Watching GamerGate unfold from the outside and listening to Zoë Quinn describe it in her own words are two very different things. Crash Override: How Gamergate (Nearly) Destroyed My Life, and How We Can Win the Fight Against Online Hate is more than a memoir; it’s a comprehensive dissection of a flawed facet of the Internet. I read it not just because I wanted to hear Quinn’s account of what happened but understand, from the perspective of someone who has endured so much online abuse, how the systems are failing her and countless others. Trigger warnings for misogynistic slurs and imagery of rape and violence; Quinn reprints some of the threats and abuse she has received.
Crash Override begins with an extremely personal account of the events leading up to what became GamerGate. This is grounded in Quinn’s childhood love for video games and culminates with her transformation from indie developer into co-founder of the anti-abuse program that shares this book’s name. In this way, Quinn reminds us that she never set out to become so notorious: all she wanted to do was code cool indie games. But an abusive ex with a grudge changed all that. His actions triggered an avalanche of abuse and hate targeting not just Quinn but anyone who dared look like they might possibly offer her support.
Pause a moment to unpack this. I still vaguely remember this unfolding, from the initial splash to the whole debacle that followed. I remember the “ethics in video game journalism” crowd loudly declaiming the importance of freedom of speech and making sure reviews are honest/fair/objective—as if anyone, anywhere, was seriously arguing they should be bought-and-paid-for. I remember this happening while people were being sent death threats and all manner of abuse, simply for showing up and saying, “Um, hey, maybe don’t dox Zoë?”
The issue here was never freedom of speech, but if your defence of free speech at all overlaps with defending people who, by spewing their “free” hate speech, silence and harm others, then reconsider where you’re drawing that line.
Quinn, while sharing the visceral effect of enduring this abuse on her life and relationships, also steps back and tries to analyze it dispassionately. She locates some of the blame for this torrent of hatred on how easy the Internet makes dehumanization, which she defines as opposite to empathy. When we can’t see the effect our words have on someone, it is much easier to regard them as less than human. Quinn is careful to distinguish this from trolls who are doing things “for the lulz”, because such an analysis undermines the idea that these actions come from actual hatred and disgust. Rather, the Internet emboldens people—even when they aren’t acting anonymously—because it feels like one’s actions online come without strings attached.
In this way, Crash Override overlaps with another excellent resource, Haters: Harassment, Abuse, and Violence Online, by Bailey Poland. Both books seek to define, describe, and identify the source of online hate at a systemic level. Poland’s book is much more academic in style and format, whereas Crash Override is grounded both in Quinn’s personal experiences and in her experiences helping others deal with their own abusive situations. So, while a lot of this sounded familiar from Haters, this book still occupies a slightly different niche.
In particular, Quinn discusses at length working with various large companies to stop abuse on their platforms. This ranges from coordinating training and seminars on how to deal with abuse to contacting these companies’ abuse departments and trying to escalate specific cases when it seems like they are falling on deaf ears. Here again Quinn communicates palpable frustration with the broken system, often recounting examples of how certain companies or individuals just didn’t seem to “get it”—or worse, they “got it”, but they didn’t care enough to deal with it, because it might reduce their user base.
And that’s where we arrive at the thorny nugget of the problem. The Internet is not (and never was) the libertarian free-for-all that some dream of it being. But laws and regulation are slow to change, and while pressuring companies can have some effect, they’re ultimately in it for the money. This is not a problem that technology can fix, either. Savvy usage of technology to protect our privacy can go a long way, as Quinn points out when she describes the various steps one should take if one is the victim of these types of attacks. Yet this is ultimately a social problem, and it’s one we have to fix as a society. We have to take on the haters, the trolls, the abusers, and stop making excuses for them or turn a blind eye. We have to stop the apathy.
I think this is an invaluable read for most people who spend any amount of time online, but it’s most important for people like me—that is, people with enough combined privilege that we often don’t face abuse. Let me tell you: because I’m a white dude, my receipts folder is very, very slim. I’d have to work hard to have Eyes of Sauron turned upon me. Although marginalization is never a contest—there is no “oppression Olympics” and a winner of the “most oppressed identities” award—Quinn rightly points out that there are certain identities, certain intersections of identities in particular, that bear the brunt of online abuse. And if that seems doubtful to you, stop and consider for a moment if that’s just because of your perspective. It’s cold outside right now, but my house is toasty and cozy, so I couldn’t tell unless I open a window—and even then, I can just shut it any time I want.
Crash Override is far more open, engaging, and compassionate than we deserve from someone like Zoë Quinn. She could have chosen to bow out. She could have continued her work but decided not to write a book—I can only imagine how the abuse cycled up during this book’s release. She could have written a much more placid, less detailed account. She did none of these things, and she has chosen to work tirelessly on behalf of other abuse victims. I’m not here to make her out to be a hero—nor is she, for she points out how she has stumbled throughout her life, how she was once a bully in the way she was once bullied. We shouldn’t build individual actors up as gods or monsters of the interwebs; we should instead look for ways to encourage and reward each other for trying to change the system. One way to start the change is to understand the problem, and this book is a good tool in that respect.