WHEN TROLLS ATTACK
Gamers who’ve fought for diversity have faced, and overcome, a torrent of online abuse
FOR ASHLEY JOHNSON, the chance to be a voice actor in the post-apocalyptic video game The Last of Us Part II was both a risk and irresistible. It was her first gig as a video-game protagonist, as her character, Ellie, moved up from a supporting role.
But Part II wasn’t a paint-bynumbers sequel: It killed off a beloved character; it featured a lesbian lead on its cover; and it subverted the dynamic of the original, which followed a white man as he protected a young girl from danger. As Johnson awaited the game’s release in June 2020, she knew it wouldn’t be for everyone, but she was “shocked,” she says, by what happened next.
A contingent of gamers, angered by a lesbian lead character and the game’s progressive politics, not only protested The Last of Us Part
II, they sought to punish the people who made it. Johnson, who is for the first time opening up about the abuse she endured, says her Twitter DMs were flooded with threats of violence, including a user telling her he’d “rape her straight.” They doctored images to make it look like she’d posted vulgar content online. And they superimposed her face and those of others who’d worked on the game onto images of characters being sexually violated or even beaten to death with a golf club.
“Some of the shit I was reading, I was like, ‘I cannot believe someone sat behind their computer and put their fingers on the keyboard, and that’s what they chose to write,’ ” Johnson says. “This hatred and anger, and being on the other end of that, for something I cared so deeply about, was hard.”
Johnson’s co-workers faced similar abuse. Studio president Neil Druckmann, who is Jewish, was hit with a wave of antisemitism and threats to his safety on social media. The most horrific abuse, Johnson says, was directed at Laura Bailey, her co-star and the voice of
another lead character, Abby Anderson. Users were upset that Abby, a woman in a world full of human-eating monsters, has a muscular physique, and turned her character into a transphobic meme.
The Last of Us Part II saga is not surprising, sadly. For more than a decade, as women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ+ community have fought for representation in the space, they’ve been met with backlash from a group of gamers, mostly men, who prefer it remain exclusive.
The conflict hit its apex with 2014’s Gamergate, a mass harassment campaign against female video-game critics and developers.
Today, it’s clear the abusers have failed. For all the cruelty they unleashed on its makers, they couldn’t keep The Last of Us Part II down — the game was a massive commercial success and won Game of the Year at the 2020 Game Awards, as well as honors at the Golden Joystick Awards, the British Academy Games Awards, and more. And while members of marginalized communities continue to face abuse online, it hasn’t stopped them from making the gaming world — its developers, characters, executives, and audience — more diverse than ever.
If many men today act like video games belong to them and them alone, it’s because they grew up with a video-game industry that told them exactly that. “Hit Her Game Spot,” reads a 2004 headline in Electronic Gaming Monthly for a piece about how to manipulate “your girlfriend” into playing video games. The article includes six strategies and a backup: “If all fails and she refuses to touch your joypad, the least you can do is feed her some lines the next time you’re geeking out with your gaming pals.”
The article is typical of an era when near-naked women were the norm in video-game advertising, and Kotaku managing editor Carolyn Petit, a video-game critic for more than a decade, says that bygone messaging is still driving harassment. “Everything in the gaming space sent a message very intentionally to young straight men that games are for you,” Petit says, “and they’re here to fulfill your every power fantasy.”
But a decade ago, the industry started to realize it was losing out by pushing away more than half of humanity. More games featured prominent female characters, and offscreen, female critics were gaining prominence as they pointed out sexism in popular games and gaming culture.
Then came Gamergate, when what began as an unfounded attack on a female video-game developer metastasized into an all-out assault on female writers and developers. After an initial explosion of attention, Gamergate left the headlines, but for women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ individuals in gaming, the harassment never went away.
When Mattias Lehman, a Black man and former employee of Riot Games, appeared on the company’s Twitch channel in 2017, viewers fixated on his race and referred to him as the “Black” version of another commentator. The first time he appeared on his own stream, a viewer immediately called him the n-word. After a few months, Lehman quit appearing on Riot’s stream. By 2018, he’d left the industry entirely, and now works on climate-change advocacy. “To me,” Lehman says, “the community feels like it includes a lot of people who just felt salty that they never got to be bullies and jocks in high school and wanted a community where they get to do that.”
For many developers, external abuse is compounded by cultures of sexism inside their organizations. In 2018, Riot Games — maker of the massively popular arena-battle game League of Legends
— paid $100 million to settle a class-action gender-discrimination lawsuit after a Kotaku exposé of a company steeped in “bro culture.” Female employees reported seeing their ideas ignored and careers impeded while senior leaders allegedly passed around lists of women they wanted to sleep with. Riot says it has instituted changes, including shuffling its all-male leadership to one that is 25 percent female. And video-game firms have made forays into proactively protecting employees against online harassment.
But developers have mostly looked to one another for support. Feminist Frequency, which produces commentary on pop culture and games, runs a text hotline for people who have faced harassment. Anita Sarkeesian, a critic who was severely harassed during Gamergate and is the hotline’s executive director, says there were “very few resources to help” and “very few people who understood” what she and others experienced. “We saw that these sorts of online attacks and abuses were not a thing of the past,” she says. “So, we started creating the resources we wish we had.”
They’re also creating the games they wish they had. Chandana Ekanayake has been in the video-game industry for a quarter-century, but five years ago, he left to cofound his own indie developer, Outerloop Games.
Outlerloop is minority-led, and the company’s first game was Falcon Age, a sci-fi virtualreality title about a young woman attempting to save a dying planet colonized by automated, mechanical invaders reminiscent of British imperials. Outerloop’s next title, Thirsty
Suitors, is played from the perspective of a teenage bisexual girl named Jala, who is half Sri Lankan and half Indian, with immigrant parents.
In other words, Outerloop puts out games made by people of color, featuring people of color, with an intended audience of anyone who is interested. It’s everything Gamergate tried to stop but couldn’t.
Petit, the Kotaku gaming critic, sees reasons for hope in her peers’ resilience. “We should take motivation, take encouragement from the sense that change is possible,” she says. “And that queer gamers, trans gamers, women, and people of color — whoever we are — we’re not going anywhere, because games belong to us, too.”