An examination of the surreal amount of money spent as a result of Gamergate.
Correction: Adjusted Brianna Wu’s Patreon donations. See note.
In the early days of Gamergate, supporters of the movement wanted to move the focus away from Zoe Quinn and onto other issues they had with gaming media. To downplay her role in the matter, they began asking, “literally who?” when someone mentioned her name. When someone brought up Anita Sarkeesian, she was then referred to as “literally who 2”. When Brianna Wu became part of the controversy, they called her “literally Wu”. Collectively, they are known as the Literally Who’s. Though not considered part of the Literally Who’s, I will also include Randi Harper into the mix for the purposes of this article.
While doing research for my Gamergate book, one of the issues that I noticed is rarely covered in the media is the profound amount of money that has filtered to the Literally Who’s, who are often referred to as the victims of Gamergate. Among all the complex issues in the culture war, perhaps none is more difficult to write about than the money. One side can argue that no amount is enough to compensate for the damage done during what they consider a campaign of hatred. Supporters argue that these women are not victims at all, and that they have embellished their claims for financial gain. “Professional victims” is the term they use.
There is no search for a golden mean between the two sides here. Instead, this article serves to examine the surprisingly large amount of money changing hands and to what effect. This is a tale of highly successful crowdfunding and much less successful delivery.
Using Graphtreon, a website which tracks Patreon donations over time, along with the Wayback Machine to fill in the gaps, I took a look at the Patreon earnings for each person from the start of the month, or as close as was available. Due to fluctuations throughout a month, not to mention donations that don’t go through when it is time to pay, this method won’t be entirely accurate. Still, it should give us a reasonable estimate of the earnings each person has received.
Game developer turned political candidate Brianna Wu has earned $71,327.64 through her Patreon, which started in December, 2014. (Correction: I had originally adjusted her month of January, 2015 because of an unusually large donation I considered an anomaly. According to Ian Miles Cheong, however, Wu was given a one time donation of $10,000 that month. I have adjusted the numbers. Thanks, Ian!)
Wu is the developer of Revolution 60, a game released for the iOS in July of 2014, a month before the start of Gamergate. Her company, Giant Spacekat, then ported the game to PC and released it in September of 2016. The iOS version of the game received a 73 from 8 critics on Metacritic, while the PC version received no reviews from critics recognized by Metacritic.
Wu has stated publicly that her Patreon donations would be used solely for the purpose of hiring an administrator whose responsibilities included maintaining Wu’s Twitter account so that she didn’t have to directly deal with harassing tweets. This administrator was Natalie O’Brien, we were told. When exchanging emails with Brianna throughout my research on the book, beginning in July of 2015, I received emails from someone responding as Natalie O’Brien using Wu’s email account. She signed her messages “Nat”.
Natalie O’Brien does not exist – at least, not as Natalie O’Brien.
In March of 2016, an anonymous person claiming to be among Wu’s Patreon donors wrote a Medium post casting doubt at the existence of Natalie O’Brien. The post cited Emma Clarkson, who worked for Giant Spacekat for about 10 weeks managing their social media account. In Clarkson’s tweet, she doubted the veracity of the claim that Wu hired someone to manage her Twitter account. Others looked into the matter and noted the lack of a social media presence or any record of Natalie O’Brien.
I sent an email to Wu and asked for proof of Natalie O’Brien. Wu replied, “I do have those records. I would probably produce redacted versions of them to any reputable news organization. But with respect, I’m not going to get into the practice of opening up our company records to indie bloggers. It’s a black hole that will be a huge waste of time.”
She continued, “Another problem is Natalie O’Brien is a pseudonym. The woman working for us had children and didn’t want them targeted by Gamergate. In providing you those employment records, I would be breaking her trust. Compounding this, because you’re not part of a credible news organization, you aren’t held to the same journalistic standards with an editor as say, the AP.”
“These accusations, like others are a total Gamergate lie,” she added.
About Clarkson, Wu said, “it’s not accurate to call Emma Clarkson a former employee of Giant Spacekat. Any company has turn over, and even when things don’t work out I give people the professional courtesy of not bad mouthing them publicly. It’s almost always a two-way street. Just because someone is a bad fit at one company doesn’t mean they won’t fit in elsewhere.”
Since the election of Donald Trump, Brianna Wu has become a political candidate, announcing her intention to run for congress in the 8th district of Massachusetts. I sent her two more questions to check on her current status. The first asked if her run for congress meant she was leaving game development and closing Giant Spacekat.
“I’ve never run for congress before,” she replied. “So, I will take a step back from my lead developer role at GSX. But I seriously doubt Revolution 60 is the last game I’ll ever ship. It’s likely we will ship a small game as we campaign.”
Given the complexities of campaign finance laws, with the second question I asked if she would have to close her Patreon when she officially files to run for congress.
“I can say this. The FEC is very clear about campaign expenses being used for personal use. If you like my speaking, my writing, my two popular podcasts, my Patreon is the place to support that. It has literally nothing to do with my campaign.”
She went on, and I will include her full reply, unedited.
“If the insinuation of that second question is that there’s a profit motive for being targeted by Gamergate, I will say flat out on the record it’s ridiculous. It wouldn’t be for 1 million, 5 million or 20 million for the horror it’s brought into my life.
I lost a ton of money in 2014 and 2015 speaking out about Gamergate. A. I wasn’t in my studio pushing my team to get R60 out, and running a studio is extremely expensive. B. I was also in psychological shock, and frankly wasn’t very effective at my job.
I’ve also turned down two movie deals, just because the project didn’t feel right. If I’d wanted money from this mess, that would have been the time. I was paid only $1000 for ‘The Internet ruined my life,’ which didn’t turn out to be the project I’d imagined.
I know some people can’t believe doing something because you believe it’s the right thing to do, but that’s why I made the choices I did. I’m an idealist.”
When I replied that I was making no insinuations but was looking into the controversies surrounding the money that has changed hands as a result of Gamergate, Wu took umbrage with my reporting.
“Do what you’ve got to do. I think you’re giving air to baseless allegations – which is really my primary objection to your work. You throw out allegations, give both sides air – but you can’t point to anyone with credibility making them. It’s a tool of character assassination you are part of.
There’s a reason your counterparts at news organizations don’t run this stuff. I remember learning about those standards my first literal week of journalism school.
As a public figure, and especially as a congressional candidate – I try to be open and honest with people. With 99 percent of journalists, it’s the right call.”
The allegation that Natalie O’Brien does not exist, however, is, in fact, entirely accurate. Whether Wu can provide any evidence to show that over $71,000 in Patreon donations did indeed go to an employee appears to depend on more credible news organizations. Given the publicity involved in running for congress, it is a topic likely to come up in the future.
Full disclosure: Randi Harper publicly accused me of attempting to contact her family while doing research for my Gamergate book. She threatened me with a restraining order and publicly asked anyone involved in Gamergate to not answer my questions. I defended myself, saying that I did not and would never contact her family. I offered her 18 months of my complete phone records and told her that if she could prove I tried to contact her family I would leave Twitter permanently. She went silent on the matter.
Former software engineer turned anti-harassment Twitter activist, Randi Harper is best known for creating the ggautoblocker, a tool intended to proactively block Gamergate supporters before they interact with a user.
Randi Harper has received approximately $88,435.35 through Patreon since December of 2014. Additionally, on Twitter she has publicly solicited and received funds through Paypal for veterinarian bills, doctor bills, medication for Attention Deficit Disorder, and a top-of-the-line desktop computer. She made public that she received at least $2,275.62 for a MacBook Pro. When she lost her job in the tech industry she opened a YouCaring account and received $3,100 for a move to Portland. She currently has seven Amazon Wish Lists which include a $210 sound card and $100 pink toaster. It is also likely she received funds for a trip to Australia. While it is impossible to determine exactly how much Harper has received in money and gifts since her introduction into the Gamergate spotlight, it is safe to estimate a total around $100,000.
Since the creation of the auto blocker in 2014, Harper has become a full time anti-abuse activist, funded entirely by donations. She created the Online Abuse Prevention Initiative (OAPI), a non-profit dedicated to fighting harassment in tech and social media and now claims she does “incident response”.
The Online Abuse Prevention Initiative, as any sort of discernable organization, does not exist. According to Harper, it is apparently a non-formal creation funded through her Patreon because non-profit status requires “too much overhead.”
OAPI’s last Facebook update was March 14, 2015. It has a Wikipedia entry, where it is erroneously called a non-profit organization. Under “Activities” its sole entry is an open letter to ICANN, opposing a proposal which would have required website domain owners to provide personal contact information.
After the auto blocker, there is little tangible evidence of Harper accomplishing anything other than media interviews, a talk at a conference in Australia, and a highly publicized but lightly attended harassment summit at SXSW.