Last week, I wrote about the Entertainment Software Association's reaction to "Gamergate" -- the months-long culture war over gender and ethics in the gaming industry. My Twitter feed was flooded with messages from those who said we'd been unfair in our coverage of the harassment of female game developers and media critic Anita Sarkeesian.
So we reached out via Twitter to Gamergate supporters, who are defending gaming culture against accusations of misogyny, for their opinions and suggestions of who they felt could tell their side of the story. That led to four conversations with self-proclaimed supporters, suggested by their peers, who denounced the harassment done in the movement's name. But, they said, for them Gamergate is not about harassing women; it's a debate about journalism ethics.
Gamergate critics, meanwhile, say that defense is simply nothing more than a coordinated attempt to harass women out of the game industry. In other words, the massive fight around Gamergate is complicated by the fact that two sides don't even agree on what they're fighting about.
That may surprise those who've seen coverage of the controversy only in relation to violent threats sent to Sarkeesian and to game developers Zoe Quinn and Brianna Wu after they weighed in on the issue. But if there's one thing I've learned about Gamergate in the past week, it's this: It's complicated. Gamergate, in some ways, brings to mind two other recent mass movements -- the tea party and Occupy Wall Street. Supporters see it as a consumer movement that's also, essentially, leaderless.That means, they said, that more rational voices who want to talk about ethics in journalism have been drowned out by people sending loud, undeniably hateful speech in an Internet echo chamber that rewards sensationalism.
"I don't think this is indicative of either side," said "Lizzyf620," a female Gamergate supporter who asked to be identified only by her Twitter handle because of threats she's received online -- including one from a person who made threatening comments about the security of the windows at her home. "I think these are sick people doing sick things."
No one denies there has been harassment leveled against supporters on both sides of the issue. There's even speculation that the worst comes from Internet trolls who don't feel strongly about either side of the subject but just want to cause trouble. And that doesn't keep the threats from being scary.
Threats of a shooting sent to Sarkeesian ahead of a talk she was scheduled to give at a Utah university prompted her to cancel the event. And several less prominent participants in the debate have reported threats, on both sides. Erik Foreman, a 28-year-old Gamergate supporter, said he received an e-mail that included his current home address, a threat to mutilate his body and an implicit threat against his family. That prompted him to call local police, he said, who advised him to leave home for a while. Foreman said he did so immediately -- though he was amazed that he had to leave his home over a debate about games.
"It's stupid that people are sending death threats over something so trivial," he said.
One problem Gamergate supporters face in defending against accusations of intolerance is that the blog post that sparked the controversy set a misogynistic tone. That post was written by Elon Gjoni, the ex-boyfriend of game developer Quinn, and seemed to insinuate that she'd slept with journalists in exchange for positive coverage. A later update from Gjoni clarified that was not the case. And while supporters may not agree with Gjoni's behavior, the ones I spoke to said it prompted other disclosures about personal relationships between game developers and the gaming media. And that struck a chord.
"I would have liked to start the conversation on ethics in games journalism in another way, for sure," said "FinnyLawliet" when asked directly about whether he agreed with Gjoni's tactics. A movement supporter and 20-year-old college student, FinnyLawliet also asked to be identified only by his Twitter handle.
Suspicions over ethical problems in gaming journalism grew even after the accusations against Quinn were proven untrue, because of disclosures that some game journalists had supported crowd-funding campaigns for games -- or had personal relationships with developers they covered. An article at Breitbart purporting to show a "Journolist"-like mailing list of game journalists talking about coverage didn't help matters.
Failing to disclose those conflicts, many supporters said, is "disrespectful" to those who read game sites, and that's the core of what makes them so mad. Oliver Campbell, a former game journalist who's become a prominent voice on the supporters' side, said he doesn't think the majority of Gamergate supporters actually care about discussing the place of women in the gaming industry. And, he said, he strongly believes that the fuel behind the fire would go out if gaming sites adopted and publicized some ethics policies requiring the disclosure of relationships -- similar to actions that some gaming sites, notably the Escapist, have already taken. Fix that, they said, and the whole conversation could stop.
"Gamergate could be over in a week," Campbell said.
Others agreed. "That would probably end it immediately," FinnyLawliet said. "Or, if it didn't, Gamergate would have no defense. It would have no reason to exist, and could be universally derided and loathed as just another Twitter harassment campaign."
As Gamergate drags on, supporters such as Campbell have tried to steer the tone of the conversation to be more respectful. "I told them: If you’re serious about fixing ethics, there’s a way to go about doing this. Don’t engage in that behavior because it helps nothing," he said.
Other supporters have also taken up this mantle. Lizzyrf620 said she and other supporters are now quick to report hateful or threatening speech as soon as they see it.
Campbell also pointed to other efforts to recast the mainstream image of Gamergate, including a crowd-funding campaign to donate money to the PACER Center for National Bullying Prevention. Some have also launched coordinated campaigns against media sites -- notably Gawker Media and Gamasutra -- to persuade companies including Adobe and Intel to stop advertising on those sites.
As to the question of why Gamergate supporters couldn't just rally under a different banner that's not tainted by the association with misogyny, FinnyLawliet said the answer is simple: Change the name, and the conversation dies.
"Gamergate actually owes a lot of its success to the controversy. It's less that it has to be a conversation about misogyny specifically, and more that it's a fairly basic Streisand effect," he said."The more the media tells people not to look, to just go away, the more people get curious." Plus, he added, it's not easy to get another hashtag started, and there are no guarantees that it could produce a conversation any more coherent than the current one.