Update 16/01/2020: I stand by everything I’ve said below, but for a summary of cancel culture that’s 8000000 times better than anything I could produce, take a look at ContraPoint’s ‘Canceling’ video.
These last few weeks have been intense. It’s been a wake-up call for me, and a confirmation that some popular forms of feminism are actively hurtful to women. The biggest offender is call-out culture: people piling in on each other on social media with unverified and viral claims. This is what happened to Alexis last month, and it’s horrific.
I’m not going to talk about whether Alexis is a bad dude, as he’s already done that, and he’s simply not. I am going to talk about the impact of call-out culture, using this experience as an example. Here’s what happened to people who weren’t Alexis last month.
- Weather Factory’s reputation tanked. Weather Factory had nothing to do with any allegation, but a bunch of people aren’t comfortable working with us anymore.
- My reputation tanked. If we’re going to judge women on whom they sleep with we’re all pretty terrible feminists. I also had nothing to do with any allegation.
- We lost two female employees. The PR stink was too much and could have damaged their careers, so they resigned. Two women are now out of secure jobs. They had nothing to do with any allegation.
- We lost our mentees. As above, the PR was awful and could have damaged new studios’ reputations. They had nothing to do with any allegation.
- Coven Club, my personally-created and personally-funded women in games meet-up, was tainted. Some women now won’t want to attend, especially as some people said it was a deliberate cover-up to conceal Alexis’s evil. That’s either a conspiracy theory or a deliberate attempt to undermine a women in games initiative. Coven Club had nothing to do with any allegation.
- The industry salary spreadsheet I set up was tainted. Again, some claimed it was pseudo-feminist cover for Alexis’s dreadful ways. It was, actually, entirely my idea, before Alexis knew he needed to cover anything up in the first place. The spreadsheet’s aimed at helping people know and secure their worth across a totally unregulated industry. The salary spreadsheet had nothing to do with any allegation.
- I had to step back from a feminist fund I was helping, as some people wouldn’t apply if I were involved. The fund can and will replace me with someone else, so they’ll be fine. But this has kicked out a woman from a women’s initiative because of accusations against a man. Again, I had nothing to do with any allegation.
- BOOK OF HOURS is on hold. A lovely peaceful game about books and all the work that went into making and planning it is for naught. It had nothing to do with any allegation.
(Additionally, Alexis nearly killed himself. I don’t care what anyone has done or is accused of having done: driving people to suicide is wrong.)
Everyone on the above list who isn’t Alexis was punished for the five year old alleged sex-life of a guy they didn’t know at the time. If you think that’s an acceptable amount of collateral damage, it’s probably not worth reading the rest of this piece.
I don’t think it’s acceptable. I don’t think it’s fair. I don’t think it had to happen. I think there were other ways of dealing with allegations of one guy being a dick, and that people chose call-out culture because it makes a lot of noise and makes a lot of people feel good and it’s a really easy way to pretend that you’re making a difference.
But I don’t think making people feel good or pretending you’re making a difference is justification for losing some women their jobs, nearly convincing a guy to top himself, or – in a separate, more serious case – actually convincing him to do it.
There are other ways. But let me first highlight some of the problems with call-out culture, as someone who’s seen them first hand.
CALL-OUTS ARE A CATCH-22
Imagine someone says you did something bad on Twitter. It’s being retweeted left, right and centre, lots of people are joining in, you’re getting nasty comments from total strangers, and people are saying things like:
- “Lots of people are saying this! It must be true!”
- “This guy’s a liar!”
- “He deliberately does good stuff, to cover up his bad stuff!”
Think about how you’d defend yourself in that situation. Firstly, there’s a pipeline problem. Twitter preferences single messages that are shared by lots of people. It’s a spotlight on a darkened stage. It’s terrible at getting messages out to viral claims about you which have been shared by thousands of people. That would be lighting up the whole stage at once. So even if you have something that utterly proves you’re innocent, it’s very hard to get that in front of everyone unless you can get even more retweets than the allegations did. #metoo is a powerful motivator and you probably won’t.
Secondly, someone’s called you a liar! That means anything you say is probably a lie.
Thirdly, people are happy to believe allegations against you even if you’ve behaved well in the past. The trope that abusers deliberately do good things to cover up their bad acts erases all the reputation you’ve built up over the years not being an asshole. By doing good stuff, you’re engaging in classic asshole behaviour, which only proves you’re more guilty than you were in the first place. There’s no ‘win’ here for an accused person: it’s immediately and irrevocably a fail state.
Modern systems of justice – and I’m talking proper justice, like juries, judges, the law – often fail women because they put the burden of proof on the accuser. This means successfully punishing people for things like sexual assault is difficult, because by the very nature of the offense – usually committed in private, between two people – there isn’t a whole bunch of evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused did the thing the accuser says they did. This is shitty, and it needs to change. But it’s tipped towards the defendant deliberately: Blackstone’s ratio, the idea that “it is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer”, is a vital founding principle of modern justice.
Call-out culture is the opposite. It thinks it’s better that ten innocents are brought down than one guilty person escapes. It’s designed from the ground up to remove people’s ability to defend themselves. It isn’t justice. It’s a lynch mob.
CALL-OUTS ERASE WOMEN
Ironically, the only absolute that seems to be true is that there are no absolutes. The world isn’t black and white. But one of the most common responses to a #metoo Twitter shaming is the rallying cry to ‘believe women’. One woman says one thing and she must, she must, be right. I look forward to #metoo revelations from Ivanka Trump.
‘Believe women’ only makes sense if you think – if you really, genuinely think – that women are perfect and could never be misinformed, make mistakes, or be vindictive. People subscribing to ‘believe women’ must not know a single woman in the history of their lives who has ever done something wrong. I’m a big ol’ feminist who runs (well, used to run) a bunch of well-intentioned women in games initiatives because women are amazing. But I know just as many flawed women as I do flawed men. ‘Believe women’ is a weird gender absolute that doesn’t engage with the real world and therefore doesn’t help.
The experience I’ve gone through in the last month is a good case study. Three women of good standing have said one thing. I and Alexis’s ex-wife of ten years, two other women of good standing, have said something else. How can we reconcile Believing Women here? In this Twitter shaming – and I suspect in many others – dissenting voices were happily ignored. Those women shouldn’t be believed. They’re bad actors. Misled by men. Working for the Other Side, like some emotionally compromised Uruk-hai. But believe those first women for sure.
Call-outs silence and erase women who say the world is more complicated than a catchphrase. Call-outs silence and erase anyone who doesn’t play along. Movements which rely on absolutes, repress criticism and seek to erase people who disagree with them tend not to be the best movements in the end.
The ability to discount female voices which aren’t saying the right thing is a rather convenient safeguard. It’s a rather convenient way of silencing women who don’t agree with a very contentious way of enacting social justice. Silencing women doesn’t seem like a particularly good outcome for a progressive feminist social movement.
Junior women joining the industry will be led by the culture and systems we set up to manage the very many and very real wrongs done to women by men. Teaching them that the solution is making a stink on social media is infantilising, dangerous and unhelpful. It will discourage them from making real, practical and actionable changes to this industry, under the misapprehension that the fix has already been found. We are ruining women’s chances at a fair and equal existence in games before they even get here.
CALL-OUTS RELY ON WHISPER NETWORKS, AND WHISPER NETWORKS ARE BAD
Whisper networks are clandestine conversations between women about men. Apparently, they allow women to safely share information about who’s bad and who’s good among themselves. They protect women by telling them who’s safe and who’s not. I wouldn’t know, because despite being the long-term partner of a guy who’s just been called out as a dick, no-one ever whispered anything to me.
You may be thinking: Lottie! You’re engaged to this guy. You founded a studio together. Nobody’s going to tell you that he’s bad, because you’ll tell him and then he’ll summon his legion of terror-bats and set them on the wimmins. And that’s logic of a sort (though this is another easy erasure of a woman who complicates things).
But the allegations leveled at Alexis are from 2015, when he was CEO of Failbetter Games. I was the most junior woman at the studio then, one year into games and working side by side with the people who’ve recently come out against him. When I was just starting to date him, that information would have been useful. When I moved in with him, that information would have been useful. When I left Failbetter to co-found a studio with him, that information would have been useful. In this instance, I have been the one woman in the direct firing line of a so-called abuser for nearly five years. I have never heard a single thing about him, but apparently, hundreds of other people have. If whisper networks are so ineffective that they can’t warn the one person most likely to be harmed, they aren’t a viable system of protection.
Whisper networks are also arguably the worst possible way to reliably communicate anything. Part of my job as a games producer is designing processes for game developers to pass information back and forth between each other. The idea of producing a game without documentation, stand-ups or design notes and instead with a secret system of individuals occasionally telling each other what their neighbour told them is, frankly, insane. I would make a grave expression at the producer who suggested it. I would ask them if they could Walk Me Through Their Reasoning Here. And a process that fails abominably in theory is not going to succeed in practice, especially when scaled up to accommodate thousands of people at once. Whisper networks are a terrible, terrible system for what they appear to want to achieve.
So we come to the crux of the issue. What does call-out culture actually want? The long-term goal in this instance is to get rid of abusive men in the games industry. I also would like to get rid of abusive men in the games industry. That sounds like a brilliant idea. But what exactly does this mean, in practical terms?
Does call-out culture want, like much of the judicial system, to punish wrong-doing and reform wrong-doers so they can rejoin society as assets, not assholes? At the most basic level, call-outs are international public humiliation. That is a famously terrible way to teach people things. Humiliation turns people into serial killers and suicides. So as call-out culture relies on public humiliation, reform can’t be its end goal.
Does it want abusive men to just disappear? If so, where do they go once they’re outed? It doesn’t feel terribly feminist to say we’re cool with abusive people leaving games and going to work in other industries, preying on the women there. So does call-out culture want men to never work again? In which case, are we cool with that economic shock affecting their spouses and children? Do we want them to starve? Do we want them to live on the street? Do we want them to actually die? For all the noise it makes at the start, call-out culture is strangely silent at the end.
When I don’t know someone’s motives I look at the outcome of their actions for a guide. A thief is more likely to steal because they want money than because they get a sexual thrill from pawning jewellery. In this case, call-out culture achieved:
- the near-death of Alexis Kennedy
- a bunch of enjoyable online outrage
- a net movement of Twitter followers from some accounts to others
- a bunch of press
- the loss of two women’s jobs
- the cancellation of a Kickstarter
- harm to women in games initiatives
- harm to a separate games studio
- making me really miserable
- making some people really happy
- making some lawyers a lot of money
- making a big old mess of people’s lives.
You will note that it did not achieve the end of sexism and/or abuse in games, the promise from all men never to be mean to ladies ever again, or the safeguarding of future women from future male threats. It’s a confused list. I don’t believe this call-out had a particular end goal in mind. It just sort of exploded, spilling itself over everything and letting the stains sink in where they liked.
Call-out culture will not fix entrenched, systemic sexism in games. Call-out culture will not mete out targeted or fair communal justice. Call-out culture is thousands of retweets in an explosion of hate which utterly fails to protect women in games, current or future. Hiding behind a #metoo hashtag doesn’t conceal the fact that this histrionic, vicious and aimless act of violence has about as much hope of making games a better place as a t-shirt saying ‘why can’t we all just get along?’. The sooner we realise call-out culture is a blood sport and not a moral movement, the sooner we can work on actually fixing our problem.
ACTUALLY FIXING OUR PROBLEM
There is clearly an issue with women being mistreated in games. Call-out culture is part of that issue. If you’ve read this far, I hope you’re less keen on it than you were before.
Here are some alternative ways to solve problems between men and women in the games industry, which don’t cause a wide variety of unnecessary pain or drive people to their deaths. This is specific to the UK: there are different organisations and different relationships with police elsewhere.
- Talk to the person responsible. They might have done something so awful that you don’t feel you can, in which case, skip this step. But in most circumstances, communicating directly is the best way to resolve the problem and/or change bad behaviour.
You can approach this in a variety of ways: face-to-face, a mediated meeting at work, a phone call, an email, a lawyer’s letter. You don’t have to do it on your own, either. Bring a friend. Bring your whole family. You don’t need to be in danger to talk something out.
- Contact HR. Some small indies don’t have HR, but if your company does, this is the department specifically set up to help you. I’ve heard some people say that HR serves the company and not the employee, but this feels like a very uncharitable way to approach professional colleagues who are literally employed to assist you. At least consider HR.
- Contact ACAS. They’re specifically set up to help with workplace disputes and sexual assault allegations, among a bunch of other useful things. ACAS are the go-to neutral workplace mediator. They are your friends.
- Contact the police. They’ll confirm if you have a pursuable case, what specifically it is (e.g. harassment, assault, stalking) and pass you on to appropriate support networks. They’ll also listen and provide a neutral third-party point of view. This is the best way to resolve a serious issue that goes beyond a workplace misdemeanour.
- Contact a lawyer. This option isn’t available to everyone, because lawyers are expensive. But women in games groups like WIGJ may be able to put you in touch with lawyers who can offer pro-bono advice.
- For sexual assault, contact support groups. Like Women’s Aid, Victim Support or The Survivors Trust. Alternatively, phone Rape Crisis‘s national helpline (0808 802 9999) or NHS 111. They’ll be able to suggest appropriate next steps, too.
Resolving an emotional, angry situation with a colleague is hard. It’s really, really hard if there’s a personal or romantic side to it as well. So this list may not hold the solution to your particular problem. If it doesn’t, help make this list longer. Help women by adding to it. Set up what’s missing, by founding something yourself or speaking to UKIE or WIGJ or G into Gaming or whoever else you can think of. If you’d like, email me – I might be able to help connect you, or help set something up. Weather Factory might even be able to fund it.
We are wasting our energy with call-out culture. It doesn’t solve our problem. It doesn’t make things better. It eats up our time and our empathy and hurts people, lots of people, and pretends it’s doing something good. We need structure and accountability and justice to make this industry a better place for women. Structure, accountability and justice are all things call-out culture’s left behind.