Beyond Gamergate: a conversation with GTFO director Shannon Sun-Higginson

Harassment in games is real — but we can end it


In 2012, a friend sent filmmaker Shannon Sun-Higginson a hard-to-watch video of fighting game player Miranda “SuperYan” Pakozdi being sexually harassed by her own coach on the Capcom reality show Cross Assault. Not a gamer herself, Sun-Higginson started doing research and began work on a documentary about the larger problem of video games and harassment. Speaking to journalists, developers, and players, she put together GTFO, an in-depth look at some of the worst parts of recent gaming history — from sexist trash-talking to the backlash against critic Anita Sarkeesian — and the attempts to make things better.

The film, which premiered this week at SXSW, couldn’t be more timely. It’s coming seven months after the start of “Gamergate,” which has organized and brought mainstream attention to the worst parts of gaming and online culture. But as Sun-Higginson is quick to point out, GTFO is not a Gamergate documentary. In fact, it was wrapped before the movement even started, although a short coda has been added. Instead, it’s a tour through all the existing problems that Gamergate brought into the spotlight: trolls, online threats, a relative dearth of female developers, and a simple blindness to how bad things can get when misogyny and internet anonymity collide.

GTFO is heavy, but it’s not hopeless. After its debut, we met up with Sun-Higginson to talk about the film, the state of women in games, and discovering Minecraft.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Adi Robertson: How have things for women in games changed over the years you were making GTFO? Besides Gamergate, of course.

Shannon Sun-Higginson: The thing I’m excited about is that people are starting to talk about it in a more serious way, rather than just looking at it as a circus, which I think is how people who are not in the gaming industry kind of look at it sometimes. It's really unfortunate, because these few people who are doing the harassment are really making a bad name for gamers, and we wanted to show the more positive and supportive areas as well. When people look at gaming they're like "Eww, yeah, I heard that happened…" That sucks for people who really are in the industry, they love it, they're passionate about it, and they want it to be a better and more inclusive space.

The things that I've heard come out, a lot of them were after Gamergate — up until then, I didn't really see any big shifts. I've been keeping in communication with all the women in the movie, and nobody really mentioned that much until after Gamergate happened. Jeffrey Lin at Riot Games has been talking about how to create a better [League of Legends] moderating system — steps like that, from people who are in the moderation sector of gaming, that's a really good start to making a change. To say: "You are going to be held accountable for your actions. You can't just say whatever you want, because your peers are going to stop you."

How much of solving harassment is a technical problem, and how much is a cultural problem?

I think the shift already is happening — that's where this backlash is coming from — but I think it has to happen at every level. So for example, the group Girl Gamer Vogue in New York that we filmed, they're doing a safe space for men and women to come play. And then there was the Code Liberation Foundation, they have a class that's exclusively for women. Even when you're at that very beginning level, where you're like, "Oh, I just want to play with some friends," or "Oh, I just want to learn to code a basic game,' it is intimidating to go into an environment where you are the only woman. There's something you can do at every level. I don't think it's just fixing the reporting abuse system in Xbox Live; a lot of other things have to happen on top of that.

There are a lot of intersectional questions around gaming harassment, like transmisogyny. I was wondering how you thought about that.

Intersectionality is something that we've talked about a lot. Originally we did have a chapter that tried to cover other areas of diversity — we had race, sexual preference, queer identity, ability, religion, all these other things. And then we realized that should each be a separate movie. It's not really fair to give this small amount of time to every single other group.

We felt that the issues that women are dealing with are so distinct, right? It's often related to the woman's appearance, it's very much related to the woman's being as a sexual person — determining whether or not they are interested in having sex with that woman, and that's her only value. I really wanted to delve deeper into queer gamers, but that was something that there's an entire movie about — Gaming in Color. You could make an entire movie about trans women in gaming. You could make an entire movie about women of color in gaming.

"It is intimidating to go into an environment where you are the only woman."

Yeah, weirdly, the two questions I get asked are "Are you worried that this discourages women from gaming?" and also "Do [you] game?" Actually, researching this movie made me a lot more interested in games. I didn't consider myself a gamer; I always thought it was for other people — I knew there were women who did it, but I thought "Oh, that's for people who played games as kids and grew up with them and are good at it." But after talking to all these women and seeing how excited they get about games and how many different types of games there were, I got a lot more into it. I’ve played Portal and Gone Home, Minecraft. I was like, I don’t need combat skills to play those games! I think it’s really cool.


Were you worried about getting harassed making the movie?

During production I was a lot more concerned about the safety of the women I was featuring. I think that being a filmmaker and being an outsider gives me a little bit of distance from the subject. What was really sweet was a lot of the women I was talking to would be like, "These are the steps you need to take to protect yourself, and if anything happens, let me know. I've been through this, I can help you." I noticed that a lot of other women were a lot more concerned about their friends in the community and what would happen to them than worrying about their own issues.

The other thing is, it's playing at SXSW, so there's not much stopping it. I don't know if this is going to get me attacked, but I feel like the fact that it's already out means that if there were a harassment campaign against me, it would just bring more attention to the movie. It's not very strategic.

"The idea of being indignant that somebody else wants to be treated the same as you is kind of remarkable."

How much do you think that all these communities overlap with internet culture in general, like Reddit and the chans? How much is unique to gaming specifically?

I think they obviously overlap a lot. Jennifer Hepler of Bioware made a really good point in the movie — if you're in a community or a forum that's all about hating somebody, everybody in there is going to agree with you. So you can stay in your little bubble and think that's how the whole world thinks. I think a lot of these not only overlap but egg each other on in that way.

Right, and things like Gamergate and men’s rights activism overlap almost exactly now.

I can’t launch into men’s rights activists, because we’ll be here for three hours. But yes, they do overlap. The idea of being indignant that somebody else wants to be treated the same as you is kind of remarkable to me. I think history has shown that people on the side of equality and progress are right in the end. They can hold onto it for as long as they can, but at some point they're going to be proven wrong.

In retrospect, the incidents you’re covering all feel like little harbingers of Gamergate. Do you think there was anything people could have done to prevent it?

I hope that this movie is like one thing that might help lessen this problem in the future, or help people wake up a little and say, "This is an actual problem that we need to address." I don't want people to look at the gaming community and say, "Wow, that's really shitty. Let's laugh at this ridiculous thing that's happening." That's obviously not the right approach, it's not productive or helpful to anyone. We really need to go in and think about our day-to-day actions and how that affects the people around us.

When I watched the Cross Assault video, I was obviously shocked at what was happening to her, but the thing I almost found grosser was that nobody did anything. It was this wolf-pack mentality, where he kept pushing it further and further, because he was like — oh, nobody's stopping me when I'm sniffing her, nobody's stopping me when I'm commenting on her breasts, nobody's stopping me when I'm talking about her thighs. There's so many steps along the way where somebody could have stepped in and said, "Hey man, that's incredibly uncool. Stop it."

Those are the people I'm trying to reach out to. It doesn't take a huge amount of bravery. But it takes some individuality to say, "Hey, I don't accept that my whole group is keeping quiet. I don't mind being an outlier and standing up for being a decent human being."