How do you distinguish between a real death threat and a joke death threat? The all-in-good-fun, we’re-on-the-same-side-here death threats? The ones that look like death threats, sound like death threats, and certainly feel like death threats — but are actually death threats for a cause? It’s a trick question, of course, because you don’t. Brianna Wu certainly didn’t, which is why she reported a man named Jace Connors to the police earlier this month.
Along with feminist video game critic Anita Sarkeesian and Depression Quest developer Zoe Quinn, Wu — also a game developer — is one of the higher-profile targets of the amorphous troll network collectively known as Gamergate. Since the “campaign,” like men’s rights, began appropriating the language of identity and social justice to call for a restoration of the status quo, Wu has received dozens of threats to her life, in addition to the tidal wave of low-level abuse couched as a call for “ethics in game journalism.” So when Connors posted a YouTube video claiming he’d crashed his Prius on the way to her house and identifying himself as one of her Twitter harassers, Wu took him seriously. What else was she supposed to do?
Probably not assume that a man known for brandishing a knife with “Semper Fidelis” written on it in Sharpie was kidding around. Which is, apparently, what 20-year-old Maine resident Jan Rankowski was trying to do. In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Rankowski reveals that Connors was in fact a character created to mock Gamergate, not participate in it; he’s even attracted the ire of “real” Gamergaters, to the point of receiving threatening mail and even visits to his home.
Thankfully, Rankowski seems self-aware enough to recognize the irony of attracting the very abuse he was (ironically) inflicting on others: “I didn’t take this situation seriously, but I see what it means now to be in the other person’s shoes. What her life must feel like. I have this newfound respect for the people who are having to deal with GamerGate, Brianna Wu and Anita [Sarkeesian],” he told BuzzFeed’s Joseph Bernstein.
The entire concept of “Jace Connors” was, of course, horrifically misguided from its outset. How are Wu, Sarkeesian, and their fellow Gamergate targets supposed to know what’s a performance and what’s not? Rankowski’s videos don’t differ in content from the Gamergate content, only in tone — and even that’s debatable. Who was supposed to laugh at Connors, if neither the anonymous hordes nor the women they’re antagonizing were in on the joke?
If anything, Rankowski’s character illustrates the problem with “movements” like Gamergate, in which the barrier to entry consists of access to a computer and the half a calorie of energy required to type out a hashtag. There’s no headquarters, membership roster, or official nonprofit (Dudes for Games Created by and for Us, and If We Could Shut Anita Sarkeesian Up That’d Be Nice Too?) to separate the true believers from the pretenders. Which means, in a way, there’s no such thing as a “real” Gamergater: if you’re terrorizing someone to the point of calling the police, you’ve joined up whether you intended to or not. Equally, the amorphous nature of the movement allows Gamergaters to claim that anyone who embarrasses them publicly “has nothing to do with Gamergate,” even if they’re acting under that banner.
In retrospect, it might seem obvious that some of Connors’ stunts were too ridiculous to be sincere. His YouTube banner includes references to Parkour, Mountain Dew, and 420; the video threatening Wu declares that he is “Armed with the Truth of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ”; he wields an AirSoft gun. But are any of these tics that much more ridiculous than the basic concept at the root of Gamergate itself — that criticizing sexism in video games, or even creating nontraditional games that appeal to demographics besides young men, constitutes an attack on the basic liberties of self-identified “real” gamers?
It speaks to the insanity of the last six months that Rankowski was able to pass for Connors — not on the part of Wu or the sites that covered her story, but of those who gave Gamergate its momentum in the first place. This is a network that once shut down a lecture from Sarkeesian by promising “the deadliest school shooting in American history,” and drove Zoe Quinn to leave her home. In a better world, Connors’ believability might inspire some self-reflection on the part of his former allies (and current harassers). Unfortunately, we live in a world where Wu gave what she believed to be Connors’ name and address to the police — and the police did nothing.