Zoe Quinn is sitting uncomfortably on a plastic chair, in a small empty room upstairs from the GameCity festival in Nottingham. Outside, above the jagged rows of Victorian shops and houses, the sky is slate grey and a gentle rain has started to fall. Quinn’s bright clothes and dyed red and orange hair are a stark contrast to the gloom beyond the window. “I like the weather in England,” she says absentmindedly.
Quinn is in the UK to talk about her work as a games designer, but most people at the event have come to know her as patient zero of Gamergate, the vociferous video game “protest movement” that exploded across the internet in August. Leaderless and chaotic, this ragtag community of self-identifying “hardcore” gamers sees its culture under threat from insidious outsiders – usually feminists and academics – who are challenging the industry on its sometimes questionable representation of violence, minorities and gender. Gamergate wants video games to be left alone.
But proponents of this movement say their key target is games journalism. Gamergate complains about cronyism between certain writers and developers and has taken exception to the progressive sociopolitical leanings of news sources such as Polygon and Rock, Paper, Shotgun. It has even organised mass email campaigns asking major corporations to pull adverts from targeted sites.
The undercurrent, however, has always been darkly misogynistic. The victims of Gamergate’s ire have mostly been female developers, academics and writers. It was an alleged relationship between Zoe Quinn and a prominent games journalist that kickstarted the whole furore this summer. Quinn and several other women have since had to flee their homes after death and rape threats – mostly for pointing out that the games industry has a problem with representing women.
When I speak to her, Quinn has been in the UK for four days. She doesn’t know where she’s going next. She’s been staying on friends’ couches, at hotels. There is no destination.
“How could I go back to my home?” she asks. “I have people online bragging about putting dead animals through my mailbox. I’ve got some asshole in California who I’ve never talked to hiring a private investigator to stalk me. What am I going to do – go home and just wait until someone makes good on their threats? I’m scared that what it’s going to take to stop this is the death of one of the women who’s been targeted.”
She is teary and shaking as she talks, but through it all she’s also funny and engaging. Despite the trauma she has been through, she still loves games.
“I grew up in a super small town in upstate New York; my nearest neighbour was really far away,” she says. “A friend of the family gave me a Game Boy when I was very little, and it was amazing. I used to run around the woods pretending to be Samus Aran [from the game Metroid], using sticks as swords, imagining I was beating up aliens.”
When Quinn was 12, her dad bought her a 3DO console at a garage sale and she discovered games such as Night Trap and Star Control 2. “Dad knew I was a little nerd,” she says. “I’d been stealing Nintendo Power magazines from the library. I still feel bad about that. I just loved those long screenshots of a whole level, where you could see all the items and everything – I was so vividly in love with those games.”
Through her teens, she knew she wanted to do something creative, but didn’t know what. She wrote “terrible” science fiction stories (“in gel-pen!”) and later started taking photographs. She was offered a photography job in Toronto, but when she got there, the position fell through. She stuck around and met a few people from the city’s indie game development scene.
“It was like coming home,” she says. “I thought, this is what I want to do for ever. Game development combines all this disparate art stuff I’d been doing into one single thing that I could use to say very specific stuff. My brain breaks everything down into systems – and I realised, ah, these are game mechanics! I can communicate now!”
She started using the intuitive development package Stencyl, but it was in beta and kept crashing, so she taught herself Flash. “I made the silliest point-and-click ever,” she laughs. “I go back now and think, what was I doing? I never went to college or anything, I have no formal training, I just made my own way into programming.”
Quinn designs mostly short comedy games; little sketches about life, love and sadness. Realistic Relationship Simulator, for example, is about holding in a fart at the beginning of a love affair until you feel comfortable enough with the other person to let it out. “I make really dumb games based on Twitter jokes,” she says during a discussion with fellow designer Christos Reid. “I notice funny things, it tends to be autobiographical by accident.”
Her work typifies the emerging independent game development scene, which has prospered in the age of digital distribution. Small teams and even lone programmers are now able to produce offbeat and idiosyncratic games and sell them online to a growing global audience. It means that alongside the mainstream hits we see in high street stores, there are experimental titles such as the border control simulator Papers, Please, and the heart-wrenching That Dragon, Cancer, which is about one family’s struggle with the disease. Like many other indies, Quinn slowly built up a community around her games. But then one project changed everything.
The year after arriving in Toronto, Zoe started working on an interactive novel named Depression Quest about her own struggles with the condition. She made a trailer the day her job was canned and then began writing, giving herself a tight deadline to ensure she’d finish it. The game puts players into the role of a depression sufferer, trying to keep hold of a job and a relationship, seeking therapy, taking medication. Released as a browser game in February 2013, it gained traction very quickly.
“A lot of it was because of how accessible I made it,” says Quinn. “You didn’t have to download it, you could send it as a link to someone. The control system was very simple – I wanted to make sure that, if there was someone it could help who doesn’t know how to use a two-stick controller or doesn’t want to download something, it was still available … it was about removing the barriers. I asked very little of the player other than time.”
With interest growing, and positive press coming in, she put the game on Greenlight, the community review section of the popular gaming download site Steam – a sort of PC version of the Apple app store. If Depression Quest was approved for inclusion on the service, it would open up a new audience of millions.
But very quickly it became obvious that being a woman and setting out to make quirky semi-autobiographical games was going to make her a target, and a subset of Steam users took exception to this odd outsider infiltrating their sanctum. In an interview with Vice media at the time, Quinn spoke about receiving harassing phone calls and rape threats. “I started getting stuff sent to my email: ‘Oh I saw your game on Greenlight and I hope you kill yourself.’”
She withdrew the game, only to resubmit later, more determined. This time, it was approved by the Steam Greenlight community, but the hate never stopped. Looking back, it’s obvious how starkly premonitory this all was. The tinder for Gamergate had been there for months. All it needed was a lit match.
Then, in August, Quinn’s ex-boyfriend, Eron Gjoni, uploaded a blog post about their breakup. He alleged she had cheated on him several times, mentioning her relationship with a games writer for the US gaming site Kotaku, Nathan Grayson. The post was linked to on the internet chat site 4Chan, a popular hangout out for gamers; some saw a confirmation of their fears about games industry collusion and corruption, others a chance to bully another female game developer. “It was very precise and deliberate,” says Quinn about Gjoni’s blog post. “I fully believe it was there to ruin my life. As soon as it hit 4Chan, they went into ‘get this bitch’ mode. They started doxxing me immediately, asking who had hacking skills.”
Doxxing, or the public posting of a person’s contact details on social media, has become a favoured method of online intimidation. Soon Quinn’s home address, as well as personal photos, were all over the internet. The situation erupted. There were allegations that she had slept with Grayson in order to secure a favourable review for Depression Quest – though he never actually reviewed the game. A small but vocal minority harbouring a simmering resentment towards certain games writers and their relationships with developers bubbled over. There was a growing rabble mentality. A fury.
On 25 August, media critic Anita Sarkeesian released the latest online video instalment of her controversial Tropes vs Women in video games series, examining the objectification of female characters in many hit titles. It’s not an uncommon theme, and it reflects an unease many have with the mainstream games industry. Blockbuster titles like Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto and Hitman revel in depictions of weaponised slaughter and sexual violence; even confirmed fans see elements of these highly marketed experiences as problematic. These games are often consumed like misogynistic rap music, as a guilty adult pleasure.
Nevertheless, the launch of Sarkeesian’s video reignited a nonsensical conspiracy that feminist academics were seeking to control and censor games, instead of merely exploring them. The anger directed at Quinn and Sarkeesian merged and intensified.
Somehow Hollywood actor Adam Baldwin got involved, tweeting in support of enraged gamers, ostensibly asking questions about journalistic integrity. He penned the hashtag #GamerGate and linked to videos critical of Quinn. The loose affiliation of hardcore gamers suddenly transmogrified into a seething pressure group. In the midst of it all, Quinn’s life evaporated.
Gamergate continued to suck in more people – some trying to reinvent its origins to make the campaign seem more credible, and some clinging to it as a way of expressing concerns about games journalism, seemingly without comprehending Gamergate’s roots in abuse and harassment. The size and demographic of the group is hard to measure as its members are anonymous and its organisation decentralised. However, the focus on the US games industry suggests that most active supporters are in North America, while the age of active members seems to range from the stereotypical teenagers hiding away in their bedrooms, to mature gamers with wives and families.
I ask Quinn, what about those people who have found Gamergate to be a supportive community, who genuinely do see it as about journalistic ethics?
“No!” she says. “I have 16 gigabytes of evidence, I’ve got massive amounts of screen grabs. But proof doesn’t matter, logic doesn’t matter – the fact that the review they’re propping up as the excuse for their crusade doesn’t exist and has never existed, that does not matter – it still gets thrown at me constantly.
“People can just make shit up and you can’t debunk it, they’ll just replay it. This is used to terrorise my family and go after my boyfriend, to ruin his life too for the crime of being associated with me. Now tell me it’s about ethics in games journalism.”
I realise she is shaking not in fear, but in anger. She has carried this for months. “I was hoping no one would buy into that ethics reinvention because it’s so very transparent,” she says. “It’s like a cardboard prop of a city – it looks like a city, but if you touch it, it all falls over. And now people who do care about ethics in journalism are part of my ex’s revenge on me! Goddamn celebrities and corporations have weighed in on attempts to destroy my life. I don’t think there’s a handbook on how to deal with a hate group coming out of a blog post by your ex. It would be like the Tea party starting over a shitty relationship.”
She is withering too about #notyourshield, the hashtag supposedly for women and people from minorities to express support for Gamergate, which is characterised as populated by entitled white men. “It’s all based on utter stupidity,” she explodes. “Every single thing they’ve done has been doublespeak, everything they’ve done has been harmful and toxic. Not a single positive thing has come out of Gamergate – all it’s done is ruin people’s lives. It’s disgusting.
“I am losing patience with people who say, ‘maybe the truth is somewhere in the middle’. Really? Who sees somebody burning down a house and says, ‘maybe we should get the arsonist’s opinion’? Fuck you.”
Partly, what Quinn’s experience says is that, in the games culture orthodoxy, women don’t get to be ambiguous, weird and idiosyncratic – or at least they don’t get to do all that and be visible and loud. The pervading social media narrative forces all women who enter this arena into prescribed roles: you get to be a professional victim or a hero. Quinn chose neither of those – she wanted to make quirky games and just get by. The same has happened with Sarkeesian, as well as game developer Brianna Wu, actress Felicia Day and writer Jenn Frank – high-profile games industry women, drawn into the Gamergate vortex of abuse and harassment, their lives reconstructed into mega-bitch or martyr archetypes.
Quinn gets many messages of support, she says, but they place her under unbearable pressure. “I never wanted this many eyes on me – I just wanted to make fun stuff in relative peace. It’s become this huge thing and there’s no going back from it. I can’t move on because that means giving up the thing I love. It means giving in. The takeaway from Gamergate can’t become that if you harass someone for long enough they’ll leave. Even though my heart’s not fully in it, I don’t feel like I have another choice that I can live with.”
In August, Quinn left her home, and hasn’t been back. Sarkeesian fled her home too, and now cannot appear at events without receiving death threats. Gamergate followers either deny culpability or deny that it’s really happening; many are disgusted by the abuse, or fall victim themselves. But the forums they frequent bristle with hate-speak and attract abusers happy to ruin lives for momentary kudos; and this is all happening in the shadow of the Gamergate banner.
Outside of the maelstrom, industry watchers try to remain pragmatic. It’s arguably true that games journalism, a small arm of the wider entertainment journalism sector, needs to mature; it needs to make clear codes of conduct and to remain transparent to readers. But some of the fears driving Gamergate – that a feminist cabal is attempting to infiltrate and ruin games – are bizarre and laughable.
The movement claims to be anti-censorship and anti-political, but then it enthusiastically uses the tactics of reactionary moral campaigners, including hassling corporations into dropping advertising from sites that support controversial writers. They proclaim to support free expression, yet have sought to restrict opposing voices.
Many games sites have been intimidated into staying silent – and Quinn is convinced this allowed things to escalate. “While everyone else was being quiet, I had to deal with it myself,” she says. “I had to sit in a ‘raid’ [internet chat] room for three weeks collecting the hows and whys of what happened, people talking about how to smokescreen it, how to pull other people in, about how to make counter-arguments – all the while, they were targeting members of my family and sending naked pictures of me to my dad.”
But Quinn is threading her life back together. She’s working on several projects, including a full-motion video adventure, partially inspired by the retro gaming classic Night Trap. Under the working title Camp’s Not Dead, it’s a homage to trashy B-movies – she’s even managed to rope in one of the actors from infamous flop The Room to star. “I also have an idea for a graphic novel that deals with the very small moments from the last few months,” she says. “Like having to explain to a detective how Adam Baldwin got involved with your sex life.”
And in Nottingham, at the GameCity festival, she was warm, funny and entertaining, joking with fellow game designers Ed Stern and Chris Avellone in a talk about the writing process; taking part in a hilarious live text adventure night; sharing stories about her games, especially Depression Quest. “I met this one kid at IndieCade,” she says during her talk with Reid. “He said, ‘I fell out with my father over the fact that he lives with depression and I didn’t talk to him for seven years. We sat down and played your game and now we’re talking and things are getting better.’
“The fact that we can do something like that with a game is so powerful. To think my little thing helped anyone. Nothing I say can express what that means to me. The people who feel that way – they’re the ones who make me want to do all this again.”
HOW THE SAGA UNFOLDED
February 2013 Zoe Quinn releases Depression Quest independently, for the first time.
19 March 2014 The Game Developers Choice awards receive bomb threats: the aggressors say they will explode a bomb if the organisers go ahead with giving Anita Sarkeesian an award. She is given the award and the threat proves empty. Police search the building beforehand yet find nothing.
11 August 2014 Depression Quest, the game developed and created by Quinn, Patrick Lindsey and Isaac Schankler, is debuted on Steampowered.com, the same day as Robin Williams’s suicide is announced.
16 August 2014 Quinn’s ex-boyfriend, Eron Gjoni, posts a defamatory blog post alleging that Nathan Grayson, a games journalist, had an affair with Quinn, leading to positive reviews from the magazine Kotaku.
19 August 2014 Quinn is “doxxed” anonymously – this is where someone’s address, bank details, telephone numbers are published on the internet. It is hard to trace the culprits, and leads to harassment and very real threats.
27 August 2014 Sarkeesian becomes embroiled after she posts a new episode of the “Women as Background Decoration, part 2” series online, commenting on sexism in gaming.
27 August 2014 As a response to the criticism of women in the gaming world, actor Adam Baldwin coins the hashtag #GamerGate.
15 September 2014: Julian Assange tweets using #GamerGate after an “Ask Me Anything” discussion on Reddit is interrupted with questions about the topic.
Late September, early October 2014 An online movement, called “Operation Disrespectful Nod”, begins to target companies that advertise on gaming sites that have published criticisms of sexism within the industry.
1 October 2014 Online gaming website Gamasutra tweets: “Yes, our partners at @intel were flooded with complaints over a recent opinion piece, and they did pull an ad campaign.”
3 October 2014 Intel publishes a statement online claiming: “We recognise that our action inadvertently created a perception that we are somehow taking sides in an increasingly bitter debate in the gaming community. That was not our intent, and that is not the case”.
9 October 2014 Game developer Brianna Wu shares an image on Twitter which mocks #GamerGate. It is met with overwhelming negativity.
10 October 2014 As a result, Wu too is “doxxed” and her private details are published on the forum 8chan. After numerous threats online, including death threats, Wu and her husband contact police and flee their home.
14 October 2014 Sarkeesian pulls out of a talk at Utah State University after several terrorist threats are received, one referring to the 1989 massacre at Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique. The university is unable to guarantee Sarkeesian’s safety, and she pulls out.
31 October 2014 Wu creates a fund to offer legal support to those in the games industry who are victims of online harassment. She offers a reward of $11,000 for information on those responsible for her death threats.
Luisa Le Voguer Couyet