When Jumping into Gamergate Turns into Fearing For Your Life

Media critic Anita Sarkeesian has experienced horrible threats after she criticized how women are portrayed in video games.PlayABC News
WATCH What It Feels Like to Be a Gamergate Target

For Anita Sarkeesian, having armed escorts at her speaking engagements is her new normal. So too is being barraged with online hate in the form of bomb threats, rape threats and even death threats.

She even had to cancel a speaking engagement at Utah State University once because there were threats of a shooting massacre at the school if she spoke. She pulled out when she was told that under Utah state law, campus police could not prevent people with weapons from attending the event.

“I'm constantly aware there's an enormous amount of hate directed towards me,” Sarkeesian said.

All of this is because the media critic dared to criticize something millions of people play every day -- video games.

On her website, Sarkeesian dissects video games and raises the alarm of sexism, specifically examining how women are portrayed. Her goal is to bring attention to what she calls the inherent misogyny in the gaming world. And her critiques made her a target.

The death threats and the swirling controversy became part of what's now known as "Gamergate." What started as an online spat about the ethics of gaming journalism has quickly escalated into a war between those calling for a change in the gaming industry and a small, but hardcore, group of gamers who resist change.

But gaming these days isn't just about boys playing in their parents’ basements. It's about grown-up entertainment too and now more than ever, gaming is most popular among adult women aged 18-36.

More than half of all gamers in the United States are female, according to a Entertainment Software Association study. And in fact, according to that same study that polled active gamers in the United States, more adult women, 36 percent, are playing video games than teenage boys, 17 percent.

Escapism is always big business, but some media critics say these virtual worlds often take a dark turn. For example, in Grand Theft Auto 5, in a sordid world of murder and mayhem, players can solicit a prostitute, kill her, then have the option to run her over with a car.

“The sense of using violence against women being used as almost background decoration, as texture to make the gaming universe more gritty, more real,” said Sarkeesian.

With the game Watch Dogs, Sarkeesian pointed out how women are killed to give the hero a reason to chase down a bad guy.

“It reinforces the idea of women as sexual objects, it reinforces the idea of women as playthings for their amusement,” she said. “That’s when the cyber mob and the hate mob descended.”

Sarkeesian is regularly bombarded with mostly anonymous but nasty tweets and messages, which said things like “I will rape you when I get the chance” and “I’m sitting outside your apartment... with a loaded gun.” Someone even created a grotesque game where players can beat and punch a picture of her face.

But the virtual harassment turned very real when her online attackers published her Social Security number and her home address.

And she wasn’t alone. Brianna Wu, an independent game developer, said she also received threats.

“They told me they were going to kill me,” Wu said. “They told me specifically that they were going to castrate my husband.”

The threats became so bad that Wu said she was forced to move out of her home – all because she simply tweeted her opinion.

“When someone posts your address online and they tell you they're going to murder your whole family, you don't really feel safe staying in that location,” she said.

So far the harassment against Wu and other women like her has remained online, but the FBI is taking threats like this seriously enough that the bureau has started a file.

“I'm hesitant to use the phrase ‘terror’ because I think it's such a politically loaded word, but this is,” Wu said. “It's terrorism on the women in the industry. It's scaring every one of us.”

When asked why she thought there was such anger directed towards her, Sarkeesian said, “I think it comes from this idea that gaming is a male dominated space, and that games are for men by men… It’s a very misogynist backlash.”

While there are plenty of games that are not violent or sexualized, media critics argue women need to stop being abused as avatars in the virtual world and players living in the real world. Americans are now spending more money on games than movies and music combined to the tune of $21 billion in sales, according to the Entertainment Software Association, so it’s not just a feminist issue, but smart business for the gaming industry.

“The demographic should be a huge wakeup call for gaming companies because there is a huge amount to be made out of taking women seriously, out of demonstrating women that you are taking them seriously,” said advertising consultant Cindy Gallop.

“Nightline” reached out for comment, multiple times, to gaming companies such as Rockstar Games and Ubisoft to ask about the way women are portrayed in their games but have received no response.

But there are some signs of change in the gaming community. More and more developers are seeing the need for more women programmers and more girl-friendly games. Even Lara Croft: Tomb Raider got a makeover with more clothes and less curves in the game’s latest edition.

Developer Tim Schafer said the lack of playable characters for his daughter inspired him to look at this own games. Almost all of his recent games he worked on, Schafer said, "We've given at least the option to play a female character… Once you're conscious of it, it's really hard to un-ring that bell."

The majority of gamers condemn Gamergate’s threats of violence, but many believe critics like Anita Sarkeesian exaggerate the problem. Chris Scott, the manager of 8 Bit and Up, a video game store in New York City, said the gaming world on the whole shouldn’t be judged by a few examples.

“Sarkeesian is trying to capitalize on controversy,” Scott said. “When people complain about Assassin’s Creed or Call of Duty whatever, it’s similar to complaints about hip-hop and rap music today saying it’s violent… that’s not really what hip hop is about.”

“You can’t judge gaming by what’s selling,” he continued. “You have to really get into the medium to understand it before you start saying ok – this is what gaming is about.”

At the end of the day, Scott added, they’re just games, saying, “I know that in the real world there are strong women that don’t need to be saved.”

To people who tell critics like Sarkeesian to lighten up, and that these games are just fantasy, not reality, Sarkeesian cautions that these gamers can be very powerful.

“Games have a huge impact on our society because the media plays a role in helping to shape our attitudes,” she said “So it’s not just fantasy. It actually works to potentially reinforce some pretty harmful messages about women.”