It is not only about a “movement” of sexist nerds. The Gamergate controversy, which erupted one year ago, is revealing about a much wider “dark side” of the Internet life.
Last autumn, GamerGate shocked the games industry. While it may have masqueraded as an online debate on press ethics, the actual effect was to silence female journalists and academics who publicly criticized sexist depictions of women in games.
Hundreds or thousands of anonymous web users made rape and death threats toward the handful of public women who were the targets and victims of GamerGate.
In some cases, GamerGaters allegedly also paid visits in real life. Media scholar Anita Sarkeesian cancelled a speech at Utah State University following an email threatening a mass shooting would take place if she gave it.
Game developer Brianna Wu had to flee her home after her address was posted on Twitter (alongside rape and murder threats).
This is not an isolated event, anonymous haters online – or trolls – use social media to silence the voices of those they happen to disagree with, ironically often citing freedom of speech as a justification. Sexism is just one theme, racism may be even more popular.
GamerGate started as a hashtag on the online forum 4Chan, famously connected to the Anonymous-movement – a sort of anarchist internet activists, some of whom may also be involved in GamerGate
However, even the moderators of the notoriously liberal 4Chan decided that GamerGate went too far and kicked them out. The GamerGaters regrouped at a similar but even more lax online space called 8Chan (or InfiniteChan) which has hardly any rules whatsoever.
There the actions against the likes of Sarkeesian and Wu where orchestrated, however the actual attacks were carried out mainly via Twitter using the #GamerGate-hashtag.
Anyone who says something like “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” or “freedom of speech is absolute and can also be used to defend oneself against hate speech” has never been on the receiving end of something like Gamergate and has a very limited understanding of freedom of expression.
It is fair to express one’s own views, but not to try to abuse others into silence. I have met many who prefer to remain silent even on much less controversial topics such as piracy or vaccines from fear of threats or hate speech.
Anonymity has something to do with it, but lack of consequence is a more important factor. Some of the cyberbullying directed against for example Sarkeesian was not anonymous, instead attackers bragged on forums how they had hacked her Wikipedia-page or posted porn images with her head pasted.
The games industry was in shock. For many years, many parts of it had made great efforts to attract more women players and employees, as well as removing that age old stamp of sexism.
The GamerGaters claimed they had the right to define who gets to play games and particularly have opinions about games. It went against every ambition of gender equality and all the progress made in the last decade. And the game world reacted.
Sweden’s top game developers wrote an op-ed saying “not in the name of our games”. Thousands signed petitions. The mainstream media covered the story with little patience for the haters who hid in anonymity.
Companies and organisations launched equality and diversity initiatives. Processor manufacturer Intel set aside 300 Million US-dollars towards equal opportunity initiatives. Some of these activities were already on the way, some were a consequence of GamerGate.
But the most important actions may have been much humbler. Many game companies changed the rules on their forums, making consequences clearer and more strictly enforced by moderators.
In an online world without consequence, it is only too easy to post before thinking, more often than not exaggerating to impress other users.
The tone on many game forums may certainly have contributed to the Gamergate attitudes. But the game forums are also part of the solution.
Other social media could learn from how active moderation and clear rules can form a climate where respect and freedom of speech prevail over hate and bullying. The game world learned it the hard way.