image via The Fine Young Capitalists' Twitter account
Vivian James is the fictional everywoman of gaming. She wears a striped hoodie and drinks Mountain Dew Throwback. Her name is a play on “vidya games.” She’s a regular person who wears jeans and spends too much time on the Internet. And she was created out of spite by the historically anti-feminist gamers of 4chan.
Here’s some background: Gamers on 4chan are pouring time and energy into backing a project that sponsors female-created video games. Did they have a crisis of conscience? Not exactly. Their charitable efforts are part of a plan to spite Zoe Quinn, creator of the game Depression Quest. A portion of the users on /v/, boards.4chan.org/v/ 4chan’s video games forum (a place historically unfriendly to women and especially to feminists), have long disliked Quinn, a self-proclaimed feminist, for reasons that aren’t especially clear but feel suspiciously like good old-fashioned misogyny.
In February 2013, Quinn’s Depression Quest debuted on Greenlight, the open submissions system of gaming network Valve. Almost instantly, Quinn became the target of a nightmarish amount of harassment, ranging from name-calling to rape threats. One counterintuitive accusation they’ve hurled at Quinn is that she’s a “fake feminist.” Since gaming culture on the whole is notoriously anti-feminist, I’m not clear on why these gamers would be angry at someone who they felt was “faking” feminism—nor am I sure how one does that—but it appears to offend them greatly. Quinn received so many threats that she changed her phone number. The same trolls then accused her of faking the harassment to “get attention.” It was an ugly scene.
So it’s no great surprise that these trolls felt victorious when, one annoying August day, Quinn’s ex-boyfriend Eron Gjoni wrote several blog posts claiming that Quinn had a series of affairs with members of the gaming community who were in positions to give publicity to Quinn’s game—most prominently, Kotaku reporter Nathan Grayson. Gjoni alleged that Quinn traded sex to Grayson in exchange for a positive review of her game. There is no evidence that Grayson ever even wrote a review of the game and Gjoni later “clarified” this claim by essentially rescinding it, but Quinn’s hater base was already fired up, apparently unfazed by the fact that Gjoni’s posts was simply those of a recently jilted ex-boyfriend.
To add fuel (irrelevant fuel, but fuel nonetheless) to the fire, a Reddit user claimed that Quinn purposely sabotaged a female-centric “game jam,” sponsored by feminist group The Fine Young Capitalists, in order to promote her own female-centric game jam, Rebel Jam. Needless to say, this is not the kind of event that 4chan’s gaming community would get excited about. But they’d developed a taste for blood, and they saw an opportunity to make Quinn look bad in the eyes of the feminists she usually called allies. So /pol/, 4chan’s politics forum, pitched the idea of donating money to aforementioned feminist group, The Fine Young Capitalists’ female-created video games project, arguing that it would make 4chan “look really good.” The idea quickly gained support on /v/. One user described the plan thusly: “We sponsor [The Fine Young Capitalists.] We...become its rallying cry for ‘breaking down the merit wall in gaming.’....Can you imagine? 4chan attacks the cancer and...sponsors the chemo AT THE SAME TIME. We’d be PR-untouchable.”
For days, 4chan was the number one supporter of The Fine Young Capitalists’ project. Soon a 4chan user suggested that 4chan take their support a step further and design a female character (warning to anyone who follows that last link: It includes material from 4chan, so expect slurs) for The Fine Young Capitalists. Other users quickly embraced the idea. One user suggested the character should be “just an average female gamer to troll everyone,” because “all the tards in the media” would (reasonably) expect something sexist and/or gross from 4chan. And so, from the muck of cynicism and spite, Vivian was born. And 4chan saw all that they had made, and behold, it was very good!—according to them, and to their strange new bedfellows The Fine Young Capitalists. TFYC tweeted that they would, indeed, work Vivian into whichever game they created. And the gamers of /v/ rejoiced, for their character born out of intolerance had managed to become some sort of perplexing symbol for women in gaming.
TFYC received plenty of criticism for embracing Vivian, of course, and responded by saying—and this is a quote—“when you say that 4chan cannot take part in a project, you are oppressing them.” And that was when my brain said, “So long, world, it’s been fun,” and leapt to its own death.
Vivian James is a character masquerading as a feminist icon for the express purpose of spiting feminists—yes, that’s feminists, plural. It’s not just Zoe Quinn that /v/ wants to take down—it’s the entirety of what they derogatorily call “SJWs,” or “social justice warriors." People who, according to Urbandictionary, engage in “social justice arguments on the internet... in an effort to raise their own personal reputation.” In other words, SJWs don’t hold strong principles, but they pretend to. The problem is, that’s not a real category of people. It’s simply a way to dismiss anyone who brings up social justice—and often, those people are feminists. It’s awfully convenient to have a term at the ready to dismiss women who bring up sexism, as in, "You don’t really care. As an SJW, you’re just taking up this cause to make yourself look good!"
If this stupidly complicated story has left you exhausted, as it has me, I have some good news: gamers on Reddit (and plenty on 4chan) are already weighing in on whether they would have sex with this cartoon woman. At least that much is a constant in this world.
Follow Allegra Ringo on Twitter.