The “Gamergate” mob drove Zoe Quinn from Boston to Seattle, where some of the biggest companies in the industry are headquartered.
ZOE QUINN picks up her mobile phone from the black laminate table top to see how many people have tried to break into her personal website today.
The screen lights up as the independent computer game developer opens her email, and, with a tattooed index finger, scrolls past dozens of messages in search of the day’s security digest.
We’re at a coffee house in Seattle, Quinn’s new home after leaving Boston following a year so weird and disturbing that it made international news and resurrected stereotypes of video gamers as anti-social basement-dwellers.
Though Quinn has endured a year’s worth of threats from anonymous gamers who have vowed to rape and kill her, she chooses to sit with her back to a picture window and never once turns to look out. When she walks home later, she strides purposefully down the sidewalk, her purple lamé dress and then-bleached-blonde locks visible for two blocks.
Quinn lives her life under lock and key, at least electronically. Access to her computer server requires a key that she wears around her neck; its contents are backed up onto a computer chip implanted in her left hand.
She is vigilant and pragmatic, and focused on work and helping others similarly targeted. Sometimes she is terrified and sad, grieving her old life. She is all of 27 years old.
“Here it is,’’ she says matter-of-factly as she checks the daily digest. “There have been 40 attempts made on my site.” She seems more annoyed by the lame passwords the hackers have used — “Admin, really?” — than their efforts to invade what little is left of her private life.
Quinn used to get an email alert each time someone tried to take over her website, but there were so many she opted for a single summary, sent at the end of the day.
This, apparently, is part of what it takes to survive an Internet hate storm, one that began when a developer she dated for about four months in Boston shared intimate details of her life in a vindictive blog post after they split. Anonymous Internet trolls seized on the post, twisting details and manufacturing conspiracy in an incoherent campaign to destroy Quinn personally and professionally.
Quinn and her new boyfriend recorded the typed conversation as trolls divvied up the dirty work in an Internet chat room, pushing the false narrative that she slept with a journalist to get a favorable review of her novel game, Depression Quest.
The vicious mob, which coalesced under the name “Gamergate,” eventually drove Quinn from her home with its threats. It circulated nude photos of her, put her personal information online so others could harass her, and roped in her friends and family, and their employers, for a dose of harassment.
The result: Quinn still is making games, only now she’s a household name in the video-game community, and seemingly everyone working in the industry is talking about how to make a field long dominated by white men more diverse.
THE CONVERSATION HAS particular resonance and relevance in the Seattle area, where some of the biggest companies in the industry are headquartered, and where women have enjoyed leading roles in developing some of the most popular video game titles, including the Halo, Half-Life, Left 4 Dead and Portal franchises.
Kate Edwards, executive director of the International Game Developers Association, a professional group with a chapter in Seattle, said Gamergate could become a watershed moment for women who work in, write about and play interactive computer games.
“Gaming culture has been pretty misogynistic for a long time now,’’ says Edwards, 50, a lifelong gamer and developer who worked on Microsoft’s Halo. “There’s ample evidence of that over and over again . . . What we’re finally seeing is that it became so egregious that now companies are starting to wake up and say, ‘We need to stop this. This has got to change.’ ”
There are signs that’s happening as companies strive to bring more women and minorities into the games industry, and, more broadly, into the tech world.
Gaming culture has been pretty misogynistic for a long time now. There's ample evidence of that over and over again...” - Kate Edwards
• In January, Intel pledged $300 million toward making itself a more diverse company with more women working in its games division; in June, the company established a $125 million fund for tech startups led by women and minorities. It also threw its support behind an initiative by the developers association to double by 2025 the number of women working as developers.
• A Seattle venture capitalist announced he would invest startup money only in tech companies that had at least one woman co-founder.
• DigiPen Institute of Technology, a gaming and tech university in Redmond, introduced gender studies into its curriculum, and recently established its first gender-neutral bathroom. Last semester, its Diversity Club organized a week’s worth of activities around transgender issues, sexual-assault prevention and Gamergate.
• Riot Games, makers of League of Legends, a multiplayer game notorious for its toxic community of players, is using psychology in that game to reward players, and let players who make sexist, racist and misogynistic comments know when others in the community are disgusted by their behavior.
The role of women in the industry is a hot topic on the conference circuit, and even Twitter, a favored stomping ground for trolls and bullies, is stepping up its efforts to stem the abuse. Among other things, it has endorsed Crash Override, a network established by Quinn and her boyfriend and partner, Alex Lifschitz, earlier this year to help people who are targeted for online abuse and harassment.
“The industry is finally going to start maturing beyond its teenage years,’’ says Edwards. “The very thing they’re railing against, about diversity and all of that, is going to happen for real. We’re going to see an industry that is more diverse. We’re going to see games that are more diverse.”
In short, games that reflect the people playing them, and, increasingly, creating them.
MORE THAN 150 MILLION Americans — 44 percent of them women — play video games, according to a survey by the Entertainment Software Association.
Some play for hours, some for a few minutes while they’re waiting for coffee at Starbucks. The latest survey by the game developers association found that women account for 22 percent of developers.
The average gamer is 35 years old and has been playing for at least 13 years. Of those who play frequently, half say it helps them connect with friends, and 45 percent say it helps them spend time with their families.
So much for the maladjusted “Cheeto-huffing” loner in his parents’ basement, a gamer stereotype that has persisted even as games have become as mainstream an activity as moviegoing or watching TV.
How mainstream? Americans spent $22.4 billion on games, consoles and accessories last year.
It could be that in a generation so many people will be playing electronic games that calling someone a “gamer” will sound as ridiculous as calling someone a “TVer.”
That’s not to say there aren’t people who take games seriously, and spend thousands of hours playing them until their skill level becomes a point of pride and prestige. Call them the hard-core gamers.
Alyssa Jones is one of them. The 27-year-old played Duck Hunt with her grandfather as a child, and World of Warcraft with her brother and cousins in middle school and high school. She loved the game so much that during summer break in college she played as much as 12 hours a day.
Like every woman interviewed for this story, Jones doesn’t usually disclose her gender to players she doesn’t know, to avoid getting hit on, insulted or harassed by someone telling her to “Make me a sandwich.” But mostly, she has an excellent time doing something she has loved since she was a kid.
As a grown-up, she produces video games for a large studio and oversees game play for GeekGirlCon, a convention for girls interested in technology.
“It’s not just shoot ’em-ups,’’ she says of the indie games that have proliferated in recent years. “It’s so much more than entertainment. It can touch people on a personal and emotional level.” She points to Tampon Run, a tampon-shooting game developed by two teenage girls in New York to break the taboo surrounding menstruation.
“I have a lot of hope for the generation that comes after the millennials,’’ Jones says. “I think they’re going to do really great things. In 20 years, this issue isn’t even going to be a discussion.”
WHEN VIDEO GAMES were introduced by Atari in the 1970s, they were sold through toy stores and marketed as family entertainment. After the industry crashed in 1983, it rebuilt itself by marketing to young men, says Andrew Perti, founder of the Seattle Interactive Media Museum, a museum of video games Perti is assembling.
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Mobile devices, advances in graphics and programming tools, and distribution platforms that make it easier and cheaper to create, market and distribute games have made it possible for more people to get involved in developing games. That’s resulted in new genres of gaming that offer players experiences as varied as time traveling as a high school girl (Life is Strange), tossing around satanic goats (Goat Simulator), or dodging flying bullets in a monochromatic, Matrix-like trance (Superhot).
And as more women enter the field, the narratives have changed.
Take Dragon Age: Origins, a fantasy/adventure role-playing game developed by BioWare, a company that prominently features its female employees on its website.
DigiPen student Alexandra Lucas, in her award-winning analysis, described part of the game’s appeal: “The writers provided different types of character personalities, romantic experiences and expressions of sexuality, ranging from the possibility of marriage to a heterosexual, wisecracking, monogamous king to a polyamorous relationship with an open-minded omnisexual assassin.”
Lucas, 28, who studies writing, narrative design and game design at DigiPen, says “romance and sexuality have been a taboo thing in games.” She was hesitant to write about it, but once she did, she says she found others were also enthralled by the emotional relationships between characters, and features that allow players to establish personality — and change the outcome of the game — through their choices.
In Dragon Age, players have the opportunity to “exercise diplomacy and combat racism, sexism and classism in order to forge peace between the warring factions.” Lucas and her classmate, Aviva Schecterson, 23, president of the school’s Diversity Club, have been doing some of their own work at DigiPen, reaching out to women, transgender students and others in the minority to make them feel welcome. They also offer support through groups and mentorships with other women and transgender people working in the industry.
DigiPen alumni, Kim Swift, 31, a designer who led the team that created the wildly popular and quirky game Portal when she was a student, says the industry and the gaming public benefits when more diverse voices are involved in game creation.
She cites her own role in making the main character in Portal a female, and in deciding to put a heart on a box that accompanied players through a level of the game designed to mimic a psychological experiment. The box became one of the most beloved objects in the game and spurred its own memes.
Now employed by Amazon Game Studios, Swift describes herself as an interactive designer who tries to bring in different perspectives and different people to test games.
“As games become more and more mainstream, I’m hoping people will see it more as a job (possibility),’’ she says. “You’re not a nerd if you play video games. People are not going to kick you in the shins or look at you sideways, like they did me.”
BEING AN OUTSIDER is something many in the millennial gamer generation have in common. Which makes it all the stranger that some are so eager to destroy one of their own.
Quinn has found a new tribe among women who have stuck up for her and other women like Feminist Frequency commentator Anita Sarkeesian, and developer Brianna Wu, who were harassed and threatened when they spoke out against misogyny and sexism in games.
In the first six months of running Crash Override with Lifschitz, Quinn says the volunteer network has assisted more than 1,000 people who were targeted for online stalking and abuse. Some of the cases required minor help; others extensive support to secure online accounts and deal with the police.
Quinn says she’s hopeful the discussion will sharpen people’s empathy, and ultimately attract and encourage more and varied voices to get involved with creating games.
“I’m a woman. I live with mental illness (depression), and I’m open about that,’’ she says. “I’m queer, and I’ve been open about that. I’ve run multiple workshops for other queer people who want to get involved with games.”
Games and the community of gamers were at one time a safe haven for her, just as they are for millions of others. The fact some want to disenfranchise her because she’s a woman or because of her politics or her outspokenness makes her sad.
“If they chilled out and stopped making it about that, and made it about who we are as people,’’ she says, “they’d probably realize we have more in common than they think.”
Quinn says she’ll probably live with some form of harassment the rest of her life, and says she understands that some of the people who have attacked her think they’re fighting a righteous cause for better gaming journalism, however misguided.
And whatever message the Gamergaters intended to send about women in games, it’s not the one that necessarily registered.
While at DigiPen, I asked a group of young female students what lessons could be gleaned from Gamergate.
Without missing a beat, they said, “Be careful who you date.”