Gamergate, a diffuse but relentless online anti-feminist movement aimed at drubbing feminist women out of game development and criticism, continues to expand the scope of its attacks. First it started as a traditional anti-feminist campaign, targeting individual women in hopes that they’d quit the industry rather than suffer any longer. When that didn’t work, they moved into targeting advertisers of websites that hire feminist women. They were sadly successful when Intel pulled its advertising from a website Gamasutra, which had offended the Gamergaters by running a piece that argued video games should be for everyone instead of just for angry white guys. Now the circle of victims has expanded even beyond just the gaming press, as the website Gawker is being threatened with the loss of its Mercedes advertising after Mercedes got a deluge of emails from Gamergaters who take offense at the multiple pieces Gawker and its sister sites have run criticizing Gamergate.
Sure, Gamergaters inevitably claim some moral high ground in attacking Gawker. The B.S. excuse this time is to pretend that writer Sam Biddle was dead serious when he tweeted something that is an obvious joke. At this point, no one in the media is bamboozled by the lies and obfuscations of Gamergaters, who, like the Know-Nothings of 19th century, prefer to play dumb to outsiders about their real goals. That’s what makes it so confusing to see companies like Mercedes, Intel, and Adobe give any credence to a bunch of squalling from an online army of mostly teenage boys and social maladepts who are worried that girls are going to ruin the experience of playing Call of Duty. These people don’t speak for the majority of anyone-—not gamers, not computer users, and certainly not Mercedes buyers-—so why so much fear?
The likely truth is they don’t want the hassle. Most of these big corporations desperately want to be perceived as floating above the ugly fray of politics. Intel pulled its advertising from Gamasutra and then issued a mealy-mouthed apology after the fact, saying, “Our action inadvertently created a perception that we are somehow taking sides in an increasingly bitter debate in the gaming community.” Adobe pulled a similar stunt, rushing to agree with Gamergate attacks on Gawker while claiming some kind of general anti-bullying stance. It’s like watching a kid fight back against a bully who is torturing him and have the teacher put them both in detention. Bullies like those of Gamergate know how to exploit the desire not to “take sides” in order to force people to take the bully’s side against the victim.
Gamergate doesn’t have good arguments, which is why they dissemble and hand-wave rather than engaging in honest debate about the role of women in gaming. But the power they do have is what a colleague of mine characterized as “asymmetrical warfare”: Gamergaters, particularly since they recruit so heavily amongst teenagers and young men, have nothing but time and nothing to lose, making it relatively easy for them to target advertisers with these campaigns.
Many feminist writers know this phenomenon very well, having been targeted for over a decade now by an online guerrilla campaign of “men’s rights activists” and other anti-feminists who dogpile individual women with harassment in hopes of driving them to quit writing. But this kind of behavior was the online equivalent of street harassment, conducted on Twitter and in blog comments and meant to be seen only by the target herself and maybe an audience of your bros, but not really a public statement.
The relative invisibility allowed the harassers to claim the victims are exaggerating the extent of the abuse, but it also limited the actual damage the harassment could do. Victims could turn off Twitter mentions, refuse to read the comments, or get rid of comments altogether. They could decide that they won’t be silenced by this harassment, because what they have to say matters more to them than the emotional price that’s extracted from them for saying it.
Which is why Gamergate is so worrisome, because it represents a shift away from targeting individual women and towards targeting notoriously skittish advertisers. It does mean it will be harder for the harassers to deny that they’re actively working to silence feminists online, but the tradeoff is, as we’ve seen with Intel and possibly Mercedes, it might just work. The recent surge in positive attention and Beyoncé endorsements for feminism owes a lot to the relative freedom online media provides women who write about women’s issues, so it’s no wonder those who want to shut it all down are getting more aggressive. Whether or not it works, however, remains to be seen.