Game of Fear

What if a stalker had an army? Zoe Quinn’s ex-boyfriend was obsessed with destroying her reputation—and thousands of online strangers were eager to help.

Months later, his slinking obsession compelled him to write Quinn what he called a “giant” email begging her to get back together with him. Though Gjoni stubbornly suspected Quinn had cheated on him while they were dating, he hoped to salvage their relationship. In a moment of weakness, she gave in and bought him a plane ticket from Boston to come see her in San Francisco, where she was at a games conference. They had enjoyed San Francisco before; just four months earlier, in March, they’d attended the annual Game Developers Conference, where Gjoni sat in the audience while Quinn spoke on a panel about the sexist harassment she’d suffered as a female developer and discussed ways to counter online abuse. But now, supposedly reconnecting, they spent little time together. After flying across the country, Gjoni sequestered himself in a public library and sat hunched over his laptop for an entire day exchanging Facebook messages with Quinn, trying to convince the woman he had idealized to confess to an infidelity that she had repeatedly denied. He demanded that Quinn let him pry into her personal emails and social-media accounts.

The relationship was doomed, but they slept together one last time. Quinn says that’s when Gjoni turned violent. Scared and unsure what to do after Gjoni left, she called her friend Bill Zoeker, a video producer, and asked him to rush over. “I could clearly see bruises on her arm, and suddenly the whole situation became very real to me,” he says. Though Gjoni denies the incident, Zoeker says, “I’ve never seen anybody so afraid in my entire life than Zoe in that moment.”

Their relationship status: game over. And in any normal universe, that would be that. But Gjoni was just getting started.

On the flight back to Boston, Gjoni began drinking heavily. He’d lost Quinn, but he had gained something else: a simulacrum of their relationship, a complete record, from beginning to end. In some other era, a man like Eron Gjoni would have been forced to reconstruct the details of his obsession from snapshots of memory. Thanks to technology and an increasing culture of surveillance, our every purchase, movement, and keystroke is stored somewhere, recoverable and replicable. Gjoni had already collected enough material on Quinn—personal Facebook messages, texts, and email chats—to fill a bible. What’s more, he had an inkling about how to get back at her—how to weaponize the metadata of their relationship. He wouldn’t even need to touch her. In fact, he already had the goods to destroy Quinn if he wished. But it wasn’t enough. He wanted more.

 

The video-gaming business was a bastion of old-fashioned sexism long before Gjoni came along. As the industry grew into a $100 billion behemoth—rivaling Hollywood, bigger than pop music—it maintained the atmosphere of a teenage boy’s basement den, and stayed hostile to women. In 2007 anonymous attackers leaked prominent game developer Kathy Sierra’s social security number and sent her death threats, forcing her out of the business. Feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian received rape and death threats in 2012 after launching the video series Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, in response to such games as Grand Theft Auto, which encourages players to murder prostitutes with impunity. Nina Huntemann, an associate professor of communication and journalism at Suffolk University and the co-organizer of Women in Games Boston, says harassment has become so ingrained in gaming culture that there is a script gamers follow when talking to colleagues online: “You say you’re going to murder the men, and sexually violate and then murder the women.”

Gjoni, a software engineer, had set out to construct a machine to destroy his ex. Every written word Quinn had ever entrusted with him—all of her flirtations, anxieties, professional grudges, and confessions about her family and sex life—would serve as his iron and ore. He scoured their entire text and email history, archiving and organizing Quinn’s private information on his laptop and cell phone. Then he typed it all in black and white—minus, of course, the tones in their voices, their laughter and tears, and any context whatsoever.

Of course, Gjoni could have just deleted the document, along with Quinn’s phone number and email address, and tried to woo one of the millions of other women on OkCupid or joined any of the roughly 5,000 other dating sites. He could have posted his thoughts on a blog and omitted her name. After several days, though, Gjoni decided to go through with it—after all, he was protected by the First Amendment, right? Gjoni has sometimes claimed that he simply wanted to warn people about his ex-girlfriend. But over the course of several months, he described to me how he painstakingly crafted “The Zoe Post,” a post that detonated with ruthless force and efficiency, for maximum pain and harm.

From the start, it seems, Gjoni wanted to make certain that his blog about Quinn would connect with a large base of people in the gaming community, some of whom he already knew were passionately predisposed to attacking women in the industry.

As Gjoni began to craft “The Zoe Post,” his early drafts read like a “really boring, really depressing legal document,” he says. He didn’t want to merely prove his case; it had to read like a potboiler. So he deliberately punched up the narrative in the voice of a bitter ex-boyfriend, organizing it into seven acts with dramatic titles like “Damage Control” and “The Cum Collage May Not Be Accurate.” He ended sections on cliffhangers, and wove in video-game analogies to grab the attention of Quinn’s industry colleagues. He was keenly aware of attracting an impressionable readership. “If I can target people who are in the mood to read stories about exes and horrible breakups,” he says now, “I will have an audience.”

One of the keys to how Gjoni justified the cruelty of “The Zoe Post” to its intended audience was his claim that Quinn slept with five men during and after their brief romance. In retrospect, he thinks one of his most amusing ideas was to paste the Five Guys restaurant logo into his screed: “Now I can’t stop mentally referring to her as Burgers and Fries,” he wrote. By the time he released the post into the wild, he figured the odds of Quinn’s being harassed were 80 percent.

As he wrote, Gjoni kept pressing Quinn for information. About a week after their final breakup in San Francisco, Quinn finally stopped responding to Gjoni’s barrage of texts, Facebook messages, emails, and calls. He interpreted this not as a surrender or a retreat from his unwanted advances but instead, paradoxically, as a kind of attack. As he wrote at the time and later posted online, “GOD FUCKING DAMN IT. SHE’S AVOIDED ME EVER SINCE THIS CONVERSATION BECAUSE SHE IS PARANOID I MIGHT GO PUBLIC.” From this circular reasoning emerged a twisted justification: By withholding information, Quinn was somehow forcing Gjoni to “go public.” Eventually, Gjoni would come to see himself as the victim. “I was panicking at the thought of not publishing [‘The Zoe Post’],” he told me. “I didn’t care what the outcome was for Zoe.”

After crafting the post for weeks, Gjoni shared his polished draft with about a dozen friends—mostly female game developers—as well as his mother, and asked them to weigh in on whether he should unleash it. He says about 10 of them gave him the green light. His mother, he claims, reluctantly approved, but was “very worried that I was going into it overly emotional.” One Gjoni friend I spoke with, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal, said, “I felt it was healthy to get it out there…. What harm would it do to get his feelings out?”

Others who later read the post saw something much more deliberate and malicious. Jesse Singal, an editor at NYMag.com, said it clearly “followed a script” of “these sad, specific ideas that a segment of the gaming community has about women being duplicitous and breaking men’s hearts.” Slate’s Arthur Chu told me, “He’s an articulate, well-spoken guy who knows how to put together something on the Internet. That’s the kind of weapon guys like that have…the ‘crazy bitch’ story. It’s a very potent trope to use…. It’s a very nasty, very calculating train of thought, and it worked.”

By August 16, Gjoni had assembled his semantic pipe bomb. He first planted it on two video-game sites, Penny Arcade and SomethingAwful, and it quickly found its way to a third, 4chan, whose online communities had a history of harassing women gamers. But moderators at the first two sites deleted it almost immediately. Gjoni had anticipated that might happen, so he moved to Plan B: He posted it himself, on a WordPress blog. Gjoni visited his friend Rachel Martin, a freelance designer, and sat at the edge of her bed as she proofread it one last time to make sure that “The Zoe Post”—which was packed with Quinn’s personal information—didn’t violate the website’s terms of service. At 12:42 a.m., on August 16, Gjoni clicked “publish.”

For the next several hours, he sat enrapt by the glowing screen before him, watching the bedlam he’d created explode and explode and explode.

 

On a freezing-cold night in late February, Quinn agreed to meet me for dinner at Van Shabu, a sushi joint in Dorchester. She was in Boston to report Gjoni for yet again violating the restraining order and brought her boyfriend, Alex Lifschitz, a game producer with red hair and black glasses who is shorter and more muscular than Gjoni. Since “The Zoe Post” was released, dozens of journalists and bloggers—from the New Yorker to Wired to the BBC—have written think pieces about Quinn, but she has given few interviews, saying, “published information invariably puts me in danger of further attacks.”

Quinn and Lifschitz began dating a week before Gjoni published “The Zoe Post.” Lifschitz was about to start a job in France, and on a whim, Quinn had decided to join him. The same night Gjoni published, they were saying goodbye to friends at a bar in San Francisco when Quinn’s phone began buzzing uncontrollably. Angry emails from strangers flooded her inbox, calling her a “slut” and linking to a blog she’d never seen before. She didn’t suspect Gjoni could be capable of such a thing. “I didn’t think it was going to be Eron,” Quinn told me. “He’s a vegan, for fuck’s sake.” Then again, she adds, “I didn’t get to know him well enough to know what he was capable of.”

Within minutes, a friend warned Quinn that someone had altered her biography on Wikipedia. It now read, “Died: soon.” When the friend deleted it, someone else immediately wrote, “Died: October 13, 2014”—the date of Quinn’s next scheduled public appearance. Quinn’s friend futilely worked to counter the attacks all night. Strangers sent Photoshopped images of her covered in semen. There were hundreds of tweets demanding she kill herself. They went to bed at 7 a.m., Lifschitz remembers, thinking that maybe it would blow over.

The next day, the real horror began—and it has continued, without pause, every day since. One person wrote, “If I ever see you are doing a pannel [sic] at an event I am going to, I will literally kill you. You are lower than shit and deserve to be hurt, maimed, killed, and finally, graced with my piss on your rotting corpse a thousand times over.” Another blasted, “We have to rape Zoe Quinn and take everything from her. We have to ruin her life.” Gjoni had been right about the burger quip: Strangers created thousands of Five Guys–themed images—Quinn covered in semen inside the restaurant; French fries arranged to spell “Hi Zoe”—and tweeted thousands of jokes with the hashtag #burgers andfries. Someone hacked into her voice mail and recorded a new message: “Hello, you’ve reached Five Guys Burgers and Fries.” Her social security number and other private information were stolen and broadcast over the Internet. Harassers threatened Quinn’s father. They threatened Lifschitz’s future employer in France until the company backed off from his job offer. Together, Lifschitz and Quinn decided on a new plan: hide.




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