Friday, October 31, 2014

Gamer Gate Analysis

I've been trying to figure out how to start this post and have repeatedly failed.  The best I can do, by way of introduction, is this:  I am horrified every day that I sign onto Twitter, because I see people engaging in terrible smears, I see people retweeting and supporting abusive personalities, and I see people either raging at innocents or cowering in fear.  And you know the worst part?  It's on both sides.  The entire debate over GamerGate has devolved into a nasty Goat Rodeo (I'll define that in a moment) that is being manipulated by unscrupulous parties for their own advantage or amusement, and where the average participant's behavior escalates the conflict further.

I care about the GamerGate controversy not because of games journalism, but because it highlights just how damn dysfunctional our online world is becoming and how susceptible it makes us to manipulation.  This post is heavy on analysis of the patterns and cycles of dysfunction that I see and unfortunately light on solutions.  I hope it helps people see what's going on and start working on effective solutions.

When I reference GamerGate in the below post, I mean "the whole scandal/eruption."  I discuss the different sides by calling them pro- or anti-GamerGate (GG) below.  Even these labels are very high level, as there are different groups with different goals within each broad coalition.

While I do play games, I'm mostly outside current "games culture."  I mostly follow left social justice, so I don’t have much exposure to the discussion of pro-GG unless I actively seek them out.  I've tried to make this post a discussion of the overall dynamics and behavior on both sides, but there are definitely sections where I'm criticizing the anti-GG side much more heavily.  That does not mean that pro-GG is free of bad behavior.  I just have trouble pointing out what I don’t know as well, and the media narrative about how pro-GG is all about misogyny is unreliable and highly misleading.

Winning the Battle, Losing the War

Or at least making the rest of the war much harder than it has to be, because there is now an online repository of hypocrisy from social justice (SJ) advocates that will give fodder for reactionary and misogynist forces for years to come.  This is bad.  A whole group of young men and women have received their first exposure to social justice by being attacked and smeared by anti-GG people and the media.  Some number of them will turn away and anti-SJ ideologies will be waiting for them with open arms.  Others, who already have experience with the movement and are even active in it, have been repelled as well.  This leads to classic "drive out the moderates/neutrals" behavior, and it functions in two ways:  (1) In the presence of continuous tension and rhetorical escalation, those who have status and clout tend to gain and consolidate power over a smaller but more devout (and more terrified of the other camp) group of followers.  (2) People who would normally be neutral and reasonable are converted by social pressure to do or say things that they normally would not, thus further fueling the frenzy.

People Like Narratives

One of the most basic of human urges is to construct a story to make sense of something, to ascribe meaning to events.  Since people really like narratives, and since media outlets are staffed by people, the media really likes narratives too.  I first caught onto how deep media narratives can go via The Daily Howler's regular media critiques back in the early 00s, but I've seen it in motion for GamerGate too.  Compare the Buzzfeed interview of Eron Gjoni to the full transcript he posted on his Tumblr.  Also note that, with few exceptions, nearly every single news report on GamerGate repeats the same story about how it started and what it is (and I'm not sure the exceptions get the story right either, but they have different ideological and professional axes to grind and so don't conform to the narrative that the rest have established).  The same phrasing, the same setup, the same polemic over and over again.  Why?  Doesn't anyone have a different opinion?  (Since I started drafting this piece, Slate has published a piece that does a pretty good job of discussing what's going on, though it leaves out a lot of the history.)

Getting the first word in with the media, and having either personal connections or lots of social capital, lets you carry a narrative despite the facts.  This is how political campaigns are run, by getting a message out first and hammering it home.  It helps when the media agrees with you, because they'll then go out and hammer the point home for you.  The coverage of Al Gore's campaign for the 2000 election was an amazing example of this, and I see parallels with GamerGate in the way the press is behaving (though I think the importance of the 2000 election was, oh, just a little bit bigger).  They've identified the bad people and they gladly keep a narrative running about how bad those people are.  Using a common and pre-established narrative is cheap and easy, uncontroversial (for the audiences they are serving), lets them avoid admitting to errors, and provides cover for those among them who just don't know what the heck is going on.  This media narrative provides a handy tool that anti-GG people use to justify squashing discussions.  "Since pro-GG is bad and a hate group, which we know from the narrative, we don't have to honestly engage with them."

People Like to Believe

Especially when nuanced discussion is virtually impossible thanks to a powerful, thought-killing narrative.  In the right circumstances, people are much more prone to believe than they are to think or be challenged.  First, it's easier—but this is obvious, and many people will still take more difficult and rewarding paths.  Second, and more relevant, they can be pushed to believe by a combination of environment and direct manipulation by people and organizations (i.e. collections of people) who they trust.

Individuals are prone to believe narratives that set them, their friends, and their ideological allies up as the good guys and others as the bad guys.  They don't like to see bad behavior on their side and will often turn a blind eye to it or outright deny it.  Although GamerGate has largely moved past the event that sparked it, I think there are some great examples to mine there.  For example, a case of easily documented direct manipulation occurred when Zoe Quinn sent around screenshots that supposedly proved Eron Gjoni was whipping up harassment campaigns against her.  These screens received wide circulation, which made it so much crazier that they proved no such thing and in fact proved the opposite.  Eron was trying to stop the harassment and Zoe had heavily cherry picked, edited, and fabricated to try and take things out of context.  You could even read the screenshots and see it yourself, but Zoe has clout and followers and enough people to uncritically believe her and spread the message.  Who are you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?  In this case, most people were persuaded their eyes were in fact lying because they were primed by an existing narrative, were told what to expect by Zoe (primed by a person they trusted), and saw their peers agreeing with Zoe (pressure to conform).  Certainly, she has much more clout than her ex-boyfriend who has been repeatedly painted as "jilted" and out for revenge and has been banned from a large number of online forums.  So she will repeatedly win Social Media Warfare against him.

On to environment.  I got ahead of myself a little bit in the prior paragraph, where I linked to the Asch conformity experiments.  Do check out that link, as it is fascinating.  The pressure to conform and avoid potential loss of social status is huge.

There's a quote attributed to Upton Sinclair, that "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it!"  This extends well beyond money and into ideology, social prestige, and self-identity.  People want to believe they are right, that those they look up to and associate with are also right, and that they have good ideas and do good things—a form of gentle, ambient social pressure, derived as a sum of each individual's desire to be right and be seen as such (and the "being seen" part is important), is often present to maintain this illusion when a more sober assessment would say otherwise.  A platform like Twitter hugely restricts nuance and incentivizes easy retweets that pass along already established narratives.  It is structural/environmental pressure.  It's hard to follow many conversations, the dominant mode of discourse is soundbites (or maybe textbites?), everyone is performing in front of a pseudo-public audience which includes many of their friends, and everything is recorded unless you go out of your way to later delete it or make it private. 

It’s easier to retweet an existing idea to your followers than try to stop, think about it, and construct a nuanced argument or say something original.  This of course applies outside Twitter as well, but it's a very acute example of the problem.  People have limited cognitive energy budgets and it’s often easier to just believe and get on with your life.  When enough people do this, and they're all in contact with each other, they create an echo chamber in which everyone keeps affirming a narrative that they haven't confirmed to be true but believe to be true anyway.  The resulting peer pressure to conform is immense, can be hard to recognize, and often impossible to fight.  After all, who's going to dare stick their neck out and point out the obvious when they could become a target?  You can't pick out silent voices in the cacophony of an echo chamber.  Those who disagree most often disengage out of fear, or are driven out when they do raise objections--further silencing other dissenters.

People pass things around and just take someone else's word for it without actually checking.  Or, when they do check, they read precisely what they want into the source, sometimes to the point that I'm not sure I've read the same text as others have.  Social pressure is so powerful that it changes the very meaning of words and sentences to the point where two people under different sources of pressure will read entirely different meanings into the same text.

Circle the Wagons!  Or, People Protect Their Own When under Attack

This is the main entry point that trolls are leveraging to cause their mayhem.  Wagon circling behavior comes completely naturally to most people, as we all like to protect our friends, families, and others who we share some affinity with—and we hope that they would do the same for us.  But the downside is that repeated wagon circling leads to (1) repelling those who aren't interested in attacking but happen to wander into the line of defensive fire and (2) reflexive defense of the target leading to a narrative of them as the victim—which could be correct, but remember that people love to run with narratives even when reality is more complex and changeable. 

When GamerGate initially broke, people circled their wagons around Zoe and we got to see social justice advocates protecting an abuser and attacking her victims (mostly Eron).  Protecting Zoe against internet harassment was a good thing--no one deserves what has happened to her.  Deifying her and vilifying Eron (her victim) was a terrible thing.  I don't believe any major story I've read has mentioned that Zoe clearly has the patterns of an abuser and that Eron was her victim who tried to warn others about her.  TheZoePost was pretty much an exercise in identifying massive behavioral red flags signaling "ABUSER!  ABUSER!  HANDLE WITH CARE!" that should make anyone take pause before engaging with her personally or professionally.  Zoe is now successfully (via court order) silencing her victim, and people on the anti-GG side still follow her and take her seriously.  To the best of my knowledge, there has been no serious discussion of this among the anti-GG crowd and virtually every attempt to raise the issue within anti-GG spaces has been met with thread deletions, account blocking, and at least one campaign of harassment and doxxing by the anti-GG side (that I have personally witnessed).

Repeated wagon circling is leading to the dynamic mentioned in "Winning the Battle, Losing the War" where inquiring bystanders are repelled and those within the circle are increasingly terrified of those outside.  I've seen people on twitter on the anti-GG side talk about how afraid they are—especially women or trans individuals.  I've seen people on the pro-GG side talk about how afraid they are of being attacked too and how resigned they are to being bullied and misunderstood—by anti-GG people.  It's heartbreaking that both sides have no idea how the other feels and that they actually are both afraid of and threatened by each other.

Male Victims Are Disbelieved or Further Attacked

Men who have been abused or sexually assaulted are less likely to be believed, especially when a woman is the perpetrator (for the record, men are the perpetrators and women the victims of most sexual assaults outside of prison).  See WolfWozniack’s experience, which he subsequently deleted all traces of from Twitter.  You can also read the entirety of TheZoePost and then go to virtually any media coverage to see how Eron has been treated for calling out his abuser.  For the record, since you can no longer look up those tweets on Wozniack's account, I saw the claim of sexual harassment and Fish's "you're no friend of mine" response when they were posted, prior to deletion.  I did not see the rest of the tweets by Wozniak, but I didn't view his full tweet list at the time—and they don't change the substantive point, only make it that much sadder.  I mean Jesus Christ, the man is clearly in anguish about coming out and admitting that he was sexually harassed by a prominent woman in his industry, and as soon as he does he's denounced.  He then deletes the tweets, fears for the impact on his career, directs people to support the woman who he claims harassed him, and the matter is just dropped entirely by the anti-GG (and supposedly pro-social justice) side.  This is precisely what social justice and intersectionality are supposed to stop, and this is precisely the kind of behavior that is feeding into the frenzy that keeps the cycle of attacks and counter-attacks going.

It makes me rather uncomfortable to admit to one of the major points that MRAs push, but, well, there you have it.  At least anecdotally (as in, not statistically), this is true for GamerGate.  And this points to larger problems.

People Don’t Recognize Emotional Abuse

Or they can be made to ignore it in the face of sufficient social capital.  I suppose I already knew this, but it’s galling to see it play out on such a huge scale.  Especially galling to see social justice advocates Circle the Wagons around an abuser.

GamerGate Trauma Cycle

Now I'm moving away from the emotional absue and individual level dynamics from the "early days" of GamerGate and moving toward the larger-scale dysfunctions that suffuse GamerGate and keep it running to this day. 

The main groups involved in the trauma cycle are:
A)     The Troll Cloud:  A nebulous, mostly anonymous group of unknown size that hangs around the whole debate, waiting for opportunities to exploit.
B)      Anti-GG, mostly identifying as progressive, feminist, pro-social justice, concerned about the treatment of women, LGBTQ, and non-whites in games.  Contains a group of prominent, outspoken women and men who engage with social justice issues in gaming.
C)      Pro-GG, mostly identifying as traditional gamers concerned with corruption and ethics in games journalism, and also including many women, non-whites, and LGBTQ individuals.
D)     The media, primarily receptive to anti-GG narratives, though with some exceptions for pro-GG where there are pre-existing ideological divides vs. the anti-GG aligned outlets.

These groups relate to each other via a highly dysfunctional process that seems to play out as follows:
1)      Members of the Troll Cloud attack a prominent female anti-GG member, either out of the blue or by amplifying an existing conflict between pro- and anti- members.  The trolls issue death threats, doxx, etc.
2)      The prominent anti-GG woman who has been attacked sees this as coming from pro-GG and publicly says so.  This directs her followers and much of the anti-GG coalition against the pro-GG coalition.  The target may also use the controversy to post links to Patreon, charities, or other organizations for emotional, ideological, and material support.
3)      Pro-GG denounces the trolls but is attacked.  Pro-GG retaliates against anti-GG while attempting to quash the identified troll accounts.  Pro-GG sees the plea for support by the victim as cynical manipulation, leading to conspiracy theories and false flag claims.  Pro- and anti-GG get locked into additional sub-cycles of back-and-forth attacks, which very strongly increases the chance that the conversation will continue to be based around personalities and outrages rather than their higher-level goals.
4)      Anti-GG has better media contacts and they pick up on the conflict and recycle the same "Pro-GG is behind this and are misogynists" message because the media loves established narratives.  Anti-GG also picks up the false flag claims and uses them as evidence of victim blaming, which serves as more fodder for their group and the media cycle.
5)      Both coalitions raise mutual hostility, add to their list of grievances.  In the ensuing fallout, trolls harvest examples of hypocrisy, hyperbole, and threats made by social justice advocates.  Troll objectives largely met as they begin scanning for more opportunities.  Media outlets also harvest tons of clickbait revenue because outrage sells.

So basically, we have a system whereby anonymous trolls amplify conflict by attacking prominent anti-GG women.  In the ensuing conflict, the trolls reap a steady flow of examples of bad or hypocritical behavior from social justice advocates that they then may use to prove their own ideological points and attempt to grow MRA, redpill, etc. movements and exacerbate wider cultural conflicts.  The media picks up on this to generate ad revenue.  Both pro- and anti- sides feel aggrieved, both perceive themselves as under attack, and both are correct.

Frankly, I suspect that there are also manipulators on the anti-GG side who are using this hate-building process for their own personal gain.  The conventions of social justice are ripe for exploitation in this manner, a point which will be covered shortly in the "Goat Rodeo" portion.

Who Are the Trolls?

I don't honestly know.  I've tried to identify likely groups based on who stands to benefit from the ongoing dispute.  Ideologically, MRAs, redpills, and neoreactionaries (or just plain old anti-feminists) gain quite a lot of points by eliciting bad behavior from people who identify as pro-social justice.  They expand the cultural area in which the term can be used as an epithet, and this helps them spread their ideas and influence.  In addition, there are probably a lot of people in it "for the lulz," who are happy to watch portions of the internet catch fire for their own amusement.  If I want to really put on tinfoil, perhaps there are media outlets pushing the whole thing to generate revenue.  Doubtful, but it's a possible incentive.

Finally, as I mentioned above, I suspect that there are some people who nominally identify as pro-SJ (and anti-GG) that are encouraging things.  Some of the behavior is out in the open but ignored or not recognized by anti-GG followers, while some might be happening under anonymous troll accounts.  I suspect that some may not even realize what they're doing, but they fan flames regardless.  They stand to personally benefit—they have the media narrative on their side, they have developed a ready cadre of online believers and followers, and they are solidifying (and finding places in) something that I can only call an "anti-GG power structure," though it certainly extends beyond this dispute and covers indie/progressive gaming and potentially more.

Remember, just because someone associates themselves with left politics and social justice doesn't mean that they (1) actually believe what they say and (2) are in any way good people.  The halo effect surrounding Left/SJ causes can provide a lot of cover for dysfunction and abuse.

Different Players + Different Goals = Goat Rodeo

For a definition of Goat Rodeo, I recommend these linked sources (link1) (link2). Both the pro- and anti-GG sides are operating under their own sets of rules for debate and have their own goals. Attacks and cries of hypocrisy often happen when one side, operating under its own rule set, violates the rules of the other side. Both sides try to convert the other into their own narrative structures to make them the "bad guys." Anti-GG tries to make pro-GG out to all be misogynists who hate women and who want to maintain a boys club. Pro-GG wants to make anti-GG out to be invaders from outside who are corrupting games journalism and using said corruption to unilaterally force their agendas into gaming culture--basically, paint the anti-GG side as cultural imperialists in league with corrupt local elites. While technically everyone is involved in gaming, the players have very strongly divided into two quite hostile camps, with many smaller subdivisions in each. I think this meets the definition of Goat Rodeo linked to above, especially when you add in the interference of trolls on both sides who have an incentive to keep the dispute running.

Pro-GG people not familiar with the modes of argument in SJ circles see total hypocrisy in the way many on the anti-GG side are conducting themselves.  In many cases they are right:  A lot of anti-GG, pro-SJ activity has centered around defending an abuser while piling on her victims, covering up harassment, and attacking a group of people for having low social status (basement dwellers, losers, “misogynerds”).  By SJ standards, that's blatant hypocrisy.  However, there are many cases where anti-GGers are just following their own, different rule set, one which was developed over time to deal with the problems they have faced elsewhere.  

The anti-GG ruleset includes but is not limited to:

  • Believe the Victim:  Give the benefit of the doubt to those claiming victimization, because the traditional power structure does not.
    • Failure modes:  The Victim is Infallible.  The Victim is Always the Victim. 
  • Deal with Harassment Globally/Publicly:  Call out and shame harassers to make others aware and prevent future harassment.
    • Failure mode:  Fear Amplification, Target Lock Error. 
  • We Are All Already Decided:  History is on our side and all right-thinking people already agree with our positions.
    • Failure mode:  This is a failure mode, period. 
  • Pattern Recognition as Shortcut:  A few fragmentary examples/details can be compared to a larger template to categorize people or organizations, especially in applying labels such as misogynist, racist, homophobe, etc.
    • Failure mode:  Pattern Short Circuit.

The pro-GG ruleset is much less clear to me.  I’m mostly writing this in a vacuum or as a reflection to anti-GG, but it seems to include:

  •  Don’t Ostracize within the Group:  Find ways to smooth things over, keep the group together.
    • Failure modes:  Tolerate Injustice, Ongoing Abuse.
  • Authenticity and Legitimacy Gatekeeping:  Figure out who the authentic voices are based on community history and listen to and support them.  Defend against interlopers and meddlers.
    • Failure mode:  This is a failure mode.
  • Patter Recognition as Shortcut:  Same as above
    • Failure mode:  Pattern Short Circuit.

Believe the Victim evolved as a rule because women, minority ethnic groups, and LGBTQ individuals have been and frequently still are ignored by those in power—and those in power have traditionally been white and male.  There are good intentions here, and I believe that the high level concept is generally sound, but its translation into an actionable set of rules “in the wild” is fraught with problems in this case.  In the wild, victims can be hard to identify and highly context dependent.  White males may tend to dominate the power structure, but plenty of them are the victims of it as well.  Someone can be a victim in one way and an abuser/oppressor in another.  Believe the Victim can very easily turn to its failure modes, where people uncritically defend their own (circle wagons) and decide that “The Victim is Infallible.”  If a narrative develops surrounding the injustice, they are also liable to pick it up and repeat it, leading to “The Victim is Always the Victim (and we know who the victim is 100% accurately).”  These are both ripe for exploitation and both generally occur together.  The pro-GG side sees the failure of this rule and thus comes up with theories of false flag operations and professional victimization because they don’t see why everyone ignores bad behavior coming from those identified as victims.  But it's really just the application of a common rule in situations where it is no longer warranted and to an extreme that is not warranted.

I’m less sure of how the pro-GG side is handling things, and the closest I can come up with is Don’t Ostracize within the Group, which is itself based on the first entry of the “Five Geek Social Fallacies”. This is definitely a phenomenon in these types of circles, though I again want to stress that I'm not certain how strong of a role it's playing. This tolerance for bad behavior means that pro-GG groups have not cleaned house in the past and now that they want to clean up they can't get rid of the trolls and attackers. The associated failure modes, which are quite common, allow abusers and bad behavior to continue, which is one reason why parts of the gaming community have few women involved and can indeed be a boy's club (well, "men's club" to be fair). These failure modes are specific examples of why Believe the Victim and Deal with Harassment Globally/Publicly (discussed next) were developed in SJ circles.

The big problem, which no side can adequately address, is what to do with the trolls and attackers.  And at this point I need to remind myself and readers that the trolls are people too, some of whom will later grow to regret their actions.  How do we handle these people?  How can we get through to them and convince them to stop?  How can we help them?  And, if we find some that are beyond help (I really hope not), how can we effectively put them behind a firewall while still treating them humanely?  I have no ideas at this time.

Deal with Harassment Globally/Publicly.  Call out culture and public shaming developed as a method to combat harassment, stalking, sexual assault, and threats that are often made in private.  It’s a mechanism to make the community aware of bad things happening behind closed doors and to enable it to deal with problems that all too often fly under the radar.  Speaking from personal experience, it’s amazing just how screwed up an organization or community can be just below the surface and it’s horrifying to see power structures either ignore or encourage this behavior.  That’s what this is designed to address.

But it fails in certain situations, namely when Fear Amplification kicks in.  In situations like GamerGate there seems to be a large supply of hostility and existing grievances that exist in one or more external communities that serve as sparks for attacks and harassment.  Publicly outing harassers/abusers only works to discourage further attacks if you can truly identify the attackers and have some means of punishing them.  In the case of GamerGate, the attacks are being conducted anonymously and there is no punishment directed at the attackers, or at least none that we can be confident is finding its mark.  Instead, the blame is placed on pro-GG, something that I believe actually benefits those conducting the attacks due to the dynamics I outlined previously.  Granted, the attacks could be coming from some subset of pro-GG people, but the counterattacks and condemnations are applied to pro-GG generally.  This is Target Lock Error, namely that the identified culprits are not clearly the actual culprits, but they’ve been tagged as such and changing the target now, after so much energy has been spent, is virtually impossible (and embarrassing since it involves admitting error).  Followers of anti-GG get the impression that there’s a large, ever-shifting ball of hatred in the form of pro-GG that will go after them if they stick their necks out.  Anti-GG followers don’t see what they can do about it, don’t know who is doing it (other than the belief that it’s people in pro-GG), and think they could become potential targets.  The majority of pro-GG people, who are not involved with the trolls, see themselves as repeatedly and unfairly targeted, but don’t see what they could do about it, don’t understand why it is happening (though they have a good idea that anti-GG is targeting them), and think they could become potential targets.  This is Fear Amplification with Target Lock Error.  The use of public shaming and outing against an external group that cannot be identified and just does not care (trolls) combined with targeting for shame and retaliation of a large number of people, most of whom are unlikely to be culpable (pro-GG).  Everyone is scared, everyone is aggrieved, and the situation gets worse in every go-around.

Deal with Harassment Locally/Quietly is sort of the default mode for our society.  It is the reason that the global/public approach is used in social justice circles, because this approach can very easily lead to failure modes where abuse and harassment is kept under wraps.  This is especially toxic when combined with Don’t Ostracize and I think is a big reason that many women can feel unwelcome in parts of the gaming community.  Those who adhere to this rule are more likely to see the global/public tactic and the subsequent influx of emotional and material support as being part of a cult of victimhood, especially when it takes place in the presence of the failure modes The Victim Is Infallible and The Victim Is Always the Victim.  They believe that the proper way to handle threats is quietly and discreetly and see public callouts as self-interested displays for personal gain.
We Are All Already Decided is actually a failure mode of what should be a rule called “Sit Down and Talk through Your Differences.”  But I don’t see Sit Down and Talk being used by online social justice circles when communicating with external groups (and that’s counting a lot of time before GamerGate), so I’m pretty confident in saying that this productive rule is close to extinction online and the failure mode has become the dominant norm.  I acquired this name from a blog post by Freddie de Boer, which explains it in greater detail. This is an echo chamber effect where everyone who is right thinking should agree and any who disagree are On the Wrong Side of History. This is why it can be hard to engage in substantive arguments with anti-GG people when you disagree with them. It destroys their ability to communicate with those who don’t share their existing belief structure because it automatically demonizes (or treats as ignorant and regressive) those who disagree and assigns to them just about the worst possible motives for disagreement. You can’t have a discussion if one side starts from the assumption that the other is evil. Note that the pro-GG side is probably also susceptible to this, as I think all humans are, but since I’m mostly outside their orbit I haven’t seen it in action as clearly as with the anti-GG (pro-SJ) side over the past decade or so.

Authenticity and Legitimacy Gatekeeping.  I think this one is pretty well known, so I'll keep it short.  There are concerns with who is a "true" member of a given community vs. who has come in from the outside and is trying to stir up trouble and take over.  Gatekeeping may be used by members of pro-GG to justify ignoring newcomers who have uncomfortable perspectives and to try and remove games from certain types of critique.  It's a bad reaction and is only amplified by the lack of honest discussion and cooperation by the two sides, since gatekeeping tends to increase during hostilities.

Pattern recognition is something that humans, as a general rule, are good at.  We’re very good at picking out patterns and predicting them once known.  But in repeated stressful situations that exhibit herd mentality and growing outrage, pattern recognition can become too strong and automatic.  People essentially train themselves to go immediately from pieces of evidence A and B to conclusion X.  Very useful in many situations as a reasonable mental shortcut, but overtraining takes it from shortcut to short circuit.  Short circuiting immediately jumps to a conclusion based on a particular set of triggers.  This leads to problems because (1) the input observations could be wrong, (2) other information not yet acquired could paint things in a very different light, (3) biases tend to get overlooked in the rush to judgment, and (4) mistaken yet automatic categorization (and likely dismissal/disgust) is cruel for those being categorized.  Hell, I do this repeatedly in this post when I dehumanize and categorize some people as trolls.  It can be hard to avoid and even harder to get out of even after recognizing the problem.

If pro-GG is repeatedly associated with those who issue rape and death threats or who doxx prominent women online, and we’re in the presence of Fear Amplification, then it’s possible that many people will start Pattern Short Circuiting.  They will identify everyone who supports pro-GG as a misogynist and believe that is what the entire movement is about.  This is how pro-GG gets tagged as a “hate group,” as examples of certain bad behaviors are repeatedly associated with them and can be used to imply much more than is necessarily there.  Please understand that most of this Pattern Recognition/Short Circuiting isn't consciously designed to be malicious (though it’s good for the trolls and manipulators, so they may encourage it).  It's an emotional reaction that is triggered because people are trained to think along certain avenues, and if they participate in a particularly focused community for long enough they tend to accumulate some pretty well defined grooves in their brains that fill in patterns quite readily—whether it's justified or not.  You might notice that I did use the word “trigger” at one point above, as something like this phenomenon is addressed in SJ circles as “triggering.”  However, in that context it’s meant to represent mostly extreme forms of reactions to certain stimuli, and mostly those which are a reaction to past personal trauma and are debilitating and harmful to those who experience them.  This isn’t quite the same as what I’m talking about here with Short Circuiting, but I think it’s a similar pattern.

It’s also interesting to note that pro-GG people are starting to short circuit patterns vs. anti-GG people.  I’ve seen many assume that any dispute will be used by anti-GG for fodder in the media and backfire on them (largely correct from my observations) and assume that conspiracies, false flags, etc. underlie a lot of anti-GG actions (incorrect).  They are also strongly shorting out on patterns for negative portrayals of social justice and “Social Justice Warrior” right now, which has terrible implications for social justice as a movement.

Once enough people on both sides are habitually Pattern Short Circuiting, there is no more dialogue.  When these people dump their short circuits onto a public forum like Twitter, they collectively become immersed in an echo chamber.  We are into a pattern-driven narrative that cares little for thought, moderation, or discussion.

The clash between these different behavior rules (different players) and different goals has led to a goat rodeo.  There are outside interests or internal (often anonymous) agitators who have an incentive to keep the conflict going.  No one can identify the goals of their opposition.  The internal logic of each side rubs the other side the wrong way.  

In the grand scheme of things, GamerGate is small potatoes.  Compared to genocide, climate change, war, pandemic outbreaks, etc., it’s a drop in the ocean.  But because of the misalignments I’ve highlighted in this section, it’s one of the most twisted and confusing cultural blow-ups I’ve ever seen.  Virtually everyone involved seems to be wrong on multiple levels, no one knows what’s actually going on, manipulators with few scruples have free reign, and even people who I know are smart and exercise good judgment are often in error.  

It's as if we've reproduced the pattern of the Thirty Years War in a debate about gaming.

Women Receive the Worst of Online Harassment

Based on this latest Pew survey, it looks like men get slightly more overall harassment than women, but women score much higher in the most stressful and psychologically draining types: Sexual harassment and stalking. This is a reason that members of the anti-GG SJ community are much more willing to listen to women and pattern match the whole thing as a narrative of misogynists vs. progressive feminists. The kind of harassment that most effects women (and which men generally do not experience and are mostly clueless about) is gendered/sexual in nature.

Although what gets lost in this narrative is that men are slightly more likely to be the targets of harassment and that men are strongly deterred from opening up about it by a prevailing culture of masculinity that treats it as a sign of weakness.  Men are also encouraged to participate in harassment by these same cultural norms.  These points are actually made by feminists elsewhere, but they are drowned out of the conversation around GamerGate.

Outrage Seeking Leads to Outrage Spirals

AKA “Mob Mentality.”  Members of each group actively seek out and amplify minor tussles.  They send them to others on their side and a game of interpretative telephone ensues where incorrect descriptions of the tussle are generated, treated as truth, and passed around (because People Like Narratives and People Like to Believe and not read in such emotional situations).  People who would normally be calm and think things through are instead agitated and impulsive.  A community sufficiently primed can make anything out to be a grievance.  People start collecting lists of grievances and publicizing them as examples of how bad the other side is.  It all spirals out of control until someone gets seriously hurt/attacked (e.g. death threats), then it deflates and disappears—but the lists and the desire for justice don't go away, and they will be brought back out during the next cycle of outrage.

The lists also serve as a handy way to indoctrinate people who weren't around for a given outrage cycle.  It gives the impression that studious notes were taken, that documented proof is available and it can be trusted.  In reality, much of the proof is taken out of context, or consists of minor scuffles that have been magnified to serve a larger agenda.  There is also an implicit social pressure that one must accept the history of grievances as true to fit in with a given coalition.  “My friends all believe it, so it must be true (or I must at least stay silent on the subject).”

The feedback loop time for social media such as Twitter is very low, practically instantaneous.  People simply go apeshit from the continuous positive feedback on their views, or the continuous fighting against those who they oppose.  Twitter at its worst is a bunch of evolved apes pressing buttons to get emotional rewards (or to dish out emotional punishment against their opponents).  Calming things down requires either shifting people out of these fast-response outrage spirals and into different discussions, or getting people to just take a break and cool down.

Social Capital Wars

This was apparent during the much smaller #Jacobinghazi and is apparent now.  Argumentation is often a popularity contest.  Those who have more followers and higher class status tend to win arguments, or at least are declared the winner by their own side.  They rally more people to their cause, they are believed more readily, they have better access to media to amplify their messages.

My impression thus far of GamerGate is that the anti-GG side has more social capital—they have been almost entirely winning the media war, to the point where I’ve seen people barely involved in gaming just mindlessly retweeting anti-GG statements.  At the very least, pro-GG people have been stereotyped as misogynist, loser nerds who are falling behind in a changing industry and culture.  But it’s admittedly hard to tell, and pro-GG have been scoring a few wins in the media by getting advertisers to withdraw.  For some reason, I’m seeing this as a naval warfare analogy, with anti-GG destroyers visibly patrolling the surface to protect their media supply ships, and pro-GG submarines stealthily approaching and taking a shot at the supplies, sometimes sinking one.

Disagreement and Threat Inflation

Mistaking a small threat or disagreement for a large one, or, in the case of GamerGate, mistaking a small number of shit stirring trolls for an entire movement.  This seems particularly problematic when we are all so immersed in 24/7 media environments that are mostly anonymous and provide information in small, context-free nuggets—we don’t know who these anonymous bad people are so we must assume the worst, and our tiny context-free information sounds bad and rarely includes counterexamples or more informative background.  This is why we allow the government to spend hundreds of billions of dollars in the US on “fighting terrorism” and why watching the local news every day makes it seem like everyone is being murdered and crime rates are soaring (they’re largely not).

I've seen many examples of tons of pro-GG people quashing doxxing and calling for the shutdown of harassing/death threatening Twitter accounts, yet the doxx or account is used as proof that "this is GamerGate" and the trolls are inflated into the entire pro-GG side.

It’s the Power Structure

The overall social/political hierarchy is the problem.  It afflicts everyone, warping our relations, doing violence to us, and setting us at each other’s throats.  We focus so heavily on the abuse that women face at the hands of men, yet men are heavily abused by the state and abuse each other.  It's a chain that goes right up, but we're stuck in the men vs. women part of it.  Fighting in this limited domain is fruitless and goes nowhere.  It doesn't address the deep sources of the problems, only the surface behavior.  In fact, I think progress on this front is trending backwards, as our society (speaking for the US, at least) has become more unequal and women's rights (especially abortion) have been rolled back substantially. 

There will be cultural hell to pay for this.  Maybe not as a direct result of GamerGate, but as a result of further fighting and culture wars among people who really should be natural allies.

The Way Things Could Have Been

Just imagine if things had worked out better at the start and enough people had said "yes, there are problems with BOTH ethics in gaming journalism and the treatment/representation of women and minorities in gaming."  There was an opportunity,at one point, and it was immediately discarded in favor of all-out war.

I know this post is long and has been very light on solutions.  Hopefully my writing and links have helped you understand a little bit more about what GamerGate really looks like, namely:
  • It started with a call-out of an abuser by her victim, and this call-out had larger implications for media corruption and politics in gaming journalism.
  • The victim was attacked while the abuser was protected by left/SJ friends in her industry.
  • The whole thing snowballed out of control when massive but likely uncoordinated censorship was enacted across multiple online forums that would normally have hosted discussions about this.  Trolls and online abusers threw gasoline on an already growing fire.
  • The entire GamerGate debacle is now a Troll's Paradise (h/t to Slate) which is continually exploited by unscrupulous actors--both independent trolls and manipulators on the pro- and anti- sides.
  • Both sides are living in echo chambers and have no idea what the other actually believes.  (FWIW, I believe the anti-GG echo chamber is much, much stronger).
  • Virtually no one is both able and willing to stop.  Those who are willing are not able, and those who are able are not willing.
  • The online social justice movement is repeatedly showing that it is absolutely useless for discussions with those outside its belief structure.  It is therefore absolutely useless for effecting substantive political change and must be discarded for something better.
  • There are major problems with ethics in gaming journalism that are not being addressed or are being ridiculed, to the benefit of corrupt gaming journalists and publications.
  • There are major problems with the treatment/representation of women in games and among the "gaming community" which are not being addressed in any effective way.
  • Everyone is wrong about GamerGate (the controversy) on multiple levels and even I am sure I'm missing some big chunks somewhere.  The misconceptions and misinformation run so deep that people I can rely on to 100% have an informed take on most matters are getting this wrong time and time again.  In some ways, this is the most disconcerting part of the whole thing, because it means this is a social phenomenon where even very smart people are incapable to putting all the pieces together.


  1. I don't think don't ostracise is that big of a deal in gamergate, it's certainly a thing but there's always a lot of criticism tossed around when people fuck up.
    There's always a dozen people ready to call king of pol an idiot and explain why when he goes off the handle a bit and there's just add many when roguestar starts getting crazy.
    That said I think it's something of a defensive mechanism to protect what social capital we have available for the people still trying to fight the public relations battle.

    Great piece though, a huge amount of information to think about and I'll try to take the criticisms of gamergate and look at that kind of thing more critically in the future.

  2. Great piece, but as the previous poster said, GamerGate is such a loos, leaderless and disorganized "group" that it's impossible to clean house.
    GG does have a harassment patrol and we call each other out on things that go overboard, but in general it's a all very loose.

    B.t.w. - At least the 8chan portion of GG does not censor, we simply deal with it. I myself joined 8chan a week ago and I'm surprised at the atmosphere there. Insults are like bullets, but everyone is like superman. Nothing seems to faze anyone, as if insults lost their power, there is no malice in the air.
    Weird, I've been on internet for a long time and this is the first time I see a community quite like this.

    1. That is chan culture in general, where insults become terms of endearment and nothing is personal due to lack of personal investment.
      In a chan you check your identity at the door and it's a great way to just be honest without fear.

      People avoid chans because they are scared of how hostile they are, but they don't realize just how benign it all is.

  3. I wish I could read that "anti-GG ruleset" and think of something OTHER than McCarthyism. Very well written though. Many thanks for your contribution.

  4. Your solution to Social Justice failing through the actions of social justice activists is..... to blame third parties and mischaracterise #gamergate supporters to "mirror" the failings of social justice.

    You make SO many fallacious and self serving claims here it is *ridiculous*
    You are essentially saying that antiGG are ONLY in the wrong through the best of intentions, and proGG are wrong because thy support harassment (you quite literally said this, with your "authenticity" point)
    Hell, you assert that collusion on the MASSIVE and widespread censorship is "unlikely"
    That is *absolutely* retarded. There is plenty of proof that people were *asked* to censor the discussion, others pressured and others followed suit. That is a concerted effort.

    To me, this feels like apologetics.
    It just reads as social justice excusing itself.
    "this is complicated" has been an excuse for peopel since the start, and it is BULLSHIT.
    This is REALLY fucking simple, and you *explicitly* stated exactly that.
    There are ethical problems, and social justice reactionaries caused the explosion.

    I know *exactly* what antiGG believes. Everybody does.
    Saying otherwise is just dishonest and is attempting to excuse them their hypocrisy.
    They don't even HAVE a point. They have "everything is misogyny"
    That is all. If they had anything else they would have declared it.

    #gamergate has MORE issues and is more complicated, but it is pretty fucking easy to see, as it is written on infographics EVERYWHERE.

    Every person that claims a smart person can not figure this stuff out is either not very bright, or highly dishonest.
    The only people that cant figure it out just can not be bothered to look beyond the propaganda they're getting fed. That is all.

    (and I know, angry tone, but honestly the core of this problem is the social justice movement, with its hypocrisy, nepotism and refusal/inability to speak to anyone outside their echochamber. The treatment of Pakman proves that beyond ANY doubt)

    1. I think you're wrong about the post being self-serving, to me it looks more like the author is just massively mistaken about gamer culture.

      Apart from that I think you're right though, there's no justification for simultaneously adhering to wilful ignorance and aggressive behaviour (or intellectual dishonesty for profit in the case of the pretend-feminists).

      Pro-GG is very open to good outside ideas (and aware of loud bad ones), regardless of the sender, so we've known what's going on for quite a while. (With the odd, partly internal, drama spiralling out of control for a day or two.)

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. This article was looking spot-on but I kind of stopped reading after "Pro-GG wants to make anti-GG out to be invaders from outside who are corrupting games journalism and using said corruption to unilaterally force their agendas into gaming culture"

    I don't really see Anti-GG as "invaders". I just see them as people who want to deflect my ethical concerns because some women were harassed. They tell me that I'm being misled and that my want for a review of ethics within the gaming journalism industry is just a "mask" for trolls to hide behind. What the heck? And they say we are the conspiracy theorists.

    There are some people who are worried about the SJW's and whatever influence they could have on the industry, but Idk much about that and I think it could be worth a look only after we have gotten sufficient updates on gaming news sites' ethics polices, and settled the really bad shit, like the GameJournoPros list.

  7. Thanks for writing this. I don't agree with everything you wrote 100% - I'm coming from the pro-GG side - but I think you did a lot better at covering this topic fairly than most places have, and probably better than I could have.

    I'm going to write a more substantive response to your post later if you care to read it, but for now I'd like to ask you to do an AMA over on /r/KotakuInAction .

    We used to have more of a culture of inviting anti-GG for discussion and trying to sit down and talk things through with the other side, but that aspect of the culture has been fading these past few weeks after we were badly burned by this several times in a row over a short period. I'd like to see that part of the culture brought back, and I think you could help us to do this.

    I'm not willing to surrender, but I do want this whole debacle to be over. I'm hoping that you, as a fairly reasonable Social Justice Activist, can help rebuild the bridges that have been burned and pave the way to further and larger dialogues.

    Thanks for writing your post, and thanks for taking the time to read mine.

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. The analysis matches the events I've seen very closely (and from what I can tell also what most people pro-GG think is happening). However, there's a lot of mistakes regarding pro-GG's motivations and perceptions (as far as I can tell from the people I discuss this with, and by following the more connected people on Twitter).

    The most important mistake, I think, is vastly overestimating how much gamer/chan culture cares about someone as a whole: The granularity at which someone - or rather something - is evaluated (in a particular context!) is much smaller than on an individual level. Nichegamer recently published a great editorial on this:

    In a way this is somewhat antithetical to the social justice groups from what I can tell:
    Many people have no problem working towards a common goal with someone, while vehemently opposing them on a different matter - myself included. It gets thrown around a lot without context, but "in a game it only matters how good you are" is largely true too. (Games with prevalent voice chat may be a bit of an exception. I don't play those usually, but the truth seems to be somewhere between "a lot of people are terribly rude" and what the media writes about harassment of female gamers.)

    The next paragraph is partially interpretation, so take it with a grain of salt:
    "Don’t Ostracize within the Group" isn't a thing per se in that regard: If bad behaviour is unrelated and the witness doesn't particularly care about it on its own (political alignment is a good example), then it's not going to be called out. In fact protesting about something "because it hurts pro-GG's image" leads to far more tension (and is also often demanded by anti-GG). The only thing that's somewhat universally agreed is that harassment is bad.
    Chan users/gamers tend to be much more tolerant regarding politically incorrect language than anti-GG too, because it gets thrown around a lot without being meant as insult to the person. I prefer being civil since I don't see the point, but that doesn't stop me from not being offended if there's no malicious intent behind the words.

    Decentralized/Remix culture also means that it's possible that people having a ton of entirely different issues will unite under the same banner (as is happening here), if there's something that can be done together for mutual benefit. The agreement about that is heavily implicit since people often come together based on intentions and not motivations. See for a fairly accurate list of the groups in pro-GG (which overlap! After all, everyone may think of any number of those issues as important).

    I don't necessarily agree with everything Kazerad proposes, but the list of motivations seems very accurate. I'm mostly coming in from "division 3" (proper professional conduct) but I also care about honest representation ("division 4") and, to a lesser extent, all of the others. (But I think succeeding in "3" would largely solve "1" by subsequently not giving destructive voices a pedestal. It can definitely be sorted out easily once the (real and pretend) extremists are removed from the equation.)


    1. ...

      Another property of chan/gamer/remix culture is that it's very decentralized. Everyone can broadcast and if the idea is good it's probably going to get picked up (on Twitter, the chans and many forums. Tumblr is far too much about people and clickbait for that to happen properly from what I can tell from the month I've used it).

      This is also very _fun_. In fact, that is the other big thing you're mistaken about: A lot of pro-GG thinks of this event at least as somewhat positive. It spawned a huge amount of art, music, connections between people (I finally got to talk with moderate social justice activists for example.), exchange of ideas, learning about new things I had no idea existed, made lots of people aware of journalism issues, promotes critical thinking and so on. From my perspective that's absolutely amazing. (And yes, it's entertaining to see hypocrites self-destruct on Twitter and elsewhere - if you don't happen to be a fan that is.)

      I haven't seen a lot of people being afraid who didn't buy the media narrative. The ones who were simply stepped away from the public discourse (which worked pretty well for them afaik. Hardly anyone is big enough a target to receive credible threats).

      The only negative for many people seems to be the disappointment about the developers turning out to be terribly dishonest or going on crusades against many of their fans. Sometimes it's very surprising and/or disheartening.

      Obviously everyone has a point where they draw the line though. As far as I personally am concerned, people can do almost whatever they want as long as they don't make it my problem, but _I_ will make it my problem if anyone starts twisting facts to push their narrative or slander someone (for example. I think everyone has a good amount of different lines that must not be crossed). If it's very far across the line and I care about someone I'll make it personal too.

  10. Well, pobody's nerfect. Apologies if I missed or mischaracterized some of the pro-GG side--as I tried to stress at the beginning, I am (well, was) a gamer but was not a part of gamer culture, so I was not all that familiar with it in the first place and had to rely more heavily on second-hand interpretations. But I'm glad to see some people liked this piece.

    As for the anti-GG (nominally pro-SJ) side, I believe that most of them are/were quite sincere, but some of the failure modes of their beliefs were used by higher-status manipulators to drive the entire crappy dynamic outlined in the post. Maybe I didn't make that clear enough.