The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With #GamerGate, the video-game industry’s growing pains go viral

Gamers at the Penny Arcade Expo, a celebration of gaming in Seattle, on Aug. 29, 2014. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, file)

Rape threats. A hacking attempt on her Web site. The online publication of personal information, including her phone number and home address. Countless comments on her Tumblr calling her a “slut” and worse, including one that read: “Are you reading this? Of course you are. I will kill you.”

This is what indie video game developer Zoe Quinn has been dealing with for the past month, ever since an ex-boyfriend wrote a blog post implying that she had traded sex for positive reviews. The post sparked a virulent campaign against Quinn and an all-out online war about the future of the video-game industry.

In truth, the harassment has been going on much longer than that. For Quinn and many women who do what she does, threats and sexual innuendo are par for the course. Sexism in gaming is a long-documentedmuch-debated but seemingly intractable problem. It’s also the crux of the industry’s biggest ongoing battle being waged on Twitter under the hashtag “#GamerGate.”

Quinn is at the center of it.

She didn’t set out to be. In August, just before this all started, Quinn was busy promoting the interactive fiction game she co-created called “Depression Quest.” It’s a digital choose-your-own-adventure intended to give players insight into life with depression. The game, though controversial, was highly acclaimed, and was beginning to be sold on a popular digital game store.

But then Quinn’s ex-boyfriend, programmer Eron Gjoni, wrote a blog post accusing Quinn of having an affair with a writer for a games Web site that had reported on “Depression Quest.” The site investigated the alleged ethics breach and concluded there had been no wrongdoing, but the harassment campaign against Quinn — largely orchestrated by users of the “shock post” site 4chan behind recent leaked nude photos of celebrities — already had momentum.

Quinn’s harassers didn’t like that she and other “social justice warriors” — a derogatory term for people in the video-game industry who use the medium to talk about political issues — were challenging tradition with products such as “Depression Quest.” Games were meant to be entertainment, not tools to further a political agenda. And when Gjoni published his tirade, Quinn’s opponents seized on her alleged relationship with the writer as evidence the video-game media favored her and other liberal game developers.

The campaign against Quinn, along with similar attacks on feminist video game critic Anita Sarkeesian, got a lot of attention. Gaming sites wrote think pieces about the death of gamer identity. The New Yorker profiled Quinn. “Star Trek” actor Wil Wheaton wrote an angry blog post that said the controversy made him “ashamed” to call himself a gamer.

But many gamers saw this as an effort by the media to deflect criticism of the increasingly leftist orientation of indie games. So they adopted #GamerGate.

Exactly who coined “#GamerGate” is up for debate. Actor Adam Baldwin claimed credit, but Quinn also tweeted screen grabs from 4chan chat logs she said show the campaign was orchestrated there.

Regardless of who started it, the hashtag’s caught on. Some users have latched on to #GamerGate as a way to troll gaming’s “social justice warrior” critics, while others have taken it as an opportunity to look at games media. Vox, for example, pointed out game companies used to treat previews as free advertising. Some called for outlets to modify their ethical guidelines, and many have responded. It’s also spawned a parallel hashtag, #NotYourShield, used by minority members of the gaming community who want to distance themselves from Quinn and Sarkeesian’s accusations of bigotry.

But both #GamerGate users and its opponents say the hashtag is also about what can be called a game and who is considered a gamer. Video games have broader appeal than ever — women now outnumber teenage boys among the game-playing population — raising the hackles of some longtime “traditional gamers.”

In a post on the entertainment Web site WhatCulture, Jordan Ephrain argued games journalists are uncritically promoting social issues games such as “Depression Quest” without considering whether they really qualify as video games — and then dismissing any criticism of those same games as “trolling.”

On the other hand, the campaign’s critics see #GamerGate as a kind of reactionary response to the evolution of the industry. Keith Stuart, the games editor for the Guardian, summed up this view, tracing how the rise of indie games led to criticism of “conventional shooters and hack-’em-ups,” leaving lovers of those more traditional games feeling like they’d been shut out of their own clubhouse.

“I don’t have a problem with gamers who feel marginalized and frustrated because, really, that’s how I grew up,” Stuart wrote. “I have a problem with those gamers who want to shut out different voices and new forms of design; I have a problem with gamers who deny that this industry needs to improve its representation — in terms of race, gender and sexuality.”