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Brianna Wu Wants to Play a New Game

An inside look at game developer and Gamergate critic Brianna Wu’s unconventional approach to running for Congress. She has a plan for cybersecurity, and she has a few dubious ideas about taxes.

Brianna Wu (AP Images)
Brianna Wu (AP Images)

It took less than two minutes to step off the Amtrak in Boston before I saw a man hoist his Patriots hoodie past his nipples and slap his bare belly. His friends laughed approvingly and swigged Gatorade that I suspected was spiked with vodka. It was Tom Brady jerseys and high fives as far as the eye could see. The scene was such a Boston-sports-fan cliché that it seemed like a parody.

I was at South Station on this sweatpants-gray early February afternoon where I was about to be picked up by Brianna Wu, who is best known as a game developer and a prominent critic of the Gamergate movement. Wu and I were about to embark on a slapdash trip across Boston even more disorienting than walking into a scrum of Brady jerseys. (I realized later the Pats’ Super Bowl victory parade had just ended.) “Go Pats!” the 39-year-old Wu yelled from the driver’s seat of her Audi TT as we pulled away from the station.

Then we stopped. Wu had to do a TV spot.

“When I made my first TV appearance, my hair was a mess and my eyes were bloodshot. Gamergate was vicious about it,” Wu told me as she brushed her long, chestnut hair from inside a Boston-area CNN affiliate greenroom. “It was a bad way to introduce myself to the American public.”

In the event your only knowledge of Gamergate comes from the Law and Order: Special Victims Unit episode in which Ice-T says “n00bs,” a recap: The Gamergate movement was a loosely organized collective of gamers who claimed to want to raise awareness of ethical lapses within the gaming journalism world, but who became notorious for their tendency to threaten women. The movement’s ostensible focus was ferreting out perceived moral violations, starting with accusations that feminist game developer Zoe Quinn had an inappropriate romantic relationship with a video game journalist. The journalist had not reviewed her game, but that did not stop members of the movement from beginning a sustained campaign of harassment against Quinn. From there, the movement expanded to attack other women in gaming culture, including feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian, and people, like Wu, who defended the people Gamergate was targeting.

In October 2014, Wu tweeted jokes about the movement. Shortly thereafter, self-identified Gamergaters retaliated by publishing Wu’s address and other personal details on the internet, and issuing a string of death and rape threats. This behavior terrorized Wu and her husband, Frank, so much that they fled their Boston home. Even as she and her husband became temporary couch surfers, Wu continued to speak out against the harassment. “They’ve threatened to rape me. They’ve threatened to make me choke to death on my husband’s severed genitals. They’ve threatened to murder any children I might have,” she wrote in a Washington Post op-ed.

Her outspokenness incensed some Gamergaters, including Milo Yiannopoulos, who would later become a figurehead of another loosely organized movement driven by an ideology of grievance that frequently champions white nationalism, xenophobia, and misogyny — the so-called “alt-right.”

Wu’s experience with Gamergate made her a go-to pundit when news shows need a talking head to discuss issues of online harassment — which is why we stopped for CNN. Wu was determined to look more polished on TV this time around, but we’d gotten caught in an icy downpour after getting lost on our walk from the car garage to the studio, so her hair required hasty blow-drying. “I didn’t become an engineer to deal with this,” she said ruefully, gesturing with a lanky arm at her cable-ready black sheath dress, riding boots, and restyled do, the trappings of American presentability on her 6-foot-2 frame.

Raised in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and educated at Ole Miss, Wu retains a trace of Southern softness to her speech. She cohosts Rocket, a podcast on technology and geek culture, and she’s got this kinetic daffiness that makes her a good, loopy conversationalist. She’s passionate, but not especially perspicacious. She can be authoritative when she’s speaking on feminism and cybersecurity; half the time we hung out I felt like she was my boss and the other half I felt protective of her. She seemed fundamentally kind in a raw way. She did not seem like a politician.

Wu cofounded an indie game studio called Giant Spacekat in 2010, when she was in her early 30s. Four years later, the women-led startup released a warmly received iOS game called Revolution 60. She’s a regular freelance writer, and six weeks before we met, she had announced her intention to run for the congressional seat representing Massachusetts’s 8th District in 2018. Yet despite her professional profile, Wu wasn’t going on television to speak as a candidate, entrepreneur, or host. She had been asked to opine on a suite of antiharassment tools Twitter had released that day, because she is still most famous for being harassed online.

The entire incident was dredged up again recently, because this year, the FBI published a heavily redacted account of its Gamergate investigations. The 173-page file primarily shows the FBI looking into allegations connected to unidentified women who, based on their locations and the details given, could conceivably be Wu and critic Anita Sarkeesian; the FBI made no arrests based on its investigation. Wu told me she’s livid about the files, and that most of the information she passed to the FBI isn’t in them. What’s more, Wu said she has experienced a fresh surge of online harassment since she announced her intention to run for office. “I spoke at Harvard this weekend and we had to sweep it for bombs beforehand,” she tells me matter-of-factly.

“I’d love for people to stop referring to her as ‘a main target of Gamergate.’ She’s a person with accomplishments and goals, it feels too reductive to just intro her that way,” Amanda Warner, who cofounded Giant Spacekat with Wu after meeting her on Craigslist in 2010, told me via email. Warner praised Wu’s big-picture vision and warm personality.

But Wu is embracing the notoriety. Her campaign slogan puts a positive spin on the incident: “She fought the alt-right and won.”

Wu’s new opponent isn’t a troll, though. He’s an establishment Democrat.

Massachusetts’ 8th District includes parts of Boston, as well as towns like blue-collar Quincy and upscale Milton. It’s the same district John Quincy Adams and Tip O’Neill represented. (Quincy is also the birthplace of Dunkin’ Donuts, which makes it more Boston than Boston proper.)

By the time the primary will take place in November 2018, Wu will have lived in Boston for about a decade, after relocating there from the Bay Area with her husband in 2008. She moved around a lot as a child and young adult — around Mississippi, Florida, a brief stint in D.C., and stretches in Cupertino and Colorado. “I’ve lived here the longest of anywhere as an adult, so it’s my home at this point,” she said.

But her ties pale in comparison with those of the man she is trying to unseat. Wu’s political opponent will be the 8th District’s incumbent Democrat, Stephen Lynch, a gruff former ironworker with a reputation as one of the more conservative voices among the state’s representatives. Lynch doesn’t see this as a particularly notable distinction. “Calling me the least liberal member from Massachusetts is like calling me the slowest Kenyan in the Boston Marathon,’’ he told The Boston Globe in 2010. “It’s all relative.”

Wu, however, points to Lynch’s conservatism as the reason she has decided to oppose him. “I get so angry when things like the Muslim ban come out and Stephen Lynch just very carefully doesn’t say anything for a freaking week. He’s supposed to be a Democrat. He’s supposed to have our back on this, and he’s sitting there,” she told me as we drove to her CNN appointment.

“People on my campaign have said, ‘There are easier races for you to win here.’ It’s really true. I picked a really tough person to go up against, but it’s not about, ‘What is the easiest race for Brianna Wu to come in and win?’ It’s about what will do Massachusetts the most good. And this guy, he’s a freaking dinosaur.”

I knew Wu was a long-shot candidate, but I wanted to know how long. I asked a few long-term observers of local politics about Wu’s strategy. “Stephen Lynch is born and bred from the area. He’s a labor union guy. So politically speaking, he has a grassroots system in place. That gives him a tremendous edge over any opponent,” Boston University associate professor Thomas Whalen told me over the phone. “But if this past year has taught us anything, it’s that you can’t rely on what happened in the past. The rule book has gone out the window.”

Whalen noted that while South Boston is traditionally conservative, the dynamics of the area have rapidly changed in the past 10 years, in ways that could benefit Wu — more professionals, more young people.

“I would put her in the dark-horse category. Take her seriously. Given the national mood, and given that we’re likely going to have a midterm that will be a reaction to the Trump presidency, a candidate like her could garner a lot of votes from Bernie Sanders supporters.”

Longtime Boston-area political reporter David S. Bernstein has been closely watching the race, but he doesn’t have Whalen’s faith that the area’s changing demographics are enough to make Wu a contender. Via email, he told me, “I believe Wu’s odds of beating Lynch in the Democratic primary are nil.”

As we tooled around Boston, Wu shared plenty of intimacies, things most politicians do not typically share with reporters. She went to rehab after college to deal with an Ambien dependency. She’s adopted, and is estranged from her wealthy, conservative, Mississippian parents, as well as her two younger siblings. “I always felt like an alien growing up,” Wu said. She even told me that she has recently decided to look for her biological mother. She won’t tell me where she lives — Gamergate paranoia lingers — but one subject she is happy to elaborate on is how she decided to run for office.

“I personally blame Obama for Hillary losing,” she said. “Because he had a chance to step in and show leadership and squash the alt-right and its tactics of harassment early on. He had that opportunity.” Wu told me she had two separate calls with the White House about online harassment, but that nothing ever came of them.

Brianna Wu (Getty Images)
Brianna Wu (Getty Images)

Wu is new to Democratic Party politics. She followed her parents’ political leanings as a teenager, and was a Republican until she was 23. During George W. Bush’s first term in office, she worked in D.C., but grew dismayed by aggressive foreign policy. She switched parties, but her participation was limited to volunteering for campaigns, in particular Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential bid, for which Wu wrote an op-ed explaining why she supported Clinton’s stance against the alt-right’s sexist, xenophobic, and racist ideology.

In general, her pre-campaign stance closely hewed to Clinton’s centrist Democratic vision. “Activism is great, but I’m a capitalist,” Wu told Inc. in 2015. “I’m an entrepreneur. The ultimate solution to this stuff is going to be showing that it’s economically profitable to address this market. That’s the big play. That’s how you win. That’s my mission, activism through capitalism.”

Wu spent election night despairing among the crowd at the Javits Center, until she resolved to turn Clinton’s defeat into a galvanizing moment. “I realized I could not feel good about spending the next four years making pleasant distractions for a living,” she said. She saw Clinton’s failure as a moment to recalibrate the Democratic Party leftward. “I voted for Hillary, I supported Hillary, I think she would have been a great president, but I’m kind of tired of a party that tiptoes around an issue like universal health care,” she said. “Health care is a freaking human right. I want a party that will just strongly stand up there and just say that.

“Not to mention women’s reproductive health care. The way that we treat women in this country is atrocious.”

Wu has put Giant Spacekat on hold as she runs, but she said she wants to bring a startup mentality to running for office. Talking to her, though, it’s clear she’s reckoning with the simple fact that many progressives — the Sanders voters she’ll need — do not share her zeal for Clintonian politics or startup culture’s libertarian, bootstrap-fetishizing ethos. She is struggling to see eye-to-eye with the left. “I’m someone that wrestles with complexity. I’m immediately suspicious when someone’s really sure about something. This [national] conversation we’ve been having about Nazis, and the ability to punch them, it’s been really distressing to me, personally, to see so many leftists I respect advocating violence.”

Wu is not a progressive, although she is flirting with the definition. “I’m really soul-searching about that right now,” she said when I asked about her views on the economy. “This system just isn’t working for us. It’s clearly not working. We can make these lovely arguments about the way capitalism was 40 years ago and live that reality, but the truth of it is, the 1 percent has kind of captured our government and has paralyzed it.” Like many people in the tech world, Wu is confident that automation of jobs will prompt a widespread employment crisis, one that will make universal basic income (regular, unconditional payments from the government to every citizen) worth seriously pursuing.

That isn’t one of her main platforms, though. Wu highlights three issues on her campaign website. The first two play to her strengths. She wants to turn Massachusetts into a technology hub, using her background as an engineer and tech entrepreneur to advocate for the Boston Bay to rival the Bay Area — in terms of a tech-focused economy, but not in terms of culture.

“I don’t think that Silicon Valley can be saved when it comes to women and people of color. I don’t,” she said. “When Gamergate first started, I really expected the game industry to turn around and adjust their hiring practices. We got it to be a little bit better for a while, but if you look at the numbers, we’re right back to the same old same old. Bad hiring practices, bad output. Nothing has really changed, we’ve just gotten a lot of lovely speeches.”

I first became interested in the Wu campaign because of her second stance: She wants to turn cybersecurity into a national security issue. It felt significant to me that there might be somebody in Congress who understood how important the internet is, who grasped the vocabulary and general technical layout of cybersecurity, because Congress is notoriously ignorant about technology. After the Edward Snowden leaks, it became apparent that the legislative branch did not have the technical knowledge to even ask the right questions about the intelligence community’s surveillance tactics, let alone understand the boundaries. And in 2016, senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.) proposed an anti-encryption bill that would’ve forced technology companies to undermine their own security by creating loopholes to allow government access, which could’ve doubled as security holes that could be exploited by foreign hackers and other bad actors, creating enormous vulnerabilities that would’ve left both regular Americans and any officials who used technology at risk. That she understands the digital world and the crises it can produce is, to me, Wu’s most compelling selling point, and the reason she is an interesting post-Clinton iteration of a new Democratic politician.

Then there’s this aspect of her campaign: Wu wants to hoard Massachusetts taxes as a bargaining tactic against conservative states that attempt to defund public health care initiatives. “Something that I do believe is that Massachusetts spends so much and gets so many more federal dollars taken from us than are invested here. When it comes to appropriations in Congress, I would like to see us work harder to keep more of that money here in Massachusetts,” she said, eliding her website’s stated platform of using tax money as a bargaining chip. “Because Massachusetts pays so much more into the federal government than we get back, we are in a powerful negotiating position. States that destroy cost-saving measures like the Affordable Care Act should expect to clean up their messes with their own tax dollars,” Wu’s platform reads. It’s an oddly menacing theory — punish people who receive federal money to strongarm their lawmakers — and one that misunderstands how budget negotiations and tax collection and distribution work. Legislators do not have the ability to make bespoke changes to federal spending allocations as part of their iterative negotiating tactics. State taxes are allocated in each state, and federal taxes are collected at the individual level and not controlled by individual legislators. That this is one of her three tentpole platforms is unsettling, and obvious ammo for critics who say Wu is unprepared to hold office.

I followed up with Wu to ask her to explain that platform again. She backtracked on the proposal significantly, noting that she had to find a message that would appeal to the 8th District’s traditionally socially conservative voters as well as its newer progressive inhabitants. “We’re rethinking how we talk about this issue,” she wrote me in an email. “What we’re going to do is turn this messaging into a kind of positive, rather than make the core message taking money from red states.”

Wu said that she still thinks Massachusetts deserves more federal money, but did not explain how exactly she would accomplish rearranging the federal budget.

The budget platform stance isn’t the only sideways approach in Wu’s candidacy. She’s an off-the-cuff tweeter, more prone to sharing bad jokes than almost anything else, and sometimes her eccentricity gets her in trouble. For instance, she recently tweeted about how the moon could be used as a base from which to drop giant rocks on Earth as a weapon. It wasn’t a joke, but it was such a baffling Shower Thoughts argument that it earned Wu a round of web mockery. Wu, however, sees her unpolished, spontaneous Twitter habit as a plus in the campaign. “People don’t read my Twitter account to find some PR person running it. They want to know what I really think,” she said. “I think that’s the formula for politicians going forward.”

Poorly considered tweeting and a lack of political experience certainly worked for Donald Trump, but Wu is trying to attract the opposite of Trump’s fan base, and the oddness of one of her flagship proposals coupled with a frequently quirky public persona is, I suspect, going to make her campaign more difficult.

Here was an unconventional candidate, focused on cybersecurity and online harassment, issues often overlooked and misunderstood by traditional politicians, announcing herself as ready and willing to bring an updated approach to the legislative process. Yet I was perturbed by the fact that she’d promote a three-pronged platform with one prong that fundamentally misunderstands the system it’s trying to reimagine. And the excuse of doing so to appeal to conservative constituents suggests ideological flexibility but not common sense — are conservative constituents so uninformed that they wouldn’t realize the plan won’t work?

I was discombobulated when I arrived in Boston, but even more so by the time Wu dropped me off at my hotel. This was partly because we could not find her car, and called an Uber to drive us around in the rain until Wu could remember where she parked it. She chatted amiably with the driver and I looked out at the rain and wished I was with someone who knew where they were going. That unmoored feeling extended beyond that incident. Trump’s election has jumbled the political playing field into unrecognizable terrain. It’s an easy time to feel lost, but the appeal of elected officials is the promise that they know how to navigate. Wu is ready for a fight, but she seems adrift on a shifting playing field.