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Abuse in the industry isn't down to a few "bad apples" | Opinion

The story can't end with the outing of individual abusers -- ending predation in the games industry requires cultural and institutional change

Even as the games industry works its way through the latest round of hand-wringing over its lack of racial diversity -- some of it heart-felt, much of it performative, little of it indicative of a real willingness to do the work required to change anything significant -- it finds itself wracked by an even more familiar and common upheaval.

Scores of men in development, publishing and media have been publicly and credibly identified as serial abusers of people over whom they held power or influence -- mostly, though not exclusively, young women who faced sexual predation from men who infiltrated their confidence as would-be mentors, or demanded their compliance and silence with threats to their livelihoods and careers.

If you're feeling tired of this, wondering how many times we have to go through these waves of survivors coming forward to tell the stories of bodies and trust violated, of careers and mental health left in wreckage, and of abusers who got away with it again and again; if you're wondering how many more of the industry's men are going to have to "step away and take time to reflect" and how many more companies are going to have to issue statements saying "we're sorry, we kinda knew, we eventually got rid of him" -- well, buckle in, because the bad news is that this isn't going away.

The bad news is that for all the historic allegations emerging in recent years, very little has actually changed -- which means that right now, in offices and at parties and in text chats all over the industry, the same damned things are happening and the next wave of luridly awful stories of bright, aspirational people feeling forced and pressured into doing things far beyond their comfort zone with men they'd looked up to is already being written. If there's anything we should be tired of hearing it's not the stories of survivors; it's the stories of how milquetoast the actual, practical, enforceable response of most companies and institutions in the industry has been to every previous wave of allegations.

The bad news is that for all the historic allegations emerging in recent years, very little has actually changed

It's not that things aren't getting better to some degree. That's evident in how the response to these allegations has evolved -- it's a genuinely positive thing, I think, that most men in the industry now seem to actually believe and understand the seriousness of what's being alleged and what's been done, a response which you couldn't always rely on in the past. We're doing better at (mostly) treating survivors with respect, and (somewhat) sidelining their abusers.

We're still trapped, however, in a tendency to personalise the whole thing; to treat it as a "bad apples" situation. Even men who are having genuine, heartfelt responses to revelations of abuse say things like "I wish I'd known, I wish I could have done something." They wish a Good Man (themselves) had been aware of the Bad Man and could have done something about his Bad Actions.

That's a noble enough sentiment, but it's terribly naïve and ultimately unhelpful. This isn't a random bad apple that somehow found its way into the barrel; it's a widespread pattern of behaviour in which dozens of men in positions all around the industry have been shown to have behaved in abusive, controlling, sexually exploitative ways towards multiple victims apiece. The solution isn't about "cancelling" the people who are called out -- some of them richly deserve comeuppance, for sure, but getting caught down in the weeds of individual perpetrators and the evidence against them is completely missing the bigger picture.

The games industry, like several other creative industries -- comics in particular is in the throes of a similar upheaval -- has an innate cultural and institutional problem that permits this kind of abuse to happen with impunity. If we're focused on the substance of individual allegations rather than recognising the pattern of all the allegations taken as a whole, and the depth of the change that's clearly needed to fix a culture which permitted such widespread abuse to occur, then we're in full-on deckchair rearranging mode while the Titanic sinks around us.

We're still trapped in a tendency to personalise the whole thing; to treat it as a 'bad apples' situation

Just as the problem isn't about individual Bad Men -- who bear total and final responsibility for their actions, but couldn't have done those things with such impunity if the culture around them didn't enable and even encourage their behaviour -- the solution also isn't about individual Good Men. Abusers are extremely good at ingratiating themselves with the men around them and careful about hiding their behaviour from those who will respond negatively to their actions -- so yes, it's absolutely the case that you can work side by side with a serial abuser for years without realising what they're doing.

I do have sympathy for people who are finding out that's exactly what's happened, and a little soul-searching and wondering what signs you might have missed -- or, digging deeper, what signs you might have pushed yourself to overlook -- is by no means a bad thing to do in that situation. The very fact that this is possible, however, shows that the solution has to be bigger than "a good guy standing up to the bad guy." We have to ask why so many environments in the games industry allow abusers to thrive and what all of us might have done, even entirely unwittingly, to create and sustain those environments.

This is an industry that regularly provides men well-known to be temperamental, bullying or vindictive with significant power over the careers and lives of more junior staff, and compounds this error by enforcing little or no oversight. Instances of terrible behaviour by staff whose creative or technical skills are deemed "irreplaceable" are carefully and studiously overlooked -- even though "irreplaceable" in this industry, as in many others, is far more often a signifier of that person's well-cultivated relationships with colleagues rather than of unique genius.

Game studios, media firms and communities often foster "locker room" environments in which "laddish" misbehaviour is celebrated. The pressure to conform socially pushes young people desperate to build a career in an unstable, fickle and hugely networking-based industry to hide any discomfort (which will be seen as weakness or being "boring") and to avoid raising complaints (which will label them a troublemaker or attention-seeker).

All too often, in all too many companies, studios, offices and other groups and communities around the industry, an abuser saying "nobody will believe you even if you complain," or "you'll never work in this industry again if you make a fuss" is making at threat that can't simply be laughed off. The day-by-day experience of how bullying, abuse and peer pressure is handled in that environment actually backs up what they're saying.

We have to ask why so many environments in the industry allow abusers to thrive, and what we might have done to create and sustain those environments

If you've watched a colleague be ridiculed and told to grow a thicker skin for complaining about racist, sexist or bigoted jokes in the office; or seen someone reduced to tears during a design review by a team lead whose obvious vicious streak would have disqualified him from looking after the classroom gerbil, and should certainly have disqualified him from managing other human beings; or noted how people unable to work gruelling, anti-social hours during a crunch period are later passed over for promotions and slowly frozen out of social circles... Well, why wouldn't the same logic apply if someone were to try to make a formal complaint about how a company veteran -- a respected, well-liked man who always buys the first round on Fridays in the pub -- keeps deliberately crossing their boundaries, figuring out ways to get them alone, bringing up intensely personal topics, and making them uncomfortable in ways they know are calculated and they know he'd never do in front of others?

Maybe you're a relatively senior person and you know, or at least firmly believe, that you'd have reacted differently, but did you actually reflect that in how you interacted with and responded to the rest of your studio's culture? Apart from your own personal conviction that you're one of the good guys, what would have told a frightened junior staff member, grappling both with being sexually pressured or assaulted and with their dream career evaporating before their eyes, that you were someone they could turn to and rely upon?

This isn't a problem faced by the games industry alone, and the ultimate solution will also be much bigger than the games industry alone

Underlying all of this is the unpleasant reality that the industry tacitly encourages those environments to develop -- not because of an innate hatred of women or minorities, but because it's commercially effective to do so. It's much easier to push staff into high-pressure, stressful "crunch" working -- a core requirement of the business model of many parts of the industry -- if they're already in that kind of "locker room" mindset, looking for affirmation of everyone's insider status, scoffing at any and all complaints as signs of not being a team player, decrying any attempt to build functioning HR procedures and staff policies.

I'm not saying that companies are deliberately encouraging sexual abuse or misconduct. I am saying, however, that some deliberately encourage an environment in which HR rules are lax, codes of conduct are non-existent or toothless, and an in-group mentality that tolerates and even celebrates stress and bullying prevails. That's a kind of environment in which sexual abusers naturally and easily thrive.

This is the actual question men need to be asking themselves when their colleagues come forward to bravely share these stories of abuse. Not "how didn't I see what this man was" -- that answer is easy, he's smart and cunning and you fell for his act, and you'll probably fall for it again next time. Ask instead, "how did I contribute to an environment where this man felt emboldened to act like this." Yes, he may have hidden his behaviour from you, but he likely didn't hide it from everyone, and he clearly felt like he could get away with it.

It's going to mean confronting workplace and community cultures that you may have enjoyed and benefited from up until now

What was it about that environment that made him feel so safe, even as he made others feel unsafe? What aspects of his workplace behaviour did you overlook or tolerate, which told him that he could act with impunity in other regards as well? You may be shocked and saddened and regretful to find this poison in your well, but what other toxins did you tolerate all along -- stress, bullying, overwork, constant locker-room jokes that the discomfited were forced to grin and bear, casual overlooking of "office romance" where the power balance was drastically off-kilter?

This isn't a problem faced by the games industry alone, and the ultimate solution will also be much bigger than the games industry alone. It's not the games industry that teaches men that they have an entitlement to women's bodies or attentions -- though plenty of games do have a lot of red ink in their margins on that particular topic -- and fixing that underlying problem is an undertaking for society as a whole. What the games industry must address, however, is the prevalence of environments where predators and abusers feel emboldened in their entitlement.

Tired of these stories repeating over and over? Ashamed that something happened so near you and you didn't know or didn't do anything about it? Want to do something about predators and abusers? Great. Commit to changing the culture around you, and to building an environment where people feel respected and able to speak up for themselves. An environment which stops lionising abusive and unpleasant men for some tissue-thin notion of irreplaceable genius. An environment in which anyone who's ever told their career will end if they make a fuss about a groping hand or a gross innuendo will feel absolutely emboldened and safe in telling their abuser -- no matter who it is -- to go fuck themselves, because they know people around them are going to have their back.

Look around your office or your community, look to the most powerful or "irreplaceable" or popular people, and ask yourself -- if that person groped, propositioned or otherwise took advantage of a new young staff member or an intern, would their victim feel able to come forward? Is there a process for them to follow? Would they be taken seriously and would they feel safe? Would it hurt their career, while their abuser "took time off to reflect" and then danced off to another senior role and filled a big room at the next developer conference or media event to hear his pearls of wisdom?

Don't assume a victim would be able to talk to you, because you know you're a good guy -- ask what actual procedures and protections are in place, what your team's culture and society is like, and how someone abused by the most popular man in the room would really fare in the aftermath if they ignored his threat to shut up about it. Run the hypothetical honestly and critically, and then figure out what you actually need to do if you're serious about your desire to do something to help.

It's going to be uncomfortable. It's going to mean confronting workplace and community cultures that you may have enjoyed and benefited from up until now. It's probably going to end some friendships. It's also the only way this industry is ever going to turn into one that isn't hauled over the coals multiple times a year for cocooning the abusers in our midst -- both the ones we now know about, and those who are still doing these things right now.

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Rob Fahey avatar
Rob Fahey: Rob Fahey is a former editor of who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.
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