GamerGate to Trump: How video game culture blew everything up

Originally published June 14, 2017

Aaron Robinson/CNET

By Ian Sherr and Erin Carson

When it first happened, many of us were a little dismissive. After all, people on the internet are always mad about something.

In 2012, it was the backlash against Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist media critic.

In May of that year, Sarkeesian announced she was starting a crowdfunding campaign for a video series called “Tropes vs Women in Video Games.” In her introductory video, Sarkeesian — clad in a paisley hoodie and hoop earrings — sits on a lime-green couch and talks into the camera as she touts the virtues of video games, such as improving hand-eye coordination, multitasking and enhancing players’ cognitive abilities.

But the gaming community, she says in her 4-minute talk, also has a bad side. “Many games tend to reinforce and amplify sexist and downright misogynist ideas about women,” she says.

Considering the increasingly central role video games play in our society, Sarkeesian said she planned to create a series of five videos to look at how women are portrayed, from the damsel in distress to the sexy sidekick to the villainess and beyond.

The trouble started soon after.

Sarkeesian hoped to raise $6,000 over the next month to help pay for her project. The fundraising window overlapped with the 2012 Electronic Entertainment Expo, the video game mega-marketing event held in Los Angeles each year.

She hit her goal in the first 24 hours. In the end, she’d raised more than 26 times what she asked for, tallying $158,922.

But not everyone was applauding. An army of hateful trolls woke up, found each other online and launched a crusade of harassment, targeting not only Sarkeesian but anyone else who questioned their view of how the gaming world should be.

So why should you care that people on the internet got angry?

Because attacks on Sarkeesian marked the beginning of a cultural shift — and a key marker in what some people consider the decline of civil discourse. What happened to Sarkeesian is that internet trolls, predominantly anonymous posters, realized they could work together to try to destroy the lives of people who disagreed with them. The online hate directed at Sarkeesian and her project over Twitter, Facebook and Reddit included calling her a slut, threatening to rape and kill her and suggesting someone should go to her parents’ home (which they identified) and kill them too.

That was just beginning.

A few years later, anonymous online trolls threatened to rape and kill indie game developer Zoë Quinn after her ex-boyfriend posted a 9,000-word online screed accusing her of sleeping with a games journalist for a positive review.

The whole campaign against Sarkeesian, Quinn and other women became known as #GamerGate.

Today, angry internet mobs routinely use the threat of rape, bombings and assassinations as a way to lay claim to whatever it is they think they’re losing to what they describe as political correctness. And along they way, they’ve adopted new approaches that combine old-school write-in campaigns with internet terror efforts like publishing people’s private information online, with the intent of bringing chaos and fear into their lives.

In short, trolls are now causing havoc in the real world.

Sarkeesian, who like Quinn declined to comment for this story, was forced to cancel a speech at a college campus after receiving an anonymous email from a supposed student threatening “the deadliest school shooting in American history.” Brianna Wu, co-founder of indie game development studio Giant Spacekat, had to hire personal security after she became a target for speaking out. Quinn’s family also received threats and was subjected to harassment.

The message was always the same: If you mess with games, you’ll regret it.

Soon, the mob’s attention turned to a world much wider than video games. Ultimately, some of them — like the popular right-wing commentator Mike Cernovich — moved on from GamerGate to attack presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

“GamerGate was an excellent breeding ground and practice ground,” said Soraya Chemaly, director of the Women’s Media Center’s Speech Project, which tracks online abuse. Over time, different groups on the internet that tend to respond negatively to women, such as some communities of hardcore gamers, coders and far-right white supremacist groups, began to coalesce around shared harassment of women and distaste for social change.

Chemaly’s team tracked attacks on Clinton as a woman, such as pasting her face into pornography and other sexist imagery, that had been used earlier in response to Sarkeesian and other social critics.

“To those of us familiar with GamerGate, it was more of the same,” she said. “I always caution against thinking of GamerGate as an outlier event.”

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