I was on the fence about writing this for a very long time, but I think there are things here that need to be said. If nothing else, somebody has to send up a proper alarm.
A second Gamergate is now very likely. And, if it happens, it will be far more destructive than the first.
But, to understand why this is, we need to take a proper, nuanced look at Gamergate.
Gamergate and Why it Failed
As I’ve written before, the Gamergate tsunami that erupted in August 2014 was probably around thirty years in the making. It was the result of the creation of an under siege mentality in the gaming community that started with endemic bullying in American high schools (which was prevalent at least into the late 1990s, although my Garwulf’s Corner readers on the Escapist did say that by around 2010 things had gotten better), and fortified by the near constant barrage of moral panics levelled against it. This created tremendous pressure, and it was only a matter of time before an eruption of some sort occurred.
The flashpoint was later called “The Zoe Post” — a lengthy account by an ex-boyfriend of an indie game developer named Zoe Quinn, which painted her in a very negative light. This was posted on multiple sites before anybody noticed, and once it was it became a flashpoint for a massive public harassment campaign over Twitter that started against Quinn, but later expanded to target female figures in the gaming community, as well as any video game journalists who supported diversity and inclusivity. This soon escalated into the creation of a blacklist of “SJW” game journalists (had I been a regular columnist at the time, I’m pretty certain my name would have been on that list), as well as organized pressure campaigns to boycott the publications who employed these people and get them fired.
Although the main supporters of Gamergate liked to depict it as a mass movement, it never actually metastasized into one. For all intents and purposes, it remained limited to a section of the gamer community. And, ultimately, it failed. The harassment campaign managed to drive a few female game journalists and figures to leave the industry (with a chorus of cheers every time one announced she was leaving), but the people they targeted were not fired, the websites and publications they boycotted suffered little actual harm — in fact, the websites and publications that did take a hit were generally those that supported the movement — and the pressure campaigns had faded into insignificance within a couple of years. The actual legacy of Gamergate was not a mass movement, but the creation of a new boogieman for the media to use as a justification for its next moral panic against gamers.
But, to leave the description here is to fail to do justice to Gamergate, because while their eruption took the form of a harassment campaign, many of the concerns they raised over the course of it were legitimate. The video game media at the time was still in its growing pains, and many reviews were little more than PR for video game publishers, who would engage in what could easily be described as bribery. Conflicts of interest went undeclared, and most of the video game media publications didn’t have an ethics policy at all.
So, if the concerns were real, why did Gamergate never evolve beyond a public harassment campaign inside the gamer community?
There are a couple of reasons for this. The first is that there was very little common ground between the gaming community and the other areas of fandom. The gaming community had been hit by multiple moral panics, but the same could not be said about Star Wars fans, or Trekkies/Trekkers. In most of American fandom, the under siege mentality that came from high school bullying was no longer needed in an adult world where nobody cared what you read or watched. Gamergate’s complaint that pushing diversity and inclusivity was toxic made little sense to people who were as likely as any outside critic to poke fun at the original trilogy Star Wars galaxy for having only a handful of women and one black guy. It didn’t help that many of the most vocal members of the Gamergate movement weren’t very good at communicating, and claims that reviews should be nothing more than a literal description of the game made it very difficult to give credence to the complaints or the movement as a whole.
The second was that, to a degree, the eruption took place too early in the culture wars. In many cases, they had correctly identified issues that were arising, but were not yet developed enough to be a concern. One of their main complaints had been about reviews based on ideology, which were quite rare in 2014. The same cannot be said almost a decade later, where series like The Rings of Power received glowing reviews in the mainstream media despite being terribly written shows. The fan baiting that is now so commonplace was at least two or three years away from becoming a deliberate marketing strategy when the first Gamergate tweet was posted. A number of their complaints proved to be prophetic predictions of what would come in the culture wars…but that did them did little good at a time when the main example of what we would now call cancel culture was their own movement.
A lot has changed since 2014, and it would not be an exaggeration that between the rise of the modern woke activist left in the wake of the election of Donald Trump, and the sheer toxicity of the culture wars, we are now neck deep in kindling for another Gamergate. But this time, there would be nothing stopping the tsunami from engulfing most of pop culture.
Where in 2014 the gamer community was unique in having experienced a succession of moral panics directed against them, fan baiting has made this a near-universal experience among fandoms. In 2014 nobody could have imagined that Lord of the Rings fans would need to worry about being called racist for raising concerns about fidelity to the source material, but this has now happened as part of the publicity for The Rings of Power. Those fan communities that have not been on the receiving end of accusations of racism or misogyny now have to fear it as soon as somebody buys the rights to the stories they love. The common ground that didn’t exist in 2014 does exist in 2023.
There is also an unprecedented distrust of the mainstream media, much of which is self-inflicted. The eye-opening moment for many (including myself) was the Johnny Depp v. Amber Heard trial, where the media reporting and editorial takes bore little resemblance to what hundreds of millions were watching play out on Youtube. This was made even worse when the media started declaring that the vast number of abuse survivors (including myself) who were coming out against Amber Heard were not real, but bots or just disgruntled Johnny Depp fans.
Part of this also comes because of the spread of the culture wars. In 2014 complaints about ideological reviews fell flat not just because of their relative rarity, but because most of the people they were complaining to had never played the games in question, and therefore had no point of comparison. However, in 2023, the opposite is true. A far greater number of people who read the media coverage of a property such as The Rings of Power also watched the show — this made the disconnect between the media claims and the actual content very obvious. The claims during the publicity for the Obi-Wan Kenobi series that the Star Wars universe had no people of colour were being made to a readership who had watched the movies, as well as the television shows, and therefore knew that it was little more than gaslighting. The charges against these fan communities of mass racism therefore also fell flat within them — they not only knew they were being lied to, they watched the media lie about them as well.
This means that once a flashpoint occurs, most of pop culture fandom will be receptive to it. The common ground will exist, as will the discontent with the media. Metastasizing into a mass movement will happen, and the situation will be very different than it was in 2014.
So, if the flashpoint occurs, what will it look like? The best indicator of future events is often past events, and Gamergate actually gives us a fair amount of evidence with which to make a prediction.
- The flashpoint will not be around a major media property. The flashpoint in 2014 didn’t come from a major AAA title, but revolved around a mostly unknown indie developer whose game was about living with depression. And, there is little evidence that a new flashpoint will be any different. It will come from something small that almost nobody has ever heard about.
- It might not start in the gamer community. Gamergate occurred the way it did because the kindling was limited to what had been laid down by the moral panics against the gamer community. But, at this point, the kindling is everywhere. The flashpoint could therefore come from any media that has been touched by the culture wars.
- It will manifest as a harassment campaign. This is almost a certainty, and not just because of what happened in 2014. The amount of anger and resentment simmering under the surface of the fan communities after so many have come under attack mean that a retaliation is inevitable once something starts. And, just like in 2014, it will expand to include anybody who is perceived to be on the side of diversity and inclusiveness, because those are the very things that were used as cudgels in the moral panics against the communities.
- This time, websites and publications will go out of business. One of the main things protecting the publications that Gamergate targeted in 2014 was that there was sufficient trust in the media in general that many of Gamergate’s complaints seemed to be little more than paranoia. Much of that trust is now gone. The safety net that existed in 2014 does not exist in 2023.
- The only way to survive it may be, in fact, to put your head down and hide until it burns itself out. It would not be inaccurate to say that in August 2014 the gamer community was ankle-deep in kindling — many of the issues their complaints revolved around were nascent and under-developed. In 2023 the kindling is widespread and neck-deep. The issues are fully developed, and distrust of the media is at an all-time high. Once it starts, it will not be a good time to attempt to be a voice of reason.
Can It Be Prevented?
One of the things about political correctness is that it does have a history of waxing and waning. And, there are signs that tolerance within Hollywood for the extreme wokeness that has driven the moral panics against fan communities is on the wane. So, if the fan baiting stopped and the attacks on fandoms and the things they love came to an end, most of the threat of a flashpoint would too.
The gamer community was primed for a Gamergate because it had a decades long history of being subject to moral panics. And this meant that the experience of everybody in the community was that there would always be another one. But, most of the fan communities that have been affected by the culture wars do not have this history. They have no reason to expect more attacks once the current ones end. So, the under siege mentality that fan baiting creates would probably disappear across most of pop culture once attacks cease.
Is it likely? I’m honestly afraid to speculate. But, I really hope it happens. I don’t do much pop culture commentary anymore because of the sheer toxicity, but I remember when it was fun and rewarding, and a celebration of creativity and the stories and characters we loved. I’d love to see it return to that.