The Internet is becoming a more dangerous place, with trolls and pranksters able to escalate online grievances into real-world threats. Doxxing -- the unauthorized publication of someone's personal contact information or financial records -- and swatting -- anonymously reporting a fake threat in order to get a SWAT team sent to someone's home -- are two of the more alarming methods being used.
But the tide may be turning, as more intended victims start to fight back. The latest is Zoe Quinn, the original target of GamerGate, the disorganized movement ostensibly about ethics in games journalism but more commonly associated with misogyny and harassment. Quinn has been continuously harassed and threatened since last August. She has not been home in nearly six months, saying, "it's no longer safe to be [there] while we try and figure out how to move on from this meteor hitting us and be people again."
Enough is enough. Quinn and fellow game developer Alex Lifschitz have decided to use their experience dealing with harassment to ensure others needn't do the same, no matter their motives or politics. Last month, they founded Crash Override, an online anti-harassment task force staffed by other abuse survivors.
I recently spent an hour interviewing Quinn and Lifschitz about how to be safe online and be proactive without victim-blaming, the ways in which Crash Override will grow and be funded and why the video game industry allowed GamerGate to happen. That interview can be heard on my podcast, Polygamer, and is embedded below.
I was intrigued by Quinn's statement that being a game developer who works with systems helps her identify the systems at play in harassment. What has happened to Quinn is similar to what has happened to female games journalists Leigh Alexander, Jenn Frank, Mattie Brice, Maddy Myers, and Samantha Leigh Allen. It's astonishing and disturbing that the same engine continues to devour so many talented people. "I don't care if you're pro-GamerGate or anti-GamerGate or a friggin' Martian — this has to end," said Quinn.
And it just may, as Quinn and Lifschitz are only two of many targets who are standing up to the bullies. Media critic Anita Sarkeesian's Feminist Frequency has achieved non-profit status, with a goal to "advocate for equitable online spaces by educating and consulting on issues of gendered online harassment." Developer Brianna Wu has started a legal defense fund for those who have been harassed online. And Randi Lee Harper has developed the Good Game Auto Blocker, making Twitter a less toxic environment.
What these individuals need is for major game publishers -- who themselves are not immune to harassment -- to add their voices. When the harassment of Quinn and her colleagues reached a boiling point, big-name video game publishers didn't see the financial incentive in sticking their necks out and condemning the harassment and stalking of independent developers and journalists, said Lifschitz. "We have been cultivating this culture of risk aversion since the market crash of 1983," said Lifschitz, referring to a glut of low-quality video games and dubious business practices that nearly sounded the nascent industry's death knell. But "it is not a risky thing to not be awful to huge swaths of people... Risk aversion is not an excuse for cowardice." Their one opportunity to do the right thing has now passed by, said Lifschitz. "It will never be this easy to take a stance on a cultural issue as it was during GamerGate."
But there are signs that things are getting better: Intel has invested $300 million in improving the company's diversity. Ubisoft creative director Palle Hoffstein recently tweeted that "GamerGaters have no economic clout." Twitter CEO Dick Costolo has admitted they "suck at dealing with abuse and trolls." And a young man who instigated a swatting has been arrested and charged. The institutions of the Internet are waking up to the reality that they do not exist separate from reality.
They say that things will get worse before they get better. It's gotten as bad as any of us want to see it get. It's time things began to improve.
Full disclosure: I have never met Zoe Quinn but am one of her Patreon backers.