GamerGate to Trump: How video game culture blew everything up

What began as a backlash to a debate about how video games portray women led to an internet culture that ultimately helped sweep Donald Trump into office. Really.

Ian Sherr Former Editor at Large / News
Ian Sherr (he/him/his) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, so he's always had a connection to the tech world. At CNET, he wrote about Apple, Microsoft, VR, video games and internet troubles. Aside from writing, he tinkers with tech at home, is a longtime fencer -- the kind with swords -- and began woodworking during the pandemic.
Erin Carson Former Senior Writer
Erin Carson covered internet culture, online dating and the weird ways tech and science are changing your life.
Expertise Erin has been a tech reporter for almost 10 years. Her reporting has taken her from the Johnson Space Center to San Diego Comic-Con's famous Hall H. Credentials
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Editor's note: In July, CNET News published a special report exploring how hate spreads over the web.

The stories in that series examined Internet-fueled intolerance. Our reporters explored, for example, what happens when online hate speech crosses into real life, the ways neo-Nazis use social media and how racists co-opted cartoon character, Pepe the Frog. Some of CNET's female reporters shared their own experiences of being harassed online.

The timing of the package --  "iHate: Intolerance takes over the internet" -- was uncanny. As we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love, America slid into a Summer of Hate.

People threatened places of worship, defaced cemeteries and intimidated others because of the way they look or dress. And a white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, heavily promoted on extremist websites, left three people dead.

The web's role in recruiting people to hateful, extremist organizations is back in the spotlight after The New York Times profiled a young neo-Nazi in Ohio. The story portrayed the man's decidedly ordinary life and raised, but didn't answer questions, about how he was  radicalized. Our reporting may provide a few answers, which is why we're republishing some of our stories.

When it first happened, many of us were a little dismissive. After all, people on the internet are always mad about something.

In 2012, it was the backlash against Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist media critic.

In May of that year, Sarkeesian announced she was starting a crowdfunding campaign for a video series called "Tropes vs Women in Video Games." In her introductory video, Sarkeesian -- clad in a paisley hoodie and hoop earrings -- sits on a lime-green couch and talks into the camera as she touts the virtues of video games, such as improving hand-eye coordination, multitasking and enhancing players' cognitive abilities.

But the gaming community, she says in her 4-minute talk, also has a bad side. "Many games tend to reinforce and amplify sexist and downright misogynist ideas about women," she says.

Considering the increasingly central role video games play in our society, Sarkeesian said she planned to create a series of five videos to look at how women are portrayed, from the damsel in distress to the sexy sidekick to the villainess and beyond.

The trouble started soon after.

Sarkeesian hoped to raise $6,000 over the next month to help pay for her project. The fundraising window overlapped with the 2012 Electronic Entertainment Expo , the video game mega-marketing event held in Los Angeles each year.

She hit her goal in the first 24 hours. In the end, she'd raised more than 26 times what she asked for, tallying $158,922.

But not everyone was applauding. An army of hateful trolls woke up, found each other online and launched a crusade of harassment, targeting not only Sarkeesian but anyone else who questioned their view of how the gaming world should be.

So why should you care that people on the internet got angry?

Because attacks on Sarkeesian marked the beginning of a cultural shift -- and a key marker in what some people consider the decline of civil discourse. What happened to Sarkeesian is that internet trolls, predominantly anonymous posters, realized they could work together to try to destroy the lives of people who disagreed with them. The online hate directed at Sarkeesian and her project over Twitter , Facebook and Reddit included calling her a slut, threatening to rape and kill her and suggesting someone should go to her parents' home (which they identified) and kill them too.

That was just beginning.

A few years later, anonymous online trolls threatened to rape and kill indie game developer Zoë Quinn after her ex-boyfriend posted a 9,000-word online screed accusing her of sleeping with a games journalist for a positive review.

The whole campaign against Sarkeesian, Quinn and other women became known as #GamerGate.

Today, angry internet mobs routinely use the threat of rape, bombings and assassinations as a way to lay claim to whatever it is they think they're losing to what they describe as political correctness. And along they way, they've adopted new approaches that combine old-school write-in campaigns with internet terror efforts like publishing people's private information online, with the intent of bringing chaos and fear into their lives.

In short, trolls are now causing havoc in the real world.

Brianna Wu On Why Gamergate Trolls Won't Win

Brianna Wu became one of the main targets of internet trolls during GamerGate.

Boston Globe

Sarkeesian, who like Quinn declined to comment for this story, was forced to cancel a speech at a college campus after receiving an anonymous email from a supposed student threatening "the deadliest school shooting in American history." Brianna Wu, co-founder of indie game development studio Giant Spacekat, had to hire personal security after she became a target for speaking out. Quinn's family also received threats and was subjected to harassment.

The message was always the same: If you mess with games, you'll regret it.

Soon, the mob's attention turned to a world much wider than video games. Ultimately, some of them -- like the popular right-wing commentator Mike Cernovich -- moved on from GamerGate to attack presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

"GamerGate was an excellent breeding ground and practice ground," said Soraya Chemaly, director of the Women's Media Center's Speech Project, which tracks online abuse. Over time, different groups on the internet that tend to respond negatively to women, such as some communities of hardcore gamers, coders and far-right white supremacist groups, began to coalesce around shared harassment of women and distaste for social change.

Chemaly's team tracked attacks on Clinton as a woman, such as pasting her face into pornography and other sexist imagery, that had been used earlier in response to Sarkeesian and other social critics.

"To those of us familiar with GamerGate, it was more of the same," she said. "I always caution against thinking of GamerGate as an outlier event."

How to make hate

Attack groups are as old as civilization and they form for all sorts of reasons, from economic hardship to racial friction to political and religious differences.

Groups like the Ku Klux Klan usually formed around people's homes among like-minded friends. In this connected age of ours, it happens inside the echo chambers of Twitter, Reddit and message boards like 4Chan.

What turns them into larger groups is a process described by researchers as small-network theory. Here's how it works: Groups of people come together over shared interests, such as local football teams. Each group may be brought together as fans of different teams, but these people may have a shared resentment, such as distaste for a particularly divisive team like the New England Patriots. When a big event happens, such as a cheating scandal or Super Bowl victory, those different team's fan groups begin to cross-connect, working together and ultimately creating a larger force.

In the case of GamerGate, the mobs coalesced around a particular hatred of what they saw as outsiders -- women, in particular -- attacking video games, which they claimed was theirs.

"It's like staking your claim on a particular ideology or a particular view," said Paul Booth, who studies games and pop culture at DePaul University. "Other views, other ideas, other people aren't allowed in."

Booth calls these movements "protective fandom."

One way they spread their message is through memes -- inside jokes, often in the form of images or GIFs. These bite-size and easily sharable nuggets serve both as jokes and as a sinister megaphone.

Take the college liberal meme. It spread ideas of hypocrisy by offering one comment superimposed on the top of a seemingly smug college student's photo, followed by an undercutting comment below. For example, "I'm against discrimination of any type," written above, would be followed by, "Listens to rap music with lyrics about abusing women."

Social network on a tablet

Sites like Twitter and Reddit can be meeting ground for trolls.


GamerGate used this meme to spread its message: "major games dont cater to her life view." Followed by, "so all gamers are misogynist and their culture should die."

"Memes are a reflection of what a culture is thinking, what a culture is concentrating on," Booth said. And it's because of that, and the nasty undercurrent, that they spread fast and far.

On message boards and social networks, these groups also create a language to fit their ideology. People like Sarkeesian are called social justice warriors, or "SJW" for short. Think of it as a derogatory term for radical feminists. According to the trolls, instead of burning bras or abandoning their homes, as feminists were accused of doing decades ago, an SJW wants to force the video game industry to adhere to new, politically correct standards the trolls believe will ultimately ruin everything that makes video games fun.

These groups began adopting other tactics that weren't confined to the internet. One, called "swatting," is to call the police pretending to be the person you're harassing and saying you're being held hostage by terrorists or bombers or whatever else it takes to whip up so much fear that SWAT teams are sent into homes screaming, guns drawn. 

During GamerGate, a blacklist of publications was created, as were email templates and phone call scripts for how to most effectively convince companies to pull their ads from sites that wrote critically about GamerGate or its message. The mob scored its first victory when Intel pulled ads from the game news and reviews site Gamasutra after a write-in campaign from the mob. Eventually, the world's largest chipmaker apologized, saying it doesn't support any movement that discriminates against women.

Next, the group pressured Adobe to stop advertising with Gawker Media after one of its writers posted critical tweets about GamerGate. Adobe initially asked to be removed from a list of Gawker advertisers and then clarified that it rejected all forms of bullying.

Though these wins were short-lived, the trolls pressed on, encouraged by celebrities like former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos and actor Adam Baldwin (a star of 1987's "Full Metal Jacket" and the sci-fi TV series "Firefly"), who criticized people like Sarkeesian and Quinn.

The GamerGate mob also expanded use of a tactic called "doxxing," or publishing a person's address, Social Security number, phone number or any other private information. A lot of this information is already available on the internet, either for free or for a small price through public and private databases. But giving the info to a hate campaign opens a person up to attacks on all fronts -- and once someone has your private information, it's not like you can get it back from them.

From feminism to GamerGate to Trump

Candidates Hillary Clinton And Donald Trump Hold Second Presidential Debate At Washington University

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump during the town hall debate at Washington University on October 9, 2016.

Rick Wilking-Pool / Getty Images

By the time the 2016 presidential election moved into its final phrase, pitting Clinton against Donald Trump, these mobs' favorite tactics were well-established.

"GamerGate was the canary in the coal mine," Wu said.

Few predicted what would come next.

Angry trolls sent vicious and often anti-Semitic messages to journalists covering Trump, accusing them of biased coverage and threatening their safety. In the real world, journalists like NBC's Katy Tur, whom Trump publicly criticized on more than one occasion, had to be escorted out of a rally by Secret Service for safety's sake. Memes about Clinton spread rumors about her health.

And what started as a bizarre and baseless conspiracy theory on social media about a child-trafficking ring at a Washington, DC, pizzeria led a man to enter the shop with a gun, demanding to "investigate" the supposed threat. The #PizzaGate incident led to the man's arrest and his acknowledgement that "the intel on this wasn't 100 percent." He pleaded guilty to firearms and assault charges and will be sentenced in June.

What's come to be known as the "alt-right," a palatable way of describing a loosely connected group of white nationalists, carved a place for itself inside the Republican establishment by playing off fears of the changing economy and encroachment of minorities.

What now?

It's easy to feel as though the toothpaste is out of the proverbial tube. How do you fix a sickness that prompts someone to tell another person to kill herself?

Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have been cracking down on serial abusers, though critics say many problems remain. 

And the video game industry, which was slow to respond to GamerGate, has been pushing back in a less confrontational way. The game maker Electronic Arts, for example, has partnered with and given $1 million in donations to antibullying and inclusiveness organizations like the UN's HeForShe and the National Center for Women in Technology.

"We do believe our responsibility is to uphold a value system," said Andrew Wilson, EA's CEO. "If we don't do it, then who will?"

Despite these efforts, the issue still remains. Minutes after Wilson celebrated the gaming community's efforts to raise funds for these organizations during a presentation at E3 in Los Angeles on Saturday, one attendee began catcall-whistling at a woman presenter. The crowd didn't respond and the presentation continued.

There are other ways GamerGate's reverberations continue to hit the E3 show. On Sunday, shortly after Microsoft's press conference for its new Xbox One X console, some fans realized the co-creator of a game announced on stage had supported GamerGate in 2014. He quickly tweeted an apology. "A lot of things changed for me these last years," he wrote.

For her part, Wu said it's normal now that every time she speaks in public, there has to be a bomb sweep. And threats of rape, death and other violence have become so common she doesn't even track them anymore. "I had a brick thrown through my window of my house a few weeks ago," she said.

But Wu isn't just accepting it. If the mission of these mobs is to silence people with different views, then they've lost when it comes to her. She's running for Congress in 2018 in Massachusetts. The only way forward she can see is changing the law. She intends to make that happen.

"For all the horrors that are going on right now, I think it's awakened literally millions of people out there in America to stand up and get involved and make a difference," Wu said.

For more on E3 2017, check out complete coverage on CNET and GameSpot.  

First published July 8, 2017.
Update, Nov. 27 at 3:50 p.m. PT: Republished with Editor's note on The New York Times profile of a neo-Nazi in Ohio.

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