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Brianna Wu is a rarity in the world of video games.
For one, she’s a woman game developer, but she's also the creator of Revolution 60 – a game with only female protagonists.
“I wanted to tell a story where women were the heroes, the same way that men get to be heroes in other games,” she said.
According to industry statistics, only 11 percent of game designers are women, and only 3 percent are game developers, something that drove Wu to get involved with creating games. But she was also attracted to the industry by the growing market of female gamers.
“It is the right thing to do, to make games with women protagonists that appeal to women,” she said. “But it’s also the money-making thing, too.”
Once entirely the domain of boys and men, video games' demographics are shifting: Nearly half of all gamers today are women. That shift, Wu said, is shaking up the industry.
"You have 30 years of this traditional male gamer being told he is the center of the universe. And everything has been made to kind of cater to him. Women, when we exist, are sex symbols, we are not portrayed as people," Wu said. "Now that women are gaming, you're seeing all of that start to change, and it's making all of these people over here very uncomfortable."
But Wu has also become a lightning rod for gamers who see these criticisms as attacking their identity. She said she was forced to flee her home after she was anonymously threatened with rape and murder on Twitter. “They said who, what, when, where,” Wu said. “The goal was simple: It was to personally destroy the woman that was critiquing them. And this didn’t just happen to me. This has happened over and over again to women in this field.”
Another critic of male-dominated game design is Anita Sarkeesian, who faced online attacks after she launched the YouTube video series Tropes vs. Women in Video Games. With titles such as “Women as background decoration,” the series shows how women are often hyper-sexualized in games and also made the target of extreme violence at the hands of men.
Sarkeesian’s accusations of misogyny unleashed a hate-filled backlash. One person created a game allowing users to virtually punch her in the face. She canceled a speaking appearance at Utah State University after someone threatened the “deadliest shooting in American history,” railing against what “feminist lies and poison have done to the men of America.”
Forced to cancel my talk at USU after receiving death threats because police wouldn't take steps to prevent concealed firearms at the event.
Since first flaring up in late summer, much of the vitriol appears on the Twitter hashtag: #GamerGate.
Originally created by gamers concerned with what they saw as an overly cozy relationship between the game developers and the gaming media, #GamerGate became associated in the media with the worst of online harassment of women.
“GamerGate is like a net that you’re dragging through the ocean. And I think it kind of picks up the worst gamers possible,” Wu said. “You’re basically creating this really angry anonymous mob. And I think you can’t control a mob.”
America Tonight reached out to gamers who associate with the GamerGate movement, and found three willing to talk. They say that they have never threatened anyone, and that the movement has been overshadowed by media obsessively focused on the actions of a violent few.
“In any group of people large enough, there’s always going to be some people that take it too far,” said Brooke, who asked that her last name not be published for fear of being targeted by the anti-GamerGate movement.
You have 30 years of this traditional male gamer being told he is the center of the universe. And everything has been made to kind of cater to him. Women, when we exist, are sex symbols, we are not portrayed as people.
video game developer
Brooke spoke with us at the Manhattan apartment of two friends, Jaime Bravo and Joel Bernabel, who were all playing the latest release of Grand Theft Auto V. Their shared bond is a passion for video games.
“If I get really stressed out or something, I'll play video games,” she said. “It's just of like a mellow, like, baseline you can like return to.”
The three of them downplayed the impact of the sex and violence. “Since it is just fantasy, it can be catharsis,” Bravo said. “It is just very relaxing. Something that anyone can do, anyone can join.”
Every year, they each spend thousands on the latest games. And as consumers who helped to make video games an industry that earns tens of billions of dollars a year, they feel like a focus by the gaming press on issues like misogyny will lead to censorship and alter the games they love.
“I think something way more important than how women are depicted in video games is freedom of expression," Brooke said. “I feel that if you start saying you can’t have this in a game because it offends this group, to me it seems like a slippery slope. Where would we stop?”
They also say the media focus on the harassment of women obscures another important GamerGate message: to reform a powerful video game reviewing press they feel has an oversized influence in what gamers purchase. A bad review can make or break a game, and GamerGaters believe the lack of transparency between game reviewers and game developers can lead to corruption and collusion that ultimately skews which games survive. They cite many instances in which game developers actively sought to influence game reviewers.
I feel that if you start saying you can’t have this in a game because it offends this group, to me it seems like a slippery slope. Where would we stop?
“We ultimately just want our press to behave and function the same way we would expect anything representing an 80 to 100 billion dollar industry to represent. We want them to have standards,” Bravo said. “We want them to have ethical reform. We want writers to know what their roles and responsibilities are.”
“I think a lot of people were pretty offended,” she said. “It was just like a flat-out assumption that anyone who played video games was just suddenly misogynistic and oppressing women.”
Auerbach also sees shades of old culture wars being fought in a new venue that's becoming a part of mainstream American culture.
“The anti-GamerGate side has declared that this is a culture war that's been started because progressivism is winning,” Auerbach said. “There have been right-wingers that have said this is a culture war that's being fought against the forces of political correctness and feminism and universities.”
Some within the GamerGate movement question the motives of those who have been harassed.
“When [Sarkeesian] started getting involved in video games, guess what? Her website [traffic] hit the millions,” said Brooke's friend Bernabel. “The fact that she’s under death threats feeds her popularity even more, because she goes to the media and she’s like, 'I’m the victim.'”
But Deanna Zandt, who has worked for a decade to help women targeted by online threats, says such statements are too dismissive of the real trauma such harassment can inflict. “A lot of women that I’ve worked with have received death threats straight up, and rape threats, particularly on Twitter,” she said. “A lot of them have had to leave their homes and set up safe houses.” She compares the fear caused by online threats to the fear women feel when being cat-called, “never knowing whether it’s going to escalate into something physically threatening.”
Zandt is part of an online harassment task force: a loose group of activists, researchers and journalists. She also works with Twitter to help reduce online threats against women. “People can disagree with you, that's OK. They cannot or should not be able to say, 'I'm going to come rape you and kill you,'” she said.
She believes that the extreme vitriol unleashed by criticism of games comes from a subset of gamers who may have had difficulty fitting in growing up and who found their first real community in games. Criticism of games thus feels like an assault on their very identity.
“So if someone comes in and says part of what you’re doing is not OK and some of this needs to change, they’re going to react in really horrible and culturally sanctioned – frankly – ways,” she said.
The fight for free speech
For Wu, the backlash and death threats she has endured will not make her tone down criticism of an industry where nearly 90 percent of game designers are male.
“The reason I've talked about this so publicly is because someone has to take a stand,” Wu said. “Someone has to get the press to talk about this, so we as a society, can address it.”
Wu hopes that by acting as a role model and speaking out against online harassment, she’ll provide cover for other female game developers.
“As an industry we have a choice right now,” she said. “We can keep our head in the sand or we can address this issue and kind of make the industry a safe place for women to work.”
She dismisses GamerGate outright: “The outcome of GamerGate is – and I use this word carefully – it’s terrorism against women in the industry. I think the movement itself is completely unredeemable.”
But those who believe that free speech and freedom of expression are at stake don’t plan on abandoning the GamerGate movement anytime soon.
“I don't have that many experiences in my life where I felt like I really cared about something I wanted to stand up for, ” Brooke said. “I know that video games have been under like a lot of heat, and I don't want to see them changed.”