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How Zoe Quinn Took On the Online Trolls Trying to Destroy Her

What to do when a virtual attack becomes real.
Image: Author Zoe Quinn
Surviving online harassment means refusing to give in to the isolation.PublicAffairs

Zoe Quinn is so pleased to be asked about the video game she's working on that I can practically see her smile, though we're just talking on the phone. "It's a lot of fun!" are the first words she says. "I'm working on a comedy FMV — full-motion video — game, that uses actual actors."

Quinn is collaborating with comedy erotica phenom Chuck Tingle, an absurdist performance artist who never breaks character. The project is almost complete, and Quinn is as excited about the process as the final product. She is particularly proud of her work with SAG-AFTRA, the screen and TV actor's union, negotiating special indie contracts for her performers.

Quinn is thrilled to talk about her work because she thinks it’s cool. But there’s another reason: Three years ago, her ability to do any work was stolen from her violently and publicly. In the process, as she details in her new book, “Crash Override: How Gamergate (Nearly) Destroyed My Life, and How We can Win the Fight Against Online Hate,” Quinn became one of the biggest faces of the growing cultural phenomenon of online harassment.

For anyone still uncertain about the impact of online hatred, “Crash Override” details the devastating real-world consequences. Even after years of media attention, online harassment remains an abstract concept to many who have not experienced it.

Even after years of media attention, online harassment remains an abstract concept to many who have not experienced it.

Just as important, however, the book shows how harassment can be fought through purposeful community-building. To stop the amorphous mob of anonymous harassers, Quinn argues, modern society needs institutions specifically designed to protect targeted and marginalized people.

In August 2014, Quinn was a rising indie game developer, most famous for “Depression Quest,” a no-frills text game about the disabling experience of living with depression. She had just broken up with a physically and emotionally abusive boyfriend, and was looking forward to healthier relationships and a future of video game development. (Quinn's ex-boyfriend denies her allegations of abuse.)

Then, she says, her life was kicked apart. Quinn’s ex posted a long screed online, accusing her of sleeping with someone in exchange for a positive review. She has consistently maintained that none of this is true, and I believe her.

Nonetheless, that post became the impetus for Gamergate, an online crusade against “ethics in gaming journalism." In reality, though, the campaign became an excuse for internet trolls to flex their muscles as they worked to destroy the reputation and livelihood of Quinn and others, particularly women and minorities, who expressed feminist or leftist ideas.

Soon Quinn says she was receiving death threats across every social media platform. Her personal information was publicly posted, her accounts were hacked and her family members and friends harassed. What had begun as an effort by Quinn's ex to punish her for leaving him ballooned into a free-floating hate campaign with multiple targets. Three years later, the harassment continues.

Multiple times, Quinn says she has feared for her personal safety as well as the safety of friends and family. But one painful aspect of the online assault has been her transformation from a game developer into someone most famous for being victimized. Instead of being known for what she's done, she's is now known because of what's been done to her.

"I've been trying to reassert myself as a human and not just a current events story," Quinn told me. "I should not be the face of online harassment."

"I've been trying to reassert myself as a human and not just a current events story."

Her book seeks to change this narrative — in part by de-centering Quinn's own experience with Gamergate. Quinn recounts the night the harassment started, when she was out or dinner with friends and then-boyfriend Alex Lifshitz. She tried to keep the conversation going even as waves of hatred began flooding her social media notifications. She talks about trying to report the abuse to police departments, only to find officers barely understood what the internet was, let alone Twitter. But the story quickly moves from Quinn's personal experiences to talk about her work with Lifshitz founding Crash Override, a small, pro-bono support group for people dealing with online abuse and harassment.

This is not to say that Quinn’s experiences haven’t been harrowing. But she is acutely aware of all the ways that her personal story now represents a collective problem. "There's no way my story could be emblematic of every single person's story,” she notes.

To try to give a broader picture of online abuse and harassment, Quinn includes extensive quotes from people like transgender feminist sociologist Katherine Cross and journalist Tauriq Moosa, whose stories of online abuse and harassment are less well known.

Quinn also works hard to show readers how online abuse unfolds. This, she argues, is a communal problem — with a community-based solution. "The No. 1 thing I've seen actually help with online abuse,” she said, “is when the person has a good community or a strong support network that's savvy and that can help them."

Help in this context can mean deleting abusive messages, changing passwords, contacting authorities or just providing emotional support. Some people are more prepared than others. "There are some groups and communities that have protocols in place," Quinn said. "Oh, this person is getting attacked, let’s fill their Twitter mentions with this thing that they like — because we've talked about this ahead of time and we know what to do."

Online harassers try to isolate their targets — to make them so toxic that people will be afraid to get close to the blast radius. Surviving this type of harassment means refusing to give in to the isolation. Quinn’s work with Crash Override and fellow Gamergate targets like Anita Sarkeesian is part of this strategy. But starting to take back her professional and artistic agency is also a way to show the trolls she hasn’t been silenced.

"These people wanted me to shut up and go away forever,” Quinn said, “so that's the opposite of what I'm doing."

She's already thinking about her next game.

Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the book "Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948."