Missed the GamesBeat Summit excitement? Don't worry! Tune in now to catch all of the live and virtual sessions here.

In August 2014, Zoe Quinn found herself under the Eye of Sauron. The reference to J.R.R. Tolkien’s evil character with a searing, burning eye is an apt way to describe the Internet haters that came down on top of the game developer during the Gamergate controversy.

Quinn became the central target of the mob, and for two years she dealt with the personal attacks, doxxing, and continuous spotlight. She was accused of sleeping with journalists and others for professional advancement, including getting positive reviews for her game Depression Quest, or at least tapping her friends to get positive press. Those claims were spurious at best, but they spread across the Internet and created a movement that was stoked by the likes of former Breitbart writer Milo Yiannopoulos.

That took a huge toll on Quinn and almost destroyed her life. But she has bounced back from the hatred. She wrote a book, Crash Override, chronicling her Gamergate experience. And she has created the Crash Override Network, an advocacy group she started to help people who are experiencing online abuse. Quinn is also working on a new game that she says will be a comedy.

Her friend Anita Sarkeesian, founder of Feminist Frequency, called Quinn’s book a “compelling personal history of the woman with a bullseye on her back.” I found her description of Internet hate from within the eye of the storm to be clear-eyed and gripping, as I experienced a small version of that myself with my own Cuphead controversy. There were times in the height of Gamergate when Quinn felt overwhelmed that false information was going to rule the day. And that was in the days before “fake news” was a household phrase.

I have corresponded with Gamergate fans, and I have heard what they have to say about Quinn. In this particular forum, I am giving Quinn the floor in a wide-ranging conversation about what happened and how she has responded. She writes and talks about herself with an unflinching eye, saying she is far from the ideal person to lead a cause. She describes what it’s like to be in the social media storm, and offers advice on how to survive it. We talked for more than an hour about her experiences and what she’s doing next. It was a nice conversation, brought about by a shared experience of being the object of hatred and trying to move beyond it.

Here’s an edited transcript of part one of our interview. Part two will run tomorrow.

Above: Zoe Quinn’s book Crash Override chronicles her Gamergate experience and how she is fighting back.

Image Credit: Zoe Quinn

GamesBeat: Maybe the opening question should be, what’s a good thing to talk about at this point for you?

Zoe Quinn: I’m still pretty much an open book. When it comes to specifics of some of the rumors and stuff people have made up about me—usually it doesn’t circulate that far anyway. I try to avoid addressing specific conspiracy theories out there. Some of them were kind of fun. For a while people were trying to say I was this UN-engineered edutainment plant, like a secret agent. That was almost fun.

GamesBeat: You’re referring to the craziest things that people say about you, which are so far from the facts of what happened. 

Quinn: Right. When it’s people asking about weird accusations and rumors—anything that my ex said that had to do with who he thought I was sleeping with, when all of this was originally happening, the first thing I said about it is there’s no point in addressing the specifics of “did you or did you not sleep with someone?” Mobs were already trying to find where I lived and harassing my family and sending me death threats, making sure the next Anita Sarkeesian didn’t spring up in games. It was clear that it wasn’t really about that, and I didn’t want to take the focus off something I thought was a larger and more important conversation to try to save my own skin or whatever.

Sometimes it’s said “She cheated on this guy with over 90 people.” Who has the strength for that? I still don’t know most of these people that I’ve been included in weird conspiracy theories with. I don’t know what they want. So just to protect other people’s privacy—it’s hard not to see everything after the last few years as being so tightly interconnected. I’m trying to minimize the potential harm to anybody else whenever possible.

Above: Zoe Quinn has had testify a lot about her experiences.

Image Credit: Zoe Quinn

GamesBeat: It seems like the basic facts of about you sleeping with somebody to get good game reviews, or even using your friends to get good press coverage—it seemed so easily refuted. To me it feels like all this Gamergate rage came from a non-event. I don’t know if that’s the way you look back on it.

Quinn: Totally. The sex for coverage accusation, that one I’m happy to debunk, because it literally never happened. I went through different phases of trying to address this. It wasn’t even until about a week in, I think, that someone made up that accusation. They just decided that my game is unconventional. It’s a browser game. It’s interactive fiction. The subject matter isn’t that common in games.

And just because the person who initially made up the sex-for-coverage accusation has a YouTube channel that’s 100 percent ranting about how terrible women are. I think he just decided that, for my game to have had any sort of success by any metric, it must have happened that way. There’s no other possible way people could have liked it.

Then they just decided—it’s like working backward from something you’ve already drawn a conclusion about and trying to find something to stick to it, to make it retroactively right instead of looking at the facts. Random people would be like, “She had sex for a positive review.” I’d say, “Link me to the review and I’ll admit to everything you said.”

I remember I had one back and forth with someone — because I used to spend a lot of time engaging with people, before I burned out and realized it wasn’t helpful or useful or changing anybody’s mind, which is sad – “Well, you had sex for a review.” I said, “Okay, link the review. What site is it on? Walk me through the thing you’re mad at me for.” “I can’t find it. You must have deleted it.” “How would I be able to delete it off someone’s site? Everything is super archived. Go to archive.org. Here’s where you can find anything that was up there. I’ll wait. Find the review. Just get me the title of the review.” “If there wasn’t a review, then what is this for?” “Exactly!”

It’s frustrating, because it’s so easy for false information to spread online without anybody taking the time to verify it before repeating it. That’s maybe a curse of living in the information age. We don’t interrogate what we’re seeing so much because there’s so much of it all the time. Who has the time to—your friend says something and you just think, “Whoa, I didn’t know that.” People don’t fact-check those things. Like I say, we’re in the too-much-information age.


Above: Cuphead faces a very fierce and angry flower.

Image Credit: Studio MDHR

GamesBeat: I feel like I have more empathy for you, after becoming the focus of my own Twitter shitstorm.

Quinn: It’s hard to describe to anybody. Even when I was writing the book—I don’t fully know how to convey the asymmetrical nature of being just one person and having this thing that’s not true, or modified, about you out there, and just the weight of stuff that comes your way. It’s hard to get that across to anybody.

GamesBeat: In my own case, I tried to have some arguments with haters, and it dawned on me that I wasn’t just arguing with one person. I was arguing with every possible person out there who could think of some kind of response that was more witty than mine. If there was something to dig up, they’d dig it up. It’s eye-opening in that way. It’s hard to argue against the whole internet.

Quinn: The scale is so intense. Even just the time that you have as one person to deal with something, versus the time that hundreds or thousands or who even knows—people make multiple accounts. That’s been a hard question to answer in interviews. “How many people do you think actually participated in this thing?” I really don’t have any idea. The feeling is so overwhelming, of being one person versus so many people. Plus, people make a bunch of fake accounts.

There’s a performative element to it when people are coming after you. They’re not just arguing with you. They’re trying to get backpats from other people that agree with them.

Above: The Eye of Sauron

Image Credit: Warner Bros.

GamesBeat: It was interesting that you said in a tweet, “Sorry the Eye of Sauron fell on you.” I thought that was a good way to put it.

Quinn: I’ve seen this sort of thing happen before. I saw it happen to Anita [Sarkeesian]. It feels like it’s not even that personal, in a weird way, when they come for people. It’s more about working through a larger issue they have. We’re just the person that this thing landed on. While it’s super personal in that they’re trying to find things in your life to mess with you, it seems like there’s this roiling background of menace. Everyone knows the internet can be a super toxic and stressful place. A lot of unfortunate stuff is constantly happening. Sometimes the plague of locusts just comes your way. They’re going to do their thing, move on to the next thing, and sometimes you’re the thing that gets caught up in it.

It’s super fucked. I still really love the internet. I still love gaming and the gaming community. It’s just frustrating when this specific element of it—this stuff isn’t unique to gaming, either. It’s just sad when all the good stuff about the internet is put in a blender and comes out as the dark version of itself.

Above: Cuphead’s tutorial is different in the final version.

Image Credit: StudioMDHR/Microsoft

GamesBeat: I noticed that there isn’t really one good response to it. All these people are different. You say one thing to one person and it seems to work. You say the same thing to someone else and they just go postal on you. It’s puzzling that way, figuring out how to respond.

Quinn: After three-ish years of this stuff, I’ve come through so many different iterations of how to respond to any kind of controversy. I’ve had stuff that was completely made up from space, more or less, to stuff where there’s just enough out there that could look bad, if it’s framed in a certain way.

It’s funny, because I got into games because I didn’t want to be a performer or anything like that. I’m comfortable making art in a way that doesn’t require me to go out and be a personality. I didn’t want to be an announcer or an actress or anything like that. To have this public persona and have to give statements—it feels like a weird press conference sometimes.

At first I was trying to respond very engagingly: “Here are the facts. This is what actually happened.” That didn’t work, because people already had the next talking point in their head that they were going to use. They weren’t engaging in good faith. They just wanted to yell at me or try to embarrass me or make me have a specific emotional reaction or get me to block them. People try really hard to get me to block them so they can screenshot it and brag about it. I just mute people. I don’t want to engage with that kind of thing.

But I tried going with facts and it didn’t go anywhere. I tried talking to people directly, not addressing their claims, but asking, “Why are you like this? Are you okay?” I was a jerk teenager once who was super into games. I remember what that felt like. Maybe if I try to deal with the root cause here, that’ll work. Well, that had mixed results. The response to someone would be turned into some conspiracy theory by someone else.

After a while I was responding with—I had this big folder of, any time you play a fighting game and the round is over, early ‘90s fighting games, there’d be that win screen. You’d have the character doing a pose with the one line of trash talk. “Looks like you weren’t good at that!” I’d just respond with those screenshots, and the arguments they were having would be the same on their side as when I was trying to respond with facts. “Oh. It doesn’t matter what I say at all.”

Now I try to respond about larger points, to take focus off of individuals who are bad-faith actors. There’s some value in talking about specific things, for third parties who are watching what’s going on. Maybe it’s people who have been targeted by harassment themselves, who’ve been through this sort of thing and don’t know how to respond. I try to think of them as the audience and talk to them, talk to people who do want to engage in good faith, instead of trying to play whack-a-mole with weird accusations and conspiracies and misinformation, or people who just don’t like you dressing stuff up as being something that it’s not.

Above: One of Zoe Quinn’s games.

Image Credit: Zoe Quinn

GamesBeat: It does seem like, if you try to talk to someone on the other side, you never really know how it’s going to go. It could be dangerous to do that. It makes you want to stay in your side of the social media divide, I guess.

Quinn: After they got my phone number, I used to answer, for a long time. My dad’s really old-fashioned. He has a hard time updating phone numbers and things like that, and I didn’t want to lose contact with him. I used to answer, and people who weren’t automatically screaming off the bat would say, “Is this Zoe Quinn?” “Yeah. You dialed my number. I don’t know what you thought would happen.” “Oh. You know your phone number’s on the internet, right?” “Yes. I’m pretty well aware.” “Oh. I’m sorry.” Some of them would apologize, because they just didn’t think it through that far.

Sometimes I can tell when I tell a particularly good joke on Twitter or something, because I’ll get an email or a Reddit message from someone who participated in Gamergate and they’re like, “Oh, no, while I was obsessively going through your feed and stalking you, you said something that made me laugh. I started thinking, you’re an actual person. I know that sounds weird.” And I’m like, no, I get that a lot, this dehumanization thing.

I try to think of ways I might subvert that, because it’s hard to think of other people online as being fully people sometimes. People get caught up in participating any kind of mob-like behavior, because it’s maybe the only sense of community with other people that they’ve had. If everyone in your group is doing it, it’s harder to pump the brakes and question why you’re participating in this sort of behavior, to feel the weight of what you’re doing. When someone is just an abstract symbol, or text on a screen, it’s harder to feel like what you’re doing to them might be hurting a real person, to feel the weight of that, versus just trying to play a game with your friends. “Who can mess with this person the most?”

GamesBeat: It seems like the precursor to some of this was Anonymous, the hacktivist group that was going after corporations, going after Sony. It was such a jolly time, taking down a big company, bringing their website offline. If you participated in that you felt a sense of community.

Quinn: It’s power, too. When I was younger, 15-ish, I was part of Anonymous, doing the whole hacktivism thing. I was pretty geographically isolated. Computers and the internet felt like magic at my fingertips. I was this little messed-up kid that couldn’t control very much in my own life, but with a computer I could do all kinds of stuff. It felt like having some kind of power or control. I feel like that’s definitely the case for people.

There’s a big difference between people who I, optimistically, think may be the majority of those folks, versus people who point the mob in different directions. The guy who started by pointing the finger at you, like. They know what they’re doing, to a certain extent. They have different motives – trying to build a brand, trying to monetize this through various means. That’s a bit different. I think all of this feeds into the same kind of biases that people have offline. It’s not as if the internet invented racism or sexism. It’s not as if people leave all that stuff at the door when they sign on. That’s always a factor too.

I feel like we’re in a weird point with the internet where we’ve made this extremely cool, extremely powerful, extremely unique thing, but we still have no idea how to treat each other online. Treat each other well, at least.

Above: Gamergate activity from Google Trends between 2014 and 2017.

Image Credit: Google

GamesBeat: I feel like the people directing this will face some kind of karma. Haters eventually have to deal with the consequences.

Quinn: I always wonder when and how that’s going to come. A lot of times I think that community—if you build a community and a platform out of recreationally tearing people down, it’s not a stretch to think at some point someone might want to recreationally tear you down. Especially because so much of it—it’s such a weird thing to watch.

There’s one person I’m online friends with now who I only knew in the context of Gamergate. He reached out and took a pretty hard stand and was very friendly, in my corner. He said, “Hey, I don’t really know you, but I see what’s happening to you and it’s wrong. I know why you wouldn’t want to accept anything from a stranger, but let me know if there’s anything I can do to help you.” We were chatting because I’d read some of his articles, stuff like that.

We were talking about this one, basically, proto-shitlord, before social media was the thing everybody was on. He would do these elaborate posts about people who were “hilariously” messed up, write this big dossiers and be like, “Oh, look at this jerk.” Basically callout posts, but it was a different time back then. He said, “You know that’s our mutual friend so-and-so, right?” Like, what?

I went back to this new friend and realized, wait, hold on, you did all this stuff. He said, “Yeah.” He sent me this thing he’d written owning up to all that and talking about it how people did turn on him and were stalking him, stalking his wife. He said, “That’s one of the reasons I know how bad I can get. I know I have a lot to make up for. I want to try to make the world a better place now. I understand why people behave this way.”

It’s just a weird situation to be in. The thing about internet culture that worries me now is trying to figure out ways where people can step back from that. The path to becoming not a shitlord anymore, to making up for the harm you cause, is really undiscovered territory. The internet remembers everything forever, right? But what if someone does legitimately grow and change? We need to figure out ways to—without belittling the needs or the struggles of the people that person hurt, still sensing that. We can’t just tell people who’ve been victimized to suck it up. But ways to rehabilitate everyone and have better community practices that don’t just treat everyone as disposable.

Above: Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest game.

Image Credit: Zoe Quinn

GamesBeat: There’s an interesting realization that a lot of people should come to, though. There are a lot of little shitlords out there. All these seemingly innocuous comments carry a lot of weight when there’s enough of them.

Quinn: It’s the crux of it. The bigger your platform gets—it kind of feels like being Godzilla sometimes. You make a slight move and you can accidentally knock over a building. It’s a tough thing to navigate. I feel like—I can’t cite the thing, because I don’t remember where it was, but I recall reading a study about how our brains are wired up to only really know about 300 people. I have to wonder if some part of the difficulty in dealing with the repercussions of your actions on the internet is just that we were not ever really built for being able to conceive of a global community of anything.

It’s so cool that we’ve made this, but also, we’re still monkeys in shoes. Maybe we can’t fully wrap our heads around just how many other people there are. Or the butterfly effect any of our actions can have.

GamesBeat's creed when covering the game industry is "where passion meets business." What does this mean? We want to tell you how the news matters to you -- not just as a decision-maker at a game studio, but also as a fan of games. Whether you read our articles, listen to our podcasts, or watch our videos, GamesBeat will help you learn about the industry and enjoy engaging with it. Discover our Briefings.