I wrote this at 3 a.m. the night after the Capital Gazette shooting. I didn't publish it for a week because it felt too raw. But here it is now.
I got my first death threats over writing about video games back in April 2010. I was 23, and I had been working at the Boston Phoenix since I was 19. I wrote a blog post called, “Why Do Gears Of Wars' Women Have To Make Babies? Why Can't They Fight?” The Phoenix had given me my own blog to post in, without much editorial oversight (very unlike the stories I wrote for the print edition of the paper, which got edited to the teeth). This hasty, flippant blog post of mine got linked by several other websites at the time, including Kotaku (where I now work, eight years later). The more places that linked my post, the more threatening comments and emails I received.
In daylight hours, I could write off the threats as trolling and jokes. The worst ones would come from people who claimed to be ex-military, men who wanted to prove to me that I - and all women - couldn’t handle being in the army, even a fictional post-apocalyptic army that fights alien monsters. These emailers said they’d prove I was weak and frail. By killing me, raping me, or at least showing me their very impressive gun collection. The Phoenix went out of business in 2013, and I don’t have my email records anymore, but that’s the gist of what I got. Real fuckin’ silly, or so I assured myself at the time.
In the middle of the night, though, I’d lie awake and a vision would play over and over again in my head. Doxxing was rarer back then, so I didn’t yet worry about my detractors finding my apartment. I instead worried they would find an address that would’ve been easy to obtain, since it was public and open to anyone: the Boston Phoenix offices. I imagined a shooter entering our front doors, gunning down our front desk clerk and my colleagues, then hunting me down.
Those nights, lying awake, I would curse myself for ever having written a down a single word. Was it worth my colleagues dying over something like this? Some blog post I had crapped out in one angry afternoon? I thought about that a lot, at age 23, in the darkness.
Back then, I felt silly and naive for being so affected by the threats, and my haters were happy to reinforce those feelings at every turn. They wanted me dead, but they also mocked me for caring too much. They wanted a reaction from me more than anything, and if they got one, it was proof they were winning. We all know this one: the only way to win is not to play. I knew that. I kept playing anyway.
I had written watered-down feminist opinions like this before without much blowback. In 2009, when I reviewed Modern Warfare 2 for the Phoenix, I mentioned that, hey, if this warfare was supposed to be so “modern,” why not have female combatants? My politics back then weren’t “end imperialism and the military complex worldwide.” Back then, I just wanted to play as a woman in the video games that I liked. (I take my complaints a lot further these days.)
When the threats started coming over my Gears of War post, I was surprised that so many people had read what I had written, but I was not surprised that men on the internet were angry about what it said. I had played Counter-Strike for long enough to know what men thought about the few women who deigned to play military shooters (attention whores, ugly, bad at games, etc). And I had also seen this same vitriol flung at other women whose work I had read.
I got hired full-time at the Phoenix in 2008, around the same time period that Shakesville got brigaded by trolls for a feminist and body-positive takedown of the game Fat Princess, and Feminist Gamers critiqued Edmund McMillen for his game Cunt, in which you play as a penis attacking a vagina. These old posts made their points in clunky ways, much like my own work ten years ago, but they laid the early groundwork for the more nuanced conversations that happened in games writing circles over the course of the next decade.
Back in 2010, when I got my first threats, my boss was shocked. He didn’t understand why I had gotten such a hateful response for writing an opinion that he saw as uncontroversial. But, he assured me, this wasn’t so different from the reaction that women in punk rock had received, or women in other male-dominated spaces. It would get better, he told me. He had seen it happen in these other spaces. It would just take time, and more work like mine, to make that change happen. The threats and backlash would end. Eventually.
By the time the Phoenix closed in 2013, I had gotten a lot more threats. I had also done a lot more work that makes me prouder than that 2010 blog post. I reported on Penny Arcade’s rape jokes in 2011; I interviewed people who had criticized the comic and gotten brigaded by trolls and threats for it. I wrote about the Penny Arcade creators’ seeming lack of concern or ownership for the threats their fans sent in their name. I even interviewed Edmund McMillen about his game Cunt in the wake of his appearance in Indie Game: The Movie, after Super Meat Boy had solidified his rep as a critical darling. I was in my early 20s, so all my work read like the basic, beginner stuff that it was. But it got better the longer I did it.
That’s also thanks to the environment in which I learned and matured, and the brave colleagues that I got to talk to every day. Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Boston started up in late 2011; our staff spent weeks covering the protests from the ground. Phoenix staffer Chris Faraone wrote a book, 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, about his three months living in the tent city and getting to know the movement that paved the way for so many millennials’ socialist leanings, including my own. My Penny Arcade story appeared on the front page alongside our coverage of “The GOP’s War On Women.” We’re still fighting both wars, and several more.
The Phoenix closed in March 2013; I was only 26, but I had been there seven years by then and gotten several promotions. We were overworked and underpaid, yet I still miss that musty office every single day.
Somewhere, there is a photograph of the day we all packed up our desks. One of my coworkers sits on the floor, sobbing, as I kneel beside her. But why did someone think to take a photo, in that moment?
Well... we are journalists. We documented the tragedy as it happened. It was the only way that we knew how to move through it. It was the way we interacted with everything - to a fault, sometimes.
I kept on writing about video games after the Phoenix closed in 2013, and by the time Gamergate happened in 2014, I didn’t feel surprised. I felt jaded. Angry. I had seen the same shit for four years. My old Phoenix colleagues, most of whom had ended up at Boston Magazine and the Boston Globe, were not surprised about Gamergate either. They would hit me up and say, “Wow, those guys are still going, huh?” It was all the same guys. They were just getting more organized. But it was the same guys.
Taking the threats to the police didn’t seem to do much. And there were so many. It was, and still is, hard to tell which ones were genuine. You just had to hope that none of them were, and keep on working. And, come on, didn’t other people have it worse? I shouldn’t complain! That’s what I always told myself.
Sometimes, the downplaying of it all felt comforting. I still downplay it all, tell jokes about it, act like it didn’t really hurt me… and change me.
In 2013 and 2014, I was working odd jobs, freelancing, applying to games publications and getting denied, directionless, and reaching a dangerous level of bitterness about how too-little-too-late the game industry’s reactions to Gamergate seemed. Why was everyone acting so surprised? Pff, death threats, rape threats, campaigns to get people fired... We’ve all been getting those this whole time! … Right? … ??
Gamergate was just one marker on a timeline of targeted bigotry. Its assertions that women had slept their way into games industry jobs served as a pinprick in what would then become a larger conversation about how the media couldn’t be trusted and was all part of an elitist conspiracy. Those sentiments already existed, not just in video games, among pockets of online reactionaries that had carved out subreddits and chans and forums to spread their ideas. These sentiments have obviously not improved.
In that situation, how can you tell which death threats to pay attention to?
Five staffers at the Capital Gazette got shot by a man who had previously sued them for reporting on his history of online harassment and threats. The reporters on the staff did their best to cover the tragedy as it unfolded. And, in their words, they are going to put out the damn paper tomorrow.
I haven’t thought about my 2010 panicked reverie for a while. The one where the shooter walks into the Phoenix offices. I thought about it again, sleepless after the shooting, for the first time in years. I picture the shabby front desk covered with papers, the white walls and yellowed wooden doors. I see the offices that I walked through every day, through the eyes of the person that I imagine will kill the people I love, to get to me. I picture them, gun in hand, entering this flawed but unforgettable place where I learned how to be the person that I am, laying waste to it.
But the Phoenix office is already gone. That building is a Marshall’s now. It is 2018. And I am still alive.
I don’t know when you’re supposed to take a death threat seriously. I never really knew. Twitter doesn’t take them seriously; nor the cops or the FBI. In the course of my career as a journalist, I’ve watched my peers take copies of threats to the police and get rebuffed. After seeing that happen so often, I never bothered to do it myself.
I still lie awake thinking about the threats, sometimes, feeling helpless. Wishing I could do something. Something other than scrubbing my records from lookup sites every few months. But the only solution to “do something,” for me, was to keep on putting out the damn paper. Or updating the website. Whatever.
You find some way to keep doing the work, if you can. If you can’t, that’s okay. But when you can, if you can, you document what happens. Sometimes no one is even listening. For years. And you wonder why you’re doing it. But, you must "do something."
I have spent the past ten years trying to ignore the death threats that I have received. You have to ignore some things in order to get through a day, or a year, or several years. But, for me, that also meant I never talked about them. Talking about threats in public invited more harassment and threats. It made me look like an easy target, a “lolcow” having a meltdown over “mean tweets,” a baby who couldn’t take a joke.
But I don’t want that to be the lesson that I pass on. I worry it already has been: just shut up and do the work. But that’s not it. You still get to care. That has to be part of the job, too, even if it’s the hardest part.
The week of the Capital Gazette shooting, having already cried multiple times over entirely different news stories, I talked to my friend from the Phoenix. The one who had sat on the floor crying on the day when we packed up the offices, the day that I had been the one to console her.
“Do you think there’s a way for me to effect systemic change while working for a video game website,” I wrote to her, hopelessly.
“No,” she admitted. “But you should still try, because you will effect change in the individuals you work with, and they will carry that with them the rest of their lives.”
I don’t know how to do that. But it’s something that a lot of other people did for me.
I just wanted to thank them, because I still can. It's 2018. And I am still alive.