Gaming

Sexism and harassment in the games industry isn't just about big names: the entire culture must change


Content warning: This story contains upsetting content. Reader discretion advised.

For the second time in less than a year, the games industry is experiencing a wave of Me Too allegations, and the scale of the problem is staggering. Esports, streaming platforms, game development, journalism: wherever you look, stories of sexism and harassment are finally emerging after years of silence and pain. At long last, some of those who abused their power are facing consequences for their actions.

The accounts are often shocking, but for many working in games – particularly women and non-binary people – the revelations come as little surprise. Sexism and harassment is rife in the industry, and the cases being publicly discussed are merely the tip of the iceberg. I’ve been awed by the bravery of survivors who have named their high-profile abusers, risking online harassment, friendships, or their entire careers to do so. Removing powerful abusers remains essential in making the industry safer, and it’s important that this vital work continues. There is a tendency, however, for the media to focus on big-name predators while failing to address the underlying culture that enables them. These incidents are not a rarity: they are endemic. Every young woman in games has a story.

I know this because within two months of joining the games industry, I experienced physical sexual harassment. Later that year at my first E3, someone offered me a paid opportunity as an excuse to get to know me on a personal basis, before sending inappropriate flirty messages. As a young woman new to the industry – in the first case, still an intern – I lacked contacts or support networks, and was desperately afraid of speaking out for fear of being branded a troublemaker. I feared that talking to someone would damage my career before it had even begun. I was vulnerable, and they knew it.

The emotional toll this took on me cannot be overstated, as it continued far beyond the moment itself. The self-doubt, fear and taboo surrounding the subject meant I didn’t tell anyone, even my own parents, until many months later. I made excuses in my head to justify it, and blamed myself for “overreacting”. I felt immense guilt for remaining silent, worrying I was being selfish by leaving other people vulnerable to his harassment. Every time the Me Too movement reappeared in public discourse, I would feel torn about whether or not to finally come forward, to the point where I would feel sick.

I eventually spoke out, and the man responsible for sexually harassing me was held accountable for his actions. Encouraged by the bravery of other survivors, I recently added my voice to the many who are sharing their own experiences, a process that has finally brought me some relief. But between my story and others, it’s clear the games industry has a culture that enables this abuse. And that needs to change.

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The underlying issues here are massive. Sexism and workplace abuse are problems across wider society, and aren’t going to vanish overnight. They’re also tied to significant structural problems in the games industry. Everyone’s desperate to get their foot in the door, recommendations are important, and many jobs are unstable or poorly paid (just ask indie devs, freelancers or those who’ve been through layoffs). People are enthusiastic about games, and that passion can be exploited. The industry’s instability gives abusers incredible power over their targets, allowing them to make serious threats (either directly or indirectly) to the survivor’s finances and career aspirations.

And I’m not sure where we even begin to tackle these entrenched economic issues. It’s likely with public discussion, unions and industrial action. The industry is starting to move towards this, but there’s still a long road ahead. In the meantime, we should be aware of the power structures at play, and make an effort to support the most vulnerable in our industry. There are changes we can make right now – so here’s how we start.

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From my experience, and those of other survivors, it’s easy to trace common themes. Targets of sexual harassment or abuse often tend to be people new to the industry: those without connections who are potentially more isolated, who haven’t heard whispered warnings about specific predators, and are desperate to get a foothold in a competitive industry. Tied to this there’s often a financial element, with the perpetrator in a position of power over the career of the survivor. And, as with both of my experiences, abusers are often enabled by the heavy drinking culture.

It’s time for the industry to admit it doesn’t just have a harassment problem – it has a drinking problem. It’s a culture that encourages people to drink far beyond their limits, with an emphasis on bingeing in order to network or bond with coworkers. Nearly every social event in the industry has alcohol as its focal point, and it’s during these events that we see some of the worst behaviour. The pressure to drink means predators can take advantage of victims while they’re in a vulnerable state, while also ensuring the predator has a get-out clause of “being drunk” (which shouldn’t be a valid excuse, anyway). Making the situation worse, those new to the industry are told they must attend these events if they want to break in, and that making contacts is the best way to advance your career. It’s a toxic combination that produces toxic results.

One of the most immediate changes we can make is to ensure alcohol is not always the main focus of events, and that when it is present, people are encouraged to drink responsibly, while those who remain sober feel equally welcome. As we’ve seen during the coronavirus lockdown, it’s perfectly possible to host virtual networking events which provide a much safer and more inclusive environment for newcomers. It’s a cultural shift that requires not only event organisers to rethink their plans, but everyone in the industry to recognise that glorifying binge drinking is contributing to the problem. I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve been told an event was “legendary” due to how drunk everyone was – and it’s frankly ridiculous that heavy drinking has become so normalised at professional events.

Another obvious area for improvement is the persistent imbalance in the number (and pay) of women compared to men in the games industry. In the IGDA’s 2019 developer satisfaction survey, the global ratio sits at 71 per cent male to 24 per cent female, with three per cent non-binary and two per cent preferring to self-describe (and four per cent identifying as transgender in a seperate question). Last year’s UK gender pay gap report found the median wage gap had reached 18.8 per cent in the 19 largest games-related companies. These problems aren’t just limited to games development, too, as Eurogamer itself has previously been criticised for gender imbalance, and across games media very few women hold leadership positions.

This isn’t just about evening out the numbers for the sake of equality, as having a more diverse workplace provides essential support networks for those who are vulnerable to abuse. As more women joined Eurogamer over the past two years, I’ve gradually found more people to talk to about these problems. Prompted by the Me Too movement in games, we’ve been able to discuss our experiences and provide each other with support. Having more women reduces the chances of isolation, and provides opportunities for informal whisper networks so women can advise each other. In some companies, such as Riot, the emergence of toxic work environments has been attributed to a lack of women – and in particular, a lack of women in leadership roles. That’s what the pay gap data shows: not that men and women are being paid differently for the same work, but that women aren’t yet properly represented in the top spots, which are the ones that can really affect company culture. As I covered during my reporting last year, some of this is due to talent pool issues, but progression remains a problem and the industry could do a far better job at training women into senior roles.

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On this note, companies need to think carefully about the support available for employees who experience harassment either internally or externally. Something as simple as making sure reading materials on the reporting process are easily available to employees can make a huge difference. Having a robust and transparent HR policy to deal with complaints ahead of time means that when something does happen, mechanisms are already in place to deal with it fairly. Training employees on how to behave appropriately, and how to spot abuse, may seem painfully obvious – but unfortunately it’s still necessary. More importantly, all these measures show employees you take sexual harassment complaints seriously.

And then, there’s the thing that has plagued gaming for many years: the continuing problem of toxicity both in-game and in gaming communities. If companies and platforms fail to moderate their communities or hold players accountable for their actions, you end up with a toxic culture where abusers feel they can get away with it. An example of this appeared in the Team Fortress 2 community in 2018, where community members who had experienced online abuse said Valve had failed to properly moderate the community for years, thus creating an environment where online harassment was normalised (and likely helped set the tone for harassment at real-world events). Revealing the scale of the problem, surveys in both 2018 and 2019 revealed one in three female gamers have experienced abuse from male counterparts, with 14 per cent receiving rape threats. It’s hard to separate the abuse we’re hearing about within the industry from what we see online, as it all feeds into a broader culture where women and minorities are made to feel unwelcome, and harassment and abuse is the norm. It forms yet another barrier to women who are considering joining the industry. And if a games company fails to even attempt to ensure its community is welcoming, you have to wonder whether the same carelessness is being shown towards its internal culture.

It’s another hugely difficult problem to solve, particularly as toxicity goes beyond in-game comments into communities hosted on platforms outside of a single company’s control. Encouragingly, more publishers and developers are now researching ways to tackle the issue (such as through the Fair Play Alliance), yet it’s clear there’s still much to be done.

While working towards these long-term goals, there are steps we can take as individuals in the short term. Within the industry and online, we have a responsibility to call out toxic behaviour when we see it. In discussions with industry contacts, I’ve heard about inappropriate comments at studios going unchallenged because people are afraid to rock the boat. We’ve got to start holding people accountable: as awkward as it is, telling someone they’re out of line could prevent worse behaviour later on. Calling out even “small” things discourages the kind of environment where bad actors feel they can get away with it.

But more than anything – and this is something everyone can help with – we need to reduce the stigma surrounding the topics of harassment and abuse. That means listening to survivors when they discuss their experiences, and taking them seriously. It means talking with your kids about how to treat others with respect, knowing the meaning of consent, and who to tell if they experience harassment. I’d never considered the possibility it could happen to me, and felt totally under-equipped for how to deal with the aftermath.

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It also requires understanding why it’s so hard for survivors to come forward, and in particular, why it’s so hard to formally report to HR or the police. Some have criticised survivors for naming abusers online instead of going through formal channels: but if you’re an indie dev or freelancer without a HR department, knowing that going to the authorities is often ineffective and your abuser is a celebrated figure in a close-knit industry, what sort of choice do you have? It’s a last resort, and not a good one, given it could damage your career as you become known as “the person who made those allegations” instead of being recognised for your actual achievements. Not to mention there’s the potential you could face legal threats, or online abuse.

And in case you needed further convincing about believing survivors, most studies agree very few allegations of sexual violence are false. As an example, research by the Ministry of Justice in 2012 found less than three per cent of 1149 rape cases were perceived to be malicious allegations. Due to changing attitudes, it seems more survivors are coming forward to report cases than ever before: and yet according to last year’s figures, they have less of a chance of seeing their attacker referred or convicted in court than they did 10 years ago (via The Guardian). The Me Too movement is not about extrajudicial trial by social media: it’s a demand for currently-failing systems to hold people to account, and for accountability in the gaps where those systems don’t exist at all. It’s a wake-up call for the authorities, companies and the industry as a whole, intended to flag the scale of the problem.

There are areas which I haven’t fully been able to cover with this piece: I’ve spoken of the issues from my own experience of sexual harassment, but there are those who also have to deal with the added complexities of racism, homophobia and transphobia. As we’ve seen from some survivor accounts, men can also face abuse, and patriarchal ideas of masculinity and the fear of being seen as “weak” can prevent them from speaking out too. Esports and streaming communities have their own structural issues, including problems with creator-fan power dynamics and a lack of accountability. It’s vital that these topics continue to be discussed in the coming weeks and months.

Yet still, I think it’s clear it’s not enough for the industry to condemn the big-name abusers and continue as normal. This is an opportunity for everyone to think about what they can do on both an individual and organisational level, and act on it. We need to make it more than a moment.

I want to finish this piece with some advice for those in the industry who have experienced sexual harassment or abuse, and currently feel unable to speak out. While whisper networks helped me, the most important thing was the very first step, which was to tell someone I trusted. It’s difficult, but talking lightens the burden tenfold. It makes it feel real. Sometimes, you just need another person to listen and say, “hey, that’s not ok.” Even if what happened feels minor in comparison to the abuse experienced by others, don’t write off your experience as insignificant.

In all honesty, I’m still worried about the potential backlash I could face for this article, even if it encourages others to speak out, or take steps to improve industry culture. That’s the thing about sexual harassment: it puts you in a position where both options are awful, and forces you to pick. For me, speaking up was a risk worth taking. It won’t help you forget – nothing can do that. But it might just let you move on.

Image credit: Emma Kent





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