GamerGate Forewarned of Trump Win; Why Didn’t Game Journalists do Anything?

2014 After a female game developer cheats on her boyfriend, he pens an online tell-all series of blog posts revealing that one of those liaisons was with a reporter for online gaming website Kotaku. This was the beginning of GamerGate.

Seemingly uneager to address just how close journalists and developers sometimes get, the gaming press decided to use one word against the Balrog-esque mob gathered outside, as if facing it on the bridge of Khazad-dûm. Gathering their energy, they cried out, “You cannot pass, misogynists.”

We know what happens in the Lord of the Rings: the Balrog is sent spiraling down into the chasm below, but not before catching the unfortunate Gandalf and pulling him down with it. So too, did game journalism lose quite a bit of respect and stature when it chose to make a stand with such a silly and juvenile rebuttal.

Instead of penning op-eds making the industry more transparent and straight-forward for the average gamer, article after article accusing everyone remotely involved in GamerGate of hating women were fired off. It eventually expanded to include all minorities; anyone reading something from Kotaku, Polygon or other mainstream sites would not be wrong to assume, based on what they’d read, that people with continued concerns about where gaming journalism was headed were also out to bar anyone who wasn’t a straight, white, heterosexual man from creating games.

Generally such arguments which rely on tossing labels, rather than replying with any substance, are dismissed as strawmen. I had been used to seeing these sorts of tactics used by the right (such as the annual scare reports about evil atheists and their “war on Christmas”), but this time it was the progressives who didn’t want to calmly lay bare their explanations and let them stand on their own.

It was about a month later that the gaming press, which clearly had nothing to hide from the misogynistic mob pounding on their door, was revealed to have had a secretive mailing list that not only included collaborating on journalistic narratives across sites, but also blacklisting certain people who raised uncomfortable issues. Oops.

The minority of people who were harassing people and the most problems were actually aided by this scorched-earth press narrative. Since most people involved in GamerGate were not harassing anyone it was an easy argument to dismantle. Where were the critical thought pieces on what was fueling GamerGate’s most virulent 1%? Or even just bitterness expressed by average male gamers that the gaming press was trying to take developers to task for not shoehorning in as much identity politics as they could into each new release?

What I wanted to read was some well-researched, original documentation of social issues affecting male gamers and why GamerGate became the flashpoint that it did. Games are for fun, but if the people covering them are going to call themselves journalists (and they do), then where is some decent writing on the topic? There were almost no looks at the topic which did not paint its entire membership in one grand stroke.

Unfortunately, there was no ultimate redemption for the gaming press a la Gandalf’s return. So it goes.

2016 Hindsight is 20/20, so certainly journalists in the gaming industry would have had enough time to contemplate the results of calling large swathes of people bigots based on the actions of a small minority of trolls (some of which, I assume, are good people). I wouldn’t fault anyone for optimistically hoping that people such as Christopher Grant, head honcho of Polygon, or the Editor-in-Chief of Destructoid (I’d include a name, but their staff page is a jumble of people and it wasn’t noted in their self-aggrandizing site history PDF; so much for transparency) would note the similarities between how the gaming journalists responded to GamerGate and how the mainstream media was beginning to craft their narrative against Trump supporters.

“NO! STOP! DON’T DO IT!” might have been a nice sentiment to hear from them. No such luck. Just as the gaming press had alienated many of its own readers with ridiculous insults, so too did much more esteemed news outlets such as The New York Times with cries of “Racists! Misogynists!” as people questioned Hillary Clinton.

As we can now look back, simply hiding behind slurs did not quell the resentment and did not stop the mob. That is not a personal opinion; former Gawker editor Max Read called GamerGaters the most effective enemy of the blog network. That article went up on August 19, 2016—just one day shy of the two year anniversary of Kotaku breaking their silence on GamerGate.

There were two obvious lessons to be learned:

  1. The well-meaning majority of a movement doesn’t like being mischaracterized
  2. The trolls are simply egged on by name calling

How and why did the gaming press miss these lessons? As near as I can tell, many gaming sites are stacked with ideologues who are less interested in moving the world forward and prefer to keep their views on society untainted by reality. That is unfortunate, because now we have President-elect Trump set to be sworn in next month.

Dear god, why? How could this same awful tactic be reused after its miserable deployment against GamerGate?

The press coverage is eerily similar. I will actually go out on a limb (as a liberal) and say that I believe that the majority of Trump supporters are not bad people. They’re frustrated, they’re misunderstood. I followed the election closely and there seemed to be no general push to dispel the notion of them being a generally deplorable group of Americans. This was a mistake.

If journalism is to succeed, gaming or elsewhere, it needs to dedicate itself to seeking the truth. The press’s response to both GamerGate and the 2016 election was to push a narrative. There is no doubt. In being so dogmatically defensive of women and minorities (GamerGate) and Clinton (2016 election) against slights, perceived or otherwise, it ended up being a moment in which journalists shot themselves in the foot and hampered themselves from actually moving society forward.

This time there was much more at stake and we should have expected better from the people who sat through the first storm. Another bitter year for gaming journalism.