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What Is #GamerGate and Why Are Women Being Threatened About Video Games?

7 minute read

Correction appended: Oct. 17, 2014.

The online movement #GamerGate, which has been brewing since August, took a frightening turn this week when feminist commentator Anita Sarkeesian was forced to cancel a speech at a Utah college following a threat against her life. Sarkeesian chose to bow out after Utah State University officials decided to go forward with the event but couldn’t promise Sarkeesian they would be able to keep legally-carried guns off campus.

The anonymous threat warned the school’s administrators of a brutal assault on the campus if Sarkeesian’s talk was allowed to proceed.

“I have at my disposal a semi-automatic rifle, multiple pistols, and a collection of pipe bombs,” the email said. “She is going to die screaming like the craven little whore that she is if you let her come to USU….I will write my manifesto in her spilled blood, and you will all bear witness to what feminist lies and poison have done to the men of America.”

The threats are familiar ones for Sarkeesian, whose positions have made her a target for those who feel threatened by feminists, particularly in the gaming community. But the people attacking Sarkeesian have been emboldened lately by #GamerGate, an online movement whose participants say they are targeting corruption in gaming journalism. The campaign has roots in hate speech towards women who make and talk about video games.

How did #GamerGate begin?

In August, a programmer named Eron Gjoni wrote a series of blog posts about the end of his relationship with indie game developer Zoe Quinn. Gjoni accused Quinn of sleeping with a video game journalist named Nathan Grayson, who at the time was freelancing for gaming sites Kotaku and Rock Paper Shotgun, allegedly in exchange for positive reviews of her game Depression Quest.

Depression Quest was already a controversial game. Released in early 2013, the indie game simulates the experience of having depression and is played entirely by choosing multiple-choice text options. Many gaming outlets applauded the unique game and its exploration of a serious subject in a brave way. However, the game also diverged from the kinds of content and gameplay found in most mainstream games. Some observers argued it wasn’t actually a good game in terms of the experience, but it was instead merely an intellectual exercise, and the articles praising it were puff pieces that caved to P.C. pressure.

When Gjoni publicized the personal details of his relationship with Quinn, certain gamers—who had already criticized the initial coverage of the game—became even more vehement in their vitriol towards Quinn. Stories of Quinn’s sexual history along with nude photos of her soon appeared on online message boards and chat programs like 4chan and IRC. Harassers went so far as to talk about whether they could get Quinn to commit suicide, with one participant saying that wouldn’t be a smart “PR” move.

It’s important to note here that the charges against Quinn and Grayson hold little water. Neither Grayson nor anyone else at Kotaku even reviewed Quinn’s game. Grayson briefly mention the game once in a March post about a completely different subject, but that was before they began their relationship, according to all parties involved. Kotaku has since conducted an investigation into the matter and said it found no ethical violations.

Nonetheless, some gamers were angry that the press didn’t report more on Gjoni’s accusations. Frustrated, the already-angry gamers continued to levy personal attacks against Quinn in reaction to what they perceived as the media’s silence on the matter.

Who is Anita Sarkeesian, and why did someone threaten to shoot up a school if she visited?

Around the same time Quinn came under attack, #GamerGate participants began harassing Anita Sarkeesian, a prominent feminist critic who speaks about women’s roles in video game plots and game development. Sarkeesian hosts a show called “Feminist Frequency” on YouTube. Last year, she launched a successful Kickstarter campaign for a new series exploring what she considers harmful, sexist tropes in video games:

Anonymous Internet users began threatening Sarkeesian’s life in August after she posted a new video on the sexualization of women in video games. One person even created a game in which players were invited to abuse her. Sarkeesian eventually filed a report with the San Francisco police department and was forced to leave her home for fear of her personal safety. The FBI is investigating the death threats made against her.

It’s at this point in August that Firefly actor Adam Baldwin coined the term #GamerGate on Twitter. Using the hashtag, a group of #GamerGate participants began harassing writers who have supported Quinn and Sarkeesian. Other women in the gaming industry, like Brianna Wu, also received threats against their lives. (Wu has since had to leave her home and go into hiding.)

Fast forward to this week, when someone again threatened to take Sarkeesian’s life.

Why does #GamerGate think feminist criticism of gaming will lead to the “death of the gamer?”

Some of those involved in #GamerGate consider women, minorities and others’ calls for wider representation in gaming as an attack on gamers, who are predominantly young, white and male. Some believe feminists like Sarkeesian are trying to force them out of gaming — online news site Breitbart published an article entitled “Feminist Bullies Tearing the Video Game Industry Apart.” Not all gamers and not even all those who support #GamerGate attack women or support misogynist views, however. Some participants view the movement as an inquisition into corrupt practices among gaming journalists.

Still, following the harassment against Sarkeesian, Quinn and others, a number of journalists and editors published articles condemning gamers who participated in harassment against women. Among the most aggressive of these criticisms came from Leigh Alexander at Gamasutra, who wrote an op-ed titled “‘Gamers’ don’t have to be your audience. ‘Gamers are over'” at the end of August. That article and similar ones which followed were not well received by many in the gamer community. (Alexander also wrote a related piece for TIME.)

What does Intel have to do with #GamerGate?

Intel was a sponsor of Gamasutra until #GamerGate participants pressured the $158 billion company over Alexander’s article, resulting in Intel pulling its ad dollars from the site, according to re/code.

Intel has since claimed that it was unaware of #GamerGate when it made that decision, but it didn’t return to posting ads on Gamasutra. #GamerGate has gone on to harass several companies into taking similar actions by sending emails at specific times to flood target companies’ inboxes.

What do participants in #GamerGate want now?

Some claim that the gaming industry and the journalists who cover it have grown too close. Several gaming sites have started changing their policies to prevent possible conflicts of interest: Kotaku, for example, now forbids its writers from donating money to indie designers on Patreon, a Kickstarter for indie games.

These complaints are joined by louder, more hate-filled voices making violent threats against women simply for talking about or working in the field of video games. The group has also largely attacked independent gaming developers like the one that released Depression Quest, which typically get little attention from journalists, not the large companies who many say share a quid pro quo relationship with some writers.

Read next: Fixing What’s Wrong With Gamergate Starts With You

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the parent company of the web site Kotaku. It is Gawker Media.

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Write to Eliana Dockterman at eliana.dockterman@time.com