A prominent feminist critic of video games pulled out of a speech she was scheduled to give at Utah State University this morning after several staff members received an anonymous e-mail terror threat yesterday morning promising "the deadliest school shooting in American history" if the event wasn't canceled.
USU officials, after consulting with local, state and federal law enforcement, determined that it was safe to allow Anita Sarkeesian to give her presentation. It was Ms. Sarkeesian herself who decided to pull out of the event on Tuesday night after learning the school would still allow concealed firearms at the event despite the threat of a mass shooting.
The USU e-mail was just the latest example of threats against women and others advocating for change in the gaming industry, and has been associated with an ongoing and increasingly outspoken online culture known as Gamergate.
Sarkeesian, a popular activist and video blogger who advocates for improved portrayals of women in video games, was subject to a bomb threat in late March and received a death threat from an anonymous person on Twitter, containing her home address, in August. Game developers Zoe Quinn and Brianna Wu, who are also prominent critics of the gaming industry, have faced similar threats.
The six-week-old Gamergate campaign is ostensibly in support of ethics in gaming, but is serving only to underscore how vitriolic online behavior is having a growing real-world impact. The Washington Post suggested the Gamergate phenomenon taps into a long-running cultural conflict in gaming between the "traditional" gamer – stereotypically "a young, nerdy white guy" – and a growing new, diverse generation of gamers.
This misogynist thread surfaced in Tuesday's USU threat. The e-mail was sent to Ann Austin, director of the Center for Women and Gender Studies, among other staff members, according to the the online newspaper Standard Examiner. It threatened all those who were attending the event, proposing "a Montreal Massacre style attack" – a reference to the Dec. 6, 1989 shooting of 14 female engineering students at the École Polytechnique engineering school at the University of Montreal.
The author of the email claimed to have a semiautomatic rifle, multiple pistols, and several pipe bombs, according to the Standard Examiner. The threat, the e-mail continued, is "giving [USU] a chance to stop it."
The shooter behind the Montreal Massacre, Marc Lepine, said in his three-page suicide note that feminists had ruined his life.
The threat against Sarkeesian has provoked the first major online rally against the Gamergate movement since it started, with thousands of people, including high-profile game developers, writers and actors tweeting the #StopGamerGate2014 hashtag.
In a tweet Tuesday night, Sarkeesian said she had requested pat downs or metal detectors.
"Because of Utah's open carry laws police wouldn't do firearm searches," Sarkeesian tweeted. "I'm safe. I will continue my work. I will continue speaking out," she added. "The whole game industry must stand up against the harassment of women."
According to Sarkeesian, she received multiple threats on Tuesday and one claimed affiliation with Gamergate. She sent out one tweet addressing Gamergate specifically.
USU spokesman Tim Vitale told the Standard Examiner that the school was "taking every precaution" at the event, including having extra security and not allowing large bags or backpacks inside.
Police also ran the information they had through the FBI cyberterrorism task force and other statewide information centers. The threat was determined to be "consistent with ones [Sarkeesian] has received at other places around the nation," Mr. Vitale told the Standard Examiner. "The threat we received is not out of the norm for [this woman.]"
The anonymity of the gaming community helps embolden a vocal minority, according to the Post, with many social science studies illustrating that people are more argumentative and aggressive when allowed to comment on something without using their real name.