Photo courtesy of Zoe Quinn
I just spent a few days trying to schedule a conversation with Zoe Quinn, the game developer whose personal life recently became a trigger point for millions of discussions of gamer misogyny. Contacting her wasn't easy. Even after she told me how to get a hold of her by phone, I knew I was calling a number that had been leaked onto the internet in order to harass her, so delays were understandable. I would be cautious if I were her. To make matters worse, a couple weeks prior, I had written an article about her ex-boyfriend, a guy I thought was just a young and naive computer nerd who pulled a dipshit move when he wrote a novel-length blog trashing her.
When I finally got her on the phone, she sounded uneasy. "I’m still kind of couch-surfing, because threats are still coming in. Friends and family of mine are still being targeted," she said. When I asked her if she was working, she told me she was starting to, and that it was "an enormous relief."
If you haven't been paying attention to #Gamergate, I can't blame you. August was a very bad month for gaming, gamers, and games. If anything about this garbage made it to your news feed despite your being someone who doesn't pay much attention to the gaming world, it was that gamer guys were ganging up on gamer feminists for some reason. It's been the kind of story most people avoid because it combines the "This makes me ashamed just to be human" aspect of a college rape scandal with the "I have no frame of reference for this" aspect of a labor dispute in the waste-management industry.
But it's been a fast-moving and surprisingly earth-shattering piece of news, considering that it stems mainly from the internet rage of a bunch of poopypants babies. The shock waves are beginning to be felt, and the significance goes right to the core of the gaming industry. Quinn says the scandal has "morphed into something else. It roped well-meaning people who cared about ethics and transparency into a preexisting hate mob. And now, I’m not sure what the hell it is."
The seeds of #Gamergate were planted early last year, when an indie game called Depression Quest got good reviews, despite its lack of machine guns and emphasis on exploring feelings rather than making aliens explode. Gamers had furrowed their brows suspiciously at such flukes in the past, and there was a limited negative reaction to Depression Quest. Some gamers even got abusive, but it apparently didn't merit mainstream headlines. Months later, though, when a blog post decried Quinn as a figure of "corruption," who slept her way to positive reviews for her game, it was gaming's Benghazi moment.
The anger that erupted when Zoe Quinn was (probably falsely—not that it matters) accused of boning game journalists for good press (a series of events known online as the "Quinnspiracy") has turned #Gamergate into a dog-whistle codeword that lets those in the gamer population who are misogynists couch their adolescent rage at women in concern about the purity of gaming journalists' motives in reviewing games.
Despite the low stakes, reactions to the allegations against Quinn were intemperate to say the least. Every forum where games are discussed online temporarily shifted its focus to the scandal, if you must call it that. The loudest and most immature man-children in the gamer world had previously been directing their rage at Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist who hosts a web series about games. Threats and harassment of Sarkeesian and other "social justice warriors" (SJWs) had been an ongoing embarrassment that sane gamers tried to distance themselves from. When the Quinnspiracy broke out, hating a woman suddenly had a moral component. The whole SJW movement was ostensibly a fraud, and she was the smoking gun that proved it.
The horde of angry teenagers expressed itself in the usual ways—angry Twitter jokes about rape, angry forum posts calling her a cunt, and epic mansplanations on YouTube. The vastness of the movement to discredit her was immense. "They use astroturfing techniques to make a bunch of Facebook accounts, all have each other tweet each other, and drum up this false sense of grassroots-movement stuff, to make something seem bigger than it is. And that hits you like a tidal wave," she said.
That provoked some media coverage, including—after a couple of weeks—my own. Despite trying to give her ex the benefit of the doubt in the article, I even experienced a taste of what I started calling the "anime avatar brigade" on my own Twitter account. The minor troll infestation in my Twitter notifications tab was probably childs' play in comparison with Quinn's.
"I try to have a policy of engaging people even if they seem like they're being total assholes, on the off chance that nobody's given them a chance before," she said, adding, "I had never blocked anybody on Twitter before this."
But the less public, more anonymous type of internet comments ventured beyond intemperate and into shocking. That's when the mainstream media got involved. This subset of angry teenagers started saying some really scary shit. According to the New Yorker, one 4chan user wrote, "Next time she shows up at a conference we […] give her a crippling injury that’s never going to fully heal […] a good solid injury to the knees. I’d say a brain damage, but we don’t want to make it so she ends up too retarded to fear us." Language like this was also used by sock-puppet Twitter accounts, but most of these tweets have since been deleted, and the accounts have been banned.
At some point, the abusive language and violent rhetoric could, maybe, in some universe, have been dismissed by the gaming community with some sort of blithe boys-will-be-boys defense. It wouldn't be right, but I can imagine them trying it. However, toward the end of last month her contact details got into the hands of her adversaries, and the worst of the harassment was relocated from the internet to her door. That was when she got out of her house and started couch-surfing, out of fear for her own safety.
But she wasn't just hiding in a closet from the scary internet meanies. "I was monitoring the progression of this mob that sort of ended up morphing into #GamerGate," she said. And she wasn't just spying in order to be prepared; she told me she was also "recording everything, hiding out in the IRC rooms, silently picking logs, and documenting the evolution. It started out as a harassment campaign and turned into something else entirely."
The next step was to use all this information to end the harassment. "I waited until the time seemed right and then just posted a very small fraction of the logs that I had collected over the last three weeks, kind of exposing it for what it had been. Somebody collected all of these tweets in a link, and called it #GameOverGate," she said.
She also informed the FBI of what she'd found: "Reposting of peoples’ information with incredibly elaborate rape threats and death threats. Distributing of private information, with calls to harass. There are calls for people to send naked photos of me to my colleagues—and to distribute that illegally. There’s open talk of hacking, what we’d refer to as 'black-hat hacking.'"
The tide turned after #GameOverGate. It became clear that there wasn't a battle between nasty, mean self-promoting sluts and game-developing saints and journalists, creating and promoting good honest war games with snow-white consciences. Something was palpably different in internet discussions about this issue. On Wednesday, a subreddit called "Gaming4Gamers" was being promoted on Reddit's front page, advertising itself as a "community based on open-minded discussions" and "camaraderie above competition." The community's rules make it look like a friendly and tolerant place. I asked her if she was optimistic about signs like these. "I will cross my fingers and remain optimistic for that," she said. "I go back and forth between having faith in it and being tired of dealing with the same crap over and over and over."
If our positions were switched, I'd have given up on the world of video games a long time ago, so I can understand her cautious optimism. Even during our conversation, she would often cut herself off when she was afraid of stepping on yet another land mine in the discourse. "Games as a medium and as an art form, or whatever the hell you want to call it—I know even just calling games as an art form will piss people off," she said, before managing to express her thought. "I totally love the potential of it, and I’m excited to see where it goes. I hope that we can stop pushing it so hard to stay the same forever."
Can existing hardcore gamers get along with the alternagamers? Quinn hopes so: "The hardcore game crowd will come in there and be like, 'I just wanna play games! I don’t wanna talk about these social issues!' And I’m like, 'The people who make the games are a little bit artsy and nontraditional, and they just want to be able to make their games in peace, too.'"
It's not a very far-fetched idea, but nonetheless, games like Depression Quest being viewed as serious contenders for the awards and acclaim normally reserved for games like BioShock does present a challenge to gamer identity. "It’s as if people making weird stuff is somehow threatening, when really everybody just wants to do their own thing.
"I really wish that instead of being defensive and hostile, people would just maybe get better at listening," she continued. Now there's a far-fetched idea.
Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.