Brianna Wu, a software engineer so absorbed in her work that she considers eating a waste of time, did not want to be a cultural figure.
“I got into video games,” she said recently, “to make video games.”
But Wu was thrust into the spotlight on Oct. 9, when she tweeted what she intended as a joke. It mocked members of a shadowy and threatening gaming movement called GamerGate, ridiculing them for, among other things, “fighting an apocalyptic future where women are 8 percent of programmers and not 3 percent.”
That’s when the harassment began — a frightening online campaign threatening rape and death that forced Wu to flee her Arlington home. In the process, she became the latest of several female targets across the country — the second in the Boston area — as well as a symbol of the sexism that some say is roiling the $21.25 billion gaming industry in the United States.
“Guess what [vulgar name]?” read one tweet from “Death to Brianna.” “I now know where you live.” Her home address was posted.
The mostly unknown participants behind GamerGate — named for its Twitter hashtag — contend that they are fighting against what they see as favoritism and a lack of ethics in gaming journalism. They’re also unhappy about what they see as an increasingly liberal agenda in video games. Critics say that GamerGaters are brutish bullies trying to drive women out of a field that men have long dominated, using tactics that include online harassment and “doxxing,” slang for posting personal information, such as a home address, bank information, and Social Security number.
Many fear that the online harassment of female game developers — in addition to the hyper-sexualized depiction of women in many videogames — will dissuade girls and young women from entering a creative and growing field.
Timothy Loew, executive director of the Massachusetts Digital Games Institute , said the attacks in his industry have importance beyond the gaming industry.
“Situations like GamerGate cause real harm — both personal and professional — to half the population,” he said. “This is an issue of equity, and we need to make sure this sort of conflagration doesn’t crop up again.”
And although the battle for the soul of video games is raging online, one of the real-world fronts may be Boston, which has a robust indie game scene. Locally produced games — made by women with uncommon frequency — are among the leading examples of the increasingly diverse audiences and subjects that dot today’s gaming landscape. Wu’s game, “Revolution 60,” features four female action heroes.
“There’s this moment that’s happening right now,” said Nina Huntemann, associate professor of media studies at Suffolk University and cofounder of Women in Games Boston, a professional network.
“Here you have an industry that for a very long time was a niche product with a niche market, and has become more mainstream. There are people who feel, ‘This is ours. It’s the only thing we social outcasts can hold on to that’s not going to be infiltrated.’ ”
At this point in her ordeal, Wu is regularly forwarding incoming rape and death threats to the local police, and said she has been in communication with the FBI, the Arlington Police, Twitter, and Apple. She and her husband, Frank Wu, have been forced to pack their dogs, Crash and Kablam!, barky Bichon Frise, into their crates and escape to a safe house or hotel.
Slender, 6-foot, 2-inches, and in her mid-30s, Wu has started taking private self-defense lessons, and stopped telling even friends her schedule.
‘What takes the biggest toll is when young girls write me and tell me they’re too scared to go into this field.’Brianna Wu, software engineer and the founder of Giant Spacekat, which makes games with female protagonists
“I don’t know who I can trust,” she said last week, speaking, at her request, from an undisclosed suburban location. “The slow paranoia is exhausting.”
Still, Wu says she’s more bothered that young women might steer clear of gaming development than by the intimidation she is experiencing. Women represent 47 percent of gamers but only about 12 percent of game developers, according to a 2014 report by the Women’s Media Center.
The report also notes that at least since the mid-1980s, “men have become a larger and larger share of college graduates in information technology and computer science” — key fields in the current job market.
“Death and rape threats I can deal with emotionally,” said Wu, the founder of Giant Spacekat, a company that makes games with female protagonists, and the host of a popular podcast. “What takes the biggest toll is when young girls write me and tell me they’re too scared to go into this field.”
The gaming industry culture war kicked into high gear two years ago, when feminist and media critic Anita Sarkeesian launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund something called the Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series. Her online harassment started almost immediately, and escalated to the point where, just last month, Sarkeesian was forced to cancel a talk at Utah State University because of anonymous threats promising a massacre.
GamerGate took off after the ex-boyfriend of a Boston area independent game developer, Zoe Quinn, blogged about her alleged infidelity with a gaming journalist, and other gamers claimed the alleged relationship lead to positive reviews of her game, Depression Quest. The claim was never proven. GamerGaters maintain that their campaign is about ethics in gaming journalism.
As the controversy began to spill from the gaming world into the mainstream in recent weeks, the Entertainment Software Association , an industry trade group, issued a statement. “Threats of violence and harassment are wrong,” it read. “They have to stop. There is no place in the video game community — or our society — for personal attacks and threats.”
Wu’s harassment started after she posted a meme called “Oppressed Gamergater” that ridicules members for, among other things, basing their entire identity on the gaming world. On a recent morning, as Wu sat drinking Soylent and monitoring the hate directed at her on two large computer monitors, she said she wished she could just get back to making games.
But, she added, her life has prepared her to stand up to bullies.
“I grew up in a deeply racist Mississippi,” she said. “I used to believe that that kind of prejudice was limited to the South. But I no longer do. People in the South would say the Civil War was a long time ago.” Similarly, she continued, some men in the gaming industry say women have achieved equality and “that’s the end of the story,” even though they make up just a small fraction of the workforce.
Wu got into video games as a “nerdy” child who didn’t fit into the ambient culture of guns, church, and football.
“When we got the Nintendo I was instantly addicted,” she said. “Games like Final Fantasy blew my mind, letting me take part in an interactive story. I was instantly hooked, it’s all I ever wanted to do.”
A graduate of the University of Mississippi, Wu worked briefly in politics in Washington. “People are going to hate me,” she said, “but I worked for Republicans.”
She moved to Palo Alto, Calif., in 2008 when her husband — a PhD in bacterial genetics — took a job at a pharmaceutical company.
As news of her harassment spreads, her Twitter following has grown from 8,000 to 26,500 and counting, and she’s using her platform to fight back.
“We’re using zerging to fight doxxing,” Wu said. She helpfully translated: “zerging” is a video game technique that involves sending small, weak things at someone constantly until they get overwhelmed and die. It comes from the game Starcraft, where you can make a quick, cheap creature called a Zerg.
“The idea with GamerGate,” Wu said “is to flood someone with tweets and low level harassment until they just quit.”
“People are so frustrated they are looking for a message of hope, a public figure,” she said. “I won’t let women be bullied out of one of the best fields on the entire planet.”
Correction: Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the ex-boyfriend of independent game developer Zoe Quinn claimed in a blog post that her alleged relationship with an industry journalist led to positive reviews of her game. It was other gamers who made such claims, not Eron Gjoni.