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.
Born in 1987, Quinn was raised in the backwoods of the Adirondack Mountains. No money, no siblings, no neighborhood, she says, just “running around the woods and beating sticks” and occasionally loafing in her father’s motorcycle shop. When she was 12, Quinn’s dad gave her a used video-game player and she immediately fell in love with the science fiction game Star Control II. “I went from having this incredibly tiny world,” she says, “to having this whole other galaxy.”
After high school, Quinn remained at home for six years, periodically suffering from depression and cycling through a series of odd jobs, including stripping, working at a GameStop, and singing in dead-end punk bands. At 24, she moved to Toronto on a whim, took a workshop for first-time female game developers, and has been designing and writing independent online games ever since. After she moved to Boston in 2012, Quinn’s depression returned. She locked herself in her room for two weeks, and finished writing and designing a narrative video game that simulates living as a young adult with depression. On Valentine’s Day 2013, she released Depression Quest. “And that,” she says, “is when everything completely fucking changed.”
Depression Quest raked in independent game awards and turned Quinn into a minor gaming celebrity. It was also through Depression Quest that Quinn first encountered the mob mentality of the gamer community. Since the game’s release, Quinn has tried to save every piece of harassment she’s received to a folder on her desktop titled “Just Another Day at the Office.” Before Gjoni’s post, she had received 16 megabytes of abuse. When she stopped saving threats last December—because she couldn’t keep up with the bombardment—she had 16 gigabytes: 1,000 times more.
Lifschitz has never been able to bring himself to read the entire “Zoe Post.” Quinn read it all that first night. “It is domestic abuse that went viral, and it was designed to go viral,” she says. Quinn is embittered by Gjoni’s assertions “that I was somehow this perfect goddess,” calling his fixation on her an “I’m-going-to-wear-your-skin level of creepy.” After all, she points out, “All of my work is about being fucked up, and being a fuckup.”
Though the attacks take place online, the real-world consequences are chilling. Whenever someone at an arcade or a restaurant or on the street asks Quinn, “Do I know you?” she firmly replies, “Nope, you do not.” She panics, thinking, Is this one of the people that’s been sending me threats for the last six months? Are they going to tell people where I am?
On August 18, after the release of “The Zoe Post,” Gjoni worked overtime to make sure readers would keep coming back for more. Stoking the mob, he joined 4chan discussion boards and released additional information online, including Quinn’s supposed location and baseless theories on her sex life. Despite tacking a disclaimer onto his post—“I DO NOT STAND BY THE CURRENT ABUSE AND HARASSMENT OF ZOE QUINN OR FRIENDS. STOP DOING THAT. IT IS NOT IN ANYONE’S BEST INTEREST”—Gjoni taunted Quinn directly over Twitter and claimed online to be acting as a puppet master. When someone tweeted, “eron youre the pope of gamergate why don’t u help us,” he replied, “I am actually doing a lot more than you know in the background.”
In September, after a month of this, Quinn called Gjoni and asked him to stop egging on her harassers. “[He was] completely unrepentant,” she says, and claims he told her, “I did this for your benefit.” Then he tweeted, “Just had a private conversation with Zoe. It was trite, exhausting, and totally in bad faith. Ah the good old days.” That’s when Quinn filed a police report and secured a restraining order.
The attacks on Quinn started a wave that kept on rolling. Within a week of “The Zoe Post,” strangers threatened to kill other women in the industry. Jenn Frank, who wrote for the Guardian, ultimately felt forced to quit writing games criticism. In short order, Gjoni’s post had become the basis for a savage online movement that came to be known as GamerGate. GamerGaters cited “The Zoe Post” as evidence that women were ruining the video-game industry’s boys’ club. Attacks fanned out against any woman the mob labeled an “SJW”—short for “social justice warrior”—and GGs began a witch hunt against anyone involved in breaches of so-called ethics in video-game journalism. In October, Anita Sarkeesian canceled an appearance at Utah State University after an anonymous email promised “the deadliest school shooting in American history” if she spoke. The attackers continued to release troves of women’s, and some men’s, private information and coordinated threats for months. A few even “swatted” their victims, tricking police dispatchers into sending SWAT teams to raid women’s homes.
“GamerGate has ruined my life,” said Brianna Wu, founder of the Boston-based game studio Giant Spacekat. The target of relentless harassment since “The Zoe Post,” Wu was forced to flee her home in Arlington after anonymous attackers leaked her address. Over the past six months, she’s received dozens of death threats, including a YouTube video during which a man wearing a skull mask speaks to the camera: “We’ll stop at nothing to bring back the way it used to be in the 1950s [when] there weren’t any bitches in video games,” the man, wielding a hammer, said, calling for “the death of Brianna Wu.”
The recent explosion of online abuse has exposed the limits of law enforcement’s ability to police the predators and abusers as their behavior migrates online—and as social media amplifies the ability of online harassers to inflict damage on their victims. Wu claims she loses at least a day each week “explaining the Internet” to the police, saying that she’s had to convince numerous officers that Twitter isn’t “just for jokes,” but is in fact her primary means of marketing her business. In February, Wu pulled Giant Spacekat from the mammoth PAX East conference in Boston after police declined to beef up security, even though she’d shown them death threats she’d received via email and social media.
When Quinn has spoken to police, she says she’s had to print out the threats and explain what a user name is. She regularly hears suggestions that she simply stay offline. “In 2015, that’s like saying, ‘Oh, there’s an angry mob camped outside on your sidewalk, just don’t ever go outside again,’” she says. Quinn also wants to change the vocabulary we use to describe online abuse. “These aren’t trolls,” she says. “And it’s not online bullying. Bullying is something that gets you a pink slip in high school. These are people stalking, sending death threats, trying to get the cops to raid homes. These are criminals.”
So far, police have made no arrests in the cases of Wu, Quinn, or any other woman associated with GamerGate. In December, the FBI confirmed it had an open case on GamerGate abuse, but it hasn’t commented since. In February, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo admitted in a companywide memo, “We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we’ve sucked at it for years.”
Instead, Wu has taken her case to Capitol Hill, meeting with Massachusetts Representative Katherine Clark. In March, Clark urged the Department of Justice to increase its efforts against online abuse. Clark has had her own experience with online harassers, and even she has been told by the authorities to just ignore it. “There’s not an understanding yet of how quick and powerful the Internet can be for destructive purposes,” she told me. “We shouldn’t have to wait for the case where someone is killed.”
In response to the harassment, Quinn and Lifschitz have formed Crash Override Network, a free support service offering social workers, lawyers, and security experts to online abuse victims. Since launching in January, they have helped more than 400 clients.
With trepidation, Quinn returned to GDC this past March. She knew some of the 26,000 attendees had harassed her over the past six months—she just didn’t know how many, or which ones. On the third day, with police guarding the auditorium, Quinn took the podium for the second year in a row and detailed the harassment she has suffered. Unlike the previous year, Gjoni was 3,100 miles away.
Three days before Christmas, Gjoni and Quinn entered a Dorchester courthouse for a private meeting with the clerk magistrate to discuss Gjoni’s latest violations. Among the numerous items on the docket were accusations that Gjoni had posted a message of support to Quinn’s harassers and given an interview to a podcast, during which he claimed he was the one who suffered emotional abuse, but then discussed how he used Twitter to reveal that Quinn was dating Lifschitz. When they reemerged 20 minutes later, the clerk had dismissed all the violations except the podcast, which the court will decide on at a later date. Wearing a wrinkled oxford and skinny jeans, Gjoni smiled for the first time since we’d met.
Quinn was solemn. She felt helpless and frustrated with the legal system, as “yet another person who doesn’t get my world was deciding my fate.”
The restraining order, which still stands, requires Gjoni to remain 150 yards away from Quinn, so he peered out the courthouse window, waiting for her and Lifschitz’s cab to peel away toward the airport, where they’d be off to another undisclosed location. Gjoni has attended enough arraignments and magistrate hearings here to know that the Spanish market across the street will store his cell phone while he’s in court. Outside, he lit a cigarette and opened his phone to check the balance of his legal account, crowdfunded by Quinn’s attackers and First Amendment advocates. To date they have donated some $13,000.
Despite losing his job at MGH amid the backlash in September, he happily spends his days coding in a coffee shop, building an animation program called A Gifted Apprentice. His friend Benjamin Hitov said, “The funny thing is, he’s done so much better with girls since that blog.” Gjoni even has a new girlfriend now. “All of it has very much been worth it,” he tells me. “I was very uneasy about putting in the Burgers and Fries thing. But it is hilarious.”
Gjoni knows that talking to any media outlet, including this one, could land him in jail. But he is also cognizant of reforming his image. In October, he tweeted an apology to Wu—though that hasn’t stopped strangers from continuing to send Wu an onslaught of death threats.
Gjoni, however, has no plans to apologize to Quinn. In fact, he has something else in mind.
Over the past several months, Gjoni has been working on a sequel to “The Zoe Post.” When I spoke to him in February, he had created a quick-and-dirty follow-up, which he described as “a full unminced explanation of why” he wrote the original, perhaps packed with even more of Quinn’s private information, and God knows what else. He was worried that he’d get thrown in jail for violating the restraining order, and so had set the sequel, like a time bomb, “to auto-publish if I don’t disable it 24 hours after any court date.”
When I emailed him recently, Gjoni said he’d been having second thoughts. “I don’t know that I’ll publish it anymore,” he wrote. “I’m finding it increasingly difficult to be concerned about people who think I’m a monster. Which is wrong of me, I know. But the last eight months have been taxing. I just want to code, and hang out with my friends and my girlfriend, and I guess just hope people figure it out on their own.”
Still, he wishes he’d put even more detail into “The Zoe Post.” “I was too much of a wuss,” he wrote, “to not say everything I should have said.”