We Need to Talk About #Gamergate

24 / 02 / 2015

This month, journalist Isabelle Lane discusses the #Gamergame phenomenon – widely viewed as a manifestation of a culture war over gaming culture diversification and the gamer social identity – and how it highlights that the web is often an oppressive space where women are harassed and silenced.

“The silence depressed me. It wasn’t the silence of silence. It was my own silence.” – Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar. 

In 2013, independent video-game developer Zoe Quinn released a free, interactive fiction game called Depression Quest. Based in part on Quinn’s own experience, the game allows the user to play as someone living with depression, navigating through a series of everyday life events. Depression Quest’s stated aim is to “show other sufferers of depression that they are not alone in their feelings, and to illustrate to people who may not understand the illness the depths of what it can do to people.”

Over the decades, depression has been explained using a variety of hackneyed motifs ranging from the ominous ‘black dog’ to metaphorical storm clouds that hover around a hapless individual, constantly pelting them with rain. Or perhaps you’ve seen a beleaguered looking person staring listlessly at you from a poster tacked to the back of a toilet cubicle door? Regardless, our understanding of this nebulous, and often intensely private, malaise remains incomplete. We do know, however, that women are disproportionately affected by depression. The World Health Organisation reports that depressive disorders account for close to 41.9% of the disability from neuropsychiatric disorders among women compared to 29.3% among men. This points to a slew of gender specific risk factors including; gender based violence, socioeconomic disadvantage, low income and income inequality, low or subordinate social status and rank and “unremitting responsibility for the care of others.”

Co-author of Depression and Gender in the Social World Alisha Ali interviewed women across parts of the Caribbean about depression, silencing, and identity. Ali found that though impoverished, the women had “a strong sense of self and strong voices that allowed them to express themselves freely within their immediate circle.”

“Talking to these women and observing them in their daily lives, I began to think about voice as the embodiment of one’s culture: If you’re in a culture that allows you to feel that your voice matters, then you feel that you, as a person, matter,” she writes.

Instead of an outpouring of support for her creative, ethically-minded video-game, Quinn found herself caught in a maelstrom of online hate, which spawned the now infamous #Gamergate hashtag. Irate, primarily male, video-game obsessives emerged from the dark recesses of the internet, notably the notoriously crude, adolescent male-dominated 4Chan forum, to take issue with the game, the press it had received, and Quinn herself. Quinn was subject to misogynistic attempts at character assassination, death threats, and even forced to move out of her home after her personal details were hacked and leaked online.

Little more than two decades ago, at the dawn of the internet revolution, it was assumed that the world wide web would be a liberating force for women, a tool for expression and connection. Instead, incidents like Gamergate are highlighting that the web is often an oppressive space where women are harassed and silenced. Journalist Amanda Hess’ award-winning personal essay Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internetsheds all-too-bright a light on the issue. “Just appearing as a woman online, it seems, can be enough to inspire abuse,” she writes, detailing disturbing and frequent attacks by anonymous commenters who spew rape threats and remarks on her appearance designed to humiliate, shame, and ultimately, silence her. “None of this makes me exceptional. It just makes me a woman with an Internet connection,” Hess says. “All of these online offenses are enough to make a woman want to click away from Twitter, shut her laptop, and power down her phone.”

“I’m so sorry if I’m alienating some of you. Your whole fucking culture alienates me.” – Bikini Kill, ‘White Boy’, 1994.

No one is more aware of the howling throng of rabid fanboys and bristling keyboard warriors than feminist cultural critic, and prominent Gamergate survivor Anita Sarkeesian. The Feminist Frequency founder hosts a popular web-series called Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, which deconstructs sexist and misogynistic video game narratives. This placed her in the Gamergate firing line. In October, Sarkeesian, who is due to arrive in Australia next month as a guest of the All About Women festival, was forced to cancel a lecture at Utah State University after receiving terrorist threats by someone claiming to be affiliated with Gamergate.

“Gaming can’t be this little boys club anymore,” Sarkeesian told Stephen Colbert. “There are plenty of women who have been playing games their whole lives. [Gamergate-ers are] lashing out because we’re challenging the status quo of gaming as a male dominated space.”

“It’s actually about men going after women in really hostile and aggressive ways…it’s about terrorising women for being involved in this industry, in this hobby.”

As for Zoe Quinn, an article in the New Yorker last September revealed she was still fearful of returning home, and that “people e-mail her daily to say that depression is not a real illness, or, at least, not one that a woman can experience.” Yet Quinn has not been silenced by her anonymous attackers. Along with Alex Lifschitz, she has since launched Crash Override, a website dedicated to educating the public about online harassment, and assisting victims of “coordinated online mob harassment.” Quinn may be shaken, but not deterred.

Image: ‘Untitled (Your Comfort is My Silence)’ by Barbara Kruger.