Saturday, August 22, 2015

Brianna Wu: A Woman Like Myself

Yesterday, Brianna Wu, a game developer and opinion writer, published an article in The Guardian criticizing the tech industry and its institutional sexism in a post-GamerGate world.

There is an important premise of my article. I believe Brianna Wu is a biological man with the gender identity of a woman. This is based on evidence that is difficult to refute. However, there is no way to conclusively determine the truth beyond the facts that are available without violating Brianna's right to privacy or an outright admission from her.

Brianna Wu has a history of putting her harassment on prominent display. She also has at least one incident of questionable activity that could be construed as manipulation. Regardless of whether the fake Steam discussion was a joke, it was a stupid thing to do.

Why point out this background information? Because there are questions without answers about this woman that cast doubt. She is a victim of harassment. Some say she is an attention-seeking professional victim. Few look beyond that label. A skeptic challenging a victim can lead to shaming against them and claims of insensitivity that shut down inquiries. Gone Girl, anyone?

Brianna feeds into a prominent media narrative about misogyny and harassment in tech culture that demonizes her nameless harassers. I wrote on reddit about why that narrative might exist. To be clear: I do believe this harassment against her exists in some form.

I want to take a closer look at the article. I understand this to be a sensitive area to discuss, but I don't believe in shying away from it.

"What does this kind of abuse mean for women like myself that work in the industry?"

If you disagree with me on Brianna's biological sex, then imagine someone who is LBGT states that she is a woman. I take no issue there. Now, imagine this same woman including herself in women overall as part of opinions made about the traditional female experience.

An analogous situation occurred when Rachel Dolezal, a white woman, said she identifies as black. This woman led a chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. in Spokane, Washington before her story made national headlines. A national debate ensued on the topic. She subsequently stepped down from her post.

1) What are the issues with a LBGT woman speaking about the traditional female experience?

"Gamergate isn’t the problem – it’s a symptom of an industry that is deeply sexist and unable to understand it."

Brianna Wu is an independent developer. She is not what I consider an industry insider or part of mainstream tech culture. In her article, she conveys anecdotal stories from other developers in addition to her personal experience as evidence of the larger culture. Her sources remain anonymous.

Lynn Walsh, an expert on journalist ethics and a reporter, spoke last week at SPJ Airplay. She made several comments about anonymous sources.

"We are... I'm just personally not a fan of anonymous sources. I'm not... I mean, that is like last, last resort. I... it's just not something that... that we... I believe in as a team we sort of try to completely stray away from it."

"They're not anonymous to me. They're not... my editor knows who they are. ...I'm self-verifying... I'm going to meet in person. ...I'm not just going to have a phone call because that could be anyone."

Lynn understands primary sources must be known and verified to be of substance for an article.

Granted, Brianna's article is clearly labeled an opinion piece. She has an interest to protect some of the women for fear they will be targeted. However, that doesn't change that Brianna's opinion is based on stories meant to be taken at face value.

Here is an example of hard evidence of a larger cultural problem. The Escapist Magazine published two pieces with female and male game developers commenting on #GamerGate. These articles were fraught with issues, some of which are documented in the editor's notes:

1) The female commentators are all anonymous. Most of the men are identified.
2) The original title for the female perspective was "Female Game Developers." The original title for the male article was "Game Developers" before it was pointed out and changed to "Male Game Developers." You can see the remnants of this in the URLs and on Google searches.
3) Several male commentators were discredited and had their opinions removed from the article due to their online activities.

2) Can and should Brianna Wu be taken seriously as an informative or persuasive speaker on tech culture? If not, who can?

"I will no longer participate in encouraging young women and girls to become game industry professionals,” wrote Sampat in a popular Facebook post."

"How could you support anyone’s daughter entering this environment?"

3) If you discourage women from entering a certain sector, would it not exacerbate the issue of under-representation in that sector?

"We need the male professionals in our field to understand the unconscious bias that they consistently show against women...."

Finally, Brianna consistently comments on effect, particularly the emotional reality of her and others "like" her. However, cause and solution are absent. She implies that being a woman in today's culture invites harassment. No reference is made to her personal history as a factor in her own harassment. No attempt is made to understand the other side. Men just ARE and need to change.

It is hard enough for two people in a relationship to learn to understand each other and overcome differences. I will never be black, a woman, handicapped, or other identities which affect every aspect of their life experience. I am a Caucasian male who grew up in a community that was 97% Caucasian and spends a lot of time with computers as opposed to people with diverse backgrounds. The gap to bridge is enormous.

According to Brianna, I am capable of understanding. I am not so certain I can bridge the gap. If I could, it would not be on the time frame desired by those petitioning for this bridge. Brianna offers no practical solutions or a way forward. Because of this, I question the purpose of her article and how it benefits her.

Take into consideration the following: opinion pieces are not going to reach let alone change a teenager who discovers the power of anonymity on the internet for the first time and takes pleasure, without shame, in messing with other internet denizens. He may not even realize the structural influence of the Internet or video games on his behavior that leads him to troll or harass. He is there to have fun at others' expense.

That is one example of something that is not going to change where time, maturation, and education are the solutions. But you will never eliminate this reality: everyday someone realizes what they're doing and changes, another ignorant and immature person grows old enough to replace them.

I believe in changing practices where you can, not expecting people to be different. Rather than eliminating bias and the gap, it must be accounted for. You could strip names from resumes when reviewing them. You can eliminate identity when judging musical talent. There are solutions. Let's discuss those instead of complaining how it is now. That is forward-looking and productive discussion to have.

I have one "simple" question for Brianna on her statement about understanding which summarizes this post:

4) HOW?

In conclusion, I am tired of Twitter activism that paints in such broad strokes. I am tired of ideological arguments that go nowhere. I am tired of talking about leaderless online movements as if you can define their members and hold them accountable to the larger group. It is an exercise in futility. I see ignorance used to score political points with others who agree with these thought leaders.

Everything about #GamerGate on both sides and its actors are more than their ideologies and idealism. You do have to factor in the person behind the arguments and what they have to gain.


  1. Brianna Wu willfully inserted herself into Gamergate by her own admission by baiting 4chan with memes. When they responded with the exact same meme within 24 hours she was on national TV claiming to be under attack. This was a favor done for her by her friends at Recode. If you can' tree what is going on here you are blind. This is blatant self promotion with zero regard for the parties injured.

  2. #gamergate made Brianna Wu. She's often spoken about in the media, called primarily a games dev. Which admittedly, she is. She made one game that was a "critical success" but a financial disaster. That should tell you something.

    No one knew who she was before she decided to make memes attacking gamergate. She was just another yuppie trust fund baby hacking together a poorly made IOS game in a software suite that even an amateur can get a working level going in a day or two (unreal engine). Now she has a Patreon that rakes in 3 grand a month, she gets invited to speaking event after speaking event. Gets to appear on the main stream media and here she is writing for the once prestigious Guardian.

    She should be thanking us, and I suspect, secretly she is.

    I'll stick to her preferred pronouns, but I get the feeling her switch to being a woman was as cynical a ploy to get what she wants as her declaration of war on an amorphous twitter hashtag.