In 2014, Gamergate pushed back against perceived "political correctness" in video games. Three years later, an anti-political correctness president is in the White House, but that's not necessarily good news for the movement.
Image: White House photographer/Wikimedia Commons
Gamergate has metastasized across the web in a way that makes it nearly impossible to contain, but from its first hashtag three years ago to the ascendancy of the alt-right in 2016, we could always assume that its many hateful facets had one thing in common: Games.
Nowhere was this more true than the r/KotakuInAction (KiA) subreddit. As Buzzfeed wrote in 2014, Gamergate quickly became just one skirmish in a broader culture war against perceived "political correctness." But back then KiA presented itself as a place dedicated to "the drama and other crazy bullshit that seems to be more and more a part of the gaming journalism industry these days."
That is no longer the case. As others have noted, it's easy to draw the connection between Gamergate and Donald Trump, who won the election while openly running against political correctness, and KiA is indeed currently filled with threads that have more to do with his politics than video games. Not every Gamergater is happy about this development. In fact, the movement seems to be experiencing an identity crisis.
I noticed this shift while browsing the subreddit, but what really caught my eye in recent weeks is that some Gamergaters were against this trend and vocal about it.
"Look at the top posts last month, it's embarrassing frankly."
"I wish there was a way to somehow filter out the smug self posts of trumpeteers there [KiA]," a member of the community with the username Ode_to_Joy wrote in a reddit thread in December 2016. "All the comments, or like 98% of them, are like 'Woo-hoo, the liberals are salty!' I fail to grasp how Trump's victory is relevant to KiA's goals and vision. And there's just so much of it now and before the election day there was a lot...The self-congratulatory trumpeteering in KiA is so obnoxious."
The recent shift in focus is clearest in the subreddit's most popular threads. Out of the 25 hottest posts on KiA on February 6, only four threads were loosely connected to the subject of games. A quick survey of random days via the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine suggests that this is an ongoing trend that escalated during the election:
- November 9: 12 out of the 25 hottest threads and two out of the top five threads were not about games.
- November 10: 11 out of 25 threads and one out of the top five threads were not about games.
- January 19: 15 out of 25 threads and four out of the top five posts were not about games.
And so on.
"The frontpage used to be more about games journalism/games/gamergate itself, with a few threads about the wider subjects (shirtstorm, tim hunt) because it was one of the few subreddits that allowed discussions about it with a sizeable audience," a user named azertygg wrote in January. "Now it's the reverse…[T]he demographics must have changed, because I would expect the gaming related threads to crush the offtopic when they come up (yes, I consider anything not gaming related to be offtopic). But they don't anymore. Look at the top posts last month, it's embarrassing frankly."
It's not hard to find many other members of the community who were unhappy with the hard alt-right turn the subreddit took over the last year. At the time of writing, there's even a stickied thread at the top of the subreddit titled "The Future of KotakuInAction and Getting Back on Track," responding to these voices of dissent.
However, six days before that thread was created, I contacted some KiA mods to ask why the subreddit's focus shifted from gaming to broader, "off-topic," mostly alt-right-themed threads. At the time, they didn't see it as an issue.
"I do think it's fair to say that many of the threads are about Trump," KiA mod Strawredditor told me in a private Reddit message. "The reason for that is that I think the media has been an absolute shit show regarding everything about Trump, just like they've been a shit show regarding gamergate. I mean, you have outlets constantly linking gamergate and Trump, when really, we have absolutely nothing to do with each other... so of course people are going to make threads about it."
(When I asked why linking Gamergate with Trump was unfair when KiA is filled with pro-Trump threads, Strawredditor responded that "KiA has always been more of a 'hangout' for 'gamergaters' than it really has been a hub for gamergate.")
Strawredditor is right that the majority of the off-topic threads largely focus on the media, though only as far as it's unfair to Trump and other "politically incorrect" figures and issues. It's a convenient loophole that explains the shift: Gamergate was supposedly about "ethics in game journalism," and now it's about ethics in journalism in general.
"There really isn't a big role for Gamergate as a distinct entity."
"In the beginning it just so happened that many people in gaming media who were corrupt and against whom GG revolted also happened to be the so called SJWs," Ode_to_Joy, the disgruntled Gamergater, told me in an email. "But at some point in time, I feel, someone from outside thought that 'pwning SJWs' or 'reking the Political Correctness' or whatever was all that the gamergate was about (ironically that was what the groups opposing GG always claimed)."
Irony is a good word for it. Indeed, sociologist, game critic, and a target of Gamergate harassment Katherine Cross said that from the very beginning, critics of Gamergate identified it as a far right movement.
"For a long time, Gamergate adamantly resisted that [far right] characterization," she told me over the phone. "They said that notions that they were conservatives were slander and dismissed them. They posted straw polls that they've taken in KiA that demonstrate this. I've said time and time again that that largely means nothing."
Cross is specifically referring to a straw poll of 725 Gamergate supporters published by the writer Brad Glasgow on November 21, 2016. (Full disclosure: Glasgow wrote an article for Motherboard in 2015.) It found that Gamergaters held overwhelmingly liberal positions on issues like abortion, the death penalty, and legalization of marijuana. For example, 95 percent of responders thought that gay people should be allowed to marry.
The obvious problem here is that this is an unscientific internet poll, which can be easily gamed by a community that often games polls. More importantly, the threads on KiA tell a different story. On February 8, for example, all the off-topic threads had a clear, far-right bent, claiming that Facebook is censoring crimes committed by immigrants, complaining about college professors who criticize Trump, and more. In the eyes of Gamergaters fighting against "political correctness" doesn't necessarily conflict with liberal politics, but I also couldn't find any threads that could be construed as liberal.
In alt-right parlance, we may say that Gamergate was cucked by its heroes.
Additionally, while the majority of Gamergaters resent the affiliation, many of the movement's leading figures, who were right wing pundits before Gamergate, have graduated from rallying against political correctness in games to supporting Trump and the alt-right.
Mike Cernovich, a self-proclaimed champion of Gamergate, became a diehard Trump supporter, pizzagate conspiracy theorist, and organizer of the DeploraBall, an alt right-themed Trump inauguration gala.
Milo Yiannopoulos, a Breitbart writer and arguably the most recognizable leader of Gamergate, used the movement to propel himself into infamy. Currently, he spends less time talking about video games than he does touring college campuses and agitating students with his support of Trump and his anti-immigration, anti-women's rights positions. Alarmingly, out of the many protests against Trump's presidency in the US and around the world, one of the few Trump specifically threatened to respond to was a student protest against Yiannopoulos speaking at UC Berkeley.
Cross argues that in this respect Gamergate was taken for a ride. These figures saw in Gamergate a potential to convert, expand, and radicalize their audience. They largely succeeded, but now that that's done, they moved on to bigger and better things. Why argue about what female video game characters are wearing when the president of the United States is tweeting about you?
In alt-right parlance, we may say that Gamergate was cucked by its heroes. All it can do is watch as they take a new lover: Trump.
"People who revel in 'librul tears' invaded KiA and brought with them the content they like," Ode_to_Joy said. "The rise of The_Donald, I think, also influenced it as it gave the radicalised Reddit elements a staging grounds to come to certain subreddits. I personally have unsubbed from KiA a month or two ago, when I saw that the content relevance is not there anymore and mods are not doing anything about it."
So where does that leave Gamergate? Some people within the community are embracing the alt-right, others are peeling off in disgust, and most, it seems, continue to deny the link vehemently while paradoxically allowing that ideology to supplant Gamergate's identity.
Cross, who even some Gamergaters would now agree was right about the nature of the movement from the very beginning, thinks that it's going to be completely absorbed by the greater alt-right, and that this process has already begun with KiA essentially becoming a sub forum of r/The_Donald. The standard around which Gamergate organized—fighting for video games—is no longer the driving force behind KiA.
If they're lucky, Gamergaters will find new postings in the emerging alt-right order. If not, they'll be purged, as so often the case with extremist groups that turn on themselves.
"You've already seen information from the Trump administration about renewing a war on pornography," Cross said. "These are not people that are friendly to nerd culture in the way that these people would like to fantasize about. There really isn't a big role for Gamergate as a distinct entity."