For a couple of weeks now, I’ve been trying to write a blog post about the whole #GamerGate kerfuffle. I haven’t been in a writey mood, but it seems important to get some words down, if only to get them out of my head. But then, every time I write a couple of paragraphs, I find some other article that says what I was trying to say, only better. So let’s start off with something more personal, that other people wouldn’t be able to say. Let me tell you the story of my closest encounter with an internet hate mob.
It wasn’t all that close an encounter, really. I wasn’t involved directly. But my employer was. It happened three years ago, and it started with a dispute over some minor surface damage to a vehicle that had been loaned to the company. I imagine that the company and the vehicle’s owner could have settled things between themselves if they tried, or, if that failed, taken it to small claims court. But the vehicle owner was impatient, and posted his grievances to reddit. In this post, he named the person who had been his initial point of contact at the company. She wasn’t really involved in this dispute, was definitely not responsible for the damage, and in fact had quit her job a few weeks prior to this point. In fact, she was trying to enjoy her first real vacation in a long time when it hit: nonstop angry and incoherent phone calls from strangers who had even less connection to the dispute than she did.
Now, this was a fairly minor hate mob, and blew over relatively quickly, but any amount of personal harassment is too much. The reason I think this episode might be of interest to people not directly involved is what it illustrates about the mob mentality. The chosen victim in this instance was not only innocent of any wrongdoing, she hadn’t even done anything to call attention to herself. She wasn’t a public figure. She didn’t make a blog post that people took exception to. She just got accused by someone else, and a few angry strangers took that as permission to mistreat her. I’ve long felt that the lesson here is that none of us are safe, that you can just arbitrarily become the victim of mob justice no matter what you do. I’ve compared internet mobs to house fires before. If someone is trapped in a burning house, you don’t take the fire’s side, or say “maybe the fire has a point”. Fires don’t have points. They’re just fires. If they burn someone who deserves it, it’s purely a coincidence.
But there’s one more detail that seems relevant now. I haven’t spoken of this on this blog before, because I like to keep it separate from my professional life, but: I am a game developer. I’m a programmer for Telltale Games1, and the vehicle involved in the dispute was a replica Jurassic Park jeep used in the Telltale booth at PAX. The mob had come from reddit’s videogame forums.
Now that that’s said, let me tell you a little about how #GamerGate looks from my vantage point inside the industry. There’s a notion I’ve seen expressed that #GamerGate is essentially about rescuing the games industry from Social Justice Warriors — that we game developers are being bullied into changing our games and compromising our artistic vision to meet the demands of SJWs, and that the only reason we don’t speak out about it is that we’re afraid. Because the SJWs have a stranglehold on the press, and can punish us if we don’t play ball.
Speaking as a game developer, and as someone who talks with other game developers on a daily basis, this whole idea is pure fantasy. Seriously, no one in this industry is chafing at the constraints of the SJW mafia. We have real constraints that do chafe: constraints imposed by publishers and IP license owners, by Sony and Microsoft (both of whom have new consoles out right now, with brand new certification requirements), by the limitations of our target hardware. Take us out for drinks and these are the things we’ll complain about. SJWs do not make the list.
I can’t deny that there are people trying to ruin games, however, because we’ve all experienced the effects. For as long as games have been online and multiplayer, a certain subset of players have dedicated themselves to ruining them for everyone else, whether by killstealing, or attacking their teammates, or just being abusive and annoying on in-game chat until other people quit in exasperation. We call these people “griefers”.
I suggest that online harassment of individuals should be considered a form griefing.
I hope that’s not belittling — clearly it’s worse than ordinary griefing, because it’s in real life, rather than a game you can quit. (And no, quitting your job doesn’t stop the abuse. If anything, it seems to encourage the griefers, who see it as a sign that they’re “winning”.) Mainly, I wish to suggest that griefing and harassment stem from a similar source, and that this is why gaming seems to have a much greater problem with harassment than other fields. You can’t grief people through movies or comic books, but you can in a game. And so gaming is where the griefers make their home.
Now, if you bring up the ongoing griefing campaign in a place more populated than this, you’ll inevitably put people on the defensive. They’ll object to being tarred with the same brush as the griefers, and insist that they’re just trying to have a dialogue about ethics in gaming journalism. To this, all I can say is: I’m just talking about the griefers. If you’re not a griefer, I have no quarrel with you. The only person grouping you with them is yourself, and you really shouldn’t do that, because they’re not actually on your side; griefers are never on anyone’s side, even when they’re on your team. You want a dialogue? The griefers are preventing that, drowning any reasonable disagreement in a flood of bile and vitriol. It’s hard to notice sincere concerns, let alone respond to them, when they’re buried under a thousand insults and death threats.
And there’s the problem with any attempt to use #GamerGate for any purpose other than griefing: it automatically groups you with the griefers. The tag was started to spread one of the sleazy Zoe Quinn hate videos. For a while, if you searched for “GamerGate” on Google, the first hit that purported to explain it from the Gater side was just a list of links to similar videos attacking Quinn and Sarkeesian, rather than anything to do with journalistic ethics. That’s changed: now, judging by Google hits, the primary non-griefing purpose of #GamerGate is defending #GamerGate from accusations that they’re nothing but griefers. This is not productive! I say let the griefers have their tag. They don’t define us as gamers, and we are not their shield.
- This is of course why I haven’t posted about any games by Telltale since 2008. When I played Sam & Max, it was research for a job interview. At that interview, I was presented with a copy of CSI: Hard Evidence, on the basis that I’d probably be working on the next CSI game if they hired me, and I should know a little about it first. [↩]