Great things happened at and during the 2015 E3 event. Nintendo released information on their future console. Square Enix regained the faith of once-disillusioned fans with their Final Fantasy VII remake. GamerGate held a successful meetup that featured photos with Mercedes Carrera and Jennie Bharaj rather than fire alarms and bomb threats. Anita Sarkeesian and John McIntosh even attended and put in their two cents on gaming booth babes, videogame violence, and US military recruitment via Twitter. Everyone was having a good time.
But on the last day of E3, posters were found glued to traffic posts around the Los Angeles Convention Center, from the Pico exit on the Metro Blue Line, and assorted newspaper dispensers in the city. A distorted image of Anita Sarkeesian grimaced in front the backdrop of #Gamergate, with the words “FEM FREAK” sandwiching her taut expression. Sitting on the right margin, the adage to 1991’s Zero Wing: “ALL YOUR TROPES ARE BELONG TO US HONEY” — not the least bit unsettling.
Influencers criticized it almost immediately. IGN’s Canadian Editor Mitch Dyer reaffirmed that GamerGate was indeed about hatred after seeing the signs, while International Publishing Manager Svend Joscylene spoke for others: “This has no place in our industry. GTFO.” Indie Creative Director Adrian Chmielarz was “happy to see people condemning that… saboteur troll,” and ex-Destructoid writer Allistair Pinsoff was questioned if it was the work of a third-party troll.
There were unverified reports sent to Destructoid of razor blades placed under the posters. The editorial staff at TheMarySue okay’d a wonderful headline with bare-bones content. And Tech Times writer J.E. Reich attributed the work to “fellow Mens Rights Activists“, astutely observing the lack of a comma in the poster. Some called it a shop. Someone made a shop. Others at the scene posted pictures to corroborate the @FemFreakE3 account postings. Many tore them down — by Friday most of the posters on Figueroa had been stripped, including the smaller ones attached to the traffic pole near Fleming’s Steakhouse, larger ones that were seen on Figueroa Street power boxes, and one that had been placed on a bus stop shelter over a DomiNations ad. Further down, the alternate “KOTAKU UNION: GAMERS REJECT FEMINIST POPPYCOCK” that had apparently been glued to heavy black construction paper and tucked into newspaper stands near APEX Luxury Apartments had also been peeled off, leaving only traces of residue.
Traveling food vendors and beggars denied seeing a person applying the posters, and even the stoic police officer checking TAP cards at the Pico Metro exit didn’t know of the incident. But of course, the circulation led to great speculation, including guesses on the type of adhesive used to place the signs — from the ones I uncovered, they seemed to be spray adhesive. No; they didn’t have razor blades hidden behind them.
The allegations started at the ground level. Some were baseless, going on nothing but gut instinct and bias. An angry gamer. Conservative groups. Third-party trolls. McIntosh’s hired goons. Feminists. People began to look for patterns, accusing political art collective UnsavoryAgents based on similarities in style. (Spoiler: it was a series of Photoshop filters) A smaller group pointed to independent journalist Chuck C. Johnson based on similarities in writing and past coverage (credit: Disqus user Byron Hudson). Anything to say that this was or wasn’t approved, planned, and executed by GamerGate.
It’s pretty obvious if you ask me. When has anyone ever mentioned a Kotaku Union, and how many understand the significance of the Zero Wing meme? As a reactionary movement mainly concerned with Internet censorship and ethics in games journalism, GamerGate has attempted to divorce itself from the dichotomous association with one of the public figures of gaming criticism, and sever connections to the -chan culture that preceded it despite the fact that a significant part of discussion takes place on 8chan and a lot of GamerGaters readily use memes originating from -chan culture. Just like the rest of the Internet.
The Twitter user claiming responsibility made this statement later:
Folksonomic communities are unsustainable. Their inherent strength is also their weakness.
— FemFreak (@femfreakE3) June 18, 2015
Based on that tweet, the user seems to be more critical of GamerGate than pro-GamerGate. But there’s not much to dig up on the Internet: the banner used for the Twitter account was taken from last year’s E3 via WIRED’s photojournalist Ariel Zambelich so you can rest a little easier knowing that whoever did this might not have set foot at E3 2015 (and even if they did, who cares). Attempts to decipher the registered e-mail have been in vain, but the effort was probably applauded anyways. The culprit is irrelevant even if Yiannopoulos alleges that he knows the identity; it’s the piece that deserves credit, and the piece that will be remembered for igniting discussion and sticky feelings — just look at the comments following this concise article written by Polygon’s Brian Crescente.
It’s shock value through subtlety — the phonetic similarity between “fem freak” and “femfreq” (fɛmfrĕʹk) that goes over most onlookers’ heads. It’s stylistic attribution to a completely-unrelated-but-totally-relatable political art movement. It’s a very appropriate meme hack that follows Anonymous’ cyber-attack on Israeli-owned sites in 2012, a “borderline terrorist threat”/April Fools Joke that led to the arrest of seven young adults, and Youtube’s 2006 maintenance message that led its users to believe the site had been compromised. And for those keen enough to uncover the Twitter account, it’s an important point addressing the fluidity of a community centered on a hashtag — and this isn’t the first time it’s been brought up (TheRalphRetort). Most importantly, it’s put a lot of attention on GamerGate during an industry event that brought over 50,000 attendees from all over the world — even Kanye West attended — and the worst thing we can do as a community is ignore it and act like nothing happened.
The second worst thing is to draw conclusions without even verifying the facts — luckily, GamePolitics, Damion Schubert, Destructoid, and GamerGateNews erred on the side of caution and published that it might be the work of Sabo based on the work he’s done several years back. Nevermind that his recent projects have been way more ambitious and target greater political events like the 2016 Presidential Campaigns, or that he proudly posts his work for all to see via social media and public website. The significance of the act stems at least partly from the anonymity of the perpetrator, the shoddy copycatting, and the attitudes surrounding GamerGate. But a large part of this also comes from misinformation shared on the Internet. And instead of taking a step back to contemplate why we’re triggered by political transgressive street art, we were more interested to start a manhunt that we never had the energy to finish. Condemning a faceless entity for ideas espoused less than one year ago.
Trolling is a art. One that not many can appreciate or understand. And half a year into 2015, most of the gaming community is still learning to control their outrage, and gaming journalists are still learning to fact check their work. Maybe we’re just better off rewriting press releases and transcribing interviews? But I can appreciate the effort. I can sympathize that there were better things to write about, like the backlash against Gilles Matouba and Andre Vu’s term “mechanical apartheid”, or the headcount of playable female characters at E3’s releases. And I think there are always opportunities for improvement.
UPDATE: Charles C. Johnson confirmed he was not responsible for the posters. Sabo says posters were put up by a team “trained two years ago but [have] since gotten very good on their own,” and wishes to remain anonymous.
Poster locations and supplementary information courtesy of @senpaidesune. Please credit author with photography if redistributing or modifying.