The Nasty Online Movement That Has Women Feeling Unsafe in Their Own Homes

GamerGate has taken a misogynist turn, and women in the industry are trying to set things right.

Game critic Anita Sarkeesian. (Photo: Feminist Frequency/Facebook)

Oct 17, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Janelle Asselin is an editor, writer, and feminist living in Los Angeles. She has written for Bitch, xoJane, and ComicsAlliance.

The sometimes blunt misogyny of video games—a fantasy realm where female characters have often been pigeonholed as prostitutes, helpless princesses or pinups—has been creeping into the real world as gamer women who speak up against sexism have become targets of a convoluted and controversial group called GamerGate.

Nasty tweets and messages are the unfortunate norm in some dark corners of the Internet, but this week that harassment escalated dramatically when a deadly mass shooting was threatened if prominent games critic Anita Sarkeesian gave a speech at Utah State University. Her video series "Feminist Frequency," which dissects the role of women in games, has made Sarkeesian the target of this subset of the gaming community who openly resent the presence of women and feminist criticism.

The threats against Sarkeesian—including one that promised “the deadliest school shooting in American history”—seemed to have potential for violence in real life, or “IRL,” as the online parlance goes. While university officials felt the event could proceed safely with the involvement of the FBI and local police, Sarkeesian opted to cancel upon learning the university would not prevent people from attending the event with guns, which are legal on campus. The reality is, it’s impossible to know what might have happened.

“There isn’t an easy demarcation between online and offline, and that’s been true forever. When you’re talking about death threats and rape threats, it’s really only a matter of time before one of the people who are making those threats proves to be unsettled in a way that we can’t anticipate,” said Whitney Phillips, Humboldt State University lecturer and author of This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship Between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture, which is due for release in 2015.

Often characterized as “trolling,” online harassment of women happens far more than it happens to men, and 80 percent of online stalking defendants are men, according to federal officials. Many online trolls feel that they are trolling for the greater good—defending their sacred realm and pushing back against critics. But there’s a difference between humorous trolling and the serious harassment aimed at people like Sarkeesian.

“The fact is that particularly for women, those aren’t just idle words. Sexual violence is so pervasive culturally that a woman is going to react, especially if she’s already experienced sexual violence, differently than some dude who doesn’t have to worry about it the same way,” said Phillips.

The GamerGate movement is a loosely associated group that believes gaming critics are corrupt and have been influenced at the expense of the games. Some members have publicly said they are against harassment, but that seems at odds with the movement’s roots in the harassment of game developer Zoe Quinn.

GamerGate formed and began harrassing Quinn after her disgruntled ex-boyfriend posted a lengthy screed against her, alleging various affairs, including one with a journalist. For this reason, although the journalist in question never reviewed Quinn’s game Depression Quest, an outspoken contingent of gamers based partially on the forums 4chan and 8chan created the GamerGate movement. In theory, the movement is about journalistic ethics in the gaming community, but in truth its roots in the Quinn situation and the continued harassment of women has victims saying it is actually about tearing down women. After all, GamerGate didn’t go after the male journalist Quinn was accused of having a relationship with—they only went after her.

Another recent target, developer Brianna Wu, was literally bullied out of her own home when her address was released on Twitter along with a vile series of threats (warning: graphic).

“It’s complete bullshit. Look at who they’re targeting,” Wu told TakePart. “This is an organized campaign to destroy women professionally, emotionally, and financially.”

Wu was one of the most recent victims of the group merely for posting a meme about GamerGate. As a result, she had to leave her home because of death and rape threats. These are just some of the women who are part of a growing conversation about how seriously we should take online harassment.

While GamerGate’s intentions have long been debated, it’s undeniable that women who speak out against the movement are the focus of attacks, while men do not receive similar treatment.

Victims of trolling have varying levels of recourse when death and rape threats are made, and the path should always start with law enforcement and the FBI. Always document threats using screen captures and saved links, and don’t feel silenced by people saying “don’t feed the trolls,” as that puts more weight on the harasser’s right to speak than the victim’s rights, Phillips said.

Instead, understand how different platforms deal with harassment, and report your harassers accordingly. Site administrators and moderators should be aware of these issues and work to have policies and procedures in place to protect users.

There is also an increasing community of women who support people who are getting harassed online, which includes Wu.

“I have your back. And I call on every woman in the world to stand up with you,” she said. “In the end, all we can count on is each other.”