Two years ago, on August 16, 2014, a then-24-year-old programmer named Eron Gjoni wrote a long blog post describing alleged unethical conduct by his former girlfriend, feminist video game developer, social justice advocate and game media darling Zoe Quinn. With Facebook chat logs as evidence, Gjoni claimed that Quinn, who publicly championed the view that truly consensual sexual relationships require full honesty, had engaged in repeated infidelities and deceptions—among them an affair with a journalist for the videogame blog Kotaku, which led to rumors that she had traded sex for reviews.
After attempts to shut down discussions of the scandal and a spate of “gamers are dead” articles proclaiming that the attacks on Quinn had exposed a toxic misogyny in the gaming community, the controversy erupted into the online culture war known as GamerGate.
The man who started it all has kept a relatively low profile. Gjoni, who was born in Albania and came to the United States with his family at the age of six, still lives in Boston where he and Quinn met. He is working on creating an artificially intelligent animation program that he hopes will be eventually be used by people who don’t have access to a major studio. He is on Twitter, where his posts often show a wry, quirky humor. (His profile quote is, “A good pun is its own reword.”)
Like many in his generation, he supported Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries. He also went to court and effectively won a First Amendment case—a challenge to a restraining order that forbade him from publishing any further material on Quinn. It was important enough to attract the involvement of UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, one of America’s top authorities on free speech issues.
Gjoni rarely talks to the media. But a few days before the second anniversary of “The Zoe Post,” he agreed to talk to Heat Street about that post, GamerGate, social justice, and his future plans. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Cathy Young: Let’s say that tomorrow someone comes to you with a time machine and you can go back to August 2014 and decide whether or not to do it all over again. Would you do it, and would you do anything differently?
Eron Gjoni: It would be harder to do it. I would still do it, but it’s like—oh, this is going to suck. (Laughs) I suppose I’d take out the “burgers and fries” joke. I wasn’t sure about it, but people who were looking it over at the time said it was too funny to take out [and] like, “All right, I’ll trust you on it.”
CY: So why did you write the post? What were you after? A lot of people saw it as just an angry ex-boyfriend wanting to settle scores.
EG: The full motivation is complicated—but mostly, I was worried that people trusted [Quinn], and that she would use social justice principles to enable herself to ruin the careers of other people if she needed to, or take advantage of people. There are things you can accuse people of that you can’t question in those circles.
CY: By the way, one thing that is ironic, given that GamerGate is in many ways a pushback against “social justice warriors,” is that you were very much a part of the social justice scene at the time, weren’t you? You have mentioned that you and Zoe even bonded over that.
EG: Yes, we had the same political views, nominally. It turned out to just be nominally. But I still believe in a lot of the principles. Obviously, the execution of social justice principles leaves a lot to be desired…
CY: Have your views evolved, and in what way?
EG: My basic views are essentially the same, I think, but they’re tempered more by the extent to which human nature starts to play a role, and there are such things as communities and tribes and then you get people who co-opt them and take advantage. You get people who adopt political views more as a fashion statement than out of an actual desire to fix things.
CY: Getting back to the “Zoe Post”: there’s a widespread belief that you accused Zoe of using sex to get good reviews on her game, Depression Quest, or advance her career. But you never actually said that, did you?
EG: No, not at all. In fact, I explicitly stated almost the opposite, that she is pretty good at what she does, which is narrative design; the problem is that she never stops doing it. But yeah, I didn’t accuse her of [trading sexual favors], and I don’t think that’s what she does. People have sex because sex is good. (Laughs)
CY: There was also a common perception among Zoe’s supporters that you were “slut-shaming” her—mounting a witch-hunt against a woman because she was sexually active. Did you think it might be perceived that way?
EG: I actively avoided that. To the extent that I had any discomfort about the “five guys” joke, it was because it could be perceived as slut-shaming. But mostly it was, “She cheated on me with five guys,” not “She slept with five guys.” It was about fidelity. It wasn’t slut-shaming, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being promiscuous.
CY: Some people who are at least somewhat sympathetic to you have said you did something that a lot of women are doing—calling out abusive behavior—and they were disappointed that there was such a double standard in that it was seen as not being okay to do for a guy. Is that something you were thinking at the time—that you were exposing the “other side” of abuse, especially given that feminists have been the ones seeking to expand the concept of abusive relationships to include emotional and psychological abuse?
EG: To be honest, I didn’t know very much about emotional abuse writing the post. It was only after that people came and explained how all this stuff that I outlined constitutes emotional abuse. The double standard—I wasn’t trying to make a point about it, but I was fully aware that the fact that I’m a guy is going to work against me. If you’re not in the victim group, you’re not given the benefit of the doubt.
CY: Not many know that the people who very actively supported you in making that post were female and, in fact, feminist friends. Are you still friends with any of those women?
EG: I’m still friends with all of them, actually. Pretty much all my friends that I had before [GamerGate] are still my friends, we still hang out. Those ties are stronger than whether or not I blew up the Internet.
CY: One thing that has been held against you is that you admitted you knew Zoe was likely to be harassed because of the post, and you went and made it anyway—and, some say, put it in places where it was most likely to lead to harassment.
EG: Actually, I specifically put it in places that had a high opinion of Zoe to avoid harassment. I figured that there was a high potential because she had a history of being harassed on the Internet, supposedly. So I wanted to avoid that—avoid 4Chan or any place that had a history of harassing her. There was Penny Arcade, which had a very positive view of her based on forum searches, and Something Awful. Those were the only two places where I put it, because I thought they were least likely to harass her.
It ended up being taken down from both, but someone took a screenshot of it from Something Awful, and they posted the screenshot on 4Chan. And that’s bad, because then I can’t make corrections or append things. So I created the WordPress post. Before I had even finished posting all of it, someone found it [and] posted the link. Ultimately, it did allow me to have [some control]; as soon as people started thinking that [Quinn] slept with [Kotaku writer] Nathan Grayson prior to his review, I immediately made a clarification that that’s not the case.
CY: A lot of people in GamerGate believe Zoe exaggerated the harassment she got. Your view of that?
EG: I’m 100% sure that the Internet would harass people, and I’m 100% sure that Zoe would exaggerate how much.
CY: Have you experienced harassment over GamerGate?
EG: Oh yeah. I got a few death threats—got some creative ones. Someone threatened to choke me with my own scrotum. So yeah, death threats—I expected that going in. I expected it to suck. It ended up sucking a bit more than I expected.
CY: Do you consider yourself a part of GamerGate?
EG: I’m not sure what that means. I sparked it, and I stay involved, and they helped fund my First Amendment case. So yes, I guess so.
CY: There are a lot of people in GamerGate whose views are quite different from yours politically. How did you get along with them?
EG: I do enjoy a good debate, so it’s not like I was turned off by that.
CY: Did you form new friendships based on GamerGate?
EG: Yes, [with] some people in Boston. We’ve gone out for beers, hung out…
CY: What do you think of the role GamerGate has played culturally? What impact has it had?
EG: I think before, there was basically one view that was pushed throughout most game review media and even popular media in general. And GamerGate—they’ve started pushing their own alternate views through their own publications. That’s created a sort of tension. I think that’s better on the whole, but maybe worse in that it’s polarizing people more—I’m still not sure. Whatever effect, if any, GamerGate has had, I don’t think it’s finished having that effect, so it’s too early to judge its merits.
CY: Does GamerGate still exist? Periodically, somebody will say that GamerGate is dead…
EG: Well, Kotaku in Action [the GamerGate forum on Reddit] continues to grow.
CY: It’s also broadened its approach, hasn’t it? It’s not just about video games anymore.
EG: Yes, it’s expanded into media in general, and even beyond media to politics, college First Amendment cases and so on. There used to be a faction in GamerGate that was more interested in journalists being overly concerned with political correctness and overly left-leaning, and there was a faction that was just interested in journalistic ethics. Both are technically concerned with journalistic ethics, but one faction for entirely different reasons, and so you end up [with] the faction that has political views being the more dominant one, because those are more exciting than the technicalities of journalistic ethics.
CY: Speaking of which, are there journalists who have given you a fair shake?
EG: I think the closest was that journalist from Vice [Mike Pearl], and it was the closest because he ignored what I said completely and just talked about my views on [GamerGate mascot] Vivian James.
CY: Zachary Jason’s piece for Boston Magazine insinuated that you’re still obsessed with Zoe Quinn because you suggested meeting at the place where you and she had first hung out. And the real reason was…
EG: It’s because I’m vegan. He suggested lunch, and I said, “Cool, let’s go to a vegan place.” There are no vegan places [in Boston] where I have not been with her.
CY: At one point, Zoe Quinn was granted a restraining order that forbade you to write about her.
EG: Yeah, and forbade me to mention her online, which is pretty rough when there’s a media storm going on and she can talk about me [but] I can’t defend myself or clarify anything.
CY: When you went to court to fight it, was it just about being able to give your side of the story, or was it about principle?
EG: It seemed like an opportunity to establish something broader and people wanted me to, and I tried to do that. But I wasn’t under any [illusion] that challenging the order would change anything immediately, because legal stuff tends to take forever.
CY: Are you planning to write anything else about Zoe, or about GamerGate?
EG: I might write a retrospective at some point. Currently, I’m a bit busy with other stuff. I’m still very undecided about whether or not I want to go into the full details of what prompted me to write [the Zoe Post].
CY: What’s next for you? Do you plan to continue to work in programming?
EG: Probably. The legal case got me interested in law for a bit, but I don’t know if I’ll try to pursue that. Hopefully, if [the artificial intelligence animation project] goes well, I can just work on the program as a full-time thing if people buy it; if not, I’ll get a job.
CY: Do you think your notoriety related to GamerGate has hurt your career prospects?
EG: If you can imagine being a social pariah, it’s probably going to hurt my career a little. Hopefully my skills will compensate for that.
CY: What about your dating life? Again, you’re a bit infamous as the ex-boyfriend who wrote a really long post about his ex…
EG: My dating life has been surprisingly good.
CY: Last question: Zoe Quinn has a book on the way, and apparently the movie rights have been optioned. Are you planning to read the book or watch the movie, if it does get made?
EG: Maybe I’ll read the reviews first, see if it’s any good. (Laughs) Obviously, one of the concerns is that she might end up lying or defaming me in the book—but worrying about it in advance isn’t going to help much.
CY: So who should play you in the movie?
EG: They’ll probably go with Steve Buscemi or something. I don’t think they’re going to find an especially attractive actor. (Laughs) Not that Steve Buscemi doesn’t have his appeal.