Originally posted at Salon.com
We’re now three months in, and the social media-based “consumer revolt” against the “progressive agenda” of the gaming press, known as GamerGate, shows no signs of abating.
I’ve gotten to know a lot of the industry personalities that GamerGate has targeted for bizarre charges of “corruption” and “nepotism” since this mess started. I’ve come to consider some of them friends, if only Twitter friends. And my frustration and anger at the hounds of GamerGate biting at their heels has increased in proportion.
But it didn’t become personal for me until Felicia Day, an actress and writer who created the popular web series The Guild, dared write one blog post speaking out against GamerGate, talking about how scared she was of being targeted and “doxxed” (having documentation of her personal details revealed online) by gamergaters, only to be immediately doxxed in response.
Not because I know Felicia Day or have any sort of relationship with her, but because I don’t. Let me explain.
One of the most obnoxious but persistent beliefs that drives reactionary movements like GamerGate is the idea that the people screaming about having a “feminist agenda” pushed on them are the true underdogs. Their opponents are a privileged elite, limousine-liberal “hipsters” who have invaded their hobby in order to oppress them.
They readily invoke the high-school language of “bullying” to characterize the opposition they face from the gaming “establishment” and the mainstream media. The relentless attacks on the women they target as “attention whores” bear all the earmarks of defensive misogyny, the nasty attitude of the nerdy, awkward guy who’s convinced “popular girls” are all secretly taunting him. And they make me sick.
Not because, as they seem to assume, I’m a wealthy, happy, polo-wearing yacht-clubber who enjoys picking on those who are less fortunate.
But because that was the trip I was on for so much of my life.
I’ve written about this before: I was the kid who probably spent fully 10 times as many hours reading books at school than exchanging words with any of my classmates. It was years before I learned to talk something like a normal human being and not an overly precise computerized parody of a “nerd voice.” People felt uncomfortable around me, disliked me instinctively. Sometimes I got pushed around or challenged to a fight; most of the time I got ignored, save the dirty looks and snickers.
And so hell yes I “retreated into gaming.” It’s not like I could “win” at anything else in life. I couldn’t play sports, socialize or even dress like I hadn’t just escaped from a burning building. The one thing I was good at, getting high scores at tests in school, was hardly a source of positive social feedback; it just made me more of a target.
But games were always there for me. A magical world where, despite the violence and horror, winning was always possible. Where enemies could always be slain. Where gaining experience always led to leveling up, as opposed to a real world where trying seemed to get you nowhere. Where the capricious unfairness of real human beings was erased and your princess was always waiting at the end of World 8-4.
Games were there when I fled the conservative Christian upbringing where I felt like a marooned astronaut on an alien planet, hoping for a fresh start. Games were there when I discovered the small liberal arts college I fled to was just a different alien planet, one where my small-town naïveté made me as much a target as my erudition had back home.
Games were there when the one thing I’d always been able to rely on, my brain, wasn’t good enough for top-tier college-level classes. Games were there when, with my grades in free fall and my future plans falling to dust, I stopped going out, stopped answering calls, stopped eating regular meals and sleeping and talking.
Games were there when the girl I was dating — a girl who, miraculously, had asked me out despite my lack of self-confidence, who had to assure me that she wasn’t asking me out as a joke — told me she couldn’t be with me long-term unless I got my life together. Games were there when I heard she was moving in with another guy, and engaged.
Games were there when I came home, defeated and broken, to my mom’s house with no degree and no prospects.
Trust me, I know what it’s like to have the most important moments of your life take place behind a glowing screen, to lose yourself in the dramas and quests of the game world when the real world seems hopeless. When the rest of your day — the fruitless job searches, the awkward attempts at socializing, the grinding sameness of being another Victim of the Recession — is dull gray and tastes like ashes.
I know what it’s like to have something so important to you that when you feel like it’s “under attack” you have no choice but to lash out. Yes, GamerGate, I know.
And you know who else knows? Felicia Day.
* * *
Day’s web project The Guild was really important to me, circa 2007-2008. It’s one of those cultural artifacts I’ve lost track of since and have been afraid to revisit because it might stir up memories of a pretty dark time in my life.
It was one of the first web series that was made by gamers for gamers — a parody of World of Warcraft made by someone who’d clearly actually played World of Warcraft, a “nerd comedy” populated by several distinct subspecies of nerd as observed in the wild. And under the absurdist tone, it was a fairly brutal look at what it was like to be in your 20s, chronically unemployed, and burdened by a creeping dread that your entire life may be a waste.
It helped that Day revealed in interviews that her character, the MMORPG-addicted Cyd Sherman/Codex, was an exaggerated version of herself and her own, milder struggles with addiction and social anxiety. It showed me that not only can pretty girls like Codex fall into the same trap of depression and withdrawal from the world that I had, but even pretty girls who were working actresses and had been on Buffy the Vampire Slayer could.
It helped, let’s be blunt, to hear my complaints about my own life, and how hard basic human functioning seemed to be sometimes, spoken by an attractive woman on-screen. It made them seem somehow more valid.
(Yes, I know what it’s like, to feel like things only “count” when a pretty girl says them. I know what it’s like to spend my whole adolescence putting attractive women on a pedestal, desperate for the validation I thought they could offer me and furious and resentful at being denied it. I know what it’s like, never quite believing that girls could ever suffer the same loneliness that I did. I know what it’s like to feel that frustration that everyone always seems to instinctively side with “pretty girls” over you. I get it, GamerGate, I know.)
And in Seasons one and two of The Guild, the event that sparks the central conflict is Codex’s guild mate Zaboo falling in love with her and showing up at her doorstep. The writing of The Guild never excused Zaboo for his stalking and his violation of Codex’s privacy, but let us see how painfully vulnerable he was. It showed Codex feeling terrified and violated at Zaboo’s behavior — as she had every right to be — but also the way her natural, justified reaction was piling hurt onto somebody who was already hurting.
Felicia Day was, in other words, exactly the kind of geek girl — a cute redhead who was on Buffy and posts videos about playing WoW — who had every reason to fear, loathe, and demonize creepy Internet stalkers, but instead treated the topic with empathy. She made me feel like even though she didn’t know me, she knew guys like me, and that she understood our faults and forgave us.
Maybe that sounds like no big deal today. It’s hard for me to put myself back in that mind-set again. But the fact that someone was making something like The Guild — as a contrast to the lazy, punching-down humor of something like The Big Bang Theory — meant the world to me.
Felicia Day was one of my New Media heroes. I daydreamed that maybe the cool thing I could do to justify my life would be to someday create my own awesome web series about my own nerdy travails and distribute it through nontraditional channels. And yes, like 90 percent of the straight guys on the Internet, I had a giant nerd crush on her.
So imagine how I felt about getting the chance to meet her.
* * *
Los Angeles is, all things considered, not a bad place to be unemployed. The line between actual “aspiring actors” and unemployed losers who use “aspiring actor” as an excuse can be pretty thin, especially as long as your parents are willing to continue to subsidize your acting classes.
And as a bonus, telling everyone and yourself you’re “pursuing acting” means you can justify random celebrity-watching excursions as “learning the craft” or “networking opportunities.”
One day, I saw Felicia Day post on her blog, sometime in the summer of 2008, that she was doing an improv show downtown, a double-header, with a reception in between the two sets. I had never been to that part of L.A. before; this being 2008, I had no GPS and had to reply on MapQuest printouts. Going was a very bad idea. I went, of course.
I got lost on the way there. Multiple times. Got lost trying to find parking. Got screamed at by one of the few, courageous jaywalkers in downtown L.A. By the time I found the place, finished arguing with the lady at the ticket counter about my e-ticket — I was the only attendee who’d bought one — and made my way in, the first half of the show was over and the reception had already started.
I didn’t realize at the time how events like this always turn out: that small shows that are advertised on blogs that are theoretically “open to the public” usually end up being social events for the actors’ family and friends. And if you attend such a show as a random member of the public, you will be the only one who does.
And you stand there clutching a paper plate and a Dixie cup all by yourself while it seems like everyone else has known each other for years, gathering naturally into raucous circles reminiscing about shows they’ve been in and seen.
You see the Celebrity of the Hour, Felicia, flitting like a butterfly from clique to clique, exchanging hugs and kisses, and you know with piercing certainty that you, standing there by yourself, knowing nobody, are the creepy guy from the Internet. And you realize that if you tried to explain to Felicia Day why exactly you’re here — ”I’m a big fan from the Internet and I read your blog and I thought I’d just show up” — it would only make you creepier.
And you get that feeling you’ve had buzzing in the back of your skull like incessant background noise since the day you dropped out of school: that you shouldn’t be here, that you’re in the wrong place, that every decision you’ve made in your life to get you to this horribly exposed, awkward, shameful place is wrong and that you wish you could melt into the ground and die.
Then you overhear Felicia saying to her friends, “Sorry, I’ve got someone else on my radar to talk to,” and she turns around, and she’s all smiles, and casual as anything she says, “Hi! What’s your name?” And the whole night changes.
* * *
I’m sure on her end Felicia wasn’t doing anything other than being a decent human being. But just a tiny bit of decency in the right place at the right time means a lot.
She asked me how I knew about the show, and I told her in my awkward, understated way how much I loved The Guild, and we talked about MMORPGs and World of Warcraft and being gamers. We talked about acting and she talked about her struggle to get The Guild made as a traditional TV pilot before taking it to the web, and about what a big deal it was that she’d gotten sponsorship from Microsoft’s Zune Marketplace.
I mentioned that I’d done improv in college and that I was currently trying to “break into voice-over.” She asked me to do a “radio voice,” like everyone does, and I did one.
And when her friends gathered around saying they’d like to grab a bite to eat before the show, she turned to me and asked, “Do you want to join us for dinner?”
And so I found myself at a table in a diner with Felicia Day and her improv troupe. And we talked and joked around and I told funny college stories and I started to remember, like an old, unused muscle memory, there was a time people had told me I was “charming” before I was a depressive sack of shit.
She took a chance on me. A chance that, as one of her fans, I knew all too well might not have panned out. I’m a creepy guy from the Internet, I know creepy guys from the Internet, I’ve seen creepy guys at their worst. I’ve seen myself at my worst.
She took a chance that I wouldn’t say something nasty or invasive or thoughtless or mean. She took a chance that I wouldn’t take a gesture of kindness as an invitation to cross boundaries, to stalk, to obsess, which I took pains not to do, and which is why I still feel awkward tweeting @feliciaday even though I’m now a “Twitter personality” myself.
And I found myself rising to that occasion, sharing geeky memes, swapping opinions on TV shows and movies and games, and actually having a real conversation for the first time after months of being a shut-in. I felt like a human being again. To quote Luna Lovegood from Harry Potter: “It was almost like having friends.”
It meant so much, to have someone I admired trust that I’d be a decent human being, and to find myself living up to that trust.
Go back and read Felicia’s blog post again. Her opening is about how she’s always felt comradeship with gamers, how she’s felt that seeing a gamer guy on the street means she can confidently approach him and strike up a conversation, how she’s never thought of gamers as creepy or threatening or unlikable.
That’s not celebrity PR copy. I can testify that, in 2008, it was completely true. I always thought the wonderful thing about being in a fringe nerd community was that sense of trust. Of closing the distance between performers and fans that characterizes “mainstream” celebrity.
My wife tells stories about being able to just walk up to writers she’s read and loved her whole life at sci-fi conventions and grab a beer with them. I was able to get a convention of total strangers to participate in my crazy plan to propose to my wife, for free, just because I was a fellow gamer.
* * *
So how did we get to this place? How do we get to the place where people who profess to love games and love gaming send vile threats and harassment to the people who make and write about games? How did we get to the place where trust has been replaced with resentment and hate?
Well, because trust is hard. It was a close call, that night. What if Felicia had happened to not notice me, or, as she had every right to do, decide she didn’t need to talk to the weird loner standing in the shadows when she was surrounded by friends?
I don’t think I have it in me to turn into as full-fledged a destructive hater as the worst of the gamergaters. But there were several moments in that reception where I almost just stormed out, telling myself the whole night was a bust. I would’ve been mad at myself and mad at the situation and, yes, mad at her. The image in my head would’ve been of this Internet star whom I idolized hanging out being beloved by all her friends and ignoring me, rejecting me, treating me like I was beneath her.
And I might well have found that her work soured for me, and ended up being the kind of vindictive jerk who would send demeaning tweets to her and publicly accuse her of being a “glorified booth babe.”
And every time someone on the Internet does that, it gives her one less reason to trust that the random fan she runs into is going to be a nice guy worth interacting with.
Listen to the tone of the complaints GamerGate makes. Listen to the things they accuse the journalists and developers they hate of being — ”elitist,” “smug,” “cliquish.” The language of people angry because, as gamergaters keep saying, they feel they’re being kept out of a club, they’re “not being listened to.”
They’re angry that the industry and the press don’t trust the fans, don’t reach out to them. That the “gamer” stereotype has been so discredited that people would celebrate en masse at the idea of “gamer” dominance of gaming being over.
And I get it, GamerGate, I know. That look in people’s eyes that haunts you, the one that lurks behind the fake smile of every job interviewer who never calls you back, the one in the eyes of the popular kid whose gaze slides right over you. “You’re a loser, you’re a creep, you’re not worth my time.” How after the 10th, the 50th, the 5,000th time you’ve gotten that look you just want to lash out and scream.
I’m not defending that feeling. That toxic swell of nerd entitlement that’s busy destroying everything I love. But I understand it very well.
And GamerGate doesn’t understand that this feeling, this rage, only feeds the cycle of mistrust. That every time it erupts in an entitled tantrum it becomes another reason to distrust and dislike your fans.
No one ought to be expected to just put up with death threats directed against Blizzard for the graphics in Diablo III or against Bioware for the ending of Mass Effect 3 or against a Call of Duty developer for a weapons patch. No one ought to have to apologize for giving The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess a slightly worse grade than its fans thought it deserved. No one should receive tens of thousands of abusive messages within 24 hours just for a Kickstarter campaign proposing videos to criticize games. No one should have to discuss and defend their sex life in public because they once dared make a free game people didn’t like.
And Felicia Day shouldn’t come under attack for admitting that the hatred filling gaming today, for the first time ever, made her cross the street to avoid a couple of guys wearing gaming t-shirts because being around gamers made her afraid.
* * *
After meeting Felicia I was walking on air for days — I’d met one of my geek heroes and I hadn’t screwed it up! She thought I was a nice guy! She thought my voice-overs had potential!
I started actually sending out auditions again, something I’d been slacking on doing. I decided to coast on the momentary jolt of confidence and start submitting the voice-over demo I’d made to agencies again, and this time I managed to snag one.
Eventually I was able to start getting semi-regular voice-over work, to get out of my parents’ place, to find a steady job, to get back together with my ex and move in with her and marry her. Eventually I got into the place where auditioning for Jeopardy made sense in my mind instead of just being another stupid lark destined to fail.
Did all of that happen just because some geek celebrity decided to be unusually nice to some random fan? Probably not. But it certainly helped.
I remember that, every time some kid runs up to me on the street demanding a photo with the “Jeopardy guy.” (Yes, it does still happen. And yes, haters, I think it’s as silly as you do.)
But today Felicia Day crosses the street if she sees two guys in Call of Duty shirts. Today Felicia Day knows there are “fans” of hers diligently working to track her down, violate her privacy, collect her address. Today if Felicia Day saw a weird, depressed, standoffish Arthur Chu at a reception… she’d probably just walk briskly past me on the way to her car.
And that 23-year-old version of me, today, would storm out and head home, hating himself the whole way back. And today if he logged online he’d have a roar of voices from his fellow gamers feeding that resentment — telling him to blame his problems on “elitist,” “popular” voices in the hobby, on out-of-touch women who don’t understand him, like Felicia Day and Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn.
They’d tell him to vent his feelings about the “corrupt elites” ruining everything, that his energy could be usefully applied in barraging advertisers with emails and flooding celebrities’ Twitter accounts with probing questions. He’d get recruited into a pseudo-military outfit complete with “operations” and “targets.”
And the world would become just a little bit worse.
I don’t know how to fix this. I’m not much help — I’m damaged goods. I’ve got enough of my own rage to spare, and that rage is all I can fall back on when I see GamerGate hurting innocents, no matter how much I might empathize with where they’re coming from.
The people who try to break the cycle, who open the door to trust, who invite weird, creepy, lonely guys to come out to dinner just because they’re fans… they’re rare. They pay a heavy cost for taking that risk, sometimes. To some of us, they’re heroes. And we’re losing more of them every day.