Conservatives should be cautious welcoming a leaderless movement into their ranks.
I became acquainted with GamerGate sometime in the last several months, and only after I discovered myself blocked on Twitter by a couple people I had never interacted with or mentioned. (I admit coming to this party late: GamerGate was one of the many cultural developments I missed as I squirreled myself away to finish my Masters thesis last fall and spring. There are few better ways to increase productivity than cutting off all social media and most news.) I don’t object to people pre-blocking others (I now do the same), but being relatively new to Twitter at the time, I wanted to know if I had committed some sort of major faux pas and if there was some way to make amends.
I did a little research and soon discovered myself on one or two semi-popular block lists dedicated to identifying and blocking Men’s Rights Activists, racists, and GamerGaters, among other unsavory groups. Seeing as how I do not identify with any of those descriptors (or the groups that associate with them), let alone had commented on any of those issues, I assume somewhere along the line I had followed, favorited or retweeted the wrong person or tweet. I’ve been keeping one eye on GamerGate since then, as people do not often create and promote block lists with false positives; there was clearly some larger conflict driving this sort of activity.
I find GamerGate to be a complex movement. I still don’t know quite what to make of it, although clearly it exists as a debate within the political Left, mostly in the liberal-dominated tech world. (It is not, for example, an issue that features heavily in the far more racially and economically diverse faith and family Left.) Though it has some prominent voices, GamerGate appears leaderless (which, I admit, automatically disposes me to dislike it). As far as I can tell, it started as a consumer revolt against perceived unethical journalistic practices, rather than a misogynistic abuse movement. While there’s no question video game journalism has had some notoriously unethical moments, much of what I’ve seen on Twitter from GamerGate is directionless, inchoate anger and the routine dogpiling of those who disagree with its members stances (justifying, at least in part, the block lists designed to ignore it).
The Limits of a Consumer Revolt
So it was with some interest I read Mytheos Holt’s piece in The Federalist today welcoming members of GamerGate into the conservative fold. Holt’s sentiment is refreshing. The conservative tent is naturally large, and there is nothing in principle wrong with inviting more members into its fold. However, given the ideological commitments of those who tend to play computer games, such a welcome may be premature. In fact, it may even be at cross purposes with both the goals of GamerGate (inasmuch as the objectives of a leaderless movement can be defined) and the conservative movement as a whole.
In his piece, Holt compares the GamerGate revolt to the American university conflicts of the 1960’s and 1970’s:
The very same exclusionary politics dominated during the campus protests of the 60’s and 70’s, when the liberal lions in numerous faculty lounges suddenly found themselves besieged by illiberal Leftist students. The radicals argued that their professors were mere mouthpieces for a racist, sexist, warmongering capitalist “system.” That these professors were open supporters of civil rights or socialism appeared to make absolutely no difference. “We will destroy your world, your corporation, your University,” boasted the triumphalist Leftist hordes. In response, the old-fashioned liberals “suddenly discovered that [they] had been cultural conservatives all along,” in the words of Irving Kristol.
From this battle between old school Roosevelt-era liberalism and radical sixties Leftism, emerged a reluctant new breed of intellectual: the neoconservative. Kristol himself defined this breed this way: “A neoconservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality.”
Given that they’ve lasted a year and show no signs of slowing down, I think it’s high time we start reckoning with the fact that the new neoconservatives might be about to ascend. Since “neoconservative” is taken, perhaps we could say “videoconservatives,” or “videocons” may soon arise.
Although provocative, this analogy is ultimately confusing and gives the wrong impression. The power dynamic in the GamerGate revolt is between the anonymous, consumer masses, and those professionals who create and review video games (and their allies in the mainstream press). GamerGate isn’t the university professors in the analogy, but the rabble of students with hardly any cultural power. In the GamerGate dynamic, the media gatekeepers are the ones who hold the positions of influence; it is not held by a group of Twitter hashtag users.
It is a perhaps sign of just how culturally weak conservatives have become that they think an alliance with a relatively powerless movement will be both prudent and productive. Consumer revolts may suppress the political and cultural views of creators, but they do little to change them. In fact, the wrong sort of revolt–especially the directionless, scorched-earth kind–may cause creators to ossify their positions and resent those who challenge them. Instead of shifts in attitudes or philosophy, game makers and reviewers will only pander as necessary to placate the unruly mob. (We certainly see the same dynamic in the GOP with the growing tension between the establishment and the base.)
Cultural change tends to occur at the periphery of clusters of institutions or organizations and usually by the movement of elites within these. Whatever we are to think of GamerGate, it is clearly an outsider movement, which means it has little chance of affecting lasting change on a grand scale. The media and game creators are overwhelmingly against the movement or indifferent to its concerns. The pressure GamerGate has exerted on games journalism has been effective only because it has forced concessions by targeting revenue sources rather than persuading creators to change their views. Even its natural allies, such as the mostly invincible game critic Total Biscuit, are hesitant to publicly associate with the movement.
How do You Ally with a Leaderless Movement? And Why Would You Want to?
These factors make a public invitation of dissatisfied gamers into the conservative fold counterproductive on at least two levels. First, it is the aim of many conservatives to stop the progressive takeover of culture. Yet anything identified as conservative is already outside the circles that make, shape, and disseminate popular cultural products. As a long term strategy, we should encourage dissatisfied gamers to do the hard work of creating and shaping video game media rather than simply identifying with a different political movement, especially if our label (fairly or unfairly) will automatically disqualify its adopters from having a meaningful voice in popular culture.
Second, any invitation to GamerGate carries with it the assumption that its ideals are compatible with the broad coalition of the Right. Yet what in the GamerGate movement is particularly conservative? It is perhaps libertarian in some respects, most crucially on matters of free speech, but there doesn’t seem to be much else the movement holds in agreement with conservatives. As far as I can tell, it would be an alliance of convenience on certain issues, rather than a natural fit: I can’t see hardcore fans of the Dark Souls series, Guild Wars 2 or Terraria showing up at CPAC and feeling all that welcome. The cultural differences seem immense–I can hardly imagine the sort of person who enjoys cosplay at E3 or Dragon Con feeling at home with the old fogeys at CPAC–and these sorts of social signifiers matter just as much as policy alignment when it comes to the exercise of tribal politics.
Furthermore, Holt’s invocation of Kristol and neoconservatives is tone-deaf. Neoconservatives are reviled in progressive circles and, as far as I can tell, the left-libertarian (?) GamerGate views the neoconservative movement with the sort of disdain they have for any other moral authoritarianism.
I don’t see any reason why those in GamerGate would find conservatism appealing, especially since it makes common cause with social conservatives, who are the ideological opposites of left-libertarians. The ghost of Jack Thompson still haunts every serious gamer.
As Carl Benjamin noted in a recent interview, games journalism has already been forced to reform. If Benjamin’s assertion holds up–and it seems to be based in a good deal of evidence–I have to wonder just what GamerGate stands for now. Is it a watchdog group? A games development movement? A troll haven? Or is it just a swarm of locust, driven mindlessly across the plains of the Internet in search of “ethics” violations? The answer to this is unclear to me, and so it seems unwise to welcome a leaderless movement without better understanding its motivations and commitments. Mobs have a tendency to devour friend and foe alike.
Holt ends his piece with this advice: “Keep on fighting, GamerGate. Hope to see you at CPAC in a couple years.” I would suggest an alternative course of action, one with more long term benefit for both free-speech loving conservatives and lefty gamers: those who associate with GamerGate should drop the hashtag and consider getting into games journalism (traditional or otherwise) and video game production. It may not be as immediately satisfying as posting to Twitter or threatening to boycott a poorly designed product, but it is the only way to effect lasting change in the video game industry.