Opinion

What #Gamergate’s Critics Get Right And Why It Doesn’t Matter: Ethics

Mytheos Holt Policy Analyst

Anyone who spends any time reading critics of #Gamergate, the online consumer revolt which by now has raged for practically a quarter of a year without any sign of abetting in spite of multiple articles prematurely declaring it dead, almost inevitably encounters the movement’s opponents using the derisively ironic sneer that the movement is “about ‘ethics in journalism.’” (Airquotes required) Just as inevitably, this is followed up with a predictable laundry list of alleged victims of harassment by #Gamergate, all of whom are female and feminist, as if to preemptively discredit the “ethics in journalism” defense as a mere smokescreen for classic boys’ club misogyny.

And yet, if one spends any time on #Gamergate’s forums, such as Kotakuinaction on Reddit, one encounters people earnestly stating that the movement really is about ethics in journalism – most frequently, about trying to impose more rigid standards on gaming publications regarding conflicts of interest and verification of information. What is more, one finds a laundry list of villains far more expansive than the truncated list of “victims” put forward by the movement’s enemies – a list that includes at least as many men as it does women, and one that tells a story of equally vicious harassment being leveled at #Gamergate itself. Moreover, one finds several women (Cathy Young, Christina Hoff Sommers, Georgina Young) being listed as heroes of the movement for their defenses of it against their primarily feminist persecutors.

And indeed, if you bring up these facts to #Gamergate’s opponents, they’ll have a readymade reply – that if #Gamergate really were about ethics in journalism, it would be focused on collusion between big gaming companies and major gaming journalism outlets, rather than on the online antics of feminist video game critics and the sexual habits of independent game developers. In other words, they say, the movement is willfully blind to the worst actors, which suggests their concern with ethics only goes as far as women/feminists. And indeed, when it comes to disliking feminism, a number of #Gamergate’s heroes certainly seem to confirm this theory, yet the movement will still stubbornly insist its primary concern is ethics in journalism.

Unless you’re willing to spend ages sifting through forum posts, this probably would leave you extremely confused, and rightly so. In fact, one cannot be sure, reading the internal debates among #Gamergaters themselves, that even they know for sure if their movement really is limited to scrutinizing the ethics of mainstream gaming journalists. And certainly, there’s enough rage against people who have no formal journalistic perches (Anita Sarkeesian, for instance), or whose only crime is attacking the gaming identity rather than showing conflicts of interest (Leigh Alexander) to conclude that the movement has more at its core than simple ethical concerns.

While this author expects vehement denunciations from some corners of the #Gamergate community for saying this, this is because it undoubtedly true that there is more to it than that. However, before any readers reach for their Twitter feeds, they are urged to read the following paragraph first:

In a previous article, this author described the fact of #Gamergate’s likely predominant demographics being white, straight and male as a fact that obscured more than it revealed about the movement as a whole. In this case, the fact that #Gamergate’s purported focus on ethics in journalism obscures a wider agenda not only obscures things about the movement – it actually gives its proponents too little credit, rather than too much. While the movement has undoubtedly had victories in obtaining commitments to more stringent ethical standards from certain widely read gaming publications, ultimately a lack of journalistic ethics is really only a symptom of the wider disease it is fighting.

That disease is intellectual dishonesty. While the movement’s enemies are technically correct that the movement is not about ethics in journalism, or rather not only about ethics in journalism, the only part that is mistaken is the “in journalism” part. #Gamergate is about intellectual ethics, period, and if it seems unconcerned with certain forms of unethical behavior relative to others, it is either because those forms of unethical behavior have already been shamed and scandalized into indefensibility by the mainstream gaming community (whereas #Gamergate’s targets have not as yet), or because the people committing them have been less dishonest than some of #Gamergate’s more widely publicized antagonists.

It is this concern with intellectual honesty and ethical consistency that #Gamergate’s opponents persistently and, in some cases, maliciously mistake for misogyny when, in point of fact, it is nothing of the sort. Outside of those maliciously distorting the message, however, there is a good amount of what appears to be confusion in good faith. To see why the accusations are unfounded, one has only to closely scrutinize #Gamergate’s opposition to the three most prominent examples that are usually brought up when charges of misogyny get leveled at the movement, and see what lies behind the anger. That is, given that Zoe Quinn, Brianna Wu and Anita Sarkeesian are #Gamergate’s “axis of evil,” so to speak, one has to ask what earned them that title.

Before proceeding further, it should be noted that any death threats or harassment targeted at these three women are unequivocally morally wrong, and that however unethical their behavior may or may not be, nothing justifies making these people fear for their lives or safety. Beyond that, there is nothing that can be said without going on at too much length, except to say that the accusations of harassment against #Gamergate are themselves are worthy of discussion, but are beyond the present scope of discussion. The issue is whether #Gamergate has reason to be angry at these women independent of misogyny, not whether their response to that anger is justified or productive.

That being said, let’s start with the woman from whose alleged indiscretions #Gamergate sprang, Zoe Quinn. It’s difficult to exaggerate what an influence Quinn had on the development of this scandal – not only did the infamous tell-all blog post by her ex-boyfriend now known as the “Zoe post” arguably initiate #Gamergate itself, but what many saw as unfair treatment toward Quinn herself galvanized the movement’s opposition. Glitch_g, a moderator on the Gamerghazi Subreddit (the primary hub of popular opposition to #Gamergate), complained that “I was against this since the very beginnings as the ‘Quinnspiracy’, seeing it as one big mess of people being used by a cuckolded boyfriend for his personal revenge.” Another user, OmegaBlue0231, wrote, “I came into this fairly early on, even before GG was a thing back when it was the Quinnspiracy and the Five Guys thing.” Yet another, thor_moleculez, complained in somewhat more colorful language that “[Gamergate] started with bulls—t accusations from a jilted lover who is still trying to f—k with [Quinn] today, spiraled into a catastrophe of slut shaming that had nothing to do with journalistic ethics.”

So it’s safe to say that if anyone’s a lightning rod in this controversy, it’s Quinn. So, is it true that the accusations against her are nothing but misogynist slut-shaming, bitterness and hurt feelings instigated by the accusations of one man?

Actually, no, and the argument is preposterously truncated. As moderate feminist writer Cathy Young pointed out in her first of several articles on #Gamergate, Quinn had a number of cruelties and indiscretions to her name before the Zoe post was even heard of. It is unnecessary to rehearse all of them here – readers can click on the link if interested.

But let’s assume that the controversy over Quinn was only, or primarily, motivated by the contents of the Zoe post. Could #Gamergate be seen as the unholy revenge of a misogynistic, vengeful ex then? Well, the vengeful ex in question, one Eron Gjoni, at least seems to dissent from the idea that he wants an online mob to exact vengeance for him. On the very page where Gjoni first made his accusations, he writes in an update, “I DO NOT STAND BY THE CURRENT ABUSE AND HARASSMENT OF ZOE QUINN OR FRIENDS. STOP DOING THAT. IT IS NOT IN ANYONE’S BEST INTEREST.”

What’s more, Gjoni appears to have only reluctantly gone public with his accusations in the first place, and then only because of a female friend urging him to do it. He now regrets it. Oh, and the female friend who urged him to go public? This is her take on why the site went viral:

I’d like to be able to say “I don’t know how this happened,” because the memory of Eron and I crouched over our laptops in mid-August is so far removed from the current hurricane of hashtag wars and front-page headlines. But I’d have to be a lot less smart not to see how it happened: men (some men) believe women are subhuman. Men (some men) believe women deserve punishment for existing. Men (some men) wilfully screw up ethical discussions because they don’t want to listen to women speak.

So the idea that Gjoni himself is a vengeful psychopath out to wreak havoc, or that misogyny motivated either him or the woman who urged him to go public to make the accusations seems absurd on its face.

That being said, Gjoni himself isn’t #Gamergate as a whole. And to be sure, there’s been some very off-color attacks slung at her – for instance, the aforementioned “Five Guys” meme that parodies the famous burger chain, which is a snide reference to the accusation that Quinn cheated on Gjoni with no less than … well, you figure it out.

However, even if you look at some of the most vicious and scathing attacks on Quinn on some of the least politically correct sites, you find that even according to them, the real problem with Gjoni’s account isn’t that Quinn had sex with five men. It’s that she cheated with five men. And not only that, but that in doing so, she was violating her own ethical standards. Consider this particular belief that Gjoni recounts Quinn allegedly holding:

Views on the ethics of infidelity. Which she maintained is inherently wrong even if the person who was cheated on never finds out, because (aside from willfully endangering their partner by way of increased STD risk) if the unfaithful party then has sex with their partner, they are doing so under false pretenses, and therefore without their partner’s consent. That is, sex with a partner who doesn’t know you’ve cheated on them is sex without consent.

Now, one could rightfully object that taking Gjoni’s account of what Quinn supposedly said as gospel is pretty clearly biased information, not to mention hearsay. So in the interests of fairness, if Quinn doesn’t believe the above to be true, she’s invited to renounce the idea that cheating is morally equivalent to sex without consent, i.e. rape. However, proceeding under the assumption that Gjoni’s account represented her views accurately for a moment, is it really misogynistic to be angry at a woman for doing something that, in her own mind, is equivalent to rape? Not only that, but serial rape, considering the fact that she did it five times? Imagine if a man were accused of cheating this much with women – would anyone confuse that with misandry? It certainly seems strange to imagine that the Clinton impeachment, for instance, was carried out by committed man haters.

Or, to use an even better analogy, does anyone think that the attacks on former Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho for leading a secret gay double life while publicly professing opposition to gays in the armed forces were motivated by homophobia? Given that many of the attackers were themselves pro-gay progressives, the idea strains credulity. And similarly, given that the woman who urged Gjoni to go public against Quinn seems primarily outraged at Quinn for attacking targets who honest Leftists should defend, it seems that the real problem where Quinn is concerned is not her sexual habits, which no one seems to give a damn about, but rather the fact that if the Zoe post is true, she’s a hypocrite at best, and a closet abuser at worst. With respect to the allegations that Quinn traded sex for positive coverage of her game Depression Quest, the only thing that seems relevant is to say that if not sex, something must have forced so many game critics to surrender their senses, because the game is, quite simply, awful, both as a game and as a representation of depression. Either way, attacking someone for being a self-serving, abusive hypocrite is not the same as attacking someone for being a woman.

And speaking of attacking someone for being a woman, or in the case of the next person whose name gets brought up, for becoming a woman, let’s talk about Brianna Wu.

To give Wu credit, her motives for getting involved with the struggle appear to have been noble. In an interview with the online David Pakman show, Wu said that she got into the fight primarily because her friends had been targeted by the #Gamergate movement, and that as a female game developer, she felt compelled to speak out against people who she felt were driving women out of the industry. In other words, Wu could have easily avoided this fight if not for her sense of loyalty to her friends.

Unfortunately, when you look at the friends she cited as having galvanized her participation, things rapidly start to look more dubious. To begin with, Wu cites former Polygon writer Samantha Allen as someone who was chased off the internet by #Gamergate. And indeed, Allen did tweet, “Goodbye, video games. Enjoy drowning in your own homogeneity.” There’s just one catch. Allen wrote that tweet on July 1, 2014, fully two months before #Gamergate was even a hashtag.

What’s more, for a woman such as Wu, who inaccurately attacked the message board 8chan in an interview with HuffPost Live as a “hate site,” Allen herself is a strange bedfellow to keep. Especially if you want to oppose hate sites. Consider this archived post, in which Allen openly admits the following:

i’m a misandrist. that means i hate men. i’m not a cute misandrist. i don’t have a fridge magnet that says, ‘boys are stupid, throw rocks at them.’ my loathing cannot be contained by a fridge magnet.

The rest isn’t any better. And if you really want to be entertained, just try switching the genders on that, or inserting the word “black” before every mention of men. You’ll end up with something that sounds like either a Klan member or a wife beater.

But Allen’s ideological failings aren’t necessarily Wu’s, so one has to ask whether Wu herself has written anything hateful that might contradict her message. Something like, for instance, a certain 8chan post, which includes the following lurid excerpts:

Everyone makes fun of Christians, it seems. In fact, the only other group it’s acceptable to slander as much as Christians is fat people.

My question to you is this: if we can all agree that it should be off-limits to slander niggers, broads, fags, chinks, wetbacks and nappy-headed hos, why should any of us feel so openly empowered to make fun of Christians? […]

I don’t especially feel that gays are allies when it comes to women. I think that we usually get along well, but I have occasionally felt that gays see [women] primarily as competition for the penis. When I watch drag queens, I can’t help but feel insulted – as if that offensive cartoon is what they think feminine truth is.

Horrific stuff. Too bad it’s actually from Wu’s own Livejournal. And let’s not even touch the fact that she openly claims to be deeply concerned about ethics in gaming journalism, but the only “fair” interview she seems to think she’s had has been with someone whose Kickstarter she openly admitted to donating to.

But, one might say, even if Wu has used some pretty controversial language and has been hypocritical about journalistic ethics, maybe her one area of sincere concern for social justice is feminism. Fair enough. After all, it’s not as though she’s defended the usage of misogynistic language against powerful women the instant it became politically convenient.

Oh wait, yes she has. On April 3rd 2008, in reaction to comments from radio host Randi Rhodes calling Hillary Clinton a “f—king whore,” Wu (an avowed Obama supporter) posted the following:

Still – if we have so much alleged free speech in this country, why are all of us so hell-bent on censoring anyone with an opinion that we find offensive?

These are not comments that this author had to do much digging to find. They are, in fact, available to anyone who bothers to read even a trace of the literature which #Gamergate-affiliated sites have produced on Wu, much of which is copiously sourced. What has been printed here is the most verifiable, though there are any number of other charges of dishonesty (including even a series of screencaps purporting to show Wu deleting a complaint about death threats after being questioned about the threat’s veracity). In other words, this is yet another person who #Gamergate has targeted for lying, hypocrisy, and engaging with the issues in bad faith, not for her gender.

However, to be fair to Wu, her last excerpt raised a good question, and one that she should probably ask another of her friends, Anita Sarkeesian.

About Sarkeesian, there is not much to say that has not already been said elsewhere, including by this author. Countless Youtube videos and one terrifyingly exhaustive series of articles have been produced critiquing Sarkeesian’s mind-bogglingly inaccurate media critiques. However, this has not stopped Sarkeesian from continuing to try to misrepresent herself, for instance by recently appearing in a music video titled “We’re Not Jack Thompson,” which claims that critics like her actually want more diversity in games available, rather than censorship, as the infamous debarred Florida attorney Thompson advocated. Ironic, then, that she promotes the work of Karen Dill, herself an activist for video game censorship so infamous that the makers of Grand Theft Auto named a car after her. For a more exhaustive catalogue of Sarkeesian’s sins than this, readers are urged to see Milo Yiannopoulos’ scathing missive to Bloomberg on the subject.

And speaking of Yiannopoulos, let’s address his presence in #Gamergate, because plenty of the movement’s critics have pointed to Yiannopoulos – who had previously written some highly unpleasant things about gamers – as an example proving that #Gamergate is too opportunistic to really care whether its house press is ethical, or even friendly to their cause. In other words, for a movement that claims to be about ethical journalism, isn’t it odd that they’re harboring someone who formerly called them “unemployed saddos living in their parents’ basements.”

About this, two things need to be said. Firstly, Yiannopoulos himself has repeatedly recanted his earlier remarks, including in correspondence with this author. To quote Yiannopoulos himself in an email, “I’ve been absolutely vile about gamers in the past, and everyone knows that. But I looked at this situation and thought: you know what, the gamers aren’t the bad guys here. And, as time has gone by, I’ve become more and more fond of them, and of gaming itself, to the point where I almost question my ability to write about all this objectively now.”

And indeed, Yiannopoulos actually has written some pretty darn good gaming commentary now that he’s put his mind to it.

But say it’s all an act. Ironically, this brings us neatly back to Sarkeesian, because if Yiannopoulos is defending #Gamergate out of ideological opportunism and despite his previously expressed disdain for gamers, then it’s equally opportunistic for Anita Sarkeesian to suddenly became a born-again gamer the instant she could earn feminist bona fides, despite the fact that she expressed a lack of interest in the medium.

One can’t take it on faith that Sarkeesian’s lapsed interest returned on a genuine level, but that Yiannopoulos can’t be a convert himself. For the sake of fair play, we must believe, whatever their initial motives may have been, that both are now actually interested in video games qua games, and should be judged for the quality of their output. Given that Yiannopoulos is up to date enough on social science to realize that games cannot cause either violence or sexism, whereas Sarkeesian seems to think she can tie it to things as lurid as domestic violence statistics, one of them seems to clearly put out better material.

One way or another, though, the fact is that for all the bluster about misogyny, #Gamergate’s choice of targets reveals that it is not attacking women, but rather attacking the most opportunistic, ideologically motivated, willfully dishonest actors currently commenting on, or making video games. Intellectual honesty is the movement’s cri de coeur, and it is not going to stop until it purges what Taylor Swift calls “the liars and the dirty, dirty cheats of the world” from possibly the last remaining art form where fraud masked by pretentiousness is insufficient to guarantee a livelihood.