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Nobody Wins the GamerGate Civil War

Noah Smith is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.
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For those of you who don't spend your spare time hanging out with geeks and trolls on the Internet -- let me explain GamerGate. Usually, "___gate" refers to a scandal, but in this case, it refers to a gigantic online mob that thinks there's been a scandal when there hasn't.

The whole thing began when some guy named Eron Gjoni posted a big rant about his girlfriend lying and cheating on him. You can read it if you want to verify that people in their early 20s really still are as immature as when you were in your early 20s. Gjoni comes off as a caricature of the self-absorbed, whiny millennial guy, while his girlfriend, Zoe Quinn, sounds like the kind of woman that one should learn to avoid very early in one's romantic life.

But GamerGate (often written in hashtag form, as #GamerGate) has nothing to do with that. You see, Zoe Quinn is an obscure independent game developer, and one of the men she cheated on Whiny Millenial Guy with, Nathan Grayson, is a video-game journalist. According to the GamerGate people, this constitutes a giant ethics scandal that is just the tip of the iceberg -- despite the fact that Grayson never actually wrote about one of Quinn's games. Their version of the story says that video-game journalism is a cesspool of corruption that must be cleansed by a righteous online mob of angry young (male) gamers.

But even though some members of the "movement" might have convinced themselves of that story, GamerGate really has nothing to do with journalistic ethics either. It's actually all about two things -- misogyny, and the politicization of geek culture.

First, the misogyny. In practice, GamerGaters have expressed their anger by harassing prominent feminists in the game industry. Those include game developers Anita Sarkeesian and Brianna Wu, both outspoken online advocates of more women in gaming. Both of these women were first subjected to massive online harassment, then death threats that forced both of them to flee their homes.

Naturally, when GamerGaters were subjected to accusations of being primarily a misogynistic mob, they responded by denying culpability. Surprise, surprise.

It isn't like this is anything new, though. Women on the Internet, of course, have been subjected to threats and harassment -- usually of a highly sexual nature -- for as long as the Internet has been around. Given the inherent anonymity of the Web and the inherent aggression of many men (especially sexually frustrated young men), isn't clear how this problem will ever be resolved. Even if the GamerGate jerks grow up and leave women alone -- as they should, of course -- there will just be another cohort of young dumb jerks to replace them in a few years. Online misogyny needs to stop, but it's not yet clear what can stop it.

But anyway, GamerGate also showcases another unfortunate trend -- the rise of a left-right political divide in geek culture. There have always been left-leaning and right-leaning geeks, but recently the divide seems to have become much more stark. When a number of left-leaning geeks -- self-described "social justice warriors," or SJWs -- jumped in to defend Sarkeesian, Wu, and other harassment victims, right-leaning geeks saw an opportunity to harness the anger of GamerGate to strike a blow against their political enemies.

What developed was an unprecedented flame war. The two sides pulled out all the stops sock-puppeting (creating fake IDs to harass people), doxing (digging up people's personal data and posting it online), and all the other techniques of online warfare. Of course, each side claims vigorously that the other side is worse, kind of like in the Spanish Civil War, the Russian Civil War, or any of the famous right-left battles of the 20th Century.

Of course, this battle is impossible for anyone to win, since unlike a real civil war, no one -- we all surely hope -- will be killed. But the end result may be much the same -- to devastate the online landscape. Basically, the GamerGate War is making it no longer fun to be a geek on the Internet.

And that is incredibly sad. In his 2011 thriller "Reamde," Neal Stephenson portrays geeks tearing the Internet apart in a war over which color palette to use in an online game. The GamerGate War is more substantive than that, of course, but Stephenson was clearly satirizing what even then was an ominous creep of politics into the geek-o-sphere.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Noah Smith at nsmith150@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors on this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net