Elizabeth Losh — Hiding Inside the Magic Circle: Gamergate and the End of Safe Space

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

by Elizabeth Losh, The College of William and Mary

The Gamergate controversy of recent years has brought renewed public attention to issues around online misogyny, as feminist game developers, critics, scholars, and fans of independent video gaming have been targeted by very intense campaigns of digital harassment that seem to threaten their fundamental rights to personal privacy, bodily safety, and sexual agency. Feminists under attack by users of the hashtag #GamerGate complain of being silenced, as they report being disciplined for imagined infractions of supposed sexual, social, journalistic, and ludic norms in computational culture with punishing messages of censure, ridicule, exclusion, and violence. As noted by the mainstream news media, extremely aggressive tactics have been deployed, including leaking women’s sensitive private information – such as unlisted addresses and social security numbers – to the web (a practice known as “doxxing”), placing false reports with law enforcement or emergency first responders (a practice known as “swatting”), and highly personalized stalking with rapid escalations of threats of graphic violence that are often sexualized as rape or racialized as lynching. Although it may be important for the eloquent first-person testimony of the terrorized women themselves to be given priority as speech acts that command attention in resisting prevailing misogyny, the women’s antagonists often are allowed to remain invisible. Furthermore, allies presuming to advocate for the feminist victims of Gamergate may not adequately honor their stated wishes for peace, privacy, and closure that those experiencing online violence may express (Quinn 2015). This essay attempts to examine the larger discursive context of Gamergate and why hardcore gamers who were fans of AAA videogames – often with military storylines and first-person shooter game mechanics – constructed a seemingly illogical and paranoid explanatory theory about so-called “social justice warriors” (Bokhari et al. 2015) or “SJWs,” pursuing unfair advantage to sway the game industry.

How do we understand how Gamergaters’ claims for noninterference and sovereignty in game worlds and online forums function alongside their claims for no-holds-barred investigations and public debates? Common rhetorical tactics deployed by Gamergaters include using rights-based language to further this specific variant of the men’s rights movement (Esmay 2014) and making appeals to the values of a supposedly rational public sphere (MSMPlan 2015). As these hardcore gaming fans deny the materiality, affect, embodiment, labor, and situatedness of new media, they also affirm positive notions about the exceptionalism of a realm defined – in Nicholas Negroponte’s terms – by bits rather than atoms. Gamergaters are particularly vehement in denying that “online violence” is a possibility with tweets such as “>violence >online pick one” and “will you please point me to the online killing fields where all the bodies from violence online are kept?” (Wernimont 2015). The Gamergate vision of digital culture is one of disembodied and immaterial interactions in which emotional harm is considered to be nonviolent.

According to Gamergate accounts, the assumption that hardcore gamers representing masculine white privilege were under attack was also apparently buttressed by a number of online articles by game journalists suggesting that that the species was endangered and soon to be extinct. Gamers were declared “over” (Alexander 2014), at their “end” (Golding 2014), or facing the “death” of their collective identity (Plunkett 2014). The arguments made for years by feminist game collectives for pursuing the large market share in lower-status “casual” games, often played by women, had finally seemed to create inroads for independent developers. At the same time Gamergaters described their defensive position as a response to what they often characterized as a feminist “incursion” or “invasion” of gaming that was conceptualized as a substantive attack or threat to gamers. So-called “men’s rights” proponents – who may characterize themselves as “Men’s Human Rights Activists” – differentiated themselves from the distributed and heterogeneous population of gamers but also proclaimed that “the same people attacking Gamergate have been attacking us for years, using exactly the same tactics” (Esmay 2014). According to Breitbart columnist Yiannopoulos (2014a), “cultural warriors” arrived on the scene of gaming like “genocidal, psychopathic aliens in Independence Day;” these “social justice warriors” allegedly attempted to colonize a diverse community, but their “killjoy” advances were repelled and defenders declared them “not welcome in the gaming community.” According to this columnist, supposedly “politeness and persistence” had guaranteed victory in “the culture wars against guilt-mongerers, nannies, authoritarians and far-Left agitators.” While Sara Ahmed (2010) has explicitly called for self-identified “feminist killjoys” to disrupt the perpetuation of patriarchal false consciousness and the enforcement of positive affect in society, the perceived opponents of Gamergate are often cast as the aggressors despite what may be deep desires to participate in the gaming communities that exclude them.

Decades before Gamergate, Dutch game theorist Johan Huizinga (2014) described what he called the “magic circle” of the temporary world constituted by a game, which appears to function as an isolated “consecrated spot” within which “special rules obtain” for performances apart from everyday concerns (10). Gamergaters often use similar terminology to discuss how game spaces should be intended to serve as a refuge from real-world behavioral constraints and the restrictions of social roles, as in the case of one Breitbart blogger seeking to exclude “angry feminists” and “unethical journalists” from interference with game play.

Gamers, as dozens of readers have told me in the relatively short time I have been covering the controversy now called #GamerGate, play games to escape the frustrations and absurdities of everyday life. That’s why they object so strongly to having those frustrations injected into their online worlds. The war in the gaming industry isn’t about right versus left, or tolerance versus bigotry: it’s between those who leverage video games to fight proxy wars about other things, introducing unwanted and unwarranted tension and misery, and those who simply want to enjoy themselves. (Yiannopoulos 2014a)

Gamergate advocates claim that video games are expected to be arenas where gamers can assert their sovereignty and self-determination in spaces that can’t be “leveraged” or annexed to “fight proxy wars” by non-gamer outsiders.

According to Huizinga (2014), the arena of game play is characterized by the freedom of voluntary participation, disinterested behavior, and an opposition to serious conduct. Similar criteria also often are presented as premises for action in the rhetoric of Gamergate enthusiasts in their comments on various sites for public debate. For example, feminist game developers and critics may be accused of coercing and manipulating potential allies who are journalists through sexual liaisons, romantic promises, or appeals to social justice that invoke guilt and shame. Feminist opponents of Gamergaters are also characterized on sites such as Breitbart as “self-promoters” and “opportunists” and labeled as “egotistical” people who “beg for sympathy and cash” (Yiannopoulos 2014b). Thus, according to the logic of free choice, feminist “social justice-oriented art” in digital culture is aimed at “robbing players of agency and individualism” in every possible kind of engagement (Yiannopoulos 2014b).

Personal freedom and a separation from material interests or a profit motive are often cited as ethical values shared by Gamergate, although many of its tactics are not at all solemn or high-minded. Active Gamergaters on the Escapist and 8chan emphasize their own diverse and distributed structure, and these anarchic swarms of participants take action “for the lulz,” much as members of Anonymous and 4chan have engaged in outing and calling out campaigns (Coleman 2013). Images of feminist gamers are altered with editing software, phrases like “online violence” are mocked, and fake identities are manufactured with puns and inside jokes. For example, in a crowd-funding effort to promote women in games who disavowed feminist “SJWs,” Gamergate forum members created an elaborate green-eyed and hoodie-wearing fictional persona intended to represent a pro-Gamergate libertarian “everywoman.” The avatar dubbed “Vivian James” wears the four-leafed clover of 4chan, “tough-loves video games,” and “loathes dishonesty and hypocrisy” (“The Birth of Vivian” 2015).

While Gamergaters emphasize “personal responsibility” and “individual agency” (Yiannopoulos 2014b) as values, feminist critics tend to emphasize interdependence and states of being always-already subject to the coercions of others. In Huizinga’s (2014) terms, feminists inside the magic circle may be perceived as “spoil-sports” who must be “ejected” from the “community,” because they are attempting to break the magic world by failing to acknowledge its misogynistic conventions (11-12). As Anastasia Salter (2016) notes, in Huizinga’s analysis the spoil-sport is most visible in “boys’ games,” thereby establishing solidarity around youthful masculinity as the norm.

By discussing misogyny in different venues for conversation among networked publics in game forums, blogs, or vlogging communities, and even within live multi-player gaming itself, feminists are cast as a disruptive presence.  Social justice warriors must be treated as aggressors to be repulsed by Gamergaters from the magic circles of game worlds in order to reclaim these spaces and return them to their proper exceptional status and thus maintain their security from real-world incursions.

Of course, the concept of “safe space” has been central to the history of the women’s liberation movement and its associated consciousness-raising efforts. After all, feminists have reasoned that safe space might be necessary to explore intimate issues about sexuality and reproductive health – which might even include techniques for gynecological self-examination championed by foundational texts like Our Bodies, Ourselves – and safe space would also be needed to share confidences about personal histories of rape, domestic violence, and other forms of gendered trauma. How safe space is constituted can be developed along a number of different axes. For example, as awareness about “microaggressions” – a term used to describe the automatic or unconscious utterance of subtle insults (Solorzano, Ceja, & Yosso 2000) – has proliferated, participants at feminist events may be asked to be mindful of their own assumptions, privileges, and power relations in social gatherings. The full sensorium of potential kinds of assault may also be invoked in defining safe spaces, so those speaking loudly or wearing scent may be prohibited from these activities to protect those intolerant, averse, or allergic to certain stimuli.

Feminists themselves have been reevaluating the assumed need for safe space for a variety of reasons. While media outlets grappling with the concept of “trigger warnings” may characterize any special treatment of vulnerable individuals as coddling or “hiding from scary ideas” (Shulevitz 2015), feminists themselves are often concerned about how the gestures of exclusion mandated by protective impulses enforce particular norms counter to the goal of empowerment. Some argue that “brave spaces” that encourage public acts of asserting identity or declaring solidarity may be more productive than private “safe spaces” (Fox 2004). Homogeneous safe spaces designed for the security of cisgendered whites may be criticized as excluding transgender people (Browne 2009) or people of color (Halberstam 2014). As Betty Sasaki (2002) observes, “safety” can become “the code word for the absence of conflict, a tacit and seductive invitation to collude with the unspoken ideological machinery of the institutional family” (47). And Donadey (2009) points out the irony “that radical feminist pedagogy tends to replicate the assumptions of the bourgeois concept of the public sphere” (214).

In addition to using the #Gamergate and #SJW (for “social justice warrior”) hashtags on social media platforms such as Twitter, Gamergate adherents frequently use #NotYourShield, which indicates that feminists shouldn’t be shielded from criticism merely because they might claim alliances with underrepresented groups, such as women or minorities, given the fact that members of these groups might not identify with feminism or feel exploited, disenfranchised, or excluded from hardcore gaming communities. #NotYourShield allies of Gamergate may embrace the quintessential hardcore gamer identity of AAA titles with military themes, or may indicate that they are content with conventionally feminized casual games played on mobile devices and don’t want to interfere with so-called “real” games. While Gamergaters may protect the borders of their own magic circles, they criticize those who claim feminist discourse operates in safe spaces devoid of challenges from opponents. Affixing the #NotYourShield piece of metadata to a message supports Gamergaters’ contentions that feminists use the victimization of women and people of color to shield themselves unfairly from rebuttals or tests of truth claims. In videos such as “#NotYourShield – We Are Gamers,” choruses of voices are carefully curated to emphasize “corruption” and “censorship” as features of feminism, and “transparency” and call-out culture as features of Gamergate.

Although Huizinga’s (2014) magic circle may be more open to public spectatorship than the private sphere of feminist safe space, it is also a zone of exception that is marked off by “secrecy” and “disguise,” according to Homo Ludens (13). Even if the rules for the magic circle are assumed to be uncontested, and the space of play is accepted as apart from the everyday world, the exceptional territory of game play could be a space of less violence (if mockery of authoritarian rulers is tolerated in the case of the Bakhtinian carnivalesque) or more violence (if physical injuries from contact sports are permitted that would normally be prosecuted as assault). Nonetheless, according to Edward Castronova (2007), the membrane of the magic circle “can be considered a shield of sorts, protecting the fantasy world from the outside world. The inner world needs defining and protecting because it is necessary that everyone who goes there adhere to the different set of rules” (147).

Feminist game critics have begun to question Huizinga’s (2014) concept of a zone of exceptionalism, particularly as the legal, economic, and social consequences of game play are manifested in a variety of “real world” contexts. For example, Mia Consalvo (2009) challenges Castronova’s belief that “fantasy worlds” are a separate domain: “even as he might wish for such spaces, such worlds must inevitably leave the hands of their creators and are then taken up (and altered, bent, modified, extended) by players or users—indicating that the inviolability of the game space is a fiction, as is the magic circle, as pertaining to digital games” (411). Within game spaces of conflict and collaboration, players may bring different agendas into the magic circle, and thus it might be more difficult than Huizinga (or Castronova) imagines to reach consensus about the common rules of play. For example, when a guild of players in World of Warcraft decided to hold a funeral in an area for player-versus-player combat, other participants justified attacking the solemn ceremony in a coordinated raid on the grounds of asserting existing play conventions (Losh 2009). Consalvo further claims the static, formalist vision of bounded play that is grounded in structuralist theory, which is articulated by Huizinga and his disciples, ignores the fact that context is constantly being evaluated by players. Instead of the magic circle, she posits that players “exist or understand ‘reality’ through recourse to various frames” (415).

For women, queer and transgender persons, and people of color who identify as gamers, neither magic circle nor safe space often seem descriptive of the harsh settings of their game play experiences. As Lisa Nakamura (2012) observes, playing as a woman, a person of color, or a queer person requires extraordinary game skills and talent at a level of hyper-accomplishment because of the extremely rigorous “difficulty setting” of playing in an identity position other than straight white male. Unfortunately, to be an exceptional individual in an exceptional space is often punished rather than rewarded. Moreover, as a woman of color, Shonte Daniels (2014) has insisted that “gaming never was a safe space for women” because “their identity makes them vulnerable to threats or harassment.” However, she also speculates that Gamergate may prove to be “both a blessing and a curse,” given how much attention to online misogyny has been generated by the intensity and egregiousness of Gamergate behavior.

Many date the Gamergate controversy from fall 2014 – when harassment of dozens of feminists in the videogame industry, including game developers Zoë Quinn and Brianna Wu and cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian, made headlines. However, online misogyny and gender-based aggression have had a long history in digital culture that goes back to bulletin boards, MOOs, and MUDs and the existence of virtual rape in early forms of cyberspace (Dibbell 1998). To coordinate the current campaign of harassment, IRC channels and online forums such as Reddit, 4chan, and 8chan were used by an anonymous and amorphous group that came to be represented by the Twitter hashtag #GamerGate after actor Adam Baldwin deployed a familiar suffix associated with prominent political cover-ups. According to the Wikipedia entry, Gamergate “has been described as a manifestation of a culture war over gaming culture diversification, artistic recognition and social criticism of video games, and the gamer social identity. Some of the people using the Gamergate hashtag allege collusion among feminists, progressives, journalists and social critics, which they believe is the cause of increasing social criticism in video game reviews” (“Gamergate Controversy” 2015).

It is worth noting that Wikipedia’s handling of its own distributed labor practices defining Gamergate has had a contentious history that included a personal invitation to Gamergaters from Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales to contribute to improving the Gamergate article (Wales 2014), a pointed rejection of financial contributions to Wikipedia from Gamergaters (“So I Decided to Email Jimbo” 2014), and a defense of banning Wikipedia editors perceived as biased against Gamergate (Beaudette 2014). Ironically, during this intense period of engagement with the “toxic” participants of Gamergate eventually dismissed by Wales, Wikipedia often deployed a rhetoric about volunteerism, disinterested conduct, and playing by a neutral set of rules that paralleled similar rhetorical appeals from Gamergaters.

Attention to this recent controversy – about who is a gamer and what is a game – has already generated a literature of scholarly response that focuses, as this essay does, on Gamergate rhetoric itself. Shira Chess and Adrienne Shaw’s (2015) essay, “A Conspiracy of Fishes,” analyzes how a particular cultural moment in which “masculine gaming culture became aware of and began responding to feminist game scholars” produced conspiratorial discourses with a specific internal logic that shouldn’t be dismissed as nonsensical:

It is less useful to consider the validity of a conspiracy in terms of actual persecution, and is more potent if we look at it in terms of a combination of perceived persecution and an examination of the anxieties that the conspiracy is articulating. From this perspective, we can look at gaming culture as a somewhat marginalized group: For years those who have participated in gaming culture have defended their interests in spite of claims by popular media and (some) academics blaming it for violence, racism, and sexism. A perceived threat opens a venue for those who feel their culture has been misunderstood—regardless of whether they are the oppressors or the ones being oppressed. It is easy to negate and mark the claims of this group as inconsequential, but it is more powerful to consider the cultural realities that underline those claims. (217)

As Chess and Shaw point out, the gamer identity may function in the context of other kinds of intersectional identities in which subjects for which the personal is political can be imagined as oppressors in one context and the oppressed in another.

In addition to deploying a primary strategy about constructing a narrative about persecution aimed at a marginalized group, Gamergate is also concerned with the secondary strategy of mapping supposed networks of influence across publication venues, media genres, knowledge domains, political spheres, and economic sectors. Such Gamergate infographics seem to have begun with visualizations that were often reminiscent of Wanted posters, in which names and photographs of individual offenders were clustered in particular interest areas. For example, 4chan assembled a list of “SJW Game Journalists” that was republished on Reddit, which goes far beyond the initial allegations of impropriety about game reviewing at Kotaku to target writers at over a dozen other publications.

As Gamergaters go down the “rabbit hole” of exploring possible connections and exposing hidden networks, they eventually claim political and educational institutions as agents in the conspiracy with a particular focus on DiGRA, the Digital Games Research Association, which was founded in 2003 and holds an international conference each year. One diagram shows the tentacles of DiGRA extending into online venues for gaming news and reviews, such as Kotaku, Gamasutra, and Polygon, as well as mainstream publications with a print tradition, such as The Guardian and TIME, and conference venues for many AAA games, such as the annual Game Developers Conference (GDC), which was founded in 1988 with a focus on fostering more creativity in the industry. Pictures of offender/participants in the network continued to be featured in this denser and more recursive form of network mapping, as though facial recognition would be a key literacy for Gamergaters.

It is worth noting that many feminists would describe DiGRA as far from being a haven organization from misogyny, given existing biases in game studies that may privilege academics with ties to computer science, corporate start-ups, or other male dominated fields. Members of the feminist game collective Ludica have described strong reactions of denial when they declared at DiGRA in 2007 that the “power elite of the game industry is a predominately white, and secondarily Asian, male-dominated corporate and creative elite that represents a select group of large, global publishing companies in conjunction with a handful of massive chain retail distributors” and thus constitutes a “hegemonic” power that “determines which technologies will be deployed, and which will not; which games will be made, and by which designers; which players are important to design for, and which play styles will be supported” (Fron et al. 2007). The rhetoric of the Ludica manifestos about how games and gamers were being defined too rigidly by an industry enamored of AAA titles often ran counter to the origin stories of organizations such as GDC and SIGGRAPH.

The third key strategy of Gamergaters – in addition to the fabricating the persecution narrative and the influence maps – is formulating threats of financial retaliation. If liberal members of the press and academic and professional associations in game studies and game development benefit from a supposed flow of money, social capital, and privileged access to career advancement, libertarian Gamergaters will thwart them with economic threats. This creates a paradoxical dynamic in which Gamergaters both assert an ethos of economic disinterest – because gaming is supposed to be a non-profit/non-wage activity that is separate from accumulation of capital in the real world – and seek to exercise their collective power to crowdfund sympathizers, and boycott, divest, and freeze assets of feminist allies and ally organizations. Advertisers are besieged with consumer complaints about the ethics of reporting in game publications, university employees are reported to administrators with accusations about frittering away public funds, and even donations to Wikipedia are withdrawn by indignant Gamergaters.

Because feminists supposedly use financial interest as a lever, Gamergaters must also use financial interest as a way to assert the fairness, neutrality, and civility of a rational public sphere, which is tied to their fourth strategy about policing discourse. In regulating language in order to keep it freely flowing in a neoliberal marketplace of ideas so that the best notions will be the most valued, hyperbolic and hysterical feminist “strawmanning” and “insulting” very explicitly will not be tolerated by Gamergaters. In insisting that harassers are a statistically insignificant fraction of their movement in a counterfactual account of their power to terrorize targets and dominate channels of communication, language reminiscent of Robert’s Rules of Order can be as commonly encountered in Gamergate discourses as more stereotypical forms of trolling.

This does not mean that the campaigns of Gamergate to construct us-and-them narratives, to make explicit and to visualize connections in social networks, to block some financial transactions and facilitate others, and to regulate discourse with structures of rational dialogue, leveling effects, and tone policing are not misogynistic. They defend and enable doxxing, swatting, and stalking behaviors that undermine the very barriers between virtual reality and material existence that are central to their contradictory ideologies of exceptionalism and common jurisdiction.

The need for nurturing diversity among game players and developers (Fron et al. 2007) has been a work in progress for the better part of a decade, but in the wake of Gamergate, hundreds of prominent signatories who asserted the “right to play games, criticize games and make games without getting harassed or threatened” published an “open letter to the gaming community” (IGDA 2014). The fact that this pointed defense of feminist gamers, critics, and designers also used rights-based language might be instructive for better understanding the discursive context of Gamergate as well.

The Italian biopolitical philosopher Roberto Esposito (2010, 2011) has theorized that two conflicting modalities of “community” and “immunity” operate when members either accept or resist the obligations of the social contract. Looking at the rhetoric of Gamergaters about the magic circle and how they caricature the rhetoric of feminists about safe space, we see how these oppositions are underexamined, and we can ask why opportunities for reflection and reflexive thinking about intersectionality are being foreclosed.

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  • ———. 2014b. “The Authoritarian Left Was on Course to Win the Culture Wars… Then Along Came #Gamergate.” Breitbart. November 12. http://www.breitbart.com/london/2014/11/12/the-authoritarian-left-was-on-course-to-win-the-culture-wars-then-along-came-Gamergate/.