The controversy known as GamerGate was different things to different people. The common narrative from its critics was that GamerGaters, as they came to be known, are knuckle-dragging misogynists in full reaction to women and other historically-marginalized people encroaching on the hobby of video games. However, to those who took up the label, at least in the beginning, it was a protest against collusion, blatant bias, sale of favorable reviews, and other bad behavior in the video games press - of which the denigration of their own audience as knuckle-dragging misogynists was just yet another example - and against imposition of politically-correct censorship upon games by moralizing busybodies. That many political opportunists latched on to the movement and tried to drag it in various directions in the greater culture war, and that both sides were besieged by trolls intent on stirring up drama, doesn’t help anyone on the outside trying to get the truth of the matter, and many sources they are likely to find, such as the Wikipedia article, most articles in the mainstream press, and even the Law and Order episode based on the controversy are hopelessly biased in the anti-GamerGate direction. (The Law and Order episode, specifically, is quite possibly the nadir of bullying against “nerds” in all of western civilization.)
There is, therefore, a worry that, even though the GamerGate movement has had some degree of success in reforming video game journalism and bringing greater attention to bad journalism as a whole, as well as supporting controversial games which otherwise might have been censored or completely unreleased, history will still be written by the losers, and those of future generations will see GamerGaters as the neanderthals the “antis” have portrayed them as. In this light, GamerGate supporter James “Grim” Desborough has written “Inside Gamergate: A Social History of the Gamer Revolt” to represent the pro-GamerGate side. The e-book version was released last Thursday, and a print version is coming soon.
I should note here that I myself identified with GamerGate in its early days under my real-life identity (the Nocturnal alias had not been developed yet). Of course, back then it was just about crappy behavior by games journalists; had I known it would gain its perception of a misogynist harassment campaign, I would have been more careful, and I did lose at least one person I considered a friend who could not be convinced that it was anything otherwise. Nonetheless, I supported and still do support GamerGate’s campaigns for better games journalism and against censorship of games, and reject any accusation that this makes me a misogynist, racist, basement-dweller, or any of the other labels that have unfairly been attributed to us. (I became less active in the movement as inevitable factionalism set in, and then the exhausting 2016 election sucked up most of the oxygen in the socio-political room. I still follow events and people related to the movement from time to time, however.) I most definitely agree that the world needs more comprehensive, accessible documentation of our side of things for both current and future generations, so when I heard about Desborough’s book, I followed its progress (though I did not sponsor its initial IndieGoGo campaign). Ultimately, however, I do not think Desborough has written the book we need.
Desborough stated in his YouTube video announcing the e-book’s availability that his volunteer editor had to leave the project for personal reasons, so “it is a little bit rough, here and there, around the edges.” Well, yes, I’m glad that he’s aware of this enough to attempt to downplay it, but the answer should have been to give it another couple weeks of editing, not release it as is.
Instead, we have awkward sentences and phrases like “For someone whose life has been games since before their age reached double digits…” and “The effect of this panic, for all the ideas behind it, were horseshit, was very real,” and my personal favorite, “[Hillary] Clinton and the Southern Poverty Law Centre trying to claim Pepe as a hate symbol was, ironically, symbolic of just how out of touch that side of the political spectrum has been. It only increased the sheer volume and extremity of Pepes.” It’s possible that the hysterical-ness of that last one was not unintentional, but if so, it doesn’t match the tone of the rest of the book. Commas and hyphens are missing in some places and overabundant in others; some events and topics such as the “CON leaks” and “the Sokal and ‘Conceptual Penis’ affairs” are mentioned in passing well before being explained or defined later in the book (if they are at all), there’s occasional sudden expletives and internet neologisms such as “copypasta” and “because reasons,” and the Clinton-Trump election is referred to as having taken place in 2017 in no less than three different places. Puzzlingly, two events that happened in the time frame that Desborough was writing this book, one involving the creator of a game called “The Last Night” being called out for excessively egalitarian tweets in the past and another involving anti-GamerGate social critic Anita Sarkeesian publicly harassing pro-GamerGate YouTuber Sargon of Akkad (and privately harassing neutral YouTuber Boogie2988), are each explained twice in the book. Did he not realize that he had already snuck these events in under the deadline and just went ahead and did so again? It’s all very much like the first draft of a much better book.
Desborough also talks about himself a lot. Some personalization of the book is not out of order, but there sure are a lot of sentences here that begin with the word “I.” Most alarmingly, the first chapter begins with an account of a suicide attempt by Desborough due to the stresses of GamerGate - and, granted, more general mental illness, but still, it’s quite the dramatic way to open a book like this, and also somewhat incongruous when he later criticizes the willingness of the mainstream media to treat “cyber-bullying” and internet criticism as a serious threat against someone.
More generally, I think the structure of the book is out of order. The opening chapters of the book do a lot of table-setting, explaining things like internet culture and the history of moral panics in western society, well before actually going into something approaching a chronological summary of events more directly related to the controversy. I don’t think a little table-setting is necessarily uncalled for, but Desborough does way too much of it; most of it could be moved into the chapters explaining the controversy itself. I could see how someone reading this book to try to get an understanding of GamerGate could get frustrated flipping through page after page about Occupy Wall Street and the Comics Code first. At the least, there’s really no reason Vivian James, the GamerGate mascot character, should be covered 14% of the way through the book, whereas the first discussion of bad practices in video games journalism doesn’t occur until the 30% mark!
I will say, though, that once Desborough does get to the timeline chapters, things get a lot more focused and the book as a whole becomes less frustrating. (In fact, I’d perhaps suggest to start reading at Chapter 4, read to the end, and then go back and read the first three chapters.) There are ample sources and references, so finding more information on certain topics is simplified - most hilariously, reference 35 contains the entirety of the Navy Seals copypasta. (As mentioned above, however, some topics are mentioned in passing with neither a reference nor a definition, so the book still falls short of being entirely self-contained.) One of GamerGate’s successes is, in my opinion, that it showed to a generation of gamers that mainstream media is lazy if not outright duplicitous, and if they can misrepresent GamerGate and the people involved in it and we realize it because we know something about video games, how can we trust them to not misrepresent the economy or foreign policy or other topics we have less familiarity with in exactly the same ways? Desborough not only brings up the same concern, but identifies it as the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect, as coined by the late author Michael Crichton. Didn’t know there was a fancy name for that. Nice.
Nonetheless, I still would find “Inside Gamergate” difficult to recommend to those not already familiar with GamerGate from one side or the other. In its current state, it misses the mark as an accessible read for “normies,” despite all of its table-setting. The book I was hoping for is the one that could be read a century in the future, well after the death of Twitter and possibly the entire internet as we know it, and read by someone living in an entirely different social structure than our own, and still be understood; still be a vocal defense of what we stand for and the context in which we stand for it. “Inside Gamergate” might be the best we’ve got so far to reaching that goal, but hopefully, some day, we’ll do better.
Inside Gamergate on Amazon (not a referral link)