Gamergate, the quintessential gaming conspiracy theory, continued a long tradition. Its believers weren't even always gamers. The man who attacked Paul Pelosi on Friday attributes his entire existence as a conspiracy theorist to Gamergate, though it doesn't appear that he was even a gamer.
On Friday morning, 42-year-old David DePape attacked Nancy Pelosi’s husband Paul at their home in San Francisco. Internet sleuths quickly found that his extensive internet footprint began with one of the dumbest conspiracy theories to sprout in decades: Gamergate. No matter how many years separate us from Gamergate, it never seems to go away.
There’s a reason for that.
‘How did I get into all this’
On August 23, David DePape wrote a tantalizing teaser for a subscriber-locked blog post:
How did I get into all this. Gamer gate it was gamer gate. So what is gamer gate? It is many things and their are many different aspects…David DePape for FrenlyFrens.com
The blog post is gone now, along with that entire domain. So is his other blog, God Is Loving. which WordPress took down pretty quickly as well. His Facebook is also gone. But smart cookies archived as much of this stuff as they could in a short time. (To these often-unsung heroes of online investigation, I see you and appreciate you.)
Still, we can see hints of the far-right conspiracy theories that David DePape absorbed without an iota of critical thinking. He’s the full meal deal, hinting at everything from Men’s Rights Activism to white nationalism to creationism to COVID denialism. He doesn’t miss a beat, even (according to the LA Times) embracing antisemitism and Holocaust denial. In his blog titles, I also notice what sounds suspiciously like an expression of belief in the Anunnaki—angel-human hybrids that live only on the sizzling fringe of far-right Christian belief.
Speaking of that sizzling fringe, he really, really did not like Catholicism. Such Christians embrace a range of conspiracy theories about this rival flavor of Christianity, including tropes about human sacrifice.
Needless to say, DePape is a die-hard Trumpist as well, one who fully embraced Donald Trump’s baseless accusations of election fraud.
And in his own words, Gamergate is the one conspiracy theory that set him on his life path.
Gamergate: A brief summary
For those who reached adulthood after Gamergate came and went, and others who have no idea what happened, a quick explanation.
In 2014, Gamergate erupted into life as a movement centered around the targeted use of online harassment. It began as a gripe about the state of games journalism, though it never really did anything to rectify this supposed problem. Not one thing about games journalism changed as a result of Gamergate, nor did self-identified Gamergaters seem to care that nothing had changed.
In truth, it was a cry from the heart of misogynistic male gamers who increasingly felt that women were invading and seizing control over a hobby that the men felt was their property.
Pre-Gamergate, game developer Zoë Quinn was dating Eron Gjoni, a games coder. In an extremely lengthy, gross, and messy 2014 essay (now called “The Zoë Post”), Gjoni claimed that she had been repeatedly unfaithful to him and that he had finally dumped her when she lied to him about it.
Before the breakup, Quinn had created a game called Depression Quest. Some people liked it a lot. Many others really hated it. It was a short, niche game, so it likely would have simply been forgotten eventually, as are the hosts of such games—if not for Gjoni’s essay.
In it, he accused Quinn of having secured good reviews for it by sleeping with at least one games journalist. Interestingly, the guy Gjoni accused of writing a good review for the game had never reviewed it. In fact, he’d only written about Quinn once, some time before their relationship supposedly began.
Undeterred by facts, misogynistic gamer men used Gjoni’s false accusations as a ruse to attack and harass women. They also developed extensive conspiracy theories about collusion between all kinds of people. At the same time, anti-Gamergate groups arose, including one led by Quinn herself.
This state of internet war lasted until about 2015.
But Gamergate never died—it just morphed
Remember, absolutely nothing changed in games journalism. Whatever games journalists did before 2014 that so enraged these gamer bros, they are still doing all of it in 2022. I’ve been involved in writing for decades, some of it touching on the games industry, yet I’ve never once seen a single industry reform, much less any due to Gamergate agitation.
It just feels as if everyone involved decided after 2015 to forget about their one-time war.
But that didn’t end Gamergate itself. Its most determined harassers and commentators slid across to other conspiracy-theory-based, alt-right groups to continue their antics there. As Vox put it a couple of years ago:
[T]he Gamergate movement merged into the larger alt-right sphere of online extremist culture that emerged in the middle of the decade, spreading hate speech throughout social media and setting the stage for the alt-right to influence the 2016 election.Vox
Also in 2016, Gamergate influenced the rise of the Pizzagate conspiracy theory.
Now, in 2022, QAnon and other such conspiracy theories use the same playbook as Gamergate. In fact, it seems increasingly clear that “Q” himself is simply Ron Watkins, one of the guys running 8kun, a chan imageboard, and that he started posting as QAnon just to troll people.
I don’t think Watkins expected so many evangelical Christians to glom onto his silly prank. But I do think he probably enjoys a good belly laugh every day at the idea of fooling them this completely for this long.
He shouldn’t. It’s not really difficult to fool people who are already high on the fumes of conspiracy theories.
‘Crank magnetism’: If one conspiracy theory is good, then a hundred must be awesome
Someone who embraces one conspiracy theory typically embraces a whole lot more over time. A while ago, Mark Hoofnagle called this crank magnetism.
That’s because the kind of people who get into movements like Gamergate, Pizzagate, QAnon, faked lunar landings, and all the rest, are unable to use critical thinking skills to challenge claims that fit into their overall belief system. Maybe they lack those skills in the first place. Or maybe they just want to believe so much that they elect not to use them in certain situations.
So if those claims fit, they sit. And then, they draw in more claims who sit with them.
With conspiracy theories now becoming a clear and present danger to the safety and cohesion of America itself, psychologists are throwing themselves at the study of the people who embrace them.
They’ve come up with a few interesting leads, too.
Gamergate as a typical conspiracy theory cluster
In 2018, psychologists identified anxiety as the core of a conspiracy theorist’s problem, combined with feelings including disenfranchisement, the pain of rejection, and a need to feel more in control. Unfortunately for conspiracy theorists themselves, that writeup also tells us that glomming onto conspiracy theories not only brings little comfort to their believers but can also cause problems at their jobs and with their families.
In 2020, psychologists found a number of personality flaws that can lead people into conspiracy theory mindsets, including “entitlement, self-centered impulsivity, cold-heartedness (the confident injustice collector), elevated levels of depressive moods and anxiousness (the moody figure, confined by age or circumstance).”
And an interesting study from last year examined the relationship between media consumption patterns and the holding of conspiracy theory beliefs. It also assessed depression and anxiety in subjects from several countries. The results won’t particularly shock you.
The guys who made up the Gamergate core constituency all look a lot like David DePape: angry, entitled, anxious, aggrieved, vengeful, and easily misled. Gamergate told them—as it told DePape—that it wasn’t their imagination: there really was a conspiracy to destroy their hobby from the inside out. And it gave them permission to do whatever it took to get it back under their own control.
Once Gamergate fizzled out, they generally moved—as he did—into other conspiracy theory groups to get their fix.
Why Gamergate won’t ever completely die
And plenty were already there, ready to receive them in their thousands. Some were oldies but goodies like the Satanic Panic and UFO abduction cults. Others were much newer, with creators who were clearly desperately hoping to get more attention.
If QAnon ever collapses under its own weight, which it might well do sometime soon, its believers won’t be able to apply critical thinking to their beliefs even then. At most, they will do what all those Satanic Panickers did back in the late 1990s, when everyone began collectively realizing that there’d never been any Satanic child-sacrificing cults, nor any vast groups of Satanists trying to get teens into D&D to steal their souls:
They will put those specific beliefs on the back burner, taking them with them when they move into their new battlefield. Those beliefs will still be there, and still believed, but they’ll just have to make room.
It’s always a hoot to run into someone (like Glenn Hobbs, or Gordon L. Coulter, who made that inadvertently hilarious 1994 video, Law Enforcement Guide to Satanic Cults) who was involved in the Satanic Panic a few decades down the line. They never disavow their now-debunked beliefs. I suspect that they can’t. Rather, they just ignore them and move forward with new ones.
If the beliefs fit, then they sit. And they stay. And then they make room for bunches of new beliefs.
The core message at the heart of all of DePape’s conspiracy theories
Obviously, not every conspiracy theorist is going to attack and try to kill people. Nor is every person who firmly believes that Fox News is telling the truth about, well, anything. And nor is everyone who feels anxious or depressed. That’s a ridiculous notion. David DePape was obviously a particularly awful kind of conspiracy theorist, one in whom a number of factors collided to produce a guy who claimed to be a fervent Christian and yet thought it was totes okay to try to murder someone.
For that matter, Gamergate wasn’t particularly a specifically-aimed campaign seeking only and specifically gamers. In all that I’ve read of DePape’s online footprint, I don’t get the impression that he even played any kind of games—not roleplaying games, not video games, not even board games.
But DePape probably resonated hard with Gamergate’s core message of misogyny and antifeminism. It gave him someone to blame for his problems: women. It gave him a collective, shadowy, colluding them to see as his enemies: liberals in general. No men needed to be gamers to identify with the toxic masculinity and entitled, frustrated rage at the core of this conspiracy theory. Nor did they need to be gamers to thrill to the feeling of control that embracing Gamergate provided.
We can easily find similar messages at the core of all of the conspiracy theories that DePape embraced. Lots of secret cabals, evildoers who need fighting, good vs. evil, and special knowledge granted only to the select few with scare-quotes “open minds.” Like David DePape.
I really hope that at some point we figure out how to deal with all the misinformation these conspiracy theorists fling around, and maybe how to bring conspiracy theorists back to reality again. At least we’re making progress in learning more about the kind of people who get into these false claims. And maybe some about resisting them ourselves.
Resources: Conspiracy-proofing your life
First and foremost: If you think you suffer from depression or anxiety, and you haven’t made progress in tackling them yourself, please get help. Recent studies indicate that anxiety and depression make us more susceptible to latching onto false claims.
Second, keep a weather eye on the media sources you consume. We know that social media usage is strongly associated with both depression and anxiety. Social media can also make misinformation deceptively plausible while providing an easy means to quickly disseminate it.
Ask questions about the reliability of your information sources. Even journalists themselves can get lazy and rely on misinformation to sell headlines, but some sources are worse than others.
Next, learn what you can about how to think critically about the information pouring into all of our lives 24/7. Most of the time, we think reflexively and passively. We just go about our day, continually bombarded. Critical thinking tells us to take a step back and really consider a claim: to ask questions about it and pin down how accurate it really is.
Then begin using those techniques on every single claim, not just the ones you like or that agree with your opinions. Our brains are jerks this way: they don’t want to work really hard. They’ve got a lot going on. So we have to pull our brains out of cruise control to get them working critically. And once we do, they always want to go back to cruise control as quickly as they can. They’re not going to want to closely examine claims that already fit and sit.
We have to make our brains do it anyway. They demand 20 percent of our energy. Make them earn it.
I don’t always get answers this way that make me feel good. But I’ve noticed that doing it keeps me out of a lot of trouble. I hope it’ll help others do the same.