Why I Feel Bad For - And Understand - The Angry #GamerGate Gamers

An old angry white male nerd looks with sadness at young angry white male nerds.

I was not always this shining paragon of perfect humanity whose infallible opinions you now read with religious awe. I was once a complete dick.

And by once, I mean ‘earlier today.’ And yesterday. And stretching many days as far back as I can recall. In my past I have hurt people, sometimes intentionally. I have cheated on women and I have been with women who were cheating. I have stolen, and in amounts that probably would have gotten me into some real trouble. I have behaved like an absolute shit to people online. I think I do it less now - I try to do it less now - but I, like everybody else in the world, has a history of being a rotten person at one point or another.

For the last week I’ve been embroiled in this thing called #GamerGate, which Andrew Todd wrote about here. You should read it if you haven’t, as I won’t be doing much recapping here. Anyway, the last week or so of my life has been sort of hijacked by a lot of angry gamers - some of whom are misogynists and absolute monsters - yelling at me on Twitter. I fight back because I have my own self-destructive inability to back down from a fight, a tendency that has gotten my ass kicked on more than one occasion. My ancestry gives me both the focused venom of Sicilians and the volcanic, easily provoked anger of the Irish, and that’s an awful combination (this combination also leads to me eating too many rich foods and drinking too much booze, but that’s a different matter).

Arguing with these people has been eye-opening. A lot of these kids - and they are, without a doubt, largely kids - are simply ignorant. They don’t understand the world, and that includes everything from how gaming websites work to how people interact as adult, sexual humans. Their confusion about this stuff leaves them susceptible to conspiracy theories trotted out by the truly evil members of the #GamerGate posse, people like Jordan Owens and Davis Aurini (whose evil isn’t limited to misogyny. He also makes racist videos).

And here’s the thing: I probably would have been one of these kids if I was 15 years old today. Between my own adolescent nerd issues and my history of sometimes being a bad human being, I probably would be sending angry tweets into the universe demanding some vague sort of justice. Realizing that, seeing the sadness I recognize from my own young adulthood in these tweeters, I feel slightly more tender towards these people (at least until the next time they swarm me with cut and paste harangues).

Let me tell you where these kids are coming from, because I used to come from there. The first thing that’s happening is that they’re mostly males who are socially unaccepted. They’re outsiders, losers, weirdos and freaks. And most of them aren’t just male, they’re white males. What’s happening is that these men are feeling powerless in their own lives, and then along comes someone like Anita Sarkeesian telling them that as white men they are the MOST powerful group in the world. And that they should be aware of this privilege and they should be careful how they exert it.

Imagine the confusion this causes. These kids feel like the bottom of the heap, ignored and hated and mocked and here comes this woman - who is successful and admired and gets Joss Whedon to retweet her videos - telling them that they’re actually part of an invisible system keeping her down. This simply can’t compute for these guys.

I’ve been there. Self pity is a powerful emotion; I’ve often thought that if I had been an abject young nerd in the internet age I would have found solace in likeminded virtual communities, but now I wonder if having access to those communities only makes the marginalization in real life all the more acute. You go from your friends on the computer to a class where you’re the butt of every joke, where girls won’t even look at you. What whiplash - to have tasted acceptance and then be denied it daily.

For people who have never been real outsiders, who have never known what it’s like to sit in a room full of humans who treat you alternately as invisible and a target for nasty harassment, it’s hard to understand why the gamer identity matters so much. I was a comic book nerd in high school, and I was a horror nerd, and I was a movie nerd, and these gave me identities. In the real world I would get beatings and be teased and ridiculed, but in private these identities offered solace. The whole world of normal socialization was a club to which I couldn’t belong, but these communities - and later punk rock - offered me places where I could be among people who thought like me and often looked like me. They were safe places for me, and as the tide of geek chic rose I was horrified to see that the kind of people who had abused me for my fringe-interest identifiers were now co-opting them.

I’m not saying this is the right way to be, but I get it. I get that panic of finding the one place where you felt at home suddenly being overrun with exactly the kind of people who made you feel like you weren’t at home in the regular world. And that panic makes people act poorly, and to lump others who are actually just as much of an outcast and a weirdo and a freak as they are in with the bad guys. This is how women get abused in geek circles. This is how the powerless prey on the other powerless.

For male geeks there’s a disconnect with what they’re told - be a nice guy and you’ll get the girl - and what they see in action around them. They get told lies that I think are really insidious, like ‘It doesn’t matter what’s on your outside, it matters what’s on your inside,’ which lead to entire affinity groups that dress and smell like shit and don’t take care of themselves. This leads to a horrible cycle where socially awkward weirdos who dress like garbage get rejected by attractive women, which cause the socially awkward weirdos to start blaming women in general for their problems and reinforce their social awkwardness. They do it because they have been raised in a world where women are not humans but prizes, and so they can’t see them as individuals.They can't understand that there are women who are also socially awkward weirdos who might truly be into comic books/video games/Dungeons & Dragons.

There’s a lot more at play here, including historic social segregation of girl and boy interests (segregation that has only begun to break down in the last few decades) and the way that the media gives young men unmeetable standards of beauty for their mates, but this is the heart of it. It all comes down, again and again, to the same problem: lonely boys who have no social skills who are wallowing in self-pity.

I’ve done it! I’ve cried about how girls only go for assholes! I’ve whined about outsiders invading my geek spaces*! I’ve felt bad for myself because I couldn’t understand why a very beautiful girl wouldn’t want to date a fat, greasy oddball who wore a severed finger earring. I was lonely.

This loneliness has manifested itself in #GamerGate in a big way. They see the world of video game journalists and developers as ‘cliquish’ and ‘nepotistic.’ That’s because they don’t understand networking or, frankly, making many friends. People who work together in an industry will socialize together, especially in an industry like games, where everyone pursued their jobs because they love the field in which they work. When you work in a field you love your hobbies and your work become impossibly intertwined. But for the dispossessed 15 year old this looks like an impenetrable world of socially entangled hypocrites, indistinguishable from the impenetrable social world at school. Games are what these angry nerds love, how they spend their time, and here is a group of people who are on a higher social plane than they are in this video game world and they do not understand why. And some of them are girls.

Which brings us back to Anita Sarkeesian. There are a couple of major complaints about Sarkeesian, which boil down to 1) she’s not a real gamer and 2) she’s pushing a social justice agenda that is, somehow (it is never actually explained), ruining gaming. These claims are made by the same people who howl for their hobby to be taken seriously; as soon as it is taken seriously and given a fairly standard academic critique they shit their pants. These people who wanted games taken seriously as art are now rallying under a banner that claims “Social Justice Warriors” are trying to take the fun out of games. Point one paints Sarkeesian as an interloper into their sacred space and point two paints her as a destructor of that same space. She's a double Other because she's a woman who wants to look at games critically.

Sarkeesian was, in a lot of ways, the lighting of the fuse that finally exploded with Zoe Quinn. Together these women represent everything that threatens these boys - women entering their space, being sexual but not sexual with them, forcing them to examine the seedy and anti-woman power fantasies that are playing out in too many games. The clubhouse has been invaded and it's getting redecorated and nobody asked them first. 

Understanding all of this doesn’t mean excusing it, and God knows I don’t. But understanding all of this does leave me at a loss - I don’t know how to get through to these kids. Devils like Owens and Aurini and anonymous hatemonger Internet Aristocrat have the ears of these kids because they offer soothing reassurances that the angry gamers are right and the entirety of the world is wrong. They’re recruiting young people for hate. They're turning the sense of marginalization these kids feel into hate for other marginalized people, a standard tactic of Neo-Nazi groups, for instance. I, for whatever reason, was always a liberal-leaning person, and while I might have grown up using 1980s street language that would get me boycotted today, I never would have bought into the line of woman-hating hogwash these guys are peddling. This is the only place where I find myself unable to understand these kids - if you feel so put-upon, why are you putting upon others?

Maybe we just have to let it blow over. Perhaps we just have to let these kids grow up. I know that when I grew up I began to understand more and more the mistakes in my thinking. I began to understand how my self-pity was just dragging me down. I began to understand that other people were hurting in ways that I couldn’t immediately identify. That’s when I discovered punk rock and when I discovered a whole different way of being an outcast. In a lot of ways I was reborn when I jumped into my first serious mosh pit at age 17, in Albany’s QE2.

It might seem weird to those who never did it, but the mosh pit taught me empathy more than any other experience ever did. Hitting and getting hit may not seem to be something that brings you together, but does it ever, and in the pit you look out for each other. Sometimes a real asshole, who only wants to hurt others, gets in there, and then the pit will respond like a living organism and beat the shit out of him and eject him from the center. It’s a miracle. It’s a self-regulating marvel. I’ve had some of the most extraordinary connections happen in a quick moment in a mosh pit. I've been on the floor, about to be crushed, when I was suddenly lifted by a half dozen hands above the crowd. 

Obviously the pit isn’t for everybody, but I have to believe there is a similar experience everyone can have. An experience that allows you to understand that we’re all dancing around and bouncing into each other, to understand where the boundaries are between pushing back and causing harm, to understand the thrill of being on the ground and having others help you to your feet. To feel the bliss of helping others up.

I hope these #GamerGate kids find this experience. I hope someone like Zoe Quinn is able to design a game that gives it to them.

In the meantime, this is my official exit from #GamerGate. Over the last week a lot of ugliness has been exposed, a lot of people have seen that feminism is not an outdated concept, and hopefully a few angry gamer nerds have begun to question their initial assumptions about the world. For me, it's time to stop knocking people down and start trying to help them up. 

* a quick sidenote here: I remain steadfast in my belief that subculture elitism is actually a good thing, and that we live in a world that worships amateurs and tourists in a way that penalizes experts and the truly dedicated, but that’s another argument for another time.