In 2014, a break-up on social media exploded into an online battleground. Here, on the planes of Facebook, Twitter, 4chan, and Reddit, two sides clashed without mercy over the culture and meaning of video games.
Today, although the conflict has died down, the specter of Gamergate still hangs over American politics. In the worst of cases, it remains deeply entangled with the lives of Zöe Quinn, Briana Wu, and other women in game development and criticism, who faced harassment, threats, and, in some cases, campaigns that forced them to quit their jobs.
In August, the New York Times ran a collection of op-eds that aimed to cover the political and human cost of the event. Whether through developing modes of harassment waged by legions of anonymous trolls or tactics of disinformation, Gamergate reflected a blueprint for the storm of disinformation the alt-right would unleash onto the 2016 election and beyond.
While focusing on the human and social cost of Gamergate is vital to its coverage, it is equally important to trace the conflict through the actual objects, worlds, and stories that were fought over. More than simply describing and condemning the wrath Gamergate emblematizedand unleashed, the goal of this article is to contextualize the ways of thinking and seeing that were projected onto the virtual realm of games, before they were then reflected out onto American politics.
Like the fuse of any mythic war, this one’s was lit by an intimate relationship. Eron Gjoni, a young man from Boston, had a broken heart and was angry. His girlfriend, Zöe Quinn, had cheated on him, and instead of turning his grief inward, he decided to produce a sprawling, frantic 9,424-word narrative of the breakup.
The immediate effect was simple and devastating. The messages and documents he attached to the post fueled Quinn’s terrifying, ceaseless harassment at the hands of online misogynists. She was hacked, naked photos of her were circulated on the internet, and her home address in Boston was published, making the violent threats she frequently received each day alarmingly tangible. The thematic effects of Gjoni’s story, on the other hand, were what elevated it to the axis of a culture war. While Gjoni’s post focused on villainizing Quinn, its drama was set inside the world of the independent video game industry. After all, many of the men Gjoni accused Quinn of sleeping with were either game developers or game critics. On an even deeper level, when Eron described their breakup, he often put it in terms of a relationship between an authoritarian game developer and a helpless 8-bit boyfriend player.
This portrayal of a female developer as unfairly overpowered became incredibly valuable to a heavily male culture of gamers who felt under threat from a “New Wave” of independent games and the forms of criticism developing around them. At the time of Gamergate, the independent gaming industry was hitting its stride. Software that allowed small teams to code their own unique worlds and stories was more accessible than ever before. Over the past decade, games have slowly transitioned away from the confines of a CD drive. More and more, platforms like Steam have allowed users to purchase, maintain, and download games from an online marketplace. There, high-budget games created by industry giants can be sold next to an expanding library of independent titles representing a growing diversity of voices and forms.
While some independent games sought to match the absorbing gameplay experience of Call of Duty or World of Warcraft, other developers played with their interactive form. These games were more interested in conveying a specific message; often, these messages spoke to the diverse experiences of new developers. Depression Quest, the first game Zöe Quinn created and eventually put on Steam, was a perfect example of this burgeoning style.
Rendered primarily through text, Depression Quest stripped the idea of a game down to it essence: a dendritic network of pathways that could be navigated according to the player’s choices. Unlike traditional RPG adventure games that gave the player free rein over navigating each path, Depression Quest placed stipulations and restrictions on players throughout the gameplay, which aimed to simulate the difficulties of living with depression. Through its form and content, Depression Quest forced the player to purposely and consciously grapple with their own social position outside of the game.
For a large portion of the gaming community, this was an unforgivable sin. These ‘gamers’ did not play games to deliberately contemplate their stauses in the outside world; they played them to forget their situations and identities. From the free feeling of running and gunning, to the intensely layered and intricate procedure of leveling a World of Warcraft character, playing video games connected players with the liberating experience of an alternate reality. There, corporeal identity could be translated into fantasy avatar. These players purchased games to escape the world rather than investigate it.
However, with the rise of independent gaming, ‘reality’ was beginning to intentionally and visibly project itself onto the virtual. A framework was emerging for an argument that could never resolve itself, one where the two sides approached the idea of video games from two different theoretical visions. And to light the fuse, “the zoepost” gave each side of the debate an avatar to project onto. On one side, there was Gjoni, the male wannabe developer whose life had been ruined by a ‘New Wave’ feminist game developer. On the other side, there was Quinn breaking into a male dominated industry and changing the idea of what a video game could be: a vessel to deliver social and political messages.
Days after the Zoepost, articles were published with titles like “The Death of Gamers and the Women Who Killed Them,” “Why We Need More Developers like Zöe Quinn” and “Gaming is Leaving ‘Gamers’ Behind.” These articles defended Quinn and attacked the gamer norm, which, the writers argued, leaned heavily upon masculine fantasies of war, crime, and sex even as it claimed neutral escapism. In the same ways film theorists criticized cinema for delivering a male-centered view of the world in the 1960s and ’70s, these writers critiqued video games for centralizing male protagonists and relegating women to the background as objects to either save, fetishize, or commit violence upon. In every case, these claims were legitimate, but the problem for some gamers was that they were applied via a tradition of criticism that placed art and society in dialogue with one another.
Absorbed in gunfights or flying spaceships at light speed, some gamers refused to connect the immersive, seemingly disconnected world of games to the putside world. For those resistant to the independent gaming industry, games were not preconstructed stories or messages—they were blank worlds that individuals were encouraged to make their own. If you didn’t like how women were portrayed in one world, the argument went, you could immerse yourself in a world where they were. RPG games like World of Warcraft, after all, had female avatars, and that must have been enough. Any projects that sought to create an aesthetically and politically self-aware narrative, however, defeated the immersive quality of video games. From this approach, video games were not only alternate, but anti-realities that notions of politics and aesthetics had no business meddling with. At the height of Gamergate, no one more fully occupied this stance than Milo Yiannopoulos, then a Breitbart.com tech writer, who rose to prominence as a far-right racist commentator after covering the fallout of Gamergate. Reflecting on the conflict, years later, he wrote: “Games function as escapism. Many of the people who play them are escaping from the harsh vicissitudes of the real world, letting off steam in a safe virtual environment. The last thing they want is to have white guilt foisted on them by social justice warriors.”
Yiannopoulos saw video games as ideally a space devoid of any social responsibility—an anti-reality where players had ultimate power, to be anyone and do anything without consequences. In the grand strategy of Steve Bannon, Breitbart executive chairman, Yiannopoulos was also tasked with unleashing the politics of this anti-reality against the vulnerable foundations of “fact,” “responsibility,” and “truth” that feminists and other socially conscious people in gaming needed to effect a progressive vision.
According to an article by the Intelligencer, Bannon hired Yiannopoulos because he saw potential in his ability to speak to a culture of “disaffected” gamers more eager to stand up for their own plots of virtual ground than national ground. Unbeknownst to many, Bannon only entered the business of ‘alt-right’ journalism after a failed bid with the virtual markets of World of Warcraft. Ironically, the business model linked the real world to the sprawling fantasy realms of World of Warcraft using the labor of low-paid of Chinese workers mining virtual currency.
Bannon’s false assumption was that players in the West would pay for their virtual currency with real money. The WoW community, however, rejected Bannon’s influence with ruthless principle. Navigating through the anonymous player chatrooms that disagreed with his business model, Bannon learned that anti-reality had its own space, its own values, and even its own politics, In Joshua Green’s book, The Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of The Presidency, Bannon reflects on that time with a tone of epiphanic insight, “These guys, these rootless, white males, had monster power. It was the pre-Reddit.”
But Reddit was on the horizon, and so was 4chan. As Bannon suggests, like World of Warcraft, these imageboard chatrooms granted a zone of anonymity, not unlike the realm of video games, that allowed them to develop their own unique subcultures, free from social norms. Like computer games, 4chan provided a space where anonymity was not only enjoyed but protected. Just as gamers felt they could live without consequence in a virtual space, 4channers truly believed that they could say and argue what they wanted in the same vein. In his article “How imageboard culture shaped Gamergate,” published in 2014, Jay Allen showed how these sites created a subculture that was at once existentially absurd and dangerously serious. On imageboards, he writes, “Everyone’s anonymous, so a poster can just join the winning side of an argument, cheerfully mocking their own older posts. One poster can even play both sides from the start. Every anon can choose whatever opinion they want to have on a post-by-post basis, so everything flows smoothly even as people hatefully attack each other for having the wrong opinion. Anons believe in this free marketplace of ideas: good ones survive the firestorm, while bad ones burn to ash as everyone dogpiles on mocking them.”
In this way, while games like World of Warcraft and Call of Duty created a hypothetical space for an anti-reality, imageboards and subcultures crafted and refined the politics of this alternate world. In their discourses, not only was any conscious stake in real-world identity considered a weakness, it was antithetical to the production of worthwhile, universally accepted ideas. But, of course, there was nothing universal about these imageboards. In almost every case, the Darwinian logic of their supposedly egalitarian conversations were played out through a subculture of white men. At the end of the day, denial of the so-called world of identity was contingent on the homogeneity of the groups that were escaping together.
Thus, as reality came in to change the nature of video games, the culture of a toxic-anti reality poured out to return fire. Every doxxing plot, every empty bomb threat, every fabricated fact that came out to disrupt the foundations of reality was crafted in the anti-social context of these imageboards. What was first a defense of an alternate world developed into an assault on the real world. Bannon and the alt-right simply saw the opportunity to side with anti-reality, an alliance that would serve it well in 2016.
In 2014, MILES GUGGENHEIM B’20 was irrigating his Minecraft farm.