As one who is not a fan of video games (but have played a few, badly, with my daughters) I initially avoided stories about the so-called ‘Gamergate’, partly because I thought it dealt with some inside-baseball stuff about video games and the community of players that I was not particularly interested in and partly because I have grown weary of issues that have the suffix ‘gate’ added to them, which nowadays almost always signifies some trivial issue that is being artificially inflated in importance.
But my attention was riveted by the story of Anita Sarkeesian, a critic of some of the sexist elements of video games, who had to cancel a scheduled talk at Utah State University because of threats received via an unsigned email, that targeted not just her life but because the person issuing the threat promised to unleash a massacre if her talk went ahead.
The author of the email threatened that if the talk was not cancelled, they would carry out an attack in the style of the 1989 Montreal massacre, when Marc Lépine murdered 14 women, claiming he was “fighting feminism”.
“I have at my disposal a semi-automatic rifle, multiple pistols, and a collection of pipe bombs,” the letter said. “This will be the deadliest school shooting in American history and I’m giving you a chance to stop it.”
“You have 24 hours to cancel Sarkeesian’s talk … Anita Sarkeesian is everything wrong with the feminist woman, and she is going to die screaming like the craven little whore that she is if you let her come to USU. I will write my manifesto in her spilled blood, and you will all bear witness to what feminist lies and poison have done to the men of America.”
What was even more bizarre is that the university said that the state’s open-carry laws prevented them from doing a weapons search of the people attending her talk. So we now have a state where the laws do not prohibit weapons from an event where someone has explicitly threated to use them.
But because of this I looked around for an article that would provide me with the history as well as an analysis of Gamergate and found this one by Kyle Wagner that seems to fit the bill and what he describes is not pretty because says that the people behind these violent attacks are part of a disturbing zeitgeist.
It’s a long piece that is worth reading and I will quote just a few bits of the analysis.
Gamergate is right about this much: When developers make games targeting or even acknowledging other sorts of people, and when video game fans say they want more such games, this actually does represent an assault on the prerogatives of the young, middle-class white men who mean something very specific when they call themselves gamers. Gamergate offers a way for this group, accustomed to thinking of themselves as the fixed point around which the gaming-industrial complex revolves, to stage a sweeping counteroffensive in defense of their control over the medium. The particulars may be different, and the stakes may be infinitely lower, but the dynamic is an old one, the same one that gave rise to the Know Nothing Party and the anti-busing movement and the Moral Majority. And this is the key to understanding Gamergate: There actually is a real conflict here, something like the one perceived by the Tea Partier waving her placard about the socialist Muslim Kenyan usurper in the White House.
All of this makes sense, though, if you think about Gamergate as a mutant variant of the traditional American grievance movement, a rearguard action marching under the banner of high-minded media critique.
One of the genuine ironies of the internet is that as it’s grown unflinchingly, even militantly tolerant of race, orientation, taste, and fetish, tolerance has been fashioned into a weapon, to be used against itself. “God, who cares?” is a rote reaction among a certain sort of person when it’s announced that the hero of a game is a woman or black, or when an athlete comes out as gay, or when some other milestone is achieved. The idea is that we’re all so equal now that true intolerance begins with even noting that anyone is different from the norm, said norm of course being a young, straight, middle-class white guy. To get to this mindset requires a certain willful blindness to privilege and the ways it has embedded itself in the very structures of American life, which is how you wind up with people saying things like, “For some reason, some black people kind of hold onto the ‘back in the day,’ the slave thing, or they feel they’re not being treated right.” Cluelessness about institutional inequality isn’t a crime, but it’s a major contributing factor to the grand nerd myth of the internet as a perfect meritocracy in which everyone is equal and the worst crime is special pleading.
By those lights, a woman using her sexuality—her difference from the presumed default state of humanity—to gain an advantage, well, shit, that’s violating rule No. 1. That people badly want this to have happened even though it didn’t is crucial to understanding why Gamergate resonates the way it does—it seems to offer evidence not only that the social-justice warriors are hypocrites and frauds, but that the true defenders of equality turn out to be, well, young, middle-class white guys, and their allies. This is how people can hold the remarkably naive idea that a movement that began with some of its members harassing women with threats of violence, rape, death, and torture can expect to be taken seriously in good-faith discussions about ethics in journalism, or anything else: They see themselves as the ones holding true to the ideals in which their opponents only profess to believe.
The reasoning here is unspeakably bizarre when laid out directly. (Feminism is about equality, and a woman using sex to her advantage is doing something a man can’t, and so therefore feminism is invalid.) But it’s the backbone of Gamergate, and it’s not hard to see where it’s going.
What we have in Gamergate is a glimpse of how these skirmishes will unfold in the future—all the rhetorical weaponry and siegecraft of an internet comment section brought to bear on our culture, not just at the fringes but at the center. What we’re seeing now is a rehearsal, where the mechanisms of a toxic and inhumane politics are being tested and improved. Tomorrow’s Lee Atwater will work through sock puppets on IRC. Tomorrow’s Sister Souljah will get shouted down with rape threats. Tomorrow’s Tipper Gore will make an inexplicably popular YouTube video. Tomorrow’s Willie Horton ad will be an image macro, tomorrow’s Borking a doxing, tomorrow’s Moral Majority a loose coalition of DoSers and robo-petitioners and scat-GIF trolls—all of them working feverishly in service of the old idea that nothing should ever really change.
But in the meantime, we have the disturbing fact that a person sends out a deranged email threatening a mass killing and has succeeded in getting an event cancelled, and the authorities seem to be helpless. Surely this will only embolden copycats to try and do something similar elsewhere?