Digital identities and GamerGate

There’s something about online communications that disrupts one of the most fundamental aspects of the way imagine and understand other people: the lack of a physical presence. Beyond anonymity, the fact that the people we meet online exist only in our heads and on the screen changes the way we understand them.

So… I sat down to write in my journal today for the first time in a while. And no, don’t worry, this won’t be a confessional post. Just a little context. I sat down for the first time in a long while, and for the first time in an even longer while used analogue media to write: pen and paper. Tint and cellulose. Not often I do that anymore.

This is remarkable to me not because of the mustache-waxing, tweed-wearing hipsterness of the choice, but because in the process of physically drawing out the letters on the page, I began to feel a sense of elation, thrill. At first as I was writing I used the word “ecstasy” to describe it, but then crossed that out. Ecstasy at root (ex-stasis) means ‘out of body.’ But that wasn’t it. It was the in body-ness of using my whole hand to trace out each character that was at the root of the thrill. I had forgotten my own body. The illuminating thing was that remembering, and reinvolving my physical body brought out new emotions and thoughts, new insights.

Over the last month or so I’ve been mulling over the GamerGate kerfuffle brewing in the gaming world. This is a community to which I tangentially attach myself. A few years ago I would have called myself a ‘gamer.’ I don’t anymore not so much out of political reasons (though the current state of affairs could give me enough reason for that), but because I don’t game so much. Regardless, I pay attention.

For those who don’t know what GamerGate is, Stephen Totilo, the editor-in-chief of Kotaku has a solid rundown on what is going on here. TL;DR is that GamerGate is a loosely organized movement of some good folk, and some really nasty folk (who often disagree with each other) that self-identify as gamers, say they are crusading for a higher level of ethics in gaming journalism, and have a nasty habit of targetting (both online and IRL) women in the gaming world (game makers, game critics, and gamers alike) who speak up about the inherent sexism in the gaming world. Women have been threatened with violence at their homes, have cancelled public appearances and more in this. Like I said, there are some good folk involved as well who are not involved in the violence and abuse as well. But most of the attention is (rightly) focused on these issues.

What seems to be a running theme is that the anonymity afforded by the internet, and the near anarchic ‘organization’ of the GamerGate movement (an issue that the aforementioned good folk in it are struggling with) means that anyone can declare themselves a GamerGater, and say what they like without check or balance. And it gets ugly. It’s the kind of speech that we don’t hear face to face (as often). This is why it is often so surprising and confusing to people looking in.

And this is where I loop back to the thrill of writing something longhand with a pen. Doing something with a physical object had a very different experience than does performing its digital equivalent here on my computer. Even writing this out is a different sensation. All I can say at the moment is that it is less embodied. It doesn’t resonate in my physical body. Or it does less so. It’s less exciting. I’ve gone so far as to promise myself that I’ll be doing most of my work with cellulose from here on out (I’ll still be digitizing to Evernote after, let’s not get hasty here!). It gives me a greater sense of control and intimacy with my own thoughts.

Which leads me to wonder whether this digital distance that dominates so much of our lives now is part of what enables the incredible vitriol that we see so much of in GamerGate. When the person you are talking to or about is only a construction of pixels and headline-communicated ideas, they aren’t human, they are instead a symbol of whatever it is we associate with them, that we have created or imagined ourselves. They are almost a mask that represents whatever idea we associate with them. So it becomes easier to disregard their feelings, their humanity, their rights.

I’m not the first person to finger the internet as enabling horrible speech. We’ve seen so often people pointing fingers at the anonymity of the internet as being responsible for everything from bullying, to hatespeech, to 9/11. And yea, I think that the easy availability of anonymity can be abused, and can contribute to this kind of thing. But what I’m proposing is that the lack of a real person with whom we can feel empathy also contributes to the disgusting speech we see around us online. Suddenly, my own imagination is responsible for creating someone else’s identity, and I can bend them to my own will. If I want them to be a villain, it becomes so much easier to exaggerate the things I dislike, and minimize the things that might rehumanize them. They exist only in my head, after all. And sometimes, if something challenges that idea of them, or any of our closely held beliefs, we can get even nastier.

I’m going to tell a story about myself to try and illustrate what I’m talking about. Back when I was in high school, I spent a lot of time on a site called Chronicles. It was a Chrono Trigger fansite, and I was one of the forum mods. (The site is archived here.) One of the forum regulars, whose handle escapes me, was always up for some good discussion about whatever. He was either Lutheran or Episcopalian (unfortunately it escapes me), and raised by a pastor in the denomination. I, on the other hand, was going through what Christians call a crisis of faith at the time, and in short, ‘losing my religion.’ Or at least, I was starting down that road. I had an incredibly difficult time with this fellow netizen. He was always respectful, and reasonable (as much as can be expected from someone with a strong belief in a non-rational religion… which is not an insult. It is after all, the definition of faith. Look at Kierkegaard.). But we often had theological discussions on the site. And often after looking at posts he had made about the games, if I looked at one of our religious discussions, I would get frustrated, because suddenly it seemed to me he was a different person.

What I think was going on was that in the game discussions, he aligned quite closely with my own points of view. It became very easy to extrapolate a persona for him. He had a stentorian voice, was measured, reasonable, tall, silver-haired (video game site, natch), and friendly. I could build up a good person that would speak to me in my mind, and I could nod and agree and like him. The minute I switched to a religion thread though… he became unreasonable, and I wanted to punch him sometimes. He wasn’t friendly. He started looking like I imagine Cotton Mather looked like (add in some looming Looney Tunes style devil postures and flames).

And it was both because he disagreed with me, and because he no longer fit into the persona that I had built up in my head. Two of the facets of my reality were being challenged. Funny thing is, had I ever met the man face to face and had a real conversation with him, the persona I built for him, the mask I was interacting with, would have likely been much closer to who he ‘really’ is. I’m not saying that I wouldn’t still have read some things onto him, we all will always do that to a greater or lesser extent. But I would have had to content with another human being, whose body, and pain, and emotions I could sense and feel.

But because I only ever met him in the forums, the reality in which he existed for me was under the control of my imagination.

I never lashed out at him, and we always went forward with respect… but I wonder whether the frustration I experienced with that man at the Chronicles forums was maybe a larval form of the hate that is coming out of GamerGate. People are having both their worlds, and their ideas of what those worlds inhabitants should be like challenged.

Note: I’ve referred a lot to Kotaku articles. These stories have been run elsewhere as well. Rock, Paper, Shotgun; Polygon; even mainstream news outlets like the HuffPo and NYT. Kotaku has been good about its coverage: comprehensive, and open about its bias.