Actually, It Is About Sexism: A History of Gamergate by James Huffman

If you aren’t the sort of person who is immersed in the world of video games, you could be forgiven for being unaware of GamerGate. While initially used to name the controversy that sparked it, “GamerGate” has come to be associated with proponents who claim they are concerned about issues of ethical integrity in video game journalism. Despite this premise, the movement has largely focused on harassing and threatening women in order to drive them from the gaming industry. It is a response by a minority of gamers to the growing inclusivity of video games in terms of who is making them and for whom they are being made. In many ways, it represents a turning point in the history of video gaming as an element of our popular culture. To understand why, we must visit the history.

The Market(ing) Speaks

Early video games, with few exceptions, were not a male-centric pursuit. Most games in the ‘70s and early ‘80s were marketed to everyone: families, boys and girls, moms and dads. While most game development houses were dominated by men, companies like Sierra On-Line were helmed by women and had a large female audience. Even with most games being made by men, video gaming had not yet become an overtly masculine hobby.

The video game crash of 1983 changed all that. Too many titles being made by too many studios exhausted the public’s interest and drove the industry into a deep recession. This put many companies out of business and ended Atari’s dominance. Nintendo, a Japanese company that had recently found local success with their Famicom gaming console, brought it to the United States as the Nintendo Entertainment System. Crucially, the NES was marketed as a toy aimed at boys under the age of 10. The games themselves were designed with a young male market in mind: player characters were almost always men, and most games revolved around action, be it swinging a sword or shooting a gun (or swinging a sword that shoots like a gun.) While the NES could be played by any member of the family, the marketing, store placement, and games produced for the console made clear that young boys were the target audience. 

Of Nintendo’s early characters, only one shown here (Samus Aran, top row, third from the left) was a woman. 

Of Nintendo’s early characters, only one shown here (Samus Aran, top row, third from the left) was a woman. 

This trend escalated into the 1990s with the rise of PC gaming, which also came to be the purview of boys and young men. Companies like Sega also entered this market, and when portable gaming came to prominence, it was also marketed mainly to boys.

This refocus of gaming from a gender-inclusive activity to one dominated by boys reverberates into the modern gaming landscape. It is fair to say that video games offered an important escape for many young men who felt otherwise alienated and ostracized in their personal lives. The stereotype of the “basement nerd”—a young man living in his parents’ basement, socially awkward and disinterested in human interaction—developed to describe people who preferred playing games to almost any other activity.

As this first generation to grow up with male-centered video games matured, the content of the games changed, as well. They became more violent, more titillating, and more challenging to play. They also became more expensive to produce, which meant bigger marketing pushes to drive higher sales. Constantly improving graphics and features and competition between development companies drove costs upward. By the early ‘90s, video games had already become a $20 billion a year global business.

A Demographic Shift

Due to how games came to be marketed in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the popular conception of the “gamer” is a young single male, usually white and heterosexual. While once considered the “core” of the gaming market, this demographic has come to be less and less representative of gamers over the past ten to fifteen years. Much of this shift is due to the fact that video games themselves have become incredibly diverse. While the traditional kinds of games that relied on fast reflexes and strong playing skills developed into what are now called “hardcore” games, many other kinds of games found markets of their own. Such games tend to be described as “casual,” but in truth they are too varied for that designation to have much meaning. Perhaps the most popular example of a “casual” game series would be The Sims, which stands as the best-selling game series of all time. Over half of the players of The Sims games are women, and the series has shown enduring popularity, with the most recent entry released in 2014. Online games with social interaction components have also drawn broader audiences, including women. Surveys of the players of massively-multiplayer online games such as World of Warcraftindicate women make up about a third of the players—not a fraction easily ignored.

Gaming has also become more accessible on mobile devices like smartphones and tablets. The Nintendo Wii—the most popular console of its generation—earned its strong showing primarily through family appeal. It should not come as a surprise, then, that there has been significant friction between the “hardcore” players, who believe they represent video gaming as a hobby and as an industry, and “casual” players, who enjoy playing games but may not consider it a major part of their lives. Indeed, “casual” is something of an epithet among “hardcore” gamers.

This re-emergence of gaming as an activity for everyone has gradually drawn the attention of mainstream cultural critics. While Roger Ebert famously argued that video games can never be art, the truth is that games have become just as much a part of our culture as any other artistic medium. Many gamers have advocated for video games to be recognized as having the same value as any film, book, sculpture, song, or painting. Enthusiast sites like Polygon, Kotaku, and Rock, Paper, Shotgun have helped popularize video games as art, and this trend also represented a call for legitimacy from people who had too often felt shut out from the activities everyone else got to enjoy. It is not a coincidence that demands for video games to be treated as serious works of art came from the same young men who initially retreated into gaming to escape a world they considered hostile.

Regardless of whether one considers video games to be an art form, today they are a bigger and more visible business than ever. Games have attracted top talent from other artistic media, such as Hollywood stars, acclaimed writers, and famed artists and designers, all of whom bring their unique talents to gaming. Games themselves have taken on increasing narrative and thematic complexity. The BioShock games borrow Objectivist philosophy to craft harrowing and thought-provoking dystopias; the Elder Scrolls games present players with enormous open worlds where players can essentially create their own characters and stories; innovative indie games like Braid challenge players’ expectations for how games should be played. There has never been a greater variety in video games than there is today.

How could anyone have a problem with that?

Enter: Zoe Quinn

Around 2008, the niche independent gaming scene was just starting to garner attention from the broader gaming world. “Indie” game developers are generally people not working for an established company. A group of them may form a small studio together, funding everything out of pocket or through small outside investments. They may do their work out of someone’s garage or in a tiny rented office. Many have day jobs, working late into the night on their passion projects. Their games are often borne out of a love for the craft rather than a desire for profit, though they are rarely likely to turn down the latter. The availability of inexpensive and free development tools, cheap and powerful desktop computers, and the rise of game distribution services like Steam coincided to let indie developers offer their wares to the public with as few barriers as possible. Early hits like MinecraftBraid, and Super Meat Boy demonstrated what could be done with a small budget and a lot of time and dedication. A Renaissance of independently-developed games began, and in many ways it continues today, with platforms like Kickstarter and Steam Greenlight offering ways for small-time developers to fund their games without laying out all the costs themselves.

Into this scene emerged Zoe Quinn. In early 2013, she released a game called Depression Quest for free on her website. The game had been developed in collaboration with writer Patrick Lindsey. The co-creators had both struggled with depression in the past and conceived Depression Quest as an interactive novel in which the player’s choices would be strictly limited to simulate the feelings of hopelessness and isolation that accompany clinical depression. While not technically innovative, its unique approach to a contemporary problem garnered attention throughout the gaming press, who hailed it as an example of how video games can be artistic, meaningful, and educational at the same time. This media attention resulted in online abuse directed at Quinn almost immediately. 

Zoe Quinn, the woman at the center of the GamerGate controversy. 

Zoe Quinn, the woman at the center of the GamerGate controversy. 

The abuse originated primarily from an online forum site known as 4chan, where users can anonymously post text and images on a wide variety of topics. 4chan has also served as the online home of Anonymous, a leaderless, loose collective of Internet users who could charitably be described as activists, though may more often be considered vigilantes or even criminals, several of whom have indeed been arrested and served prison time for their activities. The release of Depression Quest was noted on one of 4chan’s many forums, and swiftly brought Quinn violent threats. The abuse intensified once she lobbied to have the game released on Steam, which would increase its exposure dramatically (though not Quinn’s income, since the game remained free.) Notably, abuse directed at Quinn took on a sexist flavor, with slurs such as “c*nt” making a regular appearance, and death threats often being accompanied with threats to rape her.

It would be fair to ask what motivates such behavior. Considering that Quinn’s other two collaborators on the game—Patrick Lindsey and musician Isaac Schankler—evidently received no such attention at all, one is left with the disquieting conclusion that Quinn was targeted for being a woman visible in a male-dominated space. This sort of gender-oriented abuse is, unfortunately, common in gaming, and in fact a central feature of GamerGate.

Quinn also received some notoriety for participating in a game jam that failed spectacularly when one of the producers attempted to build a men vs. women narrative, going out of his way to provoke the male participants into saying negative things about the women they were working with. When none of the men would oblige, and in fact began to rebel against the hostile environment being created, the jam was canceled. While Quinn’s presence at this event, by itself, didn’t earn her much additional ire, it forms a crucial part of the GamerGate narrative as Kotaku writer Nathan Grayson wrote a piece describing what happened, drawing on Quinn herself as a primary source.

Grayson is a vital if unwitting player in this drama. The extent of his public writing about Quinn consists of the aforementioned article he wrote about the game jam, as well as an article listing 50 games that were approved by Steam Greenlight, with Depression Questamong them. To date, he has written nothing else regarding Zoe Quinn or Depression Quest.

The Zoe Post

On August 16, 2014, a lengthy missive entitled The Zoe Post emerged. Written by developer Eron Gjoni, it details his 7-month romantic relationship with Quinn during which she allegedly had sex with several other men—Nathan Grayson among them. The post went viral almost immediately, not least because Gjoni posted it on sites known for harboring abusive posts about Quinn, such as 4chan and Reddit. Within a matter of hours, her personal details including her home address and phone number were distributed for the purpose of inundating her with abuse—a practice known as “doxxing.” Not only did Quinn herself receive threatening and hateful phone calls, emails, and twitter messages, her friends and family members were also targeted. This incident is considered the inception of GamerGate.

The gaming world woke up to a snowballing disaster. Quinn’s legion of dedicated enemies pored through the wealth of dirty laundry her ex-boyfriend had unloaded, looking for anything they could use against her. While such lurid details would, in the real world, barely be worthy of a tabloid rag, some gamers considered this an earth-shattering scandal. They quickly zeroed in on the fact that she had allegedly slept with Nathan Grayson, and noted that he mentioned her and Depression Quest in two articles he wrote. They concluded that she had, in essence, paid for good press with sex. It did not matter that the game jam piece had been written well before their romantic dealings took place, nor did it seem relevant to her devoted hate-followers that his second mention of her game was a tiny part in a list with 49 others. The Zoe Post became the Holy Grail of an angry cadre of gamers eager to lash out at what they saw as a woman using her body to “corrupt” video game journalists.

The initial name of this “scandal” was the Quinnspiracy, though Quinn herself eventually adopted the name on her twitter account with the intent of mocking it. She vocally refused to discuss the details of her personal life with an angry mob, and many gaming sites deleted all threads, posts, and comments about the Zoe Post. The latter was done because most gaming sites considered Gjoni’s post a private matter unrelated to video games at all, and therefore not appropriate for their venues. As a result, however, a meme grew among Quinn’s critics that there was a broader conspiracy by Quinn and  others to control video game media and keep her supposed crimes quiet. None of this is true, but a tendency to see vast and intricate conspiracies where none exist is yet another key trait of GamerGate.

GamerGate: It’s (Not) About Ethics in Games Journalism

While the Zoe Post validated the animosity some held toward Zoe Quinn, it did not offer genuine evidence of industry malfeasance, such as sexual favors for positive video game reviews. To date, such evidence of any kind has yet to manifest. Instead, GamerGate has continued to revolve around supposed conspiracies in which women like Zoe Quinn have an immense and undue influence on the industry and its journalists. While GamerGate’s proponents claim otherwise, the fact is that this movement has been about attacking women in gaming, even from the moment its eponymous hashtag was born.

Actor Adam Baldwin made the first mention of GamerGate on twitter in a tweet on August 27, which linked to two YouTube videos focusing on Zoe Quinn. #GamerGate began to trend shortly thereafter with users mentioning the tag in the context of corruption in video game journalism. The videos were produced by a YouTube user called InternetAristocrat, an individual who has generally shown little interest in video games, but who has spent a great deal of time making videos that attack and denigrate feminists and other Internet users who express concern for social justice issues such as sexism, racism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression and marginalization.

InternetAristocrat is also notable for another of his favorite targets: Anita Sarkeesian. Sarkeesian runs Feminist Frequency, a website that produces videos describing issues of sexism in popular culture. She first came to the attention of gamers in 2012 when she ran a Kickstarter campaign to fund a series of videos called Tropes vs. Women in Video Games. Her videos offer rather straightforward feminist critiques of video games, such as pointing out women in games being used as decoration or as damsels in distress. 

Anita Sarkeesian in a Feminist Frequency video (Image © Anita Sarkeesian). 

Anita Sarkeesian in a Feminist Frequency video (Image © Anita Sarkeesian). 

Like Quinn, her instant notoriety among gamers led to a flurry of abuse and hateful commentary which had a decidedly sexist flavor. Ultimately, her detractors were drowned out by cold, hard cash, and her modest $6000 ask became $158,922 in funding. Since receiving this funding, she has produced several episodes in the promised series. Each one has resulted in numerous threats and sexist comments directed at Sarkeesian herself, as if the irony of claiming sexism isn’t a significant problem in the same breath as sexist slurs are uttered does not occur to those posting such comments. At times, the comments on her videos have been so overwhelmingly vitriolic that Sarkeesian has disabled them entirely.

Sarkeesian would likely not have become part of the GamerGate milieu if not for the timing of her latest video, which was released on August 25, two days before the GamerGate tag was spawned. Since this impromptu movement had only just formed and was still looking for targets to imperil, the arrival of another Sarkeesian video provided the perfect distraction for people who had no success attempting to silence Zoe Quinn. They turned their attention to Sarkeesian and gave her identical treatment: death threats, rape threats, doxxing, harassment. The intensity of the abuse toward Sarkeesian was serious enough that she fled her home and involved the police. Ironically, these events raised her public profile, and she has since given interviews and public talks about these experiences.

Sarkeesian’s abuse came to a head when she was forced to cancel a speech at Utah State University as the result of a threat sent to her which promised to carry out the worst school massacre of all time. This incident brought her even more media attention, and she has since been interviewed on MSNBC, CBS, The Colbert Report, and various print and online publications. The severity of the threat was the tipping point that made GamerGate a mainstream news story, and the vast majority of reporting has seen it for what it is: a campaign of hatred and harassment against women who challenge the status quo of video games.

While Quinn and Sarkeesian have been the most prominent targets, they are hardly alone. The pattern is almost routine: a woman speaks publicly and critically of video games (or just GamerGate) in some way, and earns a torrent of retributive, hateful statements at the bare minimum. Less fortunate victims see their websites, twitter accounts, email addresses, and other online presences hijacked or destroyed, or have their personal information exposed so that they and their friends and family receive harassing phone calls and death threats by mail. Lists of targets are circulated among GamerGate proponents which contain the relevant personal information needed to torment someone remotely. Evidently, no one vets these lists or offers any serious advice as to how such information should be handled—it is simply dumped onto the Internet for public consumption, and whatever others choose to do with it, GamerGaters disavow any responsibility. Men are also occasionally targeted, though it is almost always due to either criticism sexism in video games, defending a woman who has done so, or speaking negatively about GamerGate.

GamerGate proponents, when confronted with allegations of abuse and harassment, repeatedly claim they are not responsible for these acts. Since the worst offenses are carried out through throwaway twitter accounts, fake email addresses, online comment sections, and anonymous/pseudonymous forums like 8chan and Reddit, it is difficult to impossible to identify the perpetrators directly and thus hard to prove that any individual GamerGate proponent is, in fact, engaging in abuse and harassment. This diffusion of responsibility has given them a very cavalier attitude toward the crimes committed in their name. Despite the hashtag being associated overwhelmingly with abusive behavior, proponents refuse to abandon it. What cannot be denied, however, is that theyare motivated not by a genuine concern for ethics, but by an animosity toward “SJWs”—so-called Social Justice Warriors, with which Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian are associated.

In Internet parlance, a SJW is anyone who expresses concerns about any sort of oppressive or marginalizing behavior. Sarkeesian is considered a SJW because her videos focus on sexism in video games, and many GamerGate supporters are hostile to the notion that there is anything wrong with objectifying women in video games. Quinn is considered a SJW because she is a self-described feminist who is outspoken and has broken into a traditionally male-dominated field. Concerns about ethics in game journalism, as elaborated by GamerGater proponents, focus predominantly on games or developers that feature “SJW”-friendly themes and content. For instance, Gone Home, a game in which a lesbian relationship is central to the narrative, received high praise from many gaming sites. GamerGater supporters have insisted that this acclaim is unwarranted and undeserved because the game does not feature innovative graphics or gameplay, and drew the conclusion that the game was given good press solely because it features gay characters—in essence, fulfilling a social justice agenda rather than manifesting a “good game.” They have further speculated that these positive reviews could not have come about independently, but must be the result of collusion between industry writers and perhaps even the game’s developers. In the minds of proponents, these objections revolve around “ethics” and “corruption.”

Gone Home is only one example of this movement taking a game’s review scores as indicative of a broader conspiracy to deceive and even defraud consumers. Essentially any indie game received as a critical darling, especially if it features or is made by women, can be subjected to this treatment. This movement hasn’t bothered to focus on real sources of corruption, such as large studios and publishers paying for good reviews, developers selling buggy and even unfinished games at full price, onerous copy-prevention features, and other consumer-hostile behaviors. Ultimately, GamerGate has nothing to do with ethics in any real sense. Instead, it is a reactionary response by the men who used to make up the core audience of video games, lashing out because their chosen hobby has become more welcoming of different viewpoints, life experiences, and conceptions of what video gaming can be. More broadly, it is related to social trends such as the Men’s Rights Movement, another manifestation of masculine-oriented anti-feminism that sees women being granted equal status in all spheres of life as tantamount to an overall disempowerment of men. Organized atheism, known as the “skeptic movement” in the US, is similarly male-dominated and afflicted with a vicious stream of misogyny, as embodied in atheist commentators like InternetAristocrat but also popular writers like Richard Dawkins. In each case, these are spaces built by men who have felt otherwise alienated and ostracized by mainstream society, and so have developed extremely hostile impulses toward critical outsiders. Because these movements and subcultures are overwhelmingly male-dominated, they easily build an extreme antipathy toward feminism and women in general. GamerGate has even been supported by right-wing outlets such as Brietbart.com and the American Enterprise Institute, which similarly echo GamerGate’s anti-feminist, reactionary narrative.

As of today, GamerGate supporters have accomplished little of consequence in terms of spreading their ideas about ethics in video game journalism, though they have done a great job of inadvertently promoting people they despise. They’ve achieved minor victories such as getting sponsored ads pulled from sites like GamaSutra, and managed to drive women like Jenn Frank from the gaming industry—silencing the sorts of voices gaming needs in order to evolve and fulfill its potential. Over the past week or so, GamerGate has even seen many of its top supporters driven out, discredited, or quitting in frustration as the movement begins to devour its own for lack of new targets to abuse. In some future history of video games, GamerGate will likely be noted as the explosive tantrum of a small but extremely angry segment of the gaming world, and the pivotal moment when what was once the “core” gaming demographic raged itself into irrelevance.


James Huffman is a software developer by day and a social critic when time permits. He can be found sporadically at @gorzek on Twitter, on his personal blog, or arguing with people on random Internet forums. 


References / Further Reading

No Girls Allowed (Polygon)
Women Click with The Sims (New York Times)
Depression Quest (The New Yorker)