(Trigger warnings for the Holocaust and sexual violence)
I don’t usually get recruited to join hate groups.
Being a Jewish guy, I’m out of consideration for the most of them. And on the other side, my secularism and interfaith marriage means that the extremist elements within Judaism don’t want anything to do with me.
So I’ve got a special kind of agita from Gamergate today. Because these guys don’t care about my bar mitzvah, but they could have looked at the geeky thirteen-year-old boy reading from the Torah and seen a potential recruit.
On some broad, unsettling level, these are guys like me. They’re men. They’re straight. They’re white. They’re about my age. They’re middle-class, educated, Americans. They like fantasy novels, comics, sci-fi, and Game of Thrones. They claim to speak for me. The hatred, rage, and violence espoused by Gamergate emerged out of my same world. Why is it them and not me?
This is going to sound like hyperbole, but to really answer that question, you have to walk back through the history of the Third Reich. I’ve heard of Godwin’s law—Internet arguments may all turn to Nazis eventually, but it doesn’t mean that it’s never warranted.
I don’t intend the comparison to be literal. You don’t have to tell me that Gamergate has yet to commit any genocides. But there’s a lot more to Nazi Germany than just our shorthand characterization of “the worst people ever”. They were, yes. But they had to get that way—a sophisticated, modern nation collapsed into Hell in just a decade. It happened for thoroughly human reasons, and there has never been a guarantee that it would never happen again. Much of the same psychology that turned Germans into Nazis turned geeks to Gamergate.
Gamergate is now a part of geek culture, and of our cultural legacy. We need to know that it is not unique, that it is working through a playbook that’s been handed down many times before. When we can follow those plays, we can keep ourselves—and our friends—from being sucked in.
It Can’t Happen Here?
Nazi Germany was such a deep threat to the very meaning of civilization, it’s enormously tempting to throw up defenses to distance yourself from it. You want to truly believe that you would have hidden Anne Frank. You want to believe that you never would vote for leaders who could commit those crimes. But above all, you want to believe that nothing like that would ever happen to your home.
My impression of Germany’s history was always overwhelmed by the Nazis, and it’s hard to shake the idea that some special evil lurked in the souls of the men and women who signed up for the Nazi Party. Or that they were in thrall to the devil himself. Or at least, that German history was so barbaric for so long, the Nazis could only come from such a hostile culture.
But it’s not true. If anything, Germany in particular should have been resistant to Adolf Hitler. It was a modern, sophisticated, and progressive nation, the envy of the world. Germany wasn’t some ignorant backwater steeped in ancient prejudice, where superstitious peasants carried out pogroms based on blood libel. Germans—even spread out over multiple countries—invented modernity.
Their progressive influence was found in absolutely everything. Albert Einstein was a director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Physics, a professor of the Humboldt University of Berlin, a president of the German Physical Society, and a member of the Prussian Academy of Science. Sigmund Freud set up shop in Vienna; by 1930, his influence on German culture earned him the Goethe prize. Gustav Mahler was appointed to head the Vienna Court Opera by the Emperor himself. They had science, art, literature, technology, music, and all in such abundances that humanities doctoral students still have to learn German. The Americans and English were trumpeting their own Germanic roots as Anglo-Saxons, hoping to bask in reflected German glory.
Einstein, Freud, and Mahler are only a tiny slice of German achievement, but all three men have something in common: they were Jews. Because not only was Germany productive, but it was also tolerant. Jews in pre-Nazi Germany did better than African-Americans in the United States. Women earned the right to vote in Germany before the United States. The Institute for Sexual Research, founded in Berlin in 1919, pioneered trans rights. In 1929, the Reichstag voted to repeal all German laws against homosexuality. Four years later, it voted to cede all political power to Hitler.
This wasn’t supposed to happen in Germany. And that’s why I’ve been so loath to admit that geek culture could host a genuine hate group. It’s not supposed to happen. It’s the opposite of that. It’s what we thought we were immune to.
Geeks spend more time thinking about the nature of good and evil than the clergy. We’re the ones telling ourselves that with great power, comes great responsibility. That “might makes right” should yield to “might for right”. That anger leads to hate and to the dark side. That we should accept each other and overcome our differences. Race, religion, size, shape, color or creed—none of it should matter. Geeks invented worlds where the injustices of our own could be defeated.
When confronted with injustice, bigotry, and raw hatred, we would turn it aside. We would keep it out of our ranks and give it no quarter. I don’t believe that any more. It’s too late; the verdict is in. Geeks are as capable of every human cruelty alongside anyone else; Gamergate was built on our soil. With Gamergate exemplifying the worst aspects of geekdom, we need to ask how this happened, and further, why women became the target of Gamergate’s rage.
Time to go back to Germany.
The Völkisch Movement
Nazis bloomed in a substrate created by the völkisch movement. It was the German fusion of two 19th century trends—nationalism and romanticism. The former called on Germans to believe that Germany was special, and that their sense of self was bound up in the fate of Germany and the German people. The latter filled in the details: offering a vision of the world based on the values and beliefs of ordinary people (the Volk), through their emotions, their homelands, and their stories. The völkisch movement promised Germans their path forward lay in embracing their inner Germanness.
Ominous as that sounds, it wasn’t born in hate—the movement sought to raise Germans up to their neighbors. The British ruled the sea and the French ruled the land. Germans didn’t even rule Germany—German-speaking people were divided among a mess of small states ruled by emperors, kings, princes, grand dukes, regular-dukes, margraves, landgraves, electors, and, for good measure, the King of France. Industrialization was pushing German people from their homes into cities, to labor under dehumanizing conditions in early factories.
Völkisch theories offered hope, and its hagiography of the German nation gave Germans without wealth or status some badly needed self-worth. The Brothers Grimm traveled around Germany seeking German folktales, elevating the stories of German peasant grandmothers to the level of Shakespeare or Chaucer. Richard Wagner wrote operas about particularly Germanic legends: Valkyries and vikings. Storytellers rediscovered Norse mythology, and let Odin and Thor take their places beside Jupiter and Apollo. We still feel their influence in our stories today.
But as völkisch ideals bled into politics, German nationalism began to transform into something ominous. German blood began to trump German culture. Nationalist scholars, looking to prove that German superiority was innate, marshaled flimsy evidence into grant theories that an ancient Germanic race conquered the world. They turned modern Germans into the pureblood heirs of these übermenschen, known as the “Aryans”, who had streamed out of the lost city of Thule. The Thule Society sought to preserve the purity of Aryan culture in Germany against all foreign influences, and gathered under an ancient Nordic Odin symbol: the swastika. Uh-oh.
But these were good times, and while Germany lived up to the hype, the Thule Society and its co-believers were ignored. Germany, united at last, defeated France so thoroughly, that King Wilhelm decided to promote himself to Emperor—at the Palace of Versailles. The German Empire was the wealthiest country in the world, outproducing France and England while providing universal health care, old-age pensions, and unemployment relief. To be a German, and a German citizen, meant that you were the envy of the world. The Germans had fulfilled their destiny.
Until Germany returned to the Palace of Versailles, fifty years after the Kaiser’s coronation, to sign its total capitulation to the Allies at the end of World War I. Seven million Germans were dead, injured, or imprisoned. The Volk had failed.
A century later, geek culture founded its own völkisch movement. Geeks—whose hobbies were deemed “satanic”—moved from the fringes of society to the center, motivated by a real sense of pride at what their culture had created. Like the Germans, the geeky volk started to tell the stories they learned as children, and instead of Kaiser Wilhelm at Versailles, we got Captain America in Hollywood. Both high culture and pop culture adapted. The president of the United States started talking about Spock. It was fantastic.
But just as the Germans sought to define their cultural successes as uniquely German—as an attribute of their bloodlines—as geek culture spread out, a faction within nerdery took on a gatekeeping role. If Germans were superior, it was vital to police who was and was not one of them. If geek was chic, and if nerds ruled the world, well… the same question emerged. The gatekeepers—let’s just call them Gaters—went looking for Thule.
Gaters seized on a built-in mythology about nerds. The story went something like this: American culture is anti-intellectual, and the smart are oppressed by the dumb and strong. This is never more acute than in the crucible of high school.
The whole thing moved to center stage in the 1980s, mostly in teen movies starring Anthony Michael Hall: Sixteen Candles (playing a character known as “The Geek”) and Breakfast Club (playing a character known as “The Brain”). Both characters are social misfits and outsiders, shoved out of the mainstream because of their intelligence and interest in education.
What made these characters iconic is that they got to be protagonists, or at least, sympathetic. Their social discomfort is paired with a promise: the traits that make them unacceptable in high school—intelligence, dedication, sobriety—will earn them grand economic victories in adulthood. The Brain knows this; he panics after a bad mark because it will mess up his college chances. This is the basic covenant in the Geek Mythology—you trade high school popularity for adult status. And of course, it’s well-attested, from Bill Gates to Mark Zuckerberg.
Except I’m glossing over what high school popularity means: sex. The protagonist in the Geek Myth does not bemoan the lack of turnout for debate matches or that the math team doesn’t get a pep rally. The protagonist’s sacrifice is sex. And sex, in this myth, is narrowed further—heterosexual intercourse with conventionally attractive women. This myth is gendered and heteronormative. Geeky women barely exist, either as potential partners or to tell their own stories of sexual frustration. And the Geek Myth never contemplates two young geeky boys canoodling in the science lab.
The result is the nearly literal objectification of women, reduced to status symbols rather than people. Comics and novels from every geeky genre appealed to the same fantasy, offering powerful, white male heroes, adored by cartoonishly proportioned women. A starship captain or knight was a geeky figure just by context, and even if Captain Kirk seemed more jock than nerd, he was their hero and a geek figure all the same.
The same idea permeated films about nerds, as objectification became more unsettling in a recognizable context. In Weird Science, another Anthony Michael Hall protagonist and a friend use their nerdy skills to create the “perfect woman” on a home computer, bringing her to life. She’s dutifully obedient to them, and they immediately force her to shower with them, then parade her around town as a status symbol. In Revenge of the Nerds, the protagonists install secret cameras in a sorority house and sell the photos; later, one of the nerds rapes the villain’s girlfriend by impersonating him. Not only do the movies endorse their behavior, but they don’t even grant women the dignity of being outraged by their treatment.
While this mythology is deeply problematic, for the most part, people outgrew it before it meant anything. The believer ends up shaking it off with so much other adolescent baggage. It’s a part of growing up, that basic process of figuring out why you aren’t just given everything that you want. Until the Gaters turned it into the Thule Society.
Völkisch Roots of Nazi Power
Defeat in World War I was a catastrophe; dreams of German superiority were shattered. Adolf Hitler told Germans it wasn’t their fault. He only needed a few broad strokes to do it. First, he promised that Germany’s defeat in World War I was a dirty trick. Rather than defeat the greatest army in the world, the Allies conspired with treasonous elements within Germany to stab it in the back. Get the traitors out, and Germany would be invincible.
Second, the way forward was to become more German than ever. All of those völkisch ideals were right, and they didn’t fail, they were betrayed. Germany was defeated because it was desecrated; its values were contaminated by foreign blood and foreign ideas. A degenerate society had emerged in Weimar Germany, and so a nation of pure Germans, with German values, was the answer.
In exchange, Hitler promised the world. German men, confirmed in their superiority, would seize land from the untermenschen—non-Germans and therefore inferior peoples—and rule it as kings. More, each man was promised a German woman. Blonde, beautiful, and sexually available; her duty would be to him, their descendants would populate their fief.
Hitler blamed Germany’s woes on rassenschande—racial defilement. Germans were losing their Aryan heritage because their bloodlines were being mixed with others. This belief, which lay at the base of the Holocaust, was inseparable from sex and gender. German blood was polluted because German women were unfaithful to German men, transforming infidelity and rejection into treason. The female complement to the Hitler Youth was called the Bund Deutscher Mädel—the League of German Maidens—to highlight both racial and sexual purity.
Nazi propaganda stoked the sexual anxieties of German men, Jews and other non-Germans were depicted as ravenous seducers of good German girls. Homosexuality, which would not produce a new generation of Germans, was equally persecuted.
This propaganda was tragically effective. Women suspected of dating Jews were marched through the streets, heads shaved, forced to carry signs announcing their sexual “immorality”. Lynch mobs went after the implicated men. The Institute for Sexual Research was raided, and its membership—a long list of LGBTQ+ Germans—was doxxed.
Hitler was only able to bring Germany to this point because of how well völkisch national mythology prepared them for it. German superiority had been carefully cultivated. German stories were so identifiable as German, and so familiar to Germans, that Hitler’s close identification with them could blind them to the terrors he proposed.
Now we come back around. Geek culture never endured a trauma on the scale of World War I, of course, but the past decade still shifted the ground. On the most macro level, the generation of geeks raised on Geek Mythology came of age in a deeply depressed economy. Their intellect and education failed to provide them with the adulthood they desired; even high-level tech skills did not guarantee wealth or social status.
At the same time, geek culture had taken off, and by and large, left Gaters behind as it expanded and diversified. As once-fringe cultural touchstones got bigger, they drew increased criticism as art—and quality surged in response. Reactionaries lurked, but remained sidelined and isolated as geek culture became more welcoming.
But as adulthood failed to deliver the promises of their youth, Gaters could no longer retreat into a culture which adapted to their every whim, endorsing their sexual fantasies and self-aggrandizement. They began to lash out in waves, because like the German defeat in World War I, something essential to their self-conception had been denied. Those responsible needed to be punished and destroyed.
The first was the emergence of the Gater myth of the “Fake Geek Girl”. Women who participated in geek culture were deemed to be interlopers. As the myth goes, women who profess geeky interests are liars, adopting the affectations of geek culture in order to meet men. It’s bullshit, of course, but unstated in the myth is why Gaters should be enraged that there are apparently women, desperate for their affections, who are aggressively seeking them out.
This, too, boils down to their anxious masculinity. Gaters do not believe themselves to be the targets of “Fake Geek Girls”. Rather, women in geek culture must be in pursuit of other men. This fear renews sexual jealousies and masculine anxiety, because if real geeky women are rejecting them, they start running out of excuses that don’t require introspection. They needed a narrative, and sought to depict Fake Geek Girls as parasites looking to steal the status adult geek men were entitled to.
The backlash to Fake Geek Girls provided cover. If these women were not really geeks, Gaters had no need to accept their rejection. This allowed a narrative where a female presence only polluted geek culture and cost it its purity. Female sexuality was shamed, an immoral force which could corrupt geekdom on contact. The masculine fantasies created by geek culture—muscle-bound heroes and devoted damsels—put Gaters on the path to exclude women and femininity from their identity, reducing them to outsiders with questionable motives. Geek culture’s stories are filled with women whose agency fades in service of the whims of the male protagonist, and so it became easy for Gaters, always protagonists of their own stories, to justify dictating the role of women within their culture.
From female participants in geek culture, Gaters would move on to female critics of geek culture. The next explosion of Gater rage was directed at Anita Sarkeesian. Her Tropes vs. Women series did not ask unprecedented questions about the roles of women in geek culture, but Gaters moved in against her. She soon became the target of horrific threats of physical and sexual violence from Gaters. For Gaters, Sarkeesian was a renewed assault on their cultural purity. Fake Geek Girls were still merely participants in their culture; Sarkeesian sought to change it. Alone, she could be ignored, but the ground was already shifting in her direction. Not only were Gater fantasies unfulfilled, but those fantasies themselves would be pushed into the background, victims of the social justice warriors. Gaters were going to take up arms to protect their sexist fantasies from feminism, just as the Reich sought to protect German culture from the “degenerate art” of changing times.
Gaters suffered a humiliating defeat in their war against Anita Sarkeesian. Proving each of her points with their own vitriol, Gaters became a laughingstock, while Sarkeesian’s kickstarter raised more than twenty-five times its goal. Gaming media largely sided against them, even when it disagreed with the specifics of Sarkeesian’s arguments. Gaters were aware of the well-earned contempt the world had for them. Their anxious masculinity, rejected by traditional masculinity and now subject of feminist critique, began to burn.
The ultimate trigger that brought turned Gaters into Gamergate was a nasty, public smear campaign against indie game designer Zoe Quinn by a jilted ex-boyfriend. Among other things, it accused her of sleeping with games journalists in exchange for favorable reviews of her non-traditional game Depression Quest. A blatant lie, but it ignited Gamergate because it fed the fear raised both by Fake Geek Girls and Anita Sarkeesian.
Depression Quest is a free-to-play, interactive fiction game designed to emulate the experience of depression. It provides none of the masculine fantasy Gaters like, and therefore, it was Not a Real Game, and Zoe Quinn was a Fake Geek Girl. Its relative prominence in gaming media now had an explanation—the Fake Geek Girl’s sexual immorality had corrupted journalists. And those journalists, erstwhile gamers themselves—had not merely disagreed with Gaters by backing Anita Sarkeesian, they had now clearly conspired to stab Gaters in the back.
Gamergate lets its adherents believe that the feminist critiques they have faced are only propaganda, and gamer journalists who ascribe to them have been bribed, sexually or otherwise. Gaters see social justice warriors as an existential threat the same way the Nazis saw Bolsheviks—a foreign influence of suspect motives who have organized to destroy their culture. SJWs created and pushed “degenerate” games on unwilling geeks, and a corrupt press lied to convince the world it was all the right thing to do. The conspiracy was big enough to cover every gap—Gaters could disassociate from anything by calling it a SJW false flag operation, and call any negative press further evidence of the conspiracy itself. And so they went to war.
Individual Gaters lashed out at Zoe Quinn, with violent threats that forced her from her home. They were able to justify their own actions by the community around them, at 8chan and elsewhere, which kept up a narrative about her supposed corruption. Sexual threats fit neatly within the Gater narrative, because they threaten to steal away her sexuality—the weapon with which she supposedly conquered the media. Against Sarkeesian, sexual threats force Gaters’ fantasies of their own masculinity upon her, with a public declaration of what they believe to be their own, sexualized, power. In either case, their actions were fueled by a long-held narrative about their own purity, their own superiority, and the world that they were entitled to claim.
Gamergate is not World War II. There is no looming Holocaust at the hands of Gaters, and despite their recent noise, their influence, in geek communities and in the world at large, is rapidly fading away. While they are very much a product of geek culture, it is a culture that has by and large rejected them. We cannot promise to be immune, but ultimately, we have always had the power to ask the questions of these movements that keep them from infecting us.
The Nazis’ greatest advantage was that nobody had seen their like before, and therefore, that their assertions of Germanness made them unquestionable as patriots. We are wiser now, and we can see the links that show how harmful Gamergate can be. It is our task to constantly interrogate ourselves—the things we love as well as those we reject—to call out the themes that could enable Gaters.
Because if nothing else, Gaters are not born or destined to that fate; each of us continually chooses to stay away from them, and to reject their hateful view of the world. The cultural and political elements that cushion Gaters’ descent into hatred are around all of us as well, and each of them ultimately chose that path for himself, and chooses not to criticize his peers. But by being aware of the resonances of Gater beliefs—both within geek culture and with other hate movements, we’re able to shut them down and protect ourselves.