A miasma of reactionary cultural resentment calling itself #gamergate has been bubbling in the internet sewers for months now. The history, motives, and goals of the movement are both complex and vague, but its activists made news again last week when they successfully pressured computer chip manufacturer Intel to drop an advertising campaign on the developer site Gamasutra, because writer Leigh Alexander wrote a piece critical of gamer culture.
Intel insists in a brief statement that the company is not taking sides:
We take feedback from customers seriously. For the time being, Intel has decided not to continue with our current ad campaign on the gaming site Gamasutra. However, we recognize that our action inadvertently created a perception that we are somehow taking sides in an increasingly bitter debate in the gaming community. That was not our intent, and that is not the case. When it comes to our support of equality and women, we want to be very clear: Intel believes men and women should be treated the same. [Intel]
Intel is trying to have it both ways, appeasing the misogynist mob out of one side of its mouth while asserting high-status anti-sexist and pro-diversity values out of the other. But when it comes to corporations, you can immediately discern their real priorities by what they do with their money. And in this case, as a result of cowardice and political incompetence, Intel has placed itself on the side of the misogynists.
Now let's back up, briefly: What exactly is #gamergate? It would be a gross error to investigate the phenomenon by taking its participants' constantly changing self-presentations at face value. First the gripe was that social justice activists were ruining video games. That was followed by a raggedly incoherent skewering of the gaming press' supposed lack of "journalistic ethics." Then game critics were being too mean. And so on. Writer Jon Stone has the best analysis that I've seen of the whole thing:
While various patterns of behavior coalesce around the hashtag, #gamergate's protean nature resists attempts toward summary and narrative. It readjusts and reinvents itself in response to attempts to disarm and disperse its noxiousness, subsuming disaffected voices in an act of continual regeneration, cycling through targets, pretexts, manifestoes and moralisms...
There's no creativity to #gamergate's methods. It copy and pastes what has been seen to work elsewhere, whether for good or evil. Boycott campaigns, infographics, memes, petitions, sockpuppet accounts, hacking, doxxing, vlogging, dogpiling. On the level of daily interactions, every word or phrase that ever had a modicum of power is employed as bludgeoning instrument. The authors of the aforementioned diatribes drench themselves in the language of scrupulous philosophical investigation as if that in itself imbues them with moral authority, while displaying nothing close to real consistency, rigor or intellectual honesty. To anyone other than those predisposed to ardently agree, these essays and videos are appallingly unpersuasive — but then, they aren't intended to persuade. The effort is one of blunt force — to wield any tool available in order to club the enemy, and in particular to stoke the confidence and fury of the mob so that it attacks with greater ferocity. [Jon Stone]
Let's look at what the movement does do, and who it embraces. Who are the #gamergate heroes? Well one is Milo Yiannopoulos, a British writer for bargain basement right-wing sites like Breitbart London, because he leaked a trove of basically anodyne emails between game journalists, thus giving the appearance of confirmation to #gamergate conspiracy mongers. (Ironically, Yiannopoulos had little but sneering contempt for gamers before he spied a chance to make some right-wing converts.)
Meanwhile, the actual concrete results of #gamergate are utter trash. The attack on Gamasutra writer Leigh Alexander's livelihood cannot be construed as anything but a coordinated campaign of censorship and personal destruction. Numerous other game critics, all of them women or queer, have been harassed mercilessly (planned beforehand), some of them leaving games writing altogether. And the only straight men who have gotten anything close to the same treatment are the ones who speak up in defense of these women.
A movement that has eagerly embraced right-wing bullies, and whose only notable accomplishments are harassing the bejesus out of a bunch of women, can be safely categorized as a classic reactionary backlash. In this case, the project is protecting gaming as the exclusive province of straight male culture by savaging anyone who disagrees.
That brings us back to Intel. Despite the company's disavowal of any prejudiced intent, they are quite obviously supporting or at least implicitly encouraging a thoroughly sexist political effort. Signing onto an ad boycott is an inherently political act — as when hundreds of sponsors pulled ads from Rush Limbaugh's show after he called Sandra Fluke a "slut" and a "prostitute" and said he was entitled to watch her have sex. In that case, those sponsors were implicitly saying that Limbaugh's vile remarks were beyond the pale of acceptable discourse, and they were right to do so. In this case, Intel is effectively saying that an article that argues games are now so popular that it's time to move beyond the stereotype of all gamers being young men is similarly beyond the pale. See the problem?
I, for one, am highly skeptical that Intel was ever under any real threat from the threatened sales boycott by the #gamergate hordes. Intel is a huge corporation with little competition. But regardless, the reality is that the company took sides, and clearly picked the wrong side. All boycotts are judged by the worthiness of the cause. This one is despicable.