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Violent Threats Against Women Are Getting Even Worse in the Gamergate Controversy

Feminist gaming critic Anita Sarkeesian canceled an appearance the Utah State University after the school received an anonymous email warning of a mass shooting.

by Colleen Curry
Oct 16 2014, 12:04am

Photo by Susanne Nilsson via Flickr

The decision by feminist gaming critic Anita Sarkeesian to cancel an appearance the Utah State University today after a threat of a shooting "massacre" is the latest in a string of violent threats against women in the gaming industry that erupted this summer with the debate known as Gamergate.

Sarkeesian, a critic who is known for her video blog series "Tropes vs. Women in Video Games," described on Twitter receiving multiple specific threats of a "mass shooting" with intent to kill her and other feminists at the university, noting that one made explicit mention of Gamergate. She said she canceled the appearance after police would not take steps to prevent concealed weapons inside the event.

A university spokesman told VICE News today that the USU campus police were aware of only one threat, an email received Monday night, which they shared with local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies. The authorities reportedly determined the threat was not credible. The email, which the university shared with VICE News, promised a "Montreal Massacre style attack will be carried out," a reference to a 1989 university shooting in which a male gunman killed 14 female students while yelling that he hated feminists.

The email to USU also said, "I have at my disposal a semi-automatic rifle, multiple pistols, and a collection of pipe bombs. This will be the deadliest school shooting in American history and I'm giving you a chance to stop it."

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USU police stepped up security measures for the event, promising additional police, but could not stop attendees from bringing concealed weapons due to Utah state law, Eric Warren, the school's director of media relations, told VICE News.

Sarkeesian has tweeted regularly about receiving violent threats since even before she began her video blog series in 2012, but harassment against her and other women in the industry gained momentum this summer and underwent a sharp resurgence this week.

On Friday, another outspoken critic of sexism in the industry, Brianna Wu, live-tweeted her reactions to a series of murder and rape threats against her on Twitter and a thread on 8chan that posted her address and phone number. Today, Wu told VICE News that she could not discuss specifics of the incident, but said it was interesting that the threats against her and Sarkeesian were made around the same time.

"There is no way to sugar coat it," Wu said. "The last week has been the worst week of our lives. Not only have I been driven from my house by death threats, I've been subjected to a campaign to discredit me."

She noted that her Twitter and bank accounts had been hacked, and said she has been targeted since she wrote a feminist piece criticizing game makers in January.

"I think for 30 years the video game industry has really been a club for boys like no other industry," Wu said. "The last few years women have been standing up about this, women have been talking about issues in workplace, representation in games, and as it's been happening more and more and more and more, I think these people are threatened. I think the genesis of (the harassment) is a culture has some really unexamined issues with women."

The Gamergate controversy has triggered a debate over ethical issues in gaming journalism, as well as the future of game development, specifically asking whether games should have a social agenda.

The debate erupted in August when game developer Zoe Quinn was the target of an online rant written by her ex-boyfriend, Eron Gioni, accusing her of, among other things, sleeping with a journalist to garner favorable reviews of her game Depression Quest. The post sparked the hashtag #gamergate, and a movement in which gamers have called for more ethical video game journalism, asking publications disclose relationships between authors and game creators in reviews and articles.

'The last week has been the worst week of our lives. Not only have I been driven from my house by death threats, I've been subjected to a campaign to discredit me.'

But the aims of Gamergate have become murkier as another part of the campaign has focused on eliminating discussions of feminism and diversity in the gaming industry. As conversations about inclusiveness have become more common on gaming industry sites, some Gamergate supporters have reacted by saying the focus should be on the games, not social agendas.

Jennie Bharaj, an outspoken supporter of Gamergate on Twitter, described the movement as primarily the result of gamers who were fed up with the cozy relationships between publicists and journalists in the gaming world, and secondarily as a response by passionate enthusiasts who didn't want good games dismissed by people with socially-driven agendas.

"Gamergate is all about exposing the corruption in video game journalism," Bharaj said. "We were always suspicious for so long that there was corruption in the video game industry, especially with connections between publicists and journalists. Gamergate tipped us over the edge in the sense that we wanted to be heard this time. 

"This is specifically for journalistic integrity," she continued. "When these articles pop up — there were several articles that shamed Bayonetta 2 for being too sexy or showing a bit of nudity -— it was very shocking because it was so against what games stood for. Games are meant to be a creative medium, an art form if you will, and when you bash a wonderful game like Bayonetta 2 for nudity, it's horrible. What ever happened to sexual liberation when it comes to feminism? What ever happened to being empowered by strong female heroes? They're villainizing gamers and video games. These journalists are for their own agenda and this needs to stop."

Bharaj blamed a group of "radicals" for the harassment and threats against women like Sarkeesian and Wu, explaining that the Gamergate movement had grown so large it was inevitable that some extreme members would co-opt it. She emphasized that the Gamergate thread on 8chan has a post at the top condemning harassment. 

Earlier this month, a grassroots group of gamers pressured Intel to pull its ads from the gaming journalism site Gamasutra following the publication of a feminist essay, according to the New York Times.

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The more extreme aspect of Gamergate includes online harassment of women who criticize sexism in the gaming industry. After Gioni published his rant in August, Quinn began receiving disturbing threats. In September, she told VICE that she had left her home and was couch surfing due to posts on Twitter and 4Chan that included her address and specifically threatened her, her family, and friends. She contacted the FBI with information about "incredibly elaborate rape threats and death threats."

Around the same time, Sarkeesian tweeted a screenshot of explicit threats of rape and murder made against her and her family, some of which included their addresses. She said that she was similarly driven from her home in August due to online threats. Sarkeesian believes the same internet users that have been harassing her for years are now using the Gamergate campaign to redouble their efforts.

"Let's be real for a second," Sarkeesian tweeted earlier this week. "#gamergate is the new name for a group that has been harassing me for 2 years. All the same users involved."

Sarkeesian did not respond to requests for comment from VICE News. 

Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: @currycolleen

Photo via Flickr