WTF is GamerGate?

Even if you don’t know the difference between a Pikachu and a Pac-Man, chances are you’ve heard of GamerGate. While GamerGate has been raging for over a month, it officially hit the mainstream last week when The New York Times featured it on its front page. GamerGate has also been covered by mainstream publishers like The New Yorker, PBS and NPR in recent weeks, proving that it has become too big to ignore.

But what is GamerGate and why is everyone talking about it? Here’s a brief 101.

Seriously, WTF is GamerGate?
GamerGate is the name given to an ongoing “movement” in the online games community. While it ostensibly started over concerns about the ethical corruption of video game journalism, it has very quickly become a window into the evolving state of gaming culture and the shifting identity of the “gamer” as well. The #gamergate hash tag was popularized by actor Adam Baldwin.

So who are these GamerGate people, and what do they want?
GamerGate proponents have a handful of concerns. Video game reviewers are too close to their subjects, GamerGaters say, which affects their ability to cover games fairly. This is a common criticism of the industry. The movement is also concerned by the influence of social-agenda-driven journalists, whom they say are using video games to push their own feminist and racial agendas.

That’s the saner side of it, anyway. On the other side of the GamerGate movement are harassment, some blatant misogyny and some increasingly wild conspiracy theories — all of which have dominated GamerGate coverage, for better or for worse.

The bottom line is that GamerGate is closer to an uncoordinated mob than a true movement, which is why it has been so hard to pin down what its members actually want.

How did this whole thing start?
While many of the issues around GamerGate have been percolating for a while, the whole thing can be pinned to a few recent events. In August, Eron Gonji wrote a lengthy post about his relationship with indie game developer Zoe Quinn, whom Gonji said had a romantic relationship with a freelance games reporter in exchange for positive press. While the claims were never proven (sites like Kotaku never ran reviews of Quinn’s game), gamers were upset that the Gonji-Quinn situation didn’t get much attention from the gaming press.

There has also been a lot of criticism of feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian, creator of “Tropes Vs. Women in Video Games,” which examines the many unfavorable ways that female characters are portrayed in video games.

So it’s gaming nerds on one side and women on the other?
That’s one way to look at it. One prevailing take on the movement is that it’s what happens when the preferred hobby of a small-but-vocal subset of awkward male loners feels threatened as their hobby expands to new audiences, particularly women. (Three of GamerGate’s biggest targets — Anita Sarkeesian, Zoe Quinn and Brianna Wu — are all women.) This misogyny, observers say, has taken the guise of the “official” Gamergate stance against games journalism corruption.

This is the angle most mainstream media stories about GamerGate have taken, a reality that has given the GamerGate crowd something else to further their cause. Some GamerGaters even went as far as to document GamerGate coverage with an entire spreadsheet focused on “Tracking the Anti-Male Cabal in Gaming Journalism.”

This just sounds like just another day on the Internet. What’s the big deal?
There’s violence — or at least the threat of it. Anita Sarkeesian cancelled a talk at Utah State University last week after an email promised “the deadliest school shooting in American history” if she spoke. Both Quinn and fellow game developer Brianna Wu have also been the recipients of death threats.

Even gaming sites have been afraid of getting on GamerGate’s bad side. “How do you condemn a mob without drawing attention to that same mob?” wrote Christopher Grant, editor-in-chief of Vox Media site Polygon on Friday. “For many of our staff, myself included, GamerGate presented enough of a perceived danger that we were scared for ourselves and our families.”

Sounds bad for brands. And publishers.
It is. Intel got pulled into the center of it last week after complaints from “readers” forced it to yank its advertising from video game industry site Gamasutra. “We take feedback from our customers very seriously especially as it relates to contextually relevant content and placements,” an Intel spokesperson told ReCode.

Those complaints, however, weren’t completely organic, and came as a result of a GamerGate campaign called “Operation Respectful Nod”, which was aimed at getting advertisers to pull their advertising from so-called “social justice warrior” sites. And while Intel realized it was duped, it still stuck with its decision to stop advertising on Gamasutra.

And that site is not alone. Other game sites like Gawker-owned Kotaku, Polygon and Wired have also been Gamergate targets in recent weeks. Recent anti-gamer tweets even prompted a staff memo from Gawker editorial director Joel Johnson, who cautioned Gawker writers against being too liberal with insults on Twitter.

Gawker writers weren’t fond of the message Johnson was sending. “I understand that a certain amount of realpolitik is necessary for maintaining cordial relationships with our advertisers,” write Deadspin editor Tommy Craggs in response to Johnson’s memo, “and that it’s easy for me to be righteous when for the most part I’m cosseted from any hard considerations, but the memo and the apology … seemed to cross some sort of editorial Rubicon.”

One of the emails sent by GamerGaters to brands.

Are the tactics working?
Yes, actually. While GamerGate has obviously spooked advertisers and activists, it has also created some changes at media companies as well. Gaming sites like Kotaku and The Escapist are all drafting or revising their ethics policies with stipulations that prevent writers from covering gaming projects they’ve funded via crowdsourcing platforms like Patreon.

So what does this mean for the industry?
It’s growing pains, really. Video games as an industry are growing up, both in form and audience. As established game companies like Electronic Arts and newer upstarts like Rovio reach out to more customers, they’re also changing the definition of what a “gamer” is and, in some cases, making the distinction irrelevant.

“Today, videogames are for everyone,” wrote games journalist and critic Dan Golding. “I mean this in an almost destructive way. Videogames, to read the other side of the same statement, are not for you. You do not get to own videogames. No one gets to own videogames when they are for everyone. They add up to more than any one group.”