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Choose Your Character


This transcript has been lightly edited for readability. For verbatim text, please see video captions.

Introduction (0:00)

I’m Brianna Wu, the head of development at Giant Spacekat. I find myself in an interesting industry position, in which I am uncomfortably known for speaking of feminist issues after last year’s events. As a result, I’d like to discuss my feedback of what took place after my AltConf talk last year.

When I speak, I sometimes put things together last minute. I’ve done so on the plane and mentally prepared for a calm, reasonable talk about what women in tech were facing, discussing how to be more of an ally, and not inadvertently hurt us. What happened that morning, as I was so late coming over here, I’d had a ton of caffeine. I then got out on stage and I just let every bit of it out; I had a direct, honest conversation without any tiptoeing about issues in tech that women face.

In last year’s talk, I discussed key points such as:

  • Stop telling women our experiences are wrong. It sometimes feels like when women try to tell men who work in tech what we’re facing, immediately we’re told that the way we interpret our own lives isn’t correct. This feels oddly illogical if you’re on the other side of that.

  • There exists a tendency to direct issues of women in tech towards issues about men, in an almost Orwellian fashion. For instance, sometimes discussions about women who need maternity leave need to be approved at companies suddenly become conversations about how it’s not fair for men on the team to not have maternity leave - an odd form of doublethink.

  • Overall, thinking and discussing that sexism in tech is kind of this Mad Men moment. I think we all have this idea in our mind that the way that women face discrimination in tech is akin to sitting at a big corporation and chomping on a cigar, drinking some whiskey in an office, and saying, “Broads can’t cope.” Yet that’s not they way it happens. Almost everyone listening to my talk believes, in theory, that women should be included in the tech industry. And the truth is, it’s a lot more subtle than that.

I was blown away by what happened in the aftermath of my talk last year. It got almost 15,000 views on the AltConf YouTube channel. It was referenced in all kinds of media. I still get e-mail about it constantly. I was actually at self.conference last weekend, and somebody was driving me back to the airport. He talked about how he showed some of his teammates my video and how uncomfortable it made some of the men watching it because it was just a really direct, honest talk. This year, however, I chose to discuss the idea of choosing your character with regards to this issue, especially due to GamerGate being a huge focus of my life this year.

For those of you that don’t know, GamerGate is basically a hate group that has erupted in the video game industry. What happened was that me, and other women in the field, have spent most of the year dealing with truly horrific, apocalyptic, almost death threats and harassment. I, myself, have had 106 death threats at this point, had people threaten to blow up venues where I speak, and I talk to the FBI constantly about what’s happening to me. It’s really been an extraordinarily difficult year, in part because I have been repeatedly standing up and voicing opinions like I had last year at AltConf. As a result, I’d like to discuss GamerGate and examine some of its causes.

GamerGate (4:44)

All of us women in tech, especially those in the gaming industry and working on games, typically share a common set of frustrations. We find ourselves frustrated that although we tend to work on game development teams, we don’t get to be the lead as much as we should be mathematically. We find ourselves constantly frustrated that maybe there aren’t female protagonists as much as we would like. Sometimes, women are hyper-sexualized in games. But as a professional in the game industry, if you decide speak out on these forces, gamers feel like their very identity is under attack. That has certainly been the case for me this entire year.

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I enjoy games. I play games. I can have a conversation about just about any game out there. But games are not my identity. I see myself as a wife to my husband, a leader on my team, a runner, someone that loves dance music, a journalist, a podcaster. I have many things around my identity besides being a gamer. But what you have is a certain subset of the gaming population that really base their self-esteem on this one consumer product that they consume, and it’s truly been a horrendous year in the video game industry because of this fact.

Recent Changes in Gaming for the Better (6:24)

The truth is, video games are really changing right now. It’s amazing to me that with the new generation of consoles of the Xbox One and PS4, the only thing we’ve done with it is sharpened the textures a tad and perhaps increased the world size a bit. I really feel like innovation has stagnated in the video game industry. Opposite of AAA titles are us indie developers, like at Giant Spacekat, and many other women developers I know bringing some important, different innovation to the industry despite our smaller size:

  • My own game Revolution 60 was a very cinematic game starring women.
  • Framed, a game Zoe Quinn worked on, in which you drag panels into different areas of the screen and tell a story.
  • Counting Kingdom, by my friend Jenna Hoffstein, innovated math education after she looked at educational games and noted that they all suck.

Women have exploded in the video game industry, and games are changing, a good thing for all of us. Yet the monoculture of games has really come to a point where we’re not innovating anymore.

I’d like to stress that discussing GamerGate is not something I enjoy, as it’s exhausting to spend my professional time talking about women in tech issues. I am an engineer, a leader, and this is not why I went into this field. I would rather talk about anything else, but I feel that this is a subject that I must discuss. This is especially true this year with GamerGate, which has made it all the more imperative to stand up and start talking about these issues.

The Origins of GamerGate (9:17)

Where did GamerGate all start? I think it’s a real misconception that GamerGate started August of last year. Personally I think that GamerGate really started when Anita Sarkeesian founded Feminist Frequency back in 2012. Basically, Anita came out and said she wanted to do a series deconstructing video games from a feminist point of view.

The response was an absolute panic from gamers. I remember reading threads in NeoGAF talking about Anita Sarkeesian and how they were terrified that she was going to come through and somehow treat games unfairly. There’s this sexist double-standard from the very beginning, claiming she’s not a gamer, even though you can see pictures of her with her Xbox 360 collection. She’s as hardcore as anyone else is. Anita Sarkeesian had this very, very violent backlash to just wanting to critique some video games. People threatened to kill her, rape her, and she even had to deal with actual developers in our industry making games brutalizing and beating up Anita Sarkeesian’s face until it would get bloodier and more bruised, inflicting more violence on her. It was really disgusting. Therefore, it’s really important to remember that these forces have been around the industry for a while; they’re just now coming to a head.

The July Incident (10:49)

Before the real thing that kicked GamerGate off last year, I’d like for you guys to understand that for most of 2014 it was like there was a pot on the stove that had been boiling and getting hotter and hotter, and then these incidents erupted all the way through 2014. This really came to a head for me and other women that I know in July.

I’m intentionally omitting the name of the woman involved in this incident because every single time she gets in the press, she finds herself dealing with a new wave of harassment and death threats. She was a game journalist in her field, and one of our best and brightest voices offering critique of the game industry. Giant Bomb is a website that chooses to have no diversity whatsoever. If you want to hear from women, don’t go to Giant Bomb because they choose not to hire them. If you want to hear from black people, don’t go to Giant Bomb because they choose not to hire them. If you want to hear from gay people, don’t go to Giant Bomb because they choose not to hire them. And yet they throw out their hands pretending it is just a coincidence that every single time they hire somebody, it’s a white cisgendered heterosexual dude. Nevertheless, they’re one of the biggest, most important game sites in the entire industry.

In July of 2014, when they announced two more hires, yet again two white straight, cisgendered men, she wrote a single tweet critiquing the hiring choice. The reaction was really horrible. It was really, really horrible. I remember watching this on the sidelines, seeing this swarm of harassment descend upon her. And this isn’t someone I was super close to, but she was someone I really cared about as a professional and consider a friend.

What happened to her is that they ran what I’m going to call the playbook throughout this talk, on her. The idea of the playbook is to make the cost of staying in the industry, voicing an opinion if you’re a woman, so high that you basically choose to leave and quit through the means of awful harassment and bullying. So what they do to my friend? They found things out about her past, along with personal things they can distort and attack her with — things to hurt her feelings with. So, they go through and they start tweeting death threats and rape threats, constantly attacking her online. It was so brutal watching this from the sidelines, and every woman I know who saw this became concerned that this harassment might happen to her if she spoke up. These threats became so unbearable that she decided that the cost of staying a gaming journalist wasn’t worth this sacrifice. And just like that, my friend ended up leaving the game industry; we lost one of our best and brightest voices.

It’s worth noting that not that many women that are working in game journalism today, so they ran the playbook on her and it worked. I can tell you, for me, on a personal level, I had seen Anita Sarkeesian harassed, but I didn’t know her. However, this was someone that I’d followed for years — we had mutual friends, and this hurt me so much watching this. I’ll never forget staying up until five in the morning on the couch, burning with anger about the fact that a bunch of people that pretend to love games can basically bully someone out of the industry. If the pot was already boiling, this was the part where the kitchen started to catch on fire.

The Zoe Quinn Incident, Leading to Other Attacks (14:55)

During August of 2014, the Zoe Quinn incident took place. It was a pretty sad, horrible tale. Zoe Quinn is basically one of the best-known women game developers working today. She developed Depression Quest, a free game that has been downloaded more than a million times, and has helped many people understand their depression. Zoe’s been dealing with unprecedented harassment for years. I’ll never forget a tweet that she sent one time, where someone told her that if she had depression she should just go lay down in the street and someone would take care of her depression for her.

To worsen the situation, her ex-boyfriend comes out and releases online every bit of information of her private life in a horrific violation of her privacy. In his own words, he did this in an organized, deliberate attempt to professionally discredit her. With every aspect of Zoe Quinn’s personal life open for judgement on the Internet, the harassers ran the same playbook that happened to my friend on her as well. They found something to attack her and discredit her with, constantly attacking and attacking in an attempt to make the cost of being there simply not worth it. It’s worth noting that Zoe is someone that suffers from depression. That’s why she made an award-winning game that deals with depression. Nonetheless, I would call what happened to Zoe the most sexist incident in the entire history of video games, and that’s a really high bar — the gold medal of harassment.

I want for you to imagine if you’re an indie game developer and a woman in a completely male-dominated industry, what it’s got to feel like to have pieces of shit, like Adam Baldwin, out there, posting videos attacking your personal sex life for fun and entertainment. If you don’t feel empathy about that, go see a therapist; it was just that terrible. I was at PAX Prime this year and some people were threatening to disrupt Zoe’s talks by wearing shirts with allusions to her sex life. The Zoe Quinn incident ended up getting so much traction that GamerGate became a hashtag, an organized thing. This was a fire that spread to the rest of the industry.

What happened for the rest of the year is that they started going after us one by one by one by one by one by one. They ran the playbook on Jenn Frank, an industry veteran, finding one thing about her life to take out of context, and then attack and bully her with. Her Twitter timeline became nothing but a stream of hatred messages, and she eventually quit the industry.

They did the same thing to Maddie Bryce, a female game journalist of color, uncommon in the field, until she ended up quitting the industry. They also ran the same thing to my friend Katherine Cross. She’s had horrific violations of her personal life and privacy. Every single day she’s attacked on a personal basis. She still stays here, but I have to tell you, I’ve seen first-hand what this kind of new tactic has done to her. Same thing with Leigh Alexander — they went after Leigh Alexander in a professional capacity, deliberately attempting to try to get people to stop sponsoring her. They sought to destroy not just her, but the entire site she worked for, Gamasutra. Intel ended up listening to this campaign by GamerGate that made them seem like a crowd, despite it being only a few thousand people. Long story short, Leigh Alexander decided to concentrate on her game writing job.

GamerGate Running the Playbook on Brianna Wu (19:31)

I was also out there as a woman game developer in the tech field who cared, and I knew that GamerGate was eventually going to go after me. I had a particular tweet that I sent out from my main account. GamerGate found that particular tweet and decided to start going after me. In 8chan, a website with people that are so extreme they were thrown out of 4chan, there was a thread about me in which they were going through my private life, trying to figure out how they would run the playbook on me. At this point I already began receiving death threats - the exact same kind of thing. Here’s a graphic, typical example:

  • “Guess what, bitch? I now know where you live.”
  • “You and Frank live at,” then they give my address.
  • “I’ve got a K-bar, and I’m coming to your house so I can shove it up your ugly, feminist cunt.”
  • “I’m going to rape your filthy ass until you bleed, then choke you to death with your husband’s tiny Asian penis.”

This was obviously very horrific. I really had a moment here where I had to make a decision if I was going to stay in the industry and talk about this stuff. I contemplated it: I could just give GamerGate what they wanted, but I realized that I needed to stay here and speak my truth. So, for the last year it’s been this type of threat, just magnified a thousand times. At this point I’ve had well over a hundred death threats, and I don’t even count the rape threats anymore. It’s been really brutal trying to stay here in this field. There was a media firestorm and what I found is that in the last nine months or so, I am constantly in the media trying to talk about these forces that are happening to women in the industry.

They even made a Law and Order episode about GamerGate. Do you know how surreal it is to see a “Law and Order” episode based on your own life? Like, reading your own death threats? There’s no good way to be on “Law and Order”, but I figure since I’m still alive and I wasn’t the criminal, this is the best way that could have happened.

One of the most exhausting things about my entire career right now is my company has essentially been leaderless for the last nine months. Being attacked at this degree takes a serious psychological toll on a person, putting me in more of a protective mode and pulling back to avoid more harassment. It’s been very hard for us; Giant Spacekat has not shipped a game this year because their leader has been so distracted with trying to get prosecutions and just trying to stay alive, mentally, emotionally, and in every level.

What’s also very frustrating to me is between Zoe Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian and myself, there have been hundreds and hundreds of death threats that have been sent to us, yet there’s not been a misdemeanor or a felony. There’s been nothing done at this point. On this very computer I have six different cases that are brilliantly, brilliantly documented for law enforcement. They have names, they have addresses — they have everything for them to go through and get that. And nothing has really happened.

Put Your Oar In (23:28)

“At some point, you have to decide. Do you care about this or not care about this? You can’t say ‘Oh, I agree with this in principle but I don’t want to do anything that inconvenience me in any way.’ At some point, you have to put your oar in.”

John Siracusa’s quote has to do with the women in tech issue, but it also has to do with GamerGate. Although everybody here believes theoretically that women should have a place in the game industry, we must raise our consciousness, advocate for women, and do the real work. People become hesitant to get involved when they understand the magnitude of the issue and what it takes to solve it. My message to everyone listening or reading this is that we need your help. This is not a women’s issue. Women are not the ones doing this stuff. This is men, generally speaking, and we need your help.

Q&A (24:28)

Q: Why is the police and law enforcement slow to respond?

Brianna: To put it bluntly, it’s not a priority for them. As far as I can tell, the FBI has jurisdiction over this as a federal crime occurring across states, but the FBI does not have a department or set number of people that go and prosecute these crimes. I work every day to put political pressure on them, but it’s slow going, and their consistent response is to tell me to simply wait. I wish I could tell you something about this. My hope is that they have a bunch of different cases and they’re going to prosecute them all at once.

Q: What can we, the audience of the talk, do to help?

Brianna: You need to raise the level of consciousness on these issues. Discuss it with your peers in the field, and listen patiently to critiques without raising defenses. Hold both yourself and others to high standards as we all need to be thinking about our actions and moving towards being more inclusive.

Q: How many people do you estimate to be behind these GamerGate attacks?

Brianna: There’s no way I can certainly know, but I can tell you from what I’ve seen from the credible studies on the subject. Randi Harper on Twitter sent some really interesting metrics on this, determining between two and three thousand people that are actively members of GamerGate, and I think that’s shrinking. In the deep web you may find tools that 8chan and KotakuInAction use to inflate their numbers and make them seem like they’re much larger than they are.

Nevertheless, people participate in this discriminatory phenomenon even if they are not part of the GamerGate hashtag — this disease affects the entire industry. For instance, an all-female Ghostbusters re-boot came out, and in the comment section of IGN were terrible misogynistic responses. I even wrote to the editor, Steve Butts, about stepping to moderate these.

These type of gamers, such as the commenters on IGN, have been catered to for 30 years now, which strengthened their self-centered view of the entire gaming community. When I talk games, automatically I am considered to be the outsider because I’m a feminist, despite being a game developer. Even so, their sense of entitlement trumps my credibility in the matter. There are these horrifically bad actors, but this is a problem with the gaming consumers as a whole, even many well-meaning people who developed unconscious bias about the roles women should fit into.

Q: Jeff Atwood, the creator of StackOverflow, created Discourse.org for communities to moderate each other over both technical engineering and communication issues. What is your opinion on that type of voicing?

Brianna: I think that that has a place, but this type of technical fix to a problem that ultimately originates in human nature is unfitting. Often male engineers in tech seek for a technical solution to a social or deeper issue. That type of site has a role in overseeing a community and making it safe for everyone, a responsibility upon creating any community.

Upon releasing Revolution 60 on Steam, we immediately began getting harassed. The release was an apocalyptic, terrible experience for everyone on my team. We received horrible treatment of our game and our team on their platform, with public attacks on personal matters that clearly violate their Terms of Service. Steam’s response was essentially a shrug, saying like, “Hey, you know, it’s an open platform,” without enforcing their own TOS.

The gaming industry is a culture that is created by men for men, and Steam is a great example of that. Comment systems are systems set up by men for men. With comment sections, people at first glance don’t see the cost of silencing people through harassment and not giving everyone else free speech. We must treat the disease, not the symptoms, since our entire industry is very sick.

Q: The current gamer culture often easily dismisses the fact that women play games too, because of a misconception that the types of games they play are casual. What’s your opinion of this?

Brianna: I am definitely familiar with the misconception that women only play Candy Crush. Call of Duty, which is the most bro-tastic, hard-core game you can have — over 25 percent of their player base are women. According to some studies I’ve seen — it depends on who you ask — women are between 46 and 52 percent of the entire gaming market. And no, it’s not just Candy Crush; we are actually at the highest proportion on PC, playing PC games, which are typically considered more hardcore. It is true that male consumers spend the most money currently in the market, but if you look at the trendline, the number of women gamers has absolutely exploded since 2008. I would consider it a personal favor if you would just not say that women only play Candy Crush, as I find it kind of insulting.

Q: Are these GamerGate and harassment attacks in general directed towards women, or towards feminism specifically?

Brianna: GamerGaters, and a lot of these men in general, are fine in theory with women being gamers, and being present at the table. Where it gets violent, and where the conversation turns to harassment, is the instant women start bringing any of our lived experiences to the table, and voicing any opinion that has to do with the information we’ve gotten out of a lifetime of, you know, being a woman. GamerGate’s mascot supports this interpretation of the conflict. Her name is Vivian James, and she is a sexualized gamer girl who just wants to shut up and play games without voicing any opinion. This is GamerGate’s way of expressing their need to silence gamers who are women.

Another example of this within games is Ivy from Soul Caliber V, which wears a ridiculous costume that leaves her almost completely naked. If you find that sexually appealing, that’s great for you. But for the other half of the population it’s insulting. GamerGate is fine with the fact that women play games, but if they express concern with this demeaning character to any degree, things get to be really violent and aggressive. Games are going to change, and feminist critique of the game industry is a good thing. Men get to voice all kinds of opinions and critique about video games, but a woman voicing her opinion that a costume is not the best somehow becomes out of bounds. It’s frankly a double standard.

About the content

This talk was delivered live in June 2015 at AltConf. The video was recorded, produced, and transcribed by Realm, and is published here with the permission of the conference organizers.

Brianna Wu

Brianna Wu is the head of development at Giant Spacekat, a software engineer and the host of Disruption (formerly known as Isometric) and Rocket on the Relay.FM network. She’s also a frequent speaker on women-in-tech issues. Worldwide press has called her the “Games Boss.”

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