It's been a year since a new kind of threat to game development seemed to reach a fevered pitch: Fans harassing the people who make the games they so love.
Last year, Polygon spoke to developers, both named and those who wished to remain anonymous, about the increasing regularity of that harassment and how, for some, it was the reason they left the game industry.
The problem was so pronounced that the International Game Developers Association was weighing the possibility of creating support groups.
So what difference has a year made?
Not much, it seems.
Developers are still harassed, the IGDA decided against support groups but are creating a special interest group to investigate mental health. It is also looking at ways to train gamers to be more polite in their interactions with developers.
If there is any positive surrounding this issue that has come out of the past 12 months, it's the impact that harassment had on some of those most notably affected. In talking with people like BioWare's former writer Jennifer Hepler and Microsoft's Adam Orth, they tell us that the ordeal gave them a much needed sense of perspective about life and the Internet and led to good things for them both personally and professionally.
"Apparently, it made me a bit of a name in the field," Hepler told Polygon in a recent interview. "I've had a lot of people recognize my name at GDC or online, luckily all from people who were very supportive of me and my writing! I haven't experienced any further harassment, so I'm grateful for that."
Last year when we spoke with Hepler she had just left BioWare to begin work on a book about narrative design.
She said her departure from the company was for "family reasons."
But before leaving she endured a maelstrom of threats, all tied to a dated interview in which she mentioned that her least favorite part of working on the game industry was playing through games and combat. That post, dug up by Dragon Age 2 fans upset about the game, turned Hepler into the focal point of their rage. She was, one person wrote in a forum post, the "cancer" that was destroying BioWare. The forum post and Hepler's reaction launched a wave of hate that included emailed death threats and threats against her children. Despite the negativity, threatening emails, and harassing phone calls, Hepler said at the time it was a mostly positive outcome because she received so much support as well.
These days Hepler works on Game of Thrones: Ascent from home for a small company where she doesn't have a lot of direct contact with the wider industry or fanbase.
"It's hard for me to say whether things have gotten better overall," she said. "I will definitely say that GDC this year seemed to have a lot more women than I remember seeing in the past (still nowhere near parity, but a significant 20 percent or so at a guess). There were a lot of female speakers, especially in the Narrative Summit, and the audience for them was respectful and enthusiastic. The panels on diversity in the industry were packed and received tremendous support. So, I think that things are starting to change a little bit and I think that articles like Polygon's, which call out the problems, have been very helpful in making companies think about diversity in hiring and diversity in who they represent in their games (Assassin's Creed aside)."
Hepler believes the best way to deal with harassment is through diversity in hiring and in the games themselves.
"Name-blind job applications might be a good place to start - Jon Oliver recently tried staffing his new show using name-blind applications and ended up with the most diverse writers' room in late-night TV," she said. "When game companies only hire people with industry experience, or with personal connections at the company, it means they end up with a homogeneous group of employees, who then often go on to make games that appeal mostly to people just like them."
That said, Hepler doesn't think those issues have changed in a significant way.
"But I think that awareness is increasing and that diversity is the biggest issue in gaming," she said. "More companies are realizing that including female, LGBTQ and racially diverse characters is a relatively inexpensive way of increasing their audience. As casual games explode and show that players aren't part of the arms race for better graphics, more and more companies will have to realize that reaching out to underserved audiences is the most cost-effective way to increase sales."
"A healthy perspective on humanity"
Neither Greg Zeschuk nor Stephen Toulouse were up for participating in this article. Last year, Zeschuk talked about watching the flare-ups of harassment occur in an industry he had so recently left and how he believed dealing with online abuse was now an integral part of being a game developer.
"I do think there are good, passionate people who get dragged into it and it makes their lives miserable," he said at the time. "Making games is stressful enough, just making them, without having to worry about this.
"The impact of having all your brightest creators losing steam and going, 'Screw this,' it's not good. It's not going to lead to good stuff."
Zeschuk told Polygon this month that he's so out of the loop when it comes to game development, he didn't think he'd have much to say. There aren't a lot of new milestones for him and his new job running a blog about beer.
"I'm still doing beer-related stuff but I have some ideas about doing a brewpub based in Edmonton area," he said. "I'm doing a bit of game consulting, and on the board for Rumble Games."
Last year, Toulouse talked about how he still received death threats two years after leaving his job as head of Xbox Live's policy and enforcement.
"The root cause of the problem isn't in what we do, making games, it's that there are so little consequences to this wildly violent approach of communication that we are simply one audience of many that are subject to this type of focus," he said at the time. "There's no real penalty right now."
Recently hired as the director of community engagement for Gears of War developer Black Tusk Studios, Toulouse said he was too busy adjusting to his new role to discuss the issue again.
But Adam Orth, who declined to talk last year, did chat a bit with us about how his life has changed since his run-in with online harassment.
Orth, a Microsoft Studios creative director at the time, provocatively tweeted about always-online consoles in April in the thick of growing trepidation about that possible requirement for the Xbox One. The tweets spurred death threats, an apology from Microsoft and international news coverage. Orth left Microsoft about a week later.
In January, Orth begin showing off his new thing: A game created by his recently formed studio that turned his social media disaster into an evocative lost-in-space story. Adrift landed a publisher in April to release the first-person experience game in 2015.
While Orth says he still gets harassed online, he believes he's changed as a person over the past year.
"In terms of harassment, it's still happening to me, but on a much smaller scale which is almost worse in some ways," he said. "You have these long periods of 'everything is OK' and then out of the blue somebody violently lashes out and you are back to square one, down in the pit with them. Crawling back out is easier, my skin is much thicker now and I usually operate with a 'it can't get any worse' attitude, but I'd be lying if I said it doesn't get to me."
On some level, Orth deliberately avoids paying attention to online harassment. It's too painful to examine.
"I know what that person is going through and I'm trying to move forward," he said. "I spend very little time on social media and when I do it is for much different reasons. Mostly, I use Twitter and Facebook sparingly for professional updates and Instagram for personal/family stuff.
"I also take multi-week/month-long periods and just unplug. Doing this has given me a much-needed and healthy perspective on humanity and internet culture. I find when I go back, that I haven't really missed anything important enough to feel left out of the conversation. I missed some birthdays or maybe some exciting news from colleagues. Anything really important makes itself known in other ways. The world keeps turning."
Harassment of game developers hasn't changed significantly from a year ago, said Kate Edwards, executive director of the International Game Developers Association.
"The anecdotal evidence indicates that it remains an issue but we haven't seen a marked increase, or decrease, in the behavior," she said.
Though now developers seem more aware of the potential issue lurking out there, she said.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU ARE BEING HARASSED
- Do not retaliate
- Keep evidence of all harassment
- Alert your work
- Contact police
- Report abuse to service providers such as your cellphone service provide, Twitter and Facebook
- Contact an attorney about a possible civil suit
- Speaking with trustworthy friends about what you are going through could be cathartic
- Do not befriend the cyberbully
- Block the cyberbullying at its source
- Change your email, phone number, or online account completely as a last resort
"I would say the most significant factor is the previous incidents have raised awareness of this issue, so more developers are likely taking some precautions about how they interact with the gaming public," Edwards said. "I wouldn't cite harassment as a major factor in people's decisions to vacate the game industry for another field. Based on the findings of the IGDA's 2014 Developer Satisfaction Survey, working conditions within the industry easily remains the top reason for any brain drain."
While last year Edwards said that the IGDA would be looking into the possibility of starting up support groups for developers who feel they are being harassed, the association ending up finding out that an explicit harassment support group wasn't really in demand. Many of the developers are finding support through their local IGDA chapters, Edwards said.
"We are in the process of creating a Mental Health Special Interest Group that would encompass issues around harassment," she added. "We're hoping the Mental Health SIG will look into issues like harassment and how it affects game developers. We are also exploring methods by which we can educate game players on how they can and should interact with developers.
"The IGDA takes any action against game developers very seriously, so as with last year, we'll continue to pay attention to the harassment issue in all its forms (based on a game's content, the developer's gender, etc.). If we determine this issue becomes a critical impedance to game developers and their craft, we'll certainly step up our activities in this area."
Adam Orth doesn't have high hopes that harassment is going away.
"As long as we people have opinions and a way to voice them consequence-free on the internet, I don't think there is much that can be done," he said. "Kind of makes you wish for simpler times."
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