Beginning in summer 2014, a series of sustained misogynistic attacks against women in the video game industry coalesced online under #GamerGate. In this study I conduct a virtual ethnography of various online fieldsites hosting #GamerGate discussions, with the goal of complicating prevailing understandings of virtual harm. I draw from Feinberg (1987) to operationalize harm as that which damages an interest. I suggest that discourses in public policy, popular media and popular culture can oversimplify representations of virtual harm, theorizing an ontology of virtual harm that acknowledges a more nuanced range of factors that can impact how harm manifests within virtual contexts.
I add complexity to prevailing narratives of #GamerGate by highlighting that users throughout my fieldsites consistently perceive a range of virtual behaviours, including criminal direct harassment (Lenhart et al., 2016) and the nonconsensual disclosure of private personal information, to be harmful. I submit that users' (infrequent) engagement in these "universal harms" is not, as prevailing representations of #GamerGate can suggest, reflective of community or cybercultural affiliation.
I move forward to examine how users participating in #GamerGate discourses can disagree in their conceptualizations of virtual harm. Based on these points of contention, I draw from O'Sullivan and Flanagan's (2003) model for harm assessment to advocate in favour of a three tiered framework to assess virtual harm. I argue, as socio-legal scholars advocate, that this framework should include an assessment of subjective experience of harm. However, I depart from single-tiered frameworks to suggest that harm assessment should also consider how violations are perceived and given meaning within the context of particular communities and subcultures, and, additionally, authorial intent.
Finally, I consider how notions of "the virtual" can impact how users perceive and make meaning of fantasy and reality. I highlight that users in my dataset tend to perceive virtual spaces as playful or fantastical, and are consequently less likely to perceive virtual harms as legitimately harmful. To account for these perceptions, I conclude by suggesting that virtual spaces can be theorized as an extension of Huizinga's (1938) "magic circle", adding a final layer of complexity to my more nuanced ontology of virtual harm.