Zoë Quinn’s new book, Crash Override: How Gamergate (Nearly) Destroyed My Life, and How We Can Win the Fight Against Online Hate is out this week. It tells the story of GamerGate, a hate campaign initially directed at her, but which went on to attack many women and people of color. Her book also investigates the sources of online abuse, and the ways we can all protect ourselves.
GamerGate was sparked by a twisted screed written by an ex-boyfriend of Quinn’s and then fanned by misogynists operating from dark corners of the internet. Its attack force was made up of men who believed that their identity as “gamers” was being threatened by progressive changes in games, and by an increased diversity among the people who make games, the people who play games and the characters who inhabit games.
Their fear of change, their hostility towards a games media that mostly embraces progress, was turned against women in gaming, and most specifically against Quinn.
It was seized upon by hardline reactionaries, who understood that games might be a powerful platform for their misogynistic, racist platform. Organizers muddied the waters by claiming that GamerGate was about “ethics in game journalism,” a briefly effective tactic that contributed to muting and delaying the media’s reaction. This obfuscation was soon recognized as a flimsy front and has morphed into a joke about bad faith actors on the internet.
In her book, Quinn lays out the full story with clarity and with heart. She writes about her challenging early life, raised in a small town, feeling disconnected. Games and the internet became her life. She learned to program. She made quirky comedy games, mostly for fun.
In 2013, she created a serious game called Depression Quest. It was about her own struggle with depression and its debilitating effects. The game found an audience who could relate to its message, that there are no easy fixes for mental illness.
Crash Override goes on to tell the story of GamerGate from her perspective, that of a hard-working, creative young woman who is just enjoying her first success.
The campaign against her was sparked by a malicious ex-boyfriend, who used what he knew about social media to hurt her, by writing and sharing a poisoned pen letter. It was copied and shared by cynical misogynists and reactionaries who understood how to mobilize impressionable, uninformed men against a woman who might threaten the status quo.
Quinn's book is not the story of a victim. It's the story of a fighter. GamerGaters did their best to ruin Quinn's life, to attack her friends and family. She details how she was traumatized by their outrages, how she was forced into hiding. Defending herself from GamerGate consumed her life.
But she understood the internet. She fought back, tracing the sources of the campaign against her, documenting the hatred, heading off attacks on friends.
In the years since GamerGate, she's helped others who face online abuse. She fought in the courts, alongside politicians, in the media and even at the United Nations. This book is another moment in her fight, an opportunity to speak truth to her tormentors, and to the powers that enabled GamerGate and continue to enable online hate campaigns.
It's illuminating that she spends about half the book talking about GamerGate and about her previous life, struggling to make her way in the world as a game developer. The rest is about how we, as a society, allow online abuse to happen and what we can do, individually and collectively, to change a system that protects abusers more than it protects the abused.
Lawmakers, law enforcement, tech companies and, yes, we in the media, are all culpable. Quinn pulls no punches about the press’ shortcomings, slamming the practice of serving opaque algorithms that distort and sensationalize.
Our society as a whole, with its determination to maintain an unjust status quo, is also guilty. The culture that reinforces ideas that white, straight men are the default human state is to blame. Few sections of popular entertainment have done more to foster this wrong than games companies, a point Quinn makes forcefully.
In her book, Quinn is sanguine about the past and realistic about the challenges of the future. She rarely shows bitterness against the individuals who enabled her torture.
Her ex-boyfriend deservedly receives some stick, but she doesn't make it about him, so much as about his actions. She admits to making mistakes in how she dealt with him in the aftermath of his attacks against her.
She is withering about an obscure actor who coined the hashtag GamerGate, despite having little interest in games. Likewise, an appalling tech reporter at Breitbart comes in for devastating treatment for his rank cynicism and cruelty. She also gives short shrift to YouTube rabble-rousers, who are still making coin as their targets suffer constant abuse.
But mostly, we hear about the practical, emotional and spiritual effects the campaign had on Quinn, as she struggled to protect the relationships in her life that mattered to her, and to protect her own mental health.
Quinn is generous about the abuse others have received, even if it is tiny in comparison to hers. The last part of her book is about how to cope with online abuse, both practically and emotionally. She points out that it's OK to have feelings about abuse and to discuss those feelings, even if your personal experiences are nowhere near as bad as another person’s.
“There is no ‘should’ when it comes to emotionally reacting to this,” she writes. “Feeling hurt or scared isn't ‘letting it get to you.’ It's crucial to accept your feelings so you can start to process them … Online abuse is kind of like finding shit in your food. It doesn't much matter if it's a little turd or an entire shit sandwich.”
Quinn is a white woman. She recognizes that race is a major dimension in online abuse, that people of color, especially women, suffer the most online abuse. She gives over parts of the book to men and women who are not white, so they can share their experiences dealing with gaming’s racists. As one of her interviewees points out, there is no talking about sexist abuse online without also talking about race.
Quinn's sense of the universality of online abuse plays out in her post-GamerGate story. Although not a natural activist, she set up an organization called Crash Override Network which helps people cope with abuse, and which campaigns against the machinery that enables abuse.
Over the last few years, she's been there for people suffering harassment, sharing what she’s learned about mitigating the experience and fighting back against harassers. She knows that there is no easy way out. It’s complicated, and it’s hard work. The harassers understand this. That's why they do what they do.
So she’s also gone out into the world to try to influence the companies that own and administer social networks. In anecdotes, she talks about how uninterested these companies really are about abuse, despite their pathetic official statements on the matter.
As in the shit sandwich statement above, her book often relies on humor to make its point. She is self-deprecatory (a quality notably absent from online harassers and their dreary cheerleaders). She is frank about the iffy decisions she's made in her life, only offering apologies for her actions when she perceives how she might have hurt others.
Quinn is keen not to be seen as a paragon, or as a victim. She knows that “for me, August, 2014 will never end,” but what she really wants is to get back to game development. She says she will always believe in games, and describes how she turned to her favorites during the worst times of her experience.
GamerGaters seriously damaged Quinn's life. They kept her away from game development. They threatened to kill her. They attacked the people she loves. They invaded her privacy, ruthlessly and cruelly. In return, she seeks to understand the process of abuse, not so much to empathize, but to end the hatred.
“If we don't try to understand them on a human, personal level, then we are moving forward in the dark,” she writes. “By dubbing them ‘those people,’ we are also explicitly setting ourselves apart, as if we aren't one of them, and thus can't be part of the problem.”
Crash Override is a clear-eyed and revealing story from a person who has weathered an awful experience, and come through it changed but unbowed. It's a call to arms against a world that allowed GamerGate to flourish, that allows other hate groups to torrent their poison at individuals and groups of minorities. And it’s a self-help guide to anyone who faces online abuse, or who wants to help change things.
In the end, Quinn just wants to get back to doing what she loves, which is making games.
“I want to be able to live life as myself, not as Sad GamerGate Girl, and not as the face of Bad Things Happening to People Online. I want to go back to being a goofy nerd who makes games about feelings and farts, as much as possible, even if the threats and abuse never stop.”
Crash Override is published by PublicAffairs and is available through all major booksellers. You can find out more here.