By Marrissa Ballard
Fact Versus Fiction: The Media’s Sensational Image of #GamerGate
The media has never seemed to understand the elusive group known as “gamers,” and this became more apparent when the GamerGate controversy became national news. The GamerGate movement emerged after a relationship was uncovered between Zoe Quinn, an independent game developer, and Nathan Grayson, a writer who reviewed her game. Gamers were outraged, and demanded “ethical journalism” in which game developers avoided relationships with reviewers. News articles declared that there was a “culture war” between feminists, game critics and indie developers and the GamerGate group. More threats surfaced, and the treatment of females like Zoe Quinn and Brianna Wu divided the industry. Many saw the actions of GamerGate as proof that gamers are a large group of racist, homophobic, and sexist men who dislike any change or diversity in their games. This narrative was picked up by just about anyone who wrote about the issue. However, some supporters of GamerGate are fighting against the image they have been given. The GamerGate movement and the issues it champions are far more complex than the picture the media has presented.
Most news stories today are written with a particular slant or frame in mind, and usually this slant is the one that will get the most views or generate the most responses. A frame within the media can be defined as “an emphasis in salience of different aspects of a topic” meaning that frames are concerned with a dominant “presentation of issues” (Vreese 53). Such frames can be created through the “words, images, phrases, and presentation styles that a speaker uses when relaying information to another” (Druckman 227). When an article presents a story through a particular “frame,” it presents a dominant narrative that will control further discourse on the subject. Framing can influence the way an individual thinks about an issue, and “on the societal level, frames may contribute to shaping social level processes such as political socialization, decision-making, and collective actions” (Vreese 52). Journalism also operates upon the mindset that writers should always get the “scoop;” get to the story, and get to it first (Campbell et al. 50). Between scoop journalism and media framing, many news stories are published without balanced views, fact-checking, or research. This pattern becomes troubling, especially when consumers see these stories as factual accounts. In his 2002 speech titled “Why Speculate?” Michael Crichton, the writer of the Jurassic Park novels, describes the relationship between consumers and news through the “Murray-Gellman Effect.” The “Murray-Gellman Effect” describes “the public’s tendency to discount one story in a newspaper they may know to be false because of their knowledge of the subject, but believe the same paper on subjects with which they are unfamiliar” (New World Encyclopedia). This effect impacts the GamerGate debate especially, because most of the American public is not knowledgeable about games, gaming culture, or online fandoms. Thus the news stories that covered GamerGate, even when they lacked balance, objectivity or research, were taken as facts and framed the movement in a decidedly negative way.
The negative image of GamerGate was created through articles and reports that presented the same narrative: members of the movement were all racist, sexist, angry white men. A Google search and review of the official GamerGate wiki reveals that the majority of the articles either use anti-GamerGate women as interviews, or cover the issue through the conflict between women and gamers. Because journalism is dictated by rules of “newsworthiness,” the story that would get the most attention would be one of conflict, especially if the conflict included death, rape, or bomb threats (Cambell et al 488). Not many articles feature a GamerGate supporter for an interview or any exploration of the diverseness of the community. The articles often include sensational titles, most of which include references to “war” and “threats” (GamerGate.me). Most news sources described the movement in similar terms: “a relatively small and very loud group of video game enthusiasts who claim that their goal is to audit ethics in the gaming-industrial complex and who are instead defined by the campaigns of criminal harassment that some of them have carried out against several women” (Wagner). Jessica Velanti famously stated that GamerGate was “about harassing women to protest the movement for female equality” (Valenti). Any time famous women like Anita Sarkeesian received threats, they were attributed to GamerGate whether or not they actually came from members of the movement. The media backlash also escalated when GamerGate launched successful campaigns against sites like Gamasutra. As a result of one campaign, Intel, one of the site’s advertisers, actually stopped supporting Gamasutra financially (Dockterman). This campaign, among many others, showed the media that while the GamerGate movement is small, it holds a lot of power.
GamerGate in itself is an extremely complex movement, especially since it is exclusively based on online interaction. Both journalists and members of the movement have difficulty describing it because “by design, GamerGate is nearly impossible to define” (Wagner). The impossibility of defining GamerGate is partly because the community is divided on many levels and across many platforms. The community also lacks a definite leader, which prevents them from having a certain set of beliefs, values, or rules of conduct. Most of the communication within the group happens between anonymous parties, especially on sites like 4chan and 8chan. The dependence on forums and blogs demonstrates how all of the members of the movement could communicate “without a need to be mediated” (Duffet 242). Because of this lack of mediation, many threads become chaotic and hateful. GamerGate is also solely present online, and “online discussions enable the dissemination and assertion of shared positions” (Duffett 242). Within the GamerGate, shared positions are celebrated while any detractors will be insulted or blocked. A common thread between GamerGate members seems to be their belief “that there is corruption in video games journalism and that feminists are actively working to undermine the video game industry” (Chess and Shaw 210). However, with such a diverse group of practically anonymous people, it is impossible to get a uniform picture of GamerGate or what they believe. Some moderators or thread leaders have tried to create “official” places of discourse, with rules against abuse and bullying. The official Kotaku GamerGate Reddit thread was far more tame and academic compared to threads on sites like 4chan.
In order to understand the community better and get answers directly from the movement, I created two Reddit threads under an anonymous username. I was “an outsider who arrive[d] to interrogate the fan community” which has its own “benefits and limitations” (Duffett 261). I presented myself as someone who knew only little about GamerGate, which limited my ability to question responses I received, but granted me the patience of members who wrote long answers to my questions. The media had painted a scary picture of GamerGate members, so I was originally afraid to post the threads. The arguments and explanations I received from the commenters on Reddit changed my perception of the movement, and the issues that started it. I asked the question: “What inspires this movement?” and received similar answers from all the responders. All of the commenters seemed to care about the same certain issues, including the corruption of games journalism, censorship, and cultural encroachment. They also believe that the media has slandered GamerGate, mostly because GamerGate has criticized media sites for unethical journalism. As one commenter stated, “A movement about rooting out ethical failings in the media would unfortunately not have the backing of media that practices this,” (jeb0r, Reddit). Sites like the HuffingtonPost, WashingtonPost, and the NYTimes have all come to the defense of women like Quinn. But is this because they care about the women, or because they want to turn people’s attention away from the accusation that media sites do not divulge their personal or monetary connections with the subjects they cover? GamerGate demands that news articles and reviews provide disclaimers that outline these relationships.
Many critics and writers have stated that gamers are against more diverse representation in games, but this was not apparent in my conversations with members of the GamerGate movement. Anita Sarkeesian stated that gamers are trying to “hold on to this status quo, this illusion that gaming is for men, that it can never change, that it can never be more inclusive than that” (Collins). However, the issue of diversity is much more nuanced and complex. As a part of their artistic freedom and anti-censorship ideals, GamerGate supporters believe that developers should be able to create whatever they want, regardless of being “politically correct.” They do not want to see developers bullied into making games with political leanings, just to satisfy the outcries for representation. They also do not think that the demand for more diversity is based in consumer needs, but instead they see it as a means of pushing an agenda or educating people. Most of the commenters on my thread agree that games could use more diversity and representation, but that developers cannot win with the demands of feminists. One gave an example: “In any game with human characters, you’d better make sure there are female characters, otherwise you’re a misogynist for not representing females, but once you do have female characters: If the playable protagonist is female, she’s a ‘fighting fuck toy;’ if the playable character is not female, and there are female NPC’s, they’re ‘background decoration;’ and in either case, if the female characters are attractive, you’re ‘exploiting the male gaze,’” (Scornucopia, Reddit). This sentiment expresses the frustration the GamerGate community feels when games continually get criticized, even when they attempt to please the larger community gamers asking for representation. GamerGate seems to operate under the idea that eventually these characters and story-lines will appear, and that developers do not have to be forced into creating them.
The media is always quick to cover new controversies and threats that are attributed to GamerGate, but very rarely covered GamerGate’s own initiatives and programs, many of which defy the image they had been given. According to the gamer community on Reddit, people who are anti-GamerGate are guilty of many of their own accusations; they harass, bully, and attack anyone who does not align with their beliefs. There are Reddit threads and Tumblr blogs dedicated to posting examples of harassment, racism, or cruelty coming from the anti-GamerGate side. One tweet I found called for a “holocaust” to get rid of gamers.
In fact, the GamerGate community has also started what they call a “Harassment Patrol” which reports users or “trolls” for any bullying or doxing, whether they support GamerGate or not (Dulis). Because many GamerGate supporters have advanced computer skills, they are able to report users or remove doxed information quickly. The GamerGate community also started a sister hashtag, #NotYourShield, which was created for “women, minorities, gay, and trans people are also supporters of GamerGate and the gaming industry” (flamingfighter, Reddit). The hashtag was meant to debunk the common assertion that GamerGate was made up of only straight, white men, and give minorities a space within the movement to speak up. As news coverage increased, GamerGate’s initial stance of exposing unethical practices in journalism became a joke in anti-GamerGate circles. In a Newsweek article, Taylor Wofford employed Twitter analysis to prove that members of GamerGate were actually sending more tweets to women like Quinn and Sarkeesian, implying that the movement was more about harassment than journalists. However, this article and the analysis of the tweets was debunked later as the article did not account for tweets sent by the women, or tweets that were neutral (medium.com). Perhaps the most important example of GamerGate defying its negative image is its support of The Fine Young Capitalists, a feminist organization that aims to give women more opportunities to create games. The organization was also featured on GamerGate’s main website, and as a result received full funding for its project (Gamergate.me). According to the GamerGate wiki, the 4chan thread /v/ was the top sponsor for the company’s IndieGoGo campaign.
If GamerGate members are academic, calm, willing to explain their stance to a newcomer, and actually supported a feminist organization, why does the movement get such a terrible representation in the media? Even I had believed everything I read about them, and was completely surprised by the detailed and kind responses I received from the community. The presence of online, anonymous trolls within all the message boards and tweets has greatly skewed the image of GamerGate. Ironically, there are also trolls on the opposite side, and trolls in between simply seeking to stir up controversy. But unfortunately, the media only pays attention to a small section of trolls, because their words and actions are the most dramatic. The mainstream media also focused the GamerGate narrative on conflict between the movement and famous critics, and steadily ignored any GamerGate projects that went against that narrative. Once the movement was framed as sexist and racist, this frame persisted and affected every story written about it. While some members of the movement have surely been responsible for harassment, threats, and doxing, the movement has actually worked to limit those actions. Though our media is based upon values like objectivity and balance, the negative framing of GamerGate is just one example where the media covers an issue through sensational conflicts and without any research.
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