Anita Sarkeesian doesn’t give me the address of her San Francisco apartment over email.
Instead, she texts it to me a few hours before we’re set to meet. After thousands of rape and death threats, a bomb scare and an email promising a mass shooting at one of her speaking events, a woman can’t be too careful.
Sarkeesian, media critic and executive director of the nonprofit and video web series Feminist Frequency, has spent the past few years of her life at the centre of a firestorm in the gaming community – one that brings together misogyny, technology and a cultural shift in an industry so huge it now outperforms Hollywood. In videos that discuss misogyny in video games and widespread tropes that diminish women, Sarkeesian – named one of the 100 most influential people of 2015 by Time magazine – talks to the camera, with a commentary that runs the gamut from feminist theory to historical analysis. Her videos are smart, incisive and much needed in an industry in which women are often treated as little more than background decoration or damsels in distress.
For some male gaming aficionados, the most frightening enemy isn’t an animated foe but this 31-year-old feminist with a penchant for hoop earrings, sitting across from me. They’ve called Sarkeesian a con artist, and raised thousands of dollars to film an exposé-style documentary about her (which exposes nothing). Some even created a game in which users can punch an image of her face until it is bloodied.
Sarkeesian, who wears red glasses that match her dye-tipped hair, is extraordinarily friendly and upbeat, considering the level of vitriol directed at her. “It has less to do with the actual content of the work than with ‘How dare a woman say anything about our toys’ – especially a feminist,” she tells me. We sit in her living room, whose walls are covered in whiteboards that neatly outline ideas for future videos and projects.
Sarkeesian started Feminist Frequency in 2009, while at graduate school, studying social and political thought. She found academia somewhat alienating: “The texts are impossible to read if you’re not trained, and I wondered why we would lock away this information for just a privileged group of people.” The feminist theory she read seemed more approachable: “bell hooks used media in the classroom to engage with her students; that idea of pop culture being a common language really resonated with me.”
Sarkeesian began making videos that took on pop culture, from television shows to the Twilight series. In 2012, she decided to dedicate a series of videos to the topic of computer games. She launched a Kickstarter project to fund her Tropes vs Women In Video Games web series, with a modest goal of $6,000. The target was met in 24 hours, and within two weeks she had raised nearly four times that much. That’s when the harassment started: people vandalised her Wikipedia page with gender-based slurs, and her YouTube videos were hit with a barrage of abuse. Sarkeesian had been harassed online before – “I’m a woman on the internet!” she says – but she had never been attacked by a mob.
It wasn’t just the open hatred: there were multiple attempts to hack into her accounts and expose her. “They tried to get my Kickstarter cancelled and reported me to the FBI and the IRS. They tried to post my home address and my parents’ information,” she says.
But the vitriol sparked more interest and support, and by the time her Kickstarter ended, Sarkeesian had raised almost $160,000. The attacks haven’t stopped since: some detractors have manipulated images of Sarkeesian to make them appear pornographic, or depicted images of her being raped by video game characters. All because a woman wanted to make a YouTube series about video games.
While Sarkeesian admits the harassment has taken its toll – how could it not? – she brings the conversation back to the bigger picture. “There are a lot of people who are being targeted who don’t get the attention I do. Women of colour and trans women, in particular, are not getting media attention and not getting the support they need.”
Sarkeesian also points out that explicit abuse is just one way women are harassed online: some are targeted with conspiracy theories, or social media accounts that impersonate the victim. One person fabricated a tweet from Sarkeesian claiming she had spent her Kickstarter funds on designer shoes (with a picture of Gucci flats alongside a caption reading, “Buying 1,000-dollar shoes”).
Women are much more likely to be harassed in online spaces than men, and the harassment is much more likely to be sexually violent. A 2006 study by the University of Maryland found that when the gender of a username appears to be female, the user is 25 times more likely to experience harassment. That same study found that those female-sounding usernames averaged 163 threatening or sexually explicit messages a day.
So the abuse directed at Sarkeesian struck a nerve, and in 2012, she was invited to give a TED talk on the topic. Since then, she’s been on the cover of Bloomberg Businessweek magazine and has appeared on the satirical TV show The Colbert Report. “The media tends to pull individuals out to be icons,” Sarkeesian says, “but there are a lot of people involved in ending online harassment.”
Before Sarkeesian became the face of online abuse and sexism in gaming, she says, “I was definitely a person who said, ‘I’m not a feminist, but I believe in equal rights.’” Raised by Armenian parents from Iraq who later moved to Canada, she was brought up in a household open to new ideas; politics was always a backdrop to her life. She recalls watching news stories about the Gulf war and worrying with her parents about what was going to happen to family there.
Feminism, however, wasn’t on her radar. She tells me it was reading Ariel Levy’s book Female Chauvinist Pigs that opened her eyes. “I realised I was trying to be one of the guys and obtain this false sense of power,” she says. “I had more male friends, and would say things like, ‘Oh, women are annoying.’ I would speak in objectifying terms about other women.”
Around the time she was discovering feminism, as a student in southern California, Sarkeesian became a campus activist. “I read a lot of bell hooks,” she says. “And I was learning about systems of privilege and oppression – and feminism was just one piece of that. You learn about white supremacy, and heteronormativity, and I found that to be really liberating. I realised: now I know how the world works, and now I understand how to change it. And it’s really hard.”
It got even harder once GamerGate happened. For the uninitiated, GamerGate is a Twitter hashtag, which became an online movement that purported to be about journalistic ethics, but which actually focuses on attacking and harassing women such as Sarkeesian.
She is frustrated by the way GamerGate has been covered in the media. “All the stories kept decentring the fact that it was domestic violence,” she says. Indeed, the movement was born when a 25-year-old software developer named Eron Gjoni posted a 10,000-word blog about his ex-girlfriend, video game designer Zoe Quinn. In the blog, he recounted the minutiae of their relationship and outlined her supposed wrongdoings and infidelities. Quinn has said, “It is domestic abuse that went viral, and it was designed to go viral.” (Gjoni linked to the blogpost in forums such as 4chan, well known for vicious online harassment.)
And it did go viral. Quinn was inundated with rape and death threats, her accounts were hacked, her address, phone number and even some nude photographs were made public. She subsequently went into hiding. What horrible truth did Gjoni’s post reveal to make Quinn one of the most hated women in gaming? It depends who you ask.
To GamerGaters, Gjoni’s post laid bare how female game designers get preferential treatment from the media – leading to the movement’s much-mocked mantra, “It’s about ethics in journalism.” (Quinn allegedly had a relationship with a journalist who wrote about one of her games; in fact, the journalist wrote about its existence, never offering a review.) But to others, it was a natural extension of sexist harassment and the fear of female encroachment on a traditionally male space.
Besides, as Sarkeesian points out, if this “movement” was about journalism, why wasn’t it journalists who had to deal with a barrage of rape and death threats?
The truth, Sarkeesian says, is that GamerGate existed for years before it had a name: the same core players, the same harassment, the same abuse. The hashtag just put a name on this “loosely organised mob” that attacked women in gaming, she tells me.
Sarkeesian is also fond of calling GamerGate a “sexist temper tantrum”, because “it does have that feeling of the kid screaming and you don’t know why”. When I point out that temper tantrums are generally thought of as harmless rages, and that the abuse she and other women have faced is much more serious, she agrees.
“That’s the reason I don’t like the words ‘troll’ and ‘bully’ – it feels too childish. This is harassment and abuse,” she says. But still, she says, GamerGate is a temper tantrum: “It’s just a scary, violent, abusive, temper tantrum. It’s an attack and an assault on women in the gaming industry. Its purpose is to silence women, and if they can’t, they attempt to discredit them.
“These dudes fling shit. They’re throwing things out there and trying to get something to stick. This worked,” she says of the Quinn incident. “It stuck because it sounds good – there are actual issues with the way the games press works. So that idea resonated with a lot of people. And it swelled their ranks.”
I mention that I’ve noticed an uptick of younger online abusers. Ten years ago, the harassment I received (not uncommon for feminist writers) was mostly from middle-aged men. Today, I get comments calling me a “cunt” on Instagram from boys too young to grow facial hair.
While Sarkeesian is careful to point out that the stereotype of teenagers in their parents’ basement is a dangerous one (much of the most dangerous harassment is perpetrated by grown men) she shares my concern that a younger generation is growing up with harassment of women not just as the norm, but as a way to impress your peers.
“There’s a boys’-locker-room feel to the internet, where men feel they can show off for one another,” she says. “A lot of the harassment is tied to this toxic masculine culture of ‘Look how cool I can be.’” Someone will send a woman a death threat and screencap it, posting it on a forum, which in turn inspires another man to do something even worse in a horrifying game of misogynist oneupmanship.
Sarkeesian’s strategy for dealing with her most persistent harassers is largely to block and ignore them. “There are men who make videos about me regularly. Some are just screaming; some hold guns while they talk about hating me. I don’t engage with them, as I don’t want to amplify their voices.”
Many of these men will insist it’s all for fun, or just a joke, but whether the intent is to harm, or simply to do some chest-puffing for friends, “it still perpetuates all of the harmful myths attached to that language and those words,” Sarkeesian says. Besides, it’s not as if this harassment ends online. She can’t just shut her laptop and get on with her life; the threats have made an indelible impact on who she is and how she lives.
The day before a planned speech at Utah State University last year, the university’s administration received an email threatening a mass shooting: “This will be the deadliest school shooting in American history, and I’m giving you a chance to stop it,” it read. The sender used the name of a man who killed more than a dozen women in Montreal in 1989 after calling them “a bunch of feminists”. Sarkeesian cancelled the speech after event organisers refused to install metal detectors.
“I’ve been threatened before, and done events, but they were not going to stop people from bringing guns into the audience,” she says. (Utah has “open carry” laws, meaning it is legal openly to carry a gun in public.) “This isn’t just about me, but the students’ safety as well.”
Also in 2014, when Sarkeesian was due to be honoured with a gaming award in San Francisco, an anonymous email was sent promising to detonate a bomb unless the award was revoked. This time, Sarkeesian says the event organisers worked with her to ensure everyone’s safety. The police bomb unit found nothing and the awards ceremony went ahead as planned.
“Yeah, it’s really weird that I try to sit at the back of restaurants, or have my back to windows so no one recognises me,” Sarkeesian says. “Or if someone stops me on the street to ask for directions, I feel as if I’m going to have a panic attack. I’ve had to learn not to trust people, not to be friendly with strangers, because you never know if it’s going to be a threat.”
After a recent talk she gave at New York University, a young man came up to talk to her, with his hands in the pockets of his hoodie. “The whole time I’m thinking, ‘Does he have a knife in there?’ and he’s oblivious because he doesn’t have to think about it.” It turned out the young man was just extremely nervous, but after all that’s happened, you can’t blame Sarkeesian for being fearful.
“It sucks,” she says. “It really sucks, and I don’t want to think too much about it, because I can’t do anything about it. It’s my new normal.”
Part of the problem, as Sarkeesian sees it, is a historical one. “I’ve talked to mentors and older feminists and they say, ‘We were dealing with that, but they were throwing rocks at us.’”
When the internet began, Sarkeesian says, the idea was that it was going to be the “ultimate democracy”. When I wrote about online harassment for the Guardian in 2007, postgraduate student Alice Marwick – now a professor at Fordham University in New York – told me, “The promise of the early internet was that it would liberate us from our bodies, and all the oppressions associated with prejudice. We’d communicate soul to soul, and get to know each other as people, rather than judging each other based on gender or race.” But because the default, assumed identity was white and male, anyone who brought up their race or gender – or dared to complain about bias – was seen as disturbing that dream.
“We didn’t build up this technology [while] understanding the power dynamics and the very real systems of oppression that were just going to follow us online,” Sarkeesian says. “One of the profound things the feminist movement and the civil rights movement did was to change the systems we live in. They didn’t stop every individual being sexist or racist, but they changed the systems that we participated in, so you couldn’t be that way in certain environments.”
So, while it’s no longer acceptable for a boss to smack a female employee’s behind at work – and we can thank feminism for that – men are still getting rewarded with social status online for abusing women. We haven’t figured out how to change that system. At least, not yet.
Sarkeesian has been meeting social media and technology companies, talking to them about how they can help stop gender-based abuse in gaming. Because, ultimately, this is a problem that needs solutions from the top as well as the bottom. “Where was the gaming industry in all this?” she asks. “GamerGate was a silver platter for them to say they don’t condone the harassment of women and they didn’t do it. GamerGate is the monster that the industry created.”
Independent developers tell Sarkeesian her work makes them want to create better games. “People come up to me at events and tell me how much my work has meant to them and that it has helped them to speak up,” she says. At conferences, she can’t get from one end of the room to the other without people in the industry telling her how much they like what she’s doing.
That’s wonderful, Sarkeesian acknowledges, but she wants to know: “What are you doing? Because what is my work if you’re not going to do something about it, too?”
Sarkeesian is exhausted – she hasn’t taken a break since 2012 – but she’s not willing to give up. Even with the death threats, the obsessive abusers, the fear and the enormous personal cost, she asks a question asked by so many change-makers: “How can I give up now? I’m not going anywhere.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010