Garwulf’s Corner: The Road to GamerGate — The Great Gamer Wars

Robert B. Marks
4 min readJul 5, 2019

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Originally published in An Odyssey into Video Games and Pop Culture

The third part of this series was eventually written, in a way. The ideas and history it was going to cover were reworked into installment 15, and published as “Indies Will Be Saviours of the Game Review.”

LAST INSTALLMENT, WE looked at the pressure-cooker nightmare that is American high school, where kids who were different were met with contempt, harassment, and after Columbine, fear and paranoia. We saw how even the teachers and administrators reinforced verbal and even physical abuse, creating what amounted to a state of siege. For most of these kids, the nightmare ended upon graduation, when they escaped high school and entered the real world.

Well, all except for one group: gamers.

Gamers have been around for a long time, and moral panics against them have existed for just as long. In 1859, Scientific American published a polemic against a game that was rotting the minds of Americans: Chess. In the 1940s, pinball was the target, with pinball games illegal in the city of New York until 1976 (I am not making this up). In the early 1980s it was video arcades, with moral guardians convinced that the kids frequenting the arcades would be exposed to everything from drugs to gambling to violence.

The worst of the witch hunts, however, occurred in the 1980s and ’90s, just as the modern gamer identity was starting to take shape.

The gamer identity, like most identities, is a moving target. Prior to around 1995, console and arcade games were little more than kid’s toys. On the computer, however, the higher level of technology allowed for games that were sophisticated enough to be entertainment for teenagers and adults. Unfortunately, the skillset required just to get a game installed and working was similar to that of a programmer, leaving the computer game a very niche market when it came to games overall.

This meant that the gamer identity of the late 1980s and early 1990s was defined mainly by tabletop games such as Dungeons & Dragons, and later Magic: the Gathering. It was a very inclusive identity — what mattered was that one played games, not what games were played. Those who could play computer games did, but even they tended to divide their playing time between the computer and the tabletop. And, many of them spent those decades under siege.

Like most moral panics, the first big one was born out of tragedy. Irving Pulling, a troubled young man, committed suicide in 1982. His mother, Patricia Pulling, a fundamentalist Christian, latched onto the fact that her son had played Dungeons & Dragons, and declared that it was Satanic.

Pulling’s campaign against D&D resounded within the Christian community, and suddenly gamers found themselves the target of a witch hunt. According to Pulling, who billed herself as an expert, role playing games encouraged devil worship and suicide, among a list that included witchcraft, rape, murder, homosexuality, prostitution, insanity, gambling, and cannibalism (I am not making this up either).

The media lapped it up, along with law enforcement, and gamers suddenly found themselves targeted by police as members of Satanic cults. The fear even made it into pop culture, with movies like Mazes & Monsters, where a character played by Tom Hanks loses contact with reality and becomes his role playing character. There was a strong pushback by gamers, and it took a campaign led in part by author and game designer Michael A. Stackpole to finally discredit Pulling and the D&D panic.

But, as the moral panic over Satanic role playing games subsided, it was replaced by another over video game violence. With graphics becoming more realistic and controllers allowing for more sophisticated gameplay, moral guardians began to fear that violence in video games would be copied in real life. As gunshots rang out at the Columbine high school in April 1999, Jack Thompson and crusaders like him had the proof they needed…around the same time that video and computer games had reached the point where a hardcore gamer identity based mainly on electronic games could be born.

It was an identity born under siege. Within it were young people who had just come out of a world wherein they had faced a living nightmare, full of torment and betrayal. The one thing they did not want was to be betrayed again.

But, as they watched, the very media that claimed to serve them did precisely that. And next installment, we’ll look at the rise of the modern video game media, and how a betrayal became inevitable.

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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.