This week in video game sexual harassment has been a particularly harrowing one. It started with two women accusing Jeremy Soule, a video games music composer, best known for Skyrim, of sexual misconduct up to and including rape. Three more women have said he put pressure on them to date him as well, and it turned out badly (career-wise) when they turned him down. Then, Alexis Kennedy, creator of Sunless Skies was accused by several women of using his position to pressure them, younger women, to date. He has a history of dating women who work for him, and they claim he abused them during those relationships. There were more, but the one that hit me the hardest (and was revealed in response to the Jeremy Soule accusation in support of Nathalie Lawhead, the victim) was Zoë Quinn declaring that Alec Holowka, one of the developers of Night in the Woods, had lured them (preferred pronoun) to his place in Winnipeg after they started a long distance relationship, then through a mix of emotional abuse and intimidation, isolated them from their friends and made them afraid to leave.
Zoë suffered through this for a month, and then left. They broke up with Holowka over email, and he proceeded to blacklist them from the industry. This was early in their career, and they said he’s done it to a certain extent. At first, they didn’t name him, but two women asked them if it were him. That’s when they realized he had done it more than once.
You may be thinking that the name Zoë Quinn sounds familiar. It’s because they were the victims in a case of revenge that kicked off GamerGate. They were vilified and dragged through the mud, and it showed the very ugly side of the gaming industry and how it was still steeped in misogyny. At the time, Zoë identified as a woman, and the hatred for ‘her’ and her perceived gender was gruesome.
Once the allegations came to light, Alec killed himself. His sister, Eileen Holowka, released a statement of shock, disbelief, and distress, but also support for the victims. Ian was covering the news (the link is his), and he broke it to me gently when I messaged him in the morning. He set it up by talking about the other accusations, and then he said one was going to be especially hard to me. That’s when I knew, and I had to brace myself for it. When he told me, it hit me in the gut.
Side Note: I have never had to face loving something by a person who has done something so heinous. I will get to that in a minute.
The gaming industry, for all its attempts to diversify, is still the domain of white cis straight men. The vast majority of important people in the industry fall in this category, and many of the more toxic aspects of masculinity run rampant throughout. If you don’t fit into all those categories, well, then you’re going to have a rough time, regardless. Add all the men who think they are owed sex (as is narrated by our society), and it gets even worse.
I love Night in the Woods. It is my favorite game outside the FromSoft franchise. I’ve played it three times, and I was going to play it a fourth. I’ve written about it several times in this blog, and I’ve giving it a gaming award. It’s the baby of Scott Benson and Bethany Hockenberry, and the story is theirs. Alec did the coding and the music, which makes him an indelible part of the game. Yes, it’s more Scott and Bethany because the story is what really hit home, but the music is a big part of it, and of course it’s not a video game without the coding.
Scott revealed more about his own clashes with Alec during the making of NitW. Alec grew unpredictable and rage-filled near the end of the collaboration, so much so that Scott was having panic attacks. Scott said that Alec seemed to better himself, and the three of them were currently collaborating on another project when the allegations came out. Bethany and Scott broke off the collab after hearing the allegations.
Here’s where it gets even uglier. The GamerGate assholes came out to blame the two of them and Zoë for Alec’s death. It’s not unexpected, but it’s unbelievably cruel–and misogynistic as well. First of all, the only person responsible for a suicide is the person who committed it. There can be factors that made the person feel as if it were the only solution (and there may even be good reasons for it), but in the end, it was that person who made the choice. Or, if they are in the throes of a mental health issue, then it’s no one’s choice/fault at all.
To say that it’s the fault of the people he abused takes a special kind of balls, even if, as I said, it wasn’t unexpected. But it’s the logical conclusion if you follow their twisted way of thinking. A man deserves to get laid if he does the requisite stuff (which gets lowered all the time), and if he doesn’t get laid, well, then, someone else is to blame. To these types, sexual harassment doesn’t exist*, so of course they are on the abusers’ side. If you accept this as a fact, then it’s not a huge step to believe that if someone kills themselves because of sexual harassment claims and because others believe those claims, it’s the fault of anyone but the abuser.
I didn’t say it made sense in the real world, but I know that kind of thinking all too well. It’s based on a flawed hypothesis and confirmation bias. In addition, Zoë has become the avatar of ‘bitches, amirite’ for these assholes, and I’m sure many of them are gleeful for what they see as another chance to drag her through the mud.
I can’t imagine the kind of courage it takes to come out with these stories in this kind of environment. Gamers are an entitled lot in general (which I believe is correlated with the fact that it is so white het cis male dominant/heavy), and they send death threats when a game isn’t released on time. Something like this is just throwing chum to the sharks and watching them circle around it to attack.
I feel bad for all the victims, and I don’t want them to get lost in the shuffle. Zoë said that some of the victims of Alec are worried that people who love NitW will care more about that than they do about about the women and non-binary people in the industry, and, sadly, it’s a valid concern. Fans of a game (as with much of pop culture) can be irrational. I mean, hell, it’s in the name! Fan is short for fanatic, which means being unreasonably passionate about something.
I have a lot of emotions surrounding this whole issue. I feel bad for the victims first and foremost. That’s the vast majority of my feelings. However, I also feel bad for the friends/family/colleagues of the abusers as it’s a heavy weight for them to bear as well. In the case of Alec Holowka, I feel a sliver of sadness for him as well. He was the victim of abuse, too, and he carried on that cycle. But again, most of my sympathy lies with the victims, and I hope they can continue to…heal. The word seems so trite and trivial in comparison to the mountain ahead of them, especially for those who had to deal with the abuse extensively.
As for me, I still don’t know what to do with NitW. I know it’s the idea of Scott and Bethany, and I know that the emotional resonance I got from it was because of their story. However, Alec is embedded (pun intended, sort of) in the game as well, and there is no denying it. I will support Scott and Bethany going forward, but I will have to sit with my feelings about NitW for a while longer. I hope I can get some clarity about it with some time and distance.
*Not going to explain all the complicated and, frankly, idiotic ‘reasons’ they think this is true. Ain’t nobody got time or the patience for that.