Editor's note: David Weinberger is a senior researcher at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society and author of "Too Big to Know" (Basic Books). The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
(CNN) -- It began as an attempt to shut up one woman -- a video-game developer who had criticized the entrenched sexism and misogyny in her industry -- by "slut-shaming" her and then threatening her.
As other women entered the conversation that was spreading across the Web, male gamer bullies organized to stamp them down as well, some of them adopting Gamergate as the rubric for their "movement." When the argument finally caught the attention of mainstream media, the controversy was no longer only about the original issues. It had also become about who gets to determine the real meaning of Gamergate.
So, what is Gamergate? Explaining it makes Watergate look like a piece of cake. ("You see, kids, burglars broke into Democratic Party offices, and the Republican president tried to cover it up." Easy!)
Not Gamergate. For one thing, unraveling the truth about the 1972 break-in at the Watergate office complex fell to professional journalists and the legal system. For Gamergate -- now a catchall term for a kind of culture war sprung from the gaming world, taking in issues of sexism, free speech, journalistic ethics, identity and more -- the most timely and thoughtful coverage is coming from people who are affected by it.
And now that we get to hear every person's voice, online, there is no single national narrator.
That means how you explain Gamergate depends on why you think it's worth explaining. For example, just calling it by that name implies that it's about some type of scurrilous behavior, in this case a breach of journalistic ethics (which we'll get to in a minute).
Yet, if that's all it were about, it would have sunk without a ripple. After all, there's no evidence that there was any breach, and even if there were, why go after a woman who is a tiny indie game developer instead of the $100 billion mainstream industry that dwarfs Hollywood in its ability to unduly influence society and the media?
So, if it's not about that, then what is it about?
Here are the facts, but they don't tell the whole story. Zoe Quinn is one of the creators of "Depression Quest," an award-winning indie game released in 2013 that, unlike the typical run-and-gun games, puts the player in the text-based shoes of a depressed teenager. About a month ago, an ex-boyfriend claimed the game had gotten a particular good review on a gaming news site only because (the angry ex-boyfriend claimed) Quinn had had sex with the reviewer to further her career -- which Quinn denies. Even though the journalist hadn't actually written a review, and the gaming news site found no wrongdoing, this triggered an avalanche of attacks on Quinn's ethics from some of the Internet's danker forums, including threats of rape and murder.
The fury directed at women went beyond Quinn and beyond the Web. In the most visible episode so far, a few days ago Anita Sarkeesian, who in August had released a video about the use and abuse of women in games, canceled a scheduled talk at Utah State University after the school received emails threatening to murder people at the event. Because of the state's open-carry law, the university refused to ban students from carrying guns into the event.
Those are the "newsworthy" events, but they do little to explain what's happening. For example, with my Hat of Reasonability on, I'm tempted to say "Of course no one -- gamer or not -- supports anyone threatening rape and mass murder." But we don't really know that. Even if few would applaud such horrific acts of violence, the meaning of "support" is one of the questions raised by Gamergate: These women are being attacked for criticizing mainstream games' diminishment of women, and some of the sites where these discussions have erupted have subcultures of misogyny. That is a type of support that can't be dismissed simply by disavowing those who threaten physical violence.
In a brilliant post, the tech writer Kyle Wagner explains why "stating the facts" isn't always the same as telling the truth. He says that Gamergate is "a fascinating glimpse of the future of grievance politics as they will be carried out by people who grew up online" -- a politics that exploits the "basic loophole in the system": "the press's genuine and deep-seated belief that you gotta hear both sides." That's why "a loosely organized, lightly noticed collection of gamers ... have been able to set the terms of debate" and chase women who speak up into hiding.
A recounting of "the simple facts" makes this look like a "he said-she said" dispute over journalistic ethics. That gives too much credence to what "he said," and, more importantly, distracts attention from the real issues.
Laurie Penny's angry and hopeful post puts it all in terms of a larger shift. "There's a culture war happening right now," she begins. "It's happening in games, in film, in journalism, in television, in fiction, in fandom. It's happening online, everywhere. And everywhere, sexists, recreational misogynists and bigots are losing."
These groups' fear that they are no longer going to be able to shape the story is what has driven "Gamergate" -- a term Penny pointedly does not use. "They can't understand," she says, "why game designers, industry leaders, writers, public figures are lining up to disown their ideas and pledge to do better by women and girls in the future." They can't understand why the ultra-mainstream Time magazine invited Leigh Alexander -- a technology and culture critic -- to explain Gamergate to its readers. The old forces of assumed privilege are realizing they're losing their grip on our culture. Not immediately. But, if Penny is right, the extremity of their tactics is a tacit admission that the game is over, even as the shouting continues.
So, Gamergate has escalated not because, as with Watergate, the "scandal" that started it has been discovered to be more extensive than it first seemed, or because there was a cover-up. Before hashtags and the rest of the Web infrastructure, Gamergate would have been an unpleasant story about an angry ex-boyfriend and a woman who wrote a game he didn't like. It would not have scaled up the way it has if we still had the old broadcast filters that presented clean national narratives that adhered to the national fiction that everything was basically OK, because it was OK for the class that got to tell us the news.
Those days are gone. Gamergate is one of the clearest examples of what happens now that the forging of the narrative not only occurs in public but becomes part of the event itself. Is Gamergate about game industry corruption? Journalistic ethics? An ex-boyfriend's revenge? About the role of media? Or (as I believe) about our culture's dismal history of dismissing women? You can decide, but in so doing you're taking a side.
In the age of the Net and the days of Gamergate, to understand is to take a stand and to explain is to participate.