An illustrated depiction of a misogynist being horrible to women online. Image by Cei Willis
Brianna Wu is a developer and writer who's penned pieces on the gender imbalance in modern video games and the harassment women in the industry continue to deal with as part of their daily business. She heads up the small studio Giant Spacekat, makers of Revolution 60, a mobile game hailed as “a most triumphant and excellent adventure” by RPGfan.com and denounced as “a bland, uninteresting, feminism circle-jerk” by Metacritic user Realgamer101. I'm guessing that’s not his real name, but there's no guesswork required to figure out the poster’s gender.
On October 11, Wu tweeted the below screenshot—a series of threatening messages she’d received from a Twitter account that’s since been suspended.
Before we go any further, it’s important to ask whether or not you want to read anything more on GamerGate. Since you're on this page, chances are you’re aware of the sides in this bizarre online kerfuffle, as well as the problem with giving GamerGate any further coverage: These words may be further fuel for a fire that needs to die down before anyone can properly discuss the more pertinent points raised by a still-evolving debate.
If that means nothing to you, here’s a summary: A (formerly) low-profile indie developer named Zoe Quinn created and released a game called Depression Quest. Some people argued that it wasn’t a game at all—but that’s not the controversy. An ex of Quinn’s published information in August of 2014 implying that she had slept around to secure positive review coverage for Depression Quest. There’s no evidence connecting any alleged promiscuity—which, in any case, is nobody’s business apart from those doing the screwing, anyway—with the reception Depression Quest received, but the conversation quickly turned to ethics: As in, some game journalists were seen to be favorable toward certain projects that they were incredibly tenuously linked to. That connection could be chipping into a Kickstarter pot, or having long ago worked on a collaborative venture together. You get the idea: Person A once spoke to Person B, and for that reason Person A’s recommendation of Person B’s new Game C is clearly completely corrupt.
It goes on, encompassing advertising campaign pulls and C-list actors appointing themselves as standard-bearers. It pretty much goes without saying that every journalist worth the measly fee they’re taking home to write about video games is completely in support of fairness in reporting. Every journalist who covers games—or music, or film, or television, or sports, or real estate, or gardening—for a living knows better than to risk his or her livelihood by taking bribes. But if they do, they’re soon exposed by their peers (Dorito-gate wasn’t that long ago). You don’t need a degree in journalism to know where ethical lines are drawn—it should be instinctive once you’ve been on the job for two minutes.
But the ugliness of GamerGate has absolutely nothing to do with ethics. On that front, debate is always welcomed, ideally in a forum beyond Twitter. It’s the ripples—sorry, the tidal waves—of outright misogyny that have tarnished the GamerGate situation. Which brings us back to Brianna Wu. Nobody should ever have to face death threats, however hollow they might be, because they make video games that not everybody enjoys or because they’ve made jokes at the expense of those making the most noise about the slightest little things.
Sadly, Wu isn’t the first to have been targeted in such a worrying way. Quinn received a barrage of both death and rape threats—she spoke to VICE about the ordeal here—and prominent voice for greater gender equality in gaming, Feminist Frequency founder Anita Sarkeesian, was rightly concerned by comparably grotesque correspondence (you can see her tweet about it below). The FBI has since become involved, and is currently investigating her harassment and further cases.
Understandably, many who are rallying against what they see to be a shortage of ethical values in the gaming press have spoken out against this kind of hostile communication. Let’s be clear: pro-GamerGate people, those who are trying to serve as media watchdogs, are not all horrendous misogynists. Some of them are even female. And yet with every instance of straight-up hate against women, most recently with Wu’s case, there is some strange "they brought in on themselves"–style reaction. Some have suggested Wu baited the GamerGate community, or even orchestrated the whole thing—which seems bizarre. Truth be told, I’m not picking a side here, beyond stating for the record that sending that kind of hateful shit to a stranger, be they female or male (but, be honest, it’s been entirely directed at women thus far), is irredeemably abhorrent.
Not choosing which side of the fence to camp on is problematic when it comes to GamerGate, though, as the Escapist has discovered. In trying to present an even-handed assessment of “the controversy” so far, it interviewed individuals both male and female, albeit with more of the former and none of the latter choosing to identify themselves by name. Female developers were grouped as that, “female developers”, while the male contributors were originally (since amended) referred to as simply “developers.” Which was problem number one. Secondly, the site entirely screwed up the timeline of GamerGate—again, it’s since been amended—which led to some flummoxed responses.
One of the Escapist's male interviewees was Slade Villena, a.k.a. Twitter user RogueStar. His contributions were removed from the post after, wrote site editor-in-chief Greg Tito, “[we] received evidence that he has harassed some contributors to The Escapist.” Naturally, Villena has since published his own account of what may or may not have gone on, but again: not great, guys.
Nevertheless, some credit must go to the Escapist for at least aiming for equilibrium amid the turbulence. One fears for the worst should GamerGate be allowed to run amok without further efforts to qualify the key conversations and quell the hate.
Back to Sarkeesian, tweeting the same day Wu revealed her abuse:
Sarkeesian is more used than Quinn and Wu to being a target for misogyny, having endured it since 2012, if not before. That year, when she was Kickstarting her "Tropes vs Women in Video Games" series, a flash game appeared offering the opportunity to beat her up and her Wikipedia entry was vandalized. But bomb threats? That’s a next-level situation.
The apologists, however keep on coming. British journalist Milo Yiannopoulos, seen as a champion of the cause by a large proportion of GamerGaters, responded to Wu’s revelations with what could be perceived as a complete lack of sensitivity:
Those tweeting their desire to “drink the blood” out of female journalists’ private parts and sending emails to the organizers of the Game Developers Choice Awards threatening to kill “at least a dozen people and injure dozens more” are likely sad, lonely people on the periphery of GamerGate, using the umbrella to spread their brands of excessively violent trolling. But what happens if someone really does show up at Sarkeesian’s house and attack her? What happens if Quinn commits suicide, as some of her attackers have hoped?
Does somebody have to die before everyone stops being imbeciles and begins to consider: Hang on, are games not suppose to be fun, and even more so when shared with others? Isn’t there space for games for every person under the same sun to coexist? We don’t all have to play the same way. We don’t have to get along. Brianna Wu can make her games and it’s absolutely OK that they’re not acknowledged as the greatest thing since The Secret of Monkey Island. Equally, it’s fine for millions of gamers to gun each other down on the next Call of Duty. There can be a thousand more Gone Homes, but they’re never going to replace shooters bristling with machismo.
GamerGate, to date, has taught us nothing. OK, maybe it's taught us that certain men are horrible and have no shame in announcing their hatred of women to the world in the most hideous manner available to them. If GamerGate really was about ethics, Wu or Sarkeesian wouldn't be going through what they are.
Until female developers, critics, columnists, and bloggers feel comfortable doing their jobs—which is to discuss gaming and expand the medium to wider and wider audiences—the ethics debate will be backgrounded by boisterous boys complaining that their toys aren’t how they used to be: i.e., made by dudes and played by dudes. That's living in the past, though. Today, Peach can spank Bowser’s backside on Super Smash Bros., one of the highest-rated action games of 2014 features a kick-ass woman protagonist, and 52 percent of gamers are female.
Something, not someone, has to die—and that something goes deeper than GamerGate. I don’t have the answer to the question of how we prevent bias in the media, but I sure as hell know that we can’t sit idly by and just hope that the hatred goes away. Gaming hasn’t even reached the middle of its own excellent adventure, but it’s gonna suck if it doesn’t pick up more princesses along the way. So how about we all calm the fuck down before someone really gets hurt?
Follow Mike Diver on Twitter.