Let’s Talk About Toxicity In The Games Industry

Content Warning: This is a discussion of how folks can help, in various spheres of the industry, in dealing with abuse and abusive behaviours. Since it mentions abuse, gaslighting, and abusers, I have chosen to content warn this piece for the good of the victims and survivors of abuse, whether in the industry or without.

It’s of no surprise to many readers of TMW that the industry has a lot of abusive, toxic bullshit out there. Developers, musicians, sometimes entire studios with varying levels of horrible behaviour, from sexual abuse and harassment to crunch (the overworking of employees to fit deadlines, usually due to poor project management, and the “We can replace you anytime” attitude prevalent within employment in the larger world), as well as various queerphobic, misogynystic, and fatmisia elements in games.

So I’m going to talk about that a little. Not the acts themselves, because the acts themselves speak for themselves, and speak about the people who commit such acts (yes, it’s not limited to men. Women’s spaces and queer spaces have this problem too, and this isn’t talked about as much). Instead, I’m going to speak about the roots of these behaviours, about things we do that we should not, and some ways of dealing with those roots. Some hard. Some soft.

Systemic Roots

To say there are many roots to the problems herein is an understatement. There are patriarchal elements to it, from poor education about things like consent and boundaries, to the cultural legacy of male-gaze advertising, pivoting to male-dominated spaces, the depiction of women’s bodies, and even to governmental attitudes (often patriarchal) about sex work, plus the rights of autonomy women, queer folk, and folks of colour have over their own lives and bodies. There’s a lot that needs to be challenged, but there are other, more subtle elements involved here: A lack of self-awareness and critical thinking. Two roots as to why this hasn’t been challenged as much as many would like.

Misinformation, from historical revisionism to loaded, bad faith rhetoric, has always existed, and is always common. The humanities teach us to do something many people forget, because only the humanities hammer on it:  To consider the context of a piece. To consider the source (who is writing this, with what goals?) To consider the language used and the way it’s presented.

An example from my own studies is how writers tackle the “issue” of women serving in front line roles in the British Army. In one article, the people who were most affected by this discussion were the ones most referenced in it (women in the army, closer to frontline roles), and it engaged with its subject. Clearly a “pro” piece, but it also wisely discussed counterpoints and dissected them. In the other? Lots of dirty rhetorical tricks. Nearly all the sources were officers and majority were male. Two were exactly the same kind of source but the language to describe them was just different enough to fool the average reader into thinking they were two different viewpoints. And no, it wasn’t. The article had an “anti” agenda, used a misogynistic tone, and chose not to quote any potential frontliners the writer might have consulted. Misinformation. And, of course, one paper was relatively left wing, the other a hard right appendage of the Conservative Party (of which there are quite a few, sadly).

This applies to the games industry too. Certain phrases are red flags to potential employees;  passion is a dirty word. It shouldn’t be, but it is. Other phrases make games critics raise their eyebrows. “Innovative”, for example, can be misused a fair bit, and “We’re looking into it” is a phrase we’ve learned to take a “We’ll believe it when we see it” attitude to.

But self awareness… That isn’t taught very often at all. This is partly a systemic problem. But there are things individuals can, and should correct about themselves. Critiquing your own views on a subject is important to your own growth as a person. Self-awareness is not just knowing your weaknesses and your strengths, or acknowledging and working to ameliorate the former and playing to the latter. It’s knowing your privilege, your areas of expertise, and knowing when you should just shut up, instead of having a hot-take (disclaimer: your hot take is, in fact, lukewarm at best and when you feel compelled to share it is a time you should shush). For example: I am a cis man. I sometimes write about trans content in games, and at such times, no matter how well I’ve tried to listen, I will not blindly trust in what I’ve gathered from listening. Instead, I still seek comment and critique from trans folks  because I am cis, and I don’t live that experience. Same with people of colour or disabled folks.

Finally, there is the fact that we don’t deal with some of the roots of abusive behaviour very well. Sometimes, it is indeed the things we’ve mentioned up to now: Misinformation, confirmation bias (not looking to critique your own views, merely looking for confirmation, even when this is, quite frankly, ridiculous levels of cherry picking), the legacy of patriarchal bullshittery. But sometimes, abuse has its roots in abuse, the abused turning abusive and traumatised folks lashing out. And more. And those situations must also be dealt with.

Games Criticism: Hypocrisy And Editorial Inconsistency

Earlier this month, I critiqued a piece by Patrick Klepeck of Kotaku on two NSFW games making the best-selling on Steam list on twitter. The thread in question is here, but the general summary is that Klepeck’s piece made several assumptions, wasn’t terribly well researched, and took the position that games about sex are inherently problematic. And this is also odd because Kate Gray, also at Kotaku, does her best, as I do, to talk about NSFW games critically, and showcases positive content in the sphere. But beyond a few writers like Gray, this treatment of sexual content in games is incredibly common in the media

This is by no means the only example of editorial inconsistency. For example, lambasting a company for crunch… Then turning round and giving the games themselves a rave review without mentioning the crunch article. There’s no other word for it except hypocrisy. And it, too, has its roots in a sort of cultural inertia. Two, in fact: The game separated from the author (or, as is more often the case with games, multiple “authors”, sometimes hundreds), and the power imbalance of review outlets versus publishers and developers. The former speaks for itself, but the latter… Well, I’ve talked about it before, but publishers and developers who don’t like an outlet’s reportage, for whatever reason (mostly, it must be said, AA and AAA outfits), have a nasty habit of blacklisting and cutting the outlet out of their networking. Sometimes this is open, and communicated to the publication in question (and, indeed, sometimes, when it has, the publication takes an aggressive stance, intimidation to respond to intimidation.) Sometimes, it’s the more insidious Graylisting, or, as Rock Paper Shotgun once put it, The Awkward Silence.

But the thing is… Even with today’s YouTube and Twitch influencers, outlets don’t need publishers or developers in the same way publishers and developers need outlets. I’ve cut ties with studios and blacklisted them for various shitty behaviours. I’ve critiqued the problems of a game without covering the game itself in a review, positive or otherwise. And, even with withholding review copies as a stick to the carrot… I can, even with my limited budget, purchase a game, and not only free myself of the obligation to review it (yes, publishers and developers will definitely put you on their shitlist for that, and, most of the time, that’s a perfectly reasonable attitude to take), but also makes it clear that if I want to talk about a game, the only thing stopping me is how low on the budget priority list it is.

Games writing has more power than it thinks to tell the industry that abusive practices are not welcome. And, it must be said, it also needs to take the rest of this article into account too, as the writing and editing scene also has allegations of abuse.


Another aspect of the games industry is the developers and publishers. Games is a cliquey space, and the grapevine is quicker than you can imagine, even with NDAs and other funtimes limiting what can get discussed, and so… I have no doubt in my mind that even more is going on behind the scenes than has been exposed even in the previous six months, let alone the past decade. And certain studios have built up quite the reputation as either frat-broish, very toxic, or plain cowardly.

Funnily enough,the studios, publishers, and stores have the most power to deal with problems. All of them have the power to moderate their spaces. They have the power to take better care of their staff. They have the power to, even at higher levels, shitcan abusive employees, make it clear to them that they aren’t welcomed within the studio, as they aren’t without. They can welcome unions, because one responsibility of a union is, also funnily enough, to actively advocate for people fucked over, rather than the people doing the fucking over. They can improve their own practices regarding reporting and methods of dealing with abuse at any level (because hey, HR aren’t excepted from “abusers can slip in”, so part of this is ensuring that if someone in HR is abusive, it’s dealt with in proper confidence and a safe manner). And they can lessen the crunch that is known to harm people in both body and mind. That would, in all likelihood, help too.

And all of this, and more, are positions you need to stick to your guns on. A big part of the reason this happens is because we let it slide for various reasons. Don’t ignore or minimise abuse allegations. As far as members of a studio go, reporting abusive behaviours you see to HR, rather than staying silent, so the victim doesn’t have to. Because, very often, part of abusive behaviours is threatening to silence… And if it’s multiple employees doing the reporting, it becomes much harder for the abusers to keep victims silent.

Everyone Can Do These

Abusers use tactics like gaslighting (the dismissal of their victims’ (or another victim’s) pain by trying to convince them it isn’t real), shifting to a gentler gear to keep them near, and other manipulative behaviours. DARVO is a common acronym for this, standing for Deny Accusations, Reverse Victim and Offender. And it is, equally, known, that abusers can be charming to others, not least because it hides the abuse from others, and makes the victim look like they’re lying, further gaslighting.

So, as a first thing everyone can do, is that the victim is assumed innocent until proven guilty, and that there should be wariness and increased scrutiny of the individual being accused and their actions. Believe the victim, and offer support if you can. There are exceptions that happen, bad faith abuse accusations, but they are the exception, not the rule. And what you do afterwards is equally important. If the victim goes public, supporting and helping to keep them safe is a good way forward. If it’s through your own network, then quietly reach out to others who you trust within that network, because the odds are high the abuser didn’t hurt just one person, and them knowing they’re not alone is an important first step. From there… Well, as a community, we should support them.

This can be a hard part, because yes, the abuser is probably part of that network, seeming friendly, and this is a danger that you need to be aware of at all times. Don’t be inactive if you hear such an accusation, do what’s in your power to do. This can include, as has been previously noted, reporting abusive behaviours you see yourself. It can be supporting the victim in other ways, such as offering to do something for a friend who’s being affected, like running an errand or getting some food. And demonstrate your support without expectations. Being helpful is basic level stuff here, it’s not going to great lengths, and it’s not about you.

In more general, helpful advice, you can talk to people who don’t understand abusive practices in general, but in clear terms. This can be as simple as telling your friends about boundaries, and the setting thereof, or explaining about elements like DARVO. At events, it can be checking in, as casually as possible, on folks who look like they’re getting cornered (Most often younger folks being cornered by older ones. Obviously, use your common sense here.)

Another thing is that abusive behaviours can be obvious, too. Friends who say slurs a lot. Friends who grope folks without permission, friends who push hard, or break other folks’ boundaries. There’s more examples, but I’m sure many know them, and if you don’t,learn them. Ignoring this is bad. And sometimes, yes, this means cutting them out, making it clear their behaviour has led to you not wanting to associate anymore. But it can just as often mean them trying to take your pushback on board, and that, if it proves genuine, is to be encouraged. Supporting genuine improvement, helping to educate your friends? That’s good. And if you catch abusive shit early enough, it helps a lot more than if somebody’s set in their ways. Don’t let things slide. Course correct friends, clearly, if you see them behaving badly, but ending your relationships with toxic people and toxic organisations is important, to make it clear these behaviours are bad, and they aren’t welcome, either.

Then, there’s pay. This is here because it isn’t limited to companies, or publications, or stores (although the former two are definitely guilty of this one), but… There are fair wages, fair rights over works, and there are not. Having seen common freelance rates for reviews and longform articles in various publications in games, many are, to put it bluntly, shit. Worker pay in companies can be deeply subpar, especially for contractors, and many other positions within the industry (being a writer and artist, I hear this mostly from writers and artists, but it applies to community managers, subcontracted studios, and the like). Even from folks commissioning work, there’s a common, shitty attitude of questioning an artist’s prices, then giving insufficient direction or information and asking for a refund (precisely because of this attitude, most artists and writers emphasise contracts, and being paid up front). People aren’t in this for extra cake and luxury items. They’re in this as a job, a lot of the time, keeping a roof over their head, and food on the table.

Here are two things everyone can do: Listen to other perspectives. Learn about other perspectives. There’s more than just you and the people you represent in the world. And, funnily enough, it leads to learning about some really cool shit too.

Finally, in things that can be done, learning about support networks for victims is a good thing. Quite a few of us aren’t properly equipped to give the support and safety folks need. And support networks, for the most part, are. I can’t possibly list them all, but googling “Abuse Support Groups [Your friend’s area/nation]” will set you on the right path. Give what support you can, but these groups also often provide legal advocacy, which is important.

Finishing Thoughts

Abusive behaviours can be dealt with. Not all of it involves blocking people (talking to folks can indeed sometimes help, and course correcting friends is an action you can take as an individual), and it’s all reasonable, while also being hardline to make this as clear as possible: This shouldn’t go on. This doesn’t need to go on. And indeed, there’s a common point here: While abusers shouldn’t be welcomed, a lot of them, via inaction, are. Yes, you, reader, might be one of those folks with the power to play a part, large or small, in cleaning up the cesspool, but isn’t. And that’s a painful realisation to come to.

But it’s a realisation that should be acted upon. In dealing with abuse, and abusive behaviours, a self correction that needs to be done if you actually want to help, rather than it being “Not In My Back Yard.” We need to do better, all of us.

TMW deliberately didn’t add images to this. There are none needed. Just the message.

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