What Happened

Recently I read a piece by John Adkins over on a website called Mic. It’s got one hell of a headline, promising as it does to deliver “The untold origins of Gamergate — and the gaming legends who spawned the modern culture of abuse”.

Since I have mentioned the magic word, let us all take a moment to fill ourselves with sorrow and let loose our mighty collective groan. *GROOOOOOOOOAN.* Okay, are we all groaned out? No?

I’m sorry, but I need to talk about this again for a minute. Gamergate—*grooooooan*—is a loose confederation of videogame enthusiasts united by their complicity in (if not outright enjoyment of) hate crimes. They are particularly complicit in hate crimes directed at women—this is their raison d’etre—though in a pinch, any marginalized person will do.

In 2014, when the whole mess first erupted, there was no universally-agreeable noun for describing these people (which is how actor and ‘Gamergater’ Adam Baldwin came to assign them that ridiculous monicker). Today the situation has progressed: We’d recognize them immediately, each heaving a third groan of exhaustion, as members of the alt-right.

Despite what Mic’s headline suggests, the origins of Gamergate are not “untold”; there are many good pieces on the subject. Here, as just one example, is a Liz Ryerson piece telling us all about them. I myself took a stab at it back at the outset, portraying the so-called ‘movement’ as “a rolling cloud of excrement whose form is impossible to discern” (in an enormously-incendiary screed for which I received no backlash whatsoever, in part because harassing a white dude would not make for an especially exciting hate crime).

It is within the headline’s second component, concerning “the gaming legends who spawned the modern culture of abuse”, that we begin our encounter with Adkins’ actual thesis. He argues that, contrary to Ryerson’s more wide-ranging analysis, Gamergate actually has a specific and peculiar point of origin: this old website called oldmanmurray.com, on which soon-to-be-famous game writers Chet Faliszek and Erik Wolpaw made a name for themselves by secreting nuggets of cutting-edge games crit within the sugar pill of casual misogyny.

Now, my first impulse upon reading a headline such as Mic’s is to clear my throat and howl very loudly out my window that “ONE SOLITARY CULT WEB PUBLICATION FROM THE LATE ’90s CANNOT BE THE SECRET ACTUAL CAUSE OF CENTURIES-OLD, CULTURE-WIDE MISOGYNY!”

And yet, I know from my hundreds of twitter-hours that such impulses are fundamentally pointless. We in the world of hot takes don’t pick headlines because we believe them to be accurate; we do it because they rile people up, which is the best way to attract attention to our work (and lemmie tell you, attracting attention to longform game criticism is not easy to do).

If all I did within these paragraphs was complain that the saucy headline atop an arts/culture website was inaccurate, nobody would care. They’d be right not to care. And in any case, despite its goofy headline the actual piece Adkins wrote is pretty good! It presents a fascinating cross-section of interconnected people and events. We see the writers, Faliszek and Wolpaw, at two critical points in their careers: First as a pair of influential internet edgelords, then as lead writers for the Valve Corporation (and at a time when Steam’s bony fingers had just commenced their clasp upon the game distribution biz). We see Roberta Williams, illustrious point-and-click auteur—and, according to Old Man Murray, “pompous fucking bitch”—whose work led the genre from obscurity through industry dominance towards (by Wolpaw and Faliszek’s day) a lengthy spell of obsolescence.

Lastly, of course, we see the rolling shit cloud itself: Gamergate, that spectacular orgy of consumer violence, which in retrospect served as harbinger for the fascist groundswell that currently engulfs America.

Though I love this collection of datapoints Adkins has assembled—especially his analysis of Old Man Murray, which is how I came upon that “pompous bitch” quote—I disagree with the way he connects things. For him, this is about how Williams’ legacy was washed away amidst a tide of Quake-loving, slur-spouting, Old Man Murray-inspired trollishness. This was a degenerative historical process, Adkins argues, by which women like Williams became exiled from the industry: a process that twenty years later would excrete the likes of Gamergate. I, on the other hand, do not believe this to be how history functions.

I am therefore here to reconnect his datapoints in my own fashion: to imagine history in a different way. Yet make no mistake, dear reader: I am not here to present some ‘secret actual cause of Gamergate’ that is fresh and new and salacious. People like Ryerson explained the causes of Gamergate long ago, and I have remained satisfied with their explanations.

Instead I will ask a series of what I believe to be more relevant questions today. I’m going to talk about the origins and motives of ‘liberalism’. I’m going to talk about the 2016 presidential election, and the Democratic Party’s numerous dismal failings. I’m going to talk a little bit about Karl Marx, if you will indulge me. And most importantly I’m going to talk about how we can actually improve the world, and at whom we should take a swing when we set out to discuss the history of violent behaviour.

The first of my questions is:

“Who lost the United States’ most recent presidential election?”

There is a class of people who believe wholeheartedly in the ‘horseshoe model’ of political orientation. This model states that the most radical ‘leftwing’ people must be essentially identical to the most radical ‘rightwing’ people: and more specifically, that both groups must be identically bad.

It’s fascinating, isn’t it? Like when drawing a two-dimensional map of the world. If you place your homeland in the center—England, let’s say—other places become smaller and more distorted as the paper on which you draw them fails to account for the spherical curvature of the earth. So it is with our ‘horseshoe’ people: they have drawn a map emanating from the present-day status quo, and the further any prospective policy gets from how things work right this moment, the more alien and sinister these policies appear. Better, they believe, to move incrementally if at all; otherwise who can say what awaits us out there in the heart of darkness?

This is a deeply conservative political consciousness, favouring as it does the prevention of any serious change. Yet isn’t that a strange thing to say, given the shape of today’s political landscape? My friends and acquaintances within the ‘horseshoe’ sect tend to identify themselves as liberal, because to them this implies the opposite of conservatism; and ‘conservatism’, meanwhile, remains the battle standard of a faction that just tried to obliterate the US healthcare system within 100 days of taking power. All things considered, that’s not a very conservative course of action.

In an astounding cosmic joke, it was in fact conservative politics that yielded the thing ‘conservatives’ now seek to destroy: Obamacare, that most tepid of steps towards dignity by which lawmakers sought to ‘course-correct’ what they judged to be an essentially functional system. The bill grants millions more people access to life-saving care, which is an indisputable social good, at the cost of some increased taxation on the fortunate. This was not (contrary to what ‘conservatives’ have claimed) an outrageous thing to do. It’s just boilerplate “liberal democracy” stuff: a standard part of the longstanding compromise by which the disfortunate permit the over-fortunate to retain their heads.

Liberal democratic principles have for centuries now defined the political center of America, Canada, England, France and so on. Long life, unfettered personal liberty and the pursuit of private property across generations. These are what we wrested from the monarchs and the church all those years ago; these are the purposes for which our present nation-states were constructed. This is what ‘liberalism’ means; and in countries like mine, it is as omnipresent as carbon dioxide.

The 2016 presidential election, as with every other presidential election, offered two variants on the liberal theme. The ‘conservative’ side, helmed by Donald Trump, set forth its traditional offering: a ‘Jim Crow’ sort of liberalism that enshrines the freedom to exploit anyone with less privilege than oneself (‘privilege’ in this case resulting mostly from slavery but also from other forms of colonialism). This kind of governance is a blood-soaked stain upon the very fabric of humanity, which has made it a perennial favourite amongst voters.

Meanwhile the actually-conservative side, led by Hillary Clinton of the Democratic Party, offered a different sort of liberalism: they would do nothing whatsoever to benefit their voters in exchange for keeping the Republicans out of office. This is a time-honoured strategy worldwide, renowned both for its seemingly-low risk and for its obvious benefits to powerful donors (for whom basic humanitarian services such as healthcare often prove inconvenient).

Here was Donald Trump, promising to “make America nightmarish again”. All Clinton needed to do, or so the Democrats thought, was assure us that “America is already a nightmare”.

This is how, with our world plummeting towards disaster, the Republicans at least advocated for a change of course (towards abject colonial horror). The Democrats, for their part, presented nothing except liberalism as it presently exists: the big fat center of the horseshoe, the utter absence of change and, by simple extrapolation, a continued plummet towards disaster. They hoped this would be a close enough stand-in for genuine leftwing rhetoric as to obtain for them total political victory (that is, a victory in which they’d win just enough votes to gain power while promising nothing of importance to their constituents). In so doing, they underestimated the importance of hope.

Who, then, can we say were the true losers of this election? It was not the politicians of the Democratic Party, for they’ve lost practically nothing; they remain rich and powerful people living atop a pile of nightmares built to protect them. Partially, perhaps, it was the adherents of the ‘horseshoe’ model—people who assumed that now was the best time, that big changes were ‘impractical’ and that reform was evil in an a priori sense—for these folks now stand holding the crushed remnants of what they judged to be an unassailable worldview (a view towards the supposed ‘end of history’).

Yet the biggest losers, as usual, were those marginalized people who must continue living precariously in a country that dehumanizes them. Their lives will not be as long; their actions will not be as free; their private property will remain meager. Neither variant of liberalism presented in the 2016 election offers hope for these people. It supposes they should simply accept the misfortune into which they were born: that they should even vote for this continued misfortune, as if doing so were a tremendous privilege. It admonishes them to suffer quietly, and to die quietly, which is not something they should do. In this way it is fundamentally duplicitous.

In the election’s aftermath came a cavalcade of bitter hot takes offering ‘the secret actual reason’ why Donald Trump won, or categorizing him as some kind of peculiar anomaly, or seeking some reason why under the official rules he ought to be disqualified. These opinions act as a salve for the horseshoe people’s disillusionment: that is, for a wounded ‘liberal’ consensus that does not recognize its own conservatism. They cannot see how poor an outlook they provide for those trapped within our accelerating spiral of inequality; they cannot see the spiral at all, focused as they are on the center of their map. And it is in the midst of all this disillusionment that we find Adkins’ Gamergate take, which draws its salacious edge from the sensation that things had been proceeding rather nicely before evil leapt upon us from the heart of darkness.

The second question I’m going to ask is:

“What is Hillary Clinton actually made of?”

The Democratic Party has focused a great deal of messaging on its latest presidential figurehead, selecting such slogans as #imwithher and #shepersisted in its quest to shape public opinion. These slogans tend not to concern Clinton the human being, whom we likely won’t get to know on a personal level; we cannot be “with her” as a close friend, or even be in the same room as her most of the time. Instead the messages concern Clinton as a collection of ideas; they enact a ritualistic tango with Republican counter-messages, the goal being to connect her name with certain heroic traits.

They do this because in our society (a liberal and democratic society), successful political campaigns succeed by way of ideas. “Hope and change,” “It’s morning in America,” “States’ Rights” and so on. By contrast, an unsuccessful candidacy is dominated by more personal narratives: having the wrong kind of sex, sweating too much on camera or deleting the wrong emails. A narrative of lofty ideals signals victory, while a narrative about ‘stuff that actually happened’ signals defeat.

In our philosophy, meanwhile, the opposite thing has taken place. In the middle 1800s, a voice like Hegel’s might have suggested that the ideas we have about Hillary Clinton are Hillary Clinton (or rather, that she serves as a sort of vessel for these ideas to propagate across the world). That’s a perspective we call ‘idealism’, and it has been popular amongst oligarchs for all of recorded history.

Later in the 1800s, a voice like Marx’s would have argued the exact opposite thing: that Hillary Clinton is made of flesh and bone. From this perspective—the materialist perspective—people are not mere vessels through which all the ‘important’ stuff emerges (like art, and architecture, and philosophy, and nation states). Marx viewed people in terms of the appendages they possess, and the tools these appendages operate, and the products these tools can construct. The vast majority of people in Marx’s world did not create fine art or participate in the rulership of vast empires; they worked all day using tools they did not own to manufacture products from which they derived nothing except the chance to stay alive for another week. Meanwhile, whoever actually did own the tools (this sense of ‘ownership’ being enabled, of course, by the gathering doctrine of liberalism) was accumulating larger quantities of money than they could even figure out how to spend.

The leisure time some of us now devote to videogames was carved out for us, in the not-so-distant past, by people who internalized Marx’s critique of the society in which he found himself. It was they who struck the compromise between over-fortunate and disfortunate that today seems so fundamental to American life. The ‘working class’, as we now know them, agreed to avoid smashing the tiny minority of oligarchs (I believe Marx dubbed them ‘capitalists’) who’d grown alarmingly rich off of, as just one example, the USA’s slavery-based cotton trade; in return workers would not have to work all day every day, would receive some measure of control over the laws by which their society functioned, and would in this manner gain a small portion of the more ‘ideal’ existence currently enjoyed by families like the Trumps and the Rodhams.

Adkins’ piece adopts a view of the world and its history that I think is fundamentally idealist: a view in which toxic thoughts can spread from the authors of Old Man Murray across a whole population like cholera spreads through a water supply. Yet the materialist view contends that the world is not made of ideas: that the handful of hours people spend on a website are less significant than the life they spend growing up in their hometown, going to school and/or to work, inheriting their parents’ habits/wealth/poverty and so forth. I think Gamergate has more to do with the cotton trade than it does with Old Man Murray; I think it has even more to do with our society’s exploitation of women. This is something on which Faliszek and Wolpaw capitalized via their sexist jokes (not to mention racist jokes, and all the other jokes edgelords make). Yet it is not something they invented, nor were they the first to capitalize on it, nor were they by any stretch the most popular comedians to do so in that time period. They played by the rules of a very old and very unfair game.

What is special about Faliszek and Wolpaw is that they won bigger than most. Their writing at Old Man Murray helped them obtain fairly prestigious jobs at the Valve Corporation, which is a company that massively transformed the nature of labour and leisure within our ever-expanding digital world. Unlike the two former edgelords, Valve is an institution with real power, and real wealth, and the real capacity to enact sprawling changes in the shape of our daily lives. My third question, therefore, concerns the things Valve has and has not done with the transformative power it wields. That question:

“Is Valve Responsible for Gamergate?”

Valve’s official response to Gamergate, as was typical of the big game companies, was to offer no response whatsoever. I would like to say they ‘avoided it like the plague’, though this is not strictly the truth: Someone created a Steam Curators account called ‘Gamergate Recommends’ back in 2014, forging a sort of creative-commercial partnership between the two entities that persists within Valve’s web servers to this very day (though whichever user created this account seems to have abandoned it long ago).

In the age of the internet it’s become common for companies such as Valve to produce ‘services’ such as Steam Curators, with which users can a) commit acts of harassment, b) promote large entertainment brands for free, and c) occasionally help people find games they will like. Typically we are unwilling to hold our businesses accountable for what their users choose to do with these services. Being liberal we recognize the Valve Corporation’s inalienable right to accumulate wealth, and we require them to serve no purpose besides accumulating wealth. So long as they follow the laws of the land (be it America or England or Luxembourg, depending on who offers the best accounting loopholes) they shall remain unfettered by petty conflicts between the game makers from whom they exact royalties and the hate groups to whom they distribute videogames. We do not believe those problems to be Valve’s problems; we believe Valve to be a ‘neutral third party’ in all of this, suggesting that (despite hosting Gamergate logos within its own web servers) it has nothing to do with hate groups whatsoever.

Our society functions beautifully for Valve, which by ‘disrupting’ the game distribution industry has joined the likes of Facebook and Amazon atop the world. Our political systems, being populated by bewildered old men whose employment depends on campaign financing, leave Valve free to ignore harassment entirely; by the time anyone figures out how to get intersectional feminists into power (or anyone in power figures out how the internet even works) the planet will already have been devastated by climate change.

Here, in this liminal space between the emergence of a new technology and the passing of laws to make it just, lies billions upon billions of dollars. If you get to be the one who founded Steam, you become entitled to obscene wealth. You get to disrupt everything and everyone; you get to put mom and pop’s game store (or maybe the U.S. Postal Service) out of business; you get to enjoy tremendous influence that liberal society will never question or withhold.

If you are not the one who created the technology, you must now live at its mercy. It will fill up your environment and insinuate itself into your life; it will dare you ‘not to use it if you don’t like it’, even while suffocating every alternative. And if you happen to be a woman using this technology? Well, maybe Zoe Quinn can help you; because once Gamergate comes around, our most powerful institutions will do nothing except quietly accumulate more wealth. For us, harassment is a horrifying collective action problem that extends into the Steam Community and (like forming workers’ unions) cannot be solved unless we organize thousands upon thousands of free human beings. For Valve, harassment is an inconsequential ‘quirk’ inherent within their bottomless revenue stream, over which one single person retains control but is not obligated (and does not desire) to help. We own the collective action problem; he owns the revenue stream. This is liberal democracy in a nutshell.

It is here, in particular, that the horseshoe model becomes its most ridiculous. On one hand is the liberal tenet that ‘I might not care for a word you say, but will fight to the death for your right to say it’; on the other is the notion that everything (including social networks) must by nature be someone’s property. Many applauded Valve’s inaction against ‘Gamergate Recommends’ on the basis of free speech; yet if Valve chose to remove the account, they’d have applauded its right as virtual landlord to treat its property however it wished. There is no way to reconcile this contradiction between ‘speech’ as the extension of free people and ‘speech’ as a commodity. Fortunately Valve does not have to since, again, their prerogative as a business is to accumulate wealth by any legal means.

Of course Valve did not ‘cause’ Gamergate; this is as silly an assertion as the one about Faliszek and Wolpaw. But then, that is not the question I asked. I asked whether Valve was responsible for Gamergate. In our present society there is no difference between these two terms. They each translate to ‘legally liable’, because this is the only thing we ask of a business like Valve; and when we seek legal liability from a corporation, we tend to get whichever result the corporation wants.

If, however, we imagine a different society—a society in which we share responsibility for building a better world—then of course Valve is responsible for Gamergate, as is every member of the videogame scene (but especially the ones who possess enough power to make sweeping changes). This, to me, is the distinction between liberalism and socialism.

In the meantime—while the society we imagine has yet to form—we remain free to criticize injustice where we see it. If Valve wishes to remain silent during a catastrophe like Gamergate—to ‘avoid politics’ so that its revenues do not diminish—then Valve stands on the side of money rather than people. Gordon Freeman, who is Valve’s property after all, must stand with it on the side of money. GLaDOS and Chell and the Weighted Companion Cube must stand on the side of money; every character and service they entreat us to adore must stand against us on the road to a just planet, because each is the private property of an irresponsible and inhuman money accumulation machine.

Do not let anyone distract you by suggesting you should ‘vote with your wallet if you don’t like it’. Fuck your wallet, and fuck voting from the available options. I desire nothing more than responsibility for the welfare of others—from our governments, from our corporations, from our individuals and from anything else to which we’ve entrusted power. It is not unachievable. It is not too much to ask. If there is to be a future for us, then this is how it must look.

Having done all that leg work, I can now approach my final question. It’s the same one every history essay asks and answers. It’s not about ‘causes’, secret or actual or otherwise. It’s about what we can remember, and why we should. This question is:

“What Happened?”

There are three central characters in the story as I’ve told it: The Valve Corporation, Chet Faliszek and Erik Wolpaw. Each of these parties, entangled with one another over the years at Old Man Murray and working on Half-Life sequels and via Steam, have benefited from the same set of societal circumstances. They have all ‘played by the rules of the game’, and they each rank amongst the winners.

Wolpaw and Faliszek benefited from our culture’s deeply-ingrained misogyny by performing it within the context of their game criticism. This criticism, in turn, helped earn them jobs at Valve, where they went on to gain continued success while quietly discarding all those negative aspects of their previous performance.

Chet Faliszek came to my city in 2015 to do a talk about Valve’s VR biz. I was there that day, so I can tell you precisely what took place. No one in the audience shouted at him, or demanded he answer for the stuff he used to write. Nobody filled up the front rows with his political opponents in an effort to intimidate him. Nothing like that happened.

This is exactly what we would expect from a VR Talk hosted by Chet Faliszek: A talk about VR. I am happy with this. I think it’s kind to allow artists such as Faliszek escape from their previous art, if this is what they choose.

Yet the problem we now face—what Valve refuses to help us face—is that escape remains available only to individuals who resemble Faliszek and Wolpaw. Zoe Quinn does not get to do a talk at a game conference with confidence she’ll be free from hecklers. She didn’t even do the shit people accused her of doing, and yet under the conditions of our present liberal consensus she’ll face harassment for the foreseeable future. Services like Steam Curators shall continue to commodify this harassment because our society requires them to make money and not to fix problems. If problems flow through their service, or their service adds new dimension to the problems, or even if their service causes a problem—well—then their job is to turn our problems into their money.

Meanwhile it was the forces of ‘disruption’, rather than any kind of intellectual contagion, that swallowed Roberta Williams’ perch atop the adventure game industry in the 1990s. As the machinery of game production expanded, and budgets grew larger, and the industry’s cultural reach circumscribed all the same misogynists who’ve been around for hundreds of years, an organization like Sierra Online started resembling one of those ill-fated mom and pop shops.

Our society—a society of wealth, property and the extraction thereof from every vulnerable person—held its gaze upon the game industry for years, bringing alongside it all the comfort and terror of patriarchy. Everyone from Old Man Murray to Valve to Gamergate got in on the frenzy, as did thousands of other people and organizations. Sometimes they found profit. Other times they found acclaim. Often they did it purely for leisure, that crucial aspect of the liberal democratic compromise which for some of us has come to mean the entire world.

This is the way I prefer to talk about the datapoints Adkins has assembled: not as a direct causal chain linking edgelords to Gamergate, but rather as adjacent subroutines operating within one big, malevolent machine. What we see within this historical cross-section is, in the end, quite a familiar sight: many men climbing higher in society by pushing other people down. We can criticize individuals as we choose, but for me the clearer problem is the social structure they’re climbing. It has a very narrow top, and a very wide bottom. It’s sexist, and it’s racist, and being capitalist it remains content to exploit these other properties endlessly. It’s a winner-take-all game in which the victors are not capable of understanding why they won, or what they could possibly do with their winnings except to accumulate more and more victory points while other people die. It’s stupid, and pointless, and endlessly destructive. Not coincidentally, it shares all the characteristics of Gamergate itself. If you seek to defeat these assholes, you must change the rules of the game.

Leave a Reply