Skip to main content
If you click on a link and make a purchase we may receive a small commission. Read our editorial policy.

Dealing with harassment

Zoe Quinn, Elizabeth Sampat, Donna Prior, and Neha Nair give advice based on their own experiences

On Monday, the Game Developers Conference hosted a session where a trio of industry veterans gave suggestions on how people can avoid harassment happening in the communities they manage. Today, that was followed up by Zoe Quinn (founder, The Quinnspiracy), Elizabeth Sampat (founder, Optical Binary), Neha Nair (user relations, Storm8), and Donna Prior (founder, Salish Events) offering advice on how to deal with being the target of harassment campaigns.

Sampat began with an anecedote about brainstorming possible panel participants with a friend of hers. When she mentioned one developer's name and explained the harassment that woman had been subjected to, Sampat's friend responded, "Wow, I figured she'd been harassed, but I didn't know how bad it was."

"Harassment happens at you, but it happens to everyone. It's a chilling effect."

Elizabeth Sampat

That's where the industry is at this point, Sampat said, where some harassment of women is assumed. Sampat then explained her own experience with harassment after she publicly implored developers and gamers not to attend the Penny Arcade Expo as a protest of some of the founders' actions. When she met Anita Sarkeesian, Sampat said she had explained her experiences, telling the Feminist Frequency creator, "I've been harassed, but nothing like what you went through." Sampat said Sarkesian stopped her right there and stressed that there's no such thing as harassment that doesn't count. It's a lesson Sampat wants to make sure gets through to every harassment target in the audience: your experience counts.

"Harassment happens at you," Sampat said, "but it happens to everyone. It's a chilling effect."

When Sampat lost her job, she posted about it on Twitter and was subjected to a new wave of harassment and people reveling in her situation. Regardless of the impact it had on Sampat, that sort of harassment takes its toll on other women in the industry every time it makes them stop and think about using social media to talk about their own situation, or raise their voice about issues they care about, or be involved in the game industry at all. Sampat targeted her last piece of advice to anyone who had given in to that chilling effect.

"We are here, and we will help you fight back," Sampat said.

Nair, known in the eSports community as Rinoaa, was up next, sharing her own experience with harassment. As an Indian woman, Nair said she was a double minority in the game industry, and had been subjected to attacks on both counts since she was in high school playing Defense of the Ancients in that game's male-dominated community.

Despite the abuse, she decided she wanted to be part of the DOTA eSports community, "and I really put myself out there." She signed on to every tournament she could find, ran an all-woman team called "PMS Dota," and put up with harassment all the while.

"You're going to read all these negative comments and have people that try to bring you down. Just take that and use that as fuel to be awesome."

Neha Nair

"But this doesn't only happen online," Nair said. "It bleeds into real life, and when it bleeds into real life it's a lot harder."

She recounted one event where she and PMS Dota were sharing hotel rooms with their male counterpart clan. Though she didn't use the words, Nair described an attempted rape in the middle of the night, one where her attacker denied the event had happened then bragged to his teammates that he had slept with her. The response from some other people was less than supportive.

"I didn't have a very good night that night, but I made it through," Nair said.

Nair said she is her own knight now. She decided not to sit and cry about the harassment but to harness her anger and channel it into becoming a more significant player in the eSports space.

"You're going to read all these negative comments and have people that try to bring you down," Nair said. "Just take that and use that as fuel to be awesome."

Prior spoke next, reflecting on her eight years of community management experience. She left behind a 14-year career in IT to enter the game industry, and still calls it the "best decision ever." That doesn't mean it was all smooth going. Prior said she worked on one game where the community had existed for months without any kind of moderation. The forums were "incredibly toxic and abusive," but only three community managers were brought on to manage it. While accusations of them being Nazis and squashing free speech were common criticisms directed to all the mods, Prior, as the only woman, was subjected to more gender-specific abuse as well.

"Staff abuse should never, ever, ever be tolerated. Throw them out."

Donna Prior

She talked about one particularly aggressive player who told Prior he was a stalker, and spent the next five years following her career online and slinging abuse at her wherever she surfaced. Another called for her to be run out of the game industry entirely because she once banned him from a forum. But the abuse that happens in person is worse, Prior said, as players begin to feel comfortable yelling at their targets, or calling their families to involve them in the harassment.

To crack down on this sort of behavior, Proir stressed the importance of having a zero tolerance policy when it comes to staff abuse.

"Staff abuse should never, ever, ever be tolerated," Prior said. "Throw them out."

Beyond that, Prior said it's crucial that developers have their community team's back. Don't reinstate banned players, because it tells people that abuse is acceptable and it undermines the authority of the mods.

It also helps to build up a personal support network, because people in your company might not support you, or even care. Lock down accounts, don't add players to Facebook, LinkedIn, "or any place where they can actually get to you." As grim as all that sounds, Prior stressed that with that managerial support and the proper procedures and policies in place, it's still possible to have a healthy, positive community.

Quinn took the podium next, mentioning that while things have been particularly tough the last seven months, it's been far from the first time she's had to deal with harassment. In the end, she said that harassment is just a mechanic, and one that can be used against anyone.

"I could have been anybody," Quinn said of her experiences with GamerGate. "All it took was one ex-boyfriend who'd seen what I'd dealt with in the industry and how that mechanism works."

"We're dealing with Voldemort here. We might as well learn some Defense Against the Dark Arts."

Zoe Quinn

Quinn said she came to GDC today to share her lessons on dealing with harassment, both from being a target herself and working with other victims of harassment as part of Crash Override.

"We're dealing with Voldemort here," Quinn said. "We might as well learn some Defense Against the Dark Arts."

First and foremost, Quinn said it's important to remember that your feelings are valid. It's OK to be affected by this, and everyone will react in different ways. Some people will want to take it head on and others will want to go dark, but there's not a one-size-fits-all approach. Conventional wisdom says not to feed the trolls, Quinn said, but she sees silence as the sustenance of trolls. It's the silence toward their actions and the idea that online abuse is "not real harassment" that has allowed it to persist for so long in the industry.

Further more, Quinn said to document everything in case it gets to the point where harassers can be prosecuted. It's better to have proof of vile behavior and not need it than to need it and not have it. Good help is also important, and there are plenty of ways to help friends going through that. It might involve distracting them from the harassment by doing something unrelated to blow off steam, or offering to handle their social media monitoring so they don't have to see the constant abuse.

"If you can stomach it and they trust you, maybe offer to do that for them because it's way harder to do it yourself," Quinn said.

Checking up on people to make sure they're sleeping, eating, or taking their regular medicine can be helpful as well, if done in the right way. But whatever you do, make sure you have the approval of the person being harassed. One of the hardest things to deal with when being harassed is the sense of loss of control, and having your support network further remove that control can be damaging.

There are some things to do preemptively. To help limit any sort of doxing attempts, Quinn suggested deleting old accounts online, making private your whois information on any websites you control, and removing any information from third-party information brokers like Spokeo. If it's gone so far that you have a police report about harassment, you can send it to Lexis-Nexus and have your information taken away from the engine's search results.

Beyond that, Quinn implored everyone to use two-factor authentication on any accounts possible. On top of that, don't use app-specific passwords, don't duplicate passwords, and use a password manager like Lastpass.

Ultimately, companies can do more than individuals to prevent harassment. They can apply more pressure to social media companies to improve their policies. They can also lead by example, moderating their own communities and not tolerating abusive behavior among their player base.

"Harassment is not free speech," Quinn said. "Tolerating abusive behavior limits other people's ability to speak freely out of fear."

Quinn finished by announcing the formation of Online Abuse Prevention Initiative, a non-profit organization partnership between Crash Override and Randi Harper that will study patterns of abuse, create anti-harassment resources, and work with tech companies to improve their communities.

"In conclusion, games are awesome," Quinn said. "Stop letting jerks hijack them."

Read this next

Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.
Related topics