The Gaming Industry Continues to Hurt Its Most Vulnerable
Sexual abuse allegations against industry juggernauts are just the tip of the iceberg.
There’s discussion of sexual assault, rape, suicide, and child molestation in the following paragraphs. Read at your own discretion.
Few in the gaming industry have shown a greater capacity to commit the unthinkable than men in positions of power. As eerily hard as it is to evaluate corporate culture on mere basis of a few isolated incidents, the rate at which women and non-binary people have been coming out to decry the dirty hand they’ve been dealt by men — and so far only men — in the industry should clearly tell us that this is far from a fluke. It’s an issue if left unchecked, could see women and non-binary folk completely flee the industry as their recourse for reform keeps being met with skepticism and retaliatory disdain.
This bore out as several key male figures came out under heavy fire for sexual abuse, gender discrimination, and inadequate pay–mostly targeting women. Game designer Nathalie Lawhead spoke out publicly about her experience in a blogpost titled a straight-forward “calling out my rapist”. In it, she speaks of a harrowing story about working at an unnamed Vancouver game studio with composer Jeremy Soule — whose resume includes Knights of the Old Republic and The Elder Scrolls — where multiple personal interactions ranging from mildly-concerning to deeply-inappropriate, and a professed unhealthy relationship with sexual vices and preferential treatment by the company’s CEO, all eventually culminated into Lawhead being forever emotionally scarred after being raped. The most gut-wrenching part of Lawhead’s testimony was perhaps when she talked about contemplating suicide, after the compounding damage of being raped and denied payment came down tumbling like an avalanche of pure self-disgrace:
I was seriously considering suicide. I had tried once and failed.
I realize what it means to admit this, and talk about my mental state. You can say that I was “sick in the head”, and they where well in their right to do this.
I was never “sick in the head”. EVER. What made me sick was being raped, and treated like expendable trash. What made me sick was that my work was good enough to take, but I wasn’t good enough to pay or credit.
Vocalist Aeralie Brighton shared a similar bone-chilling story about Soule sending her a video of himself masturbating, only to be cut off from the project she was proposed to work on when her reaction was disgust, and not approval.
What Lawhead and Brighton experienced isn’t an anomaly. It’s not an aberration; and it’s definitely not a bug in the system–it is the gaming industry working as intended. And it would be the defining tone for many testimonies to follow shortly in the coming days.
Zoe Quinn — who wrote about her experiences with Gamergate and had worked on multiple indie projects including Depression Quest — unloaded about what could’ve only been described as a contender for the scariest horror movie script of all-time. Alec Holowka who’d worked on several technical aspects of Night in the Woods, including the score, took advantage of Quinn when she was at her most vulnerable. Exploiting her tricky visa situation, Quinn was practically imprisoned at Alec’s flat in Winnipeg. She was denied the apartment codes all-the-while having to put up with degrading rhetoric about her own person and experiences in intimacy, as Alec continued to air out a facade of normalcy in public. When she eventually left, Alec made sure to leverage that toxic dynamic against her, denying her opportunities she would’ve otherwise had a much better chance having without the undue emotional labor he put on her–blaming her among other things, for him wanting to commit suicide. Matt Thorson who worked on Celeste and TowerFall in the past corroborated Quinn’s story, saying their indie studio had previously cut ties with Alec due to similarly-irreverent behavior. Noel Barry who also worked on Celeste and was personally close to Alec co-signed Quinn’s testimony in light of the allegations she made.
Echoes of similar treatment came from Splash Damage’s Luc Shelton, who worked as a tools programmer for Gears of War 4 at The Coalition. Adelaide Gardener told the story of being sexually assaulted by Luc, citing multiple counts of gaslighting and guilt-tripping when they were in a relationship, bookended by a horrifying encounter where Adelaide was handcuffed until she was physically hurt. Since departing his apartment never to return, Adelaide still has to live with the trauma of having been subject to what Luc dubbed ridiculously as having a “dominant nature”–all as a valid pretext for incurring long-lasting emotional damage he shouldn’t have been able to in the first.
To be a woman and even have a cursory interest in the gaming industry seems to be a magnet for creeps and predators. Game writer Mary Kenney shared a story to that effect, talking about a time prior to her professional career, where she flew out to a gaming convention hoping to get a shot at connecting with relevant faces in the industry. Kenney’s unfortunate encounter was with a man who weirdly didn’t account for their industry credentials, asking in a fit of puzzling motivations to convene with her back at his hotel room. She’d declined the invitation, but the man was not deterred, instead lunging to kiss Kenny against her own will. Distraught by the encounter, Kenny was shaken, reluctant to even share the story with her then-boyfriend now-husband by fear of being dubbed unfaithful. When she got her first gig in the industry, Kenny first hesitated–why sign up for a life that you know is only going to bring undue grief? Fortunately, her experiences from there on out proved only more positive, and now she’s working at one of the most renowned names in the industry —makers of Marvel’s Spider-Man Insomniac Games — who’d just recently enjoined Sony’s growing roster of first-party studios, providing her and her colleagues greater job security, and a much better shot at evading the oh-so-loathsome crunch as a result.
Most of gaming’s iconic faces were not spared the test of ethical fallibility, as evidenced by the founder of Failbetter Games Alexis Kennedy being doused in multiple thick layers of allegations of sexual misconduct, corroborated by seasoned writer Leigh Alexander, and her colleague at Red Queens, Meg Jayanth. According to Meg, Kennedy’s victims are aplenty, and were scared off of outing him given his unique position in the industry. Jayanth decided to break the seal of silence out of fear that Kennedy may exploit more women, recounting multiple stories of having professional boundaries violated when she was younger and looking for a chance to break into the industry. After Jayanth shared her testimony, Kennedy retaliated with threat of legal action. Having witnessed Kennedy’s comments, Olivia Wood — game writer and editor at Failbetter — mirrored Jayanth’s remarks about Kennedy’s patterns of abuse, saying that after two years of being serially cheated on in the middle a relationship with him, he broke up with her, turning into a verbal and physical abuse machine at work, much to her performance’s detriment. Olivia’s experience with Alexis left her constantly second-guessing her abilities, but it was only after the courage of several other women that she felt emboldened to share her experiences. Spirit AI’s CPO Emily Short also cast her hat in the ring, claiming she’s not surprised given what she knows from proximate whisper networks surrounding Alexis Kennedy.
The chronicles of men losing all semblance of control over their behavior when drunk have become common courtesy at this point. Senior QA Specialist at Failbetter Lesleyann White shared a story of sexual assault by an intoxicated man at a work party, citing other instances of sexual misconduct by a powerful figure at Jagex, which made it even harder for her to perform the best at her job as the potential for being blacklisted by the industry early on was very real.
In that same vein, Marketing Director at Owlchemy Labs Autumn Rose Taylor talked about the often-humiliating experience of being at a gaming industry event — especially for women — where alcohol is a regular serving. Taylor recalls a time at GDC, still in college, where her new-found passion for VR pushed her to see what opportunities were lying ahead at such a gathering, only for her to be surprised at how indiscernible fraternization and professional interactions were. At the event, Michael Antonov — co-founder of Oculus — offered to show Taylor unreleased demos at his hotel room. Excited by the opportunity, she took it, only for it to end in horror after Antonov took advantage of the situation and initiated inappropriate physical contact while Taylor still had her VR headset on. Taylor immediately started to question her decision to come back to the industry after she’d been scared off by a similar incident, but even as she continued to push, that would not have been the end of her woes. After Taylor spoke out, Senior Game & Narrative Designer at Riot Games Katie Chironis shared a similar story within Oculus’ premises, greatly raising concerns about a culture of systemic misogyny at the company.
Autumn Taylor wasn’t the only current Owlchemy Labs employee to have experienced harassment in the past. Far from it. Carrie Witt who works as an Art Director for the studio shared a similar story about working in another networking event — PAX East in this case — where a notable figure in the industry — Marc ten Bosch — had encroached upon professional boundaries and made her deeply uncomfortable, leading her to prematurely leave the event that day. Overnight, Bosch tracked Witt down, leading him to the PAX East booth she worked at, where she made it explicit again that she was not down for his company. This made it impossible for Witt to ever reconcile having to go to a gaming convention again, and in the few times she did, her suspicions were confirmed true at each and every turn. The conventions where most would go to have fun became her worst nightmare, and it’s all because a man could barely keep it in not to violate her personal space.
The gaming industry appears also to not have made an exception for skeevy old men seeking out much younger women in manners all-too-disgusting. Indie developer Grace Bruxner — currently working on the game Frog Detective — celebrated her female and non-binary colleagues’ tenacity in the face of great pushback. When coming forth with her own testimony, Bruxner recalls a time at GDC where an old man kept following her around the conference, only daring to approach when her partner wasn’t around. Grace had also been on the receiving end of a great deal of creepy advances, wherein she had to cancel an event she’d traveled a great deal to attend when a developer mentioned being a fan of hers and promising not to touch her, unprovoked. And in a case of the uncanny, yet conceivably-true in an industry as male-centric as the gaming industry, a developer kissed an image of Bruxner in front of her and her partner, called often to have face-to-face conversations with her, would inappropriately stare at her chest, all-the-while undermining her and her partner’s performances at the company they used to work at.
Think being uninterested in men might slightly alleviate that? Think again. Game writer Rebecca Drarry divulged about her experiences in the gaming industry without specifying details, but her account of men begging her to accompany them to a nude beach just to prove to them her feminist credentials borders the line of unlikely insanity, that it’s just within the realm of possibility this would happen on a frequent basis. Even as Drarry insisted to her male colleagues that she’s a lesbian — therefore not all interested romantically or sexually in what they have to offer — the advances kept coming like due payments for an emotional nuisance you didn’t even sign up for.
Even when women perform an executive function, it doesn’t guarantee them to catch a break. Duke Felicia — who works at the Australian chapter of the Game Workers Unite union — cited her experience as one of the main reasons online games developer Funcom had to come up with a sexual harassment policy. Felicia would get her shoulders massaged, her chest looked at inappropriately, and often receive sexist criticism on the basis that she couldn’t handle the job by one of her male employees. To make matters worse, Felicia almost picked up the habit of being an alcoholic, showing up to work drunk just to emotionally stomach the abuse of her fellow colleagues.
Elsewhere in extremely-poor-working-conditions land, developer Chucklefish — responsible for making Starbound — allegedly didn’t pay ex-employee Damon Reece a single dime for their hundreds of hours of labour. What’s perhaps most-baffling about this story is that Damon was 16 when it happened, constituting very clearly a violation of British labor law. Artists and game developers Samanthuel Louise Gillson and Fetalstar picked up on a similar pattern when they were working at the company; and composer Clark Powell declined to work for Chucklefish under similar circumstances after the director told him in blatant terms, that it was going to be unpaid.
Alexis Trust who previously worked at Microsoft’s gaming division Xbox and is currently Account Manager for Attention Seekers Productions, shed a light on the issue of child predation by telling the story of having been molested by a well-connected man in the industry. When inquired about it on text, the response was a mere “Yeah. Shit. :(“. The bluntness with which the abuser responded to the victim’s concern did not go by unnoticed, and it is in some way a confirmation that no mountain is far too steep for abusers to climb.
And if the rot of game companies’ mistreatment of minorities, women and non-binary people was not enough, ex-lead developer for the cult classic Cuphead Tony Coculuzzi talked about a traumatizing experience working for indie darling Ken Wong. Coculuzzi was subject to horrifying working conditions under Wong’s lead. Feeling stuck in an impossible situation after he moved to Shanghai to work for Spicy Horse, Tony chose subservience over retaliation. It’d cost him everything. Every semblance of joy and mental integrity started quickly dissolving, as Ken broke every confident bone in Tony’s body. After years of dealing with depression as a result, Tony could only be grateful to work his hobby with Farah Coculuzzi at Wilder Games, but it’s still a stern reminder that toxic workplace culture can contribute a huge deal to the stress game developers have to deal with every single day, especially in as vulnerable as a position as Tony was in.
The stories above are only a sliver of what’s been shared over the last few days, and it’s an indication that the problems plaguing the gaming industry are far-reaching. There’s clearly something rotten at the core here. Whether it’s labour issues, or the surgically-predictable way with which women and non-binary people are treated, the industry seems to be exhibiting a serious case of unmitigated mismanagement.
Game creative and writer Jessica Price — who notoriously weathered a harassment campaign resulting in her firing by ArenaNet after she rebuked patronizing sexist criticism by a male game critic — foretold this happening months prior. Her timely proposed solution is two-fold: The first is that victims need to be protected, so sharing their stories publicly may become less of a liability, and the second is that the marginalized and underprivileged — especially women of color — should become included in whisper networks where the actions of abusers are first uncovered–even if their efficiency remains heavily under question.
The fallout for the perpetrators has been fairly minor so far. Night in the Woods developers cut ties with Alec Holowka, as did gaming music label Materia Collective with Jeremy Soule. Aside from these two instances, there’s no indication whether justice will be delivered to the dozens of developers who spoke out publicly about their harassment, or the luttany of others for whom justice remains an aspiration, not a goal within immediate reach.
What remains to be exacted however, is collective justice for women and non-binary people in the industry, who’d been coerced under a culture that made their concerns feel secondary to men continuing to flaunt about their power unchecked. It’d been told that the gaming industry isn’t yet ready for its imminent moment of reckoning with #MeToo — or the grander landscape of gaming labor issues as a whole — but it has to happen regardless if the winds of good fortune sway its way. That this persists, is primarily due to men choosing silence over assuming responsibility when the deck is clearly stacked against them, and it continues to fuel the continued worry that some women have over being denied professional opportunities to further their own careers if they happen to cross over the wrong specimen.
It doesn’t help that the conversation surrounding gaming in the mainstream media has been largely subsumed by erroneous claims that they’re an immediate cause of mass shootings, or a funnel for the youth into gambling–playing to the soft tissue of child hurt, without considering what would happen to these children if they ever decided salivating over Fortnite wasn’t the extent of their interest in video games.
The gaming industry’s distinct ability to resist outside change has made it particularly resilient to efforts of reform, no matter who or what is instigating them. What’s sure to come of this however, is a greater focus put on the ability of men in positions of power to exercise their privileges responsibly. To wield them as a tool to make women feel safer in an environment that feels increasingly more hostile to them. But until that change is made on a systemic level, instances of women and non-binary people being treated like fecal matter will only continue to occur. Enough is enough; change is due now, and no one should be content until an industry-wide initiative is taken to remedy these issues. And if all else fails — an albeit dysfunctional — American legislature has to intervene.