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Zoë Quinn Levels Up on Gamergate

The video game developer’s memoir, ‘Crash Override,’ out Tuesday, is a harrowing recollection of her time as the primary target of a vicious internet mob and an insightful guide to outmaneuvering the toxic entitlement that fuels alt-right figureheads

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In August, Google fired one of its young engineers, James Damore, for circulating a 3,300-word memo about “diversity and inclusion” on a company listserv. Titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” Damore’s memo outlined the “discriminatory practices” inherent in the company’s efforts to hire more women and minorities; along with a theory that women are generally neurotic and disinterested in technological pursuits, hence their underrepresentation in Silicon Valley. “Women on average show a higher interest in people and men in things,” Damore wrote. “We can make software engineering more people-oriented with pair programming and more collaboration. Unfortunately, there may be limits to how people-oriented certain roles and Google can be and we shouldn't deceive ourselves or students into thinking otherwise (some of our programs to get female students into coding might be doing this).”

Motherboard first reported Damore’s memo on August 4, and Google fired Damore three days later for “advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace,” according to Google chief executive Sundar Pichai. Now a disgruntled former employee, Damore has been pleading his case in interviews with right-wing media figures, including Tucker Carlson, Stefan Molyneux, and Jordan B. Peterson, who cast Damore as the latest spectacular casualty of “political correctness.” It’s a classic, conservative canonization. As media strategy, there’s a tried-and-true playbook for Damore’s martyrdom, and—whether you’re a disgruntled college professor, a disgraced sheriff, or a modern phrenologist who happens to have tech experience—it always seems to end with a protective embrace among figureheads at Fox News and the like. It always seems to end with the white provocateur, who imagines his own persecution, resting easy among the various gatekeepers who, in fact, will persecute anyone but him.

Zoë Quinn knows this playbook better than most. But unlike Damore, Quinn, who is an independent video game developer, has stood at the losing end of the aggrieved conservative’s standard media strategy. In August 2014, Quinn became the subject of a massive online witch hunt known as “the Quinnspiracy,” launched by her ex-boyfriend, Eron Gjoni. Gjoni published a vengeful, seven-part breakup screed titled “The Zoë Post,” which quickly spread across the internet. In “The Zoë Post,” Gjoni accused Quinn of cheating on him with at least five men, including one employer and one journalist, who, Gjoni implies, both offered Quinn better professional standing in exchange for intimacy and sexual favors. The viral escalation of Gjoni’s vendetta against Quinn—which, in the course of a month, spilled from the Something Awful comedy website forums to 4chan to Twitter to cable news—is known as Gamergate.

To this day, Gamergaters allege that Quinn endeared herself to games journalists and senior developers by sleeping with them. Gjoni accused Quinn of trashing their relationship (as if that much should be anyone’s business apart from the people directly involved). In the portions of the “The Zoë Post” where he recalls interrogating his ex’s infidelity, Gjoni also posits Quinn as a social climber who has slept her way toward critical acclaim for her video game Depression Quest—a short game about experiencing depression—which she released independently via Steam less than a week before Gjoni published “The Zoë Post.” In Gjoni’s account, Zoë Quinn was a treacherous girlfriend. Among Quinnspiracy theorists, she was also an ideological crisis within video game culture. Humiliating Quinn, then, became not just a mean-spirited forum roast, but a political objective: drive out one prominent, queer, hippie Tumblr chick who makes indie games about mental health, and the rest will follow.

Quinn was the chief victim of Gamergate, and her memoir, Crash Override—out Tuesday—includes an extensive account of the scandal’s origins and aftermath. Gamergate never truly moved on from Quinn, but it did rapidly expand its sphere of grievance to ensnare the video game developer Brianna Wu, the Kotaku writer Nathan Grayson, the tech journalist Sam Biddle, and the feminist games critic Anita Sarkeesian. If Zoë Quinn represented a failure of professional integrity, according to stage-one Quinnspiracy theorists, then these secondary players all represented a broader corruption that rewards such perversions with glowing profiles and reviews, generous speaking fees, and other incestuous affirmations while holding lowly Call of Duty obsessives in contempt. Initially, Gamergate assembled to harass Quinn and her early allies. The movement has lived on—in forums, imageboards, and social media harassment campaigns against so-called “social justice warriors”—as the digital arm of a broader reactionary coalition.

Gamergate grew to such prominence, and viciousness, at an alarming rate. “The Ex wasn’t the only person willing to harness a mob to exact vengeance on me,” Quinn writes in Crash Override. (Gjoni is referred to as “The Ex” throughout the text.) Gamergate quickly outgrew any singular concern with Quinn’s private conduct, instead becoming a fanatical, fantastical pile-on that regarded her only as a rage object. The online mob compiled and disseminated Quinn’s personal information and her online history, including screenshots of her nude photos. The mob, as Quinn describes it, was all too eager to indulge The Ex’s account, even though most of them had never even heard of Eron Gjoni, a computer programmer, until he first published “The Zoë Post” on Something Awful and Penny Arcade. Gjoni himself isn’t a naturally captivating figure, but there is a spell-binding quality to his prose in “The Zoë Post.” Gjoni’s sense of victimhood is harrowing, his resentment dramatic, and his evisceration of Quinn’s integrity meticulous, no matter how fabricated. “The Zoë Post” reads as the sort of cuck fever dream that has launched a thousand MRA forums in the past decade. Gjoni goes so far as to gamify his many arguments with Quinn, whom he seems to regard less so as a partner, and more so as an opponent. “If boyfriend backs down,” Gjoni writes repeatedly, “girlfriend wins.”

The Quinnspiracy theorists cast Quinn as an exceptionally shameless abuser of multiple supposed advantages that women enjoy in matters of work, sex, and life, at the expense of men. Gjoni might have successfully driven his ex-girlfriend into alienation and professional reinvention, if only Quinn weren’t the more resilient spirit, the more bullish personality, and the better storyteller. In Crash Override, Quinn has trumped The Ex’s intoxicating narrative with a sobering account of daily humiliations, legal limbo, death threats, and professional exile as the aftermath of an intensive disinformation campaign. And yet, Quinn also spends much of her memoir counseling readers toward a future of gaming and online life dominated by compassionate players. Gamergate has not had the last word.

On its face, Gamergate is a story of hard-core misogynists who happen to resent other people’s girlfriends as much as they love role-playing games and first-person shooters. “The movement, which deliberately has no central leadership, is a backlash to what its supporters perceive as unprofessional or agenda-driven behavior in the gaming specialty press,” the gaming website Polygon summarizes. But consider Gamergate’s signature sensibilities and tactics: dummy accounts, cross-platform harassment, inflammatory caricatures, coded epithets, doxxing, and a quasi-ironic embrace of Nazism. You’ll see there’s no clear delineation of where Gamergate ends and the alt-right begins. Even as James Damore has formally disavowed the alt-right following the movement’s violent August rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, the ideology of his memo is rooted in the movement’s definitive resentments. Suddenly, Gamergate was much bigger than an indie game release and spiteful diary entries about one couple’s messy breakup. It is modern American politics, an outbreak of trolling and doxxing at the national level.

There’s a late chapter of Quinn’s memoir titled “I Was a Teenaged Shitlord.” For readers unfamiliar with the term: “Shitlord” is a contested term, in some cases derogatory, in some cases laudatory, for the sort of troll who posts inflammatory content and harrasses other users. “I didn’t send any death or rape threats, and I never contacted someone’s family, but mainly because that didn’t seem like creative enough villainy,” Quinn writes. “I perversely prided myself on my ability to figure out a total stranger’s buttons and mash the crap out of them using only a computer.”

Even among those sometimes politically inclined, troll is life. In the forums, snark, vulgarity, and insults are common behaviors, but that’s not to say that trolling is somehow inexorable, much less excusable, among gamers at any age. As much as many gamers and non-gamers alike may think otherwise, especially after watching something like Gamergate, there’s no single archetype for a gamer, nor is there any single ideology that any given gamer is especially likely to espouse. Gamers disagree about games, dating, and politics on forums all the time. The regressive antics that many critics and observers associate with modern video game culture aren’t permanent political humors so much as they’re a reflection of how dark and inconsiderate human beings can be. More broadly than that, modern video game fandom is as wide, divided, and contentious as any other polis. In fact, the right-wing connotations of “gamer,” as a general label, stem primarily from a subset: white, male gamers with poor dispositions and shock jock sensibilities in multiplayer voice-over matches. As dominant as these reactionaries may seem, they operate in fear that so-called “social justice warriors”—“SJWs,” the favorite pejorative that Gamergaters and other conservatives use to identify liberal critics—have already successfully reset video games and gaming culture in their image.

Gamergate and the alt-right even share the same key activists and media players. When CNN reported an admittedly strange story about a racist Reddit user whom Donald Trump once retweeted, the right-wing streaming celebrity Mike Cernovich led efforts to doxx the reporter Andrew Kaczynski as well as his colleagues and family members. Cernovich, an attorney, author, and men’s rights activist, first achieved prominence three years ago as an “unofficial Gamergate spokesman” who repeatedly offer Gjoni legal counsel in response to criminal harassment charges (which Quinn dropped last year).

“One neo-fascist tabloid reporter,” writes Quinn, “named Milo Yiannopoulos saw what was happening to me in early August 2014 and exploited my story to transform himself from a hack who plagiarized Tori Amos lyrics into a hack who had the admiration of everyone no one admires.” While serving as the lead tech editor at Breitbart just as the Quinnspiracy began to unfold in more obscure corners of the internet, Yiannopoulos started covering the saga for the site, citing Quinn as a classic example of a bad actor retreating into feminism to assume the role of victim. “It’s easy to mock video gamers as dorky loners in yellowing underpants,” Yiannopoulos wrote a few weeks after Gjoni first published “The Zoë Post.” “But, the more you learn about the latest scandal in the games industry, the more you start to sympathise with the frustrated male stereotype. Because an army of sociopathic feminist programmers and campaigners, abetted by achingly politically correct American tech bloggers, are terrorising the entire community—lying, bullying and manipulating their way around the internet for profit and attention.” (This, from a man who recently admitted to microwaving his family’s cat for “getting more attention than him.”)

Quinn saw September 2014 as the turning point in the Quinnspiracy’s formal concerns. Coverage of future right-wing media star Yiannopoulos transformed a gaming industry scandal to a right-wing political cause. “Well-meaning writers who were looking to expose and condemn what he had been doing to me and to the dozens of targets he moved on to afterward wrote a bunch of stories about his shoddy reporting and social media harassment of abuse victims,” Quinn writes. “While I was unable to discuss anything about my case or my ex without jeopardizing my court case, I watched the reporting about Gamergate warp and leave out its origins entirely, essentially washing The Ex and his abuse out of the narrative along with most of the people targeted.” Three years later, this pattern reproduces itself in coverage of right-wing activists such as Yiannopoulos, Richard Spencer, Christopher Cantwell, and Mike Cernovich, whom publications such as Rolling Stone and New York magazine have covered more so as fashion trends and web sensations than as white nationalist activists. But even the most damning coverage of these figures has barely imperiled their reputations; much as the critical consensus Eron Gjoni and his semi-anonymized harassment campaign only entrenched his factions even deeper. “The problem,” Quinn writes, “is that you fundamentally cannot shame someone who is proud of what they are doing.”

Crash Override, then, isn’t just a memoir. It is Quinn’s strategy guide for other victims suffering online abuse; and for activists and journalists who struggle to understand and counteract it. The book’s title is a reference to the 1995 cult film classic Hackers. More importantly, it’s a nod to the eponymous support network and “crisis helpline” that Quinn launched just five months after The Ex published “The Zoë Post” and nearly ruined her life and career for good. Quinn dedicates several chapters of her book to outlining the risks of doxxing (most people are vulnerable to deep web snooping, especially those with social media accounts), the perils of legal recourse for victims of anonymous harassment (police and court records require you to divulge even more private information), and the cautions she must take now that she’s a permanent obsession among 4chan reactionaries. “At this point,” Quinn writes, “I can help someone secure their accounts in my sleep. I can sniff out and help remove dox like some kind of weird internet bloodhound. I’ve even somehow gotten OK at talking to and cooperating with law enforcement agencies, despite my riot grrrl roots and general fear and distrust of police. The hardest part is helping someone cope. It’s answering questions about how to keep going. How not to give in to despair. How I keep going. How I survive when the abuse hasn’t slowed much in two years and shows no signs of stopping.”

At turns humorous and truly horrifying, Crash Override is an exceedingly comprehensive guide to modern life (for many women, especially) on the internet. It’s also a pretty stunning primer on the emotional logic and social constitution of so many different right-wing mobs, which at their core resemble the same mob, animated by singular resentments of women, people of color, and queer gamers. These people game, too. These people code, too. In fact, they have recently done more to reinvigorate video games as an art form than any self-identified Gamergater has. Zoë Quinn made Depression Quest and she wrote Crash Override. Meanwhile, Eron Gjoni has simply complained. Likewise, James Damore has made a name for himself not by engineering, but by whining. So here you have two men who are famous only for complaining about women in tech, and for illustrating nightmares for women in general. And to what ends? Gjoni tweets in obscurity, now indefinitely defined by a woman whose profile and accomplishments have long eclipsed his own. Damore got himself fired, and then he won a few sympathetic interviews for himself, but now one hopes he will go on to languish in regret for picking bat-shit gender theory, of all things, as his life’s defining contribution the tech industry. These men program their own obsolescence. Still, Quinn proposes, we should help them along.