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A Response to Nathaniel Givens’ Unfortunate Defense of #GamerGate

I like video games. I don’t play them as much as I used to, but I’ll still sit down and play the occasional shooter or role-playing game, and I like to keep up with the industry. Which is why, like many geeks, I was fascinated, repulsed, and horrified by the car wreck known as Gamergate, which flared up last August and still shuffles on today. If you’re unfamiliar with Gamergate, then…where on earth to begin? Wikipedia is a decent start:

“The Gamergate controversy concerns sexism in video game culture. It garnered significant public attention after August 2014, when several women within the video game industry… were subjected to a sustained campaign of misogynistic attacks. The campaign was coordinated in the online forums of Reddit, 4chan, and 8chan in an anonymous and amorphous movement that ultimately came to be represented by the Twitter hashtag #gamergate. The harassment included doxing, threats of rape, death threats and the threat of a mass shooting at a university speaking event….[it] has been described as a manifestation of a culture war over gaming culture diversification, artistic recognition and social criticism of video games, and the gamer social identity.”

I followed Gamergate from nearly the beginning, but, like a lot of people, I became exhausted by and (mostly) lost interest in the cesspool of anger and drama surrounding it. But recently I did a google search for “gamergate 2015,” curious to see if there had been any new developments, and the top result was a piece written in January by Mormon blogger Nathaniel Givens. Before reading on, you should read his post for context:

http://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2015/01/gamergate-at-the-beginning-of-2015

I typically avoid calling out individuals online, particularly ones I don’t know, but I found Givens’ post to be exceptionally abhorrent: a poorly researched, callous defense of an irredeemable movement, and therefore worthy of a belated response on a forum likely to be seen by those familiar with him. Readers can decide for themselves who is right.

Social Justice = Things I Dislike

Givens’ argument begins with a broad critique of the social justice movement. Unfortunately, he never bothers to define what exactly he’s talking about, which renders his reasoning difficult to follow. Apparently “social justice” as he sees it relies on a narrative of historical continuity, ignores abortion (to his chagrin), and…has something to do with gay marriage. Honestly, I have no idea what he’s talking about, except that it has something to do with left-wing politics he evidently dislikes. I am not trying to be obtuse; I am just noting the lack of any specific grievances with social justice tactics or ideology, which renders the first half of the essay an exercise in empty hand-waving.

Givens tries to place the social justice movement within a framework of organizations that cannot admit victory because to do so would undermine the entire purpose of their existence. He compares it to “ineffectual bureaucracies such as those associated with the Wars on Poverty, Drugs, and Terror,” where success is institutional suicide. I find the comparison odd: government bureaucracies are concrete entities with real power backed by trillions of dollars; the social justice movement, in the context of Gamergate, is a small and loose collection of developers, journalists, bloggers, and YouTube personalities within a $93 billion dollar industry. Comparing that to massive government programs is just puzzling.

Toxic Video Game Culture

So, on one side we are presented with a vague and incoherently defined movement which apparently has no major battles left to fight but cannot admit defeat (one wonders if Givens has ever played a video game if he doubts that pervasive sexism and regressive violence are not issues worth discussing in the medium, but I digress!) Then Givens moves on to the other side: the “gamer” subculture. Here he’s on firmer ground, explaining the foundations of the “core” gamer identity (I’ll refer to them as capital-G Gamers) as something borne from video games’ history as hobby that was once very expensive and required technical knowledge to fully engage with. I’d also add that identifying as a Gamer is a way for individuals who feel marginalized and misunderstood to find supportive online communities. In some cases, that can be a very positive experience. In others, it can create negative feedback loops and echo chambers where Gamers feel simultaneously under siege from outsiders and empowered to lash out as a collective.

The roots of Gamergate are found in the nexus of gaming and other internet subcultures, particularly those of chans and Reddit (the link between Gamergate and chan culture can’t be overstated; read this for a primer). Of course, as Givens also notes, geeks are now cool, and the external disapproval of video games has largely vanished. Certain Gamers have responded to the spotlight with aggressive boundary-maintenance and gatekeeping, which can be particularly ugly given the tremendous power they actually have. After all, Triple-A studios, who spend millions of dollars developing and marketing their games, know exactly the audience they’re catering to, which is why video games have been slow to evolve or acknowledge systemic industry problems. Meanwhile, even “core” videogames are more mainstream than ever.

Gamers Vs. The World

And that mainstream attention is the crux of the matter. Givens paints Gamergate as a clash between “a legendarily vulgar and insensitive subculture” and “an aggressively hypersensitive social justice movement”: two sides, both guilty (moreso the SJ side, of course). In reality, while Gamer culture can be exactly as bad as described, the clash is not between Gamers and frothing radicals, but between a vocal subset of Gamers and mainstream criticism. In other words, the exact same criticism all forms of popular media are regularly subjected to. Gamergate is the direct result of critics beginning to take games seriously as an art form and a small segment of Gamers reacting violently against that.

Take, for example, one of the primary subjects of Gamergate ire: cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian, creator of the Tropes vs. Women Youtube series. I was familiar with Sarkeesian before she turned her attention to video games: they’re informative, concise, and sometimes overly earnest feminist critiques of media. Fairly mild stuff, by any measure. Watch one or two videos and decide for yourself if she’s been “aggressively hypersensitive” enough to incite the abuse she still regularly receives.

Or let’s look at the woman at the epicenter of Gamergate: Zoe Quinn, developer of the small, independent choose-your-own-adventure text game Depression Quest (which is a short, beautiful game you can play right in your browser!) Gamergate began when Quinn’s jilted ex-lover posted a 9,000 word screed against her on 4chan, accusing her of sleeping with journalists for positive reviews. The diatribe was written with the express purpose of inciting attacks against her. The internet mobs were happy to oblige, and Gamergate was born. Givens, however, describes what happened with comically Olympian detachment: “For core gamers, it was proof positive that social justice advocates were colluding to undermine the distinctive identity of gamers, since Quinn’s and Grayson’s social justice politics were well known… For social justice activists, on the other hand, publicly revealing the sexual misdeeds of Quinn was a blatant salvo in the war on women.”

And this is where Givens crosses the line from vague prevarication to outright bullshit peddling. It seems not to matter to him that the claims against Quinn’s “collusion” have been repeatedly proven false, or that the immediate result of Gamergate was targeted, sustained harassment of outspoken women in the industry. It speaks volumes that as the affair rebranded itself from the “Quinnspiracy” to “Gamergate”  early on and loudly professed concern for “ethics in video game journalism,” male journalists received only a fraction of the abuse doled out to non-journalists like Quinn, Brianna Wu, and Randi Harper (who’s biggest sin was to create a tool that attempts to block Gamergate harassment on Twitter).

Meanwhile, Givens goes on to argue that Gamergate was actually right all along. After discussing the Quinn conspiracy (which, remember, everybody knew was false from the beginning) he writes, “Video game journalists as a group aggressively took up the social justice advocates’ perspective on the problem and rapidly used their near absolute control over the media portrayal of the story to launch a coordinated and ruinous attack on Gamergate supporters.” It apparently did not occur to him that video game journalists, whose job it is to cover video game news, saw a campaign to harass women in video games as a newsworthy event and then (generally, but not exclusively) chose to portray it as a negative thing, which mainstream outlets later echoed. I should also note that claims of journalists’ attacks being “coordinated” largely stem from another debunked conspiracy theory that arose when a journalist for Brietbart revealed that some games journalists communicated through (gasp) an industry email list. I’m not even kidding.

The SJW Conspiracy

In any case, let’s suppose that Givens is correct. What was the social justice narrative promoted by this hegemonic cabal of all-powerful journalists? It was, in his words, that “Gamergate was a bunch of misogynist gamers banding together to intimidate females in the gaming community with death threats, rape threats, and doxxing.” Allow me suggest that the reason Gamergate has been portrayed like that is because Gamergate was explicitly formed by misogynist gamers banding together to intimidate females in the gaming community with death threats, rape threats, and doxxing. That has literally been the core of the whole movement from the beginning. It’s not enough to airily proclaim that, well, of course harassment is just dreadful, awful stuff, but oh well, it’s just how the internet is these days. To suggest that harassment of women was just an incidental, unavoidable side effect of Gamergate is like suggesting that cross burning was just a regrettable side effect of Klan gatherings.

Givens goes on to condemn the “hostile media” for ignoring GamerGate’s noble efforts to purge itself of harassers (to see how the laughably named Gamergate Harrassment Patrol works in action, click here). In reality, efforts to talk about harassment with true believers inevitably leads to a black hole of No True Scotsman madness: Gamergate is never guilty; the wealth of extremely well documented bad behavior committed in its name cannot represent it. It’s a wonderful cover for an amorphous, leaderless mob and the useful idiots who enable it.

Which is not to suggest that every single Gamergate supporter is a terrible person. In fact, I think many are basically decent but thoroughly misguided, lonely, and frustrated kids who believe that their friends and identity are under attack, or who think that harrassment and doxxing are just games, as chan culture dictates. Nor am I particularly interested in Givens’ implication that this is all a bunch social liberals attacking other, more innocent social liberals. If he wants to define the motley collection of men’s rights activists, pick up artists, child pornography peddlers, and white supremacists attracted to Gamergate as social liberals, he’s welcome to do so, but the best analysis I’ve seen labels them the “Redpill Right.” But their position on the political spectrum matters a great deal less than the real damage they’ve done.

All For The Narrative

Of course, none of this matters to Givens, because he’s got a narrative to promote, which is that “a hostile and aggressive social justice movement is actively looking for vulnerable targets far outside their usual hunting grounds.” But in defending Gamergate, Givens has done far worse than choosing what he admits is an “imperfect victim.” Instead he has allied himself with the most vile aggressors I have ever encountered on the internet, all in the name of attacking left wing trends he doesn’t like. Meanwhile, Freddie deBoer has written some genuinely thought-provoking analyses of both Gamergate’s toxicity and the overreaches of social justice advocates, using (get this) evidence and tangible examples, which I highly recommend for anyone interested in further reading.

Givens wrote a postscript noting that while he’d originally assumed Gamergate was dead, he’d since been informed by supporters that it was alive and well. He responded, “That would not be a bad thing at all in my book.” It’s been three months since then, and Gamergate still exists. The media has moved on, and the hashtag has been as thoroughly discredited as Givens laments, but the women at its center continue to receive torrents of abuse, as does anybody who dares challenge it. I’ll close with a excerpt from a post written by Zoe Quinn just days after Givens bravely wrote that “someone ought to speak out” on behalf of Gamergate:

I keep saying the phrase “August Never Ends”. I’m still being threatened over a review that never existed, still being hunted by the crusaders for “ethics” who will spin on a dime to defend child pornography but attempt to burn you in effigy for a poor taste joke made over 10 years ago.

[…]

When GG started back in August, I was crashing in an old elevator shaft, converted with makeshift floors and a bunk bed. I spent the whole first week there, unable to sleep because the nightmares were so bad and so instantaneous that I would dart awake, hyperventilating, unable to get back to sleep. The setting was so appropriately claustrophobic and suffocating. It’s been 5 months and the nightmares haven’t gone away, the accusations keep flying, the threats continue and my family continues to be targeted. The same wheels of abuse are still turning, 5 months later. I’ve been coming to terms that this is a part of my life now, trying to figure out what to do about it, and how to move forward with so many people trying to wrap themselves around my ankles. It’s been hard to accept that my old life is gone and that I can never get back to it. But I’ve found purpose in the trauma, in trying to stop it from happening again, to use my experience to show how these things are allowed to happen, and to further a dialog on how to actually stop it.

If I can’t go home, maybe I can at least get out of this elevator shaft.

PS: At this point I’m through trying to discuss Gamergate, so anybody who tries to argue its merits in the comments will find their comment summarily deleted. However, if Nathaniel Givens would like to explain himself I will respond do that. Perhaps he has changed his mind since January.

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Comments

  1. It’s hard to believe the level of irresponsibility there is behind Nathaniel’s column, and it’s hard to believe First Things would publish it. I can only assume the editors were completely unfamiliar with the phenomenon Nathaniel was pretending to analyze. Dumbfounding.

  2. Great response, Casey.

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