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12 Dec 2014 06:25

Video game world's dark side on display

Female designers threatened for speaking out; critics say that’s not the whole story

Case in point: Zoe Quinn. In March, Nathan Grayson wrote an article about this developer’s experience on a game show. Days after this story appeared in Kotaku, an online journal, the writer and Quinn began dating.

Quinn’s ex-boyfriend publicly accused her of trading sex for a favorable review of her game, “Depression Quest.” Kotaku’s editor, Steven Totilo, noted that Grayson never reviewed the game and was not involved with Quinn when he interviewed her.

No matter. Soon, Quinn noted, her online accounts were awash in threats.

Another designer, Brianna Wu, reported similar ugly messages — accompanied by the public outing of her home address. She moved.

Those are the stories told by Quinn and Wu (and police reports they filed). Yiannopoulos is skeptical.

“Most of these threats are probably fictitious,” he said, trumped up by “the social justice brigade — the people who believe that art needs to be responsive to women and minorities.” These forces, he added, have captured much of pop culture, media and academia. “Perhaps for the first time, in video games they’ve encountered a community that is fighting back.”

One casualty: the online magazine Gamasutra. When it published stories critical of GamerGate, advocates objected — and Intel pulled ads from the publication.

Perhaps the most disturbing tale is told by a critic. Sarkeesian hosts a YouTube series, “Tropes Vs. Women,” that brings an avowedly feminist perspective to video games — from “Ms. Pac-Man” to “Call of Duty.” Her fans include director Joss Whedon and cyberpunk novelist William Gibson. Her enemies include an unknown number of unnamed people who, along with the standard rape and death threats, posted a “game.” In “Interactive Assault,” images of Sarkeesian’s face become progressively more bruised and battered.

When warned that her scheduled Oct. 15 lecture at Utah State would be met by “the deadliest school shooting in American history,” she told campus officials. They informed her that state law prevented them from banning firearms at school events. Sarkeesian canceled her talk. The threats had silenced her in Utah — but provoked loud cries elsewhere.

The Entertainment Software Association, a trade group, protested: “Threats of violence and harassment are wrong. They have to stop.”

Ditto, the International Game Developers Association: “We call on the entire game community to stand together against this abhorrent behavior.” Yet the menacing emails and social media posts continued, always from anonymous sources.

“There’s no evidence that any GamerGate supporter has sent any threats to anyone,” Yiannopoulos said.

That’s absurd, countered Harper, a Silicon Valley-based colleague of Quinn and Wu: “I saw them getting tons of threats.” If protests wouldn’t stop the barrage, though, what would? One night, fueled on tequila and outrage, Harper had a thought.

Free speech

After posting a story defending Quinn and Wu, Harper became a target. “About 70,000 tweets mentioned my name in the last few weeks,” she said, “filled with all this hate and harassment.”

The fix? She wrote a program that identifies probable GamerGaters and blocks their tweets.

It’s an incomplete solution, but Harper didn’t know what else to do. Call the police? “Law enforcement sees online trolling and online bullying as not a big deal,” she said. “You have First Amendment rights to say things and I definitely support that. But are death threats covered by the First Amendment?”

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