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Global Game Jam in turmoil following Black Lives Matter silence

Bullying allegations surface after resignation of executive committee member over refusal to issue statement on BLM

Global Game Jam is in turmoil, following allegations around a culture of bullying within the organisation and a lack of action in response to Black Lives Matter and other major events.

Gwen Foster, who was part of Global Game Jam's executive committee, announced her decision to step down due to "the board's refusal to make a statement about the global crisis" -- including both Black Lives Matter and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Foster, who is also the IGDA's regional coordinator for the Asia-Pacific region, noted that Chris Avellone being enlisted as the keynote speaker for Global Game Jam 2020 was "just a nail in the coffin."

Avellone is one of the more prominent figures to be named in a new wave of abuse allegations involving influential people -- the vast majority of them men -- in the games industry. Foster alleges that IGDA head Renee Gittins was supposed to deliver the keynote at Global Game Jam 2020, only to be replaced by Avellone.

Foster also highlighted that credit for her work on Global Game Jam 2020 had been removed from the official website, despite the executive committee having completed all duties associated with the event.

"I have resigned from the executive committee because of the board's refusal to make a statement about the global crisis"

Gwen Foster

Until this weekend, the Global Game Jam had remained silent on Black Lives Matter -- save for a blog post that stated its commitment to "inclusivity" and linked to its Code of Conduct, but made no direct reference to the movement or the events that led to the current wave of protests and civil unrest.

Foster criticised the post on Twitter last week, and GamesIndustry.biz has seen emails in which Joseph Olin, president of the Global Game Jam board, explained the absence of a direct statement on Black Lives Matter to Foster.

"We respectfully differ with your sentiments regarding silence equating inaction," Olin stated. "As the stewards of this non-profit organization, our charter is to maximize the positive impact we have through supporting our mission. We firmly believe that our everyday actions consistently show who we are and where we stand on equality."

In those emails, Foster asserted that "inactions [mean] siding with the oppressors", which contradicts the values supposedly at the core of Global Game Jam. That same idea was put forward by Astrid Refstrup, co-founder of the Danish studio Triple Topping Games, who worked at Global Game Jam for nearly two years, serving as vice president for half of that period.

In a statement on Twitter, Refstrup called the response to Black Lives Matter "embarrassing", and pointed to deeper problems within the Global Game Jam organisation.

In a longer statement, Restrup accused Susan Gold, one of Global Game Jam's co-founders, of "continued abusive behavior," including bullying and belittling the organisation's staff, and attempting to "corrupt the process" of removing an unnamed male board member who was also accused of abuse.

Refstrup told GamesIndustry.biz that the male board member was James Portnow, the founder of Extra Credits, who was accused of harassment and bullying by several employees and colleagues in June 2018. Extra Credits said it "found no evidence of improprieties" after an investigation by an independent HR company.

Refstrup has alleged that Gold invited Portnow to Global Game Jam board meetings and added him to the website without an official vote on the matter, despite complaints from within the organisation.

"My understanding is that the organisation is today still run with a general mistrust to the community they serve"

Astrid Refstrup

While Gold is the focus of Restrup's allegations, she describes a culture of complicity among other board members due to their close personal relationships. Restrup ultimately resigned over a failure to address Gold's negative influence.

Gold stepped down from Global Game Jam alongside fellow co-founder Gorm Lai in April this year.

"The board member at the time Susan Gold is no longer in the organisation, but my understanding is that the organisation is today still run with a general mistrust to the community they serve," Restrup said.

"I think we see this clearly in their way of handling appointing keynote Chris Avellone, not listening to concerns from their community, and the recent [event] with lack of response and action on [Black Lives Matter] that pushed executive committee Gwen Foster to resign her position."

Restrup clarified that she had not spoken about her experience before due to her belief in the efforts of Global Game Jam's volunteer workforce, and its stated mission to "make the game industry a better and more diverse space."

"I feel the board is still continuing leading the organisation without learning from events in the past," she said. "I see now that with holding back my information I'm not helping the Global Game Jam to learn and grow as an organisation."

GamesIndustry.biz reached out to Susan Gold for a response to the allegations, but had not replied at the time of writing. Joseph Olin, Global Game Jam's current president, did issue a statement regarding Restrup's account.

"Bullying is never acceptable in any form and it is not tolerated in the Global Game Jam"

Global Game Jam statement

"Bullying is never acceptable in any form and it is not tolerated in the Global Game Jam," it read.

Olin also supplied Global Game Jam's official statement addressing Black Lives Matter, three weeks after its absence was noted in the strongest terms by members of its executive committee, and five days after Gwen Foster resigned. The statement is reproduced in full below:

"The Global Game Jam board of directors strongly supports the Black Lives Matter movement and believes that anti-racism is imperative in game development. Our delay in releasing a statement to that effect is due to our desire to first listen to melanated voices, and then educate ourselves on what anti-racist actions we can take to have a global impact inside and outside of our organisation.

"Rather than release a statement with nice platitudes, we wanted to take action. As a volunteer organisation with members spread around the globe, this took time to do carefully and deliberately. Should we have released a statement in brief saying that we are working on a statement? Perhaps, but we decided to not divert our limited resources away from making actionable changes to our organisation for a PR move.

"The actionable changes we will be making are structural changes to the composition of the board, new resources to supporting BIPOC along with a dedication to amplifying melanated voices within the game community through our Global Game Jam and Global Game Jam NEXT materials, as well as revisiting our Inclusivity Policy to ensure that BIPOC feel safe at all GGJ events in the world."

It should be noted that Global Game Jam's stated position is partly contradicted by Restrup, who referred to a communication from Olin in which he said that Global Game Jam "is not a political organization" when explaining why no clear statement had been issued.

Global Game Jam has also issued an apology for its treatment of Foster, recognising her contributions to the organisation during her tenure, and reinstating her name to the "About" section of its website.

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