"#GamerGate" and the Disturbing Harassment of Women in the Gaming Industry
By: Kyle Custer
Student Writer for The Journal of Gender, Race & Justice, Volume 18

Zoe Quinn is an independent video game developer and 2D artist from a small town in upstate New York.  You may know her as the developer and writer of the interactive fiction game Depression Quest, which was released to the Internet in February 2013 and debuted on Steam in August.  Unfortunately, it’s far more likely that you know her as the subject of an intense, vicious and prolonged campaign of Internet harassment that has spread across numerous game forums, social media and even Quinn’s own personal blog. 

Depression Quest Screenshot

Commonly known now by the hashtag that its perpetrators assumed on Twitter, #GamerGate, the campaign started after an angry ex-boyfriend of Quinn published a lengthy rant on his blog accusing Quinn of being at the center of a conspiracy in the gaming and game reporting industries.  The tirade alleged that Quinn had cheated on him with a writer for video game news and reviewing website Kotaku; from there, accusations started to fly that Quinn had obtained favorable media coverage for Depression Quest by sleeping with video game journalists.  Though it would eventually come to light from Kotaku’s editor-in-chief that the writer in question, Nathan Grayson, had never reviewed Quinn’s games – in fact, though Quinn and Grayson had been involved in a relationship, any mention of Quinn’s game on Kotaku occurred before that relationship began – the damage had been done.

What Quinn was subjected to over the course of the next several weeks is the stuff of nightmares.  She had her personal data hacked and disseminated across the Internet, including her home address, phone number, and nude photos; hundreds of pages of chatrooms filled up with posts about how to hack her email, stalk her, and ruin her career; and she was the recipient of numerous rape and death threats, including one chillingly detailed plan to cripple her for life the next time she attended a video game conference.  As quoted in The New Yorker, the post read in part: “Next time she shows up at a conference we … give her a crippling injury that’s never going to fully heal … a good solid injury to the knees. I’d say a brain damage, but we don’t want to make it so she ends up too retarded to fear us.”  The abuse, threats and harassment intensified to such a degree that for most of the last month Quinn has been staying at friends’ houses out of fear of returning to her own home.

The scope of the abuse has even begun to expand beyond Quinn herself.  Anyone that came to her defense, particularly feminist video game and pop culture critic Anita Sarkeesian and award-winning gaming journalist for The Guardian Jenn Frank, was sucked in to the cycle of abuse, and the hashtag used as a front for the campaign has taken on a less sinister façade as a crusade against corruption and the perceived over-politicization of the video game industry.  But the roots of this so-called movement have their start in this despicable torrent of hatred directed toward Quinn and her defenders – and in the process have given the entire gaming world a bad name.

This controversy comes on the cusp of an undeniable surge in the popularity of the video game medium, not solely as entertainment, but as a legitimate art form, one whose immersive, interactive and infinitely expansive nature can be used to grapple with all kinds of subjects; Quinn herself stated that she created Depression Quest as her way of shedding insight into what life is like for someone going through depression, having struggled with it herself in her childhood.  The last few years have seen enormous leaps in the evolution of games from simple 8-bit puzzle games to straightforward “hack-and-slash” titles, in which the object is to simply survive an onslaught as long as possible, to the new breed of games available in today’s market that present themselves as sprawling, cinematic experiences involving fully fleshed-out stories, complex characters and inventive new spins on the kind of frantic, adrenaline-pumping action that makes the activity so rewarding.  Independent developers like Quinn have latched on to this new trend, creating simpler, scaled-back games whose purpose is more attuned to social commentary or experimental storytelling than the traditional “kill-as-many-bad-guys-as-possible” setup.  Instead of welcoming this new evolution of their favorite pastime, the people behind #GamerGate have reacted with disgusting, and at times frightening, hostility.

As a self-proclaimed avid gamer myself, I can’t help but be ashamed of whatever fringe group of “gamers” are responsible for treating a fellow member of their community this way.  Gamers have long been accused of being emotionally stunted, antisocial, and of fetishizing violence and misogyny – and it’s sometimes hard to convincingly refute such claims when you’re constantly having to talk around a deluge of profanities and racial and homophobic slurs being screamed at you by twelve year olds on Xbox Live.  But as games have evolved in both quality and complexity, the argument for them as a serious art form has gained more and more traction.  Titles like Heavy Rain, LA Noire, The Last of Us and Batman: Arkham City have demonstrated how a video game can be used to weave incredibly intricate narratives together and create stunningly detailed fictional worlds; and other games, like – believe it or not – Grand Theft Auto V, have shown that games can satirize and ridicule the absurdities of the worst parts of their own culture, and society in general.  And these games have shown that they can appeal across all kinds of demographics – the Washington Post reported that adult women gamers now outnumber teenage boys.

Proponents of things like #GamerGate, whose virulent sexism and knee-jerk hostility to change have already driven some developers out of the industry for good, may appear to fancy themselves advocates for the integrity of the industry, but they actually represent the gaming industry’s most persistent, frustrating problem: the fact that there still exists an idea of what a gamer or game developer should and should not be.  Video games have reached an unprecedented level of artistic respectability, but the perpetrators of the attacks on Zoe Quinn and others like her – because she is definitely not the first – would see the medium trapped in an adolescent, self-entitled boys’ club, and threaten to bring all these years of progress to a screeching halt.  The industry and the art form – as well as the millions of players of all ages, genders, races and nationalities who enjoy them – deserve better.

Also, do us all a favor: don’t spread that hashtag.