MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
A heated debate in the videogame industry has turned ugly and has escalated to include death threats. It's known as #Gamergate and it's gotten so bad that two women have left their homes because of online threats. And another woman, an award-winning games journalist, has said she will never report on the industry again. It's a complicated debate about many parts of a changing industry. NPR's Nathan Rott reports.
NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Let's start with the basics. #Gamergate started as a hashtag on Twitter - a banner under which people could collectively argue, vent or attack an idea or an individual. In #Gamergate's case, that individual was Zoe Quinn.
ZOE QUINN: I'm Zoe Quinn and I'm an independent game developer and community organizer.
ROTT: Quinn has been actively involved in the videogame industry for a while and she's part of a growing demographic in that industry - developers and designers who aren't making the next "Call Of Duty" or big-budget role-playing game.
QUINN: I basically make weird little games that are about feelings; so not the traditional sort of game where people usually think of when you say videogame.
ROTT: Quinn's was notable game is called "Depression Quest," a game that simulates the experience of having depression through multiple choice text. And Quinn unwillingly sparked the #Gamergate debate. A few weeks ago a spiteful ex-boyfriend accused her online of sleeping with the game's journalist, implying it garnered her better coverage for "Depression Quest" - a charge Quinn denied. What followed though was #Gamergate. A huge backlash of people taking to Twitter, YouTube and online forums, many using the allegations against Quinn as proof that there is ethical corruption in videogames journalism; that game developers and game journalists have grown too cozy.
Others labeled Quinn as a so-called social justice warrior; a woman who isn't interested in games, just in promoting herself and her ideals by challenging video games traditionally male-dominated culture. And that's where things got ugly - horribly ugly. Quinn was flooded with death threats, rape threats, her personal information - even photos - were hacked and posted online, forcing her to leave her home.
QUINN: It's like the Internet is eager and waiting for a reason to be a total scumbag to you - at least if you're a woman and you're a loud, outspoken woman.
ROTT: Quinn says she was surprised by the vitriol and she wasn't.
QUINN: It's happened to other women in the industry. Like, Anita Sarkeesian has been basically living this for the last two years.
ROTT: Anita Sarkeesian is a video game critic who looks at the way the videogame industry portrays women in games. In video blogs she talks about the roles women characters play - the damsel in distress, the goal to be achieved, or darker roles.
ANITA SARKEESIAN: How sexualized female bodies often occupy a dual role as both sexual playthings and the perpetual victims of male violence.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Are you here for the whore?
ROTT: In the last few weeks, with #Gamergate going, the backlash against Sarkeesian's critiques got so bad she had to leave her home too.
ADAM SALTSMAN: It can turn your stomach pretty quick.
ROTT: That's Adam Saltsman. Saltsman runs a small game company in Texas with his wife. They both watched, appalled, as the backlash spread from Quinn and Sarkeesian, to other women and men in the industry who offered their support to the two women. Now, Saltsman believes the attackers were and are emboldened by the anonymity of Twitter and online forums, like Reddit and 4chan. And he says they're not representative of the gaming community over all.
SALTSMAN: The people doing the most harm are absolutely a vocal minority.
ROTT: But their attacks still worked. In an e-mail from Germany, independent games designer Andreas Zecher says they caused a, quote, 'brief but unbearable silence because people were afraid of becoming the next target." To show solidarity Zecher wrote an open letter decrying the harassment and saying that everyone, regardless of gender, has a right to be a part of the videogame industry. The letter gained nearly 2,500 signatures, many from prominent names at AAA game studios, like Rockstar North, Naughty Dog, Bungie and Ubisoft. There's still a question, though, of just why or how a handful of allegations at a small games developer could spark such a huge firestorm in a multibillion dollar industry. Leigh Alexander is a videogames journalist based in the U.K.
LEIGH ALEXANDER: What I think's going on is that there's a cultural spasm happening that nobody expected; that accompanies the sort of mainstreaming of video games and the diversification of videogames.
ROTT: Alexander is talking about games like "Candy Crush" or "Words With Friends," games that are now on smartphones and tablets - accessible to a far wider range of people. Not, she says, the traditional boys club.
ALEXANDER: And, you know, I think the conventional audience is really shaken up. I think, in part, because they're sexist; and, in part, because they're used to, you know, being explicitly catered to as a precious special market demographic. And they feel like they might get left behind.
ROTT: Alexander's is just one of many theories but most agree the industry is changing. The question is whether that change can happen in a more civil way. Nathan Rott, NPR News.
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