Jeremy Soule accuser Nathalie Lawhead speaks out on vile abuse in video games industry: We cant afford to speak up
Making video games for a living sounds like it would be a dream job but for many its frequently a nightmare. Long hours of unpaid overtime are commonplace, as are short-term contracts that can be cancelled at a moments notice – and which are often poorly paid and dont even guarantee you a mention in the credits. But its usually even worse if youre a woman.
Although many may think of it only in connection with Hollywood, the #MeToo movement has touched every element of society and industry, even video games. And last week several allegations were made by female game developers about sexual abuse and bullying in the workplace, lead by creator Nathalie Lawhead – who outlined her alleged experiences in a now widely circulated blog.
In it she detailed her experiences building ARGs (alternate reality games), for which she ended up working so much overtime she was twice hospitalised and yet, according to the email evidence she posted, she was frequently taken advantage of and eventually fired and not paid for much of her work.
In the blog she also talks about her experience with BAFTA award-winning composer Jeremy Soule, who has worked on high profile games ranging from The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim to Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic. In the blog she alleges she was raped by him, with her story inspiring other women from across the industry to talk about their own negative experiences.
For his part, Soule has insisted the allegations are false and in comments made to website Kotaku insisted that hes shocked and saddened that these outrageous claims have been made.
My career started when a Vancouver company contacted me about designing and building an ARG for them, Lawhead told Metro.co.uk. It seemed like a dream come true opportunity. The promise was that, if this works out, I would get more work and possibly a permanent position. It seemed ideal.
Thats not how things turned out though and after enduring years of poor management, unpaid bills, and unrecognised overtime, Lawhead was unceremoniously fired. She then went on to pursue a career making indie games, but it would be 11 years later until she talked about her very worst experiences at the company.
After my experiences, I was lucky that the indie space picked up my work and I got a foothold in games as a successful experimental indie developer, she says in reference to award-winning titles such as Tetrageddon Games and Everything is Going to Be OK.
I dont think I would care about games if it wasnt for the indie space. Games have a lot of cultural problems, especially in terms of worker rights and inequality. The space that is actively discussing that and doing something about it is the indie games space.
I knew that I would face sexism and discrimination, I had no idea that it would be this bad
Although Lawhead has not been involved in big budget console style video games, her skill at creating ARGs did bring her into contact with some of the same creatives, including Soule.
I knew that I would face sexism and discrimination, I had no idea that it would be this bad, she says. Working in games is extremely hard to begin with, even for men. The crunch, burnout, and how people are professionally used, is a big problem. Its so unsustainable that most of the people you will meet, when going to GDC [Game Developers Conference], are in their 20s to 30s because people cant really stay here long.
If you take conditions like that, which are very normal, and add the gender and racial discrimination, its pretty brutal, she explains.
Games have an added problem of toxic fanbases that will regularly attack developers if these fanbases consider what a developer said as out-of-line or rude. Its almost a personal hazard to step out of line and speak out about cultural conditions, she says in regards to gamings often highly aggressive fans and the Gamergate controversy that began with the harassment of female indie developers such as Zoë Quinn and Brianna Wu, and preceded the current alt-right movement.
Companies benefit from abusing their workforce. We are all already on such thin ice, we cant afford to speak up unless its in power of numbers. Were held back by major cultural issues that benefit companies so its a very slow uphill battle, laments Lawhead.
I sincerely hope that gamers start to understand these dynamics and start siding with developers more instead of being weaponised to keep the work force in check the way that they are.
Examples of gamers attacking developers are all to common, such as the recent abuse aimed at the creators of indie game Ooblets, with game makers regularly on the receiving end of death threats and hate campaigns. Keep politics out of games, is a common refrain amongst a certain subset of gamers, which is frequently interpreted as not changing the current bias towards white heterosexual men as the focus of a games story and marketing.
I think an interesting comparison to make is that games have all the problems that the tech industry has, coupled with easily angered fanbases, says Lawhead. Generally speaking, gamers have a lot of issues with women, the presence of women, LGTBQ, people of colour… and anything that looks like “equality”. Unfortunately, a lot of gamer groups are very racist and sexist. With the lack of worker rights, it can make working here hazardous.
I was expecting to be completely ruined for it, she says of posting her blog. I still am. Toxic fandom will dox, harass, stalk, threaten, and SWAT. Most of this has happened to me before, and its happened to too many of my friends. Its too much of a fact of life in this industry. Speaking up, or confronting toxic culture, has widely known consequences.
Toxic fandom has always been a problem because games ended up catering to the type of audience that is susceptible to the toxic masculinity rhetoric. A lot of work has been done over the years to expand the scope of who games are for and what a gamer is. Its not easy. Marginalised groups have been targeted across the spectrum, but I feel like the fact that I was able to share what I shared, without being swatted is indicative of a change.
Generally speaking, gamers have a lot of issues with women, the presence of women, LGTBQ, people of colour… and anything that looks like “equality”
The problem of gaming fandom is compounded by the apparent lack of effort most video game companies make in countering the more aggressive elements.
The unfortunate reality is that publishers, and larger platforms like Steam, arent doing anything to really change this. It would be easy for them to say that they dont endorse this toxic behaviour, and act on that. They could push for a cultural change, given the platform they hold. The sad reality is that they benefit from toxic culture and have no interest in really changing this. The burden is falling entirely on developers to change this. I think if we unionised it would change a lot of this dynamic.
Asked what advice she would give to other woman, or any developer in a similar situation, Lawhead emphasises the importance of talking to other people about the problem. So far whisper networks have been a life saver for a lot of women. The only thing protecting us right now is the stories we share over Twitter, and the private messages we share when we see someone working with someone that is dangerous.
This is dangerous because these conversations need to take place in the open. We need to be able to call out this behaviour before it becomes a threat, she insists. The best advice I can give is dont be starstruck, aRead More – Source