Not long ago I had my first run-in with Gamergate. It started, innocuously enough for me, with the news that the March 2016 South by Southwest music/film/interactivity festival (SXSW) had scheduled a session on online harassment and one on video gaming. Then the festival organizers announced that both panels had been canceled because of what they deemed credible threats of on-site violence. Then sponsors got involved. At this writing, I’m not sure how that will shake out, but how it does is irrelevant to the point I’m going to try to make.
I suppose I should stop here and explain what Gamergate is, but I warn you that if you ask six different people what Gamergate is (or “is about”), you’re likely to get six or seven different answers. In general, the answers break down into two camps: People who say they are concerned about the harassment of women in video game design specifically (and women online and in tech work generally), and people who say they are concerned about integrity in video-game journalism. As I write this, the Wikipedia entry on the subject is a reasonably good summary, although more heavily tilted toward the harassment angle than the people who say they are concerned about integrity in video-game journalism probably care for. I’ll let you take a minute to go read that entry rather than rehashing it here.
You done? Good. Moving on.
SXSW’s planned session on online harassment was to have featured panelists who had previously been targets of online harassment, including Randi Lee Harper, Caroline Sinders and Katherine Cross. The separate video gaming panel was to have featured people who have been associated with the Gamergate movement, including Perry Jones, Mercedes Carrera, Nick Robalik, and Lynn Walsh.
I know none of these people. More broadly, the last time I cared much about a video game probably was Missile Command in the early ’80s. Maybe I should care; gaming is a bigger financial deal than the movies or the music bidness now. But, then, I don’t see many movies or buy many CDs these days, either.
And as far as ethics in video-game journalism goes …. Well, I am a huge fan of ethical journalism, full stop. But I was a music journalist from my late teens until my mid-20s, when I just stopped. And the reason I stopped was that I had concluded that it was silly to apply the rubric of journalism to something that was, at bottom, a matter of taste. Sure, there’s hard news to be had in the music business, as there is in any other activity in which money changes hands, and that’s true of gaming as well. But the ethos of the time was to treat criticism as journalism, and I basically decided that that was intellectual wankery and I wasn’t going to do it anymore. For good or ill (and disagree if you like, but we’re not having that particular argument here), I take the same view of video-game criticism and much of the other writing around video games.
So, given that background, I didn’t really care about Gamergate, in and of itself. Not my circus, not my monkeys. But, being a son, husband, brother, father, uncle, cousin, friend, and co-worker to a whole passel of really bright, opinionated women, most of whom eat more shit in a week than I have had to eat my entire career, I care about harassment of women a lot, and I don’t have a lot of patience for people who engage in it or defend it. And having been a writer for a living for, oh, four decades give or take, and having had my own life threatened a time or two, I care a lot about the use of violence, or the threat of it, to shut down discourse.
And so I retweeted someone else’s opinion that canceling the sessions had been a mistake. I did that because I thought SXSW was wrong to give in to threats. And I added an opinion of my own: that maybe SXSW, an organization devoted to discourse, wasn’t exactly thinking clearly when it invited people from a movement with a history of harassment to have a panel.
That brought a response from one Gamergater. I don’t recall exactly what she said, and I can’t go back and look it up because I blocked her and have forgotten her handle, but it annoyed me enough to respond fairly harshly before blocking her.
And I did make one simple but consequential mistake. Because I didn’t care enough about the individual to look up the profile of that person for gender clues before responding, or responding to a third party about her, I referred to her in at least one tweet as having been male.
Wellnow. That brought the Gamergaters, or people whose Twitter profiles suggested that they were Gamergaters, out of the woodwork, and never was the phrase “flying monkeys” more apt, right down to the feces flinging. A lot of the respondents disagreed with my original point, which, well, it’s a free country. But a lot more were outraged that I had referred to a female respondent as male, and you’d have sworn from the substance of their remarks that they actually gave a damn about online harassment of women, intentional misgendering and other elevated subjects. Their tone, however, was a little more revealing: Collectively, they seemed to imply that the crime I had committed had been far worse than, oh, say, willfully and intentionally harassing a woman online, complete with threats of rape and other vileness. In other words, they were using the language of online equality to communicate a message utterly at odds with that equality. Their response to being accused of threatening and harassing was to harass. Either the irony of their behavior was lost on them or, more likely, they were being disingenuous assholes.
I have no patience for disingenuous assholes, particularly pseudonymous online ones. So I blocked them. And kept blocking. And kept blocking. I’m not sure how many there were or how long it took — several dozen and a couple of days, I’m guessing — but it finally died down.
And I was gonna leave it at that. But here’s the thing.
They might not be my monkeys, but online harassment of women simply for being women with opinions that other people don’t like is at least partially my circus, just as it is partially the circus of everyone who values online communication. Moreover, I won the cosmic lottery of having been born white, male, middle-class, American, and privileged, which gives me a free pass on a lot of the stuff that people who look different from me have to put up with from people who look like me. It’s a useless superpower in a lot of ways, and yet I feel obliged to use it for good.
Perhaps that’s why several of them referred to me disparagingly as a “social justice warrior” or “socjus.” Hey, better to be a warrior for social justice than for being a harassing dick.
Your mileage on Gamergaters may vary. But here’s mine, and I’m driving it hard: While there are, I’m sure, individual exceptions, the ones I’ve dealt with tend to equate losing their privilege, or even having the subject raised, with being persecuted. There’s a lot of that going around these days. I understand why you, if you’re a Gamergater, might feel that way. But the fact that you feel that way doesn’t make it true. It doesn’t justify harassing other people who disagree. It doesn’t mean SXSW owes you a forum. And it sure as hell doesn’t mean you’re entitled to be taken seriously.
Yes, I realize that some of the GGers who flocked around me were women with their own stories. Some of them have claimed to have been harassed themselves, and I have no doubt that that’s true in some cases. But the way to fight online dickery is not by being a dick to people who have nothing to deserve dickery. And while no dickery is justifiable, some is more understandable: Lashing out against people who either have engaged directly in unprovoked harassment or have defended it and cheered it on? I won’t defend that, but, lord, I understand it.
So if you’re serious about ethics in gaming journalism, then, go with God and be serious about ethics in gaming journalism. Feel free to point out conflicts of interests or other ethical lapses where you can document them, and share that information with every audience you can find that cares. But let that documentation speak for itself — which, if it’s any good, it will. And if you want to disagree with women about their opinions, knock yourself out. Prove why they’re wrong, if you can.
And where you can’t, see if you can at least not throw rape threats around every third tweet. If that’s too much for you to manage, don’t be surprised at the response you get.