Earlier this week, Felicia Day wrote a blog post. In it, the well-known actor eloquently expressed something that a great number of people in the video game scene have been feeling lately: She said she was afraid.
Shortly after publishing, some people posting in her comments section, one under the name "Gaimerg8", doxxed her, sharing what they claimed was her home address. In the space of an hour, video gaming's current culture of fear presented itself in microcosm.
"I have been terrified of inviting a deluge of abusive and condescending tweets into my timeline," Day wrote, citing the one instance where she replied supportively to a harassment victim on Twitter only to get a flood of harassment in response. She worried that in being critical of the tactics employed by Gamergate supporters, she would draw their attention and see those tactics employed on herself.
That Day's fears were so swiftly proven right is the most obvious story here, and the headline writes itself: "Felicia Day Says She's Afraid of Gamergate, Immediately Gets Doxxed." But the fears themselves are noteworthy for reasons other than the dispiriting, seemingly inevitable attack that came in the wake of their expression.
Day's post left me feeling incredibly sad. It resonated with me on a couple of different levels: That we increasingly think of fellow gamers as people to suspect and fear. That the art form that brought us together now feels like something that divides us. That we no longer feel safe online. And most of all, that we are afraid, and that we can be so hard on ourselves for being afraid.
When talking about how she hadn't addressed Gamergate up to this point, Day wrote the following:
I have had stalkers and restraining orders issued in the past, I have had people show up on my doorstep when my personal information was HARD to get. To have my location revealed to the world would give a entry point for a few mentally ill people who have fixated on me, and allow them to show up and make good on the kind of threats I've received that make me paranoid to walk around a convention alone. I haven't been able to stomach the risk of being afraid to get out of my car in my own driveway because I've expressed an opinion that someone on the internet didn't agree with.
HOW SICK IS THAT?
I have allowed a handful of anonymous people censor me. They have forced me, out of fear, into seeing myself a potential victim.
And that makes me loathe not THEM, but MYSELF.
I know that fear, and the self-loathing that comes with it. That probably sounds silly, since I get basically no flak from anyone about Gamergate. There's a reason for that, however: The main reason I don't catch shit about Gamergate is that I rarely say anything about it in public.
I keep quiet for a number of reasons, but it's primarily out of fear. Fear of uttering an opinion only to be sea lioned into circular debates that feel engineered more to exhaust than to enlighten. Fear that the fact that I briefly backed Zoe Quinn's Patreon for a total of $US10 might be used as an excuse to make me into the movement's next punching bag. Fear of being targeted, or of my family being targeted. And so I keep quiet.
You can't talk about Gamergate. That's the first rule of Gamergate. If you talk about it, particularly if you're critical of it, you better watch your back. You will be attacked. It remains to be seen how intense the attack will be, or what form it will take, but rest assured, it will happen. I'll be attacked for publishing this article.
It will be worse if you're a woman. That's the second rule of Gamergate. If you are a woman and you talk about Gamergate, particularly if you're critical of it, you better really watch your back. I'll be attacked for publishing this article, but I won't get it half as bad as I would if I were a woman.
"We are harassed too!" Gamergaters say. I have no doubt that's the case, and that sucks too. But while I happily echo my boss Stephen's repeated calls for across-the-board de-escalation, I must also acknowledge the truth that's apparent to anyone paying attention: This is not an equal thing. This is not a case of saying "both sides have it rough" and walking away, shaking our heads. As former NFL punter Chris Kluwe demonstrated this week with his scathing attack on Gamergate and subsequent total lack of doxxing, when a prominent man speaks critically about Gamergate, he can do so without worrying for his safety, despite calling the movement's followers "slackjawed pickletits." But when a prominent woman speaks about Gamergate with even a fraction of Kluwe's fire, the response is immediate and overwhelming: She is threatened, insulted, and attacked by dozens if not hundreds of different voices, on every platform available. Even a post as measured and personal as Day's is the target of immediate hostility. That it feels somehow risky to state what is so plainly obvious to any casual observer is surely one of Gamergate's most noteworthy aspects.
It makes sense that doxxing — sharing someone's address and other personal information against their will — is one of the primary instruments wielded in this battle. Doxxers use identity as a weapon, and so much of this conflict is, at its core, about identity. There's the stated claim that the gamer identity is under attack, and also the pervading sense that this "war" is less about journalistic ethics and more about the murk of entrenched identity politics. Video games have hugely informed our generation's cultural identity, and so cultural criticism of games feels somehow personal, like we're the ones being criticised. I get it. I do.
I also hear the arguments of more reasonable Gamergate supporters, and I take them seriously. Some of the movement's supporters have valid complaints, like the not-incorrect notion that some video game publications don't always seem to be looking out for their readers, or the sense that some developers in the indie game scene are too buddy-buddy with the reporters who cover them. But again and again, I come back to the fear. The fear is inescapable.
People are terrified of Gamergate. It's what made that Onion article from earlier this week so funny: "Look this whole thing over and tell us if there's anything we should change," they implored Gamergate supporters at the end of the article. "Email all of your demands to [email protected] We'll get on it right away. Please don't hurt us."
Of course people are terrified. They have read the forums, where hateful sexist and transphobic slurs are tossed around like it's nothing, where women targets are given code names and insane conspiracy theories and militaristic jargon sit side by side with voices impotently urging for calm. They have seen the Twitter reply-feeds of the women (and men) who speak out against Gamergate.
They see all that and are frightened, as well they should be. Gamergate has become defined by fear, and that fear is not going away, because no one has the power to make it go away. Gamergate may have a logo and a mascot, but it has no leader, and as a result its many supporters can remain unaccountable for any actions they deem the work of fringe extremists. The movement's moderates can repeatedly disavow harassment — as some did in the aftermath of Day's doxxing — and chide those who go too far for hurting the cause. Yet it is difficult to submerge oneself in the anger and hate-speech coursing through so many GG forums and online discussions without feeling like it is an unseverable element of the movement.
There is more fear in video games today than there was yesterday, and unless something changes, there will be more next week than there was today. If another woman receives death threats tomorrow, there will be more headlines, more disavowal from outspoken Gamergate supporters, more inarguable claims that this goes both ways. We have arrived at a plateau of awfulness, and it sure doesn't feel like things are going to relax anytime soon.
Can there be any denying that one fundamental truth? That women like Zoe Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian, Leigh Alexander, Brianna Wu, and countless less-visible others are living in fear while bearing an immense amount of harassment? That dissent's swift, terrifying reprisal has become an inevitability, that we now exist under a perpetual fog of paranoia and fear? One has only to look at what happened to Felicia Day to know that no, there cannot.
This week, a prominent woman in games talked about Gamergate. She said she wished things weren't the way they are, that she was afraid and didn't want to be. The attack that followed said it plain as day: You should be afraid. This is what happens now. This is what happens when you speak up.
And it is. It really, really is.