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Gamergate can't stop being about harassment

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The road to hell is paved with good intentions

vagueonthehow

Yesterday, actress, gamer, and geek icon Felicia Day wrote a piece called "Crossing the Street," about how the Gamergate campaign had made her hesitant to engage with a culture she loves, knowing that anything she says could provoke a flood of angry, condescending abuse. At best. At worst, she could become one of the string of women who have left home, temporarily or semi-permanently, due to threats from people who "doxxed" them and found their home addresses. Day explained why she was particularly worried about this:

I have had stalkers and restraining orders issued in the past, I have had people show up on my doorstep when my personal information was HARD to get. To have my location revealed to the world would give a entry point for any mentally ill person who has fixated on me, and allow them to show up and make good on the kind of threats I've received that make me paranoid to walk around a convention alone. I haven't been able to stomach the risk of being afraid to get out of my car in my own driveway because I've expressed an opinion that someone on the internet didn't agree with.

So what did the internet do?

We're not sure, but it looks like it might have doxxed her.

We haven't been able to confirm with Day or anyone else whether her home address was really posted, and if it is, it's said to come from "five seconds of Google," not a sustained search. "It's public domain information, hardly secret," advised poster "Heloise" in the now-deleted comment. Based on the available information, this is (sadly) one of the more innocuous moments in video game-related doxxing. But it's a strangely perfect example of what the self-proclaimed "good parts" of Gamergate, as a phenomenon, have become.

For such an inchoate movement, Gamergate has been remarkably good at keeping its brand intact. It's had some, if not a great deal of, success in getting advertisers to distance themselves from people and places it dislikes. Supporters (it's difficult to cite "members" of a movement based mostly around a hashtag and a handful of message boards) will say that's because it's tapped into something powerful in gamer subculture. But to some extent, it's because its loose organization and the general uncertainty of the internet means that "outsiders" will do its dirty work. If a harassing commenter on a post about Gamergate doesn't mention Gamergate, it has nothing to do with Gamergate. If they do mention Gamergate, it's a false flag operation or a faked screenshot. If it demonstrably isn't, they don't represent Gamergate as a whole. Any of these things could be true. But their effect is the same: one of Gamergate's critics gets shouted down, and Gamergate is shocked — shocked — to hear about it.

Look how stupid you are for worrying that someone will find you! I could find you!

KotakuInAction, Gamergate's hub on Reddit, has made multiple threads expressing sympathy for Felicia Day and distancing itself from the apparent doxxing. But the comments are shot through with reflexive defensiveness. "Her whole letter was kind of heartbreaking," starts the currently top-rated comment on one post. But it's only heartbreaking because "she's just the product of the kind of fearmongering that has been pushed by people in the media," not because Day is afraid that an experience she's actually had might be repeated. Condemning attacks ends up coming off as a symbolic washing of hands, a PR move. "It's so unfair" that people see trolls as part of the movement, says one commenter. "Being 'part of the movement' is creating a net positive for the motives, most predominately ethical journalism." Others reminded everyone that Gamergate adherents have gotten harassed too. Or insinuated that Day was being dramatic. As someone on 8chan's Gamergate board puts it, "Shows how mentally weak she is. Nothing but a follower who does what TV tells her to do. ... It really shows how the oppression olympics is in vogue." That's the premise of the doxxing post itself: "Look how stupid you are for worrying that someone will find you! I could find you!"

Gamergate supporters compare themselves as a group or gamers more generally to racial minorities, to the LGBT community, to Islam. Never mind that the movement is a two-month-old, ostensibly fairly focused (ethics in journalism) political lobbying group. Claiming it as a blanket "identity" insulates it from criticism, unless the critic can prove that every single person who has ever used the hashtag is guilty.

And they're not. There's no doubt that Gamergate includes misogynists, but I have no idea what the overall gender or ideological breakdown is. There are people on KotakuInAction who like Felicia Day, who genuinely believe no one deserves harassment, who want better-written games journalism. They have reason to feel bad that they're associated with people they revile, and will do their best to stop harassment, even if it's only for good PR. But so much of that is twisted inward, treating people who are suffering as inconvenient speed bumps in some personal moral journey.

This is a cruel instinct. It's crueler when the thing you're fighting for is comparatively so very small. Here are the most allegedly damning specific flaws that, in my time following it, Gamergate has dug up:

  • A games journalist quoted a developer in a larger longform piece, shortly before entering into a romantic relationship with her
  • Another games journalist wrote a handful of posts about (mostly free) indie games made by a roommate
  • Several journalists contributed small monthly payments to indie game developers
  • Several journalists joined a mailing list
  • Several journalists wrote pieces either linking to or elaborating on a pair of articles that led with the phrases "end of gamers" and "gamers are over" within a short period of time
  • A journalist outside the gaming press tastelessly called for "bringing back bullying"
  • A large number of things that are not games journalists, including the IGF, Reddit, and DiGRA, did a variety of things that do not fit any definition of real or attempted journalism

The point isn't that I've listed every Gamergate cause, or that I've listed all the ethical concerns in games journalism. The point is that these are the faults Gamergate has managed to publicize. This is what the side of the angels looks like. A one-sentence disclaimer at the bottom of a 40-word blog post, backed by a seething mass of rage and hatred.

Is this where you really want to be?

"Does that mean you hate disclosure?" someone will ask. "Is it bad that Gamergate has made sites update their ethics policies? Do you like bullying? Is games writing some shining beacon of investigative journalism?" No. The tech and games press has long been arguing about how to address problems like outlets taking free stuff from companies, being hamstrung by corporate ownership, and putting up writing that is lazy or disingenuous. But most of Gamergate doesn't actually seem interested in addressing problems that don't directly relate to feminist criticism or the tiny indie games scene... and, by extension, Zoe Quinn, the ultimate root of all this furor. Accepting that almost random people will suffer concentrated, long-term abuse if they engage with this movement doesn't make you a resolute hero. It makes you a Knight Templar.

This is at the center of so many of the internet's bitter harassment campaigns — the complete separation of abstract philosophy and real-world effects. As long as you can feel like your own intentions are pure, you're freed from having to wonder whether the war you're fighting is in any way proportionate, or even whether your actions are helping to win it. You don't have to worry if your single angry tweet or email is one of hundreds currently taking over someone's life. It's your soul, not their body or mind, that matters. I'm not going to say whether the platonic ideal of Gamergate is misogynist. I'm not going to say whether it's diverse, or whether it's genuine. It doesn't matter. The only thing I need to know is that as far as I can tell, it is completely devoid of empathy.