Moral Combat 

After enduring a vicious harassment campaign designed to chase women out of the video game industry, local female developers are trying to take back the art form from commercialization.

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After she posted examples of the harassment on her blog, her crowdfunding campaign took off. She received more than $150,000 in donations — well over what she originally asked for. Sarkeesian subsequently went forward with "Tropes vs. Women in Video Games" as the harassment directed toward her softened. But then two years later, the online attacks spiked again — this time also brutally targeting a game developer named Zoe Quinn.

When I met Quinn in July, she was sitting quietly in the Indiecade Arcade at GaymerX2, a small LGBTQ-centric indie game convention held in San Francisco. We spoke about her game, Depression Quest, which was receiving a bit of attention lately, and had been chosen to be featured at the convention. Quest is an interactive fiction game in which the protagonist is a woman suffering from depression. As the player goes through day-to-day life, he or she must make decisions about whether to succumb to the depression or fight it by choosing between options like staying in or going to a party. But the consequences aren't simple; they present difficulties, like social anxiety and unfulfillment, gleaned from Quinn's personal experience as someone who has suffered from the disorder for much of her life.

Quinn, who has lavender hair and cyborg-inspired tattoos down her arms, was soft-spoken yet approachable when we talked — open to discussing her game, yet obviously feeling a bit vulnerable having to relay that the inspiration for her game came from personal struggle. At the time of our interview, there was nothing especially remarkable about her. But a month later, online forums would be covered with her name, attached to elaborate conspiracy theories about how she was covertly controlling the video game industry with her sex appeal.

Quinn had released Depression Quest about eighteen months earlier, in February of 2013. At the time, she received hate mail for it, but nothing as bad as what Sarkeesian had endured. Like many female game developers, Quinn let the harassment be the white noise background to her life. But then in late August, she launched the game for free on Steam, an online video game marketplace that also has an active online community of gamers.

The game's page on Steam immediately filled up with nasty comments, claiming that Quinn's creation wasn't a true video game. Shortly after, an ex-boyfriend of Quinn's posted a long, detailed and hateful letter describing intimate aspects of his and Quinn's relationship, and accusing her of sleeping with video game journalist Nathan Grayson while they were together in order to receive a favorable review for her game. In response, Grayson clarified that he had indeed had a romantic relationship with Quinn, but had only once written about her game, merely announcing its existence — and that was before he had become involved with her. Yet despite the fact that Grayson had never actually reviewed Depression Quest, Quinn was soon at the center of the biggest blow-up that video games had ever seen.

First, Quinn was "doxxed," a term that means her personal information was published online. And then the abuse got really bad. Hackers dug up nude photos of her and sent them to her professional contacts. Someone called her dad, and yelled, "Your daughter is a slut." Eventually, the threats of being hurt, raped, or killed grew so intense that Quinn left her home out of fear and began living on her friends' couches.

When I tried to contact Quinn afterward, she was no longer interested in talking to the press. However, on September 16 she wrote a piece for titled "5 things I Learned as the Internet's Most Hated Person." In it, she described the night that her ex had posted the hateful letter. She learned that his rant was quickly sweeping the forum-sphere, and when she checked to see if her Wikipedia entry had been mucked with, she realized that someone had edited her date of death to "soon." She did, indeed, become the internet's most hated person. "The ceaseless barrage of random people sending you disgusting shit is initially impossible to drown out," she wrote. "It was constant, loud, and it became my life."

 Online forums exploded with accusations about Quinn sleeping with games journalists for positive press, which grew into an elaborate conspiracy theory involving her using sex to rise to fame. Although the conspiracy was bogus, it nonetheless incited a panic over the ethics of games journalism as a whole, and the harassment began spreading to a web of other female game developers and writers.

Around the same time, the online harassment of Sarkeesian grew increasingly hostile as well. She, too, fled her home after receiving messages via Twitter from people who threatened to kill both her and her family members.

Two men positioning themselves as "social commentators" had launched a Patreon account to fund a proposed feature-length film called The Sarkeesian Effect to expose the ways in which Sarkeesian is allegedly leading a movement of "Social Justice Warriors" to destroy the gaming industry under the guise of political correctness in order to further her own career. "Is there really a targeted effort on the part of the white male dominated gaming culture to exclude women and minorities from participating or is this a ruse perpetrated by a bunch of scam artists and perpetual victims for their own fame and glory and financial benefit?" asks one of the campaign's videos.


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