Disclosure: The International Mobile Gaming Awards paid my way to Marseille, France, to judge the event. My coverage remains objective.
Brianna Wu has been labeled a “social justice warrior,” or SJW, as part of the #GamerGate controversy. That’s actually one of the nicer things that’s been said about her by Internet haters.
Wu, a seasoned game developer and cofounder of Giant Spacekat, has courageously spoken out against the crowd about the tough time women have in the game industry. And that has made her a target of death threats and more. The #GamerGate controversy — a battle fueled by Internet hate that claims to challenge game journalism ethics and also led to a lot of harassment of female game developers — seems to be dying down. But Wu is still getting harassed on a daily basis, and she wants the industry to learn the right lessons from the whole affair. Will harassment and death threats against women and other “social justice warriors” in the game industry continue? Or will new efforts like Intel’s $300 million investment in diversity change both high-tech and gaming to be more hospitable places for women and minorities?
Wu is one of the game developers who has stood in opposition to #GamerGate, a hashtag on Twitter that actor Adam Baldwin (best known for the sci-fi TV series Firefly) created in reaction to a controversy that started as a spat between lovers. Depending on whom you ask, it evolved into death and rape threats made against female critics who challenge the male-dominated game industry or a grassroots movement to address bad ethics in game journalism. With all of notoriety related to #GamerGate, you might never know that Wu’s startup studio published its first game, the sci-fi Revolution 60, last year. And the Steam community recently gave her game the green light on Valve’s digital-distribution platform for PCs and Macs.
I met Wu at the International Mobile Gaming Awards judging in Marseille, France. I had a chance to see her in action on the judging committee, where she raised the issue of diversity in gaming. We did an interview and talked about how she got into games, how her team created Revolution 60, and her scars from battling #GamerGate trolls on Twitter. Wu disclosed that she has received dozens of death threats over a five-month period. Those threats forced her out of her home. But she’s still making games and is working on her next title.
As she does so, she also has to spend about a full day each week dealing with law enforcement as part of the lingering effects of #GamerGate. That’s the cost of speaking out. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
GamesBeat: Tell me about your history in games.
Brianna Wu: The first game I remember being ridiculously passionate about was Super Mario Bros. 2. It was the first game where you could play as Princess Peach. It wasn’t just a game where the boys had their adventure. Peach was in the game and she was so powerful there.
You have to understand, I grew up in Mississippi. I didn’t fit in with anyone there. So I gravitated toward computers and video games. It was a world I could be interested in that wasn’t just about religion or football.
GamesBeat: This was before you thought of becoming a developer, then?
Wu: Here’s the thing about my parents. My dad is in Mississippi. He exited the Navy and made a ton of money as an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurship is in my nature. My mom bought a computer in the ’80s to do accounting, and she was so smart at computers that we spent all our time with them. My childhood was sitting on the floor of her office and figuring out how to program with my mom. Instantly, I took a very deep affinity with computers and development and programming and all of that.
GamesBeat: How did you break into games?
Wu: This isn’t my first startup. It’s actually my third. I started my first when I was 19 years old. It was a quarter-million-dollar animation company, which was a lot of money for a 19 year old to have. My parents trained me to be an entrepreneur. That’s kind of my background — “You can go do anything you want.”
Unreal Engine 4 for iOS came out. I saw it, and I predicted that games weren’t going to internally be this 2D core animation thing. They were going to go to the next level. I saw that engine and got so excited. I put together about $150,000 in investment and we went from there.
GamesBeat: Tell me about your current company.
Wu: Giant Spacekat started off — again, we had no idea what we were doing — up in Boston. But I knew that to get my foot in the door of the games industry, I needed to do two things. I needed to find a unique angle for us, because there are lots of indie game developers. For a long time I’ve felt like there were not video games for women. Very generally speaking, the games industry creates games by men and for men. I felt like there was this space out there for a different view. I saw a new market emerging.
Very baked into Giant Spacekat’s DNA, we have men working on the team, but we’re always looking for talented women. Our lead engineer is a woman. Our lead playtester is a woman. That’s been the angle. We’re making games that anyone can play but that are friendly to this audience. We got started in 2011.
GamesBeat: And now you’ve finished the game.
Wu: We finished Revolution 60 last year, yes. It was very successful. We wanted to ship a game that would be big enough to say, “Look at Giant Spacekat. We may not have previous industry experience, but we’ve shipped a successful, well-reviewed game. Now let’s take it from there and grow the play.”
GamesBeat: Along the way you got very outspoken about women in the games industry. Where did that evolve from?
Wu: I didn’t feel this strongly before I started in the game industry. It was being treated like shit on a regular basis that made me so outspoken. It’s really funny. My husband’s best friend, the best man at my wedding, I remember talking to him in 2009. He was talking about how he loved to read Jezebel [a site aimed at women readers]. I said, “I don’t like them. I think you need to concentrate on doing good work and you’ll be fine.” That’s what I used to believe before I started this job. I don’t feel that way anymore.
It’s a frustrating place. I’ve worked in other industries. I’ve worked as a reporter. I’ve worked in wider tech. The games industry is really frustrating to work in on a daily basis.
GamesBeat: The #Gamergate issue drew you in. How did you become part of that whole show?
Wu: #Gamergate started with attacking Zoe Quinn, who’s a friend of mine in Boston. A few months before they had attacked and run my friend, Samantha Allen, out of the industry. It didn’t have the GamerGate name yet at that point, but they’d been bullying my friends for a long time.
For me, I was just angry. That’s why I kept speaking up about it. As far as women in tech generally, I’ve been speaking up about this increasingly over the last few years.
So after speaking out against them, GamerGate eventually went after me big time. I told them, “I’m not going anywhere. I’m not getting bullied out of this industry.” That made them even angrier, to the point where it’s been nonstop harassment for five months now.
GamesBeat: What kind of volume are you talking about? On a daily basis, what happens?
Wu: Hundreds of angry messages. Death threats still constantly roll in. I spend at least a day a week working with law enforcement at this point. If you look at the Newsweek story two months ago, talking about the volume of harassment women were getting, I was at the top of the list. It’s constant.
GamesBeat: Somewhere along the way, the narrative the GamerGate people started telling went, “Hey, we’re being misportrayed by the media. It’s a larger conspiracy. They say we’re all about death threats when we’re really about better game journalism.” I take it this is not an argument you support.
Wu: I’m an engineer. I look at outcomes. Who is GamerGate choosing to target? Me. I’m not a journalist. Randi Harper isn’t a journalist. Anita Sarkeesian is an independently funded journalist. You can watch her or not. She’s not a game reviewer. It seems to me that everyone they target speaks out concerning equality for women. That reveals a lot about their motives.
GamesBeat: I wonder how it got so big. It almost seemed like a lot of people felt as if it would just blow over, that it wouldn’t last. Somehow it kept on going.
Wu: This is what people don’t understand in the industry. The people saying that, the people who believed it would blow over, were generally men in the game industry. I’ve been getting rape threats since I started my job. Ask any woman who works here what amount of harassment she gets on a daily basis. This isn’t going anywhere. Assuming it will go away is just wishful thinking.
GamesBeat: A lot of companies chose to stay silent as well. They also probably felt that if they stayed silent, they wouldn’t become targets.
Wu: Absolutely. Behind the scenes, that’s what has happened at company after company. I can promise you that’s true.
GamesBeat: Intel gave it a second life, kind of stepping in their own crap.
Wu: They did.
GamesBeat: It seemed to raise it to a higher level of awareness. I felt like at some point after that, with it getting ridiculed on TV by Stephen Colbert and so on, it turned a corner. The GamerGate people seemed to lose what sympathy they had up to then.
Wu: Colbert was a turning point, definitely, when he had Anita Sarkeesian on.
GamesBeat: Intel did something interesting recently, stepping up with the $300 million diversity initiative.
Wu: They did, although I do wonder how that’s going to be spent. If you look at the specifics, they’re going through the IGDA. As an engineer and an entrepreneur, I want to see what they’re going to do.
GamesBeat: So you would hope that some good could come out of this in the end?
Wu: I would hope. I applaud Intel for stepping forward. That’s great. I guess my concern is that it’s easy to feel good and want to change the culture. The problem women face in technology is a multifaceted problem. There’s a kind of assumption that sexism in tech is just people sitting there believing that women can’t code as well as men can. But that’s not the truth of how it happens to us.
You have this pipeline. Women start in school when they’re very young. When we’re in elementary school we’re edged away from computers. In high school we’re edged away from technology and toward boys. In college–
GamesBeat: It’s not the cool thing for a woman to do.
Wu: Exactly. There are these leaks in the pipeline, all the way along. Often the solutions I hear are things like, “Well, let’s just get more girls interested in tech. Let’s cram them in the back of the pipeline.” It doesn’t do anything about those leaks further down.
GamesBeat: $300 million starts to seem like a small amount of money from that perspective.
Wu: I’m glad they’re doing it, and I’m happy Anita is involved with them. I’d like to understand what the IGDA specifically plans to do.
GamesBeat: Do you think that this comes back in some way to affect the kind of games you want to make, your own choices in how you use your time?
Wu: Absolutely. Are you kidding me? Every choice I make—let me put it this way. I hired a woman last week to work at my company. One of the requirements for her to work for us is that she didn’t want her name tweeted or used publicly because she’s terrified. She loves the work that we do, but she’s terrified of being targeted. Do you see what I mean? Everything we do is so scrutinized at this point that it’s immensely stressful, for me and for the other women who work for me.
GamesBeat: There’s some interesting crossover of reality and art sometimes. Adam Orth is making a game as a way of exploring his experience being driven out of a job by an online hate mob. I don’t know if you feel the same kind of artistic motivation.
Wu: I do, I do. I haven’t decided if I’m going to make this game yet, but one game I’ve talked about making—do you know Kate Leth? She works on Adventure Time comics. A game I’ve wanted to do with her is a kind of Social Justice Warrior brawler. You get me and Anita going through a Streets of Rage-style game in Kate’s art style.
I’ve also thought about doing deeper games about this isolation and desperation that I believe GamerGate is based on. I feel like GamerGate is reflective of larger issues that all of us feel. The irony of how we’re more connected to each other than ever, and yet we often feel that much more alone and angry and disconnected.
GamesBeat: Do you have a project coming up next?
Wu: I do. It’s going to be huge, but I can’t talk about it yet. The size of the team flexes depending on where we’re going. Right now Giant Spacekat has five people. At our height we had 10. We’re building back up now and adding personnel.
GamesBeat: Do you plan to raise money for it?
Wu: Yeah. A reporter’s been following me around for two weeks, doing nothing but going to all my meetings. He’s doing a huge thing on it. Women in games, there’s an obvious bet. You just have to find someone who believes in what we’re doing.
Let me put it this way. I feel like games for men is a fished-out market. Over here I feel like there’s this other market, and yet all we’ve been able to figure out as far as games for women are things like FarmVille and Candy Crush. I believe there are different game types that women will respond to. We just need innovation to find them.
GamesBeat: I’ve always felt that some of the best hardcore games that have come out more recently have the strongest women characters. I’m not sure why the core GamerGate people have reason to complain about that.
Wu: Look at Titanfall. That’s a good example. I’ve never played Call of Duty, because I don’t want to play a game where there’s no one that looks like me. They haven’t managed that until Ghosts 2. Titanfall comes out and they include women in Titanfall. What are the effects of that on dudes who play the game? This much. But it lets women play the game and feel like we’re valued as consumers. It’s just a no-brainer to me.
GamesBeat: I see a lot of double-edged swords here. In some ways GamerGate has been very personally painful for you. But it also creates some opportunities.
Wu: It absolutely has. I’m one of the best-known women developers in the world today. That’s a fact. What’s funny to me is that by attacking me so viciously, they’re helping give me the visibility to usher in the very game industry they’re terrified about. It’s had a horrible effect on my family. They threatened to castrate my husband. They’re attacking him all day.
Did you read the thing where my dog died? This is a terrible situation for anyone, and on top of that Gamergate is doxxing us, so as my dog is dying I’m worried someone has poisoned him. Which they didn’t, but at this point it’s a reasonable fear when you’ve received 42 death threats in five months. Then they’re doxxing my vet’s location.
I was at Arisia this weekend. I can’t go to an event now without security escorting me around. I made an exception for this event because it’s France, but at Arisia I had four cops following me around the entire convention because GamerGaters had threatened me. At Game Jam this weekend they had to bring police out to watch the whole event. It’s exhausting.
GamesBeat: I hope speaking out about it may also win you friends.
Wu: Something I like to think about is, I’ve certainly made enemies. But the truth is, Brianna Wu and Giant Spacekat, we only need one door open at a time. I’m hoping this will help open that one door that we need.