Game developer Zoe Quinn has an unusually varied list of achievements. She’s the creator of non-traditional text adventure Depression Quest, and one of the best-known DIY cyborgs. She’s a co-founder of anti-harassment organization Crash Override, and she’s currently working on a full-motion video dating game with absurdist erotica author Chuck Tingle. But since 2014, her work has often been overshadowed by Gamergate: the bitter, manufactured controversy over “ethics in games journalism” started by Quinn’s vengeful ex-boyfriend.
Having written about Gamergate in its early days, reading Quinn’s debut book — also called Crash Override, and released today — brought back a familiar dread. (As I type this, I’m imagining the random strangers who will surely pop up to quibble over the paragraph above.) Gamergate was a precursor to modern online ideological battles, and some of its best-known figures moved from gaming to general far-right politics. But there’s still a kind of closure in seeing its original events laid out and wrapped up this way, in a book that’s by turns a memoir, sociological study, and self-help text. And for Quinn, it’s a way to move on.
“I sort of wanted to brain-dump everything that I’ve learned and put that into everybody else’s hands,” Quinn told me in a phone interview late last month. “I just needed that to be out there, so I could have fewer conversations where I had to explain all this to people.” In the wake of the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, and the online white-supremacist crackdown that followed, I talked to her about where the internet can go from here — and how we can live with each other as it gets there.
Interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Reading Crash Override was sometimes difficult for me, because a lot of it seemed to suggest that there really weren’t great structural solutions to the problems that you’re talking about, and people just need to learn digital self-defense. I’m wondering if that’s an overly dark interpretation.
I guess it’s less that there aren’t any — it’s just that we have them, and they’re not working, and I don’t foresee them starting to work any time soon, because there’s really no incentive for it. Like, every digital platform you sign up for, you agree to end user license agreements that usually say “Hey, don’t do stuff like threaten people on our service!” They’re just not being enforced.
If you look at the other structural institutions, law enforcement, that’s not really a preventative measure at all. Our justice system is a punitive one that’s there to sort of deal with what happens after someone’s already offended. A lot of what has to be done isn’t just self-defense, as much as making people aware of the fact that not much is being done.
You talk a bit about using restorative instead of punitive justice. I’m curious what you see that looking like with someone like an internet harasser.
Restorative justice is a little bit above my pay grade — I don’t want to try to speak for that entire movement. But a lot of it has to do with centering the needs of the person who was hurt, viewing it as a process and more of a community-building effort. Right now, there’s this view that if anything happens online, it’s not really your problem. It would be nice to see it shift to more along the lines of, “This is something that belongs to all of us. How do we make this better?”
Since Gamergate, there’s been a lot of focus on the threat of left or liberal online mobs and “Internet Inquisitors,” to use a term from your book. Is there a reasonable comparison there?
There are issues within groups that are trying to make things better, where there are sometimes new activists who don’t really know a better way to bring people into the fold. However, I think that it’s very difficult to try to even have a conversation when we’re lumping something like minoritized groups calling out a member of their group internally with anything having to do with fucking Nazis.
It’s very easy to be at wits’ end when you’re operating within a larger system of power and oppression, and then to add the pressure of trying to relate to another person dealing with those same issues… I think that comes from a very, very, very different place than some fucking torch-wielding white supremacist trying to find the next marginalized person to target.
On a separate note, your account of growing up with SomethingAwful was interesting, and I had slightly similar experiences with 4chan. It feels like places where young people often acted terribly, but could also figure out their sexuality or other aspects of themselves, are now just culture war recruiting grounds. Can you have transgressive spaces anymore where that doesn’t happen?
It’s hard to say, because those spaces existed before everyone was online. The stakes are a lot different now than they were then, and even something like these little pockets of weirdness on 4chan — like, fucking Stormfront saw that as a recruiting ground. These people look for those impressionable younger kids that are trying out a bunch of different identities and trying to figure themselves out.
I think if we’re able to figure out a way to kind of have private spaces again, sure. I think that that can be created. But the problem is fundamentally if it’s some teenage idiot going on Twitter and doing these things, it’s not like the fact that they are figuring their own shit out has any impact on what that means to other people. There’s no functional difference between an Elliot Rodger telling me he’s going to come fucking kill me, and some idiot teenager saying he’s going to fucking come kill me to impress his other idiot teenager friends.
How do we live with the knowledge that people around us might secretly be posting terrible things — which they really do believe — online?
I feel like all of this has just highlighted the fact that we don’t teach people how to build community. It’s not like any of these feelings or thoughts are new; we just know about them now. We don’t know how to cope with the information age. We don’t know how to cope with the fact that so much bad shit happens, because we’ve never had to think about it or hear about it before.
The biggest thing is, we’ll take care of each other. Yes, we are all freaked out, we are all scared, we are all lonely fucked-up weird people, and that’s okay. Because we’re also all we have out here. Nazis are hitting people with cars in the goddamn streets now, and we can’t really afford to not actively build community, take care of each other, and see who in your life might be leaning into this weird, dark place.
Do you think that if people had responded differently to Gamergate, we could have prevented the sort of weaponized trolling that the alt-right has used over the past year?
I think it probably would have helped to stifle some of the infrastructure that they built off it. The thing to remember is, I was not the first person that this happened to. This has been happening to black women online for a long time, this has been happening to trans women online for a long time, this has been happening to women in the infosec community for a long time. It’s not like Gamergate invented all of the nasty, disgusting shit that existed online. It’s just, my ex was smart enough to sort of give them a banner to rally around, and my industry unfortunately treated them with legitimacy for a while.
One of the bright spots in the book is your collaboration with Chuck Tingle, whose work I think of as weirdly utopian.
I’m a longtime fan of his, because I thought it was brilliant that someone was bringing absurdity to erotica, which are not usually two things that go together — on purpose, anyway.
There’s a certain amount of rubbernecking that’s very easy to do with me, because I think that consumption of misery feels like doing something to a lot of people. Being able to willfully depart from that and say, “No, I’m going to make something silly and fun, that’s very warm-hearted and very sweet,” has been really nice. It’s — I don’t want to say pure, because we’ve got the girl who plays the little girl in Mrs. Doubtfire and Matilda reading artisanal erotic smut about a unicorn butt cop and a bigfoot pirate ghost having sex in a police station — but… wholesome, in a weird way?
I think I know what you mean. He can write sex that’s not based on the kind of real-world power games that often end up being written into erotica.
Sex is human and funny and goofy, and we’re taking it back from any sort of place where someone feels kind of shiitty. There’s no shame in people who are into that dynamic, who want to go for that, if that’s your thing. But it’s also fun to be silly about it sometimes.
It’s easy to imagine exactly how awful everything can get right now, and it feels like we don’t necessarily have a way to think about utopias, or how it could get better.
I guess that’s the thing that breaks my heart, that I’ve seen things get better, and it’s that small community-outreach thing. The resiliency and healing I’ve found in smaller communities has been tremendous for me and is absolutely the reason I’m still here.
The reason I namecheck restorative justice so much is because that, to me, is the utopia. Because this punitive shit I feel like long-term is just going to build different structures of oppression and harm. My biggest thing right now is trying to figure out, how do I help push for a place that’s got more mercy in it? Where people have less pressure on them all of the time to try to be perfect?
That includes the people that others turn to for advice — like, “This person is an outspoken black feminist on Twitter, I’m going to ask for free education all of the time because I think they’re just available for that.” How do we help draw these boundaries where people are opting into that sort of work, and being even compensated?
Crash Override includes some really frustrating anecdotes about platforms letting online abuse slide. What do you think about the companies that have started banning white supremacists after Charlottesville?
We’ll fucking see, you know? There was a spike in people actually giving a shit when what was happening to me made gigantic news, and then that slowly tapered off when it wasn’t a bad look anymore. But I try not to be bitter, and I genuinely hope that they actually do take some kind of steps.
As much frustration as I have with the current structures in place, the entire book’s point was that if everybody gives a shit — if we kind of step up and say “This is not acceptable” — then they’re going to have fall in line. The fact that people are actually doing that gives me hope, it just has to be sustained. And it’s a fucking marathon. It’s not a race.