As 2014 draws to a close, #GamerGate continues. A number of articles have been written in both popular and academic publications attempting to describe, critique, and comprehend GamerGate. What has yet to be discussed is the challenge of undertaking research into this amorphous, self-styled online “movement” — what sociologist Jennifer Allaway has designated a “hate group” (2014) — and its proliferation of avatars and media that have banded together underneath the GamerGate hashtag. GamerGate as an online phenomena is many things, but for the researcher, it is primarily encountered as a toxic space where critical inquiry is nearly always understood as a partisan or biased attack (see Allaway; Cross; Goodchild; Lutz; Straumsheim 2014).
Even as it is organised through 8Chan and coordinated in militarised language and tactics through Rogue Star Industries, GamerGate remains fundamentally anarchic, operating via decentralised online media. As Rogue Star’s document shows, GamerGate operates through multiple vectors: a series of hashtags on Twitter that are disseminated, debated, and defended by both anonymous and named accounts; a coordinated economic boycott of games journalism outlets (and their advertisers) that have published thoughtful work critical of GamerGate or the games industry in general; and a proliferating, sophisticated series of mostly anonymous attacks, conducted through multiple forms of social media, against anyone critical of GamerGate’s aims, with particular focus on prominent women in the gaming industry.
While critical work that unpacks the various dimensions of GamerGate continues — including the archiving of its campaigns — there is a need to gather scholars to discuss the challenges of undertaking research in an online environment hostile to study, that actively dissuades critical inquiry into its activities while obfuscating its intentions and motives, and in which researchers have been subject to various forms of online harassment. Evidently, scholars need to analyse a movement capable of rapidly amassing various forms of violence through online and digital media while, at the same time, undertake strategies to protect their own well-being.
This roundtable is part one of a two-part series drawing together scholars who have published on GamerGate in various venues and who are active in researching it (see bios below). Part one asks scholars to reflect upon their experiences in researching GamerGate. The second part will turn to the kinds of scholarly strategies, approaches, and questions required to analyse GamerGate, with more time given to defining and contextualizing GamerGate as an online, decentralised movement with connections to far-right hate groups.
Roundtable – Part I
Participants: tobias c. van Veen, Jennifer Allaway, Katherine Cross, Jenni Goodchild and Michael Lutz (see below for author bios).
tobias c. van Veen (tcV): What has been your experience as a scholar researching GamerGate?
Jennifer Allaway (JA): I was not originally starting out studying GamerGate — the study that I published on Jezebel looked at opinions gamers as a whole had on diversity in game content and how the industry as a whole understood that. Essentially GamerGate attacked that data because they thought it was some conspiracy by the larger industry. As I started to do a content analysis of GamerGate’s behaviours on 8Chan, the first attack was really shaking, because you have four hundred polluted data points. I think one of us academics can talk about how heart-breaking that is, when you’ve poured your soul into something you really care about and all of a sudden you might have to walk away from it. When you decide to throw yourself back into it, studying the group that did this to you, all you can think about is, if this is what they did nonchalantly, because they could, what are they going to do when I look them in the face and critically study them?
I don’t think they’re going to take lightly being called a hate group academically. It was very scary. I had to do things I never thought I would have to do for my personal safety.
tcV: Given that targets of GamerGate have seen a range of online attacks from swarming behaviours on social media to doxing, what kind of technical and safety precautions did you have to undertake to continue your research?
JA: I ended up getting a VPN on my computer and I had no idea what that was before this attack. There’s this paranoia, right? Five different people I know have received threats on their phones — GamerGaters calling them and giving them personal rape and death threats. All of a sudden, I am too afraid to pick up the phone when I see a random number. It literally plays on your anxiety.
I had to go and remove a lot of personal information from school records, my academic papers from the records of the university, because I was afraid of GamerGate hacking my school’s mainframe and getting into it and doing things with it. I had to get 60 character passwords so they wouldn’t get to my address, and that’s really annoying to deal with, and on a daily basis it’s just a reminder — it’s just emotionally burdening.
I want to understand the people who have hurt me and hurt my friends, and for simply trying to understand them, I have to guard every piece of my information. It’s psychologically very hard to explain.
Katherine Cross (KC): That’s the interesting thing for me as well. As a researcher, you are in the midst of this maelstrom, implicated in it, and it is almost impossible not to be directly emotionally involved in a way that is exceedingly difficult to justify in other research endeavours, because as the researcher you are directly under attack. So many of GamerGate’s conspiracy theories and its general weltanschauung about the gaming space positions academics as being part of the problem, especially if you study gender. So any attempt to theorize about them or write about them is to make yourself a target, and some might argue that biases you. I’ve certainly had that charge leveled at me multiple times. One of the most common criticisms — that doesn’t involve four-letter words — directed at my First Person Scholar essay was that it was “too emotional.” I didn’t really agree with that, but the lines they were quoting were things like “GamerGate as a movement has left a lot of wreckage behind it.” And I know that’s informed by standing in the midst of that wreckage, seeing it happen to my friends, my professional colleagues and acquaintances, and also having been directly the target of petty vitriol or hatred. So I have to check myself even more than I would if I was doing any other kind of research, because there is this level of emotional involvement that I have to try really hard to keep at bay, even as it’s its own form of data. I can’t talk about what GamerGate is doing, as an empirical matter, without appealing to that emotional understanding of what it’s like, the phenomenology of being-in-the-midst-of-GamerGate. And that’s been a difficulty for me, certainly, trying to hit that balance, knowing that especially as an academic you’re going to be attacked for bias, simply because the movement has made you a target. The alternative is to silence yourself and I don’t see that as powerful.
Jenni Goodchild (JG): The main difficulty I’ve had talking to GamerGate is that they don’t use words in the way everyone else uses words, which automatically makes any attempt of studying or talking to them a matter of playing the definition game before you can get any discussion done. As I do philosophy, I am kind of used to that. That is the kind of thing philosophers do — but not at this scale. Philosophers will say “I am using this word, in this context, and this is what I mean by it, and now I’ll use it.” Whereas GamerGate just kind of abuses words.
The big thing that got me doing my survey in the first place was that a lot of GamerGate was talking about “objective reviews.” “Objective” obviously does have multiple senses of the word, so I wanted to clarify who was using it in what sense. Quite a lot of them did mean it as “impartial,” which I can agree with, and that is a good goal to aim for, in the sense of not having a personal connection. But a lot of them meant “I want a review free of opinions.” And then you try and explain to them that a review is just an opinion, and they say “no it’s not, it’s facts.” And so you say OK, is saying “this game is good a fact?” and they go “yes! It is objectively good”. And that’s just the point where you can’t have a conversation with them anymore.
I’ve had similar confusion over the notion of harassment. Many GamerGaters say that it’s specifically a legal term, and that it only has a legal definition, and they should only stop it when it’s illegal, and that anything else is tone-policing and about feelings. But that’s not what it means, because the definition includes the legal definition and others. [foot]The Compact OED (3rd Ed., 2005) lists harass as to “torment someone by putting constant pressure on them or by saying or doing unpleasant things to them;” and as the adjective harassed: “feeling tired or tense as a result of too many demands made on one” and “[to] make repeated small-scale attacks on an enemy to wear down their resistance.”[/foot] But they’re obsessed with the idea that if it’s not illegal, it’s not harassment.
JA: When you establish a movement that’s leaderless, and then try and give a leaderless movement a cause, you’re going to get this. The one cause they seem to agree to is something about ethics in game journalism, but then their actions harass women. They try and use some sort of rhetoric to defend that, and all the rhetoric is different. And that’s because it’s a leaderless movement, organically established on the internet, in which anyone can join, and anyone can partake. Which isn’t to say there haven’t been major figureheads who have been inspiring GamerGate and inspiring action — Adam Baldwin, Milo Yiannopoulos from Breitbart, Total Biscuit. There’s been plenty of figureheads who say “I’m going to tweet this,” and then thousands of people then go say things because this one person said something. But for the most part, the reason why it’s been so hard to communicate, or get any kind of consistency out of the movement, is because its just happened organically.
KC: And that’s a major research problem too, because it calls into question what the definition of GamerGate “is,” in a certain sense.[foot]There is a research problem inherent to describing a movement that fancies itself pluralistic even as it appears to have a clear, unified impact that tends in one ideological direction. – KC[/foot] How do we describe what GamerGate is about, exactly? Because GamerGate’s proponents resist generalization — as it implies individuals are responsible for the whole — it opens up academic research to attack, because we have to generalize. I’ve had people attack my writing for saying that GamerGate is a reactionary movement. They’ll say “oh no, I’m a leftist, so therefore you are empirically wrong.” And that’s a major challenge. But I think that the emerging science of self-directed, leaderless social movements, provides a lot of good research guides for some of these questions. Certainly a lot of the colour revolutions, the Spring revolutions, Occupy, there’s an emerging body of research studying the benefits but also the serious flaws inherent to this new, anarchic style of revolutionary organising. And I think that GamerGate is in that tradition, which provides us with a research model for understanding GamerGate.
JA: I also think that quantitative data helps us to establish their actual cause. Because everyone will say it’s a leaderless movement with no consistency, the consistency has to come from data. I’m in sociology, so there’s two schools of thought, quantitative and qualitative data. The two need to work together. Qualitative data can be attacked — if someone undertakes a content analysis, an in-depth look at one section of GamerGate, then GamerGaters will attack saying “well no, that’s what one part of GamerGate says, the other part says something else.” The quantitative analysis of three days of the hashtag was very powerful. Everyone using the hashtag is “in” GamerGate, and involved in the GamerGate discussion. That was far less easy to dismiss. It will be much easier as a researcher to discuss this if the two sides of qualitative and quantitative data can work together in a more cohesive way and have more multi-method studies looking at this. If we do purely qualitative studies, we’re going to see from the GamerGate crowd “well this is biased.”
Michael Lutz (ML): I’ve been holding out because — and I suspected this — my experience with GamerGate is incredibly different, and there are many reasons for this. Part of it is that the little bit of scholarly writing I’ve done on this didn’t really get a lot of traffic. The one piece of feedback I got was “this is very well written but it misrepresents the movement” — and that was it. They don’t seem to want to even talk to me anymore beyond that. They will send me emails that are always very cordial. And God help me, part of the reason for this is because I am a man.
I’m also an interactive fiction writer, so they don’t necessarily recognise me as an academic. I released a Twine game a couple of weeks ago called The Uncle Who Works For Nintendo that sort of inadvertently became an extended parable about GamerGate and its unhealthy attitudes. When the game was first posted to Reddit, it was widely assumed that I was a woman — for whatever reason, because it was in Twine, because of the content of the game. There was at least one call to dox me, and then it never took off. I know there are people being driven from their homes because of this. You think of Western films, there’s a shoot-out, and there are people falling left and right and the one character walks through it because of plot armour — well, it feels like I have privilege armour because I am this dude.
One night, I got a couple of guys who were trying to recruit me. They were like “hey, look at the charts that we have!” And I was like “whaaat?”. They got increasingly incoherent. It ended up with a screen shot from Halo with a planet blowing up, and the planet was Gawker Media. It was like “here’s what we’re trying to say,” and I was like “you’re trying to blow up Gawker?”
KC: Hearing your experience Michael is quite interesting because — while the reaction to my writing has been definitely not as bad as Brianna Wu, etc., has been experiencing — they are still very cutting, personal attacks, with people saying that I am a pseudo-intellectual using big words, or a Ursula K. LeGuin quote, to make myself sound smart. There’s this haze of static that GamerGate spews that causes you to question and doubt yourself on a fundamental level as an academic. There were people making fun of my university — the City University of New York — saying “oh, she goes to the dumb public school and not NYU,” etc. There were people saying that I was using Hanna Arendt because I was pretentious. It got very, very visceral. I would’ve been grateful if one person had said “that was very well written but you misrepresented the movement.” I would’ve been falling over on my knees grateful saying “yes, thank you.” That was so totally not the GamerGate response to what I had said.
ML: The most vicious response I had was to my game, and it was some guy trying to get a rise, mocking me. The game is a horror game and it opens with trigger warnings. This guy started railing at me for putting trigger warnings in front of a horror game, saying that this must mean that I don’t know what horror means.
JG: They have a weird sense of who’s important, and who has impact. The reaction to me has been really weird. I haven’t had — fingers crossed — any doxing, any threats. No one has really tried to find out that much about me. They seem to not know what to do with me. They’ve repeatedly tried to fit me into some kind of power structure that they’ve imagined in their minds, and I always get treated worse when they think I’m important. There was a week where someone thought I wrote for Kotaku, which I’ve never done, and that week I was getting a lot more vitriol. For awhile they thought I was under the employment of DiGRA, which is weird, because DiGRA in the UK doesn’t pay people. They found this out because I invited a scholar who is a member of DiGRA to talk at a conference. GamerGate read this as her being my boss; they kept saying she was a man, which was weird too. It waxes and wanes depending on whether they think I have an influence on the industry. Much as it would be lovely, let’s face it, academics really don’t have the influence GamerGate thinks they do.
And obviously the gender thing: because GamerGate seems to think that women have a lot of power in this industry, which is just bizarre. The GamerGate worldview is just so nonsensical and non-aligned with the truth of things that it’s hard to work out what they’re doing or why they’re doing something, because it’s so illogical, because everything they’re doing makes no sense.
KC: To add a postscript to that, I should add that I was made the star of my very own conspiracy by 8Chan. In the wake of the First Person Scholar article I had some “research” done on me. I sit on the board of two LGBTQ non-profits, and by this incredibly byzantine logic that required reaching back into the 1930s, GamerGate managed to connect me with the avant-garde media criticism of the New School — which I have no affiliation with. They also threw a lot of transphobia my way, with some people saying I had undisclosed business ties to Silverstring Media, which I hadn’t even heard of until GamerGate.
JG: Apparently Silverstring are running this whole thing.
KC: I get the sense I am missing several paycheques here.
JA: There’s so many delusional things about what GamerGate thinks about power-dynamics. After the initial attack of my data, I put out the Jezebel article, and one person dared tell me to kill myself on Twitter. I sent that over to my friends on social media and we public-shamed that. Since then it’s basically just been the rigmarole of people trying to discredit your work by discrediting you. The level of what I’ve dealt with is minor compared to what others have dealt with. The power-trips that GamerGate puts itself through could in itself be a powerful study of power dynamics. One could study how the GamerGate culture just processes power. One would have to do an ethnography, and get in there — which is not a fun prospect, in my mind. It’s very related to the collective, leaderless movement mentality, but at the same time, certain members need to assert a level of dominance above other members and prove to other members that they are in control and contributing to the movement by name-calling and doxing. It’s like a proving ground with each other to get “points.” This helps reinforce the mentality within the larger group that it is doing the right thing. It’s almost Pavlovian.
ML: I was going to say, this sounds very familiar to me from my time as an eleven year old boy. Part of what’s really terrifying about GamerGate is their inability to understand how terrible their own positions are. As a white, straight man, I can see where the GamerGaters are coming from. I understand that weird adolescent rage. But something happened in my life that made me not succumb to it in quite this way — I got over this, I got out of it. The pecking order that Jennifer is describing, about showing off, about fitting in with the group, these are things I remember doing with me and my dude friends at age twelve, like “let’s go throw eggs at the teacher’s house,” that kind of thing.
tcV: Except that such “childish” activities today take on the shape of rape, bomb, and death threats, online harassment, doxing, coordinated false information campaigns with fake online personas, and economic boycotts of journalism outlets and their advertisers in an attempt to censor the free and critical speech of primarily women.
Allaway, Jennifer. “#Gamergate Trolls Aren’t Ethics Crusaders; They’re a Hate Group.” Jezebel (13 October): <http://jezebel.com/gamergate-trolls-arent-ethics-crusaders-theyre-a-hate-1644984010>.
Cross, Katherine. 2014. “‘We Will Force Gaming to be Free’: On GamerGate & the Licence to Inflict Suffering.” First Person Scholar (8 October): <http://www.firstpersonscholar.com/we-will-force-gaming-to-be-free/>.
Goodchild, Jenni. 2014. “GamerGate, Patriotism and C.S. Lewis.” GeekEssays (15 October): <https://geekessays.wordpress.com/2014/10/15/gamergate-patriotism-and-c-s-lewis/>.
Lutz, Michael. 2014. “Conspiracy and ‘False Activity’ for the Gamers.” Correlated Contents (16 September): <http://correlatedcontents.com/?p=1851>.
Straumsheim, Carl. 2014. “#GamerGate and Games Research.” Inside Higher Ed (11 November): <https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/11/11/gamergate-supporters-attack-digital-games-research-association>.
Jennifer Allaway is an undergraduate student of Sociology at Willamette University, a game writer, and an independent social researcher whose primary body of work focuses on sexism in the game industry and its impact on game content and culture. Her groundbreaking study exploring these topics, funded by the Carson Program, has been presented at the Game Developers Conference (GDC), PAX Prime, and Indie Game Con, with articles published in Gamasutra and Jezebel. She tweets from @AllawayJ.
Katherine Cross is a Ph.D. student at the City University of New York Graduate Center and a sociologist of gender who focuses on the virtual world. Her academic writing explores roleplaying, virtual embodiment, and more recently, online harassment and its causes. Her academic work has been published in Women’s Studies Quarterly, Loading: The Journal of the Canadian Games Studies Association, and First Person Scholar. Katherine is a Presidential Magnet Fellow at the Graduate Center and a mentor in the CUNY Pipeline Program. She is also a gaming critic who is co-editor at The Border House and who has written about games for Bitch Magazine, Feministing, Polygon, and Kotaku.
Jenni Goodchild is the academic organiser at Nine Worlds, a London based convention which began in August 2013. She’s interested in the intersection between pop culture and theology, especially geek culture, as well as academic outreach to non-academic communities. Jenni has a B.A. in Philosophy and Theology from the University of Oxford, and is currently working on an M.A. in Religious Studies at the University of Bristol. Her work on geek culture and philosophy can be found at www.geekessays.wordpress.com and on Twitter @PixieJenni.
Michael Lutz is a Ph.D. student in English literature at Indiana University-Bloomington and an interactive fiction writer. His academic interests include early modern drama, philosophies of humanism, and media studies. His work on games attempts to bridge theories of dramatic performance, affect, and psychoanalysis with the phenomenology of play. His work has appeared at First Person Scholar and his interactive fiction has been featured on Kotaku, Polygon, and Wired.
tobias c. van Veen is a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Communications at the Université de Montréal and Visiting Tutor at Quest University. Writing in both popular and academic publications, tobias explores political, ontological, and technological strategies that deconstruct forms of authoritarian power. His work has focused on speculative irrealism and decolonization, exodus in dance music cultures, and the posthuman becomings of indigenous and Afrofuturisms. Tobias is editor of the Afrofuturism special issue of Dancecult: Journal of Electronic Dance Music Culture (2013) and co-editor with Hillegonda Rietveld of the forthcoming special issue “Echoes from the Dub Diaspora” (2015). Tobias has collaborated with festivals and media arts centres worldwide as Founding Director of UpgradeMTL.org and Concept Engineer at the Society for Art and Technology (SAT) in Montréal. Tobias holds an Ad Personam PhD in Philosophy and Communication Studies from McGill University.
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