When Jumping into Gamergate Turns into Fearing For Your Life

Anita Sarkeesian, other media critics have received threats for their comments.

ByABC News
January 15, 2015, 12:19 AM

— -- 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.