Analysis, Gaming

How Sensationalism Continues to Ignite GamerGate

Sensationalism is not a new concept in the media; it can be traced as far back as Ancient Rome with the Acta Diurna, where it served as a means to inform the masses on politics and everyday news.

But now, in our current day and age, sensationalism is dangerous. Through the manipulation of emotion, sensationalist reporting can spark off great movements and further widen cultural rifts within a society, and can even be responsible for perpetuating the most tumultuous controversies of our time.

It can even lead to a moral panic.

To understand the impact of sensationalism one must examine examples of biased coverage that attempts to push a cultural agenda for moral advocacy, the nature of controversies in the media, the exploitative nature of trading objective journalism for a “profit motive”, and how sensational content can damage and ruin the reputation of those involved in a scandal.


Leigh Alexander’s sensationalized piece on Gamasutra was one of the more influential articles that invoked key emotions in a portion of readers.

Sensationalism and GamerGate: The political agenda to end gamers

“Sensationalism is a type of editorial bias in mass media in which events and topics in news stories and pieces are over-hyped to increase viewership or readership numbers.

“Sensationalism may include reporting about generally insignificant matters and events that don’t influence overall society and biased presentations of newsworthy topics in a trivial or tabloid manner contrary to the standards of professional journalism.” –Wikipedia entry, Sensationalism

Like in past controversies, sensational coverage permeates the landscape of GamerGate, an industry-wide movement that actively scrutinizes and criticizes the collusive, corrupt practices of video games media.

Rather than capture the industry-wide debacle in an objective light, key games media publications such as Gamasutra, Kotaku and Ars Technica took advantage of the situation in order to spin sensationalized content focused on the volatility of any controversy: harassment, socio-political pressures, to name a few.

“‘Gamer’ isn’t just a dated demographic label that most people increasingly prefer not to use. Gamers are over. That’s why they’re so mad.” –Leigh Alexander, Gamasutra (Aug. 28, 2014)

These articles brazenly featured such tabloid-esque headlines as “Gamers Don’t Have to be Your Audience, Gamers are Over“,”The Death of the ‘Gamers’ and the Women who ‘Killed’ Them” and “A Guide to Ending ‘Gamers’“, all of which stoked an already-building fire.

In these pieces, the writers — who have large standings within the gaming sphere — argue a clear ideal that “gamers are dead”, a concept that has inflamed its core constituency in an effort to embrace the apparent cultural shift.

The content appeals to the emotions of the reader, presenting certain content in such a way that manipulates the audience’s perspectives to fall in line with their own.

“Some tactics [of sensationalism] include being deliberately obtuse, appealing to emotions, being controversial, intentionally omitting facts and information, being loud and self-centered and acting to obtain attention.”

These outlets capitalized on the major cultural themes of sexism and the growing concerns of misogyny in video games — a concept that has been rigorously argued and spotlighted by Feminist Frequency’s Anita Sarkeesian — in order to bolster hits and cash in on the controversy.

By portraying GamerGate — and its supporters — in such a way, the media has skewed the debate in a very political way — suggesting a very clear sense of morality that can’t be opposed for fear of being a “misogynist” (or a number of negative cultural identities).

The newest Cracked article, 7 Reasons “Gamergate” Proves Humanity is Doomed, is an excellent example of sensationalism that cashes in on the controversy.

Not so long ago, Cracked allowed Zoe Quinn to write her own piece on the subject of her harassment — a piece that garnered over a million views. Let’s just say that the site has been profiting from this kind of coverage in a rather exploitative manner.


After receiving widespread views and hits from the last Zoe Quinn piece, Cracked published a rather biased piece that looks at GamerGate in a cynical–if not insulting–way.

Alleged deflection, collusion and agenda-pushing

Interestingly enough, many GamerGate proponents think that major sites are using sensational content as a means of deflecting the ongoing investigation of corruption in the games journalism field.

By contorting the image that their investigators are “obtuse shitslingers” and “childish internet-arguers”, the general population is pushed toward this conclusion–after all, this is a writer they may like or trust, so it’s easy to take their side.

It has been revealed that many top journos have been using their influence to collude with one another in the Games Journo Pros e-mail list in an effort to control the content that is written and omitted on their sites.

Further evidence of collusion is reinforced by the fact that 14 different websites — from Kotaku to Buzzfeed published sensationalized GamerGate articles all on the same day.

Mass censorship across 4Chan, Reddit and various key publications is a disconcerting trend that falls right in line with collusive agenda-pushing of the established media base. Certain stories are written with comments turned off by default, effectively provoking emotions without giving those same invoked emotions a platform for discourse.


Headlines such as these are often seen as “clickbait”, and while earning views, this practice can often bring disrepute on big-name publications

 Moral panic: Storming the (gamer) gates

Key publications serve as entry points to the GamerGate controversy, and when that entry point is full of bias, it spreads to the Internet quite fast. Many readers are making up their minds based on the information skewed by a writer’s personal opinion, consequently being pulled into the argument and pressured to believe the “right side”.

This negative perception of GamerGate proponents, facilitated and nurtured by sensationalized content, shows signs of a small-scale moral panic.

In their book Mass Media (1999), A-level sociology teachers Emma and Marsha Jones define a moral panic as “an intense feeling expressed in a population about an issue that appears to threaten the social order.”

The broader topic of sexism in video games would be the issue at stake, but the behavior of pro-GamerGate followers is being cited as an example as the “misogyny” that’s perpetuated by the video games culture.

Stanley Cohen, author of Folk Devils and Moral Panics (1972), says that a moral panic ensues when “a condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests”.

Wikipedia notes that “those who start the panic when they fear a threat to prevailing social or cultural values are known by researchers as moral entrepreneurs, while people who supposedly threaten the social order have been described as folk devils.”

In this case, Anita Sarkeesian, Zoe Quinn and certain sensationalized publications could be known as the “moral entrepreneurs” and pro-GamerGate followers as “folk devils”.

According to Sociologists Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Youda, moral panics have the following consistent characteristics:

  • Concern – There must be awareness that the behaviour of the group or category in question is likely to have a negative effect on society.
  • Hostility – Hostility towards the group in question increases, and they become “folk devils”. A clear division forms between “them” and “us”.
  • Consensus – Though concern does not have to be nationwide, there must be widespread acceptance that the group in question poses a very real threat to society. It is important at this stage that the “moral entrepreneurs” are vocal and the “folk devils” appear weak and disorganised.
  • Disproportionality – The action taken is disproportionate to the actual threat posed by the accused group.
  • Volatility – Moral panics are highly volatile and tend to disappear as quickly as they appeared due to a wane in public interest or news reports changing to another topic.

Trailing even a small fragment of the GamerGate timeline it becomes evident that these findings are quite relative in the current gaming-centric controversy.

Ars Technica

Many of these headlines are tabloid-esque, and the content within is skewed towards a side, revealing the author’s bias while delving into manipulative text.

The nature of controversies, scandals and the media

Controversial topics remain one of the most solid and lucrative points of coverage in the media. In a way, journalists are taught to “sniff” out the news the same way bloodhounds follow a fox’s trail–they are trained to identify potential breaking stories and exclusives.

This often leads to some of the most sensationalized mass media content that can have a significant effect on a person or group as well as society as a while. Notable examples include the Clinton/Lewinski scandal, the Casey Anthony Trial and even the Elian Gonzalez affair.

To understand why controversies and scandals are so popular, we have to take a quick look at human nature. Why do people want to read about the most gruesome and terrible things? Why does coverage of racism, sexism, murder, religion and other tales of human woe sell so well?

Newspapers, magazines and online content allow everyday people to traverse the world in the comfort of their own home. It might be something like seeing a scary movie, where people can subject themselves to a vicarious thrill without being subjected to the actual repercussions of an event.

Why are these publications doing this? What could they hope to gain?

“One presumed goal of sensational reporting is to increase or sustain viewership or readership, from which media outlets can price their advertising higher to increase their profits based on higher numbers of viewers and/or readers.”

“Sometimes this can lead to a lesser focus on objective journalism in favor of a profit motive, in which editorial choices are based upon sensational stories and presentations to increase advertising revenue.”

Reporting on scandals is a lucrative enterprise that’s encouraged simply for its gains in profit. For many online-based mediums, more hits means more ad revenue, and that means more cash flow for the company or publication. This kind of ruthless take on generating views has some very real consequences, and is often a dual-edged sword.

In the written form, sensationalism offers a unique opportunity for a writer to marry their personal beliefs with their professional medium. Writers can easily spin a narrative that falls in line with a popular agenda and then reap the rewards that come with being on the “right side”.

The problem with sensationalism, though, is that it severely lowers the credibility of publications. Tabloids have sold millions of copies of sensationalist content throughout the years, but as a result it compromises their integrity and reputation.

The National Enquirer, for example, will never be known for objective newsworthy content–it’ll always be known for its reporting on Bigfoot, botched alien autopsies, and other ridiculous–if not entertaining–notions.

Many of the sensationalized articles discuss the claims that video games--and gamers--are sexist without traversing the opposite side of the GamerGate movement.

Many of the sensationalized articles discuss the claims that video games–and gamers–are sexist without traversing the ethical dilemmas faced by collusion, lack of critical distance and other corrupt practices in the games media.

The ethical implications of sensationalism

If the past has taught us anything, its that biased and sensational coverage can jeopardizes the safety and reputation of those surrounded by controversial events.

This sensationalism introduces and keeps focus on the center of a scandal while pushing an agenda–which in turn invites provocation, both negative (fighting, dissent) and positive (attracting new “followers”).

The continued harassment of Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian has a causal link to sensationalist reporting, as it directly sparks emotion and perpetuates a skewed perspective of the controversy. That angst is then vetted on the perceived targets of the scandals themselves — much the same way the content in question targets GamerGate users who have yet to insult anyone.

“…public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues.

“Conscientious journalists from all media and specialties strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty. Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist’s credibility.”

–Preamble to Code of Ethics, Society of Professional Journalists

This dangerous circle is an end result of the effect of moral panic as well as the sensationalism that occurs when professional and personal ethics are blurred together.

Furthermore controversial figures are elevated to a risky level of fame, and as such, its the media’s responsibility to carefully tread on the side of objectivity and non-partial reporting.

All journalists are encouraged to practice the principle of “limitation of harm”, one of the major tenants in the Standards and Ethics of Journalism.

“Limitation of harm” calls for the exclusion of certain details–names of crime victims or witnesses, minor children–that can cause harm to one’s reputation. These details can safely be omitted when they aren’t materially related to news coverage and put a figure or group at unnecessary risk of personal or professional harm.

Not doing so can not only put the publication at needless jeopardy by alienating a core constituency, but also making an unintentional target for one side to fight against. This in turn puts those involved at risk of peril on a professional or personal level.

The reticence of covering of The Zoe Post back when the news broke in August may have been a practice of “limitations of harm” on the part of journalists, however the Games Journo Pros logs point to a general air of favor rather than impartial neutrality.

The content is encouraged to be omitted when defamatory, and the reluctance (and outright dismissive attitude) of key journos to cover the scandalous links between Quinn and Kotaku journalist Nathan Grayson points to a sense of cronyism and collusion rather than professional ethics.

Further biased coverage inflames the opposition, thus making the entire debacle even more strenuous and serious, provoking the continuation of the struggle. If the media is profiting from the struggle, however, it’s far less likely sensationalist reporting will stop.

This kind of coverage seems to be wholly counter-intuitive to the equal-rights agenda that many of these publications are embracing (arguing against sexism in gaming, etc) simply because they are unaware that their actions are inadvertently provoking retaliation to the very figure they’re trying to defend.

Bias and sensationalism are incredibly potent forces in the media, but with this kind of power, comes a very real responsibility. This kind of coverage can stir up an entire society and lead to disastrous groupthink mobs that will stop at nothing to extinguish a perceived threat.

The last few weeks have shown that the games journalism media needs to take more care in the content it curates, and to reflect a higher standard of journalistic integrity. The public, and the readers, are calling for accountability and reform, and GamerGate has become a revolt on a consumer level.

Sensationalism may be lucrative, but that cost comes at a price; and right now it looks as if the publications are being prompted to pay their debts in full.

  • Mark

    Thanks, highly informative piece

  • Another great piece and needed more than ever now in all forms of media when covering every topic. This should be held up in news rooms and college classes to serve both as a guide and itself as an example of what fair and objective piece reporting is. People may shruge their shoulders when the clickbait is in the style of “You won’t believe what wacky thing happened next…”, but what these GameJournoPros are practicing is not on unethical, but downright dangerous.

  • Jake Kale

    I’ve been watching this whole thing unfold, if not from the start then very early on, and this marries with my impression. It’s alarming how well it has worked. I’ll confess to feeling too intimidated to join in for fear of harassment or losing friends, but I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the gamers for their resilience. There are those of us on the sidelines that support you.

    • Paul Johnson

      Ask yourself if friends you lose for holding your views were actually friends. This can be a great opportunity to clean house.

      • David Gray

        I was fairly surprised when a lass I like very much (but have only met for a weekend when her boyfriend bought her to our annual BBQ) was very sympathetic to me arguing with her feminazi friend.
        Good people stand with good people, even when expressing unpopular opinions (and the lass in question posted a very profeminist video I criticised, and still managed to concede I had a point without taking offense 😛 Only the radfems and their cronies are really unreasonable, everyone else can amicably disagree)

    • Bryan Scandrett

      You bring up an extremely valid point Jake. “Coming out” against the ideologues is a scary proposition and made me feel for a gay guy trying to come out to his parents. A couple of years ago I made the same move on fb in a different fight against the same ideologues.
      My two cents, shut your eyes and jump. Life is sooooo much better on the right side of history. Think through what you just said and ask yourself, “Am I some kind of slave to scared to run away?”
      What’s staying your hand is a fear of the shame and scorn they will heap upon you should you dare to step out of line. Now ask, “Who’s fucking line is this I’m being made to stand in?” “What would my life look like if I kicked this shame out of it?”
      Try this.
      This is to start in the middle. Alison is a fairly heavy tuber but if you work your way through her channel, you should become un-enslavable because you will understand that feeling of intimidation and who it came from.

      • Jake Kale

        Luckily in this case I don’t necessarily have to offer public support – I can always send emails!

        • Bryan Scandrett

          In this case.
          How about for the rest of your life?

  • Megamatics

    It’s very easy to understand Why the rise of youtubers in gaming has been so prominent (Jontron, The Angry Video Game Nerd, GameGrumps, Classic Gaming Room, Gamemaster81, and etc). If you’re a gamer you know who some or all of these guys are, gamers are at such a distance from their own press that they no longer see it as a tool when purchasing gaming content. This is most likely why they’ve been pushing the clickbait crap into reviews just to garner some form of recognition. The gaming press for the most part don’t seem very knowledgeable about video games. I don’t even understand the rational implications of following Anita Sarkeesian… her videos are evident to the lack of knowledge.

    I know it sounds awful to throw someone out based on their “Street Cred” but this is an enthusiast hobby. The Casual Market isn’t going to really care about reviews or any game besides “Summer Blockbuster A or B”. I just feel like the gaming press is pushing her obvious agenda because they know it’s a hot topic to gain clicks. It’s evident from the un-evolving arguments and coverage. “Death Threats”, “She released a Video”, “Death Threats”, “Death Threats”… I think everyone gets that she gets Death Threats. We’ve never even gone into depth about anything on the matter and neither has the Gaming Press done their job and asked her the hard questions about her project. I think everyone is interested in seeing at least where it goes, but to ignore contradiction to push your agenda just frustrates people who don’t “Listen and Believe”.

    I don’t feel like The Gaming Press is a part of the Gaming Community. They feel more like some figure head trying to push ideas and games I may not want on me. When you look at the history of gaming, most of the people involved in it were outcasts I would say from the inception. Call it socially awkward but a lot of us hinge on Non-Conformity which is why politics wont mix since we probably don’t agree with each other about anything. The massive scale in differing game genres is clearly evidence of that. Where else do you find a game about point and clicking or entirely text based gaming ?

  • Jayken

    Thank you for this piece. Over the course of the past 6 weeks it has been exceedingly hard to express our side of things. It has been made especially hard when the people we are criticizing are also the ones who control the narrative.

  • Kiltmanenator

    Another fabulous piece. Thank you! Over a month in and we’re finally stemming the tide of these preachy pontificators with calm, level-headed cordiality.

  • Bee Dubya

    I think what is really getting damaged in all this is not in fact the journalists or their publication, but rather the ideas of what actual misogyny is. As someone who is 49 years old with a 14 year old daughter – I fear that in the event she is someday exposed to real harm, there will be a collective “whatever” if only because we have a generation being desensitized to the concerns of actual womens problems by what i could only call “nutjobs”

    • bazzar

      Not to mention what actually constitutes “harassment”. Is it being invited for coffee in a lift? Is it being asked to provide evidence of a serious claim? Is it being asked an inconvenient question?

    • Bryan Scandrett

      As opposed to no-one giving a shit about actual male problems, ever. Like violence, rape, false accusations, the work gap being called a pay gap, the arrest gap, the charge gap, the conviction gap and the sentencing gap not to forget the time served gap, the life expectancy gap, the work place deaths and injuries disparity, the falling success and participation rate of males at every level of education, mass genital mutilation, gender based conscription, don’t start me on the family courts and that whole house of horrors. (Draws breath) I can easily go on and on but I think I already have.
      As a father of 3 daughters, I can only say, “Get used to it.”
      The world has changed. The idea of what misogyny is has changed – again! The ideologues changed it from it’s original meaning, a hatred of women, to anyone who didn’t tow the feminist line.
      That prevarication is dead and done. Criticizing a woman IS NOT misogyny any more. Women will be called to account from now until the world stops turning. Batting your eyelids and pleading, “But I’m a girl!” is now frowned upon as fraud.
      Worse, chivalry is now seen for what it is, women defining men by their utility to women. Chivalry is dead. So when the day comes that our daughters are exposed to “real” harm, they are gunna be on their own because men are rejecting the ‘servant of women’ role. Your vassal rolled his swag and moved out.
      No longer will we be your rescuers. You will face your lives as we men do, have always done – largely alone. Rather than teach anyone how to treat my daughters, I teach my daughters military close combat.
      You figure out how you’re gunna treat them.
      So quit ya griping like a girl about your actual women’s problems and go fix them all on your own. And make sure you don’t touch any of my stuff.

  • Just a passing observer.

    You claim the gamer gate folks are the victim of a mass conspiracy to paint them as sexist while ignoring the fact they didn’t give a crap about journalistic ethics until sex and a woman were involved. You ignore the part where they claimed she slept with a guy for a positive review…who never reviewed her work, and only gave it a positive mention before they were sleeping together.
    You ignore the harassment she’s suffered, compared to the male journalists who are supposedly committing the sins.
    And you panic at the sight of all these media organizations reporting on an internet news story all at the same time?
    Wow, that’s never happened before.
    And clearly, we’ve never seen anyone step in to cool down an internet mob that’s getting ugly…
    It must all be a conspiracy. That way, those who have nothing better to do with their time except modern witch trials feel justified – they’re the real underdogs.
    Just like when the internet targeted the writer for Dragon Age 2, instead of the level designers or the publishers.
    Because she was a woman.
    Or are we not supposed to remember that one?
    Where are your journalistic ethics? Afraid of angering your readership? Or are you part of your own little conspiracy?

    • Hey, thank you for your criticism and I appreciate your points. I definitely looked over how Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian have been harassed, and I personally believe that sensationalism is in many ways responsible for perpetuating the abuse.

      Of course the publications didn’t start it, and it is an unfortunate casualty in this struggle. I believe that most people familiar with the debacle are also familiar with Zoe Quinn’s struggles, and that many sites have already covered the dramatic events that unfolded–albeit in majorly skewed ways.

      There are many victims in any widespread cultural rift, many casualties, and it was my effort to point to how sensationalism and bias is only inflaming the battlegrounds, thus making it harder for both sides–and the outliers–to move forward.

      Sensationalism goes both ways, however. I see quite a bit of content and reports and suspicious activity–rumors and heresay–on many events, but opt out not to report on them as it’s hard to clarify in a straightforward manner.

      I merely wanted to raise awareness and attempt to inform readers of the dangers of sensationalism. I believe that this bigger sites hold a higher prestige to adhere to certain standards, whereas the sensationalism on smaller sites should be known about, it’s generally not something that will reach millions upon millions of people and influence them.

      Again I appreciate your points, and I hope that you feel comfortable voicing your opinions on GamerGate in the future.

    • Vecha

      “while ignoring the fact they didn’t give a crap about journalistic ethics until sex and a woman were involved”

      Umm…pretty sure many have gotten pissed at IGN a few times. Many complained, critisized, pointed out, etc etc the fact that one of their employees acted in the game and pretty much dismissed the review from them. Sure, maybe not as big as what has been pointed out now, but still.

      And there have been many, many times that ethics have been brought up with Kotaku…

      One incident involving me when I was a moderator…and their PR person(from Gawker/Kotaku) telling me to block/delete certain comments because they were asking questions that maaaay make EA uncomfortable.

      So, yeah. There’s been plenty of shitty practices.

      And yeah, fuck all those assholes who attacked Jennifer Hepler. There are plenty of assholes on both sides of this thing. Painting broad strokes isn’t adding anything to the discussion.

      I’m sure you won’t care to have a real discussion…much like many who have been parroting what you have.

  • Nanowired

    There is no retaliation against women. Stop fooling yourself. Leigh Alexander and company have perpetrated more hatred against women and minorities than anyone ever could.

  • SDarbo

    When we come back after the break we’ll explore if online gaming communities are in fact training Ebola infected swarms of killer bees to stalk your child’s genitals.

  • NorBdelta

    Hey Derek, I know this is particularly late but I enjoyed your article.

  • Nekochan

    The effects of this are still being felt. My local Game shop has severely reduced the number of PC games being stocked from an entire wall of PC games to a single shelf and moved to stocking only G rating or lower games for the few games that they actually stock.

    The rest of the store is G rated nintendo games and merchandise.

    Getting boxed collectors editions of games of games is now all but impossible without ordering direct from the publisher and paying nearly double when import duties and postage are taken into account.