By Zoe Quinn
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Zoe Quinn used to feel the same way. She is a video game developer whose ex-boyfriend published a crazed blog post cobbled together from private information, half-truths, and outright fictions, along with a rallying cry to the online hordes to go after her. They answered in the form of a so-called movement known as #gamergate–they hacked her accounts; stole nude photos of her; harassed her family, friends, and colleagues; and threatened to rape and murder her. But instead of shrinking into silence as the online mobs wanted her to, she raised her voice and spoke out against this vicious online culture and for making the internet a safer place for everyone.
In the years since #gamergate, Quinn has helped thousands of people with her advocacy and online-abuse crisis resource Crash Override Network. From locking down victims’ personal accounts to working with tech companies and lawmakers to inform policy, she has firsthand knowledge about every angle of online abuse, what powerful institutions are (and aren’t) doing about it, and how we can protect our digital spaces and selves.
Crash Override offers an up-close look inside the controversy, threats, and social and cultural battles that started in the far corners of the internet and have since permeated our online lives. Through her story — as target and as activist — Quinn provides a human look at the ways the internet impacts our lives and culture, along with practical advice for keeping yourself and others safe online.
Most relationships end in a breakup. Sometimes that breakup is so crazy that it becomes a horror story you tell your friends, family, and therapist. For the past three years, I've watched my breakup story told and retold by everyone from the writers on Law and Order: SVU to President Trump's chief strategist. It has a Wikipedia page. It spawned in-jokes and internet slang and has dedicated community hubs. It has a cartoon mascot. My breakup required the intervention of the United Nations.
You might have heard stories about the darker side of the internet—hackers, hordes of anonymous people attacking an unlucky target, private nude photos made public by vengeful exes—but to you they remain just that: stories. Surely these things would never happen to you. You're not famous. You don't go around picking fights with anyone online. Who would even think to mess with you?
I used to feel that way too. I'm an independent game developer who makes weird little artsy video games about feelings and farts—Mario Brothers and Call of Duty they ain't. In the game world, my work was obscure enough that people could score serious hipster points by referencing it. I was a relatively low-profile internet citizen, living and working online like plenty of other people. But for all its awesomeness, the internet has become such a volatile place that anyone can become a target of devastating mob harassment in an instant. Including you. Including me.
It doesn't take much. Maybe you'll express your opinion on a political issue and it will get noticed by the wrong person. Maybe you'll wake up to find that a company you once bought shoes from online was careless with security, and now your personal information is in the hands of anyone who bothers to look. Maybe someone who has a grudge against you is relentless enough to post and promote bogus information about you online—stuff that can never be erased. Maybe you're a member of a demographic that is constantly targeted—you're a woman, you're black, you're trans, or any combination of these or other marginalized groups—and someone who wants to get people like you off "their" internet decides to take it upon themselves to make your life hell. Online abusers target countless people every year for any number of arbitrary reasons.
In my case, it started with the aforementioned breakup.
After five months of a toxic on-again, off-again relationship, I finally cut all ties to my abusive ex in an attempt to heal and move on. But abusers hate nothing more than losing their ability to control you. If I no longer cared what he thought about me, he'd have to attack the things I did care about—my friends, my career, and my art.
Shortly after I ended things, my ex posted a sprawling manifesto, just shy of 10,000 words, detailing the ways in which I was a whore on multiple websites dedicated to my industry, but not before workshopping it with friends in order to cause the most possible damage to my career and sanity. The post was immediately taken down for being wildly inappropriate, so he moved his masterpiece to the parts of the web populated by people who are recreational life-destroyers. It spread like wildfire. Thousands of people who had never heard of me before rallied around his banner and took up the crusade, latching on to me as a stand-in for any number of things they hated. The places where I sold my games, talked with friends, or even just looked at cute cat videos were suddenly awash in pictures of mutilated bodies, images of horrible violence, and threats to do these things and worse to me. My home address and phone number were discovered and distributed, leading to 5 a.m. phone calls from strangers detailing the ways they planned to rape me and people bragging about leaving dead animals in my mailbox. Nude photos of me were dug up, printed out, jizzed on by strangers, and mailed to colleagues, friends, and family.
So, why me? I was an unconventional game developer. I'm a queer, feminine person in an industry still struggling to handle fictional women made of pixels let alone flesh-and-blood ones who can say no, and I was more interested in making games about depression and comedy than the more commercial ones that come to mind when you think of video games. I am outspoken and ambitious, and at the time, I was one of independent gaming's rising stars during a time when the industry and geek culture at large were experiencing an identity crisis. There were more diverse players, developers, and games than ever before, and a loud, irrational minority saw this as an invasion and attacked anyone they saw as a witch to burn.
As it turned out, when I cut off my ex for good, I was basically sitting in a black robe and wide-brimmed, pointed hat on top of a pile of kindling.
The spark was an insinuation that I had slept with a game journalist for a positive review of my game. That accusation turned what would have been a few horrible weeks for me into a cascade that shook my entire industry before developing into a full-on culture war.
Somehow, the fact that the game reviewer had never actually reviewed my game didn't come up.
After the release of the manifesto, the witch hunt spread across every social media networking platform in a matter of hours and escalated from there. Using the same techniques that are used to spread hoaxes or viral in-jokes, the mob began running coordinated "operations" with the goal of destroying my life from every possible angle while rebranding their abuse as a crusade for "ethics in games journalism" to attract new members and obfuscate the repugnant behavior by disguising it as a consumer revolt.
This phenomenon wasn't unfamiliar to me—the internet was my home turf, and witch hunts like these were regular occurrences even before everyone and their grandmother signed up for Facebook. I knew it would be vicious as thousands of strangers attacked my life from every angle they could and that everything from jokes I had made years ago to patently made-up information was fair game. I also knew it'd last maybe two weeks and then fade away like everything that goes viral. Online mobs tend to be equal parts vicious and erratic.
I couldn't possibly have been more wrong.
It was just beginning. My personal disaster metastasized into the phenomenon known as #GamerGate: a new front in the full-blown culture war over the heart and soul of the internet itself. It's spread far and wide, with a Canadian prime minister, geek legends like Joss Whedon, and the US House of Representatives taking my side against a conglomerate of fringe lunatics including literal neo-Nazis, pro-rape activists (yes, they exist), and washed-up celebrities like the guy who played Jayne on Firefly. Law and Order: SVU even aired a "ripped from the headlines" episode based on my story. Online media institutions like Gawker started down a path that would land them in bankruptcy, while the reactionary neoconservative tabloid Breitbart seized the opportunity to double its audience and build careers by abusing me and anyone like me.
Why would anyone possibly care so much about a shitty breakup between two nerds?
GamerGate wasn't really about video games at all so much as it was a flash point for radicalized online hatred that had a long list of targets before, and after, my name was added to it. The movement helped solidify the growing connections between online white supremacist movements, misogynist nerds, conspiracy theorists, and dispassionate hoaxers who derive a sense of power from disseminating disinformation. This patchwork of Thanksgiving-ruining racist uncles might look and sound like a bad joke, but they became a real force behind giving Donald Trump the keys to the White House.
Online abuse is by no means uncommon and can affect just about anyone for any reason, including totally normal people minding their own business. However, just because it can happen to anyone doesn't mean that it strikes totally at random. The less you look and sound like a 1950s sitcom dad, the more likely it is that you'll find yourself where I did—having your life torn apart by neo-Nazis.
But that isn't the end of my story.
Everything I have, everything good in my life, I owe to the internet's ability to empower people like me, people who wouldn't have a voice without it. All the garbage that is thrown at us is enabled by this broken machine, yet I firmly believe that the internet is also the best tool we have to address the problem. To the uninitiated, it might seem easy to blame the very things that make the internet great for the rampant abuse, but that reaction would be alarmist and simply incorrect. One might see the relative anonymity of the online world as something that allows people to do heinous things to one another without accountability, but anonymity is also what can give isolated teenagers like I was the ability to talk about their queerness without fear of being outed. Others might look at how enormous the internet has become and declare it impossible to fix, but to do so would be to overlook the brilliant minds who have been missing from mainstream cultural conversations, who find one another on the internet and work together to make positive cultural changes, both offline and on.
I went on a mission to do just that. Half a year deep into GamerGate, I cofounded a grassroots organization called Crash Override, an online crisis hotline and victim advocacy group. Crash Override seeks to help people who have been failed in the same ways we were and works to address the root causes of those failures. In our first year of operation, we helped over a thousand people via the hotline, created multiple guides to educate the public about online abuse, and partnered with multinational tech giants like Twitter, Facebook, and Google to help inform policy, regulate their platforms, and get swifter assistance for the people who came to us for help. We formed working relationships with prosecutors' offices, law enforcement, Congress, and the United Nations to tackle the issue through policy, all while trying to make sure the good parts of the internet don't become collateral damage. We set out on a mission to inform everyone about how online abuse actually happens, how to prevent more people like me from having their lives derailed, and how to protect yourself until everyone else gets onboard.
It's been an uphill battle, and one I didn't opt into. But now I've seen the machinery from outside and in. Our culture has systematically failed to help victims of online harassment while simultaneously leaving it up to them to fix those same failing systems with little or no support. Law enforcement, lawmakers, and private corporations have done little more than shrug their shoulders, telling me and other victims to just get offline—and cede the internet to those who want to use it only to hurt people. The longer I spent trying to change these systems from within, the more I found that they were constructed from the ground up to resist effective change. You can hear the same nonexcuses from people in power only so many times before realizing that they know how broken things are, and that they're not going to change.
Some see despair in this failure; I see hope and opportunity. The thing about systems? They're predictable, and anything that can be predicted can be disrupted, dismantled, and destroyed. The more time I spent trying to change things, the more mentors I found and the more friends I made who were trying to change things, too. When reporting abuse that had already done its damage to any institution would exhaust me, my community and peers would pick me back up and keep me going. For every person who ignored us who had the power to fix things, I found five with no power who actually managed to provide help.
We don't have to wait around for slow and risk-averse institutions to start caring about us. We can get informed and press them where pressure is needed while taking care of each other and ourselves. But first we must identify the key points of failure—and who better to do so than those who have had the dubious honor of being failed firsthand? We can tweak all the variables until the mechanisms of unchecked online abuse break down, and the world can be better for it.
I mean, I'm a game designer for a reason. Games are, at their core, just systems, and systems are the terms in which I think. Unfortunately, I'm not alone—people participating in online abuse treat it like a game, too, seeing who can do the most damage to a target they see as a dehumanized mass of pixels on a screen, more like a monster in a game to be taken down than an actual human being with thoughts and hopes and weaknesses and moments of brilliance. But although what was done to me was heinous, those responsible for obliterating my old life have overlooked one important thing:
I'm better at games than they are.
This is me on the night of August 15, 2014, a few minutes before the life I had built for myself—after clawing my way out of poverty, homelessness, isolation, and mental illness—would be destroyed by someone I had once loved.
The guy next to me at the restaurant is Bill, and I'm waiting for him to turn to his right and see the weird face I'm making at him. Bill and a handful of local San Francisco friends had come out for one of the "I'm in town, let's hang out!" events that happen when you live and work online—suddenly a person from your long-distance network of friends and colleagues is in the area, and you drop everything to see them. This visit to the Bay Area was going to be my last chance to see these friends for a while, since I was about to move from the dingy Boston sublet I currently called home to the south of France for a few months with my boyfriend, Alex. He was starting a new job there, and since I had built a small but sustainable full-time career out of making niche games for the digital marketplace, I had the luxury of being able to work from anywhere.
Alex and I had been dating for only a week, though we'd been friends for a lot longer. Our friendship had turned into something more when he had shown me profound kindness while I was shaking off the remnants of my abusive relationship. He saw the good in me when I couldn't see it myself. It soon became apparent that we had accidentally fallen in love at the worst possible time. We decided to give it a shot anyway, even if it meant going from zero to living together for a few months. The worst-case scenario, we figured, was if it didn't work out, we'd remain friends and I'd spend the duration of my visitor's visa making games in France. It was risky, it was romantic, it was like the end of a bad romantic comedy—but I've never been one to turn down an adventure.
Back at the restaurant, I checked my phone just in time to see that dream die.
I know you probably stopped caring about your [Something Awful] account ages ago but you just got helldumped something fierce
Basically, a guy regged to post a 5k+ words wall of text and pictures about dating you.
Internet-to-English translation: Someone had paid the $10 registration fee to get an account on Something Awful, a comedy website and message board that I'd participated in for about a decade, to post something long and unflattering about me. The friend tried to reassure me that the post was already gone, that it had been yanked by Something Awful's admins almost immediately for violating the bejesus out of the forum rules and was unavailable even in the archives. Unsure who would do something like this to me, or what the post even said, I emailed a moderator for details.
All this was happening on my phone while I was sitting with my friends outside a restaurant in San Francisco. I kept looking at my phone, only halfway paying attention to the people around me. I had no idea what had been posted, but I'd be the first to admit that over the course of my life, I've said and done a lot of things that I regret. My mind racing, I tried to mentally catalog a lifetime of fuckups and faux pas, assuming any or all of them could have been made public. I was glued to my phone, constantly refreshing whatever I could, as if mashing the buttons would magically summon the information faster and I could stop feeling so anxious and paranoid. I excused myself from the table and went to the bathroom.
Sitting in the bathroom, it hit me: this had to be my abusive ex. It had to be Eron.
I started hyperventilating in the cramped stall. The relationship with Eron had been brief, intermittent, and unhealthy. I had tried to end it several times before everything had finally blown up for good in a dingy hotel room, a month before I found myself trembling against this stall door. Even after we'd broken up, his control hadn't worn off—he continued to manipulate me for several weeks before Alex helped me finally escape his orbit. I didn't yet have enough time and distance from the situation to really realize how bad things had gotten, and I was still making excuses for every terrible thing he had done. I didn't want to believe it. I couldn't believe it. I subconsciously touched the place on my arm where he'd left bruises the last time I saw him, and a cold sense of horror began to overtake me.
I went back to my seat at the crowded table. Alex looked worried and squeezed my leg. I texted him my suspicions, since I didn't want to worry my friends by discussing it at the table. Especially not Bill—Bill, who had stayed up with me in that same dingy hotel the night of the breakup and had seen the bruises on my arm, and who'd been worried about me ever since.
I soon started seeing tweets referencing the now-deleted post:
What's everyone all worked up over Zoë Quinn about this week?
Someone just registered on SA today to post a super long creepy thread about Zoë Quinn wtf
Fuck you Zoë Quinn you stupid cunt shut the fuck up and just go away already jesus christ
The Something Awful moderator I had contacted finally got back to me, providing me with the email of the person who had made the post. Eron's college email. The moderator also told me the message had been posted in the section of the forums dedicated to video games, so the people reading it would have been my fans, friends, and colleagues. The mod promised to send me the contents of the post once they had time to look into it, and they apologized profusely for what I was now facing. It had to be bad if they were concerned for me—the people on Something Awful are all about being goofy and ironic at all times. When comedians are too worried about you to make jokes, you know you're in trouble.
At this point, I couldn't hide my clear distress from the table. I gave my friends a quick overview as Alex rubbed my shoulders and told me it was going to be all right. Bill slung an arm around me and made his "this sucks, and I don't know what to say, but I care about you" face, kindly holding back his contempt for The Ex, which he'd made plain since the first time he'd met him. I put my phone on vibrate and turned it facedown, hoping this would stop me from compulsively checking it. But it started to buzz. And buzz. And buzz. Even when something online is deleted, it's almost never really "gone." The post had been copied and pasted, had migrated. It was already going viral.
I tried to focus on the conversation at the table, but the agitated rattling of my phone was the only thing I could hear, the gaps between notification buzzes becoming shorter and shorter. It was like counting the seconds between thunderclaps to see how far away the storm is and knowing it's getting closer. Like a lot of people my age or younger, I have the nervous habit of constantly using my phone to distract myself from the gnawing social anxiety I feel in group settings. Feeling this anxious while trying to restrain myself from my usual coping mechanism was torture. I held out for a few minutes, then folded and checked my phone again.
Messages were flooding into my mentions on Twitter:
I will give Zoë Quinn benefit of the doubt, but also this: There's 1 group I have 0 remorse for: Cheaters. Die slow.
The experts will still be uncovering Zoë Quinn's fuckbuddies from the primordial muck in coming eras.
Art Pop Milf to get my thoughts off of Zoë Quinn's grilled cheese genitalia.
A lot of the messages contained links to a thread on 4chan, another forum, whose members are best known for two things: making pictures of cats go viral and using the power of anonymous mobs to devastate the lives of people they've deemed worthy of their hate. The same post that had been deleted from Something Awful had been posted in a subsection frequented by people who made a hobby of bitterly sneering at men and women with active sex lives. This community naturally latched on and started planning how to "ruin" me, as if I were a stand-in for every woman who had ever told any of them "no."
The thread included a link to an external WordPress site with my name on it. Even typing the title of it sets my teeth on edge, so going forward, I'll be referring to it as the Manifesto. The Manifesto was almost 9,000 words about me that could have been boiled down to just one: "slut." Accusations of infidelity were woven together with gross editorializing, private pictures, chats edited and chopped together with running commentary, and the self-congratulatory, contemptuous humor that I had once found charmingly quirky.
It might sound salacious, but honestly, it wasn't that exciting—unless you're the kind of person who enjoys strangers' relationship drama. His screed was about a woman few people had ever heard of supposedly doin' it with some other people they'd also never heard of.
The Manifesto was carefully crafted as a call to arms against both an adulterous whore and something allegedly more insidious. It was broken up into acts with charming, catchy titles, such as "The Cum Collage May Not Be Entirely Accurate." He'd even provided his readers with a catchphrase, "Five Guys Burgers and Fries," based on his chief accusation: that I had cheated on him with five people. One of the so-called Five Guys was a games journalist. To broaden The Ex's coalition of support, this imagined affair was painted as "evidence" that successful game developers like me were in cahoots with our reviewers, high-fiving in bed as we relegated everyone with integrity to a life on the sidelines of our industry.
It didn't seem to matter that the games journalist in question had never actually reviewed my work. This was a calculated move to pander to the worst elements of games culture. For years, gamers like me have been trying to make video games more inclusive as our medium has exploded out of a subculture and onto everyone's phones. As with all rapid expansions, there have been growing pains. There's been a lot of pushback from some gamers who see gaming as "theirs" and reject the industry's progress toward inclusion. Most people who love games know that they're an amazing medium with limitless potential. All these bullies know is that anyone who looks or sounds different from them is a threat, endlessly repeating the sad cycle of the bullied emulating their own monsters.
As you can probably guess, the Venn diagram of hostile posters in the 4chan thread and people who want to keep anyone different from them out of gaming is basically a circle.
The Ex knew this. He had been sitting in the audience when I had given a talk about this conflict in gaming, and when we'd first started dating, he had decried that kind of behavior. But now that I had finally walked away from him, he couldn't control me. So he gave a community that loves a witch hunt a woman on whom to take out their insecurities, gift wrapped to the stake with kindling at her feet.
I was patient zero of the cultural phenomenon that would come to be called GamerGate.
Months later, after this had blown up into an international incident, Zak Jason of Boston Magazine interviewed The Ex and detailed how he had "extracted details from her Facebook, text, and email accounts; how he tracked her movements and shadowed her conversations. The process he described… sounded as if he were gathering the pieces of a horrible machine, with each component designed to be as damaging to her as possible." He had even posted screenshots of conversations he had had with a friend, strategizing how best to make the post go viral and destroy me.
Even the parts of The Ex's manifesto that weren't pure vitriol painted a clear picture that he had never seen me as a human, only as an unspoiled moral goddess or a cartoon sociopath. I wasn't sure which one made my skin crawl more. My biggest professional success was a game about living with my mental illness—I'm far from perfect, and all of my work centers on trying to express that maybe we're all kind of screwed up, and maybe that's okay. Everything I make centers on the messy and beautiful nature of humanity and being open and vulnerable. Seeing how he saw me made it even more clear that he had only ever seen me as a "thing"—and he had flat-out told me as much right before the breakup. And now he was trying to convince other people to see me the same way.
His plan worked. The notifications kept pouring in. I knew I was in trouble, but I had no idea how bad things were about to get. My friends and I retreated to Fred's apartment after it became clear that this unfolding disaster wasn't slowing down or stopping. Fred was a good-natured friend of a friend whom I had just met that night, and he managed to walk the delicate line between supportive and pushy, wrangling my friends who were trying to distract and cheer me up while the more pragmatic members of the group got to work to push back against the tide of hate that was flooding in around me from all angles.
My Wikipedia page had been edited: it now included a time of death, coinciding with my next scheduled public appearance. My friends and I reverted it, only to find ourselves in a tug-of-war with numerous would-be vandals, removing anti-Semitic slurs, swastikas, and threats from my page all night. The comments sections on my blogs and games were targeted. All of the sites I used—to keep in touch with my global network of friends and loved ones, the places that are a fundamental part of my life—were now flooded with messages threatening to rape me and telling me to kill myself.
My struggles with depression and anxiety compounded the torment. After years of therapy and work to recognize and manage my illness, all of the self-destructive thoughts inside my head (that I refer to as "Trashbrain") were now externalized and repeated back to me, heavily seasoned with threats. That deep, dark part of me nodded along with every horrible accusation that flew at me, regardless of how divorced from reality it was. My worst fears and insecurities were being given voice: my work had never been good enough for anyone to really like it, and anyone who told me otherwise was just pretending out of pity. I was nothing more than a fat, ugly slut. The life I had worked so hard for and built up from so little was never really something I deserved or would be allowed to keep.
"Yes," Trashbrain told me, "the other shoe finally dropped. Everyone figured out I'm worthless; I was right all along."
- "A worthwhile read for anyone interested in taking action against the realities-and devastating effects-of extreme internet trolling...an informative and inspiring book."—Kirkus Reviews
- "I tore through this book. Zoe Quinn doesn't just present a clear-eyed examination of the internet's endemic sickness (though she does that beautifully), she contextualizes her personal nightmare within our current national one. It's a gripping read with historical merit."—Lindy West, author of Shrill
- "We finally have a chance to hear what we've been eagerly awaiting: Zoe's real story in her own words. If you've been harassed, depressed, lonely, or lost, her story will inspire and empower you. After all of it, she still finds a way to be optimistic and a force for positive change. She gives me hope for humanity and the future of technology."—Ellen Pao, former CEO of Reddit, co-founder of Project Include
- "At every turn, Zoe Quinn was utterly failed by the law enforcement agencies she counted on to protect her, and the social media companies that enabled her attackers. But she never gave up, refused to be a victim, and has used her experience to help countless victims of online stalking and harassment protect themselves. And she does it all with disarming humor and bracing honesty."—Wil Wheaton, actor, producer, author
- "Zoe Quinn captures the irrational contours of the #gamergate experience in vivid detail and offers a compelling personal history of the woman with a bullseye on her back."—Anita Sarkeesian, founder of Feminist Frequency
- "As the first target of the so-called #gamergate movement, and someone who fought it and won, Zoe Quinn is uniquely qualified to write this story. Think of this as Jon Ronson's So You've Been Publicly Shamed written from inside the eye of the storm."—Graham Linehan, writer and director of The IT Crowd
- "Part memoir, part social movement manifesto, this engrossing journey by game designer Quinn takes readers into the darkest realms of social media and the Internet.... An important purchase that will interest social media users and enlighten them about the extent of online hate in some social platforms and the limits on personal and social protections available in society today."—Library Journal
- "Quinn uses her personal experiences to advocate practical steps toward creating a safe and open internet culture.... For Quinn, winning the 'cultural battle for the web' starts with reframing the issue as not a matter of good vs. bad people fueling hate culture on the internet, but rather 'acceptable and unacceptable ways to treat each other.' It's a remarkably clear-eyed view that's all the more powerful in light of Quinn's backstory."—Publisher's Weekly, starred review
- "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."—Latoya Peterson, NPR.org
- "Crash Override combines a brisk pace, candid stories, and embedded insight. Quinn's first book has its uneven moments, but it's important stuff for anybody interested in how online discourse has shifted over the past two decades."—Ars Technica
- "Engaging and powerful...In Crash Override, Quinn proves to be a thoughtful, accessible guide through this social, cultural, technological and political morass."—Toronto Globe & Mail
- On Sale
- Sep 5, 2017
- Page Count
- 256 pages