As sexual abuse allegations flood in, the world of video games faces a reckoning

Many think the new allegations stem from a culture so broken it requires fixing from the ground up.

Mark Serrels Editorial Director
Mark Serrels is an award-winning Senior Editorial Director focused on all things culture. He covers TV, movies, anime, video games and whatever weird things are happening on the internet. He especially likes to write about the hardships of being a parent in the age of memes, Minecraft and Fortnite. Definitely don't follow him on Twitter.
Mark Serrels
8 min read

#twitchblackout is attempting to push Twitch toward more-stringent action.

Martin Bureau/Getty Images

Over the past few days, the games industry and those who cover video games have been struggling with a deluge of new sexual abuse allegations across social media. Centered on  Twitch  streamers but reaching outward to include game developers and game journalists, the allegations are so widespread that many believe they're the result of systemic problems with the culture.

"For every story told, many more go unspoken," says Giselle Rosman, the founder and director of Melbourne Global Game Jam, and a veteran game developer. "We all have to hold each other accountable and actively work to call out abusive behavior, and create work environments in which everyone is safe and can thrive."

The outcry hasn't occurred in a vacuum. This flood of allegations follows Black Lives Matters protests and has obvious similarities to the #MeToo movement that hit Hollywood in late 2017. In gaming, this is far from an isolated incident. In the words of one developer CNET spoke to, "the games industry is on its third 'MeToo' movement." Marginalized groups have lived through years of targeted harassment campaigns that've prompted broad online movements like Gamergate. In many ways these new allegations are part of that difficult, traumatic history.

The video game industry has long struggled to deal with deeply rooted issues of misogyny, homophobia and transphobia, but some feel the industry is on the cusp of real, meaningful change. Now people are in the process of asking themselves, how and where do we start?

Working toward an inclusive space

Jessica Richey, a 28-year-old Twitch streamer and content creator, has been putting together a formidable document: a Medium post, which is also now a spreadsheet, collating the numerous accounts of abuse shared on social media over the past few days. There are currently more than 200 reports. 

Richey began collating these after seeing multiple allegations of abuse focused on SayNoToRage, a content creator known for livestreaming the video game Destiny . SayNoToRage has since addressed the allegations on his YouTube page.

Richey started with this Twitter thread. Almost immediately, others began messaging her on Twitter with an overwhelming volume of accounts and allegations.

"People started coming forward either in tags/replies or in DMs about their stories," she says. 

"I'm not casting judgment or asking anyone to witch-hunt those who are named. I'm trying to give survivors of these issues a voice so they don't feel alone or gaslit based on their experiences in this industry."

Many have pointed to embedded practices within the games industry as part of the problem. Men are often given opportunities to abuse their power at industry events, which are almost exclusively held in bars. While being careful not to blame alcohol consumption for the behavior of toxic predators, some are hoping for change.

Jason Imms is the founder of TasGameMakers and a veteran games journalist. Years ago he started organizing "Co-op Drinks," an event that brought game developers, content creators and journalists together for networking during Australia's biggest gaming event, PAX Australia. 

In the wake of these allegations, Imms has decided to cancel the event indefinitely.

"As of yesterday Co-op Drinks is dead," he tells CNET. "I haven't put much thought into what might come next; it was a reflexive decision. I stand by it. It was the right decision, but it'll take me some time to process it and come up with new plans.

"Personally, I love having a beer with friends ... but I also believe that alcohol lowers our inhibitions. Alcohol makes it more likely we'll behave in ways we're not proud of, do things we'd never dream of doing while sober."

But Imms is quick to state that the problems the games industry is facing with sexual abuse aren't about alcohol. "This stuff is systemic in our society," says Imms.

He hopes to help replace it with something that makes marginalized people feel more included and safe. 

"I think I'd be more interested in helping someone else bring their vision of an inclusive space into reality," he says. "What games culture adds to that history is a quick path to fame and relevance for younger people, people still going through formative years."

Imms doesn't think stopping drinks events like the ones he organized will necessarily change things. It'll take a long time and require the work of multiple people in positions of power to truly effect long-term change.

"I just feel it's time to let go of an event that did more to hold on to what our community has historically been," he says. "To create space for events that take us toward what we need and want our community to become."

Actions speak louder than words

Some companies are being proactive on the issue. One such firm is Elgato, which makes devices used by content creators to capture video game footage. The company says it's immediately halting any relationship with streamers who are facing allegations

"Elgato does not, and will never, condone sexual misconduct of any kind -- this extends to our industry and streamer partnerships, attendance of our events at conventions, and our communities behavior online," it says.

In response to the allegations, Twitch put out a statement saying it was taking allegations of abuse "extremely seriously" and working "with law enforcement where applicable." Twitch CEO Emmett Shear later posted an email sent to the broader Twitch team, expanding on the Amazon-owned unit's initial response. Twitch, he said, would ban and remove streamers it had concerns with, "based on credible accusations and their historical behaviour on Twitch."

But many Twitch streamers pointed to reports that Shear and Twitch had been dismissive of such allegations in the past. They accused Twitch of minimizing previous complaints. Some ex-employees took to Twitter in support of those accounts.

"It seems like no matter how many people get hurt or come forward, Twitch doesn't want to take steps to change the way they do things," Twitch streamer SirKatelyn tells CNET. 

"Actions speak louder than words."

SirKatelyn was at the forefront of #TWITCHBLACKOUT, an attempt to force Twitch to take allegations of abuse, racism, sexual harassment, assault and rape seriously. SirKatelyn and others are refrained from streaming on Twitch, from 12 a.m. until 11:59 p.m. this Wednesday.

"Since Twitch repetitively fails to listen, it was decided to make a statement where they will certainly notice: their income," explains ThirdArtifact, another streamer involved in organizing the blackout.

The plan was to discuss Twitch's "negligence" off-platform in spaces where Twitch doesn't benefit financially. By removing themselves from that platform, Twitch critics hoped to force Twitch to ban streamers who "used their power to manipulate and spread toxicity."

"I truly believe, by doing nothing, Twitch is enabling these behaviors and should be held accountable," says ThirdArtifact. "Twitch should not be a place where women are told they have to sleep with popular streamers to grow. Streamers who use their platform to livestream harassment need to be removed swiftly."

But not everyone is on board. 

"I really fail to see how this would be an effective measure at all," says Lowco, another Twitch streamer, who adds that it was "too last minute" and didn't give enough time for people to organize effectively or communicate the message.

But both SirKatelyn and ThirdArtifact say their Twitch blackout is just the beginning. 

"We've gotten some constructive criticism for how to handle it in the future and I think this is just the first step for a long line of ways to make our voices heard," says SirKatelyn.

In statement sent to CNET, a Twitch spokesperson said they "support our streamers' rights to express themselves and bring attention to important issues across our service.

"We know there is work to be done, and we're listening to this feedback and working with urgency to make Twitch a safer place for everyone in the community."

In a more recent blog post Twitch said it was already planning to issue bans.

"We've prioritized the most severe cases and will begin issuing permanent suspensions in line with our findings immediately," the company stated. 

"In some cases we will need to report the case to the proper authorities who are better placed to conduct a more thorough investigation."

But Twitch is having its own issues internally. One Twitch streamer Vio has accused Hassan Bokhari, Twitch Account Director of Strategic Partnerships, of sexual assault and sharing nudes without consent

A power differential

"How are we so bad at this?"

Giselle Rosman believes that if things are to truly change, everyone in the games industry needs to do some heavy lifting. Codes of conduct for organizations and events need to be written and enforced; managers and studio heads need to set standards and rigorously maintain them. 

"All of this would be solved with empathy," Rosman says. "We all need to make space and support gender minorities in games, and we'll be that much better for it."

Raelene Knowles is the CEO of the Interactive Games & Entertainment Association in Australia. She also helps run The Working Lunch, a mentorship program that connects aspiring, underrepresented game developers and game journalists with people already working in those fields. She says the games industry needs to recognize the abuse of power, call out that abuse and provide support to those affected.

"People need to be held accountable for their actions, and we need to do our best to protect those in our space that need it most. It starts with listening, believing, respecting and assisting those being victimized. We need to ensure that we educate and connect them to the appropriate services and support mechanisms available."

Maize Wallin agrees. One of the people behind Making Space, a community designed to empower and support marginalized people trying to break in to the games industry, Wallin says the root of the abuse problem is a power differential. "The abuse happens predominantly to people who are new."

The video games industry relies heavily on gatekeepers in positions of power. They provide access to jobs or potential funding. More often than not, those gatekeepers are men. 

Wallin says younger marginalized developers are almost immediately placed in a difficult position. They need to work 10 times as hard, and -- crucially -- are far more dependent on contacts made through networking. 

"When can people afford to burn bridges?" Wallin asks. "Not in the first year of your career they can't. It takes a network to say, 'it's fine that I burned that bridge.'"

Wallin hopes groups like Making Space can help provide that network. Wallin's goal: Eliminate that period of time when newcomers feel powerless to speak out against games industry abuse in all its forms. 

But the ultimate responsibility comes from those who wield that power. In the short term, Wallin wants men in power to help elevate those who are vulnerable, particularly women and minorities.

"Do the introductions, be that safe space for people," Wallin says. "Don't question their abilities. Stop putting them on diversity panels. Hike people the fuck up."