The #Gamergate community is a hate group. Let me explain why.
My name is Jennifer Allaway. I'm a social researcher whose primary body of work consists of a study I did in 2013 on the prevalence of sexism in the game industry, and how it impacts game content. Since then I've been working on a new study on the importance of diversity in game content to game players, and whether or not the game industry is able to predict this desire.
Game developers can be hard to reach for data collection, so a few different organizations have been passing around links to help me collect data for this study. By September 25th, I basically had all the data I needed.
And then I got this email.
I was nervous that the #Gamergate community had found my work; this email came the day after a few people had been tweeting #Gamergate at me. I went into 8chan—the movement's current and primary forum for coordinating their efforts—and found a discussion on a "secret developer survey," referring to my questions. It was getting passed around, accumulating criticisms and promises to respond. Within it I found the following comment, which confirmed my suspicions about what "vote brigading" meant.
In under four hours, the developer survey jumped from around 700 responses, which had been collected over the course of a month, to over 1100 responses. The responses were not nearly as subtle as the anonymous poster above urged. They ranged in their degree of racism and misogyny, but they all all ridiculed the project with dishonest mockery. It appeared that less than 5 percent of the new responses had actually come from developers.
There were also responses like this:
After months of watching this happen to friends, colleagues, and role models, the lie I'd told myself every night—that I would be exempt—finally fell apart. I set about locking down accounts, emailing professors, contacting campus safety, and calling family. It was an exhausting process, but I considered it necessary. The attack could get out of hand. I mentioned offhand to my sister, about two hours in, that "it was getting to be my turn anyways," to nonchalantly minimize my hurt. That was the moment I broke down.
I realized just how much I'd internalized the presumed process: if you're even asking about equality or diversity in games, being shouted down in a traumatizing manner is now a mandatory step that you have to sit back and endure.
But I don't hate #Gamergate for what they've done to me. I'm a researcher; my goal is to analyze and to understand. And after two weeks of backtracking through the way they've carried out their operations, this is the conclusion I've reached:
#Gamergate, as we know it now, is a hate group.
I do not say this to make the people of #Gamergate seem any more important, or effective, or powerful, or to give any sort of new credence to their ideas. Rather, this is just a structural designation: as immediately dismissible as their tactics and stances might be (at least to anyone who has not become victim to them), I believe it's important to note that group was formed like a hate group and functions like a hate group in every way.
Let me walk you through my reasoning. The framework I'm using here comes from Linda Woolf and Michale Hulsizer's 2004 study "Hate Groups for Dummies: How to Build a Successful Hate Group." In Woolf and Hulsizer's analysis of the structure and process of building a hate group, they identify four essential elements: Leadership, Recruitment, Social-Psychological Techniques, and Dehumanization.
Leadership: In the earliest days of every hate group, someone must inspire and lead the movement. In the case of other hate groups that exist in a physical setting, the hate group will continue to depend on the leader; however, this is where the internet's leaderless nature becomes an incredible advantage to hate group formation.
As a movement, #Gamergate's first leader was Zoe Quinn's angry ex-boyfriend, who posted allegations about her all over the internet in various formats. As IRC logs and video evidence show, he remained an active adviser and counselor for the group's activities in the weeks that followed. But after this initial spark, multiple figureheads (right-wing journalists, Twitter and YouTube "personalities") took up the charge and spun a single person's outrage into a solid movement. Eventually, as the movement gained its own momentum, it snowballed beyond the leaders. This leaderless quality what makes the message so hard to control, and so potentially terrifying to the targets they choose to harass.
Recruitment: Woolf and Hulsizer state that one essential feature of the hate group is that it can "provide a sense of belonging, identity, self worth, safety, and direction for those experiencing crisis or vulnerability in their lives." When comparing this idea to the undertones of a fairly normal quote from the /gg/ 8chan board, this facet of #Gamergate becomes especially clear. This is taken from a post in which another member had expressed doubt:
This anonymous (and typical) member of #Gamergate uses descriptors such as "ugly, acne-ridden" and "basement dwelling" to characterize how the rest of the world views other #Gamergate members. By deprecating the entire community under the guise of using "the enemy's words," they unite the entire group, and recruit anyone who already has these self-esteem issues. Emphasizing "We have NOTHING TO LOSE" encourages not only action, but blind and thoughtless action: if they have nothing to lose, the consequences don't matter. The only thing that matters is the approval and social interactions with your fellow members in the cause. In this way, they further radicalize their viewpoints in a way that isn't controlled or even conscious. As Woolf and Hulsizer note, "Hate groups have little need to aggressively recruit individuals for whom hate is a way of life or individuals that are most committed to diversity and tolerance. Rather they recruit those who are most vulnerable and indoctrinate them in the process of hate."
Social-Psychological Techniques: After the group has been recruited, they develop a set of mechanisms to keep them confident as a group, spread their message, and maintain group order.
Propaganda is the most vital tool in this process. It educates new members in the accepted ideals, reinforces the ideal to existing members, and provides them with convenient methods with which to spread the group's message to those outside. Woolf and Huslitzer talk about propaganda as that which is used to "increase the 'otherness' of the object of hate."
Anyone can view a log of original visual content surrounding #Gamergate here, and the propagandistic slant is extreme: #Gamergate's primary methods of disseminating information have been in the form of aggressively doctrinaire images, Youtube videos, and pastebins. In a cursory look through the 8chan boards, I found these images:
"Gaming is not a crime," for example, suggests that #Gamergate members consider themselves under siege; the image of movement mascot Vivian James, accompanied by a mantra of all the horrible things #Gamergate claims not to be, emphasizes that her iconography supports integrity in journalism and women in gaming. James, we are to understand, epitomizes #Gamergate despite her womanhood.
The social emotions prompted by these differing slogans show exactly how the ideas of #Gamergate have evolved and taken hold. They feel the need to defend themselves from those who accuse them of being elitist, sexist, homophobic, or bigoted. Their intended public image is that they are first and foremost fighting for "integrity in journalism" and being "supportive of women in gaming." This is the image they want to present to the world and each other.
The problem with that presentation, both to others and themselves, is that it contradicts the true, underlying feelings they harbor. This is shown in a comment about a response to my survey:
In contrast to the propaganda they're producing and distributing to create the "believed lie" about their cause, this comment is a window into the group's honest attitudes. As Margaret Duffy stated in her 2003 article "Web of Hate: A Fantasy Theme Analysis of the Rhetorical Vision of Hate Groups Online": "Restatements, metaphors, inside cues, and jokes flowing from different communicators may be taken as evidence that a fantasy has chained and people have converged symbolically to a shared reality." In other words: Am I doing it right, guys?
These asides might seem harmless, and will be passed off as harmless among members of #Gamergate, but the jokes themselves contain so much misogynistic and racist content that it reinforces the "shared reality." Whether these ideas are sincerely held or not, they become a part of the group ideology and inform their actions.
Once these tools and ideologies are developed, #Gamergate uses hate and fear tactics to create a culture of silence around the topic and prevent progressive dialogue around them. McNamee, Peterson, and Pena's 2010 study on "Understanding the Communications of Online Hate Groups" mentions one particular method that is fundamental to the way hate groups take their ideologies and transition them into action: Indictment, or the "messages that blame other groups for various offenses."
In this specific case it chiefly means demonizing the media and entertainment industry, or any other groups that #Gamergate claims to have been misrepresented by. #Gamergate as an organization has been internally confused over the past two months as it tries to sort out its message, but ultimately, the blame falls most consistently and often with the game industry's "corruption" and "corrupt media."
However, their current leaderless and anonymous qualities, combined with their ability to replicate the appearance of active members through dummy accounts, creates a powerful mob mentality in which anybody can suggest a radical way of leveraging hate or fear, pressure others into following suit, and thus continue to perpetuate their narrative through action. By selling themselves as a "grassroots movement of the people," they're able to pressure parties ignorant of their origins into doing what they want.
This practice is known as Astroturfing, and it's how a small group can pressure a big distributor like Intel into pulling their ads from Gamasutra. (Note: I was published at Gamasutra last March.) It's how hundreds of emails get sent to an address asking that someone be fired for having an "SJW-oriented opinion." (SJW meaning "Social Justice Warrior.") This is how a thread of two people talking about corrupting my data led to an instant deluge of mocking and harassing responses. Worst of all, this is how Brianna Wu is driven from her home under a barrage of thousands of rape and death threats, accompanied by her home address. While the movement may not name a leader, to say that they are without organization or without strategies for them to enact their cause as one is far from the truth.
Dehumanization: After successful indictment, hate group members begin to practice dehumanization, and commit actions without thinking of their victims as human beings. When they're organizing an attack, targets are no longer human beings; they are means to praise from the group for "contributing to the cause."
In #Gamergate, these tactics have ultimately worked. Up until the attack on Wu, dialogue on this subject had slowed this month. Many of my developer friends refuse to say anything on the record; they've seen friends and colleagues directly impacted by #Gamergate attacks, and they're afraid of being targeted. It feels collectively as though the industry is sitting back and biting its lip, in case engaging on this subject earns them another blow.
Here's why this is important: Had #Gamergate participated in my survey honestly, as a researcher, I would gladly have taken their data. After all, I recognize that they play games, and to exclude their data purely on the grounds of our moral disagreement would be unethical. They would have added a layer of diverse opinions to the data set. I would have valued those opinions. The relationship to data, and ultimately my participants, for me, is sacred.
But instead, #Gamergate left me with hundreds of replies consisting of bald-faced mockery and threats. I understand why: they saw my survey as a chance to lash out at another member of the industry trying to do "SOMETHING with diversity." But really, I was just asking questions, and questions that had been rigorously constructed with unbiased academic oversight: my methodology and construction alone had been critiqued and refined for over two months by academics and experienced researchers. If they had clear moral issue with the nature of the research, they could have emailed me directly with their concerns with the comment email I provided them in the consent statement. Their defacing of this survey was a desperate effort to silence potential truth that might not serve their purpose; they were afraid of even the possibility that other opinions or new facts would be heard.
It's my theory that #Gamergate as a movement is now acting out of fear. After the release of the IRC logs revealing the movement for what it is, the damning mainstream opinion pieces, and a brutal series of PR losses, the movement is now scared, and lashing out at everything that stands to fit the narrative of their perceived aggressors. At this point, there is no dialogue, even though they still say they are trying to promote one. You simply can't have a sane and productive conversation with someone who would be happier if you killed yourself.
#Gamergate, as they have treated myself and peers in our industry, is a hate group. This word, again, should not lend them any mystique or credence. Rather it should illuminate the fact that even the most nebulous and inconsistent ideas can proliferate wildly if strung onto the organizational framework of the hate group, which additionally gains a startling amount of power online. #Gamergate is a hate group, and they are all the more dismissible for it. And the longer we treat them otherwise, the longer I fear for our industry's growth.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.
Jennifer Allaway is an independent social researcher whose work focuses on issues of diversity within the many facets of video games. She has presented the results of her study on the prevalence of sexism in the game industry and it's impact on game content at many prestigious conferences, including GDC, PAX Prime, and Indie Game Con. She has also published a featured article on her research on Gamasutra.