Why would anyone want to kill Brianna Wu?
At Arisia, of all places. It's a fantasy and science-fiction convention, a festival of make-believe. The crowd inside the Westin Boston Waterfront hotel on this snowy Saturday in January is costumed, countercultural, and wildly diverse--androgynous couples in matching outfits, playful warriors packing "safe-bonded" heat (the barrels are plugged), animals with plastic axes, humans with tails--with Wu in the middle of it all, a commanding presence even in this menagerie.
Wu, 37, is 6 foot 2, slender, and gangly ("I like to think she has a narrow attack profile," says her husband, Frank). She's dressed today in black leggings, a miniskirt, and leather boots. Her long brown hair is streaked with pink-red dye, and her bangs keep falling in her eyes. She looks almost like an anime character, or perhaps a superhero straight out of Revolution 60--a shoot-'em-up mobile game, set in outer space, released last summer by Wu's independent development studio, Giant Spacekat.
Alas, Wu doesn't have a lot of bandwidth available these days for Giant Spacekat. Not since she came under attack last fall by a vicious posse of cybertrolls intent on ruining her career, invading her privacy, destroying her reputation, and, as indicated by numerous threats, killing her. Even here at Arisia, among her people, in her chosen world, Wu can't be too careful. Her name does not appear in the printed program, and a security detail follows her everywhere.
Wu's journey has been long, hard, and often lonely. Entrepreneurship has been her salvation, her ticket into a world of her own making, a place where she can live, work, and play, uninhibited and unconstrained. It is precisely that world that the trolls would destroy, if they could. That is what Wu is fighting to defend--not just with words, but through the act of building a business.
Wu launched Giant Spacekat from her home near Boston in 2011 to prove a point she's been trying to make for years, both on social media, where she is vocal and active, and in person at conferences like this one, where her panels today include "Gender and Gaming" and "Does the Real World Belong in Games?" She has often been mistaken for a feminist crusader (hence the dismissive online tag she has earned: SJW, for Social Justice Warrior). Although it's true that making the world a better place matters deeply to Wu, that's not her main concern. Wu just thinks there's a big undeveloped market for action-packed video games made for women, by women, starring kick-ass female characters, and she's keen to exploit it. Women and girls, after all, now make up nearly half the game-playing universe, and they're not all playing Candy Crush. "This is a good bet," Wu insists. "This is the most obvious bet in the entire world." If the giants in the $21 billion video-game industry can't see that, what better opportunity for an entrepreneur?
So why would anyone want to kill her? There is no logical explanation--not one that would make sense to any member in good standing of the human race--but there is a chain of events.
Last August, Zoe Quinn, an indie game developer, was the target of a vicious, 9,000-word online screed written by her former boyfriend. In it, he accused Quinn of being involved with a reviewer for an influential gamer blog. Quinn's critics jumped on that as the only possible explanation for the modest success of Depression Quest, a free game Quinn made to help others who, like herself, suffer from depression.
In the moments before the big bang, there may have actually occurred something resembling a rational online debate about conflicts of interest in gamer journalism. Hence the scandal-implying hashtag that has come to encompass this whole mess, Gamergate. Then again, it's hard to see how Gamergate has ever had anything to do with ethical behavior, given how quickly it devolved into a misogynistic maelstrom.
Driven from her apartment by death threats on Twitter and online message boards, Quinn has spent the past six months hiding out with friends. Others were drawn into the Gamergate vortex too, including media critic Anita Sarkeesian, creator of the Tropes vs. Women in Video Games YouTube series, who also went underground for a while.
Wu didn't join the fight right away. She was otherwise engaged. Revolution 60 launched on the App Store in July, and the response was everything Wu and her small, all-female team of developers had hoped it would be. More than 250,000 people downloaded the free version in the first six months, and the sell-through rate for the $5.99 full version hit four times the industry average of about 2 percent. Revolution 60 also garnered some glowing gamer-press reviews ("I can't get enough of this sexy sci-fi spy thriller," wrote a reviewer on Kotaku, a popular gaming blog, and Paste magazine ranked it fifth on its list of the best indie video games of 2014). Next up: a multiplatform version for desktops and gaming consoles--Giant Spacekat's only hope of recouping its initial $400,000 investment, earning a profit, and breaking out of the indie ghetto. Toward that end, Revolution 60 recently secured a coveted spot on Steam Greenlight, a powerful online distribution channel for new games. Wu, you see, had a lot on her plate.
But the internet trolls kept attacking her friends, Wu says, "and I was angry." One night in September, on her weekly podcast, Wu let loose. "You cannot have 30 years of portraying women as bimbos, sex objects, second bananas, cleavage-y eye candy," she said. "Eventually it normalizes this treatment of women. And I think something is really sick and broken in our culture."
The trolls took note. The worst of what came raining down on Wu won't be reprinted here, but the curious can look it up online. Just be warned: It's shocking, gruesome, specific, and obscene, involving many variations on murder and rape. "And, here's the part of the night where I call the police," Wu tweeted at 8:14 p.m. on October 10, 2014, in response to a four-minute cyberbarrage that began with, "Guess what bitch? I now know where you live," went on to reveal Wu's home address, predicted "your mutilated corpse will be on the front page of Jezebel tomorrow," and concluded (sloppily, but we get it), "nobody wil lcare when you die."
Sex is a recurring theme in these sorts of attacks, says Danielle Citron, a law professor at the University of Maryland and author of Hate Crimes in Cyberspace. Women, who are 70 percent of the victims, are sluts or whores or not real women; men are predators or pedophiles. "The whole point of this abuse is to put someone in a box that is destructive," says Citron, "to call into question their integrity, to demean them." To redefine the victim on the abuser's terms "and fundamentally distort who she is."
Wu and her husband fled their home. They were vagabonds for the better part of a month, crashing most nights at hotels and friends' houses, returning home by day to work. Since then, Wu has documented about 45 death threats, the most recent delivered by a masked thug via YouTube just days before this story went to press. Local police and the FBI are involved, as is Silicon Valley investor Marc Andreeson, who confirmed through a spokesperson that he's offering $10,000 for information leading to a conviction.
What darkness lies at the root of Gamergate is a question no one can answer, but there are a few plausible theories. Quinn argues that this is what happens when an overlooked but nevertheless proud male subculture feels threatened by the mainstream. Women represent "an invasion into a territory they've become quite comfortable in," says Quinn.
Frank and Brianna have thought about this a lot too. Frank recognizes that many gamers, himself included, were loners growing up. They felt misunderstood and didn't have many friends. That's why they spent so much time playing video games. And if that's how you were as a kid, Frank says, when you grow up you "can either empathize with people who are marginalized, or you can just be filled with anger."
"I laugh off 90 percent of the stuff I'm sent," Brianna says. "But it's the 10 percent. If we don't change the culture, somebody's going to get killed."
Wu was raised in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Her father is a Navy-trained obstetrician who founded a chain of women's health centers. Her mother has a degree in microbiology and a passion for computers; she stayed home to take care of Wu, who is adopted, and her two siblings, who were born after Wu arrived. Wu has never known who her birth parents are.
Mississippi always felt foreign to Wu. She wasn't churchy, and she didn't like football. She says pervasive racism and homophobia disturbed her. "Every part of my body is screaming that this is not right, this is not normal, this is not a good place to live," Wu recalls. "I don't fit in with anyone there. So I end up just tuning completely out, which is why I have such good computer skills. Video games were the world that I cared about."
At Ole Miss, Wu studied journalism and wrote for The Daily Mississippian, but she never graduated. She left school the first time to start her own video animation company, came back, and dropped out for good in 2001 after getting swept up in the excitement surrounding George W. Bush's election as president. Her parents were big donors, and they got her a ticket to an inaugural ball. That led to a stint working in Washington--long enough to become disillusioned with Republican politics as well as dangerously dependent on Ambien, a sleep aid. Her parents, in a final act of support, brought her home to Hattiesburg and paid for a bed at Pine Grove, where Tiger Woods would later be treated for sex addiction.
Two months later, Wu emerged transformed, and she's been clean ever since. Wu had relied on Ambien "to push through my emotional problems," she says now, "to succeed professionally but to kind of mask other things there. I looked at the source of that unhappiness, and I kind of addressed that within myself, and it helped me to really grow into myself." Wu's breakthrough ultimately precipitated a clean break with her parents and their world.
Ten years since they last spoke, Wu wonders sometimes what her parents think of her now. Because of Gamergate, she's been in the news a lot lately--on Nightline, MSNBC, and Al Jazeera, and in a story on the front page of The New York Times. Gamergate even inspired a recent ripped-from-the-headlines episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Wu thinks they have to have noticed. "It's so weird, because I'm so much more like my dad than my brother and sister are," Wu says. "We both have the same strong personality, the temper that can go off the hook, super entrepreneurial-minded. I'd like to think they'd be proud of me."
What anyone can see by looking closely at Wu is an entrepreneurial archetype. She's not a countercultural artist like Quinn or a crusader like Sarkeesian. Wu is the kind of founder who builds a company to make a life that suits her--for whom work is synonymous with self-expression, growth is a fundamental value, and business comes first.
The Wus poured their life savings into Giant Spacekat. They live in a house that belongs to Frank's uncle; he lets them live there rent-free because they renovated it themselves. For the sake of keeping the three full-time members of her staff employed, Brianna has never collected a paycheck, which leaves her dependent on Frank's salary as a patent specialist with a Boston biotech firm. Frank is also an accomplished illustrator (he designed the spaceships for Revolution 60); when he sold a painting recently, they spent the windfall on a software upgrade for Giant Spacekat.
Wu works out obsessively to keep her energy up. She subsists largely on Soylent, a liquid substitute for normal food that she says saves time and boosts her productivity. She is proud to share a Myers-Briggs personality type, ENTJ, with Steve Jobs, which defines her as decisive, eager to lead, a goal-setter, and forceful with her ideas. And she has wildly ambitious dreams for Giant Spacekat, which involve securing VC funding, creating more female-centric games modeled on Revolution 60, hiring more women developers, and eventually selling her company to a major studio like Electronic Arts for a lot of money.
"Activism is great, but I'm a capitalist," says Wu. "I'm an entrepreneur. The ultimate solution to this stuff is going to be showing that it's economically profitable to address this market. That's the big play. That's how you win. That's my mission, activism through capitalism."
I'm sitting in Wu's living room late one afternoon, alone with her two little white dogs, Splat and Kablam. It's a bare, cold space, like a dorm room: two worn, white-leather couches; a pile of remotes on the coffee table together with half-empty bottles of Gatorade; against the far wall, a giant TV festooned with cables and auxiliary boxes; and in the corner, shelves of female superhero action figures. The last light of day is filtering through the slats of dusty blinds.
Wu is in the dining room, finishing an interview with a filmmaker for a documentary about Gamergate, GTFO, debuting this spring at the South by Southwest festival in Austin. Earlier in the day, she had met with a prospective ghostwriter who wants to tell her life story. But one of Wu's friends in the gaming industry has suggested that her story may be more complicated than she lets on--that as bad as the situation has been for Wu, she "wasn't dragged" into it. "She taunted Gamergate for weeks," this woman continued, who asked that her name be withheld. "She baited them, and then they finally came after her, which is exactly what she wanted them to do."
Wu acknowledges that Gamergate has probably boosted Revolution 60's sales, and she's pretty sure it has put her at the top of the list of women game developers in America. She knows some potential investors will be put off by her notoriety, but she thinks others will see her as their entrée into a lucrative market at an opportune moment in the gaming industry. "The stakes have changed," says Jason Della Rocca, co-founder of Execution Labs, an indie-game business accelerator based in Montreal. "The advent of online and mobile platforms and the elimination of hard costs has had a transformative effect. It dramatically changes the potential." Case in point: Supercell, a Helsinki company famous for Clash of Clans, which ran a Super Bowl ad this year. Supercell was founded in 2010, raised $142 million in three quick rounds, and sold a half-stake to SoftBank in 2013 for $1.5 billion.
That said, nothing Wu has gained from Gamergate could ever compensate for the price she has paid--she's equally clear about that. All the hours she has spent dealing with police instead of tending to her business; the new administrator she had to hire to manage her response to online threats; the unending stream of social media sewage; the costly decision to sit out the influential PAX East gamer conference this year because neither she nor her staff would have felt safe attending. Imagine waiting in the car for your husband to give you the all-clear to enter the house, or keeping padlocks on the doors to the basement and attic. No one wants to live and work like that. But as Wu explains it, she had no choice.
"I used to think it was just Mississippians who had this trait of just closing their eyes and not wanting to get involved," Wu says. "I saw it a thousand times growing up--when people wanted to deny that racism was a problem, or that they could do anything about it, they would just shut down and not address it. I used to think that Southerners were fundamentally broken. That is not true. It is part of the human condition. Most people just don't believe in fighting for things greater than themselves. Most people are more self-interested."
Wu is not a superhero. She can't fight every battle. But right here, right now, she's all in. "I could not live with myself if I sat this one out," she says--as much as it interferes with everything else: making more cool games, building a successful company, transforming an industry. All she really wants is to get down to business.