Games developers must fight internet abuse together - MCV

Games developers must fight internet abuse together

Death threats and vile tweets have forced multiple female developers to leave home, and yet still the storm of harassment rages on. James Batchelor asks what the games industry can – no, needs – to do to stop this
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The games industry has failed to prevent the current deluge of abuse directed at developers and needs to find a way to stop it.

In the last two months, abuse against members of the industry has risen exponentially. Countless have condemned this behaviour and yet it still isn’t dissipating.

The abuse currently polluting Twitter and other social media is largely aimed at female devs – targets include Depression Quest creator Zoe Quinn and Giant Spacekat founder Brianna Wu – and often linked, though not always, to #Gamergate. 

The root of this self-professed‘movement’ are well-documented enough, with details of Quinn’s personal life leaked by an ex-boyfriend. But this incident has almost become irrelevant given the severity of threats levelled at victims. 

And, as Wu tells Develop, the hashtag is not the virus but the symptom of an industry that “has been a boys’ club for 30 years”.

“Everything about the games industry sends the signal: ‘this is a space for men’,” she said. “When players are repeatedly shown that women are sex symbols and damsels in distress, is it any surprise that players go on to treat women poorly in real life?

“Gamergate feels like it owns the culture. Women and minorities are only welcomed if they keep their identity silent and don’t try to change the status quo. If I am a feminist, I am an outsider trying to steal their games – even if I am an avid gamer and a developer.”

The fear instilled by the abuse hurled at Wu and her peers is spreading. Multiple female devs refrained from contributing to this article for fear of attracting the same attention, and games designer Katie Goode says it taints everything she does to raise her professional profile.

“I worry about becoming known to people outside the industry,” she said. “As I gain experience in speaking, writing articles, publicising my game, I am increasing the risk of abuse. 

“I stopped playing online games years ago. I couldn’t see why I was putting myself through the torrent of abuse, and sexual messages. Today, instead of them directing their abuse at a gamer tag, they will be contacting me directly, by email, Twitter, Facebook, and maybe anyone else that associates with me.”

Women and minorities are only welcomed if they keep their identity silent and don’t try to change the status quo. If I am a feminist, I am an outsider trying to steal their games – even if I am an avid gamer and a developer.

Brianna Wu, Giant Spacekat

ANTI-SOCIAL MEDIA

22Cans’ head of production Jemma Harris adds that such behaviour has grown worse as the internet has seemingly bred “a faceless culture that thinks it’s okay to do this”. 

“Over the last 20 years, as the internet has become part of daily life, people have in turn felt its their right to use it however they wish,” she said.

“The behaviour, however, has had an effect defined as the ‘online disinhibition effect’. Sometimes people forget there are human beings on both ends of a message, post or tweet. We need to re-educate people that what they are witnessing from themselves is actually anti-social.”

Even in the light of proposed legislation to extend prison sentences for cyberbullies to two years, Fable creator and 22Cans founder Peter Molyneux – no stranger to outspoken critics – says impulsive human behaviour is unlikely to be so easily dissuaded.

“It’s very simple to be sitting on a bus and thinking ‘that stupid fucking cunt, I can’t believe he said that’ – and those words playing on your mind just go through your thumbs,” he said. 

“You won’t think about prison sentences, or even think you’re offending people. You throw a post out there without really understanding the consequences. It only needs to be retweeted a few times – it could start as a conversation between your friends, and end up being front and centre of some huge case.

“This is the whole Pandora’s Box of the internet that we’ve opened. I’m a great advocate for absolute freedom, but we as a society have to realise there is a price for that: instant accessibility means you can get good things and bad things – and that’s a bitter pill to swallow.”

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Twitter is orientated in a game-like way for people to get noticed. The way you do that, just like any bully, is to bully until someone responds and that’s what is happening at the moment.

Peter Molyneux, 22Cans

Wu remains hopeful that the games industry can redeem itself, even now that harassment is “disproportional to the issues at hand” and “threaten the entire field, men and women”.

She said: “The effect defeating Gamergate would have is incalculable, one of this field’s most historic moments, remembered as the moment games development said: ‘This is going to have to get better’.”

Molyneux argues that it is not just the games industry, but the internet and social media that needs to take responsibility. 

“This has been going on for years,” he said. “The trouble today is it’s more public. Twitter is orientated in a game-like way for people to get noticed. The way you do that, just like any bully, is to bully until someone responds and that’s what is happening at the moment.

“The whole of social media is in transition. What will it be like in five or ten years’ time? Twitter could become a very frightening place for anyone to be. 

“Twitter doesn’t want that, so what is it going to do to make this less open and less abusive?”

INDUSTRY ACTION

But far from waiting for Twitter to clamp down on this abuse, many agree it’s high time the games industry took a stand.

Wu says: “I want to be very clear about this: You might see Zoe Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian and me as the main people talking about this, but every woman I know in the field is scared and terrified,” she says. 

“They’re scared they will be next. They’re scared their colleagues will shun them if they speak up. They’re scared to enter the field in the first place.

“The choice is clear. We either address this as an industry, or we lose a generation of women in development. This harassment is worse in games development compared to other fields like journalism or even the wider tech industry. 

“A recent Massachusetts study showed that women make up about 20 percent of programmers in tech overall – but we’re only three percent of programmers in games. Same resume, same skills, same people – why do so few women choose to work here? We need a long hard look in the mirror.”

Develop has carried out our own research on this. You can find the results in our latest issue.

Goode adds: “The recent events have made me aware, if someone disagrees with me I’m potentially risking my life for my job and hobby.

“The industry can stand up to this. Joint statement of intent from publishers and developers, great and small, will show that it’s not ‘just about the press’. The abusers can stop reading sites and playing the odd game, but we all say enough is enough – then they either listen, or face not playing anything.”

Sadly, publishers have been slow to respond to the situation. Not a single publisher offered comment to our sister publicationMCV on this subject, while those who we contacted deflected our queries to trade bodies such as the ESA, UKIE and TIGA.

Many of these bodies have issued statements condemning the abuse, while hundreds of Swedish game devs – including EA DICE, Massive and King – signed the #gamediversity petition, calling for equality and stating the industry “will never accept threats, hate, violence or sexism in the name of games”. 

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The gaming industry must adopt a level of professionalism and diversity commensurate with other industries. It’s time to look in the mirror and have an honest question about the consequences of keeping this field a frat house.

Brianna Wu, Giant Spacekat

Harris encourages more public industry-led campaigns to re-educate consumers on acceptable behaviour: “Take football: that industry ran ’kick it out’ campaigns and it increases visibility that racism is not accepted. Over time, this has dramatically improved the sport and behaviour of supporters, and now anyone stepping out of line has a consequence to their actions. Maybe this is where the games industry needs to be.

 “But individual developers cannot do this alone, the big players need to lead and all of us need to come together. It feels like we are waiting for something bad to happen before we react. It’s not impossible, but it sure is a big task. So I ask the question to all games developers, where should we start?”

Wu concludes that this entire affair has distracted her from her career and her main priority, one shared by many a developer: making games.

“I worry every day what the long-term consequences will be,” she said. “My only hope is that my colleagues will understand the risk I’ve taken putting it all on the line and stand with me.

“The gaming industry must adopt a level of professionalism and diversity commensurate with other industries. 

“It’s time to look in the mirror and have an honest question about the consequences of keeping this field a frat house.

“That’s the long-term solution. The short-term solution is for everyone in the industry, from journalistic enterprises to publishers and developers to unequivocally denounce this movement.

“When Gabe Newell received a death threat from a Steam developer, there was instant coverage and consequences. Why are the women here not treated with the same respect?”

DEALING WITH ABUSE

With internet bullying unlikely to disappear any time soon, attention must be given to how it should be handled. 

Having dealt with threats and abuse throughout his career, Fable creator and 22Cans founder Peter Molyneux offered the following advice:

“When you’re creating something, it’s all about confidence and it’s very easy to get your confidence knocked by a string of abuse. Especially when you feel powerless to do anything about it. It’s like going back to the playground. I was bullied at school and this elicits the same sort of emotions in you: the feeling of being defenceless and voiceless.

“What you have to be careful of is if you ignore it, just like any bully they’ll up the stakes. If you keep posting but totally ignore the essence of it, you can turn whole communities against you. 

“What I try to do is unpick the salient points. Very often, people can get offended about things and start ranting, and just like anything they forget what they’re ranting about in the first place. Returning to that original point logically can help dampen emotions. 

“Sometimes it’s best to just close down the hatches for a while and let it die down. With any fire, whatever material you throw into it, it’s going to fuel it. It’s very tricky thing, for our industry and just about any other.

“I wouldn’t for a second suggest that these comments should be censored, because that’s censoring the internet effectively. You’ve got to deal with them, and your community and the people you follow are often the best defence against that.”

What you have to be careful of is if you ignore it, just like any bully they’ll up the stakes. If you keep posting but totally ignore the essence of it, you can turn whole communities against you.

Peter Molyneux, 22Cans

Meanwhile, Codemasters’ Rich Eddy says the firm actually has a social media policy for its employees to help them avoid provoking such anger from consumers.

“Codemasters aims to create a working environment that is free from sexual, racial or any other form of discrimination, harassment or bullying for everyone across its teams,” he said. 

“On the online side, we have an experienced community team that work tirelessly to manage our passionate communities on our own and external forums and though our social media channels. In addition, they advise on the social media policy that runs throughout the company. 

“Most importantly, they offer face-to-face social media training for anyone who wants to add their voice as part of our social channels, advising on best practice, tone of communications and explaining potential reactions to social media posts and how to deal with them and the people behind the accounts. 

“Ultimately we have a zero-tolerance policy on all abuse, no matter where it comes from nor what form it takes and perpetrators are dealt with robustly.”

This feature was published in Develop 155: November 2014, which is available now.

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