Back in 2014, the term “Gamergate” swarmed into public consciousness as major news outlets picked up the story of harassment of women—including developers, journalists, and fans—in the games industry. The Gamergate phenomenon began with concerns among some gamers that conflicts of interest between games journalism and the games industry were leading journalists to write unrealistically favorable reviews of products. These allegations were soon eclipsed, however, as several women involved in the games industry and related media alleged that they had become targets of abuse, threats of violence and rape, doxxing, and so on. In the public eye, this cemented the perception that Gamergate was associated with toxic misogyny, and that this kind of behavior was typical of gamers more generally.
The result was that gamers, already commonly the source of stereotypes and various cultural prejudices, found themselves stigmatized as young, reactionary, mainly white, hetero male misogynists. For example, a widely circulated tumblr post portrayed gamer culture as awash with “toxicity,” “hysterical fits,” and “hatred of women.” “The gamer as an identity,” the author, Dan Golding wrote, “feels like it is under assault, and so it should… the traditional gamer identity is now culturally irrelevant.” An article on the gaming website Gamasutra, meanwhile, referred to gamers as “…obtuse shitslingers, these wailing hyper-consumers, these childish internet-arguers…”
This narrative has since become increasingly prevalent in mainstream outlets, with op-ed columnists blithely asserting that video games are fueling adherence to alt-right ideologies or that white nationalists are using gaming platforms to recruit unwary youth. This narrative feels vaguely reminiscent of a moral panic that erupted during the 1980s, during which uninformed journalists and religious activists alleged that Satanists were using messages hidden in rock music to indoctrinate America’s children. This isn’t to say extremist recruitment is itself a myth, but there’s very little evidence beyond salacious anecdotes that it is a particular problem in the gaming community, or that it’s had any discernible impact on young people’s political or racial attitudes. An analysis conducted by the Anti-Defamation League found that 23 percent of gamers had been exposed to white supremacism, and 10 percent had been exposed to Holocaust denial while playing online games, although this is likely to be true of other forums outside games as well. Exposure to things such as harassment are actually more common in social networking sites and news article comments sections than they are in games according to the Pew Research Center. Exposure, in any case, does not automatically translate into influence, and newer social science research suggests people’s attitudes are less easily influenced than once thought.
It’s worth bearing in mind that the Gamergate narrative took shape in parts of the gamer press, and that this narrative was then seized upon and uncritically repeated by national non-game news outlets unfamiliar with the subculture on which they were reporting. But since the gamer press was itself at the center of the original controversy about journalistic ethics, it had a rather obvious incentive to denigrate its critics as malevolent misogynists whose allegations should be derided and then dismissed.
Any attempt to agree upon an account of the Gamergate scandal—what happened, whether or not the ethics concerns were justified, who said what and when, and so on—would be a fool’s errand in the space available here. In a lengthy investigation for Arc Digital, Cathy Young persuasively argued that both sides of the debate had legitimate gripes, and that there was plenty of bad behavior to go around. What interests me here, however, is who was responsible for harassment on the Gamergate side and what this can tell us about gamer culture.
One possibility is that the news narrative is correct—that the harassment of women within gaming is widespread, and that during the Gamergate controversy, it was instigated by a reasonably representative sample of Gamergate supporters or even gamers writ large. A second possibility is that a small and unrepresentative number of sociopathic nuts were responsible for the majority of the harassment and exerted an outsized influence during the row by obsessively tweeting and emailing threats to women they did not like. A third possibility is that the individuals involved in online harassment campaigns didn’t really care about Gamergate, games, or even sexual politics at all, and just used these issues as excuses to cause trouble.
An FBI investigation into the episode produced a heavily redacted report that satisfied no one. Holding Gamergate or even gamers accountable for the behavior of individuals makes little sense because Gamergate was an online movement, not an official organization with a leadership, membership, or a clear, agreed upon statement of principles. Furthermore, anyone could use the #Gamergate tag, whether or not they endorsed the central complaint about journalistic integrity or had ever played a video game. In such cases, people usually resolve their uncertainty by relying on their own preexisting biases and agendas. Although there were multiple possible origins of the alleged harassment campaigns, the narrative pinning it on Gamergate supporters or gamers more broadly was attractive and useful to some of those involved, not least those working in games journalism.
If the question of whether responsibility for the harassment of high-profile women in games lay with gamers or just opportunistic Internet trolls and troublemakers is unanswerable, the truth of related allegations is easier to determine. For instance, the portrayal of gamers or Gamergate supporters as largely white, male, heterosexual right-wing supporters can be tested using the tools of social science. This stereotype has been repeated in both the popular press and even in some academic papers. Such articles tend to accept the view that Gamergate is a “white male” heteronormative reaction to increased diversity in gaming, and ignore or dismiss Gamergaters’ stated concerns about journalistic ethics as pretext for advancing a reactionary political agenda.
Acceptance of this narrative has been widespread, but there’s very little evidence to support it. It might be true, but for the time being it is mainly resting on unsubstantiated assumptions. In fact, there’s been very little academic research into Gamergate at all. While I was researching this issue, I discovered that a gamergate is also a type of ant, and that scientists know a lot more about the insect than they do about the gaming controversy that convulsed the Internet for months. There are a handful of academic articles on the Gamergate phenomenon, but these are largely narrative or anecdotal, not empirical. So independent games journalist Brad Glasgow and I set out to examine the issue, and create what is, to our knowledge, the first scientific study of Gamergate supporters. We wanted to find out who, narratives aside, are Gamergate supporters?
To do this Brad surveyed 725 Gamergate supporters. Participants, although anonymous in terms of identifying details, had to be able to demonstrate that they had publicly supported Gamergate by providing a tweet, forum post, or similar that they had authored. We found that Gamergate supporters were more diverse than the prevailing narrative suggests. White heterosexual males made up the largest single group (at 41.8 percent) but they did not account for a majority. Significant percentages of Gamergate supporters were non-white, 10.8 percent were women, three percent reported being transsexual, and roughly 25 percent reported a sexual orientation other than heterosexual. So our data indicate that the perception of Gamergate as an entirely white male heterosexual phenomenon is clearly inaccurate.
More interesting, Gamergate supporters generally reported being politically liberal. On a number of social issues such as gay marriage, support for affirmative action, or universal healthcare, we found that Gamergaters were more liberal than the general population. This runs contrary to the narrative of Gamergaters as supporters of the alt-Right.
It is not my intention here to diminish the harassment suffered by women in the games industry during 2014 (as well as before and since). However, the narrative linking such harassment to Gamergate supporters and gamers more generally appears to be unfounded. Ours is certainly just one survey-based study, with all the attendant caveats and limitations, and this area would certainly benefit from further study. Our sample may have been somehow self-selecting as more liberal than most Gamergaters. But for now it’s the only peer-reviewed examination of the movement and should at least encourage wariness of generalizations about gamers or even Gamergate supporters.
Why was such an apparently misleading narrative allowed to become so prevalent and powerful, despite a dearth of supporting evidence? There are several possibilities, but here are three:
- In some ways, the conflicts of interest that originally animated Gamergate were allowed to continue as games journalism framed the narrative about the Gamergate controversy. Whoever perpetrated the harassment of women in the games industry (whether it was a wide cross-section of gamers, a few individuals, or trolls unrelated to gaming), the harassment campaign became an easy tool for games journalists to use to discredit Gamergate and they did so with great efficiency. Given Gamergate itself was never an organized phenomenon with a clear, coherent manifesto, this was easy to do.
- Gamers are an easy target for stereotyping and stigma. So, it appears to have been easy for their opponents to generalize beyond Gamergate to all gamers and the gaming community. The actual diversity of the gaming community notwithstanding, the narrative of the gamer as the regressive, socially impaired, adolescent white male has been difficult to shake. The Gamergate narrative perfectly fit these preexisting stereotypes of gamers.
- The Gamergate controversy is indicative of larger cultural difficulties we have with pragmatically focusing on a problem based on evidence. Instead, controversies like this one offer an irresistible opportunity to signal tribal allegiance and out-group antipathy. Many of the articles on Gamergate appear to use harassment of women not as a social problem to be tackled pragmatically but as a rhetorical cudgel with which to beat gamers or as a means of advertizing the progressive bona fides of the author. Very few articles on the topic seem to be at all concerned with accumulating evidence regarding who actually engaged in the harassment of women. Instead, anecdotes were used to support and circulate assumptions that all gamers were complicit in misogyny. This opened a new front in the culture wars over gaming that has likely done little to serve either women or gamers (or women gamers) in a positive way.
If we are to figure out how to combat online harassment, analyses of the problem and its seriousness need to be based on good evidence. An opportunity to amass and study data was wasted in favor of developing a politically expedient narrative of dubious provenance. I remain confident that a pragmatic, empirically based approach can lead us to solutions for reducing online harassment while avoiding unnecessary stereotyping of gamers.
Christopher J. Ferguson is a professor of psychology at Stetson University in Florida. He is author of Moral Combat: Why the War on Violent Video Games is Wrong and the Renaissance mystery novel Suicide Kings. His new book How Madness Shaped History was released in April 2020. You can follow him on Twitter @CJFerguson1111.