For the last month and a half, most of what I have read, watched, or listened to on the Internet has been either directly or indirectly related to GamerGate.
If you haven’t been following the chain of events, GamerGate started in late August when Eron Gjoni released a blog post alleging that his former girlfriend, game developer Zoe Quinn, had slept with a journalist in return for positive coverage of her free interactive fiction game, Depression Quest (this was later proven to be false). This resulted in a sustained harassment campaign targeting Quinn, as well as her family, friends, and supporters, and inspired the creation of the GamerGate hashtag on Twitter. The stated purpose of the hashtag was to raise awareness about corruption and ethics in game journalism, but it also served as a marshaling ground for people who had a bone to pick with “feminist ideologues.” Other feminist critics and game developers were targeted, many of whom had already been subjected to both online and offline harassment, including Anita Sarkeesian, Mattie Brice, Jenn Frank, and Brianna Wu. Supporters of GamerGate have repeatedly tried to distance themselves from the harassment, doxxing, and threats, but thanks in part to the disorganized and decentralized nature of the “movement,” they have had little success thus far. As many critics of GamerGate have pointed out, GamerGaters have largely focused on the activities of small indie developers and critics, rather than large companies, which are far more likely to have access to the resources necessary to influence and manipulate the gaming press, though some supporters have succeeded in pressuring advertisers to pull their ads from websites that have published articles criticizing the movement.
Aside from a public discussion I hosted about a month ago, this is the first time I’ve sat down to write something that maybe will be seen by more than one or two people. I feel a bit badly for not speaking up earlier, not so much because I feel I have something especially important to say that hasn’t already been contributed by somebody else, but because I think that numbers matter. It’s part of how we measure “public opinion,” but it’s also a way of resisting the silencing tactics used by some of the more vocal (and violent) anti-feminist supporters of GamerGate. No one is obligated to read this, but the very fact that it exists is my way of saying “You may have succeeded in scaring the shit out of me, but I’m not going to back down.”
Still, it’s hard to know where to start. The impact on the gaming community I’m a part of has been tangible, but I also think it has, and will have, impacts far outside of that. This is because GamerGate is part of several broader trends, the most obvious of which is the polarization that follows in the wake of (or occurs as part of) economic, political, and cultural crises. By crisis I mean a sudden shift in the status quo, which occurs in any unsustainable system, and leads to a struggle over a limited supply of material and symbolic resources. Think of a house of cards, or a Jenga game, and the inevitable collapse. It’s the dramatic release of tensions that have been built up over a period of time, as a result of contradictions or oppositions that can’t be reconciled: the very act of playing the game and expanding the system, of adding cards or pulling out and restacking blocks, increases the instability of the system as a whole, until eventually it can no longer expand, and something has to give. In Jenga, this marks the end of the game, but in reality, life goes on, and people are forced to deal with the (often unpleasant) consequences of the collapse.
Capitalism, particularly in its current form, is a highly unstable, and ultimately unsustainable system based on private property and the endless pursuit of profit. Overall profit goes in one direction, from those who have less wealth (the employees) to those who have more (the investors), and this produces ever-greater inequalities. However the rich can only get so rich before people, infrastructure, economies, and other things that depend on the continuous circulation and redistribution of wealth, start to give way. The 2008 financial crisis is the product of the instability created by the push for endless growth (of markets and fortunes) in a finite world. The effects of this crisis are still being felt today, and it is partly because of this that we’ve seen waves of large-scale protests and conflicts emerging in countries around the world: Tunisia, Greece, China, Turkey, Venezuela, Brazil, Ukraine, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iceland, Egypt, the United States, Syria, Canada, Spain, Libya, Portugal, and the list goes on.
(At this point you’re probably wondering what all this has to do with GamerGate, but bear with me, I’m getting there).
In a crisis it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain a “middle ground,” as people are pressured to identify with one side of the conflict or another. As time goes on and the conflicts continue, both of these sides will tend to diverge, separating themselves from both the representatives of the old status quo (the liberals, centrists, and moderates, who present themselves as the “natural,” “normal,” and “neutral” middle ground), and the other side. This is what I mean by polarization. Historically, these two “sides” are what we call the Left and the Right. The Left is egalitarian and progressive, while the Right is hierarchical and reactionary.
Often the Right adopts surface-level terminology and symbolism from the Left, as was the case with the “National Socialists” or Nazi party, which can fool people into supporting them, something that would be difficult if fascists were honest and open about their real motives. While the Left is pushing for greater inclusivity and equality, the Right is focused on protecting their turf from “outsiders.” This turf can be a nation, or it can be a medium like videogames. The outsiders can be Muslims, or Jews, or they can be feminists and “cultural Marxists” (a recycling of the term cultural Bolshevism, which was widely used by the Nazis during the Third Reich). Often this is wrapped up in language that emphasizes purity versus corruption, tradition versus change, strength versus weakness, order versus chaos. Class is almost never mentioned. Instead, the focus is on race, ethnicity, ability, gender, “merit,” sexuality, and ideology. In right-wing ideology, employees and bosses, rich and poor, are united against a common enemy.
The goal of the Right is to eliminate “difference” in order to return to an imaginary, and heavily idealized past, a past where the power and privilege of the dominant race was unthreatened and unquestioned, a past where men were “real men” and women knew their place, a past that was morally, racially, and culturally “pure.” Everything and anything that is wrong with the current state of society can then be blamed on the outsiders, the invaders who have infiltrated your turf and who are responsible for its decline. All of your problems, all of your insecurities, all of your fears, can be channeled into hatred of the Other. This is called scapegoating, and it provides a simple solution to the difficulties that you’ve encountered throughout your life but have never been able to name. It provides comfort, a certain degree of safety (as a privileged insider), and a sense of community. You may not have much power, but at least you’re better than “they” are, at least you’re not one of “them.”
The Left, unfortunately, represents a threat to all of that. The Left wants us to change our whole society around, the Left wants to upset hierarchies and disturb the “natural order of things,” the Left paints you as a bully even though you’re certain that you are the underdog. The Left represents everything that is wrong with the world, and it needs to be fought, tooth and nail. The Left is weak, corrupt, cowardly, and illogical (i.e. feminine), but we are strong, brave, rational, and valiant (i.e. masculine), and we are going to prove this by crushing the Left, and anyone else that dares to oppose us, because that’s how masculinity works. We’re the winners, not the losers, and we’ll do whatever it takes to win.
In order to achieve this, we may claim to represent certain underprivileged groups, but deep down we can never accept them as equals, because as much as they try, they will never be real, white, heterosexual men. Never mind that they provide the basis of support that allows us to carry out some of our more extreme activities, never mind that they, like us, are simply looking for answers, and a sense of security, and belonging. This is, after all, the appeal of hashtags like #NotYourShield, which invites women and minorities to support and identify with GamerGate. It’s the feeling of being a part of something bigger than yourself, of feeling included, and welcomed, of having a clear purpose. It’s the same feeling that has united so-called “social justice warriors” on the Left, and activists of various stripes.
The thing that is rarely understood about the Right, and its more extreme variant, fascism, is the extent to which it thrives on crisis. Crisis is what produces the anxiety, the uncertainty, and the desperation that pushes people to look for answers, to look for security, in whatever form. Crisis, which also brings with it the potential for change, the potential for a dramatic redefinition of the status quo, threatens those who currently occupy a position of power or privilege, particularly when they are faced with a strong and organized Left. In order to prevent the Left from gaining ground during the crisis, the old guard will start to support (or at least fail to prevent) the activities of the extreme Right, of the fascists, who at this point may be the only ones who seem capable of putting down the Left. The fascists are not afraid to use violence, whether that means beating up and killing Leftist activists or harassing feminist critics and game developers online. The elites, meanwhile, are perfectly happy to let somebody else do their dirty work, even if publicly they will denounce the violence, or pretend to take a neutral stance. Up until now they have had to put up with constant criticism from the Left, but no more. From their point of view, fascists are actually preferable (an enemy of my enemy is my friend).
The point I’m trying to make is that you do not have to be a fascist to act as a basis of support for fascism. You do not have to be actively harassing women and minorities to provide a cover for those who are. Not everyone in Germany was a Nazi, and not every Nazi was necessarily a xenophobic sociopath, but that didn’t stop them from committing genocide. The Nazi party emerged in a moment of crisis, initially supported by members of the Western ruling class who feared the spread of communism and its promise of a global revolution more than anything else, just as the fascist parties of today are slowly but surely gaining ground, alongside the rise of movements like Occupy and Idle No More.
This is why I find anti-feminist sentiments and references to “cultural Marxists” in GamerGate videos and texts so absolutely terrifying, because I know where those things come from, and I know what they can produce. Anders Breivik repeatedly decries the corrupting influence of “cultural Marxist” in his manifesto, which he published not long before massacring 77 people in Norway. Elliot Rodger blamed women for his suffering, and for his inability to live up to the impossible standards of patriarchy, before killing 6 people and himself. Marc Lépine claimed he was “fighting feminism” when he murdered 14 people and committed suicide at École Polytechnique.
These might seem like isolated cases, but they all fall back on the same old myths about women and minoritized groups that are perpetuated by the mainstream media and supported by structural oppression. Every time we use a sexist slur, or dismiss the experiences of women and minorities, or make a crack about “feminazis,” or dehumanize someone who is struggling with poverty, or blame unemployment on immigrants, we contribute to a toxic culture that serves as a breeding ground for hate groups and right-wing extremism. People on both sides are suffering, but it is ultimately the people who are already disempowered, who are already vulnerable, that will bear the brunt of it, regardless of which side they identify with.