Crash Override: How Gamergate (Nearly) Destroyed My Life, and How We Can Win the Fight Against Online Hate
September 5, 2017
It’s difficult to properly define the format of Crash Override. It slides from memoir to manifesto to case study to policy proposal with deft shifts in tone and language. It’s an intentional muddying that might as well be the animating principle of its author Zoe Quinn, who’s assumed a dizzying array of roles since being thrust into the public eye as the initial victim of Gamergate. What’s much easier to articulate is that Crash Override is the most consequential non-fiction book of the year, which is no small claim about a book that debuted under the long shadow cast by Hillary Clinton’s What Happened.
The different terms under which Clinton and Quinn’s books are being received have many causes, but none is as fascinating or as underexamined as how that split is emblematic of the Cartesian duality that still rules over how the Internet and the rest of the public sphere are seen. GamerGate, just over three years after its inciting incident, is still talked about as being something that happened “on the Internet,” despite its effects reverberating quite literally into halls of power as consequential as the United Nations and the White House. It’s an increasingly dangerous line of thinking that Quinn delves into primarily in the private, individual sphere, but requires a bit of a rewind to put her book – and the hate movement that engulfed her – into proper context.
If we accept the Cartesian duality between the physical and digital public spaces as a starting point, then the 21st century that shaped the events leading to What Happened and Crash Override are parallel histories with discrete beginnings. From the perspective of America’s current social and political concerns, the beginning of the 21st century is almost inarguably September 11th, 2001. The terror attack that day reshaped the American political landscape in a way not seen since the partitioning of Berlin or the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and it continues to shape the country and much of the world to this day.
The beginning of the 21st century for those “from the Internet” like Quinn is not widely theorized or discussed, which is one of many reasons why GamerGate was allowed to explode as viciously and widely as it did. GamerGate itself is a tempting candidate for an epochal in the shift in online conduct and its potential to fundamentally alter events in the public sphere on a massive scale. However, it arguably had an even more consequential antecedent whose effects swept the globe in a way much more insidious than the major terrorist attacks of this century. Before there was GamerGate, there was the global Scientology protest dubbed “Project Chanology.”
Project Chanology briefly emerged as a protest against the Church of Scientology and their efforts to take down a leaked internal video starring Tom Cruise. While its initial retaliation was mere mischief-making, the protest became more venomously coordinated in response to the intervention of established critics of Scientology. It was the first significant public flexing of 4chan and other such online communities’ organizing capabilities, which, prior to Project Chanology, had been largely confined to pranking social games like the infamously racist raid on Habbo Hotel. While the campaign against Scientology quickly tailed off, the lessons learned from the protest were many.
There were two critical outcomes of Project Chanology. The first outcome was the popularization of a viral model of dissidence that made it all but impossible for organizations, from Scientology even to world governments, to disrupt. The second outcome was an emphasis on hactivism as a tool of expression for a subculture that had previously shown little interest in affecting the public sphere. To wit, this methodology of a decentralized structure, signature Guy Fawkes masks, and cyberattacks were all appropriated by participants in the Arab Spring, most notably in Tunisia, where local dissidents worked in tandem with members of Anonymous.
All of this is the crucial context for Crash Override because this is the origin of the venues, tools, and individuals who were leveraged to create GamerGate and transition it into the still burgeoning alt right. Quinn’s ordeal and its aftermath weren’t accidental or aberrant; it was a patiently awaited Reichstag Fire. For this reason Crash Override cannot be seen as an individual case, but instead as the report of a pivotal historical event that ought to force a sea change in how we look at the Internet and the private infrastructure that mediates our engagement with it.
What becomes almost immediately clear in the autobiographical segments of the book is that Crash Override was always in Quinn’s destiny to write. GamerGate simply shifted the focus of an already inevitable memoir. Prior to the drafting of the accusations that her ex-boyfriend used to whip up a mob against her, Zoe Quinn was a trailblazing indie game developer. Her game Depression Quest, the subject of the spurious allegations, was already turning heads and challenging notions of what a contemporary video game could be. It’s impossible to know what Quinn would have titled Crash Override had she not experienced the ordeal that inspired her to found the eponymous victims support group, but the narrative of how she came to be that boundary-pushing developer is a pitch-perfect grasp of the cultural zeitgeist too affecting to be suppressed.
For readers in Quinn’s age bracket, her description of her engagement with video games and the internet from childhood to the present is startlingly relatable. Everything from her childhood hobby of voraciously reading about games she could never afford in magazines at the library, to finding an online space to safely explore her budding queerness, personally felt like reading the memoir of someone who grew up in the same town at the same time, without ever having actually met them. It’s a powerful example of how the Internet is emerging as a reverse diaspora, creating common bonds and shared experiences among marginalized and outsider groups who would otherwise live in isolation and possibly even ignorance of their own selves.
What makes it especially poignant is that in a different context, Crash Override would be primarily a source of triumph over adversity and a testimonial to the power of transmuting lived experiences of entrenched poverty, homophobia, and mental illness into deeply relatable art. Instead, those aspects are frequently overshadowed by a harrowing tale of survival, which illustrates in painstaking detail how impermanent any escape from domestic violence can prove to be. Of course, the trajectory from inspiring triumph to improbable survival is, in and of itself, a noted generational trait of millennials.
Quinn’s description of processing the trauma of GamerGate, and how she crystallized the defensive measures she took during that campaign into a budding career in activism and advocacy, has remarkable parallels with Piper Kerman’s journey towards activism in her memoir Orange is the New Black. Kerman took her incarceration as an opportunity to decenter herself and her experience of the prison system as a privileged white queer woman and highlight the various ways that she observed the prison system harming women in more precarious positions than hers, specifically trans women, women of color, pregnant women, elderly women, and mentally ill women. Ironically, Kerman’s prison experience radicalized her against the institution itself and left her with a stronger desire for solidarity and reform that she entered with.
So too did Quinn’s extended harassment open her eyes to the reality that the methodology used against her had been previously honed against women of color and trans women without the public profile or resources that Quinn was able to leverage to fight through it. It’s something she communicates not just by identifying her privilege and recognizing that other victims exist, but also by inviting these voices into the conversation to speak for themselves.
What’s especially fascinating about Quinn and Kerman’s parallel journeys towards skepticism in the American criminal justice system is that they began at opposite ends. Kerman became radicalized by seeing what incarcerated women are put through first hand. Quinn became radicalized by witnessing how that same system fails complainants, and how a mechanism as seemingly simple as a restraining order can become, instead of a layer of protection, a means through which an abuser can force extended contact with their victim and draw out the process of extricating the abuser from their life.
It’s a prism through which much of the final segment of the book, dedicated mostly to Internet safety and etiquette, is filtered. It’s here that Quinn issues the most decisive challenge to the firmly entrenched Cartesian duality of digital and public life. She asserts that despite its lack of physical geography, the Internet, as we interact with it on a daily basis, is a private infrastructure whose architecture shapes how that space can be used. Its influence is as powerful as the ways in which architecture and civil engineering control how we navigate cities. Therefore, the interfaces through which we access social networks like Facebook and Twitter, as well as the algorithms that power them, are not and cannot be neutral. There is human agency behind them, subject to all the inherent biases that go along with it.
This reality is something that even Quinn didn’t fully understand until she began to advocate for victims of online abuse. While interfacing with employees of various services, Quinn was initially hopeful – perhaps naively so. She soon realized that the issues she was having in getting reports of abuse through to most companies, and then having these companies act on these reports, were not minor bugs in the system. Disturbingly, these issues were purposely ingrained features.
It’s an aspect of Quinn’s work that has continued to play out with increasing drama since the publication of Crash Override. The most damning example of this has been the recent Buzzfeed report revealing that employees from a number of tech firms, such as Google and Twitter, maintained a backchannel to feed stories and potential targets to GamerGate agitator Milo Yiannopoulos. These revelations came while the most public faces of Twitter, including CEO Jack Dorsey, were occupied by other controversies. These executives were arguing with users who called into question the prioritization of a partial rollout of 280 character tweets over expelling the extreme right and Nazi-aligned accounts, which the company is legally bound to filter out when Twitter is accessed from Germany.
Twitter is a clear instance of a company choosing not to use the resources already available to them to curb abuse. However, in other instances, the architecture and intent of a service itself can be the problem. It’s an aspect of Facebook explored by Franklin Foer’s World Without Mind, drawing attention to founder Mark Zuckerberg’s “radical transparency” agenda:
The theory holds that the sunshine of sharing our intimate details will disinfect the moral mess of our lives. Even if we don’t intend for our secrets to become public knowledge, their exposure will improve society. With the looming threat that our embarrassing information will be broadcast, we’ll behave better. […] “The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly,” Zuckerberg has said. “Having two identities for yourself is an an example of a lack of transparency.” The point is that Facebook has a strong, paternalistic view on what’s best for you, and it’s trying to transport you there.
That agenda alone is proof enough that we need a presence like Quinn to interrogate the architecture of the Internet. It’s particularly worrying for marginalized groups like queer people, sex workers, and domestic abuse survivors. These groups have important reasons for segregating their personal and professional spheres, but they have been frequently targeted and disenfranchised by Facebook’s “real name policy” with little recourse. As Zuckerberg noted in that same passage, companies like Facebook are “more like a government than a traditional company. [They] have this large community of people, and more than other technology companies [they’re] really setting policies.” The difference, of course, between companies like Facebook or Twitter and actual governments is the impunity and relative lack of transparency under which major tech firms have been allowed operate.
Zuckerberg, of course, recognizes the artificial and ultimately dangerous notion of the Cartesian duality in our culture that treats What Happened and Crash Override as if the events they describe happened in completely different countries. The problem with Zuckerberg and his contemporaries is that they’re seeking to bring about a hard landing into a cultural and political milieu of their design that magnifies the advantages of the privileged and further jeopardizes the marginalized. That’s what makes voices of dissent like Quinn’s and the messy hybrid of memoir, public policy, etiquette and manifesto that Crash Override embodies so urgently necessary.