Risky Business

Over the course of running Crash Override, we’ve gotten a lot of cases where people were worried about their livelihoods. What happens if they find my stalker’s blogs about me? Will they fire me from all the phone calls from strangers? They’re mass emailing my boss demanding I be fired — even though it’s one person sending a bunch of mails. How will I ever find a job after this? Do I have anything to worry about?

With a really fucking heavy heart I’ve gotta say yes. Yes you do.

Especially if you work in a game studio.

I know it because I’ve had a front row seat to the way things work in this environment for the last 9 months.

There’s so much about how day to day life is impacted by being targeted by campaigns of online harassment that no one seems to understand until they’ve been there — then it seems like we all speak the same language: paranoia, social anxiety, crumbling relationships, and fear. It’s hard to translate some of it to anyone outside of this, but I’d like to try.

For his sake, and for the sake of the other people that have had the black oily tendrils of hatred curl around their ankles, dragging them under. For the ones we lost without ever noticing. For the ones who told me their stories in confidence, who are still afraid to ever repeat them.

You know me. You’ve heard my story, or at least some version of it, shouted around the corners of the internet for nearly a year now. The only reason you know it is because we fought back, and because I didn’t just die in the week or two after the meteor hit. I didn’t because of one person: Alex Lifschitz, the man I had started dating just a week before my life as I knew it ended.

You know me. You know how I was attacked. But did you know that Alex was there too, every step of the way? That I told him to run and leave me, because I knew he’d be targeted next? He refused without hesitation, telling his girlfriend of one week that he would stay by her side regardless of if it cost him his job, because he could always find another job but he would never be able to go back in time and do the right thing. That he was willing to fight for this industry, and for people like me to be able to work in it. That there would never be a time in our industry’s history where right and wrong was so clear cut, and he wanted to make sure that he did the right thing and took a stand when the cards were down.

You know me. You know I fought back, but he did too. He was with me every step of the way and monitored the IRC rooms, watching people discuss how they wanted to graphically rape and murder me, when it was all I could do to not curl up in a ball and hyperventilate. Together, we recorded things and planned on how to expose them and make it harder for them to keep hurting people. We showed the hate mob for what it was, knowing what could happen to us, and his job, if we did.

This solidarity, courage, and compassion was rewarded with a mob harassing his future employer, who was our light at the end of the tunnel since it was no longer safe to go home. The employer stood behind us. They saw the horde for what it was.

But it didn’t stop there. Studios he never worked at got brigaded. Then his employer’s employer got brigaded, and upped the pressure. One of the things that makes mob harassment so insidious is how it attacks from every possible angle, and some you didn’t even think of. All it takes in any system is one point of failure, one person to make the wrong decision, one person to not understand what’s going on, one person to be a coward.

And again, Alex did the right thing. Again he made the choice to help protect people. He offered to step away to stop the harassment, even though it was our only way out of the situation at the time, and they parted on good terms. His employer had been nothing but wonderful, and he didn’t want to be a burden. He’s since kept quiet about this, not because he was asked to, but to make it easier on everyone. To make it easier for everyone to just move on. To bury his suffering so in the days when GG was far scarier, more people didn’t get hurt.

He’s like that. His strength and commitment to trying to do the right thing is one I’ve looked up to as long as I’ve known him, and the only reason I’ve gotten through this with anything resembling humanity left.

But this is not about me. Alex is not me. He’s not my appendage. Yet he has had all of the same damage I have been hit with visited unto him — he was homeless for months alongside me. He has had his family terrorized, just like mine. He was left without work because of a bunch of teenagers with nothing better to do but bombard thousands of people hoping to find the one coward who will give in. He has taken all of the damage I have, to remain fighting for the future of this industry, to have his hope that things will get better steadily eroded away by companies telling him he’s too much of a “risk” for all of that good work he’s done.

And you probably don’t even know his name.

Alexander Lifschitz is not my boyfriend any more than Amal Alamuddin is George Clooney’s wife. He is a gifted producer with an actual sense for game design — my original impetus for working with him was that he was the first producer I had ever met that made me want to work with a producer. Ironically I never romantically pursued him because I didn’t want to lose the best producer I ever had — he was too good at what he did for me to risk anything with a stupid crush. He’s helped ship major console games at Microsoft, as well as smaller indie stuff. He’s the kind of guy who can talk to anyone and knows how to motivate and coordinate a team no matter how stubborn or diverse they are. I have seen him lead and produce projects through all of this nightmare, and managing to ship despite having *literal nazis* on his heels.

He didn’t fight back for me, he fought back for this industry and our right to exist within it free from harm.

How has the industry responded to his loyalty?

Dubbing him a hiring risk. Too hot to touch. Heaven forbid some teenagers spam them with meme-laden emails. SmegmaDan’s blog said Alex hated gamers, better not hire him it could be risky.

Elephants afraid of mice.

God could you imagine how much worse it’d be if he was a marginalized person? Look at what happened to The Mighty No 9’s Dina Abou Karam? Look at her google search.

When you combine this with all of the other barriers marginalized people face, combined with how they are targeted for mob hatred at an exceptionally higher rate, it has a chilling effect on speaking out. There are countless marginalized people I’ve spoken to in the industry who are too afraid to support their friends in even the most lukewarm ways because they don’t want their employers to retaliate. There are so many women and people of color that have expressed private support alongside an apology for their fear of making it public because they have to keep their search results clean for a potential studio’s HR department.

You know that’s done to people like us on purpose, right? That running away at the first sign of smoke without fire is a tactic used against targets of online mobs CONSTANTLY? That they abuse SEO as a tool of social warfare? That the only power this carries is the kind major companies give to them by not bothering to see if it’s smoke without fire?

What if someone like Alex wants to go independent (leaving aside the question of if indies even hire producers for a second)? I cast a long shadow. He gets fucked over not just once from the industry’s general fear, but twice because his story has been looked over or lumped in with mine because he wasn’t “loud enough” about his own trouble. Not only does he get targeted because of being with me, but people look past his suffering, sacrifice, his work, and efforts to rebuild. People thoughtlessly treat him as an appendage. It’s infuriating. Look at some of the articles written about Crash Override. Look how often he’s missing or thought of simply as “a boyfriend” and not the cofounder he is. Look at how people attribute his work to me. The man works his face off, gets results, and still gets screwed out of some of the credit.

Does that sound familiar? It does to me. I’ve fucking been there myself. It sounds like what USUALLY happens when I work with any men on a project. If you’re a marginalized person at all, you KNOW this feeling of frustration, of being whitewashed, of seeing your work being downplayed.

It’s not just Alex either. I’ve watched people who have been targets keep their heads down to try to keep themselves safe, just to have people all collectively forget what has happened to them. They’re stuck in a no-win position because speaking out means more hurt gets hurled their way, and more of their privacy is lost, but the cost of staying silent is that it seems that the world forgets about what happened to you at all. You’re left to wonder why people weren’t standing up for you like that, and if they cared about your suffering at all.

And since people with the power and reach need to speak up when those without are being hurt. Since I have been given the privlege to have this platform, I can’t just watch this, I have to speak up:

THIS INDUSTRY IS CREATING A RISK OF SPEAKING OUT BY CALLING THOSE WHO SPEAK OUT A RISK.

We are bleeding assets to this industry, to this medium, at an alarming pace because of this risk aversion and shortsightedness. I would be dead or totally lost if not for Alex and the other folks who have been targeted by GamerGate and quietly faded away because it got to be too much. To see so many of them treated as footnotes is heartbreaking. To see my partner who has endured all of the hell I have and more treated as a fashion accessory and not the fully fledged and fucking impressive human being he is insults both of us and the things we have built *together*. For a risk adverse industry to treat him and other activists like lepers because a teenager might go “ur game sux” shows some pretty fucked up priorities.

“Oh maybe it’s just him” you might wonder. NOT. AT. ALL. Obviously there are plenty of studios that aren’t like this, but there is a massive culture of risk aversion and general employee abuse in the studio system. NDAs restrict your social media use, sometimes to absurd degrees. I’ve known friends to be unable to take speaking gigs that were totally unrelated to what the studio was working on because of how much companies shit their pants at the thought of their employers being people (and thus maybe saying anything that the company would overreact to). Studios “reorg” all the time to reset contracts and be able to legally avoid promoting or hiring someone full time or having to give them benefits or health insurance. Crunch time is a god damned *industry standard* at this point. I could go on and on and on (and believe me I will at a later date), but needless to say, the studio system by and large treats their employees as disposable drones. One studio I interviewed at quite some time ago decided last minute not to hire me because I was upfront with my desire to continue making games on my own after the contract ended, and even THAT milquetoast of a statement made me too much of a hiring risk.

“Why don’t we hear about this more?” because working at a place like this demands signing an NDA to the scariest lawyers saying you can’t talk about it. And if you want to work in the industry, writing posts like this one will make you seem like a risk to hire! Writing this post probably ensures no major studio will ever hire me but I’m fairly sure GG made that the case quite some time ago. And yknow what? Good. I don’t want my work to make someone else rich if they treat people this way.

This high level culture of cowardice is fucking the industry up for the people who work in it, and it’s heartbreaking. It’s the reason I do NOT want to work for anyone but myself. Alex and others in the AAA space don’t even have that luxury, not just because they are best suited to working with studios or that’s where their hearts and passion lay, but also because the people who want to push back and support those who have had everything taken away from them during GamerGate don’t even know they exist. Look at how little attention anyone has paid to the people who have had their lives destroyed who aren’t named Anita, Zoe, or Brianna. This is bigger than just Alex’s story being lost, what about Mattie? What about Jenn? Phil? Chloe? What about every single person who was hurt by the same fucking shit before the movement had a name and a logo and a shitty anime waifu? Why does everyone forget them to form a made-for-tv-movie version of events?

Why does this industry treat us like the only value we have is in being a martyr? Where the hell is everyone when we’re trying to rebuild or go back to work?

This is one of the problems with a mainstream media “victim” narrative. Yes, what happened to me and countless others was horrible. But what we did about it was fight back. What we did about it was more important than what was done to us. Those who left, we mourn, but they left because they don’t deserve to be treated so poorly. This is not the cost of business we should be asking them to pay — they’re worth more than that, and the ones who leave know this.

The ones who stay though? Whose stories go unheard? People like Alex have to deal with the fallout from a system that’s too cowardly and risk averse to hire someone who can produce a team through the worst shitstorm our industry has ever seen because 20 accounts owned by 3 guys might yell cusses at their social media? *really*? Is this the industry that we’re fighting so goddamned hard for? This is what we’re destroying ourselves to protect?

What about the folks who never stated they were being harassed and just quietly left? What about the people we’ll never even see one game from now?

It’s an easy story to tell when it’s just something bad happening to someone. What people don’t see is the extent of the damage, recovery, and the barriers in place that you don’t anticipate that keep you from living your life ever again. You don’t see the people who don’t want to talk about what’s happening to them. You don’t see socially conscious people like Alex, who don’t want to make shit all about themselves because people are being hurt in worse ways because they’re marginalized. You definitely don’t see the marginalized people we’ve lost entirely without raising an issue about it because they’re SCARED, because we’ve taught them to be.

It’s easy to claim the simple act of hiring marginalized people will fix all of the problems with our industry. But what about the conditions those people face once they’re here? When a straight man can be a “huge risk” for speaking out about the online abuse both he and his loved ones have faced, how fucked are marginalized people who are sharing their own life experiences? How can we claim to be remotely inclusive at all when addressing the big doxing elephant in the room currently shitting on your sofa is enough to exclude you from the industry?

As always, these things are syndicated out to the people who have the most to lose. Alex still doesn’t have a job. So many marginalized voices left us. Many more never got the chance to speak in the first place. We are still bleeding.

People like us who make the choice to stay and keep fighting for a better industry instead of moving to one who wouldn’t capitulate to a handful of angry teenagers, are being taken advantage of. The people most willing to work hard and devote themselves to bettering our craft, our industry, and our medium to the point of risking their own safety should be the first people we want to hire within our ranks, not dubbed high risk and written off.

Don’t ask us to be on “diversity” or “online harassment” panel number god fuck who knows and call it a day. Representation on panels and marginalized people as protagonists in games is not enough. Give us work. Stand behind your employees. Support us as creators. Put your money where your mouth is and hire us, the people making it “risky” to speak out aren’t just the people doing the doxing and the swatting.

It’s our industry, too.

And that’s the most soul-crushing part.

(as a personal note please stop treating significant others as people’s appendages. it’s dehumanizing to everyone involved.)