In this thrilling story of survival and anger, a woman has her whole life turned upside down after speaking out against workplace hostility–and inadvertently becomes the leader of a cultural movement.
Eliza Bright is living the dream as an elite video game coder at Fancy Dog Games, the first woman to ascend that high in the ranks—and some people want to make sure she’s the last. To her friends, Eliza Bright is a brilliant, self-taught coder bravely calling out the misogyny that pervades her workplace and industry. To the men who see her very presence as a threat, Eliza Bright is a woman who needs to be destroyed to protect the game they love.
When Eliza’s report of workplace harassment is quickly dismissed, she's forced to take her frustrations to a journalist who blasts her story across the internet. She's fired and doxxed, and becomes a rallying figure for women everywhere. But she's also enraged the beast comprised of online male gamers—their unreliable chorus narrates our story. Soon, Eliza is in the cross-hairs of the gaming community, threatened and stalked as they monitor her every move online and across New York City.
As the violent power of the angry male collective descends upon everyone in Eliza's life, it becomes increasingly difficult to know who to trust, even when she's eventually taken in and protected by an under-the-radar Collective known as the Sixsterhood. The violence moves from cyberspace to the real world, thanks to a vicious male super-fan known only as The Inspectre, determined to exact his revenge on behalf of men everywhere. We watch alongside the Sixsterhood and subreddit keyboard warriors as this dramatic cat-and-mouse game plays out to its violent and inevitable conclusion in this thrilling story of resilience and survival.
Release date: April 13, 2021
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Print pages: 416
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We Are Watching Eliza Bright
Normally, we wouldn’t see her. On any other day, we would see only the city and its more standard occupants. Windy City. Every detail of it. The buzz-crackling of electricity in the power lines, the flickering neon signs on bars and lazy lights in shop windows closed for the night, the tooth-splitting bright fluorescents winking in offices sixteen stories above us. Cars speeding along four-lane drives or crawling down one-way streets. Strange public art no one asked for. Our own reflections in the buildings’ glass windows; sun bounces off those windows during the day and the streetlights take over at night. A man-made jewel, always glittering. And of course, we would see each other. The city is never empty. So perhaps less like a jewel and more like a galaxy. Constant motion. The bakeries are where we meet; the coffee shops and street corners; the stoops on buildings we know and those we’re only dimly familiar with; the walking lanes on bridges, the docks, the old factories, the parks. We are all over every part of it, and we are talking to each other. Or fighting with each other. Or laughing with each other. Or laughing at each other.
Even the most villainous among us would, in the end, choose to protect the city. If you see something, say something, and all that bullshit. Well. We would say something. Because we love it here. It is a novel place. Endless space.
Normally, we wouldn’t see her. She would be hidden, visible only to her friends. But then we do. And here is where we start: a shadow stalks Circuit Breaker. A tall silhouette stands out against the reflecting, refracting sea of electric stars echoed in the windows. It looks like a paper doll cut from deep space; the outlined figure is where light goes to die. It is Black Hole, and we know him well. A supervillain. He punches at nothing and she appears, falling to the ground. She is a stereotype. Tall and enboobened, her figure tightly hugged by her ever-present supersuit in burgundy and black, with a shock of blonde ponytail atop her head; her mouth is pert and perfect. She is such a stupid character; we gasp when she appears. It is like sighting a rare bird, even if she is a dumb cunt. “What the shit?” she says from the ground and scrambles to her feet as fast as she can. She puts her hands up, ready to fight. Electricity gathers around them; her superpower. Generic. She is angry. Good.
Two others appear next to her. They are just as exciting to witness, just as rare. The first, a Black man we know as Runner Quick. Where Circuit Breaker’s even curvature epitomizes symmetry, Runner foils her with his imbalanced body: his legs are massive, muscular. To understate it, he can run. He can run around the world and not even feel winded. He adjusts his goggles. His scarf blows in the wind; he is in love with the way the orange streetlamp light backlights it, how it glows, the sound it makes as it snaps in the breeze. He knows its red silk looks great against his brown skin. He becomes aware that he is now more visible and puts his hands on his hips like he is posing for a magazine.
The third figure is ugly and she says something shrill: “Now that was fucking uncalled for, what the motherboarding Christ was that about?” It is Chimera the Protector. Chimera, like Circuit Breaker, is another sort of balanced creature, though she looks cobbled together by a chaotic God with no sense of aesthetics or respect for anyone who must lay their eyes upon her. Her hairy ape arms are large enough to be another set of legs. Curled up on her back like two sleeping animals rest a pair of large, black bat wings. All this melds elegantly into a gold-skinned androgynous head, angular in the face with hair as black as clear ice on tar. The result of these disparate parts of people and animals is a hero reasonably good at almost everything: strength, flight, brains and brawn. Skill points in all the right places. When it comes to beauty, she’s like a taunt, unconcerned, in our direction. We would rather see Circuit Breaker naked.
Black Hole drops to the ground as another supervillain saunters up next to him. Doctor Moriarty. We know him well too. A perfect gentleman. His blonde hair is neatly parted and swooped as if he is an advertising executive; he wears a grey suit, a pipe peeking from his front jacket pocket. His gun, oversized and expensive, glows a brilliant green and purple. He laughs maniacally. A deep mua-ha-ha. Like he’s been practicing.
We start to show up in earnest now: people in nondescript suits and glasses, pencil skirts and sensible flats, librarian sweaters. Though we are dressed as our alter egos, we know each of us is a superhero or maniacal villain; every last one.
We hear Chimera say, “Really, Lewis? Really?”
“Suzanne!” says Doctor Moriarty. “You’re not supposed to use real names in-game.”
It is not as though the illusion is shattered. There’s not, if we’re honest, truly an illusion. It simply is. Guilds of the Protectorate is a skin on top of our reality. A dual truth. Just as real as meatspace. We live in a time where almost everyone has at least two bodies, and the second life is far more thrilling than the first. We are watching Circuit Breaker get the punch to the back of the head she deserves; we are watching Eliza Bright, who is controlling this avatar from her apartment in New York City. Both are true.
theyr gonna go
i think they work here
runner quick op
black hole ftw
10/10 would staff brawl again lollllllll
We clamor. We type and shout and hoot and scream and we do it so loud that the shutter click is almost inaudible. Zoom in on one of us, the psionic private eye prone to walking through walls. He wears a trench coat and a close-cropped high-and-tight haircut. In Windy City, he’s known as The Inspectre. He doesn’t carry a gun; he carries a camera with a cartoonish flashbulb. He deals in secrets, information. We know who to talk to when we need dirt on rival guilds, secret cabals, Avenger-esque bespandexed groups. We wonder how he keeps track of it all—it can’t be due entirely to his character stats, he’s too fast. He appears anywhere the Fancy Dog Games employees appear, at any time of the day or night. He is always replete with facts and rumors about the company, the game itself. So many questions: Does The Inspectre ever sleep? Does he have a brain that catches facts and keeps them like fireflies in a jar? Does he have a wall full of photos with red string between each face? Is he, perhaps, actually an investigator-for-hire in the “real” world? Is he more than one person playing on the same account? We will eventually come to know exactly who he is, but for now, let’s maintain the suspense. The telling is half the fun.
Runner Quick says, “Y’all?” and turns outward to face us. The group notices our presence. Not The Inspectre’s, per se, but the truth is we don’t need him tonight. We are all watching. And it dawns on each of them, even Black Hole and Doctor Moriarty, that our involvement in any fight could go either way. “Maybe cool it?” Runner continues. Circuit Breaker drops the electricity around her fingers.
“Fine,” she says, and the group slams the invisibility function back on. Friends only. To the rest of the world, Circuit Breaker and her cronies may as well not exist. We groan and our frustration shakes the glass and the cabs and the very sky above us. We begin to disperse, to wink into our own invisibility or to sign off. But not all of us. Never all of us. We’re always here, on the internet, eyes trained on our cast. On Twitter, Reddit, even in Windy City, we can find out a lot. And what we don’t know, we can guess; or we can ask; or we can invent.
Let’s jump to the next morning: Eliza is the first one of the three-person team to arrive. She gets in the elevator, ascends to the fifth floor, one above where she used to work in the Quality Assurance department. Fancy Dog takes up two floors in a larger office building. Three, if we count the existence of the test floor (which we aren’t supposed to know about yet). Preston Waters moved his company in and renovated the shit out of that place. He transformed what was once stodgy cubicles and solid walls with cheap doors into a glass and wood open-plan paradise; now it looks clipped from a brochure for the latest, hottest startup. Perhaps because this is, in fact, the latest, hottest startup. Those few walls that exist are lined with framed art of classic superheroes, villains, and contemporary reimaginings of comics past. We are so jealous from our shitty day jobs, our challenging high-stakes careers, our school desks, and we stalk staff selfies on Twitter, repost to subreddit, swoon; what wouldn’t we give to work there.
Eliza is exhausted, having not slept all weekend. Fancy Dog Games has a tradition—when someone new joins a team, he picks something to do, a new feature with a pie-in-the-sky design document or an update or a fix. “To keep everyone on their toes,” the CEO says. Eliza is coming off the nonstop weekend of Red Bull and heavy metal coding playlists. She wants to prove herself; it doesn’t matter that work is hectic. Given the confluence of Holiday and the huge secret project we shouldn’t know about, the one that will be announced shortly, she wasn’t required to partake in this particular tradition. But here she is anyhow, having volunteered. An overcompensation for being new or self-taught or shitty at this or the girl. Or all of it. Being a hero in the hope no one will notice ineptitude of any kind.
She rush-completed her part of a brand-new feature, a massive fucking lift, in a mere seventy-two hours and then stayed up late to play the very game she works so hard on. Even we acknowledge it’s impressive, if compensatory for other shortcomings. She powers on her computer, a new workstation with different software and a view of the city if she turns and looks over her left shoulder, which she does and grins. She is so proud of herself—she said she’d rise in the ranks and she is well on her way. Her first hours on the three-person development team will be marked with a splash. She is going to kick ass at this. Kick ass and take names. Or perhaps she won’t even take names, she won’t have the time for it; she’ll be one big ball of forward motion, rocketing toward her goal, toward the reveal and release that we aren’t supposed to have a clue about. She takes a deep breath, signs herself on to the server and stares at the screen.
//80085. Fleishman will fix.
Below is a section that she is responsible for: code that allows players to bone each other in the game, a feature we’ve requested since time immemorial, an update we’ll all later call the sex patch.
She scrolls down and sees //80085 scattered throughout, on all her code, everything she’s done that weekend. There are some other comments as well, in the sections that aren’t hers: //JP section, consent (y/y, n/n) and //team two plug in here and //VD point values lol. But only on hers does she see the mysterious code number, always associated with the word “fix.”
This is her first assignment—they’d asked her what she wanted to do, and she’d picked this. Already it is borked. She is mortified.
Eliza allows herself a moment to feel the sour cry-feeling behind her face. Imagine: a pout on her rodentish lips. When Eliza was little, about second grade, she was on a class trip to the Museum of Natural History. This kid, she can’t remember his name, pointed at one of the prehistoric rat skulls and started calling it Elizasaurus. She stood there, looking at the rat skull with its pushed-forward teeth, and wanted to refute the claim somehow. But when she put her hand on her mouth to check, she found she couldn’t think of anything to say. The boy wasn’t wrong, after all. Eliza is a six on her very best day.
She breathes deeply, pushes the crying feeling away. She counts to ten, puts her hair up and clicks the file open. Someone’s set up the text-editor skin so that all her code writes hot pink on a pastel pink background. She rolls her eyes and changes it to navy and cream—still gaudy, but not pink.
The code in the local copy is flawless. “Oh fuck yes,” she says in a relieved hiss to no one at all. She checks Github. People changed it after her—there, there in the logs. That must be what 80085 means, she thinks: accidentally garbled during edits.
We can’t believe she doesn’t see it, say half of us.
See what? say the other half of us. Those of us who get it make fun of those of us who don’t. But for the sake of brevity, let’s move forward.
When Jean-Pascale Desfrappes and Lewis Fleishman receive Eliza’s email, they aren’t JP and Lewis. They are Black Hole and Dr. Moriarty, and they are getting some supervillain time in before work.
Jean-Pascale created Black Hole, Destroyer of Light. Originally, he dressed him in an all-black bodysuit and a black mask, but after working at Fancy Dog and befriending someone in art, he changed to the now-familiar silhouette with glowing orange eyes. His appearance was so popular after the switch they contemplated adding a silhouette option, standard, for everyone. Jean-Pascale badly wanted to be the only one with this kind of avatar, so he volunteered to, once yearly, turn NPC for a spell and run a server-wide evil campaign. Black Hole became a canon character, though minor and only on one server. His uniqueness was left alone.
Most people refer to Jean-Pascale Desfrappes by his full name, but his girlfriend and co-workers occasionally call him JP for short. He has shoulder-length, curly ringlets, a little bit greasy in texture. Jean-Pascale’s height rebels against that of his parents: for some inexplicable reason, he is six feet and four inches, while every other man in his family halts at five feet and nine inches. When Jean-Pascale moved to the States, he converted this popular conversation topic out of the metric system to be better understood. Because he still thinks in the metric system, however, he makes sure to write the new, foreign numbers down in the back of his notebook, and glances at it until he has them memorized. When asked why he constantly carries a composition book, he replies “pour les idées,” which is honest, but he doesn’t mention the running list of phrases in the back. Cold shoulder. Wild goose chase. Ice breaker. A perfect storm. Royal borking.
A note on Dr. Moriarty: We love Lewis Fleishman. He is just like us. He’s been playing so long, the sheer amount of resources at his disposal is dizzying. The gentleman can make anything happen with the power of purchase, and he never uses meatspace currency to further his digital fortune. He is an old-school gamer—everything is hard earned by fantastic strategy and finesse. Often he laments the casual iPhone games where levels and items are bought with “real-world” money. As such, their lair is spectacular.
It could probably be said that Lewis’s character looks the least like its creator out of everyone we follow in this story, and we are of course counting Chimera and Black Hole. At least Chimera retains Suzanne’s wavy hair. At least JP matched Black Hole’s height to his own. We suspect Lewis invented Doctor Moriarty (no tagline) by selecting the diametric opposite of everything about his own physical presence. Where Lewis is short, Doctor Moriarty is tall. Where Lewis has frizzy brown hair, Moriarty has a neat blonde style, almost British schoolboy. Lewis is doughy. Moriarty is buff. Lewis dresses in tee shirts and jeans. Moriarty is never without a suit. Lewis does what other people tell him. Moriarty tells other people what to do. Lately he is striving to change this last part, to be a little more like Moriarty in his bossness—having Jean-Pascale around, someone who’s so obviously a skilled gamer and who does what he says, helps.
Because Jean-Pascale plays a canon character and is, thus, always visible, we can go into The Lair when they’re not there—sure, their stuff is locked down, but we call on them like they are British aristocracy. We gawk at their things, their architectural acumen, their nefarious ideas; living vicariously is fun. Or we avoid it, a few of us. Some of us are good. Some of us play superheroes. Some of us wouldn’t be caught dead here.
It is underground, The Lair. Three floors. The topmost, an entrance with a fountain in the middle. It is nondescript, chrome, and a little mall-like; a more expensive imitation of the rest of our houses, apartments and secret places—that is to throw people off. If those who don’t know what they’re looking for stumble in, they might stumble out just as quickly. But we know better.
The next floor is Doctor Moriarty’s, and if he hadn’t bunked up with Black Hole, we wouldn’t get to see it. We are grateful for his sacrifice in privacy; his aesthetic is ripped from the pages of A Study in Scarlet: a perpetually lit fireplace, a springy-but-worn red rug, a stag’s head on the wall. Even a violin on the mantelpiece, strategically placed with the hunting trophies.
“That is a little messed up,” Black Hole said when the Doctor first put it there.
The Doctor just shrugged. “Sherlock Holmes is kind of a prick and he had it coming.”
Off Moriarty’s floor is the treasure room—we can’t get in there, but we can see it if we maneuver ourselves up against the wall and change the camera view to third person. It is arranged with care to resemble a cross between Smaug’s cave and Scrooge McDuck’s safe. Performative; they know we are watching. Maybe not at this moment—it’s difficult for anyone to imagine, unprompted, a burning spotlight in specific moments—but in general, they’re aware.
And then comes Black Hole’s floor, which features smooth-sliding doors and a physical (as well as chemical) laboratory. Catty-corner, an old-timey gurney that recalls the days of unfettered institutionalizations in primitive asylums. “Dude, you think my violin is messed up?” the Doctor said when he’d first noticed the gurney’s presence. He’d pointed at it. “That’s really fucking messed up.”
Jean-Pascale had just arrived from France at the time, and Lewis was extremely welcoming so he tried some slang he’d heard around. He began his sentence with “Nah, brah,” and it felt like he’d shoved a bunch of marshmallows into his mouth. But Lewis hadn’t even laughed, so he kept going. “It is just part of the décor. The atmosphere. We are playing a game, and we are playing as villains.” The gun safe lies just beyond, and it is impressive. They have enough firepower to take over the world. We wonder why they don’t.
We are like tourists in a museum, but it is enter-at-our-own-risk: Doctor Moriarty is so rich in-game that he’s rigged all the floors with wires that can electrocute a character with one press of a button; he carries that button with him, and uses it whenever they come home. Most of us can do a room, maybe, before we get nervous and flee. Nowhere is safe in The Lair if you aren’t one of those two.
Case in point: Lewis says, “Ugh, shit.” He presses his button and fries two of us, forcing curses and respawns he will never hear or know about (except of course when he picks up the possessions we unwillingly leave behind). “Check your email,” he continues, as he collects the drops and double, triple checks that none of us remain in The Lair.
There is silence, and Black Hole stops moving. Then: “Shit.” And it sounds a little like “sheet” with his accent.
“Listen, we know that shit is fucked. I put it in myself,” Lewis says. “I bet she’s fucking lying to save face. I had no idea she was on the server.”
“I thought we had to enter her patch because she wasn’t?”
“Don’t they give her, like, orientation or something?”
“Apparently no.” Jean-Pascale collapses Black Hole into a chair and has him turn on a jazz record. The tinny sounds of false horns signal relaxation time. Their tongues loosen accordingly. “It is frustrating,” he says. “We are not running a school.”
“It’s got to be some quota thing,” says Lewis, kicking off his role-playing as his character kicks off his shoes, dons slippers and a smoking jacket. Normally Lewis is hardcore into role play, no job stuff or real names or anything in-game. But it is his lair. He can change the rules whenever he likes.
“There were always two kinds of girls at my university, back in Paris.” It is strange to picture Black Hole, Destroyer of Light, going to university in Paris. Or it isn’t. “Either they were total bitches to us or they tried to trade us.”
“They’d have sex with us and then get us to help them with their work.”
Jean-Pascale smiles; American humor is a bit different from what he is used to, and even though he’s been in the US for a while, he likes when he gets it right. “I don’t know what it is about girls who go into games. I guess they have to be a bit different from other girls, since normal girls aren’t that interested.”
“We should have had a week without her on the server. Not just a weekend.”
It is JP’s turn to snort. “Or a fucking warning.”
“If they were going to let her on that fast, she could’ve done all that work. We shouldn’t have had to do it.”
“Fancy Dog School of Coding. We are the training wheels.”
The conversation continues as the rest of us, those who avoided the frying by clinging to the ceiling, sign off in fear of discovery.
Eliza’s face is hot after hitting send on the email. Even the space behind her eyes is hot. It is a ridiculous thing, she thinks, to be embarrassed about, given it was not ultimately her fault. But she is embarrassed all the same. It’s a fast fix, putting the clean copy back on the server, but she internally falls down a spiral staircase, wondering if she deserves that promotion.
Or she doesn’t find herself mortified at all; she doesn’t have any sense she even should be embarrassed for throwing the team off-kilter, for blowing a hole in the SS Fancy Dog mere days from a huge announcement. She cares only for the job title on the website, is secure in the fantasy that the borked code was perpetrated entirely by Lewis and JP. She doesn’t once think about her promotion the week prior. She simply embodies a false confidence, knowing well they need a woman because nowadays society forces us to hire them, and she can’t be fired or demoted unless something truly egregious happens. Fucking with camaraderie or code won’t matter. This, the second option, sounds more accurate to us.
Let us break it down: Fancy Dog Games. The name of the company has an “s” at the end, but it is an aspirational plural. They only have one game: Guilds of the Protectorate, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game. And honestly? One is enough to support the weight of our fandom, that’s how good a game it is.
Guilds, as it is called by its acolytes, obsessives and creators, is similar in gameplay to World of Warcraft, but we think it’s even better. It’s got an equally (or more) devoted following. What is different, though, is the world. MMORPGs are frequently flavored with orcs, wizards and knights—largely not our thing. Guilds’ world contains superheroes and villains, high-rise buildings and underground secret layers set against the grit of Windy City, a fictionalized mashup of Chicago and New York that borrows liberally from each real-world landscape. Players can choose to be heroes or villains, but it is far more complicated than that. There is more to alignment than Good and Evil: The Lawful Good of a Superman, the Chaotic Good of a Batman; The Chaotic Evil of the Joker, the Lawful Evil of—actually, Eliza can’t place a Lawful Evil supervillain; she has trouble wrapping her brain around the paradox that is “lawful” and “evil” describing the same character. She thinks perhaps the best example is Emperor Palpatine, but hadn’t he overthrown the actual law, or found a loophole in it? Was he truly deserving of “lawful” if he didn’t adhere to the spirit of the law? Or perhaps Eliza can think of a million Lawful Evil characters. Perhaps she disdains them the most—rigid and cruel, and she doesn’t like to think of herself that way. Either way, she never chooses to put herself in their shoes. We know she’s never made a Lawful Evil villain. Not very self-aware of her.
Though we have the opportunity to play both heroes and villains with unlimited character creations, according to the analytics, most individual players choose to play only one type of character—one moral alignment—no matter how many we make. We are part of the Protectorate in their individual shards or we are trying to shatter the world, laughing maniacally.
The game was a surprise hit—the company started as two dudes dicking around in a university computer lab. “We just wanted to make a game that we wanted to play,” says co-founder Preston Waters in his interview on The Daily Show, from back in 2014. Eliza gets a kick out of watching it every so often—he looks so shocked, like he wants to reach out and touch Jon Stewart to make sure he isn’t made out of pixels. The once-shy coder is wide-eyed. He looks tired and energized, nervous and elated. “We didn’t know it woul. . .
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