Brianna Wu: ‘The video games industry has a problem, and it’s not the players’

2 Jul 201540 Shares

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Games publisher Brianna Wu, who endured death threats during #Gamergate says the games industry has a problem, and it's not the players.

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Entrepreneur, engineer and games developer Brianna Wu looks back on the whole Gamergate controversy as being reflective of a wider problem in the video games industry and not just the players.

“I don’t necessarily blame the players for Gamergate – I think they were responding to a culture that is set from the top down. They are swimming in a toxic ocean – when women are not represented in games and game media tells the players we don’t belong there.”

Wu was a keynote speaker at the recent Inspirefest 2015 conference in Dublin, where she was honoured with a standing ovation after relating her experiences with Gamergate.

She is a well-known entrepreneur in the US games industry where she heads up her own video games company Giant Spacekat. Passionate about games and gaming, Wu is also a respected commentator who writes and produces podcasts about the games industry.

Her passion became a trial and torment in October 2014 when Wu tweeted about sexism in video game culture and ridiculed Gamergate advocates for “fighting an apocalyptic future where women are eight percent of programmers and not three percent”.

What followed was an indescribable litany of abuse and harassment, where Wu began receiving multiple, specific rape and death threats and her personal details and address were published online, forcing her to flee her home.

Wu, along with game developer Zoe Quinn and feminist cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian, were subjected to a sustained campaign of misogynistic attacks that were coordinated across online forums, including Reddit, 4chan and 8chan, using the #Gamergate hashtag. The women experienced doxing – the publication of personal documents online – rape threats and even the threat of a mass shooting at a university speaking event.

Wu, while clearly traumatised by the experience, is also galvanised by it. She won’t back down and is determined to go ahead and enjoy a fruitful career as a software engineer and games entrepreneur. “The point of all of this was to emotionally terrify me.”

Far from being cowed, Wu has become a cause celebre for increasing diversity in the burgeoning technology industry and there is even a suggestion of a movie about the Gamergate episode.

Fueled by imagination

Wu grew up in an entrepreneurial environment in Mississippi where she was raised by adoptive parents. “At first we lived in Washington DC and then Virginia, where my father was working on his medical degree. However, in the 1980s we left what was a decent-sized city for Mississippi where my dad was launching a healthcare business and it was terrible for me because I just didn’t fit in with the culture, not just a little bit.”

‘My parents bought a Nintendo entertainment system in 1985 and they lost me. The moment I played Super Mario Bros 2 where you can play as Princess Peach … I was just gone’

– BRIANNA WU

Mississipi is one of the poorest states in the US and, while Wu’s father’s business thrived and morphed into a conglomerate, life in the rural US where everything centred on football, church and who was going with whom to the prom was just not for Wu.

But everything was about to change: “My parents bought a Nintendo entertainment system in 1985 and they lost me. The moment I played Super Mario Bros 2 where you can play as Princess Peach… I was just gone.

“Fueling my imagination took me to other places, especially thanks to games like Final Fantasy, which has strong female characters. This got me interested in narrative, games production, engineering. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.

“Because we grew up in Mississippi our schools sucked, our computers – when we had them – were ancient.”

Thanks to her parent’s wealth, however, Wu got access to the technology she pined for. “I remember sitting on the floor aged nine taking apart DOS machines trying to figure out how to install the sound cards or tinkering with PS1 dev kits. I’m very much self-taught when it comes to technology.”

She likens this to how Google chairman Eric Schmidt embraced education. “He grew up in a school that didn’t have any grades, they just let people learn what they wanted and that’s absolutely what I did.”

By age 19 Wu had an electrical engineering start-up focused on installing computers in cars.

“But I had huge economic advantages and most kids don’t have that. However, I was determined to make use of those advantages and I am thankful for that.”

Women need to feel they ‘belong’ in technology

Wu feels strongly that the shortage of women in technology, especially at senior levels, is a reflection on society at large.

‘If a girl is aged one, two or 15, think about all the social pressures they are under – they are discouraged from technology but inculcated into beauty culture’

– BRIANNA WU

“I think as an engineer and I think of this as a pipeline issue and it is a very long pipeline issue.

“If a girl is aged one, two or 15, think about all the social pressures they are under – they are discouraged from technology but inculcated into beauty culture.

“Being an engineer is about being in peer groups of other engineers, with approaches to problem-solving, but the truth is girls from zero to 16 are not seeing this. It is intimidating to study engineering in college where the majority of the class are boys and then you go out and try to get your first job in a male-dominated industry.”

Wu referred to a recent story that did the rounds where a girl was turned down at a job interview for wearing a dress. She was told she was too sexy. “She was 24 for God’s sakes. And then women get into their 30s, start having kids and all along the line there is this message – ‘you don’t belong here’. It’s the reason we slowly start to leave the industry and I’ve seen this over and over again.

“It’s nothing deliberately malicious, it’s a culture that tells you that you don’t belong.”

Wu cited the recent E3 games conference in LA, where 28 of the speakers were white men. “What they don’t understand is that this sends a subconscious message to women that you don’t belong here. This is men’s space. This is just another example of something that compounds the issue.

“Everyone, in theory, believes women belong in the technology industry, but what are they doing about it and are they not willing to think about how they might be unconsciously adding to the situation?”

Unconscious bias is a term that cropped up regularly at the recent Inspirefest event and Wu believes that women are as prone to it as men. Wu remembers her alarm when her co-founder at Giant Spacekat Amanda Warner announced she was pregnant just as the company was about to launch its first game.

“It scared the hell out of me. I had an unconscious bias against mothers working in engineering and even I wasn’t aware of it. I am like an uber-feminist warrior and even I had that. All of us are prey to this. Studies show that men and women are prone to unconscious bias.

“We have to look at all the assumptions we are making about people – all of us – everyone has a responsibility in this regard.”

Gamergate – triumphing over terror

brianna-wu-inspirefest

Brianna Wu at the recent Inspirefest. Photo: Conor McCabe Photography

Moving from unconscious bias to conscious bias, Wu is happy to discuss Gamergate. “We can talk about it, it doesn’t bother me.”

I confess to Wu that prior to October 2014 I didn’t know who she was, but that month as I read about the rape and death threats and specifically about Wu and her husband having to leave their own home, it was clear something was rotten in the state of the games industry. Little did I know that almost nine months later I would be sitting face to face with one of the victims of #Gamergate.

If anything, Wu pities her tormentors for being a product of an industry that has lost touch with reality.

‘I want to be very clear: I hold the people that sent me death threats accountable for that, clearly. But this is a problem with the industry more than it is the players’

– BRIANNA WU

“They felt very threatened. They felt that games were their space and how could they not? Everything in their entire industry has told players that this is a space for men – the way women are portrayed, the language they use.

“This is important to say: I don’t necessarily blame the players for Gamergate. I think they were responding to a culture that is set from the top down. They are like fish swimming in a toxic ocean.

“When women are not represented in game media it tells the players we don’t belong there.

“When women don’t make games it tells the players we don’t belong there.

“When women are primarily represented as sex objects professionally, it tells the players that we don’t belong there.

“I want to be very clear: I hold the people that sent me death threats accountable for that, clearly. But this is a problem with the industry more than it is the players.”

I express surprise that the average age of the people that Wu has legal cases with is 36. These are grown men, many with jobs, with families. What on earth were they doing issuing death and rape threats?

“They also put my private information online, credit cards, social security. Something the press hasn’t reported on enough in my opinion is the amount of credit card and identity theft that I’ve been subjected to. They have a mission to destroy my company, and they’ve spent a lot of time trying to hack our assets.

“When they doxed my address at that really epic moment they also hacked our company’s official dev account with Apple and we’ve had to deal with credit card fraud and more.

“The point of all of this was to emotionally terrify me. That’s the purpose of doxing, revealing my private infomration was to make me feel unsafe in the real world and silence me.”

Because of the death threats Wu’s whole life has been turned upside down and security is the order of the day. Fortunately, there have been no physical incidents, but the victimisation and undermining of Wu online to turn people against her could lead to harm, she fears.

“The US is a gun-happy culture, it’s a dangerous place. And I have this mob telling people all day long that Brianna Wu is the worst person on Earth – that is basically inciting mob violence. It terrifies me because it could only be a matter of time before someone gets the wrong idea.

“It has been traumatic. Horribly so. But I had to say what I said.

“I am unwilling to be silent and let the same state continue for another generation of girls.

“I am unwilling to work in an industry where women can be terrorised out of their jobs so casually by a mob. It has got to change and it has had a terrible effect on my husband, my company and my friends.

“But it has to happen. Someone has to stand up to this.”

But change is happening, despite the efforts of Gamergate advocates, and it wouldn’t be hard to imagine textbooks in 10 years time where, along with Sarkeesian and Quinn, Wu will be remembered for standing up to Gamergate and changing game culture.

“I am someone who believes strongly that women should be treated equally to men. But I don’t want to be a feminist critic. I am a software engineer. I have worked my ass off to get these skills. In 10 years, I don’t want to be talking to the press about Gamergate. I just want to be doing my job.”

The emotionally intelligent future of video games

brianna-wu-inspirefest

Brianna Wu at Inspirefest. Photo: Conor McCabe Photography

Having grown up with much of the same technologies and games as Wu, we discuss the present and future of gaming. As far as Wu is concerned the technology behind games has advanced in terms of graphics and processing power, but, unfortunately, the games are still rooted in the past.

‘We are talking about women in technology but how are we going to bring other people into the games culture to make new games, to innovate and go in different directions?’

– BRIANNA WU

She has a point. To my mind, the golden age of console gaming was a decade ago when games like Halo 2 and Halo 3 were making way for Call of Duty: Modern Combat. But these were mainly shooters that appealed to a certain machismo. As new consoles like the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 have arrived, gaming is just like it was a decade ago, only with fancier graphics and effects.

“Tell me honestly, do you see a lot of innovation in this generation?” Wu asks.

“We use all this extra processing power and we don’t use it for dynamic AI or fluid dynamics or new types of gameplay or conversational mechanics or a million different things for gameplay.”

Wu is super-excited about the onset of the Oculus VR technology, but wants to see the dynamics of games change from shooters to more intelligent, articulate and conversational games.

“What are we using this processing power for? Slightly prettier textures, more realistic effects, dust particles, smoke, glass breaking… and I think that is a problem.

“We are talking about women in technology but how are we going to bring other people into the games culture to make new games, to innovate and go in different directions?

“What we are working on is a push into VR and cinematics. In 2015 the most advanced dialogue system in games is the dialogue wheel from Mass Effect. There has been no innovation around conversation, around diplomacy, empathy and other qualities.”

Wu says Giant Spacekat is working on a next-generation game that will centre on a spaceship orbiting earth that is in danger of crashing and players in the game will need to interact and communicate with characters to save the ship.

“For example you are working with an engineer who has been emotionally traumatised and you are helping to build them back up to get the ship working and to save lives. It happens through conversations and action events.

“I’m shooting for the stars on this one and we are making a big venture capital push.”

Wu is hoping that she could bring about a change in games culture where it isn’t all about how many rounds are left in your gun, but your wits and emotional intelligence. She wants to unleash a new generation of games where narrative and conversation will go hand-in-hand with the power of graphics and processors to create games of breathtaking beauty.

“The problem is, with all respect to my male colleagues who are obsessed with chainsawing things and blowing stuff up, — and I love those games too – but we need women in technology to go in a different direction,” Wu concluded.

“The games industry needs new people with new ideas. The ultimate goal of this is utilitarian.”

Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com