What Was GamerGate Really About?

3 minute read

GamerGate was mostly active in 2014–2016, but you can still see the hashtag being used on Twitter. What was it about?

GamerGate was a decentralised group of activists, with no central leadership and only partially shared goals, so saying what they were “really” interested in is difficult. Some would probably point to the wide-spread harassment as their main goal, but I’m more interested in what they themselves thought they were doing. There have been some questionnaires that have tried to map out GamerGate’s participants views, but it’s hard to say how representative they are.

I think I found a way of figuring out what GamerGate was focused on by relying on data provided by GamerGate activists themselves: the GamerGate Wiki, maintained by GamerGate participants. It was taken down from the original location sometime after mid-2018, but a copy is available in another location. I’m basing this text on both versions.

The wikis are a rich source of data for textual analysis, and just looking at how different people (e.g. women) are represented on the wiki would probably tell you a lot about what GamerGate participants felt about different topics. But I think there is an even easier way of getting at the question I’m interested in: GamerGate participants have themselves highlighted some parts of the wiki as important by listing some pages as central, so looking at those pages is probably a good proxy for what GamerGate was focused on.

One critical part of GamerGate activism were “operations”, i.e. mass actions that generally took place online and targeted other people. There were more operations, but according to the wiki, 11 of them were central.1

What were those 11 operations about? They fall into three rough categories:

  1. Punishing people or publications who wrote negatively about gamers or GamerGate (Operation Disrespectful Nod, Operation Baby Seal, Operation UV, Operation Kindness, Operation Azure Orbs, Operation Autism Storm)
  2. Public relations campaigns trying to improve GamerGate’s negative image (Operation Firefly, Operation 5 Horsemen, Operation Remove the ‘Gamergate Controversy’ Article)
  3. Supporting specific games or publishers (Operation Gaben, Operation Fruit Basket).

So what was GamerGate mainly about? It seems that GamerGate was mainly about GamerGate. Most operations focused on either punishing those that wrote about GamerGate negatively, or improving the negative image GamerGate had in the public (those two goals probably contradicted each other).

This might not be that surprising if you paid attention to the hashtag sometime after 2014. Many of the tweets seemed to focus on GamerGate itself, with morale boosting being dwarfed only by complaints about how GamerGate was portrayed wrongly in the mainstream media.

This might also explain why some GamerGate participants felt that they “won,” even though most of the reactions to GamerGate were negative, and they had little effect on how game journalism works. If GamerGate was mostly about making sure GamerGate felt good about itself, they only needed to change each other’s minds, not those more critical of the movement.

This is not a full answer to the question. GamerGate was a mess of different goals and actions. No doubt some people participated because they genuinely felt that they could make a world better by doing so; others seemed happy to punish women for daring to think that they were part of games culture. But I do think that focusing on the operations is one way of cutting through that mess and finding out what GamerGate participants actually did, regardless of motivations.

I’m writing a short blog post about this topic since I’m not going to publish on this topic. I think GamerGate has already been sufficiently discussed in research literature, and I’m not sure my argument would add much to that discussion. I collected this data as part of working on a different article, where this argument forms a smaller part. I’m posting this part separately on my blog in case people are curious about this particular question.

  1. There were other operations that weren’t as popular or central, but still listed as GamerGate operations. For example, Operation DiggingDigra had the goal of reading through game studies literature and finding problems in the research. To the disappointment of game scholars, the operation wasn’t very long-lived.