GamerGate and Language

4 minute read

I recently tweeted a high-profile article on the Guardian about Felicia Day and GamerGate, the online movement mostly visible on Twitter, but also making waves visible enough that big news outlets like the Guardian see it newsworthy.

Soon after, I received messages from GamerGate proponents (and that’s both great and terrible about Twitter – anyone can message anyone), telling me how that is not what GamerGate is about. I understand their concern: they identify with GamerGate and when others write that GamerGate is about something they don’t identify with, they feel misrepresented. The feeling is understandable: “They say I stand for harassment, but I don’t. They need to stop saying those things about me.”

Part of the problem is how nebulous the movement is: it is hard to identify any core concern for GamerGate, beside the vague “ethics in games journalism,” which seems to mean different things to different people, from preventing journalists from supporting the work of creators on Patreon, to “[forcing] game journalists to write objective reviews of all games,” a goal that has some frightening connotations of its own.

I wish to clarify the issue a bit by looking at how language works, and how the “GamerGate is not about X” is a problematic claim.

Language is a fascinating thing. It consists of expressions, and those expressions derive their meaning from how they are used. Let me clarify that a bit.

It is common practice to grab a dictionary, if the meaning of a word is unclear to us. That easily leads to the idea that, somehow, dictionaries define what words mean. But actually, it is the other way around: dictionaries describe how words are used, not prescribe it.

This is easily shown by looking at how the definitions of words in dictionaries change over time. A dictionary from a a hundred years ago will look very different from the ones we have now, because people used language very differently then. In this sense, dictionaries are snapshots of how people are currently using language. Since language keeps changing, new editions will always be needed.

But where do meanings then come from? A new word may be coined by somebody, but it is not ultimately up to them what the word means. Instead, the word gets its meaning from how other people use it. If a word is useful for some task, it get repeated and used by others. This also shows why the oldest words in a language tend to be the ones related to mundane things. They are the ones that we have had a use for the longest.

It follows that no single person or even a group can define what a word means, as much as we sometimes wished that we could. This also applies to GamerGate. For example, see this tweet sent to me in response to the Guardian article I tweeted:

@jaranta I am a woman and I support #GamerGate which is ONLY about corruption in game journalism, NOT harassment. Was Day REALLY doxxed?


It attempts to define GamerGate in terms that are acceptable to its proponents. It “is ONLY about corruption in game journalism,” not about the unpleasant things associated with it. But unfortunately, that is not something that a single person can decide. GamerGate, like all other expressions, gets its meaning from the actions and expressions that surround it.

This is also why it is mistaken to blame news organizations for some sort of collusion, when they write about GamerGate in similar terms. They look at how the word is used and the contexts where it is used, and reach similar conclusions. Unfortunately, those contexts are often negative.

Is it possible to use GamerGate in a positive sense? Absolutely. But any attempt to do so must fight the weight of the negativity already associated with the term.

For example, saying that GamerGate is not about harassment is difficult, since so much harassment has been done in its name. Newsweek looked at the tweets sent under the hashtag and found that a significant portion of them is sent to female developers. For example, Brianna Wu, a female game developer, has received more negative tweets than the male journalists Nathan Grayson and Stephen Totillo in total. Wu has received death and rape threats, and she is not alone. You can disagree with the conclusion of the article, but it seems clear that tweeting about female game developers is a significant part of GamerGate, even if that has very little to do with ethics in games journalism.

It is perfectly valid to wish that GamerGate would not be about these things, but as all other expressions, it is evaluated based on its use. Its proponents don’t get to choose which of its meanings are valid, since the term necessarily implies all of them.

See also my previous post about GamerGate and identity.