Game of Fear
The first thing Eron Gjoni said after sitting down across from me at Veggie Galaxy in December was that he would probably violate his gag order if he talked to me. Then he talked for the next three hours, and again and again over the next three months.
Gjoni can be relentless that way. And in others. He maintains incessant eye contact from behind a tangle of dark, wavy hair. He is intensely focused. Just ask Zoe Quinn, the object of his unwanted obsession.
In September 2014, Quinn, 27, appeared in Boston Municipal Court to ask Judge Jonathan Tynes for a restraining order against Gjoni, her ex-boyfriend. In a handwritten affidavit to the court, Quinn tried to explain what had happened over the past month. After their brief romance ended, she noted, Gjoni “wrote and published a long post about my sex life and private dealings to several websites that he knew had a history of harassing me.” Quinn is a video-game designer and, like many women in the business, routinely receives misogynistic threats from strangers. Gjoni, Quinn contended, was aware that his blog post would result in her being harassed and stalked, and she claimed he had published it in order “to damage my professional reputation as an independent artist.” What’s more, she told the judge, the results had been particularly severe: Since Gjoni’s initial blog post, “I have received numerous death and rape threats from an anonymous mob that [Gjoni] had given details to,” she wrote. “My personal info like my home address, phone number, emails, passwords, and those of my family has been widely distributed, alongside nude photos of me, and several of my professional accounts and those of my colleagues have been hacked.”
Quinn understated the facts. The thousands of threats, which she continues to receive daily, terrified her. Tweets such as “Im not only a pedophile, ive raped countless teens, this zoe bitch is my next victim, im coming slut” spoke for themselves. Messages such as “could kill yourself. We don’t need cunts like you in this world” preyed on the common knowledge that Quinn struggled with depression; she’d won acclaim for creating an impressionistic video game called Depression Quest. Forced to flee her Dorchester apartment, she spent more than six months hiding in friends’ homes. In her affidavit, Quinn struggled to explain to the judge who was behind these threats: They were anonymous, faceless, and they could be anywhere. “Eron has coached this mob multiple times, made multiple social media accounts to smear my name publicly, and has stoked the fire of this on many occasions and doesn’t seem to be stopping,” Quinn told the court. “I am in fear of him.”
Judge Tynes asked if Quinn had sought help from the police. She had, in fact— numerous times. She told Boston police officers what Gjoni had done, including her allegation that he had turned violent the last time they had sex over the summer, just before their breakup, while she was at a conference in San Francisco. Judge Tynes told Quinn he wanted to help, but stumbled to find the right words as he scribbled down the conditions of a restraining order against Gjoni, barring him from posting any further information about Quinn’s personal life online or encouraging—“What’s the first adjective?” the judge asked. “Something mob—What was the mob?”
“Uh, hate,” Quinn replied.
“Hate mob—all right,” said the judge. “I’ll put that in quotations. Good luck, ma’am. So long.”
And now here Gjoni sat before me. Over the past three months, according to Quinn, he had continued to defy Tynes’s order, divulging further details about her personal life and forcing her to return to court in Boston again and again to address his repeated violations. As of April, the court had formally charged him with four.
There’s a haunting resonance to Gjoni’s choice of location for our meeting. This is where he and Quinn first hung out in person: It’s where his obsession with her began. He’s come back to the beginning, and he wants me to know that Quinn is a “hypocrite,” a “compulsive liar,” and an “asshole.”
Gjoni is a highly cerebral, 25-year-old software developer who was recently fired from Massachusetts General Hospital’s robotics lab. He chooses his words deliberately, spending much of our time together describing the month after his breakup with Quinn: how he extracted details from her Facebook, text, and email accounts; how he tracked her movements and shadowed her conversations. The process he described to me sounded as if he were gathering the pieces of a horrible machine, with each component designed to be as damaging to Quinn as possible. Eventually, the machine would have a name: “The Zoe Post,” a 9,425-word screed he published in August.
But before he emptied the contents of Quinn’s private life into the gaping maw of a bloodthirsty Internet, back before he instigated the most vicious online backlash against feminism in a generation, there was a first date. A date that began, not unlike many other 21st-century first dates, on OkCupid. The algorithms spoke: Gjoni and Quinn were a 98 percent match.
Neither Gjoni nor Quinn was particularly good at dating. He’d had a handful of flings in college and she’d had a number of short-term relationships. Both seemed stuck in adolescence—the types of young adults who tend to burn hot and flame out fast.
Their first date lasted three days. They met one December night at a dive bar in Harvard Square, snuck into Harvard Stadium, stayed over at Gjoni’s apartment in Chelsea, and got breakfast the next morning at Veggie Galaxy before continuing to hang out. Over the next few weeks, they went to karaoke bars around Boston, talked philosophy, and shared vulnerabilities. Gjoni regarded himself as a talented programmer and enjoyed cuddling and coding with Quinn late into the night. But he treated Quinn’s principled stands on gaming, social justice, and loyalty as if they were the behavior of some exotic creature.
Possessed of a boyish face despite his shaggy beard, Gjoni has brown eyes and a skeletal 6-foot-1 frame, and speaks in a matter-of-fact, deadpan monotone. His friends describe him as “extremely methodical,” “a very intellectual person with semi-decent people skills,” insular, rational, and almost preternaturally calm. Benjamin Hitov, a childhood friend and fellow programmer, told me he once beat Gjoni in the ninja fighter game Dead or Alive “100 times in a row, and he didn’t change his expression once.”
Born in Albania, Gjoni migrated to Worcester with his family when he was six to escape the Kosovo War. “Moving here was like a big reset button,” he told me. His mother, who had been an architect, became a convenience-store clerk, and his father, a former legal adviser to the deputy prime minister, worked as what Gjoni calls a “quality-assurance drone.”
Growing up, Gjoni struggled to assimilate, but with a precocious mathematical mind, he found solace in computers. School, he says, was “almost bizarrely easy,” so he dropped out of a computer science program at Worcester State when MGH poached him during his senior year. Eventually, he found a small group of buddies. Still, as his longtime friend Casey Evans told me, Gjoni remains “apprehensive about getting emotionally close to people.” So Evans was shocked by how smitten and affectionate Gjoni was with Quinn when they went on a double date in early 2014. It was one of the few times Gjoni introduced Quinn to his friends. “She came off as very charismatic,” Evans remembers.
Gjoni fell for her hard—maybe too hard, given how brief their relationship was. He began idealizing Quinn as “this perfect ethical thing,” he says, and less as a gifted and flawed woman who battled chronic depression. Quinn often traveled to speak at gaming conferences, and they saw each other at most once a week. After just five months, they broke up. But Gjoni wouldn’t let go.