A screenshot of Quinn's Depression Quest game. Photo via.
It took several days for Zoe Quinn to learn her father was in the ICU because she had stopped using her phone—it took a roundabout message from one of her cousins for the news to reach her. The reason Zoe wasn’t fielding calls was a lot of men she had never met were dialing her number to spout rape threats and jack off on the other end of the line, all apparently because Zoe was trying to release a video game through Steam Greenlight, the video game distribution platform that lets gamers vote on which titles they want to get the chance to play. Evidently her gender, her desire to do what every game designer wants to do, or some combination of the two really set these strangers off. Horrible as it is, Zoe's experience is by no means an isolated one.
It seems like a month can't go by without a throng of loud, shockingly vicious nerds doing or saying something that makes everyone who has touched a DualShock seem like a misogynist dirtbag by proxy. There have been a number of stories in the past couple of years that have touched on how gamer culture seems determine to make women uncomfortable and discount their views—whether that means the normalization of sexual harassment in video game tournaments or the out-of-control rape joke controversy propagated by closed-minded webcomic titans or the pathetic furor over Dina Abou Karam, a woman who supports some feminist causes, being hired as the community manager for a new Mega Man spinoff. In 2012, media critic Anita Sarkeesian created a web video series to point out some of the sexist tropes repeated again and again in video games, only to encounter a backlash from gamers that led to some shitheads emailing her images of her getting raped by game characters, among other misogynist BS. Those kinds of responses just reinforced her broader point, which is that the gaming industry seems to have a problem with women.
Zoe’s Depression Quest, “an interactive fiction game where you play as someone living with depression,” was greenlit by the Steam Greenlight community, indicating that plenty of people like what she's doing, but the entire affair has left Zoe drained and she ended up taking the game off Greenlight (she later put it back on). Recently I spoke with Zoe about her trials and how to deal with a community that includes lots of misogynists who refuse to shut up.
VICE: Why did you make Depression Quest?
Zoe Quinn: 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 OK. 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. 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 [the fact that] when people do this stuff, they don’t really think 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, 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 [international independent game festival] 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 who 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, despite getting a ton of fan letters, to internalize that 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.
Screenshot of Depression Questvia
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 [a.k.a. harrassing 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 and 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 about my business until a couple days later, when another woman [Dina Abou Karam] was engaged in some non-controversy. 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 that you didn’t deserve 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 who are 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 change?
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. 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’s 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.