It’s been more than a year now since harassment against game developer Zoe Quinn snowballed into something broader. Gamergate, a campaign to discredit and ultimately terrorize people who advocated for more equitable treatment of women in video games, resulted in threats of rape and murder against several high-profile developers and cultural critics, in some cases driving them from their homes. Even for those not directly affected by the attacks, Gamergate has served as a chilling example of how online abuse can have terrible real-world consequences.
In the months since, Quinn — an indie game developer known best for her cult hit Depression Quest — has spent a lot of time investigating why people who have never met her have devoted so much energy to harassing her. The more she considered the problem, she says, the more she recognized herself in her attackers. And that gave her a new insight into why users of social platforms like Facebook and Twitter are so quick to pick up pitchforks when they perceive an injustice.
"I was nerdy and awkward and didn't know how to talk to people — except online."
Before Quinn was a game developer, she was a poor kid without any friends. "You may have known someone like me in high school," she said this weekend at XOXO Festival, a gathering of independent makers and creative types in Portland. "I was the funny-looking one who wore a trench coat and played hacky sack with the other greasy kids." Feeling like she didn’t fit in, Quinn said she found refuge on the internet. "I was nerdy and awkward and didn’t know how to talk to people — except online," she says.
At a high level, XOXO is a creative wonderland devoted to celebrating the works of independent game developers, filmmakers, comic-book artists, podcasters, and other makers of culture. But because of XOXO’s embrace of such controversial values as inclusion and kindness, XOXO has found itself a target of abuse. Last year, a Gamergate protester trespassed on the grounds of the festival. This year, a group assaulted the #xoxofestival hashtag on Twitter in an effort to drown out tweets from participants.
Quinn was drawn to forums populated mostly by men, and said she learned to fit in by denouncing "all things girlie" and saying proudly that she "wasn’t like those other girls." When they demanded to see her breasts, she said, she hurled back homophobic slurs. (Quinn today identifies as queer.)
As Quinn says, she came to recognize her younger self in many of the people who have lashed out at her online. "If Gamergate had happened several years ago to someone else, I would have been on that side," Quinn said. She added that she never would have threatened anyone else, but said she was the sort of "useful jerk" who would have insulted other people online as a way of bonding with her friends.
"Some kind of crappy internet Batman."
Quinn’s second insight into her abusers is that nearly all of them feel like they are heroes for speaking out — "like some kind of crappy internet Batman," she said. Most targets of online harassment Quinn has spoken with are subject to conspiracy theories that they are secretly rich, she said. "It’s this thought that if what they’re going after is so powerful and so corrupt, they still get to be the underdog," Quinn said. "They get to be the good guys."
Building on her experiences, Quinn co-founded Crash Override Network, an online anti-harassment task force that provides free counseling and other assistance to other victims of abuse. And while it may be small comfort to victims, she said, it’s clear that for many abusers, harassment is a phase they eventually grow out of. Prior to Gamergate, Quinn said, she interviewed 300 self-identified former trolls to ask what made them stop. "Almost every single time, more often than not, they expressed that someone they were close to, respected, or looked up to said that wasn’t cool," she said. "The social network supporting this kind of feeding frenzy was no longer reinforced."
That resonated with Quinn personally. "As I drifted away from the circle of people who shit on people for kicks, and started taking care of myself, got help for my depression that I needed, I started making friends that were different," she said. "And they would be like, ’Hey, what the hell are you doing, kid?’ And that sense of shame disrupted this mechanism of a bad habit that had built up in myself for me to go, oh, wait, what am I doing?"
"What the hell are you doing, kid?"
But there is much that can be done while we wait for harassers to grow up, Quinn said. "We need tech platforms to step up here," she said. The idea that Facebook, Twitter, and other tech companies need to do more to prevent harassment was a common theme at XOXO, which hosted several speakers who called on social media sites to do more to reduce abuse.
Anita Sarkeesian, another prominent target of Gamergate harassment, appeared later at the festival to show a new clip from her Tropes vs. Women series about the ways women are depicted in video games. She said she continues to face daily harassment, but noted a handful of positive developments over the past year. Among them: she is regularly invited to speak at game studios, where she challenges developers to make games that treat characters respectfully regardless of their gender or sexual orientation.
"No single snowflake ever feels responsible for the avalanche."
And online crowd behavior isn’t always bad. In another talk, Eric Meyer, an expert on CSS and HTML, described the flip side of the internet’s ability to rally thousands of people around a cause. After his six-year-old daughter, Rebecca, died from cancer, friends campaigned to name her favorite color "rebeccapurple" in the official CSS specification. The effort was amplified through social media, and ultimately it was successful.
But the same system that allowed people to memorialize Rebecca also enabled Gamergate, Meyer said. Tech platforms aren’t neutral, he said — like the roads we drive on, they’re augmented with rules and values. "Nothing about a road is neutral except for the raw material," Meyer said. "On it and around it, there’s an entire set of values hovering like an aura." If tech platforms value the safety of the people who use them, they ought to re-examine the values reflected in their design, he said.
In the meantime, Quinn called on the audience to reflect on their behavior online. Idle snark can escalate quickly. Mobs organize themselves. And nobody ever thinks it’s their fault. "No single snowflake feels responsible for the avalanche," Quinn said.