Why gamergate will lose

Gamergate is one of the most interesting cultural issues that has appeared in years. It is a rare time that the losing side of the culture war has put up a good fight. But the anti-gamergate side will win, because Progress always wins. I'll try and give a concise guide to gamergate, what's at stake, where it came from, and why exactly it is that it will lose.

Corruption and abuse

Pro-gamergate is used to refer to the gamers' side (i.e. those who either think there is a conspiracy in games journalism; that they have been unfairly stigmatised and bullied; those who dislike Zoe Quinn; and/or those who oppose social justice activism being a major part of games journalism); anti-gamergate to the games journalists' side (i.e. those who think gaming culture is misogynist and/or racist and/or transphobic and/or homophobic; and those who think that the conspiracy claim is just a veil for trying to make gaming an unsafe space for women).

Most gamergaters don't want the issue to be about Zoe Quinn, or women in gaming at all, if you look at their forum postings and discussions. They want it to be about supposed corruption in video games journalism. But the movement is full of apparent contradictions: they are against what they view as extreme social justice inroads in their beloved medium, but at the same time they don't think themselves discriminatory to gay, trans, female, non-white gamers.

However, I think the issue of Zoe Quinn is crucial, just as the issue of Michael Brown was crucial in Ferguson (if the police narrative is a lie, then it looks like a very serious case of police brutality/racism). Internet abuse is a terrible thing, yet scarcely anyone complains about the voluminous abuse directed at George Osborne or David Cameron on Twitter. Perhaps this is because they don't read it—but equally Zoe Quinn could avoid her mentions from those she doesn't follow, as I have done under pressure at times.

It is, outside of some philosophical thought experiments, always morally unacceptable to threaten violence, especially sexual violence, against people, but again violent threats are fairly routine across the internet and almost never actual threats. I could leave my house because an anti-immigration campaigner threatened me with death, but I'm not sure it would not be accurate to describe me as having been 'forced' to leave my house.

Zoe Quinn

Gamergate is a movement that arose when Zoe Quinn, who wrote a text adventure called Depression Quest with a tool called Twine, was accused by her boyfriend of having repeatedly lied to him, cheated on him (with five men in his own industry—Quinn confirmed she had sex with at least three out of five) and generally treated him in a way consistent with abuse. Her interactive fiction got rave reviews by video games journalists (who very rarely review interactive fiction). Many gamers took this to mean she had 'slept her way to the top' (she has not been accused of having sex with any of the people under whose bylines the reviews appeared, but she did have a relationship with a judge who awarded her an Indiecade prize).

Quinn had already been controversial in the games industry. When she first released Depression Quest, at least two members of a forum called Wizardchan ('an image board for male virgins') posted rude things about her. They were accused of raiding and doxxing her (releasing personal information about her) but others have claimed the phone numbers and addresses provided were false. I couldn't find any evidence of either being true. There was a media storm whose narrative ran that women can't even get a game out without facing massive abuse.

Perhaps most controversially, she single-handedly torpedoed The Fine Young Capitalists, a 4chan-supported 'radical feminist' scheme to try and get more women into gaming by crowdfunding their video games. Eight percent of the profits of the game would go to the main developer, and the rest would be used to fund future contests. She organised a campaign against TFYC because she judged it 'transphobic'—because it required entrants to have previously identified as being female to stop men from gaming the system. She also claimed it was exploitative of women because the lion's share of the profits went to future contests. Quinn later set up her own version of TFYC's game jam.

When the aforementioned sex scandal came to the fore, the whole issue blew up, and the accusations of ethics breaches (sexual and monetary) melded with general approbation of Zoe Quinn, pent-up irritation over the anti-gamer culture and (what gamers saw as) extreme social justice activism. Gamergaters congregated initially on 4chan, and eventually on 8chan when even notoriously uncensorious owner Moot banned them from discussing the issue. As I mention below, this eventually developed to a point where some people (probably, but not definitely) gamergaters made threats against Quinn and others.

Death threats

The issue had ticked along until it took a turn for the worse recently, with reports of sexual and violent threats against Quinn, another developer Brianna Wu, and Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist critic of gaming and gamer culture. At times, all three felt threatened enough to leave their house. One threat, of a mass shooting at Utah State University, led to Sarkeesian cancelling a talk she was planning there. The threats were unverified and there is no suggestion that anything physical has happened so far (as with, e.g., threats that I and my colleagues have received).

Though the pro-gg forces won one battle (a letter writing campaign convinced Intel to drop adverts from anti-gg Gamasutra) the death threats have shifted the debate, and suggest they will lose the war. Most gamergaters seem to condemn the death threats on moral and/or tactical grounds, but of course this is not seen as exculpating the overall movement. The movement is described across all major media as being about misogyny and racism and transphobia (often female or trans or non-white pro-gg people are dismissed as unrepresentative tokens) rather than the alleged conspiracies its members want to focus on.

The real story

But really it seems to me that these conspiracies are much less interesting than the gamer vs. games journalist angle. Games journalists are mainly young, white, smart, literate, college-educated, city-dwellers, and all four of those make you not just likely to lean Left, but lean towards the modern 'social justice' movement. Consider, the US is about fifty-fifty in Republican to Democratic voters (if not registered members), but about four times as many journalists are Democrats as are Republicans.

Bear in mind that although social justice advocates do care about wealth disparities, this is far from their main concern, at least in terms of how they allocate their time. For example, insufficiently pro-transgender feminists will arouse large campaigns stopping them from giving lectures at many universities, but libertarian capitalists are able to speak freely. This is why I have argued that social justice is (a) a facet of neoliberalism, and (b) an artefact of the cognitive elite's takeover of society. This is what makes the modern social justice movement so different.

How can it be that social justice is a facet of neoliberalism when most social justice advocates are deeply opposed to neoliberalism? Neoliberalism is a centre-right ideology that, unlike most previous centre-right ideologies, fits very well with social progress even though it favours markets (though substantially regulated and taxed markets) to distribute resources. I suspect that neoliberalism is successful because it has a large portion of the left vanguard agitating for one of its planks and a large portion of the stronger elements of the right agitating for another of them. The media tends to have neoliberal views relative to the population at large—more free market economically but more socially liberal.

Gamers look to games journalism to tell them which games are cool and fun and engaging and interesting and, crucially, worth dropping £50 on. Games journalists see their profession partly as a calling to purge the incompletely right-on memes that still exist in gaming. They might not put it exactly this way, but if you see insufficiently feminist games as harmful then why wouldn't you use the power you had to wipe them out. But gamers don't care nearly as much about their games including sufficiently diverse characters in sufficiently fleshed-out roles, they just want to know which are good games. Given the divide, it's understandable why games writers think them worryingly unreconstructed reactionaries.

Why they'll lose

Because gamers are a late hold-out in the culture war that is raging. Like it has won almost every major political battle since the Glorious Revolution (if slowly, sometimes) the left is going to win this one because it controls the commanding heights of the media, allowing it to bring the mass public on side, and because its adherents follow their faith with a religious zeal. Consider how marginal an issue gay marriage was in the 90s, even (or perhaps especially) among gay people. In 2008 a liberal Democrat didn't feel comfortable not declaring their opposition to it in their presidential campaign. By 2014 it is effectively impossible to hold a prominent job and be an opponent of gay marriage, even if you invented Javascript! By 2014 film adaptations of your books will be boycotted if you oppose gay marriage.

The point is not necessarily that a particular set of policies is actually a bad thing—I'd bet many gamergate activists are in favour of gay marriage—but the way the victories come about. Gay marriage won not because it convinced the public with arguments and evidence, but because a zealous group of elites shamed, bullied and stigmatised anyone who publicly stated anti-gay marriage views as 'homophobic', particularly people otherwise close to them in political views. Lord Freud's discussion of labour market reforms intended to help disabled people was almost shut down because of an out-of-context sequence of words that sounds bad. Banksy's (inane and boring) satire on UKIP in Clacton was removed for fear of being interpreted as racist. Books mainly about the causes of inequality cause a giant storm if they also mention possible genetic differences between races (even if they are judged by academics in the field to be accurately representing the science). Indeed, it is considered enough to claim that something is dated or racist to dismiss its findings.

Gamers are too disparate and disorganised to defeat the most powerful memeplex of modern times. 'Gamergate', the term itself, is already acquiring a slightly dirty taste in a lot of people's mouths, as a byword for misogyny, abusing women, or apologising for either. In general, these mental shortcuts (gamergate = misogynist) are typical of the social justice movement, and are an extremely powerful conversation-ending weapon. 'Wait a second, you support gamergate? So you're a misogynist?' Gamergate was interesting, but its advocates' zeal will run out, while the articles in the press aiming for a balance between pro- and anti- perspectives are dwindling (and are subjective themselves to attacks from more virulently anti- media). Gamergate is one of the most interesting things to happen in years, but I don't think it will win.