If you’re one of the tens of thousands of gamers in town for PAX East this weekend, you won’t see the work of one of the industry’s most well-known teams of women. That’s because over the last five months gamers have threatened to kill us on 46 separate occasions. The 47th one threatened violence at the convention if I showed up.
My name is Brianna Wu. I am the head of development at Giant Spacekat, a Boston-based studio that’s an industry leader in making games for women. We are passionate about creating narrative games for the avalanche of new consumers who don’t fit the old gamer stereotype.
A reasonable person might wonder how video games have led to death threats.
Such is the sad saga of “Gamergate,” a hate movement that’s been tearing our industry apart since August. The spark that started the fire was when a jilted lover of Boston-area game developer Zoe Quinn published allegations about her sex life online for the world to see. His stated purpose was to professionally discredit her.
Misogynistic gamers reacted to this horrific violation of Quinn’s privacy by spending months harassing her. Though the pretext was about ethics in game journalism, the true purpose of Gamergate is to intimidate outspoken women into silence by any means necessary.
I was first targeted in October, and my life has been a nightmare of death threats, rape threats, and nonstop harassment ever since. After defending Quinn and other women, I was “doxxed” — meaning someone posted my home address and other personal information online. The threats that immediately followed went viral, declaring that my mutilated corpse would be on the front page of a feminist website and if I had children they would be slaughtered, too.
Recently, a man made a video of himself wearing a skull mask and outlining plans to murder me, then uploaded it to YouTube. A skull mask man was included in the recent Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episode inspired by Gamergate, where an apparent character amalgamation of me, Zoe Quinn, and Anita Sarkeesian is kidnapped and sexually assaulted, then quits game development. Now, in the real world, we get copycat death threats by gamers wearing skull masks.
Some of these threats are more credible than others. But even when it’s unclear if these men intend to kill us, the intimidation is all too real. It’s “emotional terrorism,” as local tech journalist Peter Cohen recently wrote.
What’s going on in the game industry is not a mystery to me — it’s a rehash of the violent identity politics I saw while I was growing up in Mississippi, a state Martin Luther King Jr. famously described as “sweltering with the heat of oppression.” Even in the ’80s and ’90s, many white Southerners were still bitter about court decisions that required racial integration of the schools. It wasn’t that they were outwardly opposed to white and black people attending school together, it was that the rulings threatened their proud identity as independent Southerners.
In the ’90s, signs placed at the Mississippi borders by Governor Kirk Fordice warned, “Only positive Mississippi spoken here,” as if any problems would disappear by refusing to discuss them. In the same way, many gamers just want “Only positive gaming spoken here.” So when feminist critics like me, Zoe, or Anita critique the industry’s portrayal of women — something any outsider can see as deeply problematic — the conversation gets defensive very quickly.
It’s see no evil, hear no evil with toxic male gamers — whose every whim and adolescent fantasy has been catered to for decades. And truth be told, as I work behind the scenes with powerful men in game development, getting them to recognize these problems is like pulling teeth. It’s telling that when I have conversations with male executives about problems women face, they spend more time talking than listening.
Usually these men start the conversation with poetic declarations about how much they support women. Sometimes, they even have a story about having done something to support a woman in the workplace. And while I appreciate the sentiment, it’s hard to not leave these conversations without the sense that they’re more interested in feeling good about themselves than addressing the historic sexism of our field.
Every gaming professional is exhausted and battle weary from months of Gamergate. Many want it to be over, but few are willing to change any of the behavior that got us here in the first place.
I don’t think the core problem in gaming is angry misogynists threatening violence. I think Gamergate is just a symptom of a disease: a $90 billion global industry that was built by men for men. At Game Informer, one of our industry’s leading publications, 17 of 18 staff editors are men. I know of three female journalists who, after having the temerity to criticize gaming companies and publications dominated by white men, were then incessantly threatened and attacked themselves. All have announced they’ll stop writing about gaming altogether.
By some estimates, women now make up more than half of game consumers, yet we’re only 3 percent of the industry’s programmers and 11 percent of its designers. Studies show that 40 percent to 50 percent of women who enter technology fields will end up leaving. Many will cite the hostile workplace culture as a reason.
When I tell people outside of the industry about Gamergate, they think it must be coming from harmless teenagers. I can tell you, that’s simply not true. All of the cases that I’m working with police and the FBI to prosecute involve grown men. These adult gamers are deeply angry at women and see us as outsiders trying to take control of their hobby. And they enjoy harassing us as if they were playing another game.
It’s hard to overstate just how steep the cost of Gamergate has been for me and my family. It’s cost me sleep, health, and, at times, my sanity. It’s delayed the ship date of my company’s upcoming PC game Revolution 60, losing us money. And now, threats of violence have prevented the women of Giant Spacekat from showing their hard work at PAX East, one of the country’s largest gaming conventions.
They say alcoholics can’t seek help for themselves until they hit rock bottom. Gamergate is the rock bottom of sexism in the tech industry. It’s devastating our ability to do our jobs and destroying our lives. It’s time to sober up.
Brianna Wu is cofounder and head of development at Giant Spacekat. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.