Female Game Designers Are Being Threatened with Rape

Zoe Quinn, a game designer, was unaware that her father was in the ICU for several days because she had stopped using her phone—it took a roundabout message from one of her cousins to deliver the news. The reason Quinn wasn’t fielding calls was because...

Jan 23 2014, 8:45pm

A screenshot of Quinn's Depression Quest game. Photo via.

Zoe Quinn, a game designer, was unaware that her father was in the ICU for several days because she had stopped using her phone—it took a roundabout message from one of her cousins to deliver the news. The reason Quinn wasn’t fielding calls was because an influx of male internet strangers were dialing her ad nauseam to spout rape threats and jack off on the other end of the line. They were targeting her because Quinn was trying to release a video game on Steam, and evidently her womanhood really set them off. It’s a troubling issue, and unfortunately it’s nowhere near the first of its kind.

“Gamer” has become a dirty word over the last few years, nearly becoming synonymous with someone known for ego-tripping, self-entitledness, and intolerance. It seems like not even one month can go by before a crowd of loud, terrible nerds do or say something that makes everyone who has touched a DualShock seem by proxy a misogynist dirtbag. Be it through the normalization of sexual harassment in video game tournaments, or out-of-control rape joke controversies propagated by close-minded webcomic titans—a large portion of video game culture is disappointingly determined to make women uncomfortable. The hellfire only grew after Anita Sarkeesian proposed to point out some of games’ ongoing problems in a video series, that was met with a backlash deeming that her and her partner were wrong, proclaiming hopes that they’d fail, die, be violently assaulted, and other responses that reinforce that an issue does in fact exist.

As 2013 wrapped up, there was an exceptionally pathetic furor over Dina Abou Karam, a supporter for feminist causes, being hired as the community manager for a new Mega Man spinoff. That vitriol presented a platform for Zoe Quinn to come out and voice her frustrations about the hostility towards women in the game world, while still weathering a harassment campaign herself.

Quinn’s own game, Depression Quest, is “an interactive fiction game where you play as someone living with depression.”The game has successfully made it onto Steam—a video game distribution platform with over 75 million registered users—despite its detractors, but the entire affair has left Quinn struggling to find her takeaway. I spoke with Quinn about the trials of Depression Quest, what kept her going, and how conditions can be improved within a community where many outspoken gamers will likely continue to be insufferable.

VICE: Why did you make Depression Quest?
Zoe:I made it for a number of reasons. I was dealing with depression myself, and I needed to put all these feelings into something. Beyond that, I wanted to reach out to other people who are suffering with this and let them know they aren’t alone. Obviously we could never speak for everybody’s experience, but we wanted to give a 101-level of understanding of how this can manifest. It’s an interactive-fiction-esque game about, basically, the day to day realities of living with depression that tries to focus more on the internal, personal things that happen, rather than trying to make a metaphor for it.

What happened the first time you uploaded Depression Quest to Steam’s Greenlight service?
The first time I uploaded it to Greenlight I figured it would go mostly smoothly. Like, hopefully okay. We already had half a million players at that point and a bunch of awards. When it hit Greenlight, people were leaving foul comments there, and suddenly I started getting stuff sent to my email. “Oh I saw your game on Greenlight and I hope you kill yourself.” I guess somebody who thought they were really clever figured out my address and sent a very detailed rape threat to my house. That was when I decided to pull it off [Greenlight]. I just didn’t have the emotional time and effort to spend on it. Putting something on Greenlight, you have to manage this whole campaign, promotion. It’s exhausting when you also have people telling you that they want you to die.

Why in the world do you think these gamers felt the need to harass you?
I’m still not entirely sure. It’s always a pile of different factors. It’s not terribly surprising, sadly. This is not the first thing I’ve done on the internet. I’ve basically grown up with it. I know the game can be incendiary to some people, just by the fact that it is a game, and people think games are supposed to be certain other things, things that are fundamentally incompatible with depression. I think a lot of it boils down to: when people do this stuff, they don’t really think about the fact they’re going after an actual person. You become an abstract concept to them, not a real human. It’s not stuff you’d get face-to-face. In a bar you don’t get these things. Online, then it becomes easier for people to be awful. But a lot of us don’t have our games in storefronts. The internet is where we make our bread and butter. Especially Steam, it’s the biggest digital distribution platform there is.

When did you decide to try Greenlight again?
Part of it was just that, generally, I’m in a better place now. I thought since the game had gotten into IndieCade, people would respond to it a lot better. Willingly signing up for that experience again sucks, I hoped people had gotten it out of their system. Mostly, though, it came down to the fact that I talked to a lot of people that said that it helped them. I thought, honestly, I could take the hate if it meant the game could reach somebody who would get something out of it, feel less alone. That matters way more to me than the people who just spew hate ad hominem. It took me a long time to internalize that, despite getting a ton of fan letters, that the game helped people. It took me a long time because of my own bullshit. As soon as I accepted that it seemed silly to hold back.

Photo via.

What happened this time around?
Basically the same. People were really supportive for a while, but then someone sent me an email giving me a heads up that this anonymous message board was planning on raiding [harassment en masse] me. I found the thread and took screencaps. It was extremely out there. It was insane. I got some phone calls where I could tell someone was masturbating on the other end of the line. I got another call shortly after where a guy was just spewing as many rape-type threats as possible. I put my phone into airplane mode, posted a private Facebook message letting people know that they couldn’t reach me by phone. I knew if I talked about it, it would just intensify. It would do that thing that many things on the internet do, rapidly iterate out of control. Some fractal ball of crazy. I went along my business until a couple days after when another woman was engaged in some non-controversy [Dina Abou Karam]. Some friends of friends were debating on Twitter when one person said that games were not a sexist space, but I’m sitting there with a cell phone I can’t use because I’m getting harassed because of my gender. I just got sick of it. Everyone says don’t feed the trolls, but honestly, not talking about it isn’t helping. Allowing them to keep doing whatever they want to do, and say whatever they want doesn’t help a single fucking person.

It must feel like an odd spot to be in. Not like you didn’t deserve the sympathy, but it’s not the kind of attention you were hoping for.
I still feel really weird about it. I don’t want to be known for being harassed. I don’t want to be known for being a woman. It’s really frustrating. I’ve taught other women to make games, and they’re going to inherit this, this pile of shit. It could be them just as easily as it was me. I can either shirk the responsibility or I speak out and become this concept that people will want to attack and think that any of my success is just from backlash.

If we can’t hold much hope for the game community, is there something the services or larger entities can do to help? Anything Steam can do to improve things?
Absolutely. I wish Steam would let me turn the damn comments off. A percentage of my days are going in and cleaning that shit up. I used to let it go, but I had some people saying they wanted to go to the page and support my game, but the comments were saying depression wasn’t real or that I should kill myself, and that would hurt others in more fragile situations than I am. And of course you’d have people patently saying things that weren’t true on the page. I don’t want to give them a platform to lie on, that it is just a flash game, that it is a comedy game, it’s all false.

Even if it’s not the kind of publicity that you want, do you think if these issues were brought beyond the niche game press, that there would be more pressure for shit to clean up?
Definitely. I’m still trying to draw the proper conclusions from all this, but I am looking to speak to people who used to be like this, who used to harass, and have a conversation with them. Ask them how they grew out of it. There’s a wide variety of answers as to why people do this and when it stopped, but the one thing that seems pretty much universal is that they began realizing how this actually affects people. It kind of broke through the barrier, thinking of people as people. They said that hearing people talk about their experiences is what helped them realize it. So, as much as I hate the coverage personally, I think it’s really important. I’m cool with taking that hit.

Why do you think male nerds have been so viciously shitty towards women recently?
I think a lot of it is that things are actually changing. I think that, as stuff starts to roll forward, progress’ slow glacial movements towards something better, the people that feel insecure are going to get louder.

It’s still baffling that there are so many people that feel the mere existence of one kind of game will negate what’s currently popular. That Gone Home will kill God of War.
I don’t understand it at all. It can only help to have a variety of games, that’s how shit works. You don’t know what game is going to bring the next technical leap forward. Even if it’s a terrible game, it could have amazing ideas for other developers to seize, and take it somewhere better. A game like Gears of War could be improved by a game that has nothing to do with shooting people. That’s the iterative nature of games, they help everybody. And if you don’t like games like mine then just don’t fucking play them.


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