In January 2015, Zoë Quinn and Alex Lifschitz debuted Crash Override, an online anti-harassment task force. The organization provides crisis center support, ongoing assistance to victims, and community outreach and activism. The network is staffed by online abuse survivors such as Lifschitz and Quinn, the latter being the developer of Depression Quest and the original target of GamerGate.
In this interview, Quinn and Lifschitz discuss how Crash Override was designed to combat this new movement of hate, how to be proactive without being victim-blaming, the ways in which Crash Override will grow and be funded, and why the video game industry allowed GamerGate to happen.
Download the audio edition of this interview below or from Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music, Overcast, Pandora, Pocket Casts, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, RadioPublic, or the Internet Archive. Click past the jump for links to resources mentioned in this episode.
- Crash Override on Twitter & Tumblr
- GamerGate inspires Law & Order: SVU episode “Death Threats”
- Crash Override’s guide to preventing doxing
- Doxxing defense: Remove your personal info from data brokers (Computerworld)
- Zoë Quinn on Patreon
- Take This on Polygamer
- Brianna Wu’s legal defense fund
- Randi Lee Harper’s Good Game Autoblocker
- Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency
- Kathy Sierra
- Palle Hoffstein of Ubisoft: “GamerGate has no economic clout.“
- Leigh Alexander’s Gamasutra article: “‘Gamers’ don’t have to be your audience. ‘Gamers’ are over.”
- Skitty is the best Pokémon
Voiceover: Welcome to the Polygamer podcast, where gaming is for everyone. Join us as we expand the boundaries of the gaming community.
Ken Gagne: This week on Polygamer…
Zoë Quinn: I don’t care if you’re pro-GamerGate or anti-GamerGate or a freaking Martian. This needs to end.
Ken: That was Zoë Quinn, co-founder of Crash Override, an online anti-harassment task force. Quinn and co-founder, Alex Lifschitz, officially debuted Crash Override in January 2015, with their mission to combat online hate, help victims rebuild, provide community outreach, and make the Internet safer.
These are all topics that Quinn & Lifschitz unfortunately know quite a bit about. If you’ve been listening to Polygamer for the last few months, then you’ve heard Zoë Quinn’s name come up not only in relation to Depression Quest, the empathy game she created, but also in regards to GamerGate, because Zoë was the initial target for that movement when her ex-boyfriend posted a 10,000-word diatribe about her back in mid August 2014, a rant filled with unfounded and untrue accusations. The worst aspects of the Internet and of humanity suddenly had its banner.
The name GamerGate arose ostensibly to promote ethics in games journalism that has been pursuing whatever its goals happen to be by any means necessary, few of which could be described as ethical.
Their targets have included Boston-based Brianna Wu, founder of the studio giant Space Cat and developers of the game Revolution 60. Writers such as Lee Alexander and Mattie Brice, developers such as Randy Leigh Harper, and of course Feminist Frequency founder Anita Sarkeesian.
All these women have experienced varying degrees of threats and harassment including but not limited to doxing — the online publication of their personal contact information as an invitation to harass them further in an offline capacity.
Zoë Quinn was doxed. Her father was doxed. Former employers were called trying to find any dirt they could about her. She had to flee her home and has not been back since.
Although GamerGate escalated and exacerbated these issues, they have been rampant in the gaming industry and in the tech industry and in society for much longer before GamerGate.
It was these kinds of issues that motivated me to found the Polygamer podcast last July, and a few months later to write an anti-doxing article for Computerworld.com so that other people could be safe and to prevent the kind of attacks that have been occurring with alarming frequency.
However, nobody is being more proactive in these respects than the people who are actually being targeted by GamerGate. Crash Override is just the latest manifestation of how they are making sure that what has happened to these individuals never needs to happen to anybody else.
“Crash Override is a support network and assistance group for victims and targets of unique forms of online harassment, composed entirely of experienced survivors.” I’m quoting from their website.
They’re both proactive in offering people the tools and resources they need to prevent being assaulted. When these kinds of threats do nonetheless emerge, Crash Override offers counsel and advice, as well as a support network. These methods of support can be broadly categorized into crisis center support, ongoing assistance to victims, and community outreach and activism.
I was fortunate to spend an hour on Skype with Quinn and Lifschitz discussing how and why they founded Crash Override, and what they hope to eventually accomplish in the face of such ongoing harassment.
As with almost every episode of Polygamer, a rough outline of the show was submitted to them ahead of time so that they could come to the conversation prepared. None of the questions were intended to be about their personal lives or about GamerGate because I suspected that they’ve had their fill of those conversations. I want to focus on the good that they are now doing in the face of such adversity.
Nonetheless, toward the end of the episode, those topics did come up and they were willing to engage in what they feel caused GamerGate to occur, what sort of culture do we live in that allowed this beast to arise and how do we slay it.
They were calling me from a bar. I was unable to eliminate much of the background noise. Fortunately, the audio is remarkably intelligible, so you should not have any issues with the quality of the recording. However, this interview does have the occasional soundtrack of 1980’s hair band music.
If you’d like to learn more about Crash Override you can visit them on the web at crashoverridenetwork.com where you’ll find links to their Twitter, which is @CrashOverrideNW, and also their Tumblr where they are posting various resources such as their own anti-doxing article, and also a most recent post called, “Account Security 101: Passwords, Multifactor, Social Engineering, and You“.
My thanks to Quinn and Lifschitz for their time. I hope you enjoyed this interview and that you never find yourself in need of the resources Crash Override offers. Oh, one more thing before we get started, in the interest of full disclosure, I am a backer of Zoë Quinn’s Patreon. Anybody who has a problem with that can fuck off.
Today I was speaking with Zoë Quinn and Alex Lifschitz, the co-founders of Crash Override, the online anti-harassment task force that made its debut in January of 2015. Hi there.
Alex Lifschitz: Hi there.
Zoë Quinn: Hi. Thanks for having us.
Ken: Thank you so much for making time for me. I really appreciate it.
Zoë: Yeah. Of course.
Ken: From my perspective, Crash Override kind of came out of the blue. We’re well aware of everything that led up to it, but I didn’t realize that was the response that you were formulating. How long was Crash Override in the planning stages before you announced it to the world?
Zoë: We’ve been doing it informally since about September. As we were monitoring our own channels to see incoming threats and if they had found out where we were, we would see other people being docs and targeted and it just seemed natural to reach out to those people and give them a heads up.
Additionally, when you’re targeted as part of a campaign of harassment that gets an SVU episode because it’s so ridiculously huge, a lot of other people that have been there use it as a beacon to reach out to you.
We started seeing so many similarities in terms of what happened to us, that there was clear that there is a mechanism in play here. I’m a game designer because I see systems and I work in systems.
A lot of it was like figuring out the problems, mapping it out, finding where people needed somebody to better navigate the systems with them and trying to fulfill that need as we went naturally.
Alex: The knowledge of our operation was mostly between the people in it. We would grow organically as more people came under fire and a lot of people came under fire over the last couple of months.
Once we realized that a lot of bad information was out there, a lot of poor practices and a lot of people who weren’t up to spec with their security or know-how or afraid to talk to the police or what have you, we decided now is the time to formalize.
By that, it was make ourselves public to everybody, make ourselves known, so people would have a place to turn if they were being harassed, if they were victims of older harassment campaigns, many of which have reached out to us, or if they’re just anticipating that they might be a target for somebody, we help them get up to speed and best protect themselves along with lending them an ear.
Zoë: Sometimes all people need isn’t there. Sometimes people just need to be understood because when this happens to you, a lot of people, first and foremost, try and talk to people in their lives who were like, “Oh it’s just the Internet, stop posting,” like it’s not a big deal when if you’ve actually been there, you know how all consuming it can be.
When so many people live and work online, hand-waving and it’s just the Internet is like saying there’s an angry mob outside your door, just don’t go outside. It’s not practical advice. It’s a little bit ridiculous in 2015.
Ken: Exactly. I’d describe the situation to a co-worker and she asked, “Why don’t they just stop using Twitter?” and that’s not an option. Also, it’s victim blaming. You have every right to be on Twitter.
Zoë: Yeah. That’s like saying just don’t go into work.
Alex: Not only it’s a victim blaming but it shows a shallow understanding of how the Internet is reflective of real life. It’s not a separate thing or a magical pocket dimension where things don’t happen.
Many of us live and work online. We don’t have the luxury of walking away just because it’s… If you’re going to see your workplace to these kinds of people, you have to find a new career, you have to find a new place to be and so many of us exist and work online. Walking away is just allowing them to wreak havoc with the place that you live.
Zoë: Beyond that, there’s actually a sinister level that I think people don’t actually understand at play here.
When so many news organizations source their stuff directly from Twitter, when Wikipedia is being considered as the default authority on so many topics, when you harass specific targets and demographics out of that conversation, their voice becomes missing from the larger cultural landscape in a way that you might not see at first. That is a major issue we need to address.
Alex: The kind of harassment that people think is online is the kind of real-life-world bullying where you can just go physically away from your bullies. They don’t realize a lot of people may be harassed without knowing it.
A lot of people may have their thing sabotaged without physically being there. The idea that you can walk away and it would go away is just patently false and it’s understanding of the Internet that allows this kind of culture to breed.
The people who perpetuate this kind of harassment are counting on our cultural apathy and they’re counting on people treating it like it’s not actually real because it lets them just totally run amok.
Ken: A lot of people don’t appreciate how essential Twitter has become. It’s not just a social media playground where you go to post pictures of food. It’s an essential part of many people’s work lives.
Alex: Yeah. There’s a disconnect. Sometimes, it seems willfully and sometimes, it just depends on what kind of person you are. On one hand, you’ll see all these things coming out about how Twitter is the savior of so many brands and entities and people that the Internet is so pervasive in our lives. And yet when it comes to dealing with harassment, we’re thinking ten years in the past. They’re trying to insist, “Oh well, it’s not real, it’s not pervasive.”
Ken: Your network is composed primarily of experienced survivors who wish to remain anonymous. Have you sought out any particular skills or certifications among those survivors to help you beef up what you can offer?
Zoë: Absolutely. Through the course of dealing with our own kind of harassment and being at the center, we ourselves had to reach out for specific help like with law enforcement, with lawyers, social workers, what have you.
Even just in dealing with our own case firsthand, we have ended up with a network of people who are adept at helping in those specific areas and through talking with other people who have gone through the same thing, usually they have recommendations as well.
Not only do we have a group of core experience survivors with expertise and stuff like White Hat Security experts, things like that, we also have an extended network of people that are full-time in their field, fully knowledgeable about their subject that we reach out for consulting and for advice on subjects that are outside of our debts.
Alex: The one thing that people can count on in terms of everybody they talk to in the network is that they have been under this particular kind of harassment. They have seen the other side of it so they understand the psychology of what goes on. They understand what you may be facing down.
The skills that we’ve amassed from people, some of them have been sought out, a lot of them ended up emerging organically from us and our experiences and everybody in the networks experiences. The things that people look for when they’re being harassed are the things that we’ve already sought out, the things that we have tried out, some to better efficacy, some to worse.
Ken: Now, you said on your website that the way that you address these issues is not through more harassment, instead you work with law enforcement, media and social infrastructure.
However, it seems to me that one of the reasons that we need volunteer organizations such as yours is because the response from law enforcement has been so abysmal. Has that been your experience?
Zoë: It depends really. What’s going to happen anytime you need to work with law enforcement is going to vary on who you’re actually talking to at the moment. Sometimes you get people that are sympathetic and understand. Sometimes you get people who are total Luddites and think that the Internet is frivolous.
What we do instead is focus on helping people learn how to talk to police and how to better navigate these pre-existing systems in ways that are beneficial and get their concerns taken with the gravity that they deserve.
When it comes to things like that or even just like helping them prevent or let their local police department know ahead of time that they’re looking at possibly getting swatted, we tell them like here’s what’s worked for us, here’s what hasn’t worked for us and try to help guide them through the process.
Ken: Is there any general advice you would give somebody? Of course, the difference between being swatted and having a death threat and there are so many different kinds of harassment that there’s no one shoe fits all, but what general actions can you recommend somebody take to be safe?
Alex: When we give advice, there are some things that are general and some things that are very specific. Of course, everybody can benefit from things like having good information security practices. Everybody can benefit from scrubbing their information from information dealer site, sites that people used to dox and all that.
Everybody can benefit from that. But one of the things we took going into Crash Override is that no two cases of harassment are ever really the same. What the right thing to do is that depends on who you are, what your history is, who is aggressing against you, what platforms they’re doing it on.
This can mean that the best course of action is everything from staying silent and letting it blow away to making statements to actively calling in law enforcement and legal professionals. It’s different for every person based on all of these factors.
One thing we tried to keep in mind with Crash Override, when people come to us, is that we do publish guides and things that we think are going to be applicable to everybody as a general purpose primer.
When people come to us and deal with us, we try to listen out to who they are, what their situation is and advise based on the best course of action and the people we know who are experienced in the field that they’re seeking out to best get back in control of their lives.
Ken: So you’re sort of an intermediary between them and whatever resources they need to make sure that they’re safe and that their issue is addressed.
Zoë: Yeah, because one of the things that happens is in some situations where you’re not getting older systems, it can be really hard to find someone who actually take your concerns seriously or even ones that will give good advice.
It can be really good to just be able to be pointed to the right direction and have things tailored for them. For example, if we’ve had some cases where specifically trans people were dealing with a lot of the stress and anxiety and specific concerns with that where we have a highly recommended lifeline and hotline that is run by trans people for trans people that will actually take their concerns quite seriously and that we’ve heard nothing but good experiences from people who use that service.
That’s just one example of things we can do in terms of doing that versus maybe they’ll call a hotline that’s just more general purpose that they’ll have to then jump this other hurdle of not being understood, or it’s like a less tech literate service, it can be incredibly frustrating and try to work with them versus working with a service that understands things that you don’t have to explain things to.
Alex: We tried to be a one-stop shop and a well of resources for people to use before they figure out how to best address their concerns.
Not only will we advise them but when you’re in a place where you’re coming under fire and you’re being harassed, sometimes it’s hard to think about what you need to be, let alone the people who can help you and whether or not their experience in this kind of online harassment.
What we aim to do is lend our experience. People can come to us and not only will we have ideas of where they can go, what they can do, who we can point them towards who are best applicable in this situation, but that a lot of these places exist.
Many people come to us thinking that their situation might be hopeless or nobody has dealt with this kind of thing before but then, we’ll illuminate to them a couple of places that they might not have found on their own that might be applicable to their situation.
Ken: While respecting the confidentiality of your clients, are there any, I don’t know if the right word is success stories, but are there any experiences that you can share with our listeners?
Zoë: Sure. There’s two that the people that we’ve helped have since gone public and since like they’ve given us explicit permission and if you Google it, it’s out there. There is one case in which we helped somebody detect that a swatting attempt was about to be made on him and gave him advice in terms of talking with the police.
In doing that, the police got their proper heads up, took it seriously and they circulated a memo internally that said “Knock with your fist, not with your foot” which is super important because the person that was targeted is a person of color and they are way more at risk of the police ending up in a violent conflict with them just because of certain ways that certain possibly racist institutions operate.
By doing that, we’re able to help him have a bit more control over his situation. Thankfully, the situation didn’t escalate towards anything dangerous or violent. That was one case that we’re really happy turned out that way and he since seems to have regained his life back from that.
Ken: How do you identify the individuals who actually do need your help, because it is so easy to cram people’s inboxes and Twitter feeds with more harassment? How do you filter out all the noise and find people, even as a minor dimple like me who are legitimately trying to get a hold of you?
Alex: We try to offer our services to everybody as long as they’re approaching in good faith. Trying to figure that out, we’re very cognizant of what it’s like to launch in our current environment, which is highly-politicized, especially the stuff occurring around GamerGate.
We do research into the situations that we can and we give people, obviously, the broad advice that will help them out. This works a lot of the time. If people are anticipating being harassed, what have you, we’ll give them places to vent, we will give them advice on securing their information and frankly, everybody benefits from that.
Even if you’re somebody who’s trying to infiltrate or what have you, there’s really no way to misuse the services that we provide. Our goals are to de-escalate these situations and return control to the people who are being harassed. If you’re coming to us for anything else, offensive action what have you. You’ll be pretty sorely disappointed.
What we do is assisting. What we do is advising. We are very aware that there’s tons of people trying to get into our network, trying to pull whatever operations they might be thinking of to do so, but really we are a support and assistance group at the end of the day. We will help anybody in that regard as long as they are approaching in good faith.
Zoë: As long as it’s not something that would risk the security of the agents that work with us, that is also an incredibly high priority of ours, and not only just because these are people who have been through this once themselves, but beyond that it’s giving any sort of information.
Even if it’s a false positive, even if someone reads into it, it might lead to innocent people being targeted because things like doxing so often affect the wrong people. The other thing is we help people in a variety of different ways, sort of lending itself to the current risk level of all parties involved.
We also don’t act on third-party contact if somebody lets us know that someone else needs help. We try and respect the person’s boundaries and ask them to contact us themselves, because one of the first things that happens when you’re targeted for something like this is you sort of lose control.
Since, as Alex said, we’re aware of the political environment that we’re in, we don’t want to further a situation by jumping on someone who might not want to talk to us.
Ken: You mentioned how people can be doxing and yet you also want people to stay in control. One of the first resources that Crash Override published to their Tumblr was an anti-doxing guide.
I had written a very similar one for Computerworld.com a few months earlier. When I was writing that article, I was faced with the issue of how do I present this information without being victim blaming? How do I not say, “Well, if you didn’t want your information used against you, you shouldn’t have let it be out there in the first place”? How do you walk that line between being proactive and being victim blaming?
Zoë: There’s a difference between saying, “Here’s how to do this thing if you want to do it,” and “You should have done it in the first place.” The latter is always wrong. The former, it’s sort of like the difference between blaming somebody for getting assaulted and providing people the resources to have self-defense courses if that’s the thing they choose.
We’re just providing options. It’s up to other people if they want to take it. If that’s a thing that they think they need, that’s entirely up to them. We do not force help on anyone.
It’s important to keep in mind, we reiterate this out over and over not just in our guide but in any of our communications, that it’s never the fault of the victim. It’s never your fault when somebody doxes you. It doesn’t matter what kind of information you put out there. It’s the misuse of it and the application to use it to intimidate people, that’s the problem. It’s not the person’s existence at all.
Until we have better moderation that we’ll actually take these things seriously and crack down on it on a variety of services, it’s going to continue to be useful to know that they might not be operating within your best interest.
Alex: The thing you mentioned regarding this culture of victim blaming, again something we’re very cognizant of and something that allows a lot of these harassers to operate out in the open and nobody touches them because they imagine that the people that they are aggressing against must have done something to deserve it or should have been better prepared.
We always make sure when somebody comes to us even if they think that oh they did something they shouldn’t or they were taunting the ball or whatever it is, it’s not their fault. It’s the fault of the aggressors. We’re just going to help them best defend themselves should the worst come to pass.
Ken: One of the Crash Override’s early tweets was that it is not accepting donations at this time, but you are partly funded through Patreon, is that correct?
Zoë: Not entirely. It’s not that the Crash Override is funded through Patreon. Patreon funds me as a creator. The verbiage is pretty clear in the site, you are funding Zoë Quinn who is creating all of these things.
It seems right to me to disclose the fact that some of my money does in fact go to this. Someone, for whatever reason, has a political issue with that, they don’t have to fund me. Patreon is a primary source of income for me and that goes into the pocket that, along with other things like freelance work, that Crash Override is funded out of.
I want to explicitly say, please do not back my Patreon if you want to support Crash Override. It’s not necessarily what it’s there for. If you want to like my Patreon to support me as a creator, not for Crash Override, specifically.
Ken: How will Crush Override be funded long term? It doesn’t seem necessarily sustainable for it to be self-funded.
Zoë: Why not?
Ken: Because you have other expenses that you need to be considering. As you said, you are a creator and you have other projects you want to work on.
Zoë: Yeah, but now the labor I do is labor I charge for. I mean, that’s one of the reasons I have things like Patreon: to leave me free to do cool free stuff for other people. What’s important about Crash Override and how we’re dealing with it is that we’re starting small and we’re focused on a very specific kind of task.
We’re going to branch out in the directions that makes sense for us branch out. If further down the road, it makes sense for us to branch out in that specific direction, then we’ll revisit it.
But as is, we’re doing just fine and helping a lot of people with our current setup, which does not require… We’re not a company, we’re not a non-profit, we’re just some people trying to help other people.
Alex: Yeah. As it is, our efforts currently are sustainable by what we’re doing through volunteer efforts and our own personal resources. If that changes in the future, we’ll make it apparent to people. I’m always looking on ways to improve what we’re doing in order to be a help to more people.
Should that call for funding at a particular time and we feel that that necessitates us seeking public funding or filing for 501(c)(3), then we’ll revisit that at that time.
Ken: How do you see Crash Override growing or evolving over time? What other resources would you like to provide or what venues would you like to explore?
Zoë: There’s a number of things that we can think of that we’d like to do, including looking up what tools there’s a need for, what advocacy we can do for services to better handle this. Everything is being dealt play-by-play. It seems like a mistake to try to design this from the top down to the floor.
One of the ways that we are best effective is that we are starting small and we’re starting reactive and we’re reacting to the needs of the community and the people that we help.
Alex: We grow organically. The kind of harassment we’re facing and the kind of culture we’re facing is one that not a lot of other people are generally equipped to deal with. In fact, us being formed seem to have been born out of the fact that very few people were equipped to deal with this kind of harassment.
It’s an evolving beast. It’s a changing thing. It’s highly crowdsourced. It’s hard to pin down.
We always grew by what happens, whatever the new thing is with aggressors, whatever the cultural climate is. We grow reactively to that. Our plans are to just continue to grow reactively and use our resources as best we can and our abstract support skills in order to help people through however this kind of beast may change.
Zoë: That’s one of the nice things about not being a business or a non-profit is that since we are small, our accountability is to the people we help and people that we work with. In doing so, we don’t have to have things like a business plan. We can just adapt quickly.
We can adapt specifically and we can be able to combat things far more effectively than if we tried to start an organization out of what we’ve currently got.
Alex: We feel as long as we have a compass of de-escalating situations, returning control to the people who are attacked, keeping everybody safe, that we’re going to be able to effectively guide ourselves through any new kind of harassment that tends to pop up.
Zoë: And any ways we need to grow in the future.
Ken: One of my other favorite support groups in the video game industry is Take This. One of the ways they’ve evolved over time — they are a 501(c)(3) — is to offer the AFK Room at the various past conventions, which I think is a great resource for those who go to those events. It’s true that every situation and every cause is unique.
I don’t want to suggest that Crash Override needs to grow in the same way or use the same format. I was just wondering what formats you had considered and why or why not you may have chosen the path that you are currently on.
Zoë: It just seemed to be the natural response to everything that people were dealing with and we’re just going to keep going down that road.
Alex: As we help people, our paths to growth make themselves apparent.
Zoë: One of the things we’re doing in talking to so many people that have dealt with so many different facets of online mob harassment is that we’re effectively mapping out the problem as best we can with as much of a sample size as we can.
As we continue to learn more and as we continue to chart what happens here and why and figure out the choke points and what we can do to derail these massive, life-ruining campaigns, then from there it seems like we can be more effective at figuring out what steps to take.
Alex: If some path of growth seems good for us and it’s true to our principles, then there’s a good chance that we’re going to grow in that direction, but again, it’s generally reactionary.
Ken: Several other people in the industry have taken their own paths to addressing this issue. Brianna Wu has a legal defense fund, Randi Harper has the Good Games Blocker, Anita Sarkeesian, of course, has Feminist Frequency. Is there any collaboration among these different parties?
Alex: We collaborate and so far as if somebody has a good idea or if somebody presents an opportunity to work with us who’s true to our principles, then we’ll work with them. Things like the Good Game Auto Blocker, for instance, is something that we heavily suggest to a lot of people who come under fire from the specific crowds that the Good Game Auto Blocker addresses.
Of course, we’re going to suggest that. It’s based on the…
Alex: Yeah, on the effectiveness of the ideas and whatever we can offer each other.
Zoë: Anybody who’s targeted has a bond with other people that had to deal with it. If nothing else, we talk and support each other for sure. That’s just something that I think people in the industry that have been targeted by any kind of harassment, whether or not it’s mob harassment or whether or not it’s just dealing with workplace discrimination. That’s just a common bonding thing that’s happened for years. It’s important and valuable.
Ken: Many non-profits are in the business of putting themselves out of business. For example, I do a lot of volunteer work with the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. The day that a cure is found for MS — which that charity is working very much toward — they’re going to have a lot less to do. Does Crash Override have a sort of end game in mind?
Zoë: To not exist.
Ken: How will that happen?
Zoë: Ideally, services will step up to the plate and take actual measures to identify and properly handle cases of coordinated online harassment. That the Internet will be viewed as an important thing that matters, that you will not be able to hurt people just because it’s the Internet.
To have policymakers and lawyers and judges take the Internet seriously instead. Have the legislation and policy catch up to the speed that tech moves at least start to not be lagging 20 years behind. To integrate the Internet as part of everyday life for a lot of people, look at it as valuable, treat it with this respect it deserves, and to not handwave what happens to the people on it.
To stop enabling the people that are just using it as a method to hurt other people. To do this before, people that are not Internet savvy do for us. The thing that worries me is overbroad legislation coming down from people who aren’t tech literate. That ends up ruining what’s good about the Internet.
Doing things like completely taking anonymity away and destroying the queer spaces that people who are coming to terms of being LGBTQ being able to talk to other people in that community. If we lost that, if we lost the ability to do that anonymously when it’s still dangerous for some people to publicly identify that, that’d be a net loss.
I’d like to see the Internet taken and regulated in the ways that it needs to be.
Alex: It’s part of the larger cultural dialogue. Ending this thing is a cultural battle. What we’re doing on the Internet is something that is just a new face on an old problem. The way to end these things is ultimately that everybody can advocate within their own sphere. “Do what’s right,” does that.
What we have been given with the presence that we have online and in this dialogue is what we feel we can do. Even people who don’t have this kind of presence can advocate within their own sphere and talk about what makes this the case.
We can try to self-correct before things like overbroad legislation and things like that, catch up and slow us down specifically. It’s about the right people doing the right thing when presented with the opportunity to do so at the end of the day.
Zoë: It’s about making sure no more people like us have to exist.
Ken: Yeah. I’m glad people like you exist. [laughter]
Zoë: I mean in some regards maybe, but we’re talking to you on the opposite side of the lake. I’m so far from home I can’t remember the last time I slept in my own bed. I miss my cat. I’m seeing comments where people are talking about shooting up Patreon because they hate that I’m hosted there.
Nobody should have to deal with this. This should end. That’s just patently true. No matter how you cut it. I don’t care if you’re pro-GamerGate or anti-GamerGate or a freaking Martian. This needs to end.
Ken: I wholeheartedly agree that… I’m sorry that Crash Override needs to exist. I’m sorry for the situations that have given you the skills and experience necessary to run Crash Override, but I’m glad that you — given everything that has happened — I’m glad you made that decision. I’m glad that Crash Override does exist.
Zoë: It’s part of moving on. One of the reasons that Crash Override started evolving organically is that we’d help these people and be there for them while they were going through what we had gone through so much.
The process of dealing with this for so many people is to it sucks. Then you start getting paranoid. Then you go through all the negative emotions, and then at the end, a lot of people go, “Oh man, I want to use this.” They started feeling empowered by helping other people and by trying to take care of them.
It’s for a lot of us that end up in this position, helping others not have to go through or softening the blow a little is part of moving on.
Alex: When we talk again about this being a cultural battle, we’ve had a lot of people contact us who are frankly happy that we exist, who might not have a particular case or might not have a way to actively contribute but just say, “Hey, I feel safer being online knowing that there are people around who are finally talking about this issue that has been so unaddressed in culture for so long.”
That’s what we’re happy to provide to a lot of people. If not actively, then just by presence.
Zoë: For some of these people, it’s the first time that they’ve had someone else to talk to that takes their concerns seriously and understands what they’ve been through. That, in and of itself, can be a powerful experience. It always has been for me.
Every time I’m with someone else who’s gone through it, you don’t have to explain so much. People know each other a little bit. There’s a certain camaraderie there that is missing for a lot of people who’ve been isolated and dealing with this on their own, sometimes for up to 10 years in some of our cases.
Ken: It’s hard to believe that this can go on for so long.
Zoë: It doesn’t go away. Look at Kathy Sierra. She vanished for like six years and came back and hadn’t changed. She has been dealing with this in a massive public sphere for at least two years now, and there’s no end in sight.
We need to stop thinking that this ends. We need to realize that when people are targeted this way, the way things are set up, it becomes part of the new normal for them, and that’s unacceptable.
Ken: But there are a lot of components to that problem and to the solution, legal, technical, educational, cultural. How would you describe this?
You talked about proper legislation, and people make the right decisions and social media being accepting and welcoming, but ideally, the problem wouldn’t be how to stop the harassment from happening, would be that people don’t want to harass in the first place which is idealistic and naive but how do we address this? How do we stop this?
Alex: The reasons that people want to harass other people can range. If they’re just unhappy with their own lives if they feel like they get a kick out of aggressing against other people, but the thing about the Internet is that it makes it very easy. It connects us. It allows us to meet lots of people to get things out there.
Again, people in queer and trans spaces love it for what it’s been able to give them in terms of access anonymity. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. However, it has an element of dehumanization. It makes it really easy to think about the person that you are targeting as a concept, as lines of text, as an avatar.
It makes it very easy through things like information dealers and cultures that permit this and places where they congregate, to allow you to get under their skin and harass them effectively.
Part of that again is a cultural dialogue. When we talk about why people do this? That people are human. That there’s somebody else on the other end of that connection, which is something that we stress even when dealing with aggressors.
The people aggressing against people aren’t necessarily human people. But again, it’s a cultural dialogue, and it’s people doing the right thing. It’s calling it out when they see it even in their private spheres, even with friends.
It’s the tastemakers who are running and curating these social platforms and bringing other people to certain elements of prominence, trying to recognize what’s going wrong and how they can best help it because it’s right.
Zoë: Basically, culture needs to have a “Soylent Green” moment with the Internet and be like, “It’s people” and take that to heart.
Ken: I was talking recently with my friend Tifa Robles. She said that one quality that she wishes she could crank up in humanity is empathy. I think she’s right. I don’t know how we would do that. If we just could, it would solve a lot of problems.
Zoë: Educating people on what the actual impacts of these cases are is super important. That’s one of the reasons I’ve been so upfront about everything that’s been happening with me.
One of the reasons that I haven’t just shut up and vanished as soon as this started happening is that when you’re targeted in such a way, there’s a tendency or a survival instinct that tells you if you just turtle up, never let them see you sweat, not let them know that they’re getting to you.
That’s part of the part and parcel for building into this “Don’t feed the trolls” advice that stopped being useful forever ago. These aren’t trolls. These are people that are abusing you.
The unfortunate side product of that is that a lot of people don’t actually realize how this can impact you. When they don’t see you sweat, they don’t see you be human either. They don’t see how this affects you. They just see the cold, composed PR face because that makes sense. It totally makes sense.
To be fair, that’s what a lot of people can do and should do because first and foremost, you have to take care of yourself. The unfortunate consequence is that a lot of people just think that it’s a matter of not posting, that it’s just the Internet, that it’s somehow opt in.
When people are targeted where this is their livelihood, this is their place of business, this is where all of their support networks are, people don’t know what it’s like to have a wave of all encompassing hate just completely demolish that and make it so that your phone’s constantly buzzing.
That you have to have those hard conversations with the person you’re seeing, telling them, “Hey, maybe you should run. Maybe you shouldn’t be with me because you might be a target.” To call their dad up at two in the morning and let them know that there’s probably a wave of people that are about to ring up their phone and call their daughter a whore in front of them.
People don’t see those moments. They just see the PR. That is starting to change now that so many of us are starting to stand up. Sometimes, that’s all people need. They just need to see someone who is hit by the storm and keep standing and keeps trying to uplift others.
Alex: Frankly, I’d like to see a dialogue around the idea of complicity when it comes to people dealing with these situations. Whether you’re a corporation, or whether you’re somebody actually harassing, or somebody who just chooses to remain silent or neutral in a politicized environment realizing that silence is in its own way a statement.
Zoë: Not for victims though, to be clear.
Alex: When we look at ad corporations, things like GamerGate, which came to the industry’s front door, beating it down for the first time in a long time where they couldn’t just take tests, shrug, move away, and wish their best on everybody.
That silence was very much felt by everybody who was being targeted. That absence was very much felt. Same with harassers, when we’re talking about complicity, a great analogy I had heard recently was along the lines of a firing squad when some people in the firing squad are given blanks.
Everybody fires at the same time and they never know if they shot the killing shot. It’s the same way when you crowdsource harassment, the same way that this kind of thing comes up. Nobody thinks that they are the tweet, that they are the email, whatever it might be, that finally pushes somebody to the point where they break, but they have to know that every bit matters.
It’s like trying to get angry at individual bees in a swarm. Complicity is in its own way a violation of… Complicity is something that is omnipresent. Complicity is omnipresent. If you’re silent, if you are contributing in a way that is unnecessarily crowdsource harassment, it’s something that people need to be talking about more.
Ken: It’s strange that they would be silent because for example, the creative director of Ubisoft recently tweeted that GamerGate has no economic clout. I don’t understand what the fear was in the industry, what they thought they might lose by speaking out against this harassment.
Alex: Fear is a culture of risk aversion. We have been cultivating this culture of risk aversion since the market crash in 1983. We needed a predictable base that we could foster as an identity and draw off of. That’s where the gamer identity is. You don’t see it as bubbled up to the surface of what the medium is.
As you might see in, say, movies or music where somebody just, “I’m a music listener. I am a movie watcher.” Here, we have the gamer identity, which ultimately boils down to in a lot of people’s minds the AAA, the hardcore. Even though all of those articles that GamerGate clearly never bothered to read, says that gamers are a shared title that one person can hog the ball.
However, we’re so used to getting involved and pandering to this identity. You saw it in the AAA space over the last decade as things consolidate into yearly franchise titles, bigger and bigger studios with fewer and fewer of them growing towards risk aversion — not wanting to take risks, always wanting the safe bet.
I tried to tell people that having a principle, having a standard that you are willing to speak about is not a risky thing. These people, like you said, do not have the kind of economic clout that is worth alienating everybody else in the way you necessarily have to do to court these people.
It is not a risky thing to not be awful to huge swaths of people. It is not a risky thing to open yourself up to all these new audience, not by virtue of making them feel like the star of the show, but making them feel like they are included in the culture and the things that you’re making.
That’s not risky. A lot of places, a lot of studios, and a lot of arbiters of game culture need to learn that. They have been profiting off games culture for so long and when something like this happens, this cultural crisis, they claim that they have no part of it. That becomes profiteering.
We need to realize what kind of role we’re playing and the culture we create. We have to recognize that risk aversion is not an excuse for cowardice.
Zoë: It’s actually one of the sadder things that I think a lot of people haven’t discussed is that so much of the fallout from GamerGate is that, like the last ten years especially, so many people in the AAA space and the indie space have been working together to kill this notion of the gamers as basement-dwelling buffoon.
It’s like we’ve made amazing progress on that with things like the democratization of game tools bringing in all kinds of new people to making games towards, from things like that to seeing cool new advances that bring in all kinds people playing the games.
The whole point of those articles that they hated so much, that cool gamers are dead articles, it’s that now we’re able to play such a wide variety of stuff and that’s cool. It’s cool that I can make Depression Quest but in my leisure time, I play the crap out of stuff like Left 4 Dead.
I love playing shooters. I love playing stuff like that and that’s what’s cool to me. It sucks because so much work had been done. So much work had been done to sort of strip away the notion that games should come with a stigma.
The thing that kills me isn’t because of these people that are conflating cultural conservatism with being into games, it’s making the rest of us look bad and that sucks.
Alex: Yeah. I like to tell people, especially the staunchly embedded big kahunas of the game industry who think, “Well, we have our shareholders and we have whatever you need to do.” It will never be this easy to take a stance on a cultural issue as it was during GamerGate.
The sad thing was that at the start, their silence allowed it to get the tiniest bit of legitimacy, which then went away as best we could hope it would go away.
But here was the most virulent, the most without cause, the most without morality that this kind of culture has really ever gotten in recent memory, it was so easy for people to say we don’t agree with this, to name the beast, to talk about GamerGate, not about harassment, not against whatever it is but to outright take this stand.
It got to the point where it was black and white, and yet, still so many people, because of this culture of risk aversion, said we can’t do it. It will never be this easy again, I’d like to think.
Still, there is silence. That’s what broke my heart the most that the people who are trying to make headway in these spaces were in fact the biggest targets of this hate. People like Leigh Alexander who have been talking about ethics more effectively for longer get pilloried because of articles she didn’t write that they didn’t read.
Everything was plain as day if you did the research. People still fell into it. It’s a larger issue with the culture we’ve created. It’s the larger issue we’ve created with disempowering people for talking about these things, with making them think that talking about this is somehow going to be again a risky thing. It’s not. It’s morality.
Ken: You’re right. It’s been an absolute embarrassment for all companies and all gamers involved. When I try to describe to somebody who is not a gamer what the Polygamer podcast is all about and how we address these issues of equality and diversity, they’re blown away.
Not that we’re discussing these topics but that these topics even exist, that there is misogyny in gaming. They had no idea. They thought video games were just fun and games. Even when I talk about my other podcast, IndieSider, which examines indie games. They’re doing fascinating things like Depression Quest and This War of Mine.
People are surprised by that. One person told me, “I can’t imagine a video game that isn’t violent.” Because that was her concept of what a game is, even though she doesn’t really play them. We were getting so close to achieving legitimacy as an art form, and then we’d blow it all away.
Zoë: Yeah. I’m so used to — ever since I started making games — telling people what I do and having them not get it.
Regardless of where they’re from, it’s like, “Oh, you can make games about stuff like that?” or, “Oh, you can make games?” or, “Oh, wait, I’m confused.” It’s been difficult ever since I started making weird stuff about feelings or tiny little comedy games because that’s the bulk of what I make till I try and explain this as a concept to people.
A lot of my work goes towards trying to show that games are for everyone. That’s why I make stuff like Sorting Hat. That’s why I deliberately designed my UI to be easy to understand with people’s moms and grandparents and stuff like that, people who might not necessarily play games.
It sucks because we seem to have already so many cultural connotations that made it seems very difficult thing to get into when that’s totally not representative of what was going on already.
There’s so much interesting work being done in this sphere. It was hard enough already for people to understand that, want to be part of it, or take it seriously because of the mainstream concept of what a gamer is or who’s involved in games or what a game is even. Talk to people’s grandparents. They think Mario and Call of Duty and nothing else.
Things like GamerGate just set us back so many years, which is just heartbreaking.
Ken: I met a great gamer the other day. He asked me, “What games do you like? Diablo? World of Warcraft? Grand Theft Auto? Call of Duty?” I’m like, “No, I don’t like any of those games.” He said, “Oh, what do you like?” I didn’t know how to say, “Oh, well, I like Gone Home and The Counting Kingdom.”
I felt like I might as well just tell him, “I’m one of those fake gamers you’ve heard about,” but there’s just so much more to this. It can sometimes be hard to see through all these issues that we have through it.
Alex: It reminds me again of what GamerGate calls the “Gamers are Dead” articles when, of course, they took things literally that were never even written. [laughter] That was never even said in them. But reading comprehension doesn’t seem to be the strong suit here.
Zoë: It was a movement founded on reviews that never existed so.
Alex: Yeah, but those articles we’re talking about the gamer as a label that has been… essentially it was saying, “Stop hogging the ball, there’s more than just you. There has been more than just you for a long time.”
Ken: I think it’s great that games and gaming are growing for so many people and in so many directions to encompass so many different opportunities. But there are these growing pains thanks primarily to people who don’t want the community to grow. They want to keep it to themselves whether it’s a boy’s club or what have you.
Fortunately, we have a network like yours like Crash Override to help us through these trying times. How can people find out more about your organization or reach out to you if necessary?
Alex: If people want to keep up with us, we have our Twitter and Tumblr for Crash Override. They are the principle ways we push out information. We’re publishing a number of guides over the coming days about common situations you might face or want to know about during episodes of online mob harassment that we are available at crashoverridenetwork@Gmail.com.
Zoë: Also, Skitty is the best Pokemon.
Alex: Skitty is the best Pokemon.
Zoë: Oh, thank you. I’m glad you agree with me.
Alex: I don’t play much.
Zoë: I’ll take it.
Ken: Where does the name Crash Override come from?
Zoë: Hackers. It’s a funny story. We were in a bar with Adams Eisler. We were meeting up for drinks and stuff, but that was still when things were incredibly dangerous for us. A friend of ours was starting to get hacked during that time.
Back then, we had traveled around with what we referred to as a mobile command center, which was both of our laptops, extra batteries, personal hotspot, so we’d have WiFi wherever things like that. If anything went down, we could immediately respond.
We got the call that our friend was getting hacked. Considering it was a Skype account — we had already unfucked several people’s Skype’s earlier that week when they were all getting targeted really hard — we just popped out our mobile command center went to work. Adam Eisler was making fun of us, saying we looked like a scene from Hackers. That stuck in our minds.
Ken: Gosh, I really appreciate everything that you guys are doing for the industry. I appreciate you taking the time to talk about everything that you’re doing with our listeners. I wish you the best of luck, and I hope things get better for everybody, especially you, too.
Zoë: Thank you, and thanks for having us on.
Alex: Thanks for having us.
Voiceover: This has been Polygamer, a Gamebits production. Find more episodes, read our blog post and feedback at polygamer.net. [pause]
Alex: We tend to roll around to cheesy ’80s hair metal. It follows us — we could be out in the middle of a field, and we’ll just be playing.
Zoë: It’s a medical condition, really.
Ken: Have you talked to somebody about that?
Zoë: Why would I? I just headbang a lot.