Three prominent women in the gaming industry say they have been forced to flee their homes after receiving threats of rape, torture, and even murder over the last two months. They are the most prominent targets of a very loosely organized movement of mostly anonymous gamers who, as part of a campaign that started with the intent of agitating for more stringent ethical standards in video-game journalism, have undertaken campaigns of harassment and intimidation against critics and perceived ideological opponents. The conflict, which has been roiling the insular gaming community since late summer, has spilled out into the mainstream in the past week and landed on the front page of today’s New York Times after one of its targets was forced to cancel a public appearance earlier this week as a result of a threat that claimed a “massacre-style attack” would be forthcoming.
The saga, which has become known as Gamergate, began in mid-August when an ex-boyfriend of indie game developer Zoe Quinn published a chronicle of their relationship accusing Quinn of trading sex for press. Gamers flocked to 4chan and Reddit to rage against supposed corruption and nepotism in the industry. The games journalist Quinn was accused of having an affair with, Nathan Grayson from Kotaku, never actually wrote a review of her game, yet Quinn, who developed an indie game about mental health called Depression Quest, was smeared and threatened online. As part of the harassment campaign, critics posted nude photos of her and published her home address. Later that month, Anita Sarkeesian, a gaming critic who hosts a web video series called Feminist Frequency, received a slew of especially violent tweets and threats after she published the second part of a video series exploring the ways in which women are used as background decoration in games. Sarkeesian had no ostensible connection to the Quinn situation besides being a woman involved in the male-dominated gaming industry. While she had long caught flak for her critiques of the industry, this time, her address was also published online, and Sarkeesian became concerned for her safety and left her home. (For a much more detailed account of Gamergate and its implications, read this Deadspin take.)
On August 27, actor Adam Baldwin, best known for his work on Joss Whedon’s TV show Firefly, started the Twitter hashtag #Gamergate in response to what he saw as the “social justice warfare” — that is, focusing on misogyny — being waged by those defending Quinn and Sarkeesian. Baldwin claims that he “had no intention of creating a hashtag movement or anything like that,” but after he injected a dose of culture-war language into the conversation (“You get these game journalists … who want to change the world by invoking social justice, which really just means ‘have the government be bigger, take more money from people, and institute fairness quotas …”), Baldwin’s hashtag was picked up and disseminated by the news site Breitbart and elements of the gamer community at large. Within weeks, the movement began to get attention in the mainstream press.
The harassment campaigns have been directed at women who criticize the gaming community and take the form of sexually violent tweets, emails, and threats. At least some of them were organized on sites that tend to be hubs of the gamer community, including 4chan, 8chan, Wizardchan, and Reddit. The harassers began targeting both the women and companies they work or write for via boycotts and pressure on advertisers. Brianna Wu, an outspoken game developer at Giant Spacekat, spoke to Vulture at New York Comic-Con after she was forced to leave her home following rape and death threats directed at her and castration threats directed at her husband. She said female gaming journalists who criticize the industry for being misogynist are being forced out by these efforts: “They’re literally trying to bully women out of this industry, one by one.”
Take the case of Gamasutra blogger Leigh Alexander, who was targeted after she questioned the changing nature of “gamer identity” and claimed that “gamers are over.” In apparent response to her piece, a subreddit arose imploring gamers to flood the Intel Corporation with complaints about her, resulting in Intel ads being pulled from Gamasutra’s site. And while Intel issued a boilerplate statement against gender discrimination, the ads remained down and #Gamergate claimed victory. “They targeted me specifically,” Alexander told Vulture. “They were offended by the assertions in my article and by my progressive/feminist work in general. And they continue to harass me and others on a regular basis.”
For those in Gamergate’s crosshairs, the attacks are exhausting. “Go to 4chan,” Wu told us. “Go to my Twitter stream. All day long, I’ve got people attacking me, making fun of me, questioning me, harassing me. I’ve blocked almost a thousand people on Twitter ever since this whole Gamergate thing began. I’m sadly getting used to this. My greatest fear is that women are not going to come into the industry because they see what’s happening to me. There are many women in tech who are scared to advocate for their careers and become public figures, because they think stuff like this is inevitable. I know a lot of women who make the decision to stay under the radar because of that. But do you think for a second that men who run game studios fear being too successful? It’s crippling our careers.”
According to Baldwin, the hashtag’s creator, questions of reform and the threats of violence are two separate issues, “and it’s a mistake to commingle the two, because there’s no evidence that anyone within Gamergate has made those threats.” He remains skeptical, despite the evidence and claims from Sarkeesian (who canceled an appearance this week at Utah State University), Wu, and others, that the threats are serious, and wonders if they were “sensationalized to stifle the conversation at the heart of Gamergate.”
“Obviously, I deplore any threats,” Baldwin said. “There are bad, evil people out there. But so far, they are all anonymous, and there is online harassment everywhere. I get harassed, and I’m not crying about it. I’m not saying these women are crying about it, but any credible threat out there should be referred to law enforcement.”
Not all Gamergaters are death-threatening cyberterrorists. The competing hashtag #NotYourShield is comprised of minorities and women who have a genuine interest in discussing conflicts of interest — examples include journalists who fund independent gamers through Kickstarter-like services such as Patreon, review sites who are way too cozy with the companies whose games they cover. But the level of misogyny and violence that now underpin Gamergate has ensured that those concerns are likely ignored.
Yet, to try to reach some middle ground, Wu invited Baldwin for a sit-down conversation about the issues at the heart of #Gamergate, “because I’m literally scared that someone is going to get killed if this continues this way,” she said. “With #Gamergate, I agree with a lot of their ostensible goals about corruption in the media. I think there are problems with sponsors with the tech press, with the games press. It’s entirely too dependent on the corporate sponsors. But what is the outcome of what #Gamergate is doing? They’re terrifying every single woman I know in the industry, period.”