Garwulf’s Corner: The Road to GamerGate — Into the Hellmouth

Originally published in An Odyssey into Video Games and Pop Culture

The GamerGate tsunami crashed onto the shores of the video game media in August 2014. Within a couple of months, I was curled up into a proverbial fetal position as I watched witch hunts play out and blacklists circulated, all with the intention of silencing op-ed writers who disagreed with them. I had to stop reading the coverage because of the sleep I was losing. As somebody who had been one of the early voices of the modern video games media, it felt as though my legacy was being ripped apart by an angry mob.

The only way I had of dealing with it and coming to grips with what was happening before me was to fall back on my academic training as a historian — and once I did, I noticed that there were a number of pieces of the puzzle as to why things happened as they did that seemed obvious to me, but that nobody else had mentioned or picked up on.

So, when the column was picked up, I started writing a four part series on GamerGate — something that would take a more historical look at it and try to bring out why it had happened — with the vague intention of using it as a special feature in August 2015. In the end, only the first two parts of the series were completed — as I got closer to covering August 2014 it became just too painful to finish, and I also realized that the main reason I was writing it was to come to grips with it on a personal level, rather than to explore it for my readers (as it turned out, with The Escapist’s moratorium on anything GamerGate-related, it wouldn’t have ever been published there anyway).

I’m posting this now because it has now been five years, and I think it is possible to take a longer view as to what happened and what brought it about. GamerGate didn’t erupt because a vindictive ex-boyfriend decided to publicly shame his ex-girlfriend — that was indeed the flashpoint, but the eruption that resulted was at least 30 years in the making…and if we want to avoid a similar eruption in the future, we’ll need to understand why it all happened the first time.

HERE’S THE THING — I’m a trained historian (my MA thesis was on World War I cavalry), and as such, I see the world in a bit of a different way.

GamerGate smashed into the world of video games like a tsunami. It seemed to bring the worst out of everybody it touched, with both sides harassing, threatening, doxxing, and in the end even swatting each other. And, there has been no end of people trying to figure out why it happened.

I haven’t seen too many entries from historians, though — and that does make a difference. As a historian, I’m trained to see the links and the patterns, to figure out what causes an event, what influences it, and what crystalizes it. Ask most people about the cause of GamerGate, and they’ll point to Zoe Quinn and her boyfriend, with some help from a video by Anita Sarkeesian. And they’re wrong.

Quinn and Sarkeesian were part of the inciting incident, the spark that ignited the fuel, but they were far from the cause. GamerGate was at least three decades in the making. Over this and the next three installments, we’re going to take a more historical look at GamerGate, each time examining one of the issues that contributed to setting the scene for video gaming’s own culture war. None of these in isolation can explain the inferno that followed, but I would submit that the road to GamerGate cannot be understood without looking at all of them.

I want to stress that none of what follows should be taken to judge or justify — understanding requires neither of these things. Instead, I simply want to find an answer to the question of why such a firestorm erupted.

To start, we need to go back to a dark, terrible day in 1999. The date was April 20th, and the place was Littleton, Colorado, where high school kids Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold gunned down a dozen of their fellow students and injured around twenty others, before committing suicide. Today, it is remembered as Columbine — after the name of the school — and it is the school shooting.

If it is mythologised today, it is because it seemed to come out of nowhere. Among the horror and shock was panic and incomprehension. After all, kids should never be killers. But, the shooting immediately became a lot of things to a lot of people. Mostly, it became the mother of all political footballs.

To the gun control advocates, firearms were to blame, setting them off against the gun lobby, who saw it as a fight over constitutional rights. To the anti-bullying crusaders, it was proof that there should be a no-tolerance policy for anything that was remotely threatening. And to moral guardians like Jack Thompson, it was proof beyond doubt that video games could turn kids violent.

Everybody seemed to be talking with authority about the kids, getting ready to start their respective witch hunts — but none of them really understood why the massacre had happened. There was one group who understood it all too well — the high school kids themselves — but nobody seemed to be too interested in talking to them, and they didn’t really want to talk to anybody in the mainstream media.

It was on Slashdot that everything changed. Jon Katz wrote a column titled “Kids that Kill,” where he pointed out that while he could not condone the actions of the Columbine shooters, he could certainly understand how they were pushed into doing it. In the days that followed, he received hundreds of emails from alienated high school kids, all talking about the nightmare that was high school. Many of these letters he published in a series titled “Voices from the Hellmouth.”

“Voices from the Hellmouth” was horrifying and shocking. For American kids who didn’t fit into one of the popular cliques — kids who liked things like science fiction and fantasy, gaming, science, or anything geeky — high school was an unending nightmare. Geeks, or, for that matter, anybody who stood out, found themselves the subject of relentless harassment by their peers, both verbal and physical. To make matters worse, this was often reinforced and encouraged by the teachers and administrators themselves, leaving kids with no reasonable authority figure to turn to.

They were alone and under siege, just for being who they were.

(On a personal note, as a Canadian, even today I cannot begin to express the level of shock I had at reading about this. Canadian high schools have cliques, but they all function on a live-and-let-live basis. None of them care what clique you’re in, or what you might be doing. I was never persecuted or harassed for being a gamer or one of the geeky set.)

The Columbine massacre made everything worse for the high school kids. The very attributes that made them the targets of harassment now pegged them as potential killers. The mere act of standing up and stating that they could understand why the shooting took place was enough to mark one as the next school shooter-in-waiting. Where before they had been met with scorn and contempt for being different, now that was joined by fear and paranoia.

There was good news, however — once most of these kids finished high school, the nightmare was over. In the real world, they found that nobody really cared what they read or how geeky they were — what was important was what you could do. The siege ended on graduation day…

…unless, of course, you were a gamer. If you were a gamer, your war might just be beginning. And we’ll look at the long history of moral panics against gamers next installment.

Author’s update (July 5, 2019): after the publication of Voices from the Hellmouth, things started getting better for high school students. By the time I was working on the second run of the column on The Escapist, my readers informed me that the warring cliques and complicit administrators had become the exception rather than the rule.

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Robert B. Marks

Robert B. Marks is a writer, editor, and researcher. His pop culture work has appeared in places like Comics Games Magazine.