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Gamergate was a test and the industry failed | Opinion

The industry's silence in the face of an obvious harassment campaign was a shameful mistake that continues to harm

Last weekend, a man in San Francisco went into the home of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi with a hammer and attacked her husband Paul Pelosi while shouting, "Where's Nancy?"

According to The Independent, the suspect in the attack, David DePape, had been active on social media, sharing conspiracy theories about COVID-19, alleging the 2020 US presidential election had been stolen, and subscribing to QAnon beliefs and Holocaust denialism.

A post DePape made in August explained what radicalized him and started him down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories.

"How did I get into all this," he said. "Gamer gate it was gamer gate."

That would be Gamergate, the overtly misogynistic 2014 harassment campaign run under a cover story that it was about "ethics in game journalism" even though the targets of the campaign were mostly not journalists and mostly comprised of women and people – particularly marginalized people – who stood up for women.

"You can activate that army. They come in through Gamergate or whatever and then get turned onto politics and Trump"Steve Bannon

The same Gamergate that Donald Trump strategist Steve Bannon stoked as the head of far-right Breitbart News Network because he saw gaming was full of "rootless white males" with "monster power," and understood that, "You can activate that army. They come in through Gamergate or whatever and then get turned onto politics and Trump."

The same Gamergate that the vast majority of the games industry watched burn like a dumpster fire in its own communities and did absolutely nothing to extinguish.

Gamergate began in August of 2014. While some members of the press, individual game developers, and the IGDA identified it as a harassment campaign and treated it as such within weeks (some even before the Gamergate name had been coined), the largest players dragged their heels on acknowledging anything was happening at all.

It wasn't until the middle of October – after two months of prolonged and accelerated harassment in clear view – when the Entertainment Software Association finally broke its silence to address the elephant dung in the room, literally waiting until the stench was so godawful that harassment of women in games had become front page news in the New York Times.

And when the ESA finally did say something, it refused to name Gamergate or its motives, saying only, "Threats of violence and harassment are wrong. They have to stop. There is no place in the video game community – or our society – for personal attacks and threats."

The ESA did not object to the misogyny or other forms of bigotry animating Gamergate, but simply the illegal way those ideas were expressed

The ESA did not object to the misogyny or other forms of bigotry animating this behavior, but simply the specific, illegal way those ideas were expressed.

That statement set a template for how to talk about Gamergate without ever talking about Gamergate. Decry the tactics instead of the motivation, maybe gesture vaguely toward inclusivity or diversity if you feel like you need to dog whistle support for the women you employ.

But even with that model to follow, few did.

EA, Activision Blizzard, and Take-Two Interactive declined to comment on Gamergate when asked by the New York Times. Fortune ran with the headline "Video game publishers mostly silent on Gamergate," as only Ubisoft gave them a statement, and that one being simply that "harassment, bullying and threats are wrong and have to stop."

On the media side, IGN and GameSpot released their own milquetoast "harassment is bad" letters within weeks of the ESA statement.

In November, Sony Computer Entertainment America head Shawn Layden was as brave as any of the executives were in 2014, actually uttering the name "Gamergate" in an interview before making excuses for it – "I don't think there is one statement or one position on it, or one answer to whatever this very broadly-defined #Gamergate really means. A lot of things are getting swept into that" – and then saying something all but confirming that a condemnation of misogyny was left out of the ESA statement because some members were still undecided on the whole "hating women" issue.

"The question about women in the gaming industry, that's something we all take on board as individual corporations," Layden said.

"The question about women in the gaming industry, that's something we all take on board as individual corporations"Shawn Layden, in 2014

At the time, I was stunned. I chalked it up to cowardice and greed, a reluctance to take sides in any kind of argument lest they alienate potential customers.

And while I'm certain that was part of it, the years since have been chock full of new data points and opportunities to reassess motivations.

We've seen reprehensible harassment and misogyny exposed at Activision Blizzard, Ubisoft, and Riot Games, and we have seen the respective heads of those companies all remain in place.

We've seen Microsoft accused of turning a blind eye to discrimination and harassment again and again and again.

We've seen the IGN editor-in-chief who wrote the site's utterly tepid Gamergate response fired after an investigation into allegations of harassment against him, as well as separate allegations of sexual harassment on staff at the site.

We've seen Nintendo fire a woman at the behest of harassers who believed she had been responsible for localization decisions like eliminating the option for players to alter a character's breast size.

We've seen Riot fire two employees because they were not sufficiently polite in responding to people angry that Riot would dare hold a PAX West panel just for women and non-binary people. (ArenaNet did a very similar thing.)

Is it any wonder that the industry's response to abuse and misogyny in its communities would be lacking when this is how it treats abuse and misogyny within its own ranks?

Is it any wonder that the industry's response to abuse and misogyny in its communities would be lacking when this is how it treats abuse and misogyny within its own ranks?

(While we haven't seen the ESA's treatment of women specifically called into question, it also wasn't terribly surprising to discover from this report that the head of the ESA during Gamergate -- former Bush administration appointee Mike Gallagher -- was an enthusiastic Trump supporter who believed that if you weren't burning people out in three years, you weren't working them hard enough.)

At the same time, in the years since Gamergate, we've seen a new golden age for conspiracy theories, disinformation and harassment campaigns, and unapologetic fascism and racism as mainstream political views.

I'm not saying Gamergate created the geopolitical hellscape we find ourselves in. Our society is steeped in misogyny and racism that it clearly has no appetite for confronting, and that sad fact goes back a lot further than 2014. I also think desperate people can be made to do and think unfathomable things, and decades of society cutting away safety nets and ignoring inequality have exacerbated an already dire surplus of desperate people.

Gamergate was a test for how much pushback a decentralized hate movement would receive when it wore a disguise as convincing as two children in a trenchcoat...

Gamergate was a test for how much pushback a decentralized hate movement would receive when it wore a disguise as convincing as two children in a trenchcoat with a pair of Groucho Marx glasses. And this industry failed that test spectacularly.

The tactics embraced by Gamergate – misinformation and doxing spread to eager bigots and misguided dupes by "trusted" sources with implied calls for violence – have been a right-wing favorite for years now. Attract a group of malleable people, whip them into a frenzy and point them in somebody's direction; they can figure out the rest on their own. Maybe it ends in violence. Maybe it just ends with your targets being miserable and others afraid to speak up and attract that wrath themselves. Either way, you advance your cause and escape accountability. (Usually.)

We have seen these tactics deployed repeatedly in recent years against basically any foundational component of a free and functioning society you care to name, including educators, voters, election workers, healthcare workers, journalists, and now even children's hospitals and libraries.

I don't know if a more full-throated identification and condemnation of Gamergate and its motives would have meaningfully changed world events of the last few years, just like I don't know if I'll ever forgive the people involved in these decisions for rolling over and letting a hate campaign speak for the games industry for months.

But I do know that the tactics of Gamergate were proven effective because of whatever mixture of apathy, bigotry, and cowardice guided gaming's collective response to it eight years ago.

The tactics of Gamergate were proven effective because of whatever mixture of apathy, bigotry, and cowardice guided gaming's collective response to it...

I know that the industry's silence in the face of those tactics did nothing to prevent people like DePape being lost to a world of harmful fabrications, and I know there are an untold number of people out there just like DePape for whom Gamergate was the beginning of a journey that ends in some pretty dark places.

And above all, I know that the industry had an opportunity to back up years of rhetoric about what a positive force in the world gaming can be, about what a welcoming and inclusive space this is for everyone. It had that opportunity, and with few exceptions, it ran and hid from it as fast as it possibly could.

I do believe many people throughout the industry have seen what happened with Gamergate and tried to do better, and I believe many of them are no happier about the state of things today than anyone else.

But what I still haven't seen is any apology for the people we let down in the first place, the people who were run out of this industry by a screaming mob as so many watched and did nothing. And I still haven't seen any significant public acknowledgement about the mistakes that were made, no post-mortem from which we could pull lessons on how to deal with harassment campaigns in the future.

It has already been eight years since Gamergate, in an industry where the average career might not even be that long.

The next time a concentrated industry-wide harassment campaign comes, we cannot rely on there being enough people who were here in 2014 still around to guide a proper and coordinated response.

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Brendan Sinclair avatar

Brendan Sinclair

Managing Editor

Brendan joined GamesIndustry International in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at CBS-owned GameSpot in the US.