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Brianna Wu, the head of development and cofounder of Giant Spacekat, said she has received more than 180 death threats in the past year because of her vocal opposition of Internet haters in the controversy known as GamerGate. Wu has been faced with the dilemma of disclosing the death threats and calling for more action against those who make them while simultaneously trying to get more women into the game industry to change it for the better.

But she doesn’t just want to be painted as a victim. Wu has become excited about virtual reality and its ability to make communication within games much more human, with the ability to express story, narrative, emotion, and empathy. She believes these features are more easily invoked in visceral, immersive VR experiences. By delivering new kinds of experiences, Wu believes that the industry can attract a more diverse group of gamers, including girls and women. And that’s why she is moving her studio beyond mobile and into VR.

I interviewed her in a very frank yet optimistic fireside chat our GamesBeat 2015 conference. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.

Brianna Wu has received 180 death threats over the past year because of GamerGate.

Above: Brianna Wu has received 180 death threats over the past year because of GamerGate.

Image Credit: Michael O'Donnell/VentureBeat

GamesBeat: I pointed out this morning that GamerGate happened in 2014, not 1865. I wonder how its intensity impressed you or surprised you.

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Brianna Wu: Yeah. This week I expect to cross 180 death threats in under a year. The rape threats I don’t even report to the FBI anymore. The intensity has been terrible. How do you put a price on people who spend all day, every day, trying to ruin your life?

I did a talk at Google the other day, a well-received talk, and someone from GamerGate sat there and downloaded the video all day long. It’s people who have nothing better to do with their time. It’s exhausting.

GamesBeat: Looking back on this last year, the Internet hate and the threats, can you draw any lesson from it?

Wu: Sometimes, when you talk to people who’ve been in recovery for substance abuse issues, they have this concept they call “rock bottom.” It gets so bad that you have to make changes to your life. This last year, with all respect to the men in this industry, has been the year technology hit rock bottom as far as the way we treat women. It’s at a point where we can’t ignore it anymore.

Sometimes it’s easy to get discouraged. As you said, the intensity of it is exhausting. But at the same time we’re having conversations today that we could not have had five years ago, or even three years ago. It had to get worse to get better.

GamesBeat: How do you balance this need to tell people about it and the problems that still exist in the game industry against the concern that you might frighten women away from considering careers in gaming?

Wu: I struggle with this every day. Something that’s hard for me, I remember being a child in the ‘80s and looking at this field. It was a field I wanted very much to go into, but I didn’t see people who looked like me working in video games. You can’t really be it if you can’t see it. So I do worry about scaring young girls off. I get letters from girls who are eight, 10, 12, and they tell me, “I want to become a game developer, but I’m terrified that what happened to you will happen to me.”

We have to think about that. But at the same time, ignoring it isn’t going to work. We got to this point through the game industry ignoring its cultural issues for 30 years. What I do is, I look them in the eye and I promise that we’ll make it better. We’re following through on that.

Brianna Wu is steering her Giant Spacekat indie studio into virtual reality.

Above: Brianna Wu is steering her Giant Spacekat indie studio into virtual reality.

Image Credit: Michael O'Donnell/VentureBeat

GamesBeat: You’ve managed to find a creative spark in this, something related to virtual reality. Tell me about that.

Wu: I left Oculus Connect a few weeks ago more psyched than I’ve ever felt in my life about the longevity and the sustainability of VR. That said, I can’t help but look at some of my friends that are working in this field—Look at Epic’s tech demo. At Oculus Connect, Epic used the Unreal engine and came out with a tech demo that got rave reviews. But what is it? It’s a demo where you’re on a train killing robots in a first-person shooter. Let’s try out the same playbook yet again.

What we’re asking ourselves is, what does VR do better than any other technology? What’s the fundamental problem that VR solves better than anything? To me it’s straightforward. It’s story. VR tells stories better than any medium. Until Dawn just came out for PS4. I loved this game, but ultimately you’re just pushing buttons to make choices. That’s not the way I want to experience a story. I want to be in that story. I want to talk to people. I want to interact with people. I want to look a character in the eye and have them react when I do that.

What we’re doing at our studio is asking ourselves what might be the fundamental building block that’s missing from the game industry. It’s empathy. We’re currently in the middle of raising money to build frameworks for the Unreal engine that excel at emotional detection. What I mean by that is, just like your iPhone—Your iPhone caught on like wildfire because we all have a finger. We’re directly touching tools that were built to use every day in a very natural way.

I think about VR and the kinds of ways you make story-driven gameplay for it. You don’t want to hold a controller with 15 buttons to experience a story. You want to use your voice, your eyes, your emotion, the tone of your voice. Do you sound angry? Do you sound sad? That’s the direction we’re going.

GamesBeat: It’s almost like there’s a technological answer to this problem of human behavior.

Wu: I think so. I can’t take credit for this thought. This is from Ben Kuchera at Polygon. But he said something that I think was dead on – “I don’t think Gamergate would have gotten to the point it’s at if so much of our communication hadn’t been on Twitter.” That’s so true. I have had conversations that were very aggressive on Twitter with certain people that I don’t agree with on anything politically. Then I call them on the phone and say, “Hey, can we have a cup of coffee and talk like two adults?” Then we’re in person and it’s awesome.

I feel like Twitter and other social media tools leave out all this emotional communication. That becomes superfluous. Going forward, I believe the next generation of social networks will have this emotional component to them. We want to be the people building the tools that make that happen.

GamesBeat: VR can also be a very immersive technology. People are warning that many VR apps could make us even less social, hiding in the corner in our goggles. How do you get around that?

Wu: I don’t know how it could be worse than it is right now, when you don’t even look a single person in the eye crossing the street here. Part of that solution is going to be augmented reality. I feel like we don’t talk enough about this. My bet is that AR is going to end up being much bigger than VR. But the way we connect to each other in VR, because it’s more immersive—We can represent ourselves and bring more of that data across.

Maybe it’s optimistic, but I feel like we’re in the baby talk stage of all these things. I can’t help but think that eventually technology is going to follow through on the promise of the ‘90s. It’ll connect us more than it tears us apart.

Brianna Wu talks about VR with Dean Takahashi at GamesBeat 2015.

Above: Brianna Wu talks about VR with Dean Takahashi at GamesBeat 2015.

Image Credit: Michael O'Donnell/VentureBeat

GamesBeat: Are you leaving mobile behind as you move into VR?

Wu: Absolutely not. As we go forward—We work with the Unreal engine. Part of the reason we choose to partner with Epic is, whoever ends up winning these hardware wars – whatever technology we use – I’m sure that Epic and the Unreal engine will support it.

We are ultimately engineers that care a lot about developing emotional frameworks. I don’t want to be a hardware engineer. That seems like a terrible job. We can take a back seat and just work with whatever formats come to the forefront.

GamesBeat: You’re inspired a little by Snow Crash, you’ve said?

Wu: Yeah! Snow Crash is a dystopian novel, but I think that sometimes when we’re talking about diversity—There’s a way to talk about women in tech like it’s the right thing to do, and it is. I want my women friends to be able to pursue jobs in this industry and get paid engineers’ salaries the same way men do. But it goes beyond that.

When I look at the PS4 and the Xbox One, I don’t know what you see, but I see a generation with almost no innovation. I say that with all respect to my friends out there shipping games on consoles, but when I look at Forza, I see the same game from Xbox 360 with prettier textures and particle effects. There’s nothing I’ve seen so far that couldn’t have been done in the last generation. Same story with first-person shooters.

To me, when we’re talking about women in tech, at its core this is about making better games. Guys, aren’t you all so frustrated with playing the same stupid game? I’ve been blowing people to bits in first-person since 1994. I feel like if we bring different people into the mix with different perspectives that are interested in different problems, I believe the future isn’t going to be Snow Crash. It’ll be much more interesting than that.

GamesBeat: Do you also feel that indies can prosper in VR?

Wu: I don’t know. One of the problems with VR is that 3D development is a lot more expensive than doing 16-bit retro-style games. I don’t know if I’d agree with that.

GamesBeat: There will have to be a different playbook from the biggest companies.

Wu: Absolutely. Unreal is doing something interesting, if you look at Unreal Engine 4. They have the marketplace, where you can buy some excellent assets. They’d cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars to build myself, but I can buy an entire library for a few thousand instead.

Still, I wouldn’t agree with that. We’re at a point now where—There were maybe about three years on the app store where a two-person shop could ship a product that would break barriers. Now we’re at a point where you need a team of five or 10 people to make a viable product. The marketing alone is considerable.

GamesBeat: Is the pitch going well? Are people listening to your point of view about women and VR and the potential out there?

Wu: Absolutely. GamerGate has had an almost indescribable toll on my family. For you to become well-known in your career, would you be willing to trade being scared every time there’s a knock on your door? Would you be willing to deal with people calling your private phone number while they’re masturbating? That’s what I’m dealing with. It’s had a terrible cost. But at the same time, the truth is, I’m well-known enough nowadays that I can get calls with most people. It’s going well, but it’s been a high cost to get here.

Brianna Wu of Giant Spacekat wants more women in the games industry.

Above: Brianna Wu of Giant Spacekat wants more women in the game industry.

Image Credit: Michael O'Donnell/VentureBeat

GamesBeat: At the end of all this, do you still have an optimistic view of technology?

Wu: I don’t know if I’d call it optimistic. I see opportunities. I feel like this year’s taken us to the darkest parts of the internet. Have you ever been on 8chan or Kotaku in Action?

GamesBeat: I try not to.

Wu: Sometimes, when you read this, it affects you. It makes you feel darker. It’s hard to hear that chorus of voices tearing you down all day long and not let it affect you. I wouldn’t say I have an optimistic view. But the engineering me wants to look at this and make it better. I’m interested in building the future from here. I’m very positive that whatever we build next is not going to be worse than what we have right now.

GamesBeat: It sounds like determination is a word that comes out of this.

Wu: Yeah, that’s very accurate. There’s a quote I saw today that I loved. Courage is not an absence of fear. Throughout the last year there have been days where I’ve been so scared that my hands are shaking. I couldn’t stop it. But courage is when you believe something is so important that it’s more important than your fear. You’re willing to stand up to that and push past it.

When you look at the women who have put it on the line to stand up to Gamergate and draw a line in the sand and say, “I deserve to be here too. I love technology. I’m not going anywhere. Bring it on,” you’re seeing women who realize that this has to change. For me, I don’t speak up on the things I do because I want to. I do it because I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t.

GamesBeat: When you have conversations with younger women, how does that go? Do you usually see a positive result?

Wu: Sometimes. Something we do a lot at our company is—We desperately need more women doing exactly what I do, which is being the CEO, making hires, acquiring capital, and giving people jobs. Something we spend a lot of time doing at our company is giving young girls internships, so they can get their foot in the door and learn these critical game skills in a supportive environment that’s free of a lot of these politics.

You sometimes want to talk to them. Sometimes it’s just listening to them being afraid. Sometimes it’s giving them a word of advice about what they can specialize in to have a better career. More than anything it’s just being real with them. It’s as simple, sometimes, as looking them in the eye and telling them it’s okay to be afraid.

GamesBeat: There are people in this room who are — I think it’s good for them to hear this message from you. Some of them have the ability to create a lot more jobs than you do right now. They should probably go about it.

Wu: This is so critical. As a tech feminist there’s sometimes a tendency to criticize the system. There’s so much to criticize. You have to look at the major game companies. I know so many women who have had kids and have left because it’s just not supportive. I know so many women who have dealt with sexual harassment and just left because their workplaces aren’t supportive.

It’s easy to critique that. But at the same time, we desperately need women out there working on the venture capital side, creating jobs, building institutions with our values. Think about this. What makes more sense? To go out there embedded with these giant companies to change their culture, or to build a new future ourselves?

We’re in tech. New giants are born all the time. What I want to know is, when is there going to be a woman in tech who’s the next Steve Jobs, a woman who rises up and creates that kind of vision. That’s what we need to be empowered going forward.

GamesBeat: Some men have to try to hire that woman, too.

Wu: I agree with that, or at least support them. So much of the work I do is on unconscious bias. Sometimes I think we don’t see it, but we tend to hang around people who are like ourselves. I’m guilty of this at my own company. It’s mostly a bunch of white women who work at my company. Like tends to hang out with like. But we have to actively be aware of those biases and work against them.

My suggestion out there for you is to just find one thing to consciously decide to do better. You choose to network with women, with people of color, with LGBT people. Just choose that one thing, and that’s how we get forward from here.

Brianna Wu''s studio made the Revolution 60 mobile game.

Above: Brianna Wu’s studio made the Revolution 60 mobile game.

Image Credit: Michael O'Donnell/VentureBeat

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