One Doc’s Thorough Autopsy and Psychoanalysis of #GamerGate

By  · Published on July 23rd, 2015

Think for a moment about the beliefs you hold to be true. The stuff you fiercely defend because you know with every fiber of your strange, meat-and-electricity-based being to be correct. This may even be the set of values that you feel defines you.

Now ask yourself if you’re wrong.

It’s healthy. At the very least it doesn’t cost you anything real, and it has the power to ensure that you aren’t so entrenched in that belief that you physically threaten others who don’t agree.

What I find most interesting about Ian Danskin’s hour-long, multi-part Why Are You So Angry? is that it uses an intense focus on GamerGate as a Trojan Horse for our own beliefs. About recycling, about drinking alcohol, about whatever gris-gris that gets you up on your soapbox.

For the uninitiated, the GamerGate controversy arose after several prominent critics of gaming culture received death threats, rape threats, doxxing threats and grew to become a clanging thud all over social media with people talking past each other regarding portrayals of women and minorities in games, the emerging market for alternative products and consumer questions about the ethics of gaming reporting/reviewing.

Why Are You So Angry? is a dissection and psychoanalysis of the GamerGate movement (broadly), but it’s also, more fundamentally, an attack on poisonous binary thinking – the kind of singular worldview that demands a rigidness that our ridiculously vibrant, chaotic, beautifully complex reality can’t shoulder. Moral stances and actions are rarely so clearly cut.

This may be the only rational response to the cultural fog of war that formed around GamerGate, not only because there was barely any signal in the noise but because it’s a reminder of complexity and our own knee jerk potential.

As the heart of the controversy (and therefore the film) is Anita Sarkeesian, who raised almost $159,000 through Kickstarter to fund her Tropes vs Women video series critiquing the portrayal of women in the medium. This planned criticism and the popularity it engendered was enough to spur a lot of hate.

As the title suggests, Danskin explores the nature of the response not by simply bashing GamerGate and calling it a day, but admitting upfront the different faces of the movement – from the virulent assholes to the genuinely concerned. In doing so, Danskin reflects a consistent question of how we should respond when our beliefs are threatened and when someone gets defensive about their own, just as Sarkeesian acted as a mirror for the seedier parts of the media we enjoy.

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The film’s conclusions about GamerGate’s motivations feel correct at a gut level not only because arguing with the most vocal members online evokes my last chess match with a pigeon, but because I’ve also responded like an asshole when my beliefs have been challenged. I’ve shortsightedly lost touch with the reality that someone disagreeing with me generally has no bearing on my personal truths, and that entrenchment does little for anyone involved. I imagine I’m not alone.

Why Are You So Angry? is breezy, with infographic-clean style, and delivers on its core question – although some of the subjects he’s analyzing (if not all) will disagree vehemently with the premise, let alone the conclusions. The film asserts that GamerGate is made up of people who wanted to threaten female game developers and critics, and the people – genuinely concerned about how games were being reviewed and promoted – who they exploited in order to create a smokescreen of legitimacy. GamerGate became all things to all people, but to outsiders, it was marred by a river of bile and shit.

Danskin’s is an impossible sale for the fully invested, which is why he smartly angles it as a glancing blow. We all have hangups. We all get defensive. Let’s talk about what that means. Beyond that, Danskin isn’t interested in talking directly to the members of GamerGate (who he collectively calls “Angry Jack”), but in trying to quell their potential for drawing in a new generation to their ranks.

Still, attempting to explain the emotional response of people you don’t agree with is problematic territory, particularly for something as radioactive as GamerGate. My favorite part of Danskin’s examination comes near the end, when he suggests that those opposed to sexism and racism of all stripes should calmly push back against those kinds of comments when they appear in our feeds, but, and here’s the key point, not resort to the feels-so-good incendiary bullshit that injures the conversation and drives the entrenched further behind the firewall. Socrates didn’t ask endless questions for no reason.

In the spirit of that concept, I wanted to challenge my own preconception which is to side largely with Danskin’s video series after witnessing how toxic GamerGate has shown itself to be. So I watched a response video (which admittedly lost me when the lack of self-awareness became too much to bear), and then watched a video claiming to show what GamerGate accomplished over the past year of its existence, created by Andrew Hernandez (aka theLEOpirate), which shares the narration-guided serenity of Why Are You So Angry?.

Getting different outlets to update their internal ethics guidelines, convincing major advertisers to drop sponsorship of sites they find corrupt (like Gawker), crafting watchdog sites and raising money for charities (including aiding women developers). Those elements of the movement are, I’m guessing, not the troubling ones. The ones that give GamerGate its reputation.

What I recognize is that there can be people attempting and excelling at doing good within the movement. The claims about journalistic ethics are a bit naive considering how consistent and deafening the inner-discipline conversations about ethics have always been, but with Gawker’s absurdly invasive breech of responsibility and the encroaching advertorial dominance, I can’t say I’m miles away from where they’re at. However, I also find it minuscule in the face of the other segment of the movement which attempts and excels at destroying lives via threats, doxxing and the like. I can understand how maddening it must be for members who scream back, “That’s not what I mean by GamerGate,” because it’s exactly as maddening as it is to try to engage anyone in GamerGate. Like asking someone in the New York Philharmonic about Mozart who says, “Music? What do you mean? We don’t play music here.”

On one hand, I get it. There are reasons to have sympathy for some in the movement who are climbing a mountain next to Sisyphus every time they have to denounce the uniformly held view of what GamerGate stands for in order to get a small amount of good done.

And that’s the difficult part. For one, the message against binary thinking in Danskin’s movie is correct, that breaking down the world into us/them, good people/bad people is a harmful and hopelessly wrong thing to do, so it’s important to consider complexity and nuance. However, considering the rarity of that, or at least its existence in the minority, members of any movement need to recognize when their brand (that singular thing we associate with it) is infected beyond saving. Just like a few members (or, hell, all of them) of the KKK volunteered for suicide prevention hotlines, their compartmentalized benevolence wouldn’t negate or even move the needle away from their core purpose of hate. I cringe at the amount of hours and sweat equity invested by decent people in defending what amounts to a hashtag that should have been left to the hyenas long ago.

Maybe Why Are You So Angry? is directed at GamerGate members after all. Specifically those members who see it as a social justice organization, who might – if they considered it long ago – organize more diligently and respectably under a new hashtag. Maybe, in the face of constant online shouting matches spent futilely trying to disprove what GamerGate is proved to be by its worst members, Danskin’s video series should be called Why Not Just Change Your Hashtag?.

My fear is that some will see my agreement with Danskin and my criticism of GamerGate as reason to plug their ears and childishly click their tongues. My other fear is that some will see my sympathy for some members of GamerGate as a reason to plug their ears and childishly click their tongues. The black and white emotions of those addicted to jerking knees.

My hope is that both segments are really a small, desperately vocal percentage, and that the majority has the ability to recognize, discuss and struggle with the gray stuff.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector [email protected] | Writing short stories at Adventitious.