One year ago, the Internet became a much stranger, much darker place when the Gamergate controversy kicked off, via a blog post attacking independent game developer Zoe Quinn. The 9,425-word blog post (by Quinn’s ex-boyfriend) alleged that Quinn had a relationship with gaming journalist Nathan Grayson that enabled her to garner favorable reviews, but this was later proven false — and within days, the conversation largely turned to rampant sexism in video game culture, both in the games themselves and behind the scenes. Quinn became the recipient of rape threats, death threats, and doxxing (the release of someone’s personal documents over the internet), and was driven from her home.
Over the following weeks, the conversation (and harassment) continued, with much of the Gamergaters’ vitriol moving towards “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” creator Anita Sarkeesian, and eventually, Giant Spacekat cofounder Brianna Wu, who became a target when she tweeted that Gamergaters were “fighting an apocalyptic future where women are 8 percent of programmers, and not 3 percent.”
Wu was also doxxed and driven from her home, and one year after the hit-post that started it all, MTV News caught up with Quinn and Wu to learn how things had changed in gaming, in online harassment, and in their own lives, in the year since Gamergate began. [Anita Sarkeesian did not respond to MTV News’ request for comment.]
Has the harassment died down, at all?
Brianna Wu: Last weekend I’m out spending the day hiking with my husband, I had 17 different death threats sent to me. I have a serious case of post-traumatic stress disorder from this constant bombardment. It’s been very hard to cope. The very next day I was sent a 1000-word fanfic of someone’s fantasy about murdering me, mutilating my genitals and killing me family. It doesn’t end.
It also hasn’t ended for Zoe Quinn, Randi Harper or Anita Sarkeesian. And the truth is — you don’t recover from this, you just kind of change. Gamergate isn’t in the news as much, but it’s sure still present in my life. As a percentage the number of threats have dropped 25-50 percent. Any time I try to do something professionally, the comments turn into a sewer. Gamergate has infiltrated some of my public events, trying to provoke me into doing something on camera that they can make fun of me about.
Have there been any improvements in online safety?
Zoe Quinn: There’s a lot of work to do still. My organization, Crash Override, we’re a trusted security resource — I think the term is “safety partner” — with Twitter. I’m optimistic that it’s different than it would have been last year, because they’re at least trying. In terms of if it’s better or not, it’s too early to tell. I feel like people like us are in the worst position to objectively judge if a platform is inherently better or not, or if they just pay more attention to high visibility, loud people like me, because there’s plenty of people we help at Crash Override who are not as big or obvious as a target, who are still having a hard time getting their concerns heard pretty much across the board on any platform. I’m one of the worst people to ask in terms of trying to apply my experience to the larger experience, because I’m facing a very specific set of circumstances, and I’ve been visibly targeted, and I’ve been loud about it. A lot of people don’t have that luxury.
Wu: Twitter has not gotten the credit that they deserve for stepping up and solving this problem. This time last year, if I got a death threat, I think the odds were maybe one in ten that Twitter would do something about it, probably lower.
We keep a running percentage here at Giant Spacekat, and these days our batting average is up to about an 85 percent success rate with Twitter. That’s a huge turnaround! I can tell you behind the scenes, Twitter has reached out to me and other high profile women and listened to us. It’s not that they want to only help Brianna Wu or Anita Sarkeesian — they just want hear stories, hear about what we’re experiencing so they can change their policies.
I think Reddit, very correctly got a lot of criticism this year. But [former Reddit CEO] Ellen Pao deserves a hell of a lot of credit for all the changes she made there. Are you aware she ended non-consensual sexual imagery — what people call revenge porn — at Reddit? Reddit is very correctly perceived to be one of the most sexist, white supremacist places on the internet, but she brought in significant changes to their policy. If anything good has come out of Gamegate, it’s been that in speaking out against these problems, these sites have been forced to change.
Are video games still relying so heavily on sexist tropes?
Wu: I think it’s changing very slowly. There was an analysis that Anita did of E3 this year and yes, there were more women speaking on stage. Yes, there were more games about women, but if you look scientifically at the games we’re putting out, every study shows we’ve got a hell of a long way to go.
This is really critical point: Anita criticizes the output of our industry. She looks at the output of “Grand Theft Auto,” which is a pretty sexist game. Well, the reason we put out such a sexist product is because women are systematically excluded from the developer side of the equation. It’s very hard for us to run companies. We often don’t make it to the senior levels in game development. Do you know how few women journalists there are in my field? I could list maybe about 10 well-known ones with real positions of power. Maybe ten, in an industry as big as the movie industry.
So what we have is this severe disconnect. Depending on which study you read, women are between 46 and 52 percent of the gaming audience in 2015. About of all gamers are women! Yet if you look at who is actually making the games we play, only 3 percent of programmers are women. I think there’s only one major studio that has a woman as CEO, and they just launched. So, yes — the men that make video games are a little bit more aware of these hyper sexist tropes that come out, but at the end of the day, it’s dudes making your games and dudes reviewing your games, and they’re just blind to the problems.
Has there been an increase in the number of women working behind-the-scenes?
Quinn: We saw a fair bit of representation with the games that were shown at E3 this year, but at the same time, these changes have been a long time coming. Definitely before Gamergate, a lot of us were boots on the ground trying to fix this image. Especially in the indie gaming sphere, a lot of us have been pushing for a really long time to sort of push back against this notion of games only being for people who would join Gamergate, and a lot of us have done a lot of work to de-stigmatize the concept of what a gamer is. Whether or not you can credit the whole Gamergate thing to that, or the work that a lot of us have been doing for years, is difficult to say. Same goes for helping marginalized people in this. Before Gamergate, I’d been running workshops for women, for queer people, and assisting other communities with fixing the issues of representation in terms of who makes the games. That work has always been happening, in spite of everything.
… [Gamergate] was also a major step back, because I also see and hear a lot of women and marginalized people being terrified of entering the industry, or expressing their opinion. Or people who are already in the industry, who are terrified of speaking out. There’s still a lot of work to do on that front. It’s bittersweet, that it’s like, oh hey, at least we can actually talk about this problem existing, instead of sweeping it under the rug, like we have been doing for so long.
Has there been any shift in the way we TALK about Gamergate?
Quinn: There’s been a problem in reporting, where [journalists] make it about attacking prominent feminists, which is not the case. I was not really that prominent before all this, neither was Brianna — the only person that was really highly visible before all this was Anita. Furthermore, a lot of the reporting on the people who have been targeted who are not feminists — who are just people of color, or trans women, who are just trying to exist — has been kind of ignored. It’s been pretty across the board in terms of just attacking progressive voices, and marginalized people working in the industry. It’s been kind of weird to see the coverage of it skew so hard on focusing on the women that have been targeted, and only the three most visible women that have been targeted…
Wu: When I got dragged into Gamergate it felt like there were people that actually believed, “It’s about ethics in game journalism.” What I [later] saw was people stopped believing that. They understood it was about harassment of women. When you go over to Gamergate headquarters, you can look at what they’re saying, and now I think they’re a lot more honest that this is about harassing feminists. I think they know the jig is up. And I certainly think the press knows the jig is up.
Is there hope for a brighter future?
Quinn: The issue kind of hit a critical mass, because of how public and how completely indefensible it was. I don’t think if it happened a few years ago, we’d even be having this conversation. I remember when everything started going down for Anita, a lot of people were still denying it. People still do that, but not on the mass consciousness-raising level that I think we’ve started to see. I’m hopeful — the work we’ve been doing with our tech partners and major platform holders has made me hopeful, even when it’s frustrating, even when it’s slow going. That’s the thing about progress, it moves at the same pace as a glacier does, but I think it’s moving, at least.
Wu: I think that the last year has been so terrible that our industry cannot ignore what we do to women any longer. I think it’s been 30 years of treating women like sh-t in our industry; erasing our voices, and turning every day in game dev [into] an episode of “Mad Men.” It is like we’re 50 years in the past in the game industry.
This was the year we hit rock bottom, and I think it’s to the point where even the men here are realizing something needs to change. I’m really looking forward to the next decade, because I think it’s going to be a lot better for the women coming into this field after me. It can’t be much worse, right?