The warning came in an anonymous email: indie developer Zoe Quinn was to be the target of a forum-organised raid. Her game, Depression Quest (co-created with Patrick Lindsey and Isaac Schankler), attempts to give players some idea of what it feels like to live with depression, and is based on the personal experiences of the team. The game has attracted a great deal of attention, and even some awards, since its release. But despite surviving YouTube, Reddit and 4chan commenters with little trouble, the arrival of the interactive fiction game on Steam Greenlight in December 2013 proved problematic for certain members of one message board, triggering a disquieting chain of events.
“I was content to take some screengrabs of the message board to show friends and leave it at that,” Quinn tells us. “I didn’t engage, because I know how the Internet works and that would just make them target me more. It was something I wasn’t really taking seriously at all, until two weeks later I got a phone call and I couldn’t make out what was happening at first. Then I realised it was somebody jerking off.”
Quinn had been in a similar place once before. This was Depression Quest’s second Greenlight campaign, having faced a similar level of resistance from a vocal minority the first time around – enough that Quinn felt forced to pull it.
“We were putting a nontraditional game directly in the line of sight of very traditional gamers. And some traditional gamers have huge issues with women, and huge issues with games being anything that aren’t space marines or plumbers! People were saying things like, ‘This isn’t a game. This is terrible. You should go kill yourself,’ ‘Depression isn’t real,’ or ‘You’re just pushing pills.’ And then it started intensifying offsite, the threats started rolling in by emails, and then somebody sent this really detailed letter to my house about how they wanted to rape me.”
Quinn was determined not to abandon Depression Quest’s second shot at Greenlight, but the phone incident forced her to change her number and hunker down to wait out the storm. Phone in Airplane mode, she heeded the advice of peers, colleagues and that anonymous emailer: ‘Don’t feed the trolls.’
That was until Mighty No 9 community manager Dina Abou Karam came under fire for her artwork of a female version of the game’s protagonist, Beck, and her “corrupting feminist influence”. The backlash filled Quinn’s Twitter stream, with some parties suggesting that the calls to remove Karam were based on legitimate fears and that sexism didn’t exist in games.
“I’m sitting there looking at the phone I can’t use because people will fling terrible things at me, and I just snapped. This actually is a fucking problem. I hadn’t spoken up because I’m just so used to this, but no, fuck that, this is what’s going on, so don’t sit there and tell me that sexism doesn’t happen. Don’t sit there and tell me that harassment doesn’t happen to female game developers, because I’m living that right now, and I have on and off for the entirety of my career. I’m sick of this ‘Don’t feed the trolls’ shit, because it doesn’t work and all it does is make it so that the people getting harassed can’t talk about it.
“It’s messed up that people just accept this and it’s something that I’m fighting very hard against. [Too many] people accept this as the cost of doing business for a lot of game developers who are people of colour, or women or transgender – anybody who doesn’t fit what people think of when you say ‘game developer’, y’know.”
And what of the suggestions that interactive fiction doesn’t belong on Steam? “Steam is the largest digital distribution service for games, but there are things on there that aren’t explicitly games. I want to be on Steam because I absolutely think [Depression Quest is] a game, and I’d like to see more nontraditional games like Proteus, Dear Esther or text-adventure-type things on the platform. The fact is, text adventures have been influential in games since day fricking one. I mean, hello, Zork exists, and if people want to pretend that doesn’t matter and isn’t worthy of Steam, they need to get their heads checked.”