The game developer at the center of a large-scale harassment campaign opens up about her experience and how to fight online abuse today.
Photo courtesy of PublicAffairs
One of the precursors to the rise of the alt-right was a massive, coordinated harassment campaign masquerading as a pseudo-political movement called Gamergate. At its core, the Gamergate movement survived by constantly churning out targets for trolling and abuse. Real or perceived slights would run through Gamergate channels and spill over into real world outcomes like lost jobs, death threats, and stalking.
At the center of Gamergate harassment was one woman: game developer Zoe Quinn. For Quinn, Gamergate was personal. An ex-boyfriend essentially created the movement as a way to exact revenge against Quinn for escaping their abusive relationship.
In her recently-released book titled Crash Override, Quinn details her experience with Gamergate and the systemic causes driving the rise of online abuse. Broadly spoke with the game developer about her book, the rise of the alt-right, and surviving Gamergate.
BROADLY: I've seen you and others saying that you tried to warn people about Gamergate before it folded in with other hate groups to give birth to the alt-right. What was it like watching it all unfold from your perspective?
ZOE QUINN: The thing that was hard wasn't the abuse and the hate as much, in comparison to people who could have done something and chose not to, either because they didn't take it seriously or they thought, "Oh this will just blow over, don't feed the trolls, blah blah blah" and it's like: No, you actually have to fight back. It should be familiar to anyone who's been paying attention since the election because that mechanism is so similar.
And yeah, most hate groups are going to seem like they're totally asinine because they're saying stuff and it's like: No duh, it's not true that white people are automatically superior to everybody else, that's an asinine belief. But just because it's asinine doesn't mean it can't hurt anybody.
This whole "sunlight is the best disinfectant" wisdom, like if you just spotlight the horrible things that people will just know that it's bad and ignore it—it doesn't work in an era [like we're in]. It's not like these people are ashamed of what they're doing, they're proud of it, so you're just operating as an advertisement for them.
What do most people who've never experienced large-scale online abuse most misunderstand about the issue?
A big thing that a lot of people don't understand unless they've been targeted with this stuff is that it's not just confined to the internet by any means. It's escalated into phone calls, in-person stalking, and people trying to camp outside where I live and they would threaten me. It also started offline with an abusive relationship and once I finally got away from him, he turned to the internet as a way to [get revenge]. And that's extremely common these days for people who have been through domestic violence issues.
The delineation between online and offline abuse is less and less sense as we get more and more connected and more and more people are starting to live their lives online. I'm a weird case in that I'm an independant game developer and there's not really an offline version of what I do, so it's happening in my workplace.
It feels like we forgot the wisdom of the early '90s of treating stuff we read online with skepticism and knowing that stuff can be disingenuous online. There are a lot of people who are disingenuously trying to manipulate the news about somebody to ruin their careers. So many employers will Google you before even offering you a job interview and that has nothing to do with whether you work online, either. If you're somebody who doesn't have much of an online presence, then stuff from people who want to ruin your life might be the only stuff that comes up and [employers] don't usually know enough to question that. And even if they do, there are probably many other candidates that don't don't have a nasty search history like that.
There's plenty of stuff that does escalate into real world violence, especially considering people [like] Elliot Rodger and Dylann Roof, who have gone on mass killings [and] have an online presence to match. When you're targeted, you don't know whether it's somebody who's just trying to mess with [you]—which is already not cool—or it's somebody who's actually serious about all of this stuff.
Watch: Zoe Quinn on Life Since Gamergate and Her Erotic New Video Game
Given your experiences, you may be the most qualified person on the planet to help victims of online abuse. What motivated you to start your nonprofit harassment support endeavor, also called Crash Override?
When they started targeting me, I found the channels [where] they were coordinating abuse in, and I was just kind of silently recording it for a very long time because it very quickly spread to targeting other people. They were targeting other people for real or imagined connections to me. I would see that they were starting to look at someone, and I would try to get ahead of that and warn the person and try to help them lock everything down. I had been doing that for a very long period of time and after talking with other people who've dealt with the same kind of abuse and trying to reduce the amount of stuff that a lot of us were being attacked with, I decided to try to make something more formalized and open to people that were targeted by stuff other than Gamergate.
When stuff with me happened and blew up into something so big and public, a lot of people were reaching out saying, "I feel like you're the only person who would understand what I've been through" and they would tell their stories. It was super clear that I was not a new or special thing which I kind of already knew, but when you actually talk to people and hear their stories, it feels a lot more real. I decided to try to make the thing that I wish was around when I was first being targeted, rather than just wishing things were different.
What have the long term effects of Gamergate harassment been for you, personally?
It's so weird, like, it's not like Gamergate is the only bad thing to happen to me. I've been homeless before, I've had to come through other stuff. A profoundly abusive childhood, but at least that stuff feels like I got to move on from it, that stuff is in the past. People would only know about it if I told them about it. It's not something that's threatening to pop up again at any point, outside of PTSD or any cognitive effects.
I will effectively never get away from my ex-boyfriend now. Gamergate will always be something different to me than anybody else because my entry point to it was somebody doing it to me, as opposed to somebody trying to fight an ideological war or some stranger or some weirdo trying to build their brand or make a shitty point, [whereas for me] someone you dated deciding to create something like this as revenge. That's such a weird fucking thing.
One of the things that my friends were saying when this was happening to me was, "Why is this happening to you? You're like a big freakin' goofy dork, like it doesn't make any sense." Like, I'm a comedian. The fact that all of this will be centered around me like I'm this weird political figure when the last game that I released was a "Waiting for Gadot" loading screen joke. I's so absurd, all of this is so absurd.