‘We Will Force Gaming to Be Free’

On GamerGate & the Licence to Inflict Suffering

Commentary - We Will Force Gaming to Be Free

Katherine Cross is a feminist sociologist, working on her PhD at the CUNY Graduate Centre. Her  writing has also appeared in Women’s Studies Quarterly, Bitch Magazine, Questioning Transphobia, and Kotaku. She is a co-editor of the Border House.

“The end justifies the means. But what if there never is an end? All we have is means.”

~Ursula K. LeGuin, The Lathe of Heaven

GamerGate will be remembered for its breathtaking scope; it drew together hitherto dissociated monads of angry, resentful elements in gaming— once content with shouting from the pestilent valleys of comment sections and tweets by themselves—and made of them a movement with a battle-standard.

From the beginning it was a concatenation of ironies. They declaimed unethical games journalism with the aid of an unethical journalist; they claimed women and minorities were #notyourshield while using them as a shield against criticism of GamerGate; they excoriated “blacklists” while creating aggressively enforced boycott lists of websites and authors who disagreed with them; they averred their movement had nothing to do with Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn even as they remained unable to stop talking about them; they promoted a vague notion of “inclusion” while expending great energy claiming that there was nothing wrong whatsoever with gamer culture’s treatment of women.

But the greatest irony of all is that from the beginning, GamerGate took as its enemy the “social justice warrior”—an archetype based on a toxic tendency in leftist activism—and then employed all of their tactics in service to their supposedly noble and just aims. A careful examination of GamerGate reveals an anarchic social movement that is now fully given over to paranoid purge logic, purist orthodoxy, deep suspicion of outsiders and institutions, and, above all, a willingness to believe that the ends will justify the means. This conviction all but ensures that the movement will continually violate its own stated principles in order to achieve them, layering terrible irony atop terrible irony.

GamerGate, for all its loathing of anything that is vaguely redolent of leftism, has spectacularly failed to learn one of the hardest lessons that leftist activists have painfully struggled with for more than two hundred years: no imagined future paradise is worth terror in the here and now.

But this is also the story of what makes GamerGate different from other extreme political movements. Its pretensions to being a “consumer revolt” make it both more distinctive and more dangerous than any “social justice warrior.”

Big Sister Is Watching You

Throughout his life the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin grappled with a haunting question: why are revolutions, especially violent ones, so often unsuccessful? In Berlin’s considered view, the great problem of utopian thinking (whatever its political provenance) is that it effaces human difference and diversity of thought: the honest and sincere disagreements about principle that characterise political life. True tragedy, he wrote, lay not in good against evil, but good against good. How, for instance, are we to always successfully reconcile justice and mercy? Revolutionary movements depended on an ideological fiction of harmony: that all conflict could be erased by their “final answer” and the cacophonous chorus of dissent would fall silent before the sight of perfection.

This, Berlin believed, was a recipe for disaster. “If this is possible,” he wrote in The Crooked Timber of Humanity, “then surely no price is too heavy to pay for it; no amount of oppression, cruelty, repression, coercion will be too high… This conviction gives wide licence to inflict suffering on other men.” The ends, in other words, would justify the means because the revolutionaries always knew better. Citing Rousseau, he believes that this lies behind his conviction in “the right of society to force men to be free.”

It may sound like an unwarranted compliment to see GamerGate in such consequential terms. But these social ills have their strains in all of us, and internet organising provides us with means of enacting social dynamics in miniature that once demanded the energies of mass physical crowds. Thus, on a much smaller scale, these ideas have their salience.

Consider their goal and their methods. Ethical and “agenda-free” journalism and criticism, achieved by scouring games journalism of any and all dissent from GamerGate’s views—i.e. the hated “SJWs.”  This purge was driven by a harmonious idea: the idea of games journalism without corruption, graft, those mysterious “agendas,” or influence-peddling, and a journalistic enterprise that had a sympathetic and symbiotic relationship with its core audience. But above all there need never be a conflict between a journalist’s or critic’s duty to inform and a reader’s desire to be told only what they wanted to hear—a contradiction that would surely make Berlin cringe.

They chase a virtuous horizon; games journalism’s problems are myriad. But at no point could the movement lay genuine claim to virtue. It was, itself, corrupted from the start by the idea that all means were justified or excusable if it meant “saving” video gaming.

In their quest to obliterate ideological foes a paranoid tendency quickly emerged: the movement increasingly confounded “corruption” with “social justice warrior” and the two concepts have now all but fully merged in their eyes. Big Sister was watching them, after all. Many now openly tar anyone who disagrees with them as the mouthpiece of a vastCultural Marxist conspiracy and believe the only way to the paradise of “ethical journalism” is through expelling such people from the ranks of the gaming press and, indeed, from any and all media that comments on gaming.

For all of GamerGate’s hatred of “SJWs” they took no lessons from the threadbare realities that lay behind the SJW stereotype. The phrase ‘social justice warrior’ was originally coined on Tumblr to describe a dangerous tendency among some leftist activists to aggressively and angrily pursue political goals according to strict ideological codes, often to the detriment of others, with no clear collective gain, but significant personal aggrandizement. It is a tendency that I and many others have been critiquing and thinking about long before GamerGate. Indeed, at the start of this year, queer and feminist writers in the world of gaming specifically talked about this very issue and inspired me to do the same. How long ago that all seems now.

When I wrote about the subject I warned fellow feminists that the tendency to view our opponents as irredeemable enemies could easily take on a life of its own.

With GamerGate it is vital to consider their torturous relationship with public figures such as Leigh Alexander, Anita Sarkeesian, or Zoe Quinn—or, indeed, the many men who have spoken out in support of them, and the websites that have published queer or feminist writing in the recent past. GamerGaters are told by some among their number to avoid harassment at all costs, but beyond an appeal to utilitarian self-interest (‘do not harass because it makes us look bad’) they are not really told why.

Their ideology—the conviction that any and all feminism, and anything that can be deemed “SJW” is inherently corrupt—makes harassment and the targeting of outspoken figures, especially women, inevitable, and impervious to utilitarian admonitions. Why care about ‘looking bad’ when your cause is so noble?

The furious, crowdsourced prosecution of perceived feminist “corruption” violently conflicts with any anti-harassment ethic. GamerGate, more than most such movements, is morally unmusical: they have rules with no moral framework, they call for ethics without finding ways of instilling a sense of ethics in their followers. It becomes hollow rhetoric that ultimately bows before the terrible logic of revolutionary thinking: ethics are for paradise, in the here and now we must fight til our final breath with everything we have, no matter the wreckage we may leave behind us. What Hannah Arendt called “the coercive force of logicality” takes hold, proceeding from bad premises to terrible conclusions to worse actions.

If you sincerely believe that the cyber mob is the ideal jury to fight corruption, and you marshal a perilous stack of indictments against dozens of writers, organisations, websites, and developers that charges them all with a conspiracy to destroy gaming, then harassment-as-praxis is inevitable.

Like the most corrosive elements of the far left, GamerGate has adopted a purist cocoon of ideology that is meant to carry them through to a utopia– in this case, a gaming utopia, a restoration to what gaming once was, in their eyes, before the feminist interlopers ravaged it. The stated goal is modest—making gaming journalism more ethical and accountable—but it became little more than a talisman waved at any and all criticism, used more to justify, minimise, and excuse the terror GamerGate wrought on everyone they targeted.

GamerGate had taken an inflexible ideological stand, named their enemies with expansive fervour, and set about persecuting and prosecuting them. They became judge, jury, and executioner, with no court of appeal.

Through all of this terror, as with all such mass prosecutions, they remained fixed on the grand unifying idea: “ethical journalism with no agendas.” It was the way to paradise.

No Use For Nodding Masks

The terror of GamerGate had many insidious dimensions, but surely one of the most chilling was the manner in which it all but criminalised what had hitherto been normal relationships, personal and professional. This, indeed, was GamerGate’s true origin: the false accusation against developer Zoe Quinn that she had slept with a Kotaku journalist for favorable coverage. Though that accusation fell apart, Quinn is still likened to no less than Archduke Franz Ferdinand, as the spark to GamerGate’s tinder. Such metaphors betray much about GamerGate’s terrifying psychology, but for our purposes it is enough to consider that it began with deep suspicion of relationships as such, and the increasingly paranoid fear that any connection, professional or personal, between two or more people revealed corruption.

Almost immediately we—and I must include myself in this, for as a feminist academic and writer, I was quickly targeted as well—were all, as a class, deemed guilty by association: guilty until proven innocent, with no proof ever seeming to satisfy the braying mobs. Suddenly our names began to appear in spider charts, sinful stars in senseless constellations of conspiracy.

Arguments online revealed a lust for orthodoxy and a desire to unmask every “corrupt” journalist or critic they could find. None were spared, and GamerGate began to see lying hypocrites masked by every screen-name and avatar. We were all asked questions with no exonerating answers: why did we write? Were we really gamers? Who did we associate with? Why did we not “disclose” our feminism? Why were we lying about GamerGate?

“The search for motives,” writes Hannah Arendt in On Revolution, “the demand that everybody display in public his innermost motivation… transforms all actors into hypocrites; the moment the display of motives begins, hypocrisy begins to poison all human relations.” What she means by this is that the inquisitorial impulse to unmask motives and hypocrisy will see a liar behind every perceived mask; humans are imperfect and self-contradictory, but under the klieg lights of paranoid suspicion, such human frailty and normality is tantamount to a confession.

Many of us game critics did indeed work together and even liked one another, prima facie proof to GamerGate of unethical collusion; suspicion of our neighbours, disavowal, and bearing false witness, were what the “movement” demanded.

GamerGate, from the start, saw feminist criticism as the spearpoint of an invasion, and set this as the inescapable tone for the movement– in spite of the fact that only 0.41% of articles across major gaming websites had feminist content. The only good woman was a silent one, or one who uncritically supported GamerGate. The rest needed to be purged, along with any and all of their supporters, friends, and colleagues regardless of gender. Ever-growing lists of boycott targets were circulated, praxis was increasingly expressed by using donotlink URLs for “offending” websites, any and all discussion of sexism was considered “clickbait” (despite this essay’s lengthy and unsexy disquisition on philosophy, it too will be considered “clickbait” by their dim lights).

Enemies proliferated as fear mushroomed online. When 4chan itself had at last had enough of GamerGate and began deleting threads discussing it, this too was seen as more proof of an “SJW conspiracy” that had now reached into the heart of 4chan, previously ground zero for the movement. Who was to blame? The site founder’s girlfriend, of course. 4chan was now on the “SJW” list. The Enemy was clearly omnipresent, and the need for unmasking hypocrites and corrupt gamers with “conflicts of interest” grew claxon-urgent.

When Breitbart UK journalist, and staunch ally of GamerGate, Milo Yiannopoulous published a professional mailing list of gaming journalists, implying corrupt “SJW” collusion, the Gater revolutionaries clamoured for more. Thus, when talking to those who questioned them and their newfound zeal for people’s emails, many Gaters simply said some variant of “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to be afraid of.” We need only trust their enlightened, infallible judgement to sniff out any hypocrisy lurking behind an email password, after all.

That same attitude exploded this past week into yet another side-project for GamerGate called Operation Digging-DiGRA, a crowdsourced “fact-check” targeting feminists who have presented at, or were affiliated with the Digital Games Research Association, a professional organisation of academics who study video games. When I and others questioned the ethics and objectivity of an operation whose chief exponent promised that academics like myself would “fear us even in their sleep” and pledged to target only “feminists,” while others were threatening FOIA requests, and accusing myself and others of practising “social engineering,” we were simply told by gentler voices in the movement that we had nothing to fear if we had done no wrong. They are unable to understand that their ability to discern right from wrong is what is at issue here.

This is not merely fruit of the poison tree, but the poison tree itself amidst GamerGate’s toxic forest.

In a stunning recent move, some of GamerGate’s radical elements turned on video game journalist Liana Kerzner, a sometime supporter of their cause. How was her supposed hypocrisy revealed? She offered a virtual hug to GamerGate-critic and analyst Jenni Goodchild and had also spoken out against what she saw as Milo Yiannopoulos’ troubling journalistic practices. Yiannopoulos called her a “woman who gets her tits out for a living,” and the more monstrous side of the movement quickly gathered its torches and pitchforks.

In Arendt’s haunting words, “The revolution, before it proceeded to devour its own children, had unmasked them.”

The Consumer at War

But there is one highly significant fact that makes GamerGate different from historical examples of radical extremism.

All such movements committed to the rule of the mob, whether rightist or leftist, are always self-consciously political. GamerGate’s dogma, by contrast, held that it was both apolitical and committed to purging politics from game reviews. This terrible delusion made it even harder for them to examine their own ethics. GamerGate is neoliberalism’s distorted reflection of leftist terror: the lust for revolution, to be the Rough Rider “good guys” saving the world by force if necessary, but with none of the obligations or thought inherent to political reasoning.

GamerGate styles itself as a “consumer revolt,” which makes it somewhat different from other collective political actions—even those ground in reactionary politics of resentment, like the Tea Party. Instead, GamerGate has set itself up as a gaggle of angry “consumers” who have been insufficiently catered to by game journalism. Again and again, they return to an angry refrain about a clutch of articles about the slow death of the “gamer” identity that were written in the wake of Zoe Quinn’s recent harassment (the first wave of the GamerGate assault, though by no means her first experience with hate mobs). Those articles, they say, were the final straw from a gaming press that “disrespected” them and stereotyped them as sexists and harassers.

The waves of coruscating outrage were simply the newly political variant of the infamous rage that had for so long characterised the world of gaming. If the angriest of gamers could demand the Federal Trade Commission investigate the ending to Mass Effect 3 because they believed they’d been cheated, imagine the solar fury they could bring to bear for charges about corrupting agendas in the games press.

The wound here comes from a sense that they as gamers are not getting what they “paid” for (if only with the micron of cents sites earn from their individual clicks and ad impressions). They identify first and foremost as consumers who see their relationship with the game press as being one that should exalt the readers as kings and their hobby as being virtually beyond reproach. Much of GamerGate felt like an ad hoc PR exercise for the beleaguered male gamer, and for the concept of gaming itself, defending both from charges no one had ever made. But, crucially, in their view a proper games press would never criticise gamers, gamer culture, or their favourite games in anything except the most “objectively” technical ways. Are the controls smooth? Are there any bugs? Are the graphics cool? Slap a score on it and tell the consumer whether or not to buy.

Beyond that, games writing should serve no other purpose, no “agenda” save that of the gaming consumer defined in the narrowest terms possible.

The ideology-of-no-ideology inherent to “consumer revolts” acts as an additional layer of insulation against self-reflection, making it even easier to avoid conducting moral inventories of one’s behaviour. If you believe you are fighting for something “objective,” for something you are owed (like a demanding restaurant patron expecting hand-and-foot service because she’s a “paying customer”) rather than a malleable philosophical principle, it is especially difficult to dissuade you from destructive actions. If you are merely pursuing your entitlements in an economic contract exchange, what use have you for morality? Save the one moral that says you must get what you are owed, of course.

GamerGate has responded to charges that its fixation on insurgent critics like Leigh Alexander, rather than the lavishly paid corporate executives who set the agenda and tone for the whole industry, is wrongheaded by simply saying that men like Activision CEO Bobby Kotick “know how to run a business” while critics, journalist, and developers– especially those who are crowdfunded— are seen as spongers. They are now all but criminalising the very notion that writers should be paid for their work, suggesting this is a conflict of interest in its own right. The new gaming website to emerge from the movement, goodgamers.us, is proud that it does not pay writers, using the ‘dream job’ and “do what you love” rhetoric beloved of the gaming industry at large; such ideas often help impose long hours and insufferable conditions on designers, writers, and developers. If it’s your dream job, why would you ever complain?

Left utopian fallacies can lead us into new layers of hell; neoliberal “consumer revolts” threaten to drown us in the one we already live in.

Like the very “SJWs” they claim to despise, GamerGaters simply wagered that the noble goal of their cause was worth the price of any and all suffering they might cause.

The Doorway to Paradise

GamerGate sought to enforce its vision brutally, and demand the conversion or expulsion of those who dissented, even among their own ranks. As with most utopian movements beset by viral paranoia, it conjured its scarlet letters and pinned them to any and all dissenters: in this case, the favoured term was “SJW.” GamerGate sought to reclaim the concept of the “gamer” and ring-fence it from both criticism and from outsiders, perceived or actual.

Collusion, sex, lies, and videogames. A self-organising movement for “ethics” was the answer, and all sacrifices—including purging the industry of dissenting voices—would be worth it. Even if their own outrage was commodified, canned by the richest precincts of the gaming industry and then sold back to them in the form of the same old gunmetal grey games and prepackaged sense of identity ad nauseam, it was better than reading feminist writers. A war against them had to be fought and won.

On the doorway to paradise appeared the words: Agendas Are Unethical.

Thus we were all made to walk through.

[Correction (10/09/2014): The author would like to add the following: “Liana K notes that there was a longer run-up to the incident with Milo Yiannopolous and his followers, saying that she began to be pushed out when she wrote this editorial for Polygon about gaming and mental illness.“]

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