Register Monday | March 4 | 2024
No Grass Left to Touch Illustration by François Vigneault.

No Grass Left to Touch

The game industry can be a toxic place for marginalized creators. Ignoring the trolls under the bridge isn't a solution.

I woke up earlier than usual, anxious after spending most of the night overthinking rather than sleeping. It was June 11, 2020, and KO_OP, the Montreal-based artist-run game studio where I work as a community manager, was preparing for an event I was struggling to understand the scale of: the Future of Gaming Digital Showcase from Sony, a highly publicized livestream during which the PlayStation 5 and some of its games would be revealed. The event would officially announce a range of much-anticipated, big-budget franchise titles—Hitman 3, Resident Evil Village and Spider-Man: Miles Morales. Our studio’s game, Goodbye Volcano High, a decidedly indie title, was also set to have its announcement trailer premiere. The cinematic narrative adventure game follows a group of anthropomorphic dinosaurs in their senior year of high school as they deal with the possibility of extinction from an incoming meteor. It features a non-binary protagonist, Fang, attempting to figure out what they want to do with their life in the little time they have left. Millions of viewers across Twitch and YouTube were about to be introduced to it; for our tiny studio, it was a huge deal.

As the trailer ran, we congratulated each other on just how big it all felt. I couldn’t help but notice how different the game was from some of the bigger titles in the event: 2D, hand-drawn, queer, a little scrappy and less polished. I thought that might be in our favour—maybe make us an underdog. At first, it seemed like it did: people in the industry were messaging us with positive comments, and the team kept receiving texts from gamer friends and family members who were losing it over seeing us alongside such gaming behemoths. Morale was high. But quicker than I could process, the outpouring of congratulations on our screens gave way to something sinister. Spammy and bigoted comments started appearing across Twitter and the livestream chats by the hundreds, like weeds, and I knew the scope of my job was about to change.

In the game industry, loud, hurtful and sustained negative reactions to work that differs from the norm is unfortunately not uncommon. When The Last Of Us Part II revealed that its protagonist, Ellie, was a lesbian, actor Ashley Johnson was targeted by a flood of abuse, including homophobic rape threats. Game developer Dani Lalonders received repeated racist harassment for their visual novel ValiDate, a game featuring an almost entirely queer BIPOC cast. Releasing a game that’s perceived as inclusive, or “woke,” puts you at risk of being targeted by toxic gaming fans unhappy with changes in a realm traditionally dominated by straight white men. These aren’t just isolated cases; it’s an industry-wide issue that makes engaging with games more difficult, and potentially dangerous, for marginalized workers and players.

Video games and their online communities are spaces where trolls can hide in anonymity behind an avatar, smug in the knowledge that what they do online is unlikely to bleed into their everyday life. They can say whatever they want to anyone they deem worthy of their ire in that moment. Part of that lack of consequence comes from the harassment taking place in a digital sphere, typically outside the scope of either social or legal punishments. In Canada, there are no specific laws addressing cyberbullying, but it can lead to charges in cases where it constitutes criminal harassment, intimidation, counselling suicide or incitement of hatred. However, actual prosecution is uncommon. The fact that the harassment takes place online also results in it being perceived as less serious and more manageable, despite research showing that its impacts are at least as severe as in-person bullying. When software developer and trans activist Liz Fong-Jones called the NYPD for assistance during a sustained online harassment campaign against her, she was told to “log off,” and that “if [she ignored] it, they’ll go away,” according to the CBC.  The platforms these games are played on or talked about aren’t much help; they will often either launch easy-to-evade mechanisms that ban abusive players based on user reports, or not have any mechanisms in place at all. This culture of harassment stretches through the industry: marginalized players face escalating threats of violence and harm from other users, while the industry wrings its hands over whether deterring them would constitute censorship.

I had only been working at KO_OP for a few months when our trailer launched at the showcase. I hadn’t worked in games before; the industry had felt alien to me with its giant teams, reputation for “crunch culture” (compulsory, often unpaid, overtime in the name of meeting developer deadlines) and the demanding, sometimes intimidating fanbases. But at the beginning of that year, I was looking for a stable day job that better aligned with my politics, and stumbled upon KO_OP, a cooperatively-owned game studio that takes a worker-first approach. In an industry infamous for its contrast between burnt-out, disempowered game workers and the hyper-rich higher-ups who profit from them, KO_OP seemed like an outlier. After being hired, I had expected my coworkers to be too overwhelmed or competitive to support an outsider to the industry. Instead, I was surprised to find gentle, encouraging people who helped me adjust to new workflows or decode a piece of technical jargon at the drop of a hat. My perception of the industry hadn’t been quite right—there were definitely people working in it who were kind and generous with no ulterior motive. But there’s another, darker side to video games, one where malevolent pests are given space to prowl forums and community boards, inflicting harm on workers and players without any real consequences.

Up until Sony’s livestream, my day-to-day as a community manager had been what I had expected. Welcome new members to our Discord server (a community forum popular in gaming), post stills from my coworkers’ in-progress projects, talk to fans of the studio. Most of what I posted on Twitter didn’t get a ton of engagement, but we had a small, loyal fanbase and I was proud of myself; I’d figured out how to do a job that I’d felt unqualified for. I didn’t have a tech background, I didn’t know people in the industry and I barely understood the job I’d been hired to do—still, I was making it work.

Community management is not so much one job as it is a bunch of them hiding under one umbrella. A community manager is the person in charge of talking to the fans of a game studio, fielding their thoughts and concerns, telling developers when glitches have been found in games, making the company more popular by marketing it on social media, talking to the press and handling little online emergencies in their many forms. Since the job calls for a mastery of “soft” skills—active listening, conflict resolution and customer service—rather than technical ones, it is often devalued within the industry. But it requires a huge amount of emotional labour: de-escalating conflict, dealing with harassment and bearing the occasional trauma that can come with the gig.

It’s theorized that community management came about in the 1990s, when massively multiplayer online role-playing games, or MMORPGs, became more popular, and these groups of online players started to require management. Like in any industry, consumers are extremely important to those developing the products; but game companies differ from many other businesses in that they place a specific focus on caring for their players and fostering strong communities. This is partially because getting people to play together keeps them in your game and improves the value of user feedback, and studios have a vested interest in dedicated, long-term players who will purchase every update and sequel. This user dedication to gaming communities may partially influence the industry’s reluctance toward changing aspects of the culture—like the rampant harassment endemic to games.

Game industry jobs, community management or otherwise, can come with the expectation of thick skin. This is especially true for marginalized game workers: people of colour, women and queer people often bear the brunt of the industry’s culture of harassment and are at greater risk of taking direct blows to their livelihoods. Doxxing, or publicly revealing someone’s personal information, may not cost a cis, straight person their job, but that’s not necessarily true for trans and queer workers. Harassing someone privileged may not break down their spirit in the same way it might for someone who has less access to support and resources.

These dynamics are replicated within the game industry’s workplaces. This past March, attendees of San Francisco’s massive Game Developers Conference reported multiple incidents of drink spiking at off-site events. Institutional misogyny is rampant in games studios: Activision, one of the world’s biggest game-makers, has faced allegations of sexual harassment and gender discrimination in its offices. Other studios have been called out for racism, which is prominent among both workers and gamers. This is only what makes the news; you’d be hard-pressed to meet someone marginalized in the industry who doesn’t have stories of daily microaggressions, covert sexism and hostile work environments. The issues with gaming culture shouldn’t be surprising when games are developed by studios steeped in the same problems.

I don’t really know what I expected as I waited for Goodbye Volcano High’s trailer to play at the Sony event. Maybe that we’d get a little surge of followers, and that the couple dozen likes I’d get on my tweets would turn into a few hundred, making my job a little simpler, helping content flow more easily. Our team of eighteen people was in a group call together, watching the livestream. Someone shouted “Remember: never read the comments!” and we all laughed. How could I read them? How could anyone? They went by so fast. That waterfall of text, the way it all blurred together into nothingness, just a falling stream of opinions, there and gone again before I even had an opportunity to process a single one.

After our trailer ran, we settled in to go over the public’s reaction. It was hard to gauge: our game was trending on Twitter, but as we looked through the hashtag, a lot of the comments were negative. Our trailer announcement tweet had thousands of likes, but hundreds of homophobic replies. Our pages and forums were getting bombarded with offensive and abusive comments in a coordinated effort. For the rest of the day we were stuck online, frantically deleting slurs, hate symbols and violent videos that had been pouring into our pages and forums one after another.

Or at least my coworkers were deleting them. I was sitting perfectly still, watching it all play out. I was breathless at the speed of their work, the shortcuts I hadn’t yet had a chance to learn that they seemed to know so well. Right click + ban + add a reason, and the user was gone. Of the hundreds of people we banned from our Discord that night, I think I was responsible for maybe ten. I didn’t have the instinct for it. I remember staring at a gif someone posted—I don’t even know if it was real—of World War II footage. Mass graves featuring neatly, grotesquely stacked bodies. Not for the last time in this job, I was completely frozen. I watched the gif  play over and over again, until one of the moderators banned the user and the looping footage disappeared into the void.

I had assumed that the target on the game’s back—and by extension, my own—would slowly fade as these trolls found a new thing to obsess over. But we retained a core group of dedicated harassers, even long afterward. Around a year after the trailer premiere, we learned that a parody version of Goodbye Volcano High, called Snoot Game, was circulating. This parody used likenesses of our characters in a visual novel with multiple possible endings: two of the “positive” endings had our main character detransitioning; one of the negative endings had them shooting up a school. Over the course of the game’s production, surrounded by a team of mostly queer game devs, I had felt safe enough to publicly come out as genderfluid. The transphobic aspects of the harassment were awful to deal with on their own, but I also felt that I’d increased the size of my target by being open about who I was.

With the launch of the parody, a new wave of harassment began to wash up onto my list of daily responsibilities. Sometimes I’d want to be spiteful, start fights, but I knew that would make things worse. Once, I made a snarky video in response to someone complaining about our company being full of “social justice warriors.” The next day someone impersonated my account and sent slurs to members in our Discord. Seeing the markers of myself—my image, my name—dropping violent rhetoric made me nauseous.

One of the central places the harassment was coming from was Kiwi Farms, an internet forum infamous for being a cesspool of edgy, alt-right spite. Since our announcement, the game had been a frequent topic on their forums, because the users considered it a “lolcow”—their term for a person or group that can be “milked for laughs.” I was repeatedly told by coworkers and friends not to look at their thread. This felt like good advice, but I was the person in charge of our social media, and I felt a responsibility to know what people were talking about. Ultimately, these were just excuses; I was only human and couldn’t dull my masochistic curiosity. So I went looking. As soon as I entered their website, I spiralled. Every page on the forum was saturated with screenshots of things that were being talked about in our Discord, things from our newsletter, things I was tweeting, things I was posting. Engaging with any of it was dangerous; I knew what they had done to other people who had reacted to their provocations.

Kiwi Farms was founded in 2013 by Joshua Conner Moon, a former administrator at 8chan, the alt-right forum linked to several mass shootings. It served mainly as a platform for anonymous users to target and harass online personalities, companies and anyone its users dislike. In 2016, Intelligencer deemed it “the web’s biggest stalker community.” It’s frequently targeted marginalized people in the game industry, like trans developer Liz Fong-Jones, indie game worker Chloe Sagal and Dani Lalonders, the lead developer of ValiDate. In June 2018, Sagal died by suicide; a friend told Variety “one factor that made it much harder for her to get help was that whenever she talked about suicide [Kiwi Farms] would report her Facebook page and get it locked down.” In June 2021, a Japan-based non-binary software developer who went under the pseudonym Near, celebrated for their work on the video game emulator higan, posted a Twitter thread detailing the sustained harassment and doxxing that they’d faced from Kiwi Farms. They died by suicide the day after posting the thread. Kiwi Farms users gloated over the deaths of the people who had been targeted. At the end of 2022, in part due to a relentless online campaign spearheaded by Clara Sorrenti, a trans Twitch streamer who had been targeted by the site, Kiwi Farms was kicked off its web host Cloudflare. It reappeared shortly afterward through the assistance of VanwaTech, a web host that’s also home to sites like 8chan and the neo-nazi Daily Stormer.

VanwaTech unceremoniously ceased operations earlier this year, leaving Kiwi Farms once again without a host. But even if the site is gone forever, its main participants will likely pop back up through the cement cracks of the internet in some other form, on some other platform—because Kiwi Farms itself is not the issue. The culture of online harassment and its mainstream acceptance is. The problems with Kiwi Farms aren’t confined within it, but spread through forums, chatrooms and livestreams throughout the industry, enabled by a lack of substantial moderation, industry ambivalence and a toxic work culture at the developer studios themselves.

We’re told that the people on the other side of the screen can’t hurt us, but that isn’t exactly true. Studies show a link between cyberbullying and suicide attempts. “In the eyes of the mob, the target’s life is a game, and the object is to screw it up as much as possible,” writes Margaret Pless in Intelligencer. In some cases, the harassment can exit the online realm and enter the physical one. Swatting refers to the act of reporting serious, but fake, crimes with the intention of sending armed police, often to the residence of a person being cyberbullied. It’s a tactic most often associated with the online gaming community—when Sorrenti was targeted, she was repeatedly swatted, even after changing addresses. It can also have fatal consequences. In 2017, a man playing Call of Duty in an online lobby attempted to swat another player; he got the address wrong and sent the police not to that player’s home, but to the home of an unrelated man named Andrew Finch. The cops entered the house and shot Finch to death; the swatter had made the call because he was angry after losing a $1.50 bet.

More people in the industry with power and influence need to step up and defend those who are the targets of these harassment campaigns. Smaller companies, typically more invested in social justice and the health of their workers and players, are often already doing this. KO_OP provided mental health training and hired a support coach to help me set better boundaries and improve our online community practices. Indie games like Caves of Qud have started to vet Discord members to make their turf safer. Worker-owned studios like Lucid Tales, Future Club and Soft Not Weak practice collaborative decision-making and open conversations about their workplace cultures. Gamergate, an explosion of targeted harassment toward women in the industry that occurred in the mid-2010s, has led big companies to commit to making their platforms safer; in 2017, the Fair Play Alliance was formed with the goal of restructuring the toxic culture and creating “healthier communities.” It now boasts signatures from over two hundred companies, including Ubisoft, Twitch and Discord. But clips of people getting harassed in livestreams or gaming lobbies remain common. To solve the issues permeating gaming culture, it will take more than putting your company’s name onto a list; it will take a staunch commitment to rebuilding the industry from the ground up.

The impacts of the sustained campaign of harassment still affect me. The visceral disgust I felt at our story of trans hope being turned into a detransition parody hasn’t left me; neither has the fear and anxiety I experienced when my daily tasks were placed under a microscope. In March 2023, I was working at PAX East, a gaming convention based in Boston where KO_OP was an exhibitor. It was my first time working at an in-person convention since the harassment campaign and I was unbelievably nervous. The first day, an exhibitor across the aisle from us came over to tell me how excited he was for Goodbye Volcano High, the release of which had been delayed due to the pandemic. “You guys are legendary in indie games,” he said. Without thinking I responded, “In a bad way, right?” He looked so confused.

All week, I found myself struggling to believe positive comments about us, about the game, about our working practices. I still have a hard time receiving compliments about my work without thinking they’re sarcastic. And that’s fine—it’s okay to feel bad about online harassment. I know the harm it can cause those exposed to it; the price people pay just for having the audacity to exist as themselves in the games industry. We’re told to just ignore things, to log off  and “touch grass.” But if we all desensitize ourselves to it, there won’t be any spaces in gaming outside of this toxicity; there won’t be any grass left to touch. ⁂

Marcela Huerta is a Chilean poet based in Tiohtià:ke (Montreal). They are the author of Tropico (2017), a collection of poetry published by Metatron Press. Their work has been featured in Peach Mag, Leste, voicemail poems and others. She is the poetry editor at carte blanche.