One of the earliest memories of my childhood is of competitively playing computer games against my brother. He was three, I was four, and our parents had a Macintosh Plus that lived in the basement office for Important Adult Business. On occasion, however, Mommy would let us play. It didn’t take long for me to become completely hooked.
My game of choice was Stunt Copter — a single player 2D moving pixel game where you piloted a helicopter to drop tiny squirming bodies onto moving wagons carrying bales of hay below. The challenge was that you had to get to the right height and time your drop correctly so that the bodies didn’t splat onto the pavement. As my brother and I figured out, there was a sweet spot where you could click and just leave your mouse held down to get every single person safely into a wagon. We used to sneak down into the basement to set the game up right before bedtime, rigging a book and the keyboard to hold the mouse into place overnight, then sneak downstairs in the morning to be the first to end the game and get our name onto the high score board.
Other games from that time period included SkiFree, Ski or Die, Minesweeper, Mahjong, Solitaire, Dino-Sorcerer and Hangman (which was pretty mysterious to someone who couldn’t yet read). I’m told I destroyed a computer around that time by pushing bread into the floppy disk drive slot.
“I’m getting death threats to the point that I’ve been driven from my home this weekend,” said Brianna Wu at a New York Comic Con panel on Sunday. “I drew the ire of 8chan, which are the people who are too extreme for 4chan… and I haven’t been home since Friday.”
Wu is the Head of Development at Giant Spacekat — one of the few majority-female game dev teams in the entire industry — and a host of Isometric, one of the few majority-female podcasts discussing video game industry news. A couple months ago, Wu launched Revolution 60, a sci-fi action puzzler game starring a four-woman team of covert operatives. As a publicly known gaming industry professional, Wu is unfortunately no stranger to online harassment. Recently, however, it came to a head.
After tweeting a meme making fun of Gamergate participants on October 9, Wu was targeted by 8chan (a board specifically created to harass women) and attacked in droves online. She received a stream of violent, vitriolic threats. When the group “doxxed” her, posting all kinds of personal information including her home address, Wu called the police and moved to a safer location. The FBI are now working on her case.
Wu bravely stuck by her previously planned commitment to appear at Comic Con only two days after the attacks began. At the panel, she said, “I’ve read about people having this happen to them so many times. Like, I saw Gone Girl last weekend, and to actually have that happen to me is to see how completely the conversation goes to blaming the victim. You have people accusing me of lying, investigating me rather than the mass of people threatening to murder me. It’s truly terrifying.”
In elementary school, my appetite for video games was voracious. I devoured every computer game I could get my hands on: Spectre, TIE Fighter, Planet of Death and Aliens: A Comic Book Adventure. I delighted in Inca II, Pharaoh, Sim Ant, and both Amazon and Oregon Trail. When Dad brought home educational games like Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, Mega Math Blaster, and Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego?, I ate those right up too. My best friend and I spent hours playing through the Purple Moon games, though the ’90s trend of developing games specifically to engage girls was short-lived.
There wasn’t internet at that time, really, but somehow, word spread from kid to kid about how to “hack” the games. I remember the absolute delight I felt when I’d type “rosebud” into The Sims and watch 1000 Simoleons appear. I’m pretty sure that running these cheats over and over was how I first learned the keyboard shortcuts for Copy + Paste.
When the family down the street got a PlayStation, I was enthralled. I’d sit for hours with a group of kids from the neighborhood, occasionally playing but mostly just watching, really, as we puzzled through Resident Evil together. That scene with the zombie sharks in the flooded basement colored my nightmares for years to come. At home, we got an SNES and then an N64. Console gaming was a group activity then, especially when new titles were acquired. My brother and I played through Earthworm Jim and Star Fox together. The neighborhood girls and I played Banjo-Kazooie. We all raced each other in Mario Kart and beat each other up in Super Smash Bros. But my favorite game of all was Zelda: Ocarina of Time. I’d never encountered such gorgeous storytelling in a game before, and everything about it appealed to me. (The plausibly gender-nonspecific main character! The hinted-at-but-not-fully-explicated backstory and larger mythology! The just-repetitive-enough iconic soundtrack!) After we beat it as a group, I went back and played through all of it again by myself. It was the first console RPG I ever beat on my own, and the intense satisfaction and sense of accomplishment I felt immediately afterwards is something rarely matched in my adult life.
By most accounts, Gamergate began at the end of August when Eron Gjoni, weirdo jilted ex-boyfriend of an indie game designer, posted a rambling online account of secret recordings he made of Zoe Quinn (his ex and the creator of Depression Quest). Bizarrely, Gjoni accused Quinn of essentially trading sex for a positive review of her game by Kotaku — in spite of the fact that no such review existed, and the allegations about Quinn’s sex life were patently untrue. Even so, his account spread, and soon, 4chan took up the cause: to ruin Quinn’s life, or at least harass her out of the gaming industry.
Building on Gjoni’s conspiracy theory, the group took on a hashtag (#GamerGate, created by Firefly actor Adam Baldwin) to rally around a call for “journalism ethics.” In truth, this was little more than astroturfing — an artificially boosted cover to make the movement appear as though it had a grassroots backing. Under this guise, 4chan began spreading Quinn’s personal information, threatening her, hacking anyone suspected of being friends with her, calling her Dad and telling him she was a whore, and sending nude photos of her to colleagues.
In the past several weeks, “Gamergate” has come to be known as the term for misogyny fueled backlash against women in gaming. Another target, Anita Sarkeesian, recently canceled a speaking engagement in Utah after multiple death threats against her were issued, including one promising “the deadliest school shooting in American history.” Although Sarkeesian has appeared at multiple public events since the attacks on her started, Utah has a a policy allowing firearms even in cases of threats. Like Wu and Quinn, Sarkeesian has also been forced to flee her home for her own safety.
Four weeks ago, Quinn wrote on Cracked,
The saving grace of online harassment campaigns is that soon the trolls get bored and move on. The bad news is that often they move on to harass someone else (note that a few years ago, the target of their real-life harassment was an 11-year-old girl who said something mean about them). And if you don’t go away, maybe they’ll come back around — this isn’t the first time I’ve been the target of a harassment campaign. It won’t be the last. I’m not going anywhere.
Gjoni recently quit his job to better wage full time internet warfare.
By the time middle school and high school rolled around, I’d begun to dabble in more “serious” (read: associated with men and therefore viewed by the patriarchy as “universally important/better”) games. I experimented with Halo and Counter-Strike, alternating between hyperfeminine and gender neutral usernames depending on my skill level. I was PeachesNCream2422 when I was confident I could kick ass; KILLKILLKILLPWNPWNPWN when I was not. I stayed away from voice chat because a) I wasn’t that into listening to a bunch of teenage dudes call each other “fags,” and b) my girly voice always attracted attention and required explanation. (Also, I never rose beyond shaky mediocrity at first person shooters, and I didn’t want people thinking it was because I was a girl.)
My first experience playing MMORPGs came with EverQuest. I joined a guild of boys who went to school IRL with me and my brother. When they transferred to World of Warcraft, I made the switch too. I played a character named brilliantbat, a female warrior in skimpy burgundy and gold armor. When I raided with them, my role was to “tank,” which basically meant getting out front and taking the brunt of the blows from the enemy as they came in. Mostly, though, I liked to complete quests by myself, late at night. I didn’t have the words to say it then, but I was never very comfortable with the way the guys would describe defeat within the game as “rape.” (Ex: “That dungeon totally raped us. We need more healers next time.”) By far my favorite game to play was StarCraft. I reveled in breaking down the micro/macro gameplay strategies and comparing and contrasting the benefits of each of the playable races. One time in college, I went to an off-campus frat party where they were playing drunk Starcraft. I destroyed half a dozen guys in a row, mowing them down with airship carriers and cleverly placed photon cannons. Although, to be fair, I suspect that their reflexes were impaired by heavy alcohol consumption. I didn’t drink much that night; I was too afraid someone might put something in my cup.
Said Wu at Comic Con,
I thought about quitting a lot in the last three months, and I don’t know a single woman in this field that hasn’t thought about quitting in the last three months. Like, why would we be here? We’re software engineers. There are easier ways to make a living. I can tell you for me personally, I love my job. I think developing games is the coolest job on the planet. I mean, you get to sit down and create new characters and work with this fantastic technology. It’s just flat out the coolest job you could ever do. For my game, I get to make stories where women are kick-butt protagonists, and that completely didn’t really exist when I was growing up, outside of the game Final Fantasy.
In spite of the attacks, Wu wants to stand up more than ever as a visible, public role model for the women to come after her. Over the past week, she has been steadfastly speaking out — and the results of her effort are already apparent. In an editorial on xoJane yesterday, she wrote,
I am mad as hell at these people, and I’m not going to let them keep destroying the women I love and respect.
In part, because of the press campaign I’ve done in the last five days against Gamergate, the jig is up. The Entertainment Software Association, the largest trade group in our industry, denounced the movement. Vox ran an editorial about the pattern established with the threats against me, “Angry misogyny is now the primary face of #GamerGate.” And journalistic enterprises like Giant Bomb, which had sat on the sidelines, are finally discussing the issue.
Gamergate, I have one message for you so listen up.
When you take your last dying breath, I want you to know this. It was an absolute pleasure knocking you on your ass for the fine women in this field.
The last RPG I played all the way through was Heavy Rain, a masterpiece in the interactive drama genre. The game was praised for its unconventional storytelling and emotional realism — two things that I absolutely loved. Unfortunately, it also did an incredibly poor job of portraying women. Throughout the story, the camera regards the playable female with male gaze-y up-skirt shots and a lingering, naked shower scene. Within the gameplay, she’s threatened with sexual assault by burglars, told at gunpoint to strip, and in one scene, gets knocked out and then almost raped with an electric drill. In an endgame scene, she transforms into an NPC for the player to sexually stimulate. I enjoyed the game overall, but clearly, it was not made for me, a woman. Was this done intentionally? Hard to say. When I look at where the boys from my WoW guild are now, many of them grew up to be good, gentle, feminist men; I’d like to think all the “faggot” and “rape” stuff was just because they didn’t know any better. Maybe some of the misogyny in the gaming industry right now is borne of the same ignorance and limited worldview. But that’s no excuse, especially for grown-ass men.
As I’ve gotten older, my once boundless enthusiasm for videogames has, in fact, reached some bounds. I never faced death threats, doxxing, swatting, or whatever horrible new things have been invented by now. But I did pick up on the numerous signals, repeated ad nauseum in both subtle and less-than-subtle ways: gaming is for men. Females exist for male pleasure. You are not welcome here.
I’m not saying that all male gamers are the type to creepily stalk and threaten women; the people harassing Zoe Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian and Brianna Wu are extremists. But what I am saying is that by remaining silent, male gamers participate in a culture that allows extremists to feel as though the crowd is generally behind them. All they’re doing, after all, is taking things to the next level.
Since Gamergate became publicly known, many have speculated on the reason for the backlash. Most popularly: a subset of formerly catered-to gamers is incorrectly perceiving that women are “taking over.” In fact, women account for only 11 percent of game designers and 3 percent of programmers within the video game industry. A recent study found that less than half of 1% of the articles published by professional video game journalists for major publications in the last year spoke about feminism or misogyny. These numbers are larger than zero, sure, but… really? These neckbeard-y Gamergate participants must have incredibly fragile egos to feel threatened by such numbers.
The truth is that women have always played video games; we just haven’t always been represented in games, and we haven’t been aggressively marketed to. As Wu pointed out in her interview with MSNBC, top-down change needs to be made. Hiring practices need to change. Design priorities need to change. Company cultures need to change.
That has started, as well as larger scale backlash. That dust will settle, but in the meantime, the rest of us can help make sure it goes the right way by making it very clear to harassers and game executives where we stand: with Zoe Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian and Brianna Wu.