UPDATED: For Some Reason, People Still Take Anonymous Internet Comments Seriously

“Why would you listen to, believe, and write articles about what he said?” Photo by Paul VanDerWerf. CC BY 2.0.

I read this Deadspin article titled “The Future of the Culture Wars Is Here and It’s GamerGate.” In the piece, Kyle Wagner compares GamerGate “to the ever-present aggrieved reactionaries whose most recent manifestation is the Tea Party.” Like the Tea Party, writes Wagner, GamerGate supporters have created an unsubstantiated persecution narrative which they’ve managed to get everyone to acknowledge. The way in which they’ve managed this feat, he suggests, will be the template for future clashes in the culture wars:

Tomorrow’s Lee Atwater will work through sock puppets on IRC. Tomorrow’s Sister Souljah will get shouted down with rape threats. Tomorrow’s Tipper Gore will make an inexplicably popular YouTube video. Tomorrow’s Willie Horton ad will be an image macro, tomorrow’s Borking a doxing, tomorrow’s Moral Majority a loose coalition of DoSers and robo-petitioners and scat-GIF trolls—all of them working feverishly in service of the old idea that nothing should ever really change.

However, I’m still having trouble buying into the GamerGate narrative as it’s been presented by the gaming press. For the better part of a decade my friends and I have been saying that there should be more variety in video games. We’ve talked about how offensively patronizing it is for game developers to think that we, as young men, want to see women constantly objectified. I’ve read and watched and agreed with mainstream critics like Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw, who lament that every third new release is about space marines.

The girls I went to high school with generally didn’t seem to have much interest in video games. So it wasn’t until I went off to college that I saw just how many women are gamers too. I thought that this was great. Diversity in creative fields is incredibly important. More diversity among the people who create and enjoy video games will be great for the medium. New stories with different characters. What’s not to love?

Now I have talked to people who were upset that game developers are catering to the “casual” gaming demographic more and more, which includes many women. (Your aunt is more likely to play Angry Birds than Titanfall. ) However, their concern wasn’t that more women play or develop games, but rather that more games are including annoying features predominately found in mobile and social network games such as microtransactions and intrusive social media integration. But I’ve never heard anyone argue that the industry needs more CoD clones and space marines and fighting games with women who wear fewer clothes with every iteration.

Admittedly this is all anecdotal, which now that I think about it will sound like a “well I didn’t own slaves and I’m not a racist, so I don’t want to hear about race” screed. And perhaps it comes from the same desire to ignore and avoid responsibility for the the indefensible. But I want you to understand where my mind was on the issue of women in gaming when GamerGate flared up.

So GamerGate. Anonymous Internet assholes act like anonymous Internet assholes. They write undeniably awful things about people. They doxx people. No one defends that. But then the gaming press decides that those anonymous Internet assholes represent most if not all gamers.1 Game journalists immediately decided that the harassment of people like Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn was something that most of gamers agreed with or accepted. Meanwhile, I’m still wondering why anyone is taking anonymous Internet trolls seriously or thinks that the “opinions” they express are in any way genuine.

Americans love trolling. I don’t see how anyone can read anonymous Internet comments and (1) reasonably conclude that they contain honest opinions, and (2) reasonably make vast generalizations about entire groups of people based on them. The only thing one can conclude about anonymous Internet assholes is that they are assholes who like provoking people. What I do know is that opinion pollsters conclude that my generation, which comprises gaming’s demographic, compared to previous generations, is more “confident, self-expressive, liberal, upbeat and open to change.”

That doesn’t jibe with Kyle Wagner’s narrative that gamers are angry, white Tea Party-esque reactionaries, upset that gaming is a bigger tent now than it was before.

So if this is true, shouldn’t the moderate majority of gamers do more to speak out against anonymous Internet trolls who spout abhorrent misogyny? Certainly. We shouldn’t let these people define us or our hobby or make fellow gamers feel hated and unwanted. However, I also am frustrated with how completely and credulously the gaming press concluded that faucets of Internet assholery whose members have waged campaigns of vicious harassment against dozens of other unrelated groups over the years are actually gamers who represent the attitudes of the gaming community as a whole, or even just the white, male subset of gamers.

It’s interesting that Wagner makes the Tea Party comparison, because the Tea Party attracted quite a wide array of people before its co-opting by the GOP. And while there were Tea Party members who feared that the Kenyan-Muslim-socialist-Moon-Nazi in the White House would legalize gay marriage, a lot of people joined the Tea Party because they were furious over the bank bailouts, corporate welfare, and government corruption.

Wagner says since GamerGate is “doing a shit job of identifying the actual, honest-to-god problems in games writing,” it can’t really be about journalism ethics. (I grant that game journos might come to that conclusion if they only cherry-pick from anonymous Internet commenters, Look elsewhere, even among other anonymous comments, however, and one might find more substantive critiques.) Continuing with our Tea Party analogy, I hope we can agree that, regardless of whatever nonsense Todd Akin says, the relationship between government officials and Wall Street firms is worth discussing.

Indeed, Wagner concedes that there are pervasive, though apparently “unavoidable,” ethical issues in gaming journalism. I’m not sure I buy that, but that’s a post for another day. I just wish that in addition to the daily articles the gaming press publishes on the latest horrid thing anon said, they’d also start a discussion on the ethics of their profession and how to uphold them. If the media dedicated a fraction as much airtime and bandwidth to discussing the bailout as they did to gawking at the most outrageous thing a Tea Partier said, we’d be better off.

UPDATE: I sumbled across this piece from the Columbia Journalism Review titled, “Trolls make good clickbait: While the media have denounced recent trolling attacks, they simultaneously support the phenomenon,”

“As news have gotten faster and reliant on sensational elements, there’s also an uptick in trolling…the more you push clickability, the more likely it is for trolls to harness,” said Whitney Phillips, a lecturer at Humboldt State University who is publishing a book about trolling early next year. “Both sides benefit from the arrangement,” she added. “Trolls get a bigger laugh and the media commoditize it through advertisement.”

As one of the few scholars who have done empirical research on trolls, Phillips has often been interviewed by journalists digging into the underlying causes of trolling. But she noted that some of her arguments don’t seem to fit into the media narrative.

“The media are not particularly eager to call attention to the ways in which their editorial policies overlap with precisely the behaviors they are busy denouncing,” she said.

While it is hard to make any general claims about trolls and their motivation, attention is generally what makes them tick—and the sure way to get attention is by engaging in the most outrageous behavior possible, said Phillips. “They know how to hijack the news cycle; they’re very savvy at that,“ she said.

As it turns out that if you feed trolls, they come back for more. But as the news media comprises the biggest troll collective this side of 4chan, I guess they already knew that.


  1. I have always defined “gamer” as someone who plays video games as a pastime. Indeed that’s the only reasonable definition that I can see. But now I’m told that it actually means young, entitled, socially-inept, misogynistic men who play games. Though the gaming press tends to shift between those two definitions to whichever is most convenient.  As a friend explained; “it’s one of those quantum waveform collapse type things. You never know which definition you get until you see which type of polemic it is.”