a blogger? I'm not going to follow craven sites or reviewers who kowtow to #GamerGate by stopping any social comment. I'm going to keep disagreeing with "SJWs" when I disagree with them, but I'm not going to let the existence of their critique unbalance me. I'm not going to start taking people seriously when they say that criticism and dissent censors them or that unflattering coverage of a subculture "slanders"8 them. I'm not going to start taking people seriously if they suggest they have a right to be free of reviewers talking about social issues. I'm going to offer to help find pro bono help for people who are terrorized and threatened. I'm going to continue to be a defender of the First Amendment, but I'm not going to let myself be used for cynical propaganda or as a conduit for threats and abuse.
Also, I'm going to keep playing games. Right now, Age of Wonders III, Wasteland 2, and Divinity — Original Sin are on deck.