Brianna Wu, doing what she does best.

Standing in the Firing Squad: An Interview with Brianna Wu

Brianna Wu, doing what she does best.

Brianna Wu, doing what she does best.

Game developer Brianna Wu has been at the epicentre of the GamerGate firestorm of late. Wu is an outspoken independent game developer, whose studio Giant Spacekat produced the acclaimed Revolution 60She was targeted by the GamerGate movement with an almost obsessive fervor after she had lent her voice to the opposition against the organised hate campaign.

This culminated in the spreading of her personal information and death threats that saw her and her husband driven from their home early last month. In the weeks since she has become a visible advocate for the many people in the gaming industry.  This includes developers, journalists, critics, and ordinary rank and file gamers and fans, who have all been negatively impacted not only by GamerGate.  They’ve been hurt by the culture of sexism within the world of gaming that spawned the movement in the first place and will doubtlessly persist once it is gone. For my column this week, I spoke with her to get her take on the events of the last month. (Also, note that “gamedev” is short for ‘game development’).

In the wake of the firestorm around GamerGate, one of the central questions that has emerged is “who gets to be a gamer?” What is the future of that term? Where do you see Giant Spacekat fitting into that debate? Who are you and your team making games for?

If you look at the entire history of games, it’s not a male-centric activity and never has been. Playing games is a human activity, and some of the earliest board games that women played are over 3,000 years old. Videogames are simply a technological evolution in experiencing narrative and immersion within a set of rules.

The major issue that’s leading to women getting a lot of crap today is culture. Videogames have been developed by men for men for a long time. I remember being a child and seeing posters for Smash TV in the local arcade. They promised the “Pleasure Dome” where bikini-clad women would sit on the male player’s lap as he sat on the throne.

That culture pushes women away in ways the industry hasn’t bothered to think about. The truth is, women love games. Even though the culture is toxic, even though the representations of women are often demeaning, we’ve still shown up. And now we are 48 percent of all players. We’re asking the industry to grow to include us. We’re all gamers, and we’re not going to be relegated to Candy Crush and Farmville.

Giant Spacekat’s mission is simple: I want to make games by women for women, and I want them to be the best games in the world.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve played a pink sugar-coated game that’s been full of patronizing tropes about women, then gone and looked at the dev team to see it’s all men. There’s so much about these experiences that feel inauthentic. I think we need to have women in leadership positions to make that kind of content that speaks to us.

Right now I’m working with a female developer on new game type. She gave me the pitch, and 5 minutes into it, I’m like “Let’s do this.” It’s a ridiculously simple idea with a huge market no one is addressing. You have to ask yourself, “Why is no one doing this already?” And it’s because the men that make games don’t care about some markets.

They don’t care about women over 40. They don’t have much faith in teenage girls. They don’t represent mothers as anything but shallow stereotypes. And it’s like, if they won’t do this, we will.

Another issue that has emerged is the way that our pain as women tends to be prized more highly than our accomplishments. Moving forward from GamerGate, how can we elevate the voices of women, POC, and queer people in the world of gaming? Can we value them for their accomplishments, while resisting the fetishisation of our harassment?

God, is that a good question. I find it deeply troubling that death threats are the only thing that get people’s attention when it comes to looking at how we treat women. I tried to have a conversation recently with someone in the industry about mansplaining. And it didn’t compute, he was unwilling to listen, could not even neurocognitively process that as a woman in the field I might have more perspective than he did.

And, this kind of arrogance is everywhere in gamedev. If you try to get those kinds of issues addressed, there’s all kinds of cultural inertia. But, if we’re suffering from death threats they might listen. It’s a really twisted situation. The culprit is obvious. It’s male privilege. And, if there is a mecca of male privilege, it’s gamedev.

It’s filled with men that frequently harbor resentment towards women they don’t understand. While they intellectually feel we should be here, they unconsciously assume it’s their space and that their comfort is paramount. There’s no way to describe it but really, really shitty. I think we all address it in our own way. I try to make it better by never taking any shit, and speaking up on this stuff. I don’t accept excuses. That’s not going to work for everyone, but I think I’m helping make it better.

What are the obligations of men in the industry, in the wake of all this?

It’s so simple, but they need to be listening to women. That’s it.

It’s sad, but so predictable what happens when you try to bring up industry issues affecting women. They tell you how you are allowed to feel. They tell you how you have to interpret your own experiences. Then they have the excuses. Then they tell you how much they are an ally of women but don’t want to change anything.

The problem with male privilege in gamedev is that it stops us from looking at any of these extremely serious problems. We need men to understand, if they truly got these issues – they would be solved. We need them to listen more than they speak.

What has the response to your visibility been from women and girls who’ve been watching GamerGate unfold?

It’s hard for me personally. I get a lot of letters from young girls that are scared to go into the field. That’s what really hits me, more than the death threats. I have a lot of women who hold me up as a role model, or as a symbol for fighting to make a space for us. In a way, it’s touching. In another, it’s pressure I’m not entirely comfortable with. I feel like I can’t quit the industry now, because it’s not about me anymore. I have women that are looking up to me to make this better, and I’m not going to let them down.

There are some who like to blame women who speak up about harassment or hostile for “scaring” other women out of STEM fields, how do you respond to those kinds of arguments?

It’s a silencing tactic. It’s not about protecting women, it’s about them not having to think about something that makes them uncomfortable. They’ll blame anything and everything except themselves.

Finally, what do you think is next for us in the world of gaming? This has been a particularly hard and depressing three months, but do you see any good coming from all this fire and ferment?

I have to tell you. I’ve seen a lot privately in the last few months that’s really shaken my faith in the innate goodness of the people that work here. I’ve seen people speak with such passion about their hope of making the industry better for their daughters while choosing to do nothing – and with beautiful, soothing, empty words. Gamedev is a system that is shamelessly protective of the status quo.

This is why the representation of women has barely improved in 30 years. It’s not that it makes them more money to treat women so poorly, it’s that continuing to cater to the male ego protects the system of power. More troubling to me is seeing how many women make a Faustian deal in this field to never speak up and to never rock the boat. This has been an extremely common tactic during GamerGate. I can’t personally blame them for not speaking up, but I think the silencing of some women collectively hurts us all.

That said, I do think we’ve finally seen the problem in all its dark glory. And, like it or not I think we’ll have to address it.

I was having lunch the other day here in Boston, and a man came over to me to tell me how terrified he was for his daughters, who wanted careers in technology. His voice was trembling. And I looked into his eyes and I promised him we would make it better for them.

I have to believe that we’re going to make it better for them. Because if we don’t, I will have stood in front of this firing squad for nothing.

Katherine CrossKatherine Cross is actually about ethics in games development.

Katherine Cross is sociologist and Ph.D student at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City specialising in research on online harassment and gender in virtual worlds. She is also a sometime video game critic and freelance writer, in addition to being active in the reproductive justice movement. She loves opera and pizza.

Sociologist and Unofficial Nerd Correspondent.

Read more about Katherine

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