Five years ago, the ex-boyfriend of a game developer posted a bitter rant about their relationship online—and video gaming and journalism and American political life are still dealing with the fallout. A reasonable person might have thought that, by now, Gamergate would be a distant memory. Instead, the coordinated harassment campaign against developer Zoe Quinn, feminist gaming critic Anita Sarkeesian, and others—recently the subject of a retrospective package in the New York Times—persists. Not just as an influence on our meme-strewn, troll-infested politics, but as an ongoing movement that looks much like it did when it began.
Looking back to 2014, the coverage of Gamergate was a boom time for announcing the death of things that subsequently failed to kick the bucket. A Tumblr post titled “The End of Gamers,” by the director of an Australian video game festival, kicked off a spate of articles predicting the death of the kind of gamers who’d made up Gamergate, including pieces in Kotaku, BuzzFeed, and Vice. The mood was celebratory, despite the harassment that had made much of the gaming internet toxic during the controversy; after this terrible spasm of bad behavior, some thought, gaming would outgrow the need to cater to the immature and privileged impulses of angry white men. But although the last five years have seen increasing diversity in who plays games—and who can identify as a “gamer”—the community of hardcore gamers who are male, sexist, and anti-PC is as lively as ever.
In addition to harassing women out of their own homes, Gamergaters attempted boycotts against the publications that stood up to them. In Slate, then-columnist David Auerbach responded to the “death of gamers” articles by predicting the death of gaming journalism. And yet the socially conscious journalism of sites like Kotaku and Polygon not only persists, but remains in the mainstream of gaming journalism. Gamergaters’ intense hatred of this mode didn’t translate to a mass rejection of that style of journalism at all.
Last but not least there’s Gamergate itself, which has survived not just as an influence on current events and a template for subsequent harassment campaigns, but in something close to its initial form: The Gamergate subreddit is still very active. Its participants still mob journalists who report critically on them and games. So “gamers” didn’t die, and neither did socially conscious games journalism, nor efforts to increase diversity in games. (Even individual Gamergate targets like Quinn, Sarkeesian, and others continue to work in their respective fields.) And nor, it seems, did Gamergate die, either.
Recent topics on the Gamergate subreddit—in 2019!—include lists of video games and game development studios to avoid because they pander to “social justice warriors” and complaints about Kotaku’s coverage of diversity in games and the industry. There are posts in the past month continuing to detail, and criticize, everything Quinn does. The lesson for all of us is that reactionary ideas and movements and cults of personality—ones that oppose progress and equality—won’t simply disappear even if they “lose,” even with the passage of time. Reporters who write about Gamergate—or any of the topics it reacted against—can still expect a brigade of hundreds of negative replies on social media. It hasn’t died. It never ends.
Which is why it’s still important to take Gamergate and the tactics it foreshadowed—such as large social media mobs with so many threatening and violent messages that it’s impossible to know which, if any, to take seriously—seriously. It’s important in part because there are a great many things that people hope will disappear from the world if we can just reject what feels like the apotheosis of our Gamergate-infused world: President Donald Trump. Gamergate serves as a warning that this cannot and will not be so. Trumpism will probably outlast Trump. Of course, it is far from a uniformly negative thing that movements and ideas are hard to kill. Good people and just ideas will endure, even during times when the darkest currents in our culture ascend.
Online culture often makes us feel as though things are moving faster than ever before, with mega trends blowing up to the point of ubiquity in a day or two, then fading away as we move to the next thing, and the next, and the next. But the form modern connectivity has taken has also been a boon for subcultures, reducing the effort needed to find and stay connected to like minds down to nearly nothing. When one of those subcultures has an ax to grind, the anonymity and distance of the internet makes it easy to target individuals for sustained harassment, providing ways to disseminate personal info widely (aka doxing) and free venues for vile, threatening, harassing messages to send instantly—from anyone, anywhere, to anyone else. And voila, the same people who once expressed interest in a conspiracy theory about a game developer’s relationships with her reviewers are still getting updates about her personal life (and still developing new targets), five years on. In fact, it would take more effort to unsubscribe than to have these updates continue to pop up on their Reddit homepages.
It’s impossible to kill an idea, but the ways we connect, share information, and harass one another is new, and could be reshaped if we had the will. Until then, the message of Gamergate is a bleak one: It takes far too little effort to sustain a movement based on anger, hatred, and targeted harassment.