GamerGate’s origin story

As the list of people supporting #GamerGate gets shorter and shorter, some are still suggesting that it was a legitimate movement for ethics in journalism that only got corrupted by misogyny later on. I’m sure that there are people who genuinely believe this.

Unfortunately, it’s not true. GamerGate started out as slut-shaming and revenge, so here’s the history with dates and links to the sources.

On 2014-08-12, Eron Gjoni posted The Zoe Post on Over the course of the next few days he posted a series of long rambling posts about how evil his ex-girlfriend Zoe Quinn was. The last post was on 2014-08-16.

He apparently asked a bunch of his friendsand his mother — what he should do about the articles. Amazingly, what he posted was apparently the carefully considered and discussed version of what he originally wanted to say.

The salacious articles came to the attention of a bunch of 4chan gamers, who decided they needed to get revenge on Gjoni’s behalf. They started an IRC channel called #burgersandfries, named after the allegation that Quinn had slept with five guys when she was supposed to be monogamously dating Gjoni. The channel was used to organize abuse of Quinn starting on 2014-08-18.

Aug 18 20.10.06 <nullspace> i couldnt care less about vidya, i just want to see zoe receive her comeuppance

By 2014-08-19, they had come up with their excuse for going after her: the belief that she had slept with Nathan Grayson of Kotaku in return for a favorable review for her game Depression Quest.

There was just one problem: on 2014-08-20, Kotaku responded to the issue and pointed out that Nathan Grayson only published one article that mentioned Quinn or her game, and that the article didn’t say anything positive about the game. It didn’t even say much about Zoe Quinn, except that she had refused to be part of a reality TV show after being horrified by the direction it was taking.

Still, people wanted to go after her for her alleged misdeeds against Eron Gjoni. But some people realized that such a personal crusade would be a bit transparent:

Aug 21 17.23.31 <sarahv> The problem is that making it about Zoe sleeping around amounts to a personal attack which, while funny and something she totally deserves, will hurt our chances of pushing the other point …

Sure, Quinn needed to be slut-shamed across the Internet, but what if that hurt the perpetrators’ chances to sell themselves as campaigners for ethical journalism?

On 2014-08-24 Eron Gjoni turned up in #burgersandfries to offer his advice.

Aug 24 20.16.56 <Eron_G> maximumtacos: I cannot confirm or deny anything that might increase doxxing odds unfortunately

Yes, he’s really sorry, but he can’t help out with doxing by providing personal information about Zoe Quinn. He tries to steer the gaters in a more positive direction, away from harrassment:

Aug 24 22.23.20 <Eron_G> I'm still trying to think about how that would go down. I would recommend avoiding a situation where you are seen in a bad light, by shouting down people who spread pointless harassment.

Aug 24 22.48.24 <Eron_G> That might be a good idea. I was thinking it would be cool to see the community come together to simultaneously get people to move the discussion in a more positive direction and deter random harassment though. It just seems -- better.

A fat lot of good that did.

If you read the transcript you’ll see that Gjoni also talks a bit about actual ethical issues in video game journalism. Yes, now that he’s gotten everyone’s attention by slut-shaming his ex-girlfriend in front of the world, he’d like to focus the discussion on journalistic ethics. But after a while he admits that the journalism issue wasn’t why he wrote those posts:

Aug 24 23.59.42 <Eron_G> thezoepost was not meant to primarily adress journalism. It was just to warn people about Zoe. I mentioned Nathan worked for kotaku because I figured I'd leave the community to make what it wanted out of the implications.

So Eron Gjoni, initiator of the shitstorm that would come to be known as GamerGate, admitted himself that he didn’t start it as a campaign for ethics in journalism — he started it as a personal campaign against Zoe Quinn. Remember that.

Meanwhile, on 2014-08-20 a video was uploaded to YouTube, which starts out “Sex for favors!” and is titled “Quinnspiracy Theory: The Five Guys Saga”. The followup carries the subtitle “Whose a guy gotta fuck around here to get some fries with this?” The video repeats Eron Gjoni’s allegations of infidelity by Quinn, illustrated with a photo of the Five Guys burger chain. Quoting the video:

“I don’t care that Zoe Quinn fucked five guys. I don’t care that Zoe Quinn cheats on people she’s in a relationship with. […] However, when the people she’s having an affair with, when the people she’s cheating on her boyfriend with, happen to be able to help her career through their actions related to the industry she’s in, then it becomes a piece of public discourse, because it helps to highlight a massive flaw in the fifth estate.”

Yes, don’t be confused by all the slut-shaming, says the narrator who packed his video with it — this is about journalism! The video then claims that Zoe Quinn faked an earlier episode of harassment, that that’s how she became known in the industry, and that journalists gullibly reported it.

Well, we’ll probably never know whether all of what was reported about that earlier incident was true, but Eron_G in his IRC chat (linked above) suggested that she was genuinely harassed:

Aug 24 22.03.33 <Eron_G> Nothing that definitively points to wizardchan. But she did change her phone number around that time

Aug 24 22.06.30 <Cyberserker> "How does someone like Zoe get acquainted with the people she knows? I had never heard of her until this whole scandal."
Aug 24 22.08.28 <Eron_G> Oh man. Will not give a full answer to this -- but part of it was that she got a lot of attention as a result of harassment. Which means she attracted the attention of people looking to put an end to that sort of bullshit. Having someone's attention is enough to befriend them. And she's very good at getting people to like her.

Harassment, not faked harassment or alleged harassment. But that’s not the main focus of the video either, as the narrator explains:

“But really, the biggest fucking issue, that we’re looking at right now, is the name in the middle. Nathan Grayson. […] Nathan Grayson is somebody who has published positive pieces about Zoe’s game, who has given her publicity, and who has marketed her product, while having sex with her and not disclosing it.”

Except that, as mentioned above, this central allegation is false, and was addressed by Kotaku two days after the video was uploaded.

You might think that someone who had posted lurid videos making proven false (and likely actionable) allegations about someone would delete them when the central claim turned out to be false, but no — the videos stayed up. And so it was that on 2014-08-27 actor Adam Baldwin posted links to the two videos on Twitter, and was the first person to use the tag #GamerGate.

So there we have it. The GamerGate name was first used in publicizing a slut-shaming video which alleged a sex-for-reviews arrangement which hadn’t actually happened; and that video was based on Eron Gjoni’s posts about Zoe Quinn, which he himself admitted weren’t about ethics in journalism but were personal.

That’s not just my opinion either. Take a look at A People’s History of GamerGate, which is by a pro-gamergate author, and you’ll see that he starts the story with Eron Gjoni’s “Zoe Post” as well.

And that is why #GamerGate is about personal harassment first and foremost, and ethics in journalism barely if at all. Statistical analysis by Newsweek and other analysts shows that what actual GamerGate supporters talk about is mostly Anita Sarkeesian, Zoe Quinn, and Briana Wu, exactly none of whom are journalists. Meanwhile, actual journalistic corruption — like pay-for-play YouTube coverage by AAA game publishers — barely ever gets mentioned, let alone resulting in any kind of action. Boycott the Battlefield franchise? No, they’re too busy trying to censor academic criticism.

So if you started supporting GamerGate thinking it was about journalistic ethics, then I’m afraid you were suckered by a right-wing actor, a bunch of Internet trolls, and a jilted boyfriend.

I suspect that at this point there are still some people out there asking “So what? Yes, GamerGate may have started out as harassment for alleged sexual infidelity, it may have been misrepresented, and it may involve a lot of abuse, it may barely ever result in discussion of journalistic ethics — but those journalism issues are still real!”

Yes, yes they are. There are definitely problems with how games get promoted by publications that rely on game companies for their funding. The whole Fez/IGF/Indiecade thing looks very suspicious too. But you need to understand that the people who are anti-GamerGate aren’t anti-GamerGate because they dispute that there are issues with how video game journalism is done; they’re anti-GamerGate because of its documented history and origin as a harassment campaign.

Yes, from a strictly logical point of view, the truth of something does not depend on its source. If you’re purely concerned with logic, the comments about journalistic ethics from GamerGate supporters might be worth reading. Some of them might even be about things that actually happened.

However, GamerGaters need to understand that for most people, the origin of something is important. That’s why people get upset when the KKK start handing out candy — it’s not because they think candy is bad, it’s because they don’t want candy that has come from the KKK. And no, it doesn’t matter that the Grand Wizard of the KKK has disavowed racism — people aren’t just going to forget the organization’s origin and history and join up to help their new campaign to keep America’s roadsides beautiful.

This subtlety is what people like the author of “A People’s History of GamerGate” don’t seem to be able to grasp. Origins matter. If your movement starts out corrupt, the corruption will spread — as it has in GamerGate, where we continue to see doxxing and harassment alongside rampant misogyny. Those things aren’t from bad people who joined later on — they’ve been there right from the start.

So if you are genuinely concerned about the corruption of video game journalism, here’s my advice: Stop talking about it until the whole GamerGate shitstorm has blown over. Give it at least 6 months after the last mass media story about GamerGate. After that, start discussing the journalistic ethics issues under a new banner, a clean one. Have a web site with principles set out, and people in charge to stop the whole thing getting derailed and usurped by right wingers and trolls. Then we can have a productive discussion, OK?

In the mean time, Eron Gjoni has lost his job and will probably never get laid again. Multiple women (and some men too) have received death threats and other harassment. GamerGate has become both a hated and feared mob, and also a laughing stock. People who study GamerGate discussions find that they’re mostly not about ethics in journalism, and are sometimes almost entirely about the female victims of harassment.

It’s time to stop digging the GamerGate hole deeper.

9 thoughts on “GamerGate’s origin story

  1. Having followed Gjoni since more or less the start, I have a few of problems with your post. First, I don’t think there’s evidence that Gjoni ignored anyone’s advice in going forward with thezoepost. The bit about his mom in the article you linked to was quoted out of context; her immediately following statements, omitted from the article, revealed that she thought Gjoni actually did cool off before publishing. Gjoni complained to Bernstein about it on Twitter, but the latter more or less just shrugged.

    Second, I think you’re muddying the waters by describing Gjoni’s exposé as “slut-shaming.” What he actually did was reveal that she was a deeply manipulative (and self-confessed) compulsive liar. He didn’t suggest that promiscuity (“sluttiness”) is bad; he suggested that cheating on your partner with a huge number of people, and then proceeding to deceive, gaslight and emotionally abuse your partner for voicing suspicions is bad. I hope that you can appreciate the vast difference between these two things.

    Third, thezoepost was definitely about ethics, not about harassment: it was an attempt to unmask an erstwhile ethical crusader in indie games as a self-aggrandizing monster (which of course isn’t to suggest that the harassment she subsequently received was deserved).

    1. First off, thanks for the comments and for being reasonable.

      I’ve now tracked down his version of the transcript where he talked about his review process for the Zoe Post. Seems you’re right, the media edited it down misleadingly. I’ve revised that section. (I don’t really think it has anything to do with the conclusions though.)

      As to whether his posts were slut-shaming, well, that’s a value judgement. I would invite anyone who doesn’t think they are to go read them. I think the fact that he originated the “Burgers and Fries” joke pretty much seals the case.

      Regarding the third point, I guess I missed the word “journalistic” out in a few places. Fixed.

  2. Hi, thanks for your also-reasonable response. I seriously appreciate it, given how hot GG makes people’s tempers flare on all sides.

    I can understand why you label the “Burgers and Fries” thing slut-shaming. It’s definitely mocking her promiscuity. But it’s also clear that it’s more specifically mocking promiscuity that constitutes cheating. Tons of people, myself included, think it’s fine to sleep around as much as you like when you’re single, but that it’s actually shameful to cheat on your partner and gaslight them about it, and even more shameful to do so with many people. Will some lousy people ignore this obvious distinction and go around pathologizing all kinds of “sluttiness,” even the innocuous kind? Presumably so, but the majority of them would likely have done that whether Eron made the “Burgers and Fries” joke or not. Just by calling her a slut or whatever.

    The other problem with the “slut-shaming” charge is that it’s often used as a way of trivializing the slut-shamer’s grievances: they’ve proven that they’re bad people by doing this borderline thing, therefore we don’t need to listen to them or believe them or sympathize with them about anything. (Conservatives also do this all the time, e.g., by dismissing the Ferguson protesters on the basis of a small number of looters or by pointing to Mike Brown’s alleged theft of cigars.) I think you may be guilty of this: your post is trying to embarrass GamerGate by painting its origin as a story of petty revenge by an embittered misogynist, when it’s actually much more nuanced and interesting than that.

    1. I don’t know if Gjoni is a misogynist or not, but it is a story of petty revenge by an embittered man. Even if all his allegations of cheating are true, a reasonable person still doesn’t dramatize personal relationship drama into lurid blog posts and publicize them across the entire Internet.

      And that’s a really big “even if”. Although he says he consulted a bunch of friends about the content of his posts, I’ve not seen them comment.

      It’s certainly true that GamerGate is more interesting once you move into analyzing the psychopathology of the ongoing shitstorm. However, I didn’t intend my article to be a complete overview or history of the entire thing — my aim was just to catalog how it started, and then try to explain to those still supporting it why that’s an insurmountable problem.

  3. Out of curiosity, do you have a similar reaction to victims who come forward with rape allegations of public figures – that reasonable people simply wouldn’t ever do that and so they must be out for petty revenge, even if what they’re saying is true? (Remember that Gjoni’s charge against Quinn is not just that she cheated, but a whole host of other things.)

    One of Gjoni’s friends commented in the Buzzfeed article you linked.

    1. Well, first of all I wouldn’t consider Zoe Quinn to be a public figure. Before GamerGate she was an obscure video game developer.

      Secondly, breach of verbal contract is a very different crime from rape, so I don’t see that there’s any reason why attitudes to accusations should be the same for both.

      But to answer the question anyway… I don’t have a standard reaction to rape claims, or to claims of infidelity for that matter. It depends on the specifics of the case.

      For example, Dylan Farrow’s accusations against Woody Allen are problematic, not least because she waited over 20 years to make them. Her brother has taken Allen’s side, and agrees that her mother attempted to poison them both against Allen, which makes me wonder if there could be False Memory Syndrome at work. Whereas on the other hand, rape claims against Jimmy Savile I’d probably believe by default, because of what we now know about what he was up to for decades. So it can absolutely go either way.

      When I read Gjoni’s posts, he seemed to me to be vindictive and a bit of a control freak. That’s probably why I’m willing to entertain the possibility that things didn’t happen exactly as he depicts them. I feel like I should also say that he might entirely believe what he wrote, even if it’s not what happened. Relationships are complicated that way.

      1. I agree that we shouldn’t automatically side with all accusers, since we don’t know a priori that they’re being entirely truthful. But my question was: if you believe that what they’re saying is true, do you think it’s unreasonable of them to come forward about it? If your answer to that question is “no,” and if Gjoni in fact wasn’t misrepresenting anything, would you still consider his actions unreasonable? I’m just trying to pinpoint your precise objection here. I think there’s a lot of evidence that he accurately recounted everything that happened, but that’s a very different discussion from arguing whether or not thezoepost was unreasonable regardless of its accuracy.

        1. I think that even if we assume that what Eron Gjoni said was true, it was unreasonable of him to ‘sex it up’, post it publicly to the entire Internet, and then go around trying to draw attention to it. Had he (say) commented in general terms on a mailing list for indie game developers, and invited people who the information might actually concern — i.e. people considering working with Ms Quinn — to e-mail him for more details, then that would have been more reasonable.

          I mean, I know of someone who works in computing who I consider to be absolutely unethical, and who I will have nothing to do with. But I don’t write long rants about his behavior and try to spread them around the entire Internet, or seek to engage the general public in boycotting companies he works for, because that would be creepy and abusive, yes?

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