Howling Mobs

Gaming Misogyny Gets Infinite Lives: Zoe Quinn, Virtual Rape, and Sexism

A lady developer was harassed by her vindictive ex-boyfriend. Some gamers ‘rape’ other avatars in Grand Theft Auto V. Is there no game over to sexism in the industry?

Wikimedia Commons

The chronic problem of misogyny had another flare-up this week with a disturbing harassment campaign organized against indie game developer Zoe Quinn, the mind behind Depression Quest. It’s a story that demonstrates, yet again, how serious the problem of misogyny in the gaming world is and how any woman in it can find herself targeted by the howling mobs of woman-haters on the Internet, often on the thinnest of pretenses.

While, as is usual with these kind of real-time Internet harassment situations, there’s a lot of dispute about who said what and when, everyone agrees that this particular story starts with a vindictive ex-boyfriend. Quinn’s ex started a blog specifically to humiliate and shame her over their failed relationship, making lengthy accusations of cheating.

Even though the appropriate response to infidelity it to terminate the relationship and go your separate ways like proper adults, the ex’s gambit worked. As Fruzsina Eördögh at Vice’s Motherboard explained, the harassment campaign “includes sharing her personal information, defamatory YouTube videos, and weird phone calls to her parents.”

Quinn herself described the abuse as “the proliferation of nude pictures of me, death threats, vandalization, doxxing of my trans friends for having the audacity to converse with me publicly, harassment of friends and family and my friends’ family in addition to TOTALLY UNRELATED PEOPLE, sending my home address around, rape threats, memes about me being a whore, pressures to kill myself, slurs of every variety, fucking debates over what my genitals smell like,” all pushed by her ex and his use of “4chan as his own personal army.”

It doesn’t even matter how much of her ex’s accusations are true or not, because it’s nothing but pure misogyny to use online harassment troops to punish a woman because she didn’t meet your standards for a girlfriend.

It’s being referred to by those engaging in the harassment as the “Zoe Quinn cheating scandal,” a phrasing that implies, ridiculously, that the private relationship snafus and infidelities of a video game developer rise to the level of public interest. But even the misogynist harassers of the Internet know it’s a stretch to justify abusing someone for garden variety infidelity. So, in a desperate attempt to justify this nonsense, Quinn’s ex and the harassers are accusing Quinn of an “ethics” violation, accusing her, no joke, of using sex to get a favorable review from Kotaku.

The fact that the review she was accused of “buying” doesn’t exist hasn’t slowed the self-righteous haranguing, of course. That’s because the “ethics” question is a paper-thin excuse for what’s really going on, which is that the video game world is thick with misogynists who are aching to swarm on any random woman held up for them to hate, no matter what the pretext.

Just to be clear, I spoke with Ross Lincoln, the editor of comics and cosplay for The Escapist, who has been writing about video games since 2009. Lincoln is very concerned about “the tendency for some outlets to identify too strongly with the video game industry,” but argues that this is because some “people covering video games appear to consider themselves an offshoot of the video game industry, instead of part of this nebulous thing called journalism,” though he stressed that many outlets do maintain a proper distance.

But it’s not because some lady developers are using their feminine wiles. “My experience is that this isn't even remotely a problem,” Lincoln said, arguing that the real problem is decidedly unsexy: “If a developer wants to secure positive reviews at launch, they can simply limit review access to friendly outlets.” The fact that there’s more outrage over an alleged infidelity that isn’t even tied to an actual review shows that this has nothing to do with real concerns about journalistic ethics and everything to do with a throng of men (and a few female supporters) that see women as a threat to the world of video games and other geeky hobbies, and are poised at a moment’s notice to take their hatred out on any woman at the slightest provocation.

It calls to mind another mind-boggling rage fest aimed at cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian, who was subjected to widespread harassment and abuse simply because she announced an upcoming project criticizing sexism in video games. She was overwhelmed with abuse, Photoshopped into violent and abusive situations, and saw her Wikipedia page defaced, all for a project that she hadn’t even started yet. (The abuse didn’t stop her, and the project is currently being released in chapters on YouTube.)

It happened with Janelle Asselin in the related comic book fandom. Asselin wrote a negative review of a Teen Titans cover for Comic Book Resources and was overwhelmed by online abuse and rape threats. Back in December, misogynists barraged harassment on a woman named Dina Abou Karam, a community manager for the Mighty No. 9 game, simply because she had done some fan art depicting the character Mega Man as a woman. It’s almost comical how weak the rationales are when it comes to this hateful dog-piling. It’s as if these guys simply want women out and will go to any means to achieve that goal.

In fact, the sexualized hostility extends even to fictional characters, as some gamers have figured out how to “rape” the avatars of other players during online play in popular video games. The most famous example is Grand Theft Auto V, where players can lock their pantless avatars onto other people’s and mimic raping them. Some players have even taped their “conquests” and put the evidence online. But it also happened in the zombie game DayZ to video game writer Kim Correa. After she encountered another player who figured out she was female, his avatar murdered hers because “he wanted to rape my dead body.” Even though her character was dead, she could still hear him make “moaning and groaning noises,” an experience that rattled her so much she couldn’t play anymore for the rest of the night.

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Obviously, these in-game experiences aren’t real but happen to “a pixelated person in a computer-generated world,” in Correa’s words. But they are still reflective of the ugly attitudes about sex and power that permeate the gaming world and the larger geeky world that surrounds it. More importantly, these sexist gamers don’t leave these attitudes in the game, but instead have a habit of seeing any woman, even the ones that are completely real, as targets to control and abuse.

They see real women like Zoe Quinn or Anita Sarkeesian, women who can’t be controlled with a joystick and can’t be shut up simply by hitting an “off” button, and it clearly makes them furious. But unfortunately for the online sexists, their harassment—unlike the kind that happens offline—leaves a clear, legible history that anyone can access.

And that is why, no matter how much they might convince themselves that they’re in the right, their bile is only convincing outsiders that they are nothing more than a bunch of haters who are scared of sharing their toys with the girls.