Why Did Gamergate Happen? SXSW Doc ‘GTFO’ Explores the Long, Depressing History of Misogyny in Gaming

AUSTIN, TX: The word “Gamergate” isn’t uttered until the brief epilogue of the new documentary GTFO, Shannon Sun-Higginson’s look at discrimination and misogyny in the video game world — which makes the movie timely, if not quite as timely as you might think. One day we may well get the definitive documentary about that particular brouhaha; think of this one as the prequel, the context, the setup. As one of Sun-Higginson’s subjects says of that story, “The problem exists on a much larger scale,” and she’s right. For those of us who don’t play games and don’t pay attention, GTFO serves as an eye-opening explainer on an issue that’s been knocking around this industry for quite some time.

To tell that story, the filmmaker talks with a variety of industry observers, critics, and participants. When she introduces these “girl gamers,” it’s not as women, but as video game aficionados, with very typical origin stories about how they came to love playing (or creating, or analyzing) games. But whatever their background, they all arrive at a similar conclusion: in ways big (critical writing, atypical games) and small (just being a girl with the temerity to play video games), they find themselves the targets of harassment, threats, doxxing, and more.

What, exactly, is the cause of all this? GTFO illustrates the many answers, cleverly enough, with old-school video game graphics, organizing the story’s threads via Nintendo-style animation of a girl character attempting to navigate the dangerous world of, well, playing video games.

Still image from "GTFO"

The rest of the filmmaking doesn’t always measure up (on a purely technical level, it’s pretty amateurish). But as a polemic/manifesto, GTFO is brutally effective — intelligent, thought-provoking, and thorough. Sun-Higginson examines the targeted marketing of video games, a perpetual cycle of games made by straight white guys in their 20s, for straight white guys in their 20s, who enjoy them so much that they then make the games, and so on and so on. She looks at the current problem with female characters (namely, it’s not that there are sexy women, but that there are only sexy women).

She tackles the perception of female gamers among their peers, and the stereotype perpetuated there. She looks at the “boys club” element, wherein entitlement and anonymity empowers men to try and exert the same power in real-life interactions that they get from their games. And that power often comes in the form, of course, of online harassment.

These are probably the film’s most visceral and effective sequences, since it’s one thing to hear about this stuff, and quite another to witness it. We see the messages, in black and white; we hear the abuse that immediately greets a female voice in the “lobby” of online games. And, most remarkably, we see footage from Cross Assault, the 2012 fighting game reality show, in which one of the “coaches,” on camera and with the prodding of commenters, sexually harassed a female contestant.

The point, which GTFO arrives at again and again, is that the abuse, doxxing, and harassment of Gamergate were by no means new to the gaming community — and gaming is not some disconnected thing totally removed from the rest of the world, but a reflection of a culture where the push for diversity and representation has resulted in a counter-push from Neanderthals and misogynists. “When a new group comes into a culture, that creates tension, it creates a shift,” Sun-Higginson explained in a post-screening Q&A Wednesday. “We sort of approached gaming as a microcosm for something that has happened throughout history, in basically every industry, and will continue to do so — and it’s not just women… This was just the most current and salient example that we could find, and it was all these things coming together.”