How Gamergate Pioneered the Backlash Against Diversity

The fight to keep women out of the new economy started with video games

Photograph courtesy of UN Women/Ryan Brown
Frequent Gamergate targets Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn at the launch of the new UN Broadband Commission report on cyber-violence against women and girls. Photograph courtesy of UN Women/Ryan Brown

Eron Gjoni was a twenty-four-year-old blogger and gamer when, in August 2014, he decided to air whole baskets of relationship dirty laundry on the internet. Gjoni posted the chronicle of his entire relationship with indie game developer Zoe Quinn, whose crime was apparently having the audacity to cheat on him (allegedly). He meticulously detailed his perceived wrongs on a website he created entirely for the purpose of bashing her. Gjoni accused Quinn of sleeping her way to good reviews for her game, Depression Quest, which explored mental health. Quinn, he alleged, set back the cause of women in gaming. Gamergate (GG) was born.

The internet army (gamers on Reddit, tech blogs, 4chan, and other gaming sites) rallied against Quinn. They doxxed her, publishing her personal contact information, including her address and phone number, to spur harassment. They hacked her computers and sent naked pictures of her to her dad. They called her with threats of rape and death. And they blamed her for all of it, saying what they were doing was all in the name of good journalism. GGers claimed that exchanging sex for favourable reviews was endemic in the video game journalism beat and yet another reason for male gamers to hang the “No Girls Allowed” sign on the big boss door. It was later proven that none of the men Quinn was accused of having sex with in return for good reviews had, in fact, even reviewed her game, but GGers tended to ignore that.

As Gamergate gained momentum, it continued to hide behind its “ethics in journalism” mandate. Its members repeatedly and uniformly derided feminists and anyone else who spoke out against it while at the same time denying it hated, or harmed, women, a claim easily disproved by anyone who possessed even the most rudimentary Google search skills. Basic facts didn’t matter; messaging did. Again and again, proponents claimed they just wanted women to stop sleeping their way up the industry, to stop being supposed PR shills, to “respect themselves.” None of that was anti-woman, according to Gamergate proponents, who universally blamed feminists for the movement’s violent reputation. Feminists were misrepresenting and diluting their message, GGers claimed. Some men in the technology industry promoted the harmful message, including one Montreal-based Ubisoft game developer who tweeted regularly in support of Gamergate, a move that its members call refreshing: “I find it very clear that Gamergate is not a hate group. That’s a lazy smear tactic and an obvious lie.”

It’s worth mentioning, too, that like many anti-feminists, Alison Tieman and Karen Straughan are proud GGers. In 2015, for instance, the Calgary Expo kicked out both women, along with the other members of the Honey Badger Brigade, because the group promoted Gamergate at its booth. On their fundraising campaign page, which crowdsourced nearly $10,000 to send the Badgers to the expo, the women explained their “stealth” mission. “As men’s issues advocates and defenders of a creator’s rights to create unmolested, [this is] what we have to say to the nerds and geeks and gamers,” they wrote: “You are fantastic as you are, carry on.” In other words—feminists!—stop whining.

Once at the expo, the Honey Badgers hung a huge “Stand against censorship” banner depicting a group of animated honey badgers waving a flag with the GG logo and the word “ethics.” In response to getting the boot, the Honey Badgers sued the expo and the website Mary Sue, which covered the incident, claiming discrimination. Conservative news website Breitbart wrote about it, and everyone from Christina Hoff Sommers to Milo Yiannopoulos, the originator of “feminism is cancer,” tweeted support.

In the end, the Honey Badgers raised $30,000 to support their lawsuit, hiring disbarred Ontario lawyer Harry Kopyto. They claim to be going to trial in November 2017.

At the time of the Expo, I was editor of This Magazine, one of Canada’s oldest independent, politically progressive publications. We published a feminist call-to-action issue, saying “F*@K THAT!”, right on the cover, to all the women-centered BS we were witnessing. Among many articles, we published an essay in which the writer questioned the real cost of the hyper-misogynistic social media harassment campaign to get women off social media, off the internet, away from video games, out of the tech industry, and also raped and/or killed.

Within hours of the piece going live, our website crashed. Rumours circulated that Gamergate had done it, but we could never confirm it. The essay’s writer sent me an email saying she was “getting massacred” online, for daring to argue it was impossible to know how many girls and women GG’s harassment campaign had forced out of tech: surely the number must be unfathomably large. Our harassers called us, well, harassers. They said we’d lied, that we’d besmirched their reputations by saying what they’d done was terrible. They’d only been telling the truth, they countered: women didn’t belong in technology. Our writer received the first threat. Incensed Gamergate supporters published her home address, along with her number, to teach her a lesson to never, ever speak out again.

In the months that followed Gamergate’s rise, many women who decried the movement were doxxed and physically threatened. One developer, Brianna Wu, was forced to leave her home and go into hiding. She received her first death threat in October 2014 after venting about sexism in video games in her weekly podcast: “You cannot have thirty years of portraying women as bimbos, sex objects, second bananas, cleavage-y eye candy. Eventually it normalizes this treatment of women.” The tweet in response: “Guess what bitch? I now know where you live.” It was followed by another that revealed her home address. “Your mutilated corpse will be on the front page of Jezebel tomorrow.” Wu and her husband fled their home that night, crashing on friends’ couches and in hotels for a month, never feeling safe. In the following year, she received another 100 death threats. They still roll in with regularity.

When Wu later wrote on a feminist website that Ohio’s attorney general wasn’t seriously responding to a subsequent phone threat to “slit her throat,” he released a public rebuttal, saying the attention her story garnered “wasted time and resources” at his office. He wasn’t the only one who dismissed the threats. A number of high profile Hollywood stars, university academics, and CEOs of big name tech companies spoke out in support of Gamergate, calling the threatened women liars and attention grabbers who wrongly skewed the movement’s message (whatever it was). If that message had been misrepresented, however, the one to women and girls was clear: the tech industry is not for you. Also: shut up.

It’s tempting to dismiss those who believe in Gamergate as few and kooky, even if they seem like a maelstrom online. I mean, one of the men who threatened us online wore a pirate hat. It’s equally tempting to say that what happens online doesn’t touch people beyond the internet, that whatever hate is spewed on social media is trapped and contained, like the pit of a peach. Moments like the one we experienced at This show that’s not true: the whole fruit is rotten.

Though women (especially women of colour and LGBTQ-identified women) at all types of work across all industries face discrimination and violence in the labour force, I chose to open with Gamergate because it is the most explicit example. This is an especially dismal thought when you consider, also, that the STEM fields are at the forefront of our modern economy. The threatening campaign of harassment, violence, and silencing is not only real but entrenched in the technology world, especially in video games. It existed long before Gamergate and, unless we do something about it, will persist long after.

Take Brenda Bailey Gershkovitch, who as a kid spent all her babysitting money at the arcade. Together with a crowd of boys and girls, she played Centipede, Astroid, Pac-Man, even “stupid Ms. Pac-Man.” She received her first rape threat in 2010 when she and her cofounder announced the launch of their Vancouver-based studio, Silicon Sisters, which designs video games specifically for girls and women. Its first game, School 26, is a worldwide bestseller, with more than 1 million downloads in thirty-six countries.

I interviewed Gershkovitch for a women in technology story I wrote in 2014. At the time, she told me the trolls focused on her simply because she wanted to build games for girls. It’s not something she likes talking about. She said she didn’t show anyone the threats, opting for the “don’t feed the trolls” approach. Such an approach is, essentially, a grown-up version of the same advice parents have, for decades, given bullied children: ignore them, and they’ll get bored of picking on you. The other approach, in which you invite the trolls over for a big buffet, fulfills the fantasy of every bullied child on that same playground: fight back.

The latter option is the one our This writer chose, and also the same one many prominent feminists and other Gamergate targets have picked. It’s grueling, exhausting, and can consume your days. It can come with IRL consequences, as one This reader from the US told us: “I have enjoyed my own bouts of being called a whore, a bigot, and all sorts of other names simply for expressing the view that video games could stand to evolve beyond the old, tired, sexist tropes currently so prevalent.” She added that she often tried to protect other women, including her daughter, from Gamergate attacks. In return, they hacked her computer.

In other words, as any bullied child will tell you, both approaches suck. If someone wants to make your life miserable, they will. Gamergaters seem to have nothing but time, patience, and perseverance in their campaign to rid the tech world of feminists and, by extension, women. Gershkovitch may have taken the “soldier on” approach, but she knew the stakes. She was careful to add she has tremendous respect for the women who’ve spoken out against the onslaught of Gamergate, in particular Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist video game critic who runs the popular YouTube channel Feminist Frequency, where she dissects how women are portrayed in video games. In 2012, long before Gamergate was coined, anti-feminists targeted Sarkeesian for running a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund her then-new “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” series. She’d since become their Public Enemy No. 1. “I’m going to send her a huge fruit basket,” Gershkovitch told me, not quite joking, “to say that the shit that you’re taking is for all of us and I appreciate it.”

Sarkeesian fled her home that fall, too, as did Zoe Quinn. Sarkeesian was forced to cancel her talk at Utah State University after a deluge of threats. Among them was one from a writer who claimed to be a student at the university and threatened a mass shooting if Sarkeesian’s talk went ahead: “I will write my manifesto in her spilled blood, and you will bear witness to what feminist lies and poison have done to the men of America.” It wasn’t the first death threat Sarkeesian had received, but it was the first time she cancelled an event as a result. This time, she said, she wasn’t confident police and the university had done enough to secure her safety. Utah is a concealed-carry state, meaning those with a gun permit are legally allowed to conceal their weapons. While the university hired extra security and promised to do a bomb sweep, it refused to install metal detectors or ban guns on campus. People had rights, after all. GGers later called the threat a hoax that feminists blew out of proportion, but it’s hard to see how you can reasonably laugh off death threats.

Let’s pause for a moment here and let this all sink in: Sarkeesian and those like her were all feminists in gaming who vocally argued that women in the technology and gaming industry deserved to be treated better—and for that, Gamergate decided, they deserved to die. Sarkeesian and Quinn both later revealed they had folders on their computers called “The ones we lost.” In them were digital records of all the girls who’d written to them saying they were too afraid to become game developers now; some of those girls were as young as twelve. The restrictive culture had suffocated them out. We have no idea how many girls and women Gamergate has scared away. It’s too soon to know. What we do know is that the industry can’t afford to lose more women; the numbers are already depressingly low. The knowledge that Gamergate and the man-is-might culture it celebrated were succeeding in whittling that number down even further is almost too terrible to confront.

In March 2013, Adria Richards, a developer evangelist for email delivery firm SendGrid, tweet-shamed two men sitting behind her at PyCon, the largest annual gathering for techies who use and develop Python, a computer programming language used by organizations such as Google and NASA to write code. While a woman presenter was speaking, the two men had made jokes about “big dongles” and “forking” (technology terms used out of context, in this case, to refer to male genitalia and sex, respectively) in direct violation of the conference’s code of conduct. As the woman speaker thanked the event’s sponsors, the men apparently giggled: “You can thank me; you can thank me.” Presumably, they meant with a sexual act, though I don’t want to guess which one they’d like “thank you” to have been.

“I realized I had to do something or [that girl] would never have the chance to learn and love programming because the ass clowns behind me would make it impossible for her to do so,” Richards later said. She publicly called out their conversation, took a photo of the two and tweeted it using the expo’s hashtag. She then tweeted at staff, asking them to do something about the men, and sent another tweet with a link to the conference’s code of conduct.

Shortly after, organizers escorted the men out. One was later fired, and the male techno sphere unleashed its fury on Richards, posting both death and rape threats on Twitter and Hacker News, a respected industry discussion forum. 4chan users also targeted SendGrid with a DDoS (distributed denial of service) attack, shutting down the company’s website in a baldly stated mission to “ruin her [Richards’s] life.” In response, SendGrid fired her. As a developer evangelist, it was her job to help the company achieve a critical mass of users for its product, and SendGrid said the controversy prevented her from being effective in her role.

In his 2015 book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, journalist Jon Ronson interviewed Richard and one of the men who’d been fired—one who’d managed to keep his name secret. When Ronson asked the man what lessons he’d learned from the shaming, the man responded that he’s less friendly and more distant with female developers. When Ronson asked him to give an example of how he talks to female colleagues, however, the man replied: “We don’t have any female developers at the place I’m working at now. So.” He found a new job almost immediately. At the time Ronson interviewed her, Richards was still unemployed.

The tech industry is littered with stories like these. Yet when Gamergate blew up the internet, much of media talked about it as if it was the start of sexism and misogyny in the sector, imagining, perhaps, that everything before this was hunky dory. That wasn’t quite true, but it was the big reveal—like the Wizard of Oz, except in reverse. Instead of finding out a harmless old man was running the show, women discovered it was indeed Oz, the great and terrible. We’ve been plunged into a horrific Technicolor dream, so surreal we don’t want to quite believe it’s real.

In many ways, Gamergate has become a catch-all term for the rampant misogyny against women in technology. As it metastasizes, it’s become many things: a great, malignant series of events; a movement of people who believe feminism is ruining video games and technology; a vicious campaign against any woman it deems responsible for said plunge into hell; and, also, arguably a place where casual hate against women is not just legitimized but watered and tended, like a garden.

If you’re like me, it’s also a nightmare, a glimpse into a sadly probable future, one in which few little girls will learn how to code or make video games or even spend their afternoons like I did, cross-legged, glued to the TV, fingers finely dusted with neon-orange Doritos powder, trying to beat the big dungeon boss.

Printed with permission from Goose Lane Editions, from F Bomb: Dispatches from the War on Feminism by Lauren McKeon.

Lauren McKeon
Lauren McKeon is deputy editor of Reader's Digest Canada and the author of two books, F-Bomb and No More Nice Girls.