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The Mary Sue Interview: Shannon Sun-Higginson of GTFO: The Movie on Women in Gaming and Tech

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Back in 2012, footage of Miranda “Super_Yan” Pakozdi being harassed by an eSports coach during a live broadcast of a tournament made waves on the internet. In a piece titled, “This Is What A Gamer’s Sexual Harassment Looks Like,” Jason Schreier of Kotaku showed just how ugly “gaming culture” (whatever that is) can be. The video featured in that piece is what spurred Shannon Sun-Higginson to create GTFO: The Movie, a documentary focused on women working in and around video games.

But what sets GTFO: The Movie apart from its contemporaries is that it isn’t a documentary that just focuses on the negatives. Sure, it calls the negatives out and there are some pretty gross depictions of the stuff women go through, but what was most interesting was that those terrible things were not the thrust of the project. Alongside screenshots of horrid tweets and audio clips of messages sent over Xbox LIVE were stories of women who are fighting to make the industry better the only way they know how: by being great.

We had a chance to chat with Sun-Higginson about the documentary and why she thinks it’s important to acknowledge the good and the bad and where she feels gaming is going now.

Jessica Lachenal (TMS): So tell me about GTFO: The Movie.

Shannon Sun-Higginson: It’s a feature documentary about women in gaming. We tried to cover everything from the casual gamer up to developers, artists, journalists, and professional gamers. I sort of fell into this topic a few years ago. A friend of mine told me about the harassment that takes place in the gaming world, and I was pretty shocked by it as an outsider. I started investigating it right away, and here we are.

TMS: You kind of touched on it there, but why specifically this topic? What made you want to make this documentary?

Sun-Higginson: The Miranda [Pakozdi] story that bookends the movie, the Cross Assault harassment story? That was our launching point. My friend sent me that video and I had just never seen anything like it. I was really shocked because I’m very much interested in women’s issues, and I’m also pretty tuned into geek culture on a personal level, if not gaming culture. I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

My friend said that that was not terribly unusual, actually. I just really wanted people like myself–people who are pretty tech-savvy, feminists–to see that this was happening. I guess at this point people are talking about this issue more now than they were in 2012. Things were vaguely covered, but it just wasn’t nearly as part of the mainstream conversation as it is now.

I just wanted to shine a light on it.

TMS: Do you think you succeeded in doing so?

Sun-Higginson: Well I hope so, to a point. I’m excited to see that other people are discussing this as well. Gaming is just one small piece of the puzzle, so I’m thinking of this documentary as just one part of the greater conversation about what it means to be a woman in any male-dominated industry, but specifically in tech, or what it means to be a woman on the internet. I think that this relates to a lot of different topics that tons of news outlets are just now discussing. Gaming is the one example that I decided to stick with, but these issues are prevalent in a lot of other industries as well.

I’m sort of thinking of it as like women in gaming is a microcosm of what has happened throughout history and will continue to happen every time people perceive a certain space as belonging to them, with other people as intruders.

Maddy Myers

Maddy Myers

TMS: That’s incredibly true, I mean, at the end of the documentary, Maddy Myers says (and I’m paraphrasing), “Calling this Gamergate is inaccurate, it’s unfair, because these things have been happening constantly.” So to say that Gamergate is the only thing that’s been happening is a disservice to the work everyone’s done before this.

Sun-Higginson: Yeah, I mean, it’s tough because tons people who’ve not seen this documentary who want to hate on it and say it’s about Gamergate–which, now that you’ve seen it, you know how laughable that is–don’t realize that we had been discussing this issue years before then. We have to acknowledge the elephant in the room, but Gamergate makes up a small postscript. Some of women I spoke to have been experiencing harassment long before I spoke to them. So many of them have been experiencing this long before August 2014.

I guess in a way it’s good that people are paying more attention to this issue. Now people get what it is, my family are like, ‘Oh, I get it, I’ve heard of this before.’ To give people a sort of cultural touchstone to help understand the issue is good, but it gives a bad name to gamers.

Something we tried to do in the movie is we tried to talk about the women who are so passionate about games and who have been in the industry for decades and are doing really great, creative, awesome work, and are meeting up together and making great things together and are changing the industry for the better. If you just look at the negatives, that doesn’t really come across.

TMS: I found it actually really interesting that you structured the movie that way, that you wouldn’t just focus on these terrible things that are happening. You focused on the constructive things, the things to celebrate, these are things that are missing in the wider coverage.

Sun-Higginson: Right, right. And it kind of makes sense. If you’re writing this story about something, you just want to sensationalize the worst examples, right? That’s how you get the point across. But I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to be as even-handed as possible. Coming at this as not a gamer probably helped me with that a little bit.

I just don’t want to scare any young women away from games with this documentary. So we tried to show all the positive resources that people can turn to and the good communities that are there. Obviously, I think that more diversity in games is better, so scaring people away was my biggest fear going into this.

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I’ve been really happy with some of the feedback that I’ve gotten from women, who say like, ‘Now I’m definitely going to stay in this industry, because I really have to fight for it.’ That just makes me feel good about the project.

TMS: So spinning off of that, how has the reception been? It sounds like it’s been great, have a lot of people been receiving it well?

Sun-Higginson: Yeah! We got really lucky with the press surrounding SXSW. Even getting into the festival was really a huge shock to me, so that was really amazing. Then were covered in the New York Times, and TIME, and a bunch of other mainstream outlets. We were just featured on Last Week Tonight, which is how we’re having this conversation.

Having other people know about it is kind of funny. There are legitimate criticisms people can make about the documentary, and I am more than happy to jump into a conversation about that stuff, but a lot of the negative reviews I’ve gotten have been paragraphs and paragraphs of people saying the movie is ‘Nazi propaganda,’ which is really confusing. There are people who are referencing themes and characters who aren’t in the documentary at all.

It makes it tough because I actually want to know what the actual criticisms are. I would love to hear, for example, from The Mary Sue’s audience. If you guys have criticisms, that’s something I would take very seriously, because you actually have experience with people who have discussed feminism in the geek world. That’s the feedback that I want to hear.

Even if you go into the movie not agreeing with me, I want to hear that feedback, too, but it’s hard to parse out what the actual negative criticisms are and what is just complete nonsense. Unfortunately, the nonsense has just been kind of taking over. If you go online, half of the reviews are five stars, half are one stars. I’d love to hear what the three star people have to say. [Laughs]

TMS: It’s kind of a weird signal-to-noise ratio, right?

Sun-Higginson: Yeah. It doesn’t make sense to go online and harass me on Twitter, you know what I mean? That’s just kind of proving my point. So people go about it in different ways, they write these really long reviews that talk about characters that aren’t even in the movie, which is kind of funny. It would be so much easier if you just watched it and criticized things you actually saw and disagreed with.

TMS: Right, as opposed to just railing against it simply because of what the title is, even.

Sun-Higginson: Yeah, yeah. It’s so funny when people go online and they’re like, ‘why don’t you GTFO?’ I’m like, what… how… that’s the joke! That’s the joke of the title! You’re doing… the thing… that the title… is about…

TMS: So I mean… I can’t imagine that making this documentary was any kind of easy. But were there any easy parts? What was the best part of making this documentary? The hardest part?

Sun-Higginson: Well, it was definitely hard to make it. But there were a lot of parts that were really good. My two friends who are involved in games–one a really big fan, another in the industry–they sort of guided me through the whole ‘here are some outspoken people who have discussed this, here’s some journalists who have written about sexism in gaming, here’s some prominent women I should reach out to.’

So I basically reached out to everyone. I was pleasantly surprised that almost everyone wanted to talk to me about this. I think I got only one rejection through this process, and it was a friendly rejection. They were like, ‘no thanks, good luck!’ Which is fine, but I expected a lot more people to say no. What would happen is I would go to someone for an interview with my equipment and just be like, ‘Can I talk to you?’ If it went well, which it usually did, then afterwards they would refer me to their friend. It was an organic process.

But what was really touching about these interviews was that at the end of a lot of the interviews, they would say, ‘Well, here are some things you should do to protect yourself,’ and I don’t mean into the camera. They would say that to me. They had been through so much that they were worried about me, which is very touching and sweet.

When Gamergate happened, and when they shared stories about other people, the only times they would get really emotional was when they were talking about their friends. They’d say, ‘I can’t believe this happened to her, she really doesn’t deserve this,’ and it just shows that there’s this community of what one of the women calls her ‘war buddies,’ because they’ve been through so much. A lot of the people who have been targets for a lot of the harassment, they’ve built this really strong community.

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TMS: Are you still following things in the industry?

Sun-Higginson: Yeah. I’m trying to keep very involved. It’s hard because when the movie premiered at SXSW, it was like, my baby is gone! I’m giving it away. You get so attached to a project and you get so involved. I’ve been trying to work with other people to build a good resource list and activist campaign to not only bring awareness to this issue but to create a community around women who can support each other. We also want to bring in allies who can reach out and help.

I’m in the midst of trying to revamp my website and create a good resource list for people, and trying to be a little more active about that. This movie is just one small piece that’s working in the same direction as a lot of other people.

TMS: So you’ve heard about the Online Abuse Prevention Initiative, and Crash Override?

Sun-Higginson: Yeah! I’ve got links to them, too. I’m also just trying to create an online space where you can ask really simple questions and get really simple answers. If this happens, then do this, if this happens then do that, if this happened, then there are these places that you can go to. It can get a little bit overwhelming to know where to go to, and I just want to help point people in the right direction.

Just want to do whatever I can do from my end instead of just making the documentary. The issue isn’t over. Just trying to help move things forward.

TMS: What’s your opinion on the industry now? What’re your thoughts on the gaming industry as whole right now?

Sun-Higginson: Oh, hmm. That’s a tough one. I do think that people are actually taking notice of a lot of the issue that are happening, and people in the world of moderating are trying to think of new and creative ways of shifting the culture. I think that is the most important thing. Getting people to be able to stand up to their peers and say, ‘This isn’t cool,’ and making it the norm to believe in equality and be a civilized human being–that seems to be the right direction to go in. It’s better than just punishing people who say things that you don’t like.

If we could just reach that understanding that there’s another person on the side of your abuse, that would make a really big difference. We also need to investigate it more. It’s not enough to just talk about whatever thing just happened, we should look at the actual sources of the problem and think about what in the culture is causing this to happen, then work on how we can change the conversation.

TMS: Do you see hope for the industry?

Sun-Higginson: I don’t know that things are better yet. But things are being addressed, which is good. That has to be the first step, that people realize there is actually a serious problem. But then to take that next leap to ‘how do we fix this,’ that’s a pretty big leap. I would say that games are so exciting right now, and it just sucks that some people make it unpleasant for others.

Making this movie made me more interested in games, not less. I didn’t know much about gaming, but I didn’t realize that there was this whole untapped creative space of awesome world-exploring and creation and education and all these cool things games are doing now. The industry itself seems to be on its way to doing exciting things, I just hope that everyone wants to include women in that.

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GTFO: The Movie is out now on iTunesVimeo, BitTorrentGoogle Play, Xbox,Playstation, and Vudu. Give it a watch. You’ll be glad you did.

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