Posted on 2014/12/19 by

Where Do We Go From Here? or, Starting A PhD In Video Games Amid #Gamergate

1: Everything I Love Hates Me


My friend recently made me this crest to accurately represent the things I love that hate me. A more accurate latin translation would be “omnia quae amo me oderunt.”

In 2010, I started writing about heavy metal seriously. It was an act of self-preservation, really; I discovered I was spending more on concert tickets than rent every month, and so I approached a website to barter live reviews for guest list spots. Soon I was writing a column of weird postcard reviews, going to three to five shows a week, and probably doing serious damage to both my liver and hearing on a regular basis. Metal had become the soundtrack to my recovery after my first marriage ended shortly before I was 25, and writing about it, writing through it was the only way I knew how to both survey the extent of the damage and slowly start rebuilding.

The response to my writing from the metal community was overwhelmingly positive — overwhelmingly, but not exclusively. For all of the constructive criticism and weird, rough praise, there was also a current of hostility to my writing or my presence at shows. It was much more common for someone to assume I was a band member’s girlfriend when I showed up at stage doors to conduct an interview; I was constantly, consistently asked to prove myself, explain my presence in innumerable small ways. I tried to write about it somewhat gently, to explore what it was about being a woman who spent so much time front row centre with steel-toed boots on felt like.

After one too many posts with titles like “Public Service Announcement: Girls Do Not Like Metal!” appeared in the world with the garbage barge comments sections that accompanied them, I started a column called Girls Don’t Like Metal, interviewing women whose lives and careers centred on aggressive music. One particular 264 comment-long thread included comments about me like “chubby arms gonna chubby arm” and “That’s not even a girl… That is a pig with lipstick.”

Which is to say I’m no stranger to loving things that hate me. Whether it’s the content, the community, the artists or the fan base, most of what I love and write about — which, as well as metal, includes speculative fiction and horror, comics, mixed martial arts, table-top RPGs, and video games — exhibits and wrestles with hostility towards women with varying degrees of intensity. Whether it’s the way women are represented or the lack of representation, violence against women used as a plot device to advance someone else’s story or just for the hell of it, actively shutting down women’s work or ignoring their contributions entirely, the art forms and transmedia empires I love tend to regard my presence with some mixture of surprise, suspicion, and hostility.

I’m used to this. It’s familiar now. I know when to ignore a troll and when to bludgeon it; I know when to barricade the doors and when to trundle out siege weapons. I’ve been irritated and enraged by it. But it’s been a long time since I was scared.

2. Splash Damage

When I was applying to Concordia back in the Winter of 2013, I thought the moment, the flashpoint, in the current discussion around women and video games had already happened. I though it had taken place back in 2012, when Anita Sarkeesian launched a Kickstarter campaign and all hell broke loose. Her video blog, Feminist Frequency, was already home to the series Women vs. Tropes, and she launched the campaign hoping to raise $6,000 to launch a new expansion, Women vs. Tropes in Video Games. Before any of the critiques even existed, some members of the gaming took very poorly to the suggestion that games could or should be held up to examination this way, and launched a campaign of harassment against Sarkeesian that included death threats, attacks on the kickstarted campaign and her websites, and a deluge of vitriol.

The incident has been well documented, and even seemed, briefly to have had a happy ending of sorts. In the end, her campaign was wildly successful as her supporters pushed back, ultimately raising over $150,000. Despite the threats, Sarkeesian started making videos; gradually, the abuse subsided (though it never disappeared). It seemed that the moment had happened, that the community had suffered a rift and was gradually examining what had happened. It seemed we were recovering and growing. It reminded me of the “women in refrigerators” moment in 1999, when Gail Simone called out the comics industry for the way women characters were so often killed, abused, or de-powered to advance the plot lines or supply the motivations of their male co-stars. It seemed like the place where the conversation would begin; and so, I the project I proposed in my application was to study exactly that. It was recent history, to be sure, but safe retrospect.

Then, in August, just before my classes were about to start, game designed Zoe Quinn’s ex-boyfriend Eron Gjoni created an entire blog to publish their chat logs, ramble about the end of their relationship, and allege that Quinn had a relationship with Kotaku writer Nathan Grayson. Grayson written about Quinn before they had ever been in a relationship, and never reviewed her recently-released, free game Depression Quest as was initially alleged. It was ugly. It seemed initially to be one of those things that happens way too often when a woman is successful and visible in public spaces: shitty ex-boyfriends trying to tear her down.

But, that’s not all it became. What initially began as a campaign of harassment and slut-shaming for Quinn’s reported infidelity to Gjoni mutated into something else. Unable to justify the apparently endless supply of vitriol for Quinn, based solely on disapproval for who she may have slept with, the splash damage from the rage bomb that initially went off soon encompassed most women in games, and anyone who had anything to say about feminism, social justice, diversity or representation. Terrible person Adam Baldwin dubbed it #gamergate, and soon using the hashtag became analogous to standing in front of a mirror in the dark and saying “Candyman,” only for terrible people on the internet instead of vengeful ghosts.

Even a movement ostensibly built on hating women realized that it couldn’t unite under that banner officially forever. The rationale gamergate selected ended up being the now-infamous rallying cry “it’s about ethics in video game journalism.” Ggers claimed that they were crusading against nepotism in the industry, journalism in bed (literally) with game designers leading to unfairly positive reviews and inflated scores. Soon, what might have been a brief and terrible shitstorm in the career of a woman who makes games and lives a great deal of her life in public took on an awful life of its own.

No one really needs a crash course on what happened from here, in the weeks and now months since. It’s been documented elsewhere over and over again, in all the various and terrible and disparately mutating forms #gamergate has taken on. The vitriol again Anita Sarkeesian was renewed, including a shooting threat made that resulted in her cancelling an appearance to speak at Utah State University; developer Brianna Wu and tech writer Kathy Sierra found themselves targets; award-winning journalist Jenn Frank publicly quit writing about games for for fear of her own and her family’s safety; and soon anyone who #gamergate identified as a “social justice warrior” could find themselves the subject of harassment, doxing, or threats. DiGRA was alleged to be at the epicentre at a vast feminist media conspiracy (which, let’s be real, sounds pretty damn nice, actually).

By the time my classes started in September, I was starting to make jokes about my PhD thesis being the thing that finally got me car bombed. There were a lot of days that it didn’t seem like much of a joke at all.

2.5 Actually, it’s Social Justice Wizard (an aside)

When I say “gaming community,” I’m not speaking as though it is some hostile other, another planet I don’t understand. My life changed when my brother and I got a Super Nintendo for Christmas in 1993; we spent a year and a half playing The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past. When I lived in Calgary in the early oughts, I got together with friends religiously [we referred to our weekly gatherings as “the sabbath”] to play Rock Band or Four Swords, and during crunch time when I was finished my thesis, I cancelled my World of Warcraft account, gave my login information to a friend with instructions to change the password and not give it back to me until I defended, no matter what I said. They were tested. I’m a member of Dames Making Games in Toronto and Pixelles in Montreal. I’m an admin for the Destiny clan Feminist War Cult.

It’s a strange thing to have part of your own identity, or those who share it at least, turn on you. It’s stranger to realize that so many people who would identify as gamers, on the opposite of the walls of the #gamergate siege, would see you as something else — a social justice warrior to their legion of trolls. To be seen as an invading, exterior force, an other, when you’ve been here the whole time.

2.75 Hell Is Empty

The worst part of all of it is that there is a pretty serious crisis when it comes to video games journalism and ethics, but it has nothing at all to do with relationships in the industry or working to make games with more diverse playable characters or taking away all the blood and explosions and loud noises from bro gamers and replacing them with games about ponies and conflict resolution. It has everything to do with ridiculous embargo policies. It has to do with AAA gaming publishers withholding titles from reviewers who have reviewed them unfavourably, or pulling advertising from publications who give scores they object to. It’s been seen in the scandals around the releases of Duke Nukem Forever, and Alien: Colonial Marines, and Assassin’s Creed Unity.

#Gamergate, of course, has been all but silent on these ethical questions. Wishing there was a woman character in the GTA V, however, is destroying the industry. Or something.

3. And All The Devils Are Here

I’ve spent the last four months flailing. It’s been an awful time for me for a host of personal reasons, but trying to figure out how to work on this material, how to possibly interpret and navigate and do anything with it seems somewhere between difficult and impossible, depending on my morale. I’ve waded into conversations on Twitter that filled my mentions with abusive garbage, and then gone quiet for days. I’ve pulled down and attempted to archive huge volumes of articles, social media posts, and screen grabs, trying to build some kind of a record of what has been happening. I’ve spent a lot of time sitting in coffee shops and pubs with friends, having conversations with lots of long silences, tight-lipped and white-knuckled.

The one thing I haven’t done much is write about it. I haven’t contributed any in-depth commentary of my own, only signal-boosted. I’ve been trying to process what’s been happening with other people’s words instead of my own; I’ve only been partially successful.

What I have been doing is reading. Alongside the vast archive of #gamergate material I’ve sifted through, which is inspiring and devastating and completely infuriating by turns, I’ve been reading about communications theory, distant reading, and digital humanities in the first few classes I’m taking as a relapsing graduate student. Alan Liu’s “Transcendental Data: Toward a Cultural History and Aesthetics of the New Encoded Discourse” helped me understand how Twitter and Reddit, and Chans both 4 and 8, have come to control and profoundly influence the shape and context of gamergate, influencing the way content has been managed, transmitted, consumed. Matthew Fuller’s ““It Looks Like You’re Writing A Letter: Microsoft Word” gave me a better grasp on the relentless viciousness of the online news cycle that has fed of #gamergate in a relentless glut.

Revisiting “Two Lectures” from POWER/KNOWLEDGE by Michel Foucault felt like picking up a sword, especially the way he speaks about “a sense of the increasing vulnerability to criticism of things, institutions, practices, discourses. A certain fragility has been discovered in the very bedrock of existence-even, and perhaps above all, in those aspects of it that are most familiar, most solid and most intimately related to our bodies and to our everyday behaviour” (80). The was Foucault wrestles with ideas of criticizing what is a part of us, what is second nature, and what we love, clicked into place in my brain; not all parting of flesh with a blade is to wound, after all; we can also be surgeons. Foucault also talks about how necessary a specific kind of dismantling is, the ways in which “we need to see how these mechanisms of power, at a given moment, in a precise conjuncture and by means of a certain number of transformations, have begun to become economically advantageous and politically useful” (101). When we take apart things that hold power to understand how that power works, it doesn’t mean we love then less; it can help us love them more.

But the single most valuable and beautiful thing I read the entire semester came right at the end of the semester, when I encountered Anna Tsing’s essay “a hair in the flour.” At the time, I wrote:

Tsing gives us some clues about how we might best make and remake ourselves online, how we might choose to write ourselves in a way that is not only positive but transformative. Tsing is speaking about where to direct one’s energies, in terms of writing and activism, attempting to examine, in a very intimate way, how the ways in which we choose to direct our energies: “to pick among the causes presented to us — as well as those hidden from our view — is a constant work of passion and judgment. It changes who we are. We imagine that we find our ‘voice’ for that moment when a way we have learned to speak seems to fit a critical purpose. We tap into a legacy of speaking to articulate our situation within a general complaint” (205). While Tsing is talking about writing as a general practice, it is possible to draw her ideas into the way that we write ourselves online. Reflecting on the impact, and consequences, that the ways in which we write ourselves and relate to each other online isn’t simply one about minimizing hard; it is about actively crating good and affecting change. If, like Tsing, all [we] know how to do is write” (206), then it’s important to consider the power inherent in that process. While the way we build ourselves in online spaces is disembodied and incomplete, complicated by being both too fixed and too nebulous at once, but in “the struggle for life shine through” (212) we have the potential to build something crucial and informative, to embody and effect change.

It’s the line “all I know how to do is write” that keeps haunting me. In the end, that’s what I have. It’s how I take apart and make sense of the world. It’s how I break things apart, how I’ve rebuilt myself several times, how I try to make things better. Somehow, I need to find a way to write about it. It’s all I can do.

So, here we are.

4. Our Chronometers are Broken

Early in November, a colleague were chatting about the latest instalment of a gaming column, and referred to it as a “post-gamergate piece.” He was certain, then, that the phenomenon was nearly broken would soon disappear entirely and that addressing it in the past tense was entirely appropriate.

Over a month later, things are still terrible. Pick-up-artists and Men’s Rights Activists have increasingly become louder in the conversation, with sites like Reaxxion being founded. Despite this, the real horror of gamergate has now become, for me at least, that it just keeps happening. Rarely a day goes by that something else terrible hasn’t happened. Someone has written something awful or someone good has had their home address posted all over 8-chan, a reddit thread has gone off the rails or another games writer has publicly quit in fear.

In a particularly cruel twist of fate, for me, personally, is the dawning of #metalgate, a recent mutation of #gamergate to encompass the evil machinations of “social justice warriors” in heavy metal. Kim Kelly, the very first woman I interviewed for Girls Don’t Like Metal, has borne the brunt this new manifestation; this latest eruption has hits even closer to home. As voices online rail now against women and social justice warriors who are suddenly invading heavy metal’s territory, I’m again looking around, confused, having been here the whole time and suddenly, again, being treated like an other in my own community. (For someone who began this piece asserting that everything I love hates me, you’d like I’d be much more used to it by now).

I don’t know how long this is going to last, what comes after it, what the community will look like in the aftermath. I no longer have the luxury of looking back on a thing that happened and tidily reflecting on it. It seems impossible that this has gone of for four months already it seems unsustainable. Instead of processing, I feel like I’ve been holding on for dear life, trying to keep up. The horror is becoming boring, but no less horrible.

I’m not sure what happens next. I’ve been waiting for #gamergate to finally breathe it’s last so I know what to do with it, until I feel strong enough, and brave enough, to start doing something with the mountain of sludge I’ve collected. It’s finally dawning on me that it’s just not going to happen.

Waiting this one out isn’t working. The only thing to do, then, is write it out. It’s all I know how to do.

Works Cited

Foucault, Michel. “Two Lectures.” POWER/KNOWLEDGE: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977. Ed. Colin Gordon. Brighton: Harvester, 1980. 78-108.

Fuller, Matthew. “It Looks Like You’re Writing A Letter: Microsoft Word.” September 5, 2000. <>

Liu, Alan. “Transcendental Data: Toward A Cultural History and Aesthetics of the New Encoded Discourse.” Critical Inquiry 31 (Autumn 2004): 49-84.

Tsing, Anna. “A Hair In The Flour.” Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005. 208-212.

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