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In 'Crash Override,' Zoe Quinn Shares Her Boss Battle Against Online Harassment

Latoya Peterson is a gamer, a SJW, and Deputy Editor for Digital Innovation at ESPN's The Undefeated, where she produces stories about the intersection of race, sports and culture.

"You're just data and data doesn't bleed."

Video game developer and activist Zoe Quinn lived through what, for many, is unimaginable: a sustained, two-year campaign of harassment involving hacked accounts, stalking and death threats, all touched off by an ex-boyfriend's blog post. That post sparked the online movement that came to be known as GamerGate, and plunged Quinn into a life of couchsurfing, changes of address, court battles and public debate over everything from her personal relationships and professional life to ethics in journalism. In Crash Override, she tells her story for the first time.

But the real reason I nearly begged off this assignment is that women in gaming — both women who love to game and women who work in the industry — are coming to be defined solely by harassment and its impacts on their lives, and not what we play and what we create.

I always get apprehensive when discussing harassment in gaming publicly, and almost turned down this review. The hostilities that her ex-boyfriend tapped into made Quinn a reluctant symbol in two different ways. To some in the GamerGate community, she became the embodiment of all that is wrong with the gaming industry and gaming journalism. To many outside Gamergate, she came to represent their fears of gaming culture in the first place, justifying their baseless beliefs that all gamers are hostile, antisocial, maladjusted, even sociopathic. I applaud Quinn for rejecting both of those narratives and honestly accepting that she is messy, imperfect and, well: Human.

But the real reason I nearly begged off this assignment is that women in gaming — both women who love to game and women who work in the industry — are coming to be defined solely by harassment and its impacts on their lives, and not what we play and what we create. As toxic as the culture of online brigading is itself, the narrow conversation around women in gaming restricts us to mere victims of harassment — which flattens our experiences, turns us into a monolith, keeps us from speaking up about our work and, in some cases, from publicly disagreeing with each other.

So even just a simple book review becomes a minefield.

No matter how I write this, I'll be seen to be taking a side, even if the reality is far more complicated. And, as a woman who remembers the Time Before, when I could present a panel at SXSW Screenburn 2010 alongside Dead Pixel Co's Naomi Clark and critic N'Gai Croal called "Social Justice and Video Games" — and the three of us could have a robust discussion over a beer afterwards without mobs and attacks — I realized I had to write this. Quinn's story, like all of ours, deserves to be heard.

Zero sum game

Quinn describes herself as Patient Zero of GamerGate, which is true in the sense that the movement represents the formalization of a phenomenon that's been happening in gaming for far longer. (Given the nature of online interactions, many of the stories of women at the core of the dustups that occurred before the rise of GamerGate have been lost; out of concern for their own safety, they deleted their histories and stopped speaking about the incidents, in hopes that it would stop the constant stream of vitriol.)

Before I ever heard Zoe Quinn's name, I had already watched in horror as many women who were involved with, or commented on, games saw themselves attacked for speaking up. Developer Jade Raymond was a proto-Patient Zero, targeted by online mobs for the crime of including herself in a photo of the game she produced. Sokari Erkine of the blog posted a quick reaction to the trailer of the game Resident Evil 5, calling out racist tropes, and was met with a wave of GamerGate-like action so severe she stopped blogging for months. And then there was "D**kwolves," a controversy sparked by a rape joke in the online comic Penny Arcade, which spanned years, spawned merchandise, pitted anti-feminist and feminist gamers against each other and became such a cultural touchstone that the first rule at Kotaku-in-Action, a subreddit dedicated to GamerGate, is "don't be a d**kwolf."

The usual question that arises at this point in the media narrative is: Why do women still play games, given all of this? Why court the harassment? Why be part of a hostile community?

But that question tends to miss why gamers start playing in the first place: Video games were originally where people went to escape the awfulness of the real world. And gaming today isn't inherently hostile for most players — for many, it remains a refuge.

In Crash Override's early chapters, Quinn paints a picture of falling in love with games that proves familiar. For those of us who spent hours in Hyrule or Spira, who frequented arcades or LAN parties, gaming is home. The reality of gaming is also far more complex than fits inside the simplified media narrative: Gamers are a community. In fact, we are legion.

You'll find strong communities online and small communities offline; gamers who bond entirely via the internet and those who go to clan meetups in cities all over the globe; gamers who even now are are obsessively refreshing their inboxes trying to land a hotel at MAGFest; and the millions of gamers who only heard about Gamergate through news reports. But for those gamers who heavily participate in online spaces and forums, GamerGate was impossible to ignore.

Not just teenage trolls

To fully explore the dynamic that leads to an outcome like GamerGate, Quinn turns the critical lens on herself. In one chapter, she documents the appeal of harassment — that is, when it isn't aimed at you. Quinn confesses her own past as an online troll, in order to reveal why people indulge in trolling in the first place. She documents her own crusades against others, and explains that no crusader ever sees himself or herself as the bad guy.

Reading through the GamerGate forums on the third anniversary of the hashtag, that's just as true as ever: Many people allied with GamerGate believe they are protecting gaming culture — and, more broadly, freedom of speech.

Here, too, the narrative proves more complicated than often depicted. Far from the angry horde of teenaged boys many assumed it was, GamerGate comprises varied networks of groups and individuals, including many women. The conversations that take place within this community about concerns over ethics in gaming journalism, disclosures and pressure on gaming as an art form exist alongside the documented and sustained harassment of key targets like Quinn, Brianna Wu, Katherine Cross and Anita Sarkeesian.

Quinn uses GamerGate as a lens to explore the dynamics of performative group identity, noting that much of the harassment she experienced wasn't strictly about her — it was designed to impress others. But after charting her own youthful journey through the darker corners of the internet, Quinn ultimately emphasizes compassion: "Mistakes, once owned, apologized for, and buried, need to be an accepted part of life."

It's an interesting take, given that some mistakes have long-term consequences for all involved. Quinn describes how she eventually helped some of the same people who tormented her as a way to break out of the cycle of hatred; I wish she had elaborated on this a bit more.

That kind of animosity hurts everyone, even those who dish it out. In all of my lurking on GamerGate-associated message boards, there is no post that stood out to me more than one in which one forum's moderator stepped down. In giving up his role, he wrote about how his crusade against "social justice warriors" had stolen his life — how he was spending hours caught up in a cycle of outrage and no longer had time for the thing he loved: playing video games. So he stepped away from GamerGate.

As gamers, we have a right to disagree with each other, and a right to advocate for what we want to see in our games and in our culture. But somewhere along the line, we've allowed the toxicity that always existed around the edges of our culture to start defining the whole. This has to end.

A way forward?

Much of Crash Override focuses on infrastructure, examining the systems that allow harassment to flourish. The architecture of the Internet — and a legal system designed for the analog era — create an hugely cumbersome process for those trying to reclaim their lives after online attacks and "doxxing."

Instead of advocating for stricter law-enforcement protocols — the usual approach — Quinn appeals for a process of restorative justice that would focus on "what the victims, community, and perpetrators need to be whole again." How do we change the infrastructure of online platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Google and Reddit so that mobs can't gather steam in the same old ways? How do we restore a reputation that's been damaged? And how do we think about perpetrators to discourage that type of behavior in the future?

Crash Override closes with a manifesto exhorting readers to take charge of what they can do to help fix online harassment, but even with her robust discussion of possible solutions, any true answer still feels far away.

As Quinn writes, to folks drunk on their own righteousness, you're just data and data doesn't bleed.

But we aren't data. We are people.

A cultural sickness

I still identify as a gamer, but many of my friends in the industry no longer do. I understand and respect their reasons, but it still makes me sad every time I hear another person decline the gamer label. I felt that same stab of sadness reading Felicia Day's memoir, You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost), in which she describes starting to fear other gamers in the wake of GamerGate and watching the subsequent (and predictable) fallout that reinforces those fears.

But this isn't a problem specific to gaming.

I've noted that I watched in horror as women I knew and respected were targeted by these mobs. I should also mention that I watched a friend of mine, a rising star in the tech field, be completely destroyed and devastated by the same factors Quinn outlines in Crash Override. It wasn't until I went to write this review that I realized I haven't heard from her, publicly or privately, since 2016. Before she dropped off the grid, she told me that if another year went by where she couldn't recover from what had happened to her, she was changing her name. She was never interested in video games. But that same cultural sickness caught her anyway.

People will disagree with Quinn. They may not like her stature or her prominence in the space. But the overwhelming message of Crash Override resonates across industries and experiences: When someone disagrees with you on the Internet, you shouldn't have to go into hiding.

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Corrected: September 12, 2017 at 12:00 AM EDT
In a previous version of this book review, Brianna Wu's first name was misspelled as Briana.
Latoya Peterson