An Interview with Shannon Sun-Higginson

Shannon Sun-Higginson is a Philadelphia-based producer, director, and editor. Her first feature documentary GTFO, about women in the video game industry, was funded on Kickstarter, premiered at SXSW 2015, and has been featured in The New York Times among other major publications.


Shannon: Thanks for having me Betsy and Justin, and for recording us, Jason! My name is Shannon Sun-Higginson and I’m a documentary filmmaker. I’m here today to talk about my movie GTFO — I don’t know what the rating is on this podcast. “Get the F out”.

Betsy: You can speak however you’d like.

Justin: Please.

S: It is interesting seeing, when I do a screening, which people actually say “Get the Fuck Out” and which people say “GTFO”. When we premiered at South by Southwest, one of the screenings that we did, the ticket-taker at the front was just standing in front going “Get the Fuck Out?” just to confirm that people were going to the right movie and I was like: “You might be…sending some people away.” But that’s okay.

B: I’m curious, then. Is it “GTFO” or “Get the Fuck Out”?

S: It’s really up to whoever feels like it. I didn’t really consider having a curse in the title so much, but I knew that a lot of people would probably prefer GTFO just when you’re promoting it for a school or something like that. It just sells a little bit better and then we have posters and things and I’ve actually talked to people who’ve shown it to their kids, not really small children but aged 12-15 and kids who are starting to play online games and stuff like that. Just to introduce them to what that world is. Particularly, mothers of sons seem to be the people most interested in this. When they see the movie they’re like, “That better not be my kid.”

But yeah, I think it gives a hint as to the content of the movie, so in a way that’s good because [the movie] certainly has pretty violent language in it.

B: I think that’s definitely reflective of the behaviour we’re seeing in the actual documentary itself. I know that was a question you had Justin, about—who is the intended audience of this? Are you aiming to talk to the people doing this or the people who are being harassed or are you more…thinking future, like how can we stop this behaviour?

S: I mean, it’s kind of for everyone. This is something that I talk about a lot, but I approached it from a filmmaker-documenting, highlighting, activist- standpoint, and so I was kind of thinking of it as a movie for people kind of like myself when I first started making it. People who are interested in feminism and social justice—Social Justice Warriors, as they are somehow derogatorily called? It doesn’t really make sense, a warrior is an excellent thing to be—but people like me who didn’t know about this part of gaming and that this world existed. I kind of wanted people like myself to start paying attention to this very scary thing that is happening to a lot of women. And as it progressed I realized that there are tons of other people that I would like to watch the movie.

My favourite feedback to get is “Oh, I thought I was the only one who got messages. I haven’t been talking to anyone about it, I’m the only girl I know that plays games so I can’t talk to my girl friends about this. I don’t talk to my guy friends about this because they’re not experiencing it so I didn’t actually realize that it wasn’t just me.” That makes me feel good—I mean, it actually makes me feel bad—but it makes me feel good. Which is a big part of this movie, I guess. And mothers is a really interesting group that I had not thought about targeting and I don’t know, I think if you are the type of person who is sending that kind of message to women online you probably don’t want to watch the movie. I do get review bombs—I was mentioning it to Betsy earlier—but people giving it one star on iTunes and referring to scenes that didn’t exist and subjects that weren’t in the movie. So they’re not actually watching it. I would prefer if they at least hate-watched it and then told me what they didn’t like about it.

B: Like actual feedback, instead of “I hate Zoe Quinn”—not actually in the movie.

S: Yeah!

J: I just assumed that they were poorly programmed bots when I was reading it because the professional reviews were all quite positive.

Returning to the question that Betsy was asking, I was wondering if there was an audience you were looking to speak to or an audience you were hoping to speak for? Or was it more “I want to talk about this,” and is there a difference to you?

S: I definitely wanted their stories to speak for themselves; I tried to not put too much of a twist on anything. The way that the movie is structured is kind of like video game levels. Each level gets harder, and there are so many obstacles that women encounter and they come from so many different places that I kind of wanted to frame it like that. That was an easy way for my editors and I to cut down a lot of the content and figure out what we were going to focus on.

But a lot of these people were sharing really personal stories and I just wanted these stories to speak for themselves, so I definitely don’t think of this as representing all women. I tried to get a range of people and a range of experiences. Some people who have had overwhelmingly positive and excellent and accepting experiences. And then people on the opposite end of the spectrum who put bullet-proof glass in their houses and had to call the police and have restraining orders against people. It ranges quite a bit. So in terms of that I just tried to get as wide a swath as I could. To that end I also got casual gamers, game critics, game developers, writers, professional gamers. So I tried to get a range of how people could get involved in games as well.

I don’t necessarily think that the people who are sending the messages are doing that. But hopefully the friends of those guys watch it, or some of their friends. And I think that’s a really important group because those are the people that can stand up and say “Hey dude, I’m not gonna play with you if you say that. That’s really uncool, cut it out.” I think misogynists don’t really listen to women but they do listen to other men.

B: Yeah. It’s definitely a case of using the power and the privilege you have in that situation and in that relationship to stand up for other people who are unable to. And that’s one of the largest pieces of allyship you can get. So to be an activist and to galvanize a community —  to help take steps against this — that maybe otherwise wasn’t seeing the problems or taking it seriously…that’s really amazing.

What got you interested in doing this? You’ve said that you didn’t consider yourself a hardcore gamer, so what made you think, “This story needs to be told, this is a documentary”? You’re a filmmaker, so how’d you get started with this?

S: Well, I still don’t consider myself a hardcore gamer, actually [laughs].  Yeah, a friend of mine just told me about the story that bookends the movie. There’s the young woman, Miranda Pakozdi, and she was sexually harassed on camera during a live stream of a fighting game tournament by her coach. My friend, who is very much involved in gaming, sent me that video. It was a 15-minute cut-down of all of the harassment over the course of a couple days and I was shocked.

B: Yeah, it’s horrifying stuff.

S: Yeah, it’s really scary. And one of the scary—I mean, the whole thing is very unpleasant— but one of the scarier parts is…well, who stepped in? Did Twitch come in, did Capcom come in and do anything about this? What are those other guys doing? They’re just kind of sitting there not saying anything and so that was the part that really shocked and also interested me about this topic. What is acceptable in this culture? And does everybody think this is acceptable and are people doing anything about it?

So yeah, I just picked up a camera and started filming. I really didn’t know what I was doing, I thought maybe it would be a short or something. A YouTube video? And I guess it just snowballed. I had a full time job the entire time I made the movie. It just escalated. And I guess a lot of these women hadn’t really been asked about this before. I think they had been asked, “What is it like to be a girl gamer?” But they hadn’t been asked, “What has your experience actually been? Is it positive? What can people do?” So I think it was a very organic process. I would talk to one woman and she would say, “Oh, that wasn’t so bad! I have a friend who does this, she works for this major game, and do you want to talk to her? I can put you in touch!” And it kind of just grew and grew, and then I did the Kickstarter, which worked. So that was a really important part of it because you need money to make a movie.

B: Yeah. And I think the kind of organic process you’re talking about makes a lot of sense because when you talk to women in gaming communities, we’ll all say “Oh, we’ve all got one like that, we’ve all got a story like that.” So the fact that it could grow that easily unfortunately speaks to how common it is. But it’s also really, really isolating like you said where people will think, “This only happens to me,” or, “This is the worst part of it and it’s not that bad, I just need to toughen up and deal with it.” Obviously that’s normalizing it in a way that’s not helpful for anybody, right?

J: But I also think that most male gamers would have a story where they’ve seen it happen as well. Like, I definitely have. And I know lots of people have. Just…random people being awful is something that’s not foreign to me or other people that I know.

I guess I’m just curious…you found there was a general readiness to talk about this subject? And then there was obviously blowback as you were saying. What do you make of that divide, if you don’t mind me asking?

S: The readiness for people to be interviewed about it?

J: The readiness to talk about it and the readiness for people to try and block that discussion.

S: Well, I was actually really surprised at how forthcoming these women were. A lot of them invited me into their homes, I met their families, and every time I went into an interview I always was very cautious and I said: “If there’s anything you don’t want to talk about, if it’s too personal, if it’s sharing too much information about you that you don’t want out there, just let me know. Even if you say it and you wanna take it back, that’s also fine. Whatever you’re comfortable with.”

And nobody had any problems sharing their personal stories. I think a lot of them…I don’t know if this made it into the movie, but I know that some of them talk about fellow women in games as war buddies. They tend to all know each other. If there’s a really big case of harassment that gains a lot of media attention then they kind of just all end up swapping these horror stories with each other. So they kind of know each other. And I think that sense of camaraderie was something that sustained a lot of them through these really traumatic events.

I had one “no” in all of the times that I was asking women to talk to them, and it was a really friendly no.  It was like: “Oh, thanks for asking, no thanks.”  I was surprised by that. I thought it would be much tougher and, personally, I don’t think if something like that happened to me, I don’t know that I would be willing to share it. So I was really, really thankful because that’s obviously the heart of the movie. That’s the important emotional content, right? Their true experiences and how it made them feel.

For blowback afterwards, I don’t know. Yeah, people are going to send you things. There’s not much you can do about it. Not that I’m immune to those comments by any stretch of the imagination—you can’t prevent your body from going into fear mode when somebody threatens you online—but at the same time I kind of build a protective wall around myself by making a movie about how women are getting harassed because it’s very hard to say, “Women don’t actually get harassed in this business, you bitch.” You have to pick one or the other, so people do. Sorry, I’m kind of repeating our conversation earlier.

B: I’m glad we’re talking about it!

S: But when I was doing the Kickstarter there were a lot of attacks like: “This movie is terrible,” and I’m like, “It doesn’t exist yet! Just watch it and then hate me later!”

J: Please try harder.

S: And there’s a lot of stuff like “FEMINAZI PROPAGANDA,” “This is making it up,” and “Men get harassed as much as women.” Review bombs, like I said. So there are things like that which are kind of to be expected. But I don’t know. Compared to what these women experienced, I haven’t gone through even a tiny percentage of it, and it’s ultimately not about me. It’s not my industry, so if everybody in gaming or whatever—if all these guys who send these messages–if they all hate me, that doesn’t actually impact my work life or my daily life because I’m not a gamer. It’s not scary for me to go to work knowing that somebody in my industry sent me a threatening message last night.

B: That’s a good point.

S: I don’t know, for me personally that didn’t have a major impact either way. Although I did kind of know I was painting a target on my forehead, but I was like, “Oh, that’s fine.” I don’t know. People make great content all of the time knowing that people are going to be really mad at them and you just kind of have to live with that.

B: Yeah. The message being more important than the…well.

S: The consequences, I guess? I don’t know.

B: Yeah. It’s so unfortunate that we —Justin and I — we work in an industry and a culture that would punish you for saying something like that. Feeling like pointing out these problems makes you the problem, which is something that Sara Ahmed talks about in Living a Feminist Life. You point out the problem and you become the problem. And I definitely see that kind of thing in what you’ve been describing and talking about in a way that’s, like you said, not working in that industry probably makes it a little easier. But you shouldn’t have to expect it, it’s ridiculous to have to expect harassment for pointing out a behaviour.

S: Yeah.

J: Especially one that has so much documentation.

S: I know, it wasn’t hard. It was actually hard to whittle it down to the content. You know, you could just have a ten hour movie that is purely just messages. It would be very boring though.

B: It would be very sad. It would be rough to listen to all that in a row.

So, when you look at the professional criticism, not the “feminazi” review bomb criticism and things like that. Justin pointed out that there were some terms being used frequently: “frightening” and “optimistic”.  Frightening is pretty easy to see. What do you feel is the sense of optimism coming out of this?

S: So before this movie I wasn’t really interested in games. After speaking to so many scholars and theorists and writers and game creators — these really creative, amazing people — it actually made me like games a lot more. And I know that might be a bit counter-intuitive but I wanted that to come through in the movie. To say these people are here, they’re doing the hard work. Even if they have these really ridiculous obstacles that most people do not have to deal with, they’re still totally kicking ass in their chosen field. And so we should look to these women as an inspiration and let’s move forward and support them and encourage them.

I assume that’s what they’re referring to when they say it’s optimistic. But you can’t just look at it as: “It’s all depressing, terrible crap that’s happening to people all of the time,” because it is and it isn’t. People are also having great experiences and some people love what they do so much that they persist. So I think that part of it is optimistic and hopeful. I think seeing all of the different companies that are run by women, encouraging the hiring of women, different groups of women meeting up and gaming together and creating these safe spaces where they can talk about it. Different festivals, you know. There are all sorts of different things that people are doing to encourage diversity and it’s not just gender diversity obviously. But I think that’s something really great that’s happening. Once you start talking about it you can’t put it back away. So maybe that’s a hopeful part of that — that it’s out in the open.

J: It just occurred to me that perhaps having such trials and such hardships actually is the bonding agent that makes such a good community and actually paves a future where it’s optimistic. So maybe that’s the sense that’s coming through in the film as well. But it was in almost all the professional reviews that I could find, that there was “frightening” and “optimistic” and I was wondering if they were copying each other actually [laughs]. But I think that’s a really interesting…this was where that question of speaking to an audience and speaking for an audience came from. I guess I’ll put it this way: there’s a sense in all of the reviews that this wasn’t for the current generation of male gamers, but for the future one. Which you’ve, I guess, confirmed when you said that mothers are showing their sons this and that’s good because atrocious behaviour should be curbed over time.

B: Called out!

J: But I guess where I’m going with it is: do you see a path for the people involved in this now or is that already being paved by people banding together? And is that sense of optimism a result of seeing that there’s a way forward?

S: Yeah, so I divided it into chapters just discussing a problem, highlighting it, featuring victims, or survivors, or people who experienced this specific problem. And then at the end of each chapter talking about at least one person or group that was doing something to solve it. So I’m not really sure if your question is related to the people who are currently harassing versus potential future harassers. Is that kind of what you mean?

J: Yeah, I’m just curious if you think, personally, that it’s more important to address the potential rather than the current problem because if you weed out the potential abuse…then?

S: Yeah, I think nothing happens overnight. And so I think, as the culture of gaming moves forward , if every day one person decides, “Oh, I don’t think this is acceptable anymore,” then eventually you can re-enter society as people who have all agreed that sexism is bad, right? And this is something that I’m planning on talking about later because I think so much about this movie is almost obsolete now with the current climate in my country. It’s really bad. So, when I started making [GTFO] in 2012, I had assumed we had all agreed that Nazis are bad. Like, that’s not even a point that anybody would have to make. So I just feel like now there’s so much more out there, we’ve kind of gone backwards in a way. But not really backwards, it’s more just unearthing people that were already there. In terms of moving forward you kind of have to re-break the bone, in a way, just because nothing was really resolved ever. It’s just people were being a little quieter about it, and maybe a bit more cowardly and anonymous.

B: Complacent.

S: By that I mean the harassers used to be online sending horrible, derogatory comments towards people of colour but now they’re walking around and they don’t have masks on. So I think…I don’t even know where I’m going with this. Everything’s terrible, you guys! [Laughs] Where do you find optimism? Hm. Well, once you talk about it, it can only make it better, right? In a way it’s nice, because you’re like “oh that guy, that guy’s terrible. I know who it is.”

B: “I don’t want to be that guy.”

S: Yeah, rather than trying to find their IP address or whatever. I don’t even know what the answer is. Hopefully it’ll get better. I don’t know, things got so much worse since I made this movie that I don’t even know. This is now a tiny part of this major problem. I have a speech that I usually give before the movie, but I just wrote a new one because of the Pewdiepie backlash and I kind of wanted to talk about how we got to that from the atmosphere when I made the movie, which is…it was still considered humiliating to do that. You would have humiliated yourself by doing that, I think, in 2012. If you have a public persona and you’re an internet celebrity, that would have been embarrassing I think back then. But it wasn’t for him, that’s what I’m saying.

B: You can play “Excuse Bingo” on the internet for Pewdiepie. There’s a Pewdiepie Excuse Bingo grid. We can all play it later if y’all want.

But I know I, for one, look forward to a future in gaming where we don’t have to bond over having been harassed. I would like to see a community where we can all bond over loving games and not whether or not we underwent terrible, horrible harassment. Let’s call that optimism.

S: That sounds great!

J: I always thought that liking the same things meant that you could be friends but…apparently I was wrong. Shit.

B: One last question before we’ve got to go here: what other projects are you working on? You said you don’t necessarily always have to work in games just because you did this awesome movie in games. What other projects are you working on right now?

S: So as far as documentary is concerned, I thought that people sending death and rape threats online was a little bit too lighthearted [laughs], so I’m working on a documentary about a child who was murdered in rural Pennsylvania in 1999. It’s about the justice system. His fourteen-year old brother was convicted and sentenced to life without parole and he and the parents still contend that he is innocent. So it’s kind of an analysis of the justice system and also the impact of something like this on a small town, on the family. It was mentioned in Serial.

B: That’s intense but that’s awesome. It’s important to examine these large, systematic forces in our lives for sure.

S: So that’s what I’m working on now. It’s called The Whitman Project. And the reason it was brought up on Serial is because they initially had the same defense attorney, Christina Gutierrez, as Adnan Syed. So that’s the documentary that I’m working on. And then I just work on a lot of other stuff; I still need to have a day job, so I work in Philadelphia for a commercial production company called All Ages Productions, where I’m a producer. And I run a feminism group in Philadelphia. And I might be running for local office next year, so I do a lot of things. Also marching! A lot of marching. March and brunch, that’s the new trend. So that’s what I do. And I hang out with my cat! Most importantly, oh my god, how did I forget that?

J: What’s your cat’s name?

S: Minerva McGonagall.

B: Classic. Alright, well thank you! We’re out of time here, unfortunately, but thank you so much for coming in, for talking to us, and answering these questions. Shannon Higginson everyone! Activist, filmmaker, and all-around badass.

S: Thanks for having me!