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ArenaNet firings cast a chilling shadow across the game industry

‘You’re just waiting for the wrong tweet to end your life now’

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On July 5th, Guild Wars developer ArenaNet fired two employees, Jessica Price and Peter Fries, for their interactions on Twitter with a streamer. The firings were announced in a forum post by ArenaNet president Mike O’Brien, where he characterized their interactions with the streamer as “attacks on the community” and, later, an act of “hostility.”

The aftermath of ArenaNet’s actions has rippled across the gaming industry, both at the company and within the development community at large. Internally, multiple developers at ArenaNet tell The Verge that they felt let down by their employer, who, they say, walked back their branding about inclusion and standing against harassment, and caved to the whims of an internet mob. They describe a chilling effect in their place of work, a frustration and fear shared by many other professionals who make games. Toxic sectors of the gaming community have crowed about the firings as a triumph and a demonstration of their power to control and punish the people who make the games they love.

Female developers across the industry have also subsequently reported sometimes coordinated attempts to get them fired on the basis of their social media presence — attempts they believe were inspired by the ArenaNet firings. One developer, who asked to remain anonymous because of potential backlash from online mobs, learned that her employer received form letters touching on her social media presence. Rather than specifying her name, some of these letters had been botched and simply said “%FEMALENAME.” Speaking to The Verge, she says these messages began arriving on Sunday night after word of the ArenaNet firings had spread. “This is 100 percent a response to the ArenaNet thing,” she says. “There’s no doubt whatsoever in my mind.”

She says the company’s public dismissal of two employees over a social media spat — framed by O’Brien as an attack on the company’s fans generally — has emboldened bad actors involved in movements like Gamergate, which target women and marginalized people in particular. “If you’re a woman, you’re just waiting for the wrong tweet to end your life now,” she says. “It sent a message to the harassment junkies that have infected our communities for the last four years: ‘Please come for our women.’ I don’t know what could undo this damage without further riling them up.”

“you’re just waiting for the wrong tweet to end your life now.”

Similar stories from other female developers followed. A narrative designer at Arkane Studios tweeted a screenshot of a Twitter user whom she had told to leave her alone. He subsequently complained to her employer that she had “verbally abused” him and announced that he would no longer be a customer. “This is what these people think they can do to us now,” the developer wrote.

On July 10th, five days after the ArenaNet firing, developer Jennifer Scheurle posted a screenshot of a DM that had been sent to her employer, Opaque Space, earlier that day. The lengthy DM included Scheurle’s Twitter handle and complaints about her social media presence. “She has been consistently using her twitter account to spread group / gender hating ideals especially towards men,” the message read. “She consistently shares misinformation about the ‘equal opportunities of women’ compared to men within the gaming industry in order to improve her own personal agenda and career.”

The sender goes on to add that they “would like to believe that you are not supporting / or god forbid practice these stereotypical behavior against any specific groups,” and names Price specifically as a subject eager to “ignite ‘gender’ drama.” It concludes with a promise to “make more inquiries” about Scheurle with other games organizations and media outlets in a strategically worded threat that promises attempted blackballing.

“I usually don’t directly share these but I need y’all to see how stories such as Jessica Price’s and her firing from ArenaNet have serious consequences beyond just one company and instead spread like poison through our entire industry,” Scheurle wrote.

Scheurle tells The Verge that incidents like this demonstrate why “large corporations letting their communities dictate and influence how to treat their employees is a very dangerous approach and obviously a slippery slope.” She adds that “this behavior has painted a target on all of our backs” and that it gives harassers “an angle to target us knowing that we won’t receive protection from our employers. Wanted or not, it makes us vulnerable and ultimately leads to many of us rather staying silent because we won’t know if an angry internet mob demanding our heads will be enough for us to lose our jobs and ultimately our livelihood.”

The firings have also made ArenaNet a tense place for many who work there. The Verge spoke with several developers who are currently employed at ArenaNet who requested anonymity in order to speak freely and without fear of retribution. Employees say they feel a mixture of uncertainty, anger, and sadness over the past week’s events. Some describe the events over the last week as a betrayal — evidence that, despite tall talk of support and inclusion, their employer will abandon them when push comes to shove. Many managers were away on vacation at the time of the firings (including both Price and Fries’ direct supervisor), which has fueled internal confusion. Employees say that what they’ve heard has come down from the executive level.

Although opinions about the firings fall across the board, many people at the studio are angry. “Everyone agrees something is wrong,” one employee tells The Verge. “Some blame the media, some blame Jessica, some blame unclear social media policies, some blame the internet mob, and some blame [Mike O’Brien].” Others worry about the sustainability of their careers at ArenaNet and hope that their employer will speak up about harassment while there’s still time to recover.

Two employees confirmed that ArenaNet has not significantly revised its social media policy since 2011, and that it includes general rules about anti-harassment and being mindful of how individual tweets might be read as representative of the company. But they say penalties and consequences for violating those guidelines had not been discussed with employees, and they fear the precedent set now is a one-strike termination. In the uproar following the firings, they say ArenaNet is only now working to revise it. Price previously told The Verge that ArenaNet had never approached her about her social media presence before. In fact, she says, “they reassured me that they ‘admired [my] willingness to speak truth to power.’”

“I think this is blood in the water for the worst kind of people.”

Fries’ firing has been especially jarring for many employees, as the gentleness of his comments makes it difficult to see how they could be characterized by ArenaNet as “attacks on the community.” In a series of now-deleted tweets, Fries spoke up in support of Price: “Here’s a bit of insight that I legitimately hope he reflects on: she never asked for his feedback. These are our private social media accounts — imagine you’re an astronomer and you start sharing some things you’ve learned in the last few months since you began a research project observing Saturn, only to have observation techniques explained to you by a layman… Jessica is great at her job and deserves to be treated with respect.”

Everyone liked Fries, says one developer, adding that even fans in the Guild Wars 2 subreddit echoed this sentiment. His firing has had a particularly strong “chilling effect in the studio,” says another current employee. “I think this is blood in the water for the worst kind of people, and not just the ones who run around screaming slurs at people on social media and brigading studio HR departments, but YouTubers with 50K+ subscribers who fearmonger about SJWs,” they tell The Verge. “And if ArenaNet wants to rebuild its reputation with the most marginalized in the industry (ironically enough, Jessica was probably one of our biggest cheerleaders for how good our diversity was), it will start by acknowledging that.”

Other studios and organizations in the gaming community have responded to the fallout by taking positive action. Opaque Space, the company that employs Scheurle, has seized on the moment as a catalyst “to openly discuss and publicly state their internal mechanisms for dealing with harassment of their staff.”

Scheurle says that, similarly, other studios that do not already have clear policies and procedures in place must roll up their sleeves and get to work. “If companies want to benefit from making games and servicing the games community, they need to be ready to engage in all aspects of it, not only the comfortable and most profitable ones. Better communities, healthier and happier employees make better products and make more profit.”

Developers like Max Payne creator Remedy Entertainment have taken this chance to speak with their developers about harassment and clarify social media policies. Kitfox Games shared its harassment policies on Medium. The International Game Developers Association (IGDA) has since issued guidelines as a direct result of the firings and recommended questions for developers to ask their employers.

“This incident makes very clear the perils of social media for game developers, especially when transparent and well-understood guidelines for staff members are not in place,” the IGDA post reads. “Game developers are also frequently targeted for harassment, particularly if they are members of under-represented communities. Companies must plan for how they will support their staff members in the event of online harassment, and should clearly communicate the resources they will make available to their team to have safe, productive, and positive interactions online, especially if they are expected to do so in their roles.”

Kate Edwards, former executive director of the IGDA and a board member of Take This (a mental health organization co-founded by former Polygon employee Russ Pitts) says ArenaNet’s actions have caused fervent discussion among game makers. The company’s response “has seemed somewhat out of character and in fact extreme to many,” she tells The Verge. “It’s clear that the company’s expectations on how and when an employee must officially act as a representative of the company are far-reaching yet not made explicit as policy.”

The incident is also generating new interest in labor organization for developers. Game Workers Unite, a grassroots organization that’s working to unionize the game industry, released a statement backing Price and Fries. It condemned ArenaNet’s actions and called on O’Brien to condemn the harassment around their former employees.

“Not content to merely fire Price and Fries and cut them off from the support system of the company, O’Brien’s comment has encouraged further harassment of the pair by framing them as enemies of the community, implicitly validating the attacks that were already ongoing,” Workers Unite’s statement reads. “It is sobering to consider that if ArenaNet had chosen to say nothing, Price and Fries would have been better off than they are presently. This is not merely a case of workers losing their jobs and being abandoned by their studio. It is a case in which an employer has escalated and effectively encouraged further harassment of their former employees, through deliberate silence about the attacks suffered by their workers combined with an extraordinary choice of words in a public statement.”

“GamerGate is not an event. It’s a playbook.”

Former developer and Massachusetts candidate for the US House of Representatives, Brianna Wu, who has helped monitor Price’s Twitter account, says the harassment and attention being directed at the former ArenaNet developer is “as bad as she’s ever seen.” Despite blocking what she estimates are anywhere from 600 to 700 accounts, new comments keep pouring in. One screenshot she provides includes a user tweeting at Price: “I want to bludgeon the fuck out of your skull and fuck your dead body. I want to kill your pets too if you have any.”

“No matter how you might feel about what Jessica did, there’s nothing that warrants that,” Wu tells The Verge. “There’s nothing that warrants what is going on with her Twitter right now.” She adds that she hopes game companies learn to consider the consequences of their actions and how to keep their employees safe. “Gamergate is not an event,” she says. “It’s a playbook.”

ArenaNet repeatedly declined to comment for this article. When asked explicitly why it has not condemned the ongoing harassment of its two former employees, the company did not respond.

Although Wu says she believes ArenaNet does “not understand what they unleashed upon women in the field,” the issue of social media harassment and policies around it extends beyond the gaming industry to professionals in any arena. “We need companies to stand by their employees,” she says. “They need a playbook already written out in how they’re going to address this when it happens, because it’s not if, it’s when.

“This is women across all industries. I would say companies need to be prepared for this to happen.”

Correction: Kate Edwards is a board member of Take This. Her position has been clarified to reflect this.