This transcript comes from our interview on the Diabolical podcast, which you can listen to on Apple Podcasts or YouTube. It starts about ten minutes into the recording, after the introductory pleasantries.
🎙️ EK is Erik Kain, the host | 🙋♂️ AK is Alexis Kennedy | 💁♀️ LB is Lottie Bevan
🎙️ EK: So, you’ve got kind of a crazy story of your own. What’s the backstory here?
🙋♂️ AK: We do. Shall I start with the backstory or shall I start with 2019?
💁♀️ LB: I would do an overview.
🙋♂️ AK: So the overview is we were, in late 2019, Lottie and me, at the top of the wheel. We’d brought out Cultist Simulator, we’d done the first round of DLC which had been very successful, we’d decided we were going to make a new game about a library which [had] a lot of buzz, we’d grown the studio from two to five people, and because Lottie for a long time had been a big proponent of feminism in games we were that rare thing: a majority female studio.
💁♀️ LB: Very proud of that.
🙋♂️ AK: And we’d just won a whole bunch of awards, and then a tornado came down on us. And the tornado was that I was accused, on Twitter, of being ‘an abuser’. And I was accused by two – kind of two and a half – people, and the story got legs because it was the same time as a couple of other big names got called for being ‘abusers’ and so it was described –
💁♀️ LB: It was a bit of a moment.
🙋♂️ AK: Yeah, it was a moment. And nobody wanted to know the details. You know, I was ‘an abuser’ and I was a bad guy and that was it.
💁♀️ LB: Well, specifically you [AK] were accused of leveraging your position as CEO of a company to basically get women to sleep with you. And just to be clear, before we move forward, that didn’t happen. AK said it didn’t happen at the time and wrote at length about what actually happened.
🙋♂️ AK: So yeah, I think it’s worth saying that when I say I was called out on Twitter, what actually happened was an anonymous Twitter account popped up and started making allegations about me. And that was sufficiently weird that that didn’t get any traction, although it was quite unpleasant. And that happened on my daughter’s tenth birthday.
💁♀️ LB: And to be clear, the allegations that the anonymous account were saying were things like ‘hands up anyone who’s gone round to AK’s house for cocktails’. Which is not, you know, your New York [Times] headline crime.
🙋♂️ AK: No. And then the anonymous account went away because it wasn’t getting any traction, and then there was something of a… does coordinated assault sound too paranoid? It does, doesn’t it.
💁♀️ LB: It does. I think it was more of a free-for-all.
🙋♂️ AK: Yeah, I think a lot of it was spontaneous. But I got one person making accusations, a lot of retweets, and then another person making accusations. And here’s what I was actually accused of and what I actually did. I had sex, twice, with Meg Jayanth in 2011. Eight years before any of these accusations were made. Back when she was a producer at the BBC, and I was running Failbetter, [which] at that point was five, six people and we had no money. So there wasn’t any power differential, she wasn’t working for me, it was all 100% consensual.
And the other thing I did was I hired somebody who I was already occasionally sleeping with. And then later on Lottie and I fell in love, and I broke things off with [the first person], and she was hurt and it was tricky. But we kept working together for another six months before I left the company. And that’s literally it. That’s, I think, everything. And if you go online and search my name, you can find people say that I’m a sex pest, that I’m a rapist, that I’m a sexual abuser –
💁♀️ LB: It’s so horrible.
🙋♂️ AK: And I’ve never – it’s hard even to say – I’ve never been accused of being a rapist. It sounds like, ‘I’ve never been accused of being a rapist!’ But what I mean is I’ve been accused of being accused of being a rapist. People say, oh, you know he’s a wrong ‘un, you know he’s a sex pest, and then if asked exactly what, then it’s, pfft, “you’re not standing up for an abuser, are you?” And at the time, when it happened, I think it got more traction because Alec Holowka and Jeremy Soule – both of whom were bigger names than me, I was very much the runt of the litter – were also attacked online.
💁♀️ LB: And for more serious things. Both of them were accused of variants of sexual assault –
🙋♂️ AK: I want to make it clear they were accused. And we’re not –
💁♀️ LB: Oh, no, absolutely! I’m just saying that’s why I think your narrative has changed quite a lot since the original accusations, because you’re sort of lumped in with more serious allegations.
🙋♂️ AK: I see. I see what you mean. But again, you’d be amazed to hear that my experience has made me more sceptical of internet claims that are made about other people. And Alec, of course, killed himself, so I’m particularly keen not to blacken his name any further. But at the time, a whole bunch of people said yes, I’ve been hearing stories about Alexis for years, and I was accused – what was the phrase? ‘A multitude of women’? ‘Uncountable women’? ‘Dozens of young women’? The idea was that I sort of hung around games conferences…
💁♀️ LB: And you jumped out of bushes at young women.
🙋♂️ AK: Yeah, or I invited them back to my room and said ‘hey, I think I can get you a poorly-paid writing gig for my six-person indie studio, do you wanna do the thing?’
💁♀️ LB: Yeah. And that didn’t… ever happen.
🙋♂️ AK: Yeah. That didn’t happen.
💁♀️ LB: And again, nobody ever said that happened. There was the actual accusations about him using his position of power, which are untrue, and then there was a sort of secondary story that took on a life of its own, which has no bearing on any reality or any specific allegations at all, that you’re just kind of skank, and that your career has basically been about picking up girls, and that you’re just a bad guy.
🙋♂️ AK: And the reason you [LB] were running feminist initiatives, and the reason that we at Weather Factory were doing mentorship for new indies, and the reason that I used to respond to people who mailed me and asked for help, and the reason that when I was at Failbetter that we founded an initiative called Fundbetter that gave money – no, to be fair, lent money to indies Indie Fund-style, and the fact that at Failbetter I instituted a scheme where everybody was paid at least £32k as a minimum decent wage, and at Failbetter in the first seven years of its life exactly one person resigned (and that was because his wife got a dream job in the US), which is a turnover you don’t get anywhere else… All that was a cover and you should be more suspicious of me because we did those things, because it was all just me covering up my habit of jumping out of bushes.
But I think you [LB] said ‘nobody ever said…’ and I think it’s worth getting to that because the other half of this is the effect it’s had on your life. And I’ve always said that this was an attack as much on Lottie as on me. Lottie thinks I’m probably being a little paranoid about that, but certainly she suffered, and certainly the thing is, I was apparently jumping out of bushes but nobody ever saw fit to mention this to you [LB].
💁♀️ LB: Yeah. So I knew immediately there was something hinky going on, because I, at the time, had been monogamously dating Alexis for something coming up on five years. So we lived together, we worked together, if he were doing anything sneaky the chances are that I would have had some inkling that that was going on, even if I didn’t know all of it. And I had also worked at the ex-company, Failbetter, where all of this took place, and I had also worked with the two women who specifically said negative things about you, and I was fully aware of the context of the relationships going on there.
So I knew there was something more to the story when it came out, but ostensibly it was trying to protect women from people like Alexis. That was the sort of stated reason for this all happening on social media and being so cataclysmically awful. It was a kind of idea that, ‘well, it is awful for you guys and your business might suffer and you might kill yourselves, but we’re doing this because we have to protect women’. Which, you know, great, I’m pro protecting women, that’s a good thing.
But then it became apparent that I was also under attack. And I had been a prominent feminist in the industry, I’d won some awards, I was quite well known for being quite outspoken and protective of women in lots of ways, and very, very quickly that changed, and I have now too become a monster –
🙋♂️ AK: ‘An abuser.’
💁♀️ LB: Well, ‘an abuser’ specifically according to one of Alexis’s particular detractors. No reason given, I just am. And I’m a ‘bad feminist’, and I’m a ‘woman-shield’, and my career, even more than Alexis’s –
🙋♂️ AK: ‘Grima Wormtongue.’
💁♀️ LB: ‘Grima Wormtongue’, that’s a classic. Yeah, my career has been a total front for Alexis’s, to cover up his evil, misogynistic abuse. Despite the fact that that doesn’t stand up to any scrutiny at all, and I find that really insulting! So this has expanded from specific allegations of a bad character on Alexis’s part, to ‘Lottie and Alexis eat babies for breakfast, and anyone who talks about them should also be banned’.
🙋♂️ AK: I think it’s worth being specific. So I don’t think anyone’s actually said that we eat babies for breakfast, but they have said that you’re a racist…
💁♀️ LB: Yeah, I’m ‘a racist’. My family are awful…
🙋♂️ AK: Your family are aristocrats, apparently.
💁♀️ LB: Yep, and I was brought up in the Raj, so that’s why I’m super racist. Despite the fact that I’m not that old.
🙋♂️ AK: And I’m a drunk. I made a cocktail on stage at GDC back in 2017 and this was because I was secretly, like, drugging women’s drinks…
💁♀️ LB: To be clear, you were never accused of that. There was a sort of suggestion that you were kind of a rogue.
🙋♂️ AK: There was one person who said, ‘well, you know, I had a drink with him and he was drinking a transparent liquid and he said it was gin but who knows, it might have been water…’
💁♀️ LB: It was definitely gin, to be clear. This man has a serious gin collection. And the way this manifests, to stop our tiny violins, is two years on from this stuff which came out of nowhere and was just cataclysmic, as we said, we still get a very small rump of people who will still appear out of relatively nowhere, you know. When we’re just doing our day-to-day stuff we don’t see horrible stuff although we really don’t go looking, but if we launch a game, if we get any press coverage, if we do anything remotely financially positive for this company, we see people still actively emailing distribution platforms telling them to take us down, we get people saying you can’t feature these people, we know that we have been blacklisted by a lot of press –
🙋♂️ AK: Again, we have been explicitly blacklisted by two or three [sites] who told us they blacklisted us. But a whole bunch of others just don’t reply to our mails anymore.
💁♀️ LB: So yeah, we’re still very much feeling the ramifications from this. And behind the scenes we’ve been trying to do our best to be sensible, and to try and resolve it, because obviously it sucks for us and it’s horrible, but I imagine it sucks for everybody involved. I can’t imagine anybody’s really enjoying this. So all of the people involved in this are around Failbetter Games, AK’s old studio [and] the one I used to work at…
🙋♂️ AK: Where we met, and began a romance, to be clear.
💁♀️ LB: Which they knew about, but yes. So all of this comes back fundamentally to Failbetter Games. So rather than approach individuals – because I’m aware that some people might perceive that as some sort of threat or whatever, which obviously we don’t want to do – we decided to speak politely and honourably to the company where all of this coalesced and suggest a variety of ways that we think we could resolve the problem and all move on with our lives. So that’s things like… we put in a request for various bits of information that have been used to suggest that we’re bad people, which we know [are] taken out of context –
🙋♂️ AK: So things like our HR records, or chat logs which you know have either been taken out context and misrepresented, or in some cases, I think, invented wholesale. Though it’s hard to tell, because they won’t let us see any of the records.
💁♀️ LB: Yeah, they said no, and then they threatened to sue us. So that didn’t go very well.
🙋♂️ AK: And they accused me of tweeting menacing narrative poetry. Menacing poetry at the narrative director.
💁♀️ LB: So we said how about mediation? Because my personal view of this whole thing is it’s rumours that have essentially got out of hand, and if anybody had spoken to anybody else at any point over the last seven years, then none of us would be in this situation, because I’m sure it’s crossed wires and miscommunication. So I know that if we sit down and talk to people we can even everything out and right some wrong ideas.
🙋♂️ AK: Well, I think a lot of us will still be pissed off with a lot of the rest of us.
💁♀️ LB: But that’s why we’re doing mediation, right? To be kind and positive rather than just being, like, ‘well you ruined my life for two years!’
🙋♂️ AK: And that’s the thing. One of the problems with cancelling people is it works if you live in a society where you can imprison them or fire them into space or set fire to them. But in a liberal democracy we all have to live with the people we’ve cancelled. I think a lot of the people who went after us sort of thought we’d be wiped off the face of the earth. And I think they genuinely… after people sort of exploded in a shower of spite on social media, they weren’t sure what to do next and some of them were a bit abashed. So I think we probably can work through it.
💁♀️ LB: I’m sure that’s true. So we’re hoping that we can convince people to mediate with us, because we think that’s just the best way forward. And so far they have said no. But we’re gonna keep trying!
The last thing that we have suggested that we can think of that might resolve this in sort of a grown-up way – rather than slagging each other off on Twitter, which I’m not a fan of – is an independent investigation. Because there are two conflicting narratives here. There’s ‘Alexis was some sort of troll-king for seven years while he ran Failbetter, and everyone was terrified of [him] and [he] was hateful’, and there’s our narrative – which is backed up by facts – which is that isn’t true. But we can’t resolve that between the two sides of the dispute.
So we suggested that Failbetter and Weather Factory would both agree on a neutral, third-party investigator, so there’s no suggestion of bias or anyone being anyone’s mate, we would jointly pay for it, so again there was no undue pressure exerted on the person doing the report, and we would agree up front to abide by whatever that report came back with. And we really agreed with that. We know that Alexis hasn’t been horrible to people, but were a report to come back and say otherwise, if we’d agreed that up front then we’d abide by it. Because then at least we’d have a point of agreement. Equally, as you can imagine, they said no. And then they called you names. So to date we have not been super successful in convincing anyone to behave like an adult with us.
🙋♂️ AK: But I don’t want to be too catty about it, because honestly I do… I would quite like my life back. And I would like you [LB] to have your life back too. And I imagine that people over there are also quite fed up with having to field difficult questions, so I think basically if we sit down and talk about it we can probably get out a joint statement through gritted teeth and get the hell on with making games.
💁♀️ LB: Which is all we want. So that’s our sad tale.
🎙️ EK: It’s so crazy. So this brings up so many questions. For one thing, I guess all the allegations were made on Twitter. Is that correct?
🙋♂️ AK: Yes.
💁♀️ LB: All of them remain on social media.
🎙️ EK: I’ve always been baffled by why people would make accusations on Twitter rather than through a more official channel. But then this just got picked up by the gaming press, and what was your experience… When the articles were being published about this, were you being contacted by journalists? Did you feel like they were representing your side of the story, or was it mostly just this snowballing rumour mill?
💁♀️ LB: It was absolutely awful. It was hands-down the worst experience of my life. You basically couldn’t speak for a few days because you were so crushed by the whole thing, and that’s the time when journalists tend to get in touch with you. When you’re at your most emotional and, like, what the hell is going on? So it was an interesting experience in hindsight. When you see somebody accused of something nasty and their response in [the] press, it tends to be quite anodyne, and quite corporate-sounding. I’ve always wondered about that. I’ve always thought, you know, if that person isn’t guilty, wouldn’t they be, like, ‘for god’s sake, I’m so innocent!’
🙋♂️ AK: And the thing is, I wanted to go on Twitter right away – and I’m glad I didn’t. Because we got a piece of really useful advice upfront which made us rethink the whole situation. Which was…
💁♀️ LB: …Which was from a PR specialist, to whom we’d been, like, help! What do we do?! He said you can’t respond to individual allegations because it’s on Twitter, so you just won’t be able to see all the individual stuff. And if you miss out any allegation, the implication is you did do that one. So you’ll hang yourself with your own rope if you try and respond individually right now. So the advice that people are given, in a crisis like this, I now know, is give a really boring response initially. When the press come knocking, you don’t say ‘here is my life story and here’s why I didn’t do it’, you say either ‘I did do it, and I’m sorry’ or in our case, ‘absolutely didn’t do it, and we can prove it’. But that’s it. You don’t give any juicy details. And I think journalists are disappointed by that, because obviously they want a great story, but we were in no state to form sentences, nevermind speak to the press about an incredibly sensitive topic that was all about our sex lives and our future.
So our approach was basically to try not to kill ourselves for a couple of weeks – which we managed, hooray – and then when we were feeling a bit better, AK published a much longer blog post which went through all the details of the allegations against him and said that the thing you did feel bad about was dumping Olivia for me and then continuing to work with her. Because that was just messy and you’d tried your best, but you copped to that and said that was just a screw-up. But the other stuff, here it is in context, which is basically dating consensually around over a period of ten years, and that has been portrayed as a career of predation rather than what it is, which is a man dating different people in games.
So that was how we dealt with the press. I have no idea if we had done a different approach if the press would have been kinder. I know that the press are just looking for a story. They’re not necessarily trying to destroy either side of an argument. But I can tell you from personal experience of having the worst time of your life, being contacted by the press is the worst possible time to have anything to say to them.
🙋♂️ AK: I think a lot of the press who did publish something about it at the time – and it was basically all the games press [who published something].. I don’t agree with everything that was written about us, but I think given that it looked like a big story was breaking and I was gonna turn out to be a monster supposedly of dozens of women, I have sympathy with people who shot first and asked questions later.
💁♀️ LB: That’s a really good point. Because a lot of the stuff that initially hit was a sort of intimation that there were lots of stories that were gonna come out, and two years down the line, everyone knows what we know. Which is that there are not lots of stories that are going to come out, it was all rumour-mongering and kind of hysteria. And I totally can see a neutral journalist seeing those initial allegations and thinking, oh my gosh, we’ve got something really big here, and then that just not really happening.
🙋♂️ AK: There’s journalists who added my reply as an update to the articles, and I think my response to those is more sympathetic than the journalists who let the original accusations stand without adding my response. To be fair, my response was three weeks after. When we were first approached for comment I was basically in bed crying and Lottie had my phone. So we didn’t give a statement [initially.]
I think the other thing that I am disappointed by – let me be very tactful about this… One of the two women who accused me of being ‘an abuser’ said I had been her manager for two years and I’d been in a relationship with her the whole time, and that’s –
💁♀️ LB: And you’d kept it a secret.
🙋♂️ AK: And I’d kept it secret. And as I said in my long post response, that’s just flatly not true. We had an on-off thing long before the short period of time during which I was her manager.
💁♀️ LB: And she wasn’t in games originally…
🙋♂️ AK: And she wasn’t in games originally when we met, there was no professional relationship when we first began our on-off thing, so the whole thing is skanky and silly and I’ll have more to say about my skanky silliness in a moment. But it just wasn’t true that I began a relationship with her while I was her manager. The only person in the world I’ve ever begun a relationship with while I was her manager was Lottie, or perhaps you began it with me, I don’t know…
💁♀️ LB: Yeah, employee, not even manager. The only employee you’ve ever started a relationship with is me. And I can say that he’s been such a gentleman that I’m marrying you!
🙋♂️ AK: If the pandemic will fucking stop for twenty seconds!
💁♀️ LB: Well that would be ideal, yeah! But the key thing is I think a lot of people who heard the initial allegations, two years later, they listen to this podcast or they hear this on the internet, they will be astonished that this is a fact.
🙋♂️ AK: But I’m quite upset that… That first tweet was immediately, provably untrue. Fifteen seconds of Googling – I won’t say her name because it seems mean – Googling this person’s name’s LinkedIn would have thrown up the fact that it was verifiably untrue, and nobody who reported on it did the fifteen seconds Googling. And again, I don’t want to be sanctimonious about it, I do have some sympathy because I know the pressures and the deadlines some journalists work under –
💁♀️ LB: But this is your life.
🙋♂️ AK: Exactly, this is my fricking life. This is my life and it’s your life and it’s my mother’s life and it’s your mother’s life and it’s my kid’s life, it’s our fucking cats’ life.
💁♀️ LB: And it’s not been fun.
🙋♂️ AK: And it’s not been great.
🎙️ EK: Well, it’s interesting because in the MeToo movement or whatever, there were a lot of powerful people who were accused or who were found guilty of abuse, but one of the things that rigorous reporting involves with something like this – which is such a serious accusation – is, you know, investigating the claims and finding real patterns, talking to not just the accuser but the accuser’s friends. With a lot of these cases you see very rigorous reporting that’s involved in vetting accusers and finding out what happened before going to press at all, so it’s always surprising to me when we see articles – I guess it’s not surprising to me, not anymore – but we often see these articles that come out the moment after some tweets are made without any fact checking, without any investigation whatsoever. And to base an entire article or blog post on, well, initially on some tweets and then often on some other article that they’ve read it seems pretty irresponsible. Especially since, as you said, we’re not dealing with major exposees on all the things that you’ve done, these are some tweets that are fairly vague. So that… I just don’t understand the tendency that I see. I don’t know if you’ve followed the Hogwarts Legacy –
🙋♂️ AK: Oh god, yeah. That’s the first time I saw your work, actually. Poor guy! And you said – well, you say it because it was your scoop, I guess. They’d got the job title wrong, hadn’t they?
🎙️ EK: They did. I did, too, at first, because I saw all these articles that described his job as a lead designer, and he was actually just a senior producer rather than a lead designer. I mean, he was at one point a lead designer on that game but he hadn’t been for years. So it’s, you know, if you’re seeing dozens of articles that are getting that kind of detail wrong, it’s also, like, how many other details are they getting wrong? And this is just something we see over and over again, not just in the gaming press but in the press in general, where a story will get picked up and then it will be regurgitated over and over again and sort of expanded. And then we see a narrative around either a subject or a person or a story, that narrative forms and the truth of it – whatever that truth is – is buried so deep under all these echoing doppelganger articles that it’s impossible to find anymore. So I am, as someone who observes this but hasn’t really been in any kind of situation like you’ve been put through… it’s eye-opening to see it from your perspective and what that experience must be like. I don’t envy you.
💁♀️ LB: I suspect a large part of it is the scoop, right? Because this stuff breaks on Twitter, Twitter is an ephemeral platform, and people are talking about it so if you want people to click on your article, it might be wiped off the face of the earth by tomorrow because it’s social media. So you want to get in now. So I understand that.
I do think it’s telling that I was contacted by one journalist alone for an actual discussion of what had happened, and that journalist, I think, was the most prominent journalist in games at the time. And he asked me –
🎙️ EK: I can guess who that is.
🙋♂️ AK: Yes, you’ve guessed correctly.
💁♀️ LB: …a number of questions, and I answered truthfully and cautiously. And I think it is very telling that he is the one journalist who did not then go on to write an article. I suspect it was because the moment you look at the detail and the truth of what happened to us – and I’m not being sort of red string-y ‘THE TRUTH’, I mean if you look at any sort of facts and details – the immediate sense is at least that it’s a bit more complicated than it was presented as. And I suspect that once you’ve done that research as a journalist you’re much less likely to go ahead with allegations that you think maybe aren’t necessarily totally backed up. Whereas if you don’t do that initial research, you can quite happily say, well, this person says this on Twitter, so I’m just reporting what they say, I’m not actually putting myself on the line as saying I promote or endorse this story.
That doesn’t really change the effect on us, as the people who are subject of that horrible story, but I can see from the journo’s point of view that you’ve got a time pressure and you maybe don’t wanna get too involved in something that’s a bit icky. Because it is, basically, a sex scandal.
🙋♂️ AK: My ex-wife, who notoriously described me… She said ‘you’re a bit of a dick, but you’re no abuser’. You know, she’s Croatian, she’s very blunt. She used to work for the BBC and she wasn’t actually a reporter, she was on the tech side, but she said even there – and this must have been five, six years ago now – there was a real debate about being right versus being first. And on one side people were saying (and largely won out), ‘we are the most trusted news organisation in the world and you can’t regain trust once it’s gone’. And on the other hand there were other people saying ‘yeah, but being the most trusted news organisation in the world is worthless if nobody reads you, and if everyone else gets the news first, then they do[n’t]’. And I see that’s a real temptation. But again we come back to: these are people’s lives.
💁♀️ LB: That’s the thing. I would feel desperately uncomfortable making a game about something that I wasn’t absolutely certain of. And I know a game is a longer-term prospect but this is our article, I suppose, this is how we would get our stuff out there.
🙋♂️ AK: I was gonna say, the other side of it. That’s the carrot. That’s why it gets reported on. And everybody gets a little… no, again, that sounded quite cynical. I was going to say ‘gets a little buzz out of hitting ‘retweet’ on ‘this man’s a monster’’. Some people do get a little righteous buzz, other people I’m sure genuinely believe they are spreading the word about a… you know, I mean, I might jump out of a bush at any moment! I could be in that bush over there! But the stick is – and you’ll know this, because you will have spoken to people on and off the record – everyone’s fucking terrified. Journalists as much as anyone. So if somebody sides with someone who’s unclean or has the wrong opinions that can be career-ending.
Our overwhelming impression… So the last two years have varied from shit to pretty much fine. And the shit bit has been…[searching pause] The effect a mass public shaming has on your mental health is very hard to describe unless you’ve been there or unless you read Jon Ronson’s excellent book on it. I’ve said before: I’ve been through a bad divorce and a close family suicide and this was worse than either of those. There’s just no competition. Because everybody you respect in the world is… [very long pause]
It’s no fun. In the end you took me to the GP and I was sort of crying and incoherent and saying ‘please put me on some sort of pill’ so they did. And I gradually got better. But after that, as Lottie says, everytime we have some sort of success somebody will pop up and try to ruin our day. So we got a grant from Creative Europe last year because we’re making a narrative game about a library –
💁♀️ LB: And I did all of the work on that grant, can I just say.
🙋♂️ AK: And Lottie did all the work on the grant. And when we got it –
💁♀️ LB: But this is salient. It’s a salient point. It’s not just me banging my own drum, it’s because when it was announced we got the second nastiest round of press we’ve ever got other than the initial coverage of the tweets back in 2019. We got a lot of game developers – some of whom we’d actually met in real life, but most of whom had never met either of us, ever – rallying to convince the European Union to remove our funding because Alexis was a ‘known sex offender’. And, like, none of that is true.
🙋♂️ AK: I’m not a sex offender, and I’m not known to be a sex offender!
💁♀️ LB: And it wasn’t really anything to do with you. It’s my studio as well. I’m a co-founder and I own the company as well, so it’s my work that you’re destroying through allegations about him that no-one’s bothered to investigate and aren’t true anyway. And it was very, very, very upsetting.
🙋♂️ AK: What we have come to realise is that it looks like the internet hates you. And the internet doesn’t hate you. A small number of very vocal people hate you, or say that they hate you because it gets them tweets or whatever, but we got [messages from other people] – thank Christ – and if you’re listening to this and you’re one of those [other people], thank you, it really made a difference… We got eighty, a hundred…?
💁♀️ LB: Hundred plus, definitely.
🙋♂️ AK: A hundred plus messages, Twitter DMs, emails. I couldn’t look at email for the first few weeks, I had to give Lottie my phone because I…
💁♀️ LB: Because it’s so shredding.
🙋♂️ AK: But when we looked at it there were all these people saying everything from ‘you seem to have been a bit of a naughty boy, but it doesn’t look like you actually did anything bad’ to people saying ‘Jesus Christ I can’t believe what’s going on, this is insane and I’m still your friend and I still believe you’. And a couple people in the middle saying ‘I don’t know what to believe, and I think you should take a searching moral inventory’, which I found difficult but I can respect.
A couple of stories, being very careful not to identify the individuals in question. We got two people who worked –
💁♀️ LB: I was gonna say this!
🙋♂️ AK: You tell the story.
💁♀️ LB: Well, fortunately I can’t remember the names so I’m an absolutely sure bet not to name anybody. So we got two separate emails from two individuals in the indie game scene, one of whom I believe was the CEO of the company, or possibly COO…
🙋♂️ AK: C-level of a small company.
💁♀️ LB: …and someone who I think was a programmer, or somebody who wasn’t necessarily on board level, and both of them said almost exactly the same thing. Which was: ‘privately, I think what’s happened to you is horrible, and I’m really sorry and I hope you’re okay. I wish I could say this publicly but I’m worried what my workplace will think if I express my opinion outwardly’. And we were there, with these emails side by side, being like, ‘you probably sit opposite each other in an office! If you knew that both of you felt strongly about this…’
And I think one of the really telling things is that you know what you’re gonna get if you retweet something that the internet likes. If you retweet an allegation by a woman against a man, broadly speaking, everyone thinks that’s a good act and it’s a kind of positive experience. If you retweet something counterculture-y, often you come in for a lot of anger in response to that.
So these people – most of whom again we hadn’t met – messaging us privately, they didn’t know what we were going to do with those messages. We could have outed them. They put themselves on the line by saying something that would often get them fired if not absolutely pilloried by the internet and driven out of the industry, or possibly out of life, and they still felt strongly enough to message us.
So as AK said, that really, really mattered at the time because it reminded us that the horror that we were seeing online right now was not representative of the whole world. And I think it speaks volumes about there being a significant majority, I would say, of people who feel that this is not necessarily the most productive way to resolve issues in games or anywhere else. But nobody is gonna talk about it publicly because why on earth would you put your head on that chopping block unless someone puts it there for you?
I mean, we’ve talked about it, obviously we have very strong feelings about this is not helpful. Or even if you did what you’re accused of doing, it’s such a horrible experience that nobody deserves this. But we have talked often about what we would do if we saw someone going through the experience that we went through, and I think, honestly, we probably wouldn’t say something publicly. And partly that’s because we’re covered in gasoline, but how terrible is that? I feel bad about that!
🙋♂️ AK: Now I would absolutely say something publicly –
💁♀️ LB: That’s true. We haven’t really got anything else to lose.
🙋♂️ AK: That’s the thing. Some of the people we’ve known have been cancelled and I’ve offered my support, but in both cases – you know who I’m thinking of – people have not necessarily wanted support from somebody else who might attract more lightning. But I was just gonna read one of the emails we got. Later on, this was about Christmas when Lottie recorded a Christmas message to indie games…
💁♀️ LB: I forgot about that.
🙋♂️ AK: …saying ‘please can we be nice to each other, everyone’…
💁♀️ LB: I mean, ‘can we just behave like adults, that would be great’…
🙋♂️ AK: ‘I just watched your video, Lottie, and agree with it. I thought what happened to you both and also to my friend, to Alec Holowka, was really awful. I’m one of many people who I’ve spoken to who did not join in because we knew what was going on was hideous, but I’m also too cowardly to say what I think in public because I’m also afraid of the mob and my career depends on not stirring them up. Plus, I’m mid-way through a game that I received funding for and I cannot afford to rock the boat or cause a problem with that. Anyway, I’m sorry for my lack of support. I hope that you are both able to slowly heal and move forward in the best way possible.’
And, you know, I don’t love getting a mail like that from somebody – who I had helped and supported in my time – months after it happened…
💁♀️ LB: I understand it, though.
🙋♂️ AK: And a lot of people didn’t fricking know. I really might have turned out to have been seducing tons of young women. I think the one thing I do want to say is a shout out to Jonas Kyratzes, the narrative designer and writer of Talos Project and a bunch of other stuff. He’s been an indie since there were indies, really, one of the very first, and he’s built up a career by being talented and unusual and not giving a fuck what anyone thinks. And he basically went on Twitter when the whole thing broke and told everyone they should be ashamed of themselves and I think he’s probably the only person who did that. Jonas has been cancelled twice and is a sort of small, fierce, brilliant Greek man who doesn’t give a fuck.
🎙️ EK: Yeah, I’m familiar with him. I’ve interacted with him some on Twitter.
🙋♂️ AK: He’s fun, right? And he really doesn’t have any patience for the purity mob.
🎙️ EK: I think for some people… they’re not afraid because they don’t feel like they have anything to lose. This is who they are and they’re not going to back down from confrontation, and they’re not trying to be popular in the first place. And that’s difficult, I’m sure. It’s difficult for journalists because the press has become really kind of captured by this entire sort of… I don’t want to say ‘woke’, but this whole mentality more than anything. Because I get messages that are very similar to this, to what you’re talking about, not because I’ve been through anything like that, but because I write about things that are unpopular and from a perspective that is unpopular.
People in game development, people in the press, will message me and say ‘really appreciate what you’re writing about, I appreciate you covering this, I can’t say it publicly…’ because of the same reasons you guys are giving. And that to me is a little sad, because I feel like if more people… What we end up seeing instead is the only people that do say anything or do sort of speak out are really vocal right-wingers, who are doing their own attempt at getting clicks. Their own attempt at baiting and outrage. They’re providing the opposite. But I think people who aren’t the opposite, who just want decency and accountability and ethical behaviour and they don’t want mob rule, I do think at a certain point people do need to say: ‘No more. We are going to stand up to this.’ And I know that that’s hard, because when it’s your job that’s in question, that’s really tough. You’ve gotta pay the bills, you’ve gotta take care of your families.
🙋♂️ AK: We were this close to losing our livelihoods. If Weather Factory had been a little bit less successful then we would have lost our jobs and I would be finding another way to feed my child.
💁♀️ LB: I did read…
🙋♂️ AK: And one of the things… I think I was actually going to talk about what you read, so you say it.
💁♀️ LB: Well, I was gonna say I read a piece in one of the major British newspapers recently about a kind of retrospective on cancel culture (or however you want to term it), and one of the things that really struck me is the fact that apparently – according to this journalist who isn’t me – this sort of mob stuff inordinately affects the little guy. Because if it’s a big celebrity, people have an emotional attachment to that person. Which means one, the full thing is covered. So we found that we got coverage of all the horrible stuff initially, and then nobody will ever talk to us ever again.
🙋♂️ AK: Because we’re just famous enough to matter for a story, but not famous enough –
💁♀️ LB: For anyone to give a damn afterwards. Yeah. So we found that that is true. Whereas if you’re a big A-list celeb, a lot of people like you and kind of make excuses for your behaviour. I mean, there are some things that people struggle to excuse, like, if there’s a very specific allegation that’s really horrible, obviously most people would be like ‘that’s pretty bad’. But if it’s something [like] you were accused of, like just kind of being a bit of a rake and sleeping around and maybe you shouldn’t have done that, then if you’re, you know, George Clooney, people are like, oh but he’s so handsome! Or ooh, but I loved him in that film –
🙋♂️ AK: Not that George Clooney’s ever been accused of anything!
💁♀️ LB: Not that George Clooney’s every been accused of anything! [And] his wife is a very terrifying lawyer. So love you guys, you’re great. But you know what I mean. People kind of find a way to weave it into the mythology of those celebrities, whereas when you’re actually a real person like us, who as you say – well, he’s just big enough to matter, but not big enough to care about – then there’s none of that. There’s just, okay, we can throw that person by the wayside and it doesn’t really matter.
🙋♂️ AK: I have mixed feelings when you say ‘real person’ because everyone… There are people who have been cancelled and have been publicly shamed who are I’m sure sociopaths who genuinely don’t give a fuck and could just, you know, live off the income from the interest from their last five movies and live in Malibu until the fuss dies down and not care. But I’m sure for most… Every celebrity, as far as I know, is a human being who came out of another human being and has a functioning heart and brain. There may be occasional exceptions, but that’s the case. If you’ve got a million people screaming at you that you’re shit and you should kill yourself then –
💁♀️ LB: Then you start wanting to do that. And you’re right, and that’s a good point for empathy. It wasn’t quite what I was leading towards, though, which is just that if you’re big enough you have a mythology that is often bigger than the negative stuff that you’ve got. Whereas I think the most press that we’ve ever received, the most views, has been about this allegation that isn’t true. And it’s very difficult for us, as two people in a flat, with a story that lots of people don’t want to tell because it’s kind of difficult and a lot of people will get cross with them if they tell it. It’s very difficult for us to build a new narrative either that challenges the existing one and says ‘this isn’t true’, or that just moves on. And says, you know, even if you were awful – which you weren’t – but even if you were, you’re now in a flat working with your fiancee, so realistically what women are in danger in this current situation? So that, I think, is particularly difficult.
But going back to your point about it would be nice to see some more moderate voices talking openly about some stuff that maybe they didn’t agree with, I had that direct experience myself because my personal monstering came out of me writing a response to this nastiness. Obviously, you wrote a specific rebuttal of the actual allegations which I couldn’t do because I’m not him and I wasn’t there personally, but I did write a feminist’s opinion on the experience of cancel culture and some major flaws that I had seen from being on the wrong side of it. And that really got [up] people’s noses. A lot of people responded and said ‘this is the most sensible commentary I’ve seen on the movement and I’m really glad to basically hear somebody who isn’t a screaming Nazi say that maybe it’s a bit more complicated than that’. But obviously I got a lot of people – particularly women, I’m sorry to say – who were very angry at me, and said I had betrayed women, and that I was a bad feminist. And all I was saying was ‘this does not chime with my direct experience’, which I don’t think anyone could contravene. And I absolutely made a point of not being mean or aggressive or anything, and people just wouldn’t have a controversial opinion.
🙋♂️ AK: And again, Erik, I really hear you when you say it’s always the frickin’ right wing who do it. It’s the screaming Nazis, to use Lottie’s phrase. Every time I hear your thankfully ex-president say – I mean I’m assuming you’re not a Trump voter…
🎙️ EK: No…!
💁♀️ LB: We’ve established he’s a long-time democrat!
🙋♂️ AK: Every time he says something about cancel culture I’m like, oh, god, shut up… It has at least two effects. One is, a lot of the voices are frickin’ weird, and two, you don’t change people’s minds by scolding them, and people get frickin’ radicalised. So I felt like after I’d been savaged… What are they called, medicine balls? Those big weighted leather things that you toss around the place? It felt like my opinions – [I’ve] always been firmly left-liberal – and it’s like somebody had wound up and they’d taken a really hard kick at [my opinions] and [they] had moved, like, an inch to the right. And I’m still left liberal, and I’m still anti-Brexit and I voted Green all my life –
💁♀️ LB: And we mean British liberal, not American liberal.
🙋♂️ AK: British liberal. You know, lefty. And I still value religious tolerance and freedom of speech and social support for the less fortunate and redistribution of wealth and all those things. But it’s just really strange, the experience of feeling like my worldview’d been slightly adjusted. And if I had had less firm opinions, if there’s one thing that will make you a screaming Nazi, it’s people who say ‘you’re a screaming Nazi so we hate you’. And then all the screaming Nazis going ‘yeah, fucking woke, eh? Come and have a beer with us!’. And that’s how you do it.
It’s not helpful to think that bad people are born, not made, and that either you get the good people or you get the bad people, and all we have to do is cancel all the bad people and then we’ve got paradise. Because that’s Animal Farm and that didn’t end well.
🎙️ EK: Yeah, this whole idea of red pilling is interesting. To me, I think… I don’t think I’ve moved to the right at all. I think what passes as the left has shifted and I don’t even think necessarily more to the left. I think that the scolding, cancelling, language-policing and all of that is a new form of politics that just doesn’t really jive with mine. You know, this idea that we should cancel games before they come out because they could potentially harm people is, you know, radical. It’s a radical anti-free-speech anti-free-expression position that I don’t think has any place on the left. That’s what the right did. It was the right that was trying to ban video games because they were too violent or ban music or all these things, that’s a right-winger…
🙋♂️ AK: I feel like we’ve had this conversation. We had it in the eighties. We had people saying you can’t play D&D because the Devil will get you. You can’t listen to music because it will make you go out and have sex with people. And we can’t let you read Marx because otherwise you might end up voting for the wrong party. And, you know, it happened before that in the fifties with McCarthyism and it happened, I guess, with the left wing and the right wing in different ways in our country. But it is traditionally a right-wing thing, and the desire to impose… The desire to identify people as undesirable and then exclude them socially is nothing to do with being liberal or left-wing, it’s just something that some people who identify as liberal or left-wing do.
But it’s very hard to resist that because, you know, we don’t reason through all our beliefs. Not everything I’ve ever espoused or voted for is the result of me sitting down and reading three books on political philosophy. Mostly it’s, ‘shit, that guy who I trust says that Brexit will be a bad thing. Well, I think he’s probably right, maybe I’m gonna read up on it’. But that’s where you get your opinions, it’s from fellow travellers.
You said at the beginning, I think, that the culture’s changed. It feels like a weather system has moved on and somehow those of us who actually care about the core tenets of not being shitty to people and allowing people to live their lives have somehow been left behind.
🎙️ EK: Yeah, it’s a strange shift. I want to figure it out and I’m not sure it’s possible. I think that it started in universities and has then seeped into the press and into the broader culture in general. You see a lot of this… it’s mostly language, I think, and not much action. You see the rise of this – I’ve heard people call it ‘Diversity Incorporated’, right? All these attempts by, like, big corporations to act as though they’re very tolerant and woke and all this, and it’s creeping into every single industry. I saw a publisher tweet the other day that if they get a manuscript from an aspiring white man, they probably aren’t going to get their book published because they’re not looking for young white men anymore. And while I’m all for diversity and increasing opportunity for everyone, it’s kind of a depressing outlook for the future for a lot of people, I think.
So it’s come almost out of the blue, but it’s also been building, I think, for a while, and I think it’s just perfect for social media. The dogpiling, the casting of villains, it doesn’t matter if it’s true. It just matters if the right people are saying it, you know? And if enough people say it, over and over and over again, then that becomes the truth. That’s all that matters, regardless of whether there’s anything there.
🙋♂️ AK: I think I used to be a lot more naive about social media. You know, I’m quite biased, because our lives were shredded by a social-media-based attack. But it’s like an accelerant. It doesn’t start the fire in itself, but it just means it goes very… If you had to write a letter by hand, or type it and post it, to denounce somebody or to complain to the local paper about something, then you really have to care and you probably are gonna stand by what you’ve said. But if you’re sitting on the toilet or standing on the train looking at Twitter, and you see somebody who you admire or fancy or are afraid of denounce somebody, all you have to do is hit the ‘Like’ button. That’s it. It’s a half-second engagement and you might never think about it again. But the person who looks at the tweet where you’ve denounced them, they will think about it and it will change their life.
💁♀️ LB: So we’ve obviously thought a lot about what happened to us over the last two years because we’re still trying to escape it in basically every way. I worked out that in the original cancellation in August 2019, there were around 10,000 people who were involved in your denunciation. And I don’t think I’m gonna meet 10,000 people in my life. I think the amount of people who had any direct knowledge of anything that was discussed, at all, on any platform, at that time –
🙋♂️ AK: Who’d been in the room, or were the people, or any of that…
💁♀️ LB: …I could count on one hand. But because the numbers were so big, because it blew up on Twitter, that gave it a lot of social proof. And a lot of people thought, well, this many people wouldn’t be retweeting something… You know, occasionally you see a mad post or a post that says something like ‘this person did something awful to me’ and it’s got five likes and you’re a bit like, eh, I’m not really sure what to think about that. But you see something that’s got 500,000 likes and you think ‘I need to engage with this, because that must be something that everyone knows that I didn’t, or that I suspected and now I know is true’. It’s such a sort of… it’s just a different reality, because that is really convincing, you know? But those people had no idea whether it was true or not, and yet by just interacting with it because they were on the loo, as you say, they lent it even more credibility, even though that wasn’t necessarily what they intended. And I’m certain that the vast majority of those 10,000 people haven’t ever thought about you ever again.
🙋♂️ AK: No. Well, I saw someone say ‘I’m a nobody, and I live in, like, Scotland, and I’d heard rumours about Alexis Kennedy way back when, so it must be true, if I’ve heard rumours…’ I mean…
You know, you probably do know this because it’s such a fun fact. Four percent of Americans, according to a Public Policy Polling… poll believe that the world is ruled by shapeshifting reptilians who drink human blood. So that’s twelve million people. Now, I suspect a lot of them just said it because LOL, and some of them think ‘Reptilia’ is in South America or something, and, you know, some people are mentally ill and some people are trying to fuck with the police, so probably not twelve million people actually have that as their considered opinion.
But can you imagine if twelve million people retweeted a tweet that said ‘reptilians run the world’? It would be difficult not to take it seriously, but it would be insane – and that’s the problem with social proof. There’s such a low bar to it getting started, and then once it’s got started, it keeps on rolling.
And I think you’re right, some of this started in universities, and it starts in universities because people are young, enthusiastic and talk to each other, so it’s very easy for ideas to get around and for people to get enthusiastic about them. When I was at university I spoke to someone at the Christian Union – at that time I was sort of a vaguely pagan-inclined atheist so we didn’t have many ideas in common – but I said something about the virtues of keeping an open mind and this person thought about it and said, with an absolutely straight face: ‘I don’t think we’re really supposed to have an open mind, because we already know the things that are right. And if we keep an open mind then we might start believing the wrong things instead.’
And the thing is if you subscribe to a worldview that says ‘we have the truth and everyone else is wrong’, then that’s a rational thing to do, right? And if they got you early, if you’re nineteen and the Christians or the communists or the Nazis or whoever it is get to you and you soak it up, it may take you three years to get out of it or you may never get out of it.
🎙️ EK: This is true. Yeah, it’s a little frightening. It’s also why arguing with people online is so pointless 99% of the time. I wonder why I do it sometimes. I’m like, ‘why are you arguing with people on Twitter again? They’re not gonna change their mind about this!’ Although sometimes, you never know. It does happen.
🙋♂️ AK: I think the thing is, for every person – and again this goes back to our experience of, you know, the vocal minority of… I can’t say haters anymore because Trump… [CRASH]
💁♀️ LB: Cat…!
🙋♂️ AK: Our cat just knocked over Lottie’s guitar.
💁♀️ LB: Sorry about that. Professional.
[Interruption while guitar issue is resolved]
🙋♂️ AK: …the Twitter angries, you know. There’s a minority shouting and a majority of people just kind of going, what should we do? And it’s often the people who are listening or watching who change their minds. You’re not necessarily arguing with the person who’s talking nonsense, you’re saying things for everyone else.
🎙️ EK: Yeah, most people don’t. Most people aren’t engaging. They’re not arguing, they’re not on Twitter. Most people are not participating in that. They’re listening, they’re observing or whatever. But what were you gonna say?
💁♀️ LB: I was gonna say that one of the few rays of light that we have seen about this topic is that we have had a couple of messages since… you know, in the last year, I would say? From people who explicitly said, ‘at the time I didn’t know what to believe’… So they neither stood up for us, and I don’t know if they retweeted or liked anything, but they didn’t say anything particularly horrible about us. ‘But having seen how it’s played out over the last two years…’ – or one year or whatever it was since they emailed us – ‘I now believe that this is at best a very negative portrayal of some facts that aren’t that bad, and at worst totally, totally wrong’.
And that encourages me because it feels like people can change their minds but just privately, and I guess where we need to get to is the ability for people to say something that they feel very strongly at the time and then be able to change their minds without getting shouted at for changing their minds.
🙋♂️ AK: Yeah. ‘How dare you consider that this opinion might not be immediately cancel-worthy?!’
💁♀️ LB: Yeah.
🙋♂️ AK: I was gonna say, I think one of the things that I’ve seen convince some people over the last… So we’ve been very quiet about this for two years, but there were a couple of things that happened recently with projects of ours being sabotaged that made us decide to start talking about it, and also made us follow up with Failbetter to try to sort out mediation.
Because, you know, we thought after two years it would’ve gone away. It’s got better, it got a lot better, but it hasn’t gone away. It still happens. And we’ve had… you know, besides people saying horrible things on Twitter – and when I say ‘horrible things’, I mean things like ‘sex offender’ and ‘rapist’, and… People have posted photos of my house, my old house, we’ve been stalked…
💁♀️ LB: We’ve had poison pen letters, that was a good one.
🙋♂️ AK: We had… what was it? Somebody posted a picture of my signature and a bunch of weird details from twenty-five years ago when I was standing as a local council candidate for the Green Party in Oxford, whether to pretend they were me or to show that they could get at me, I don’t know.
Our community… somebody sent me a meme they’d developed to respond to when people like this pop up. They just say ‘OK’. They’ve got a sort of motivational style image of just going ‘OK’ at stalkers coming in and yelling about me.
We’ve had people organise letter writing campaigns to the European Union to get our funding taken away, we’ve had people contact Steam and Apple and try to get us delisted from the store front… I was terrified going back on Twitter, and I was encouraged to, because Lottie pointed out I should normalise it and start talking again.
💁♀️ LB: Well I was gonna say, you know, you’re right that arguing with people on the internet is not famously a productive way to spend your life, but one of the downsides of it… We decided not to do it because it was just so upsetting. I mean, I can’t…
I would ask people listening to this to think about either being accused of something that they hadn’t done, like Alexis was, or in my shoes, having their partner, the man they know and love, be accused of this. It’s very, very hurtful. So the last thing we want to do is go on Twitter and argue with people we haven’t met who won’t believe us anyway about stuff that’s really hurtful.
But the flip side of not doing that, of leaving the internet to do its own thing, is that it sort of becomes uncontested, which is sort of considered proof, in a way.
🙋♂️ AK: That’s the thing. ‘Unanswered allegations’ was the phrase when it came up in the press again with the petitions to Creative Europe.
💁♀️ LB: And like… we have answered them. We said they’re not true, and then we said ‘would anyone like to investigate?’ And then no one did. So yeah. It’s difficult. So I would strongly advise people to not spend their life arguing with people on the internet, because it will wear them down and make them miserable and probably not have the impact they want. But it is a hard pill to swallow, a bitter pill to swallow, when you’re kind of lending your detractors more ammunition by not engaging with it.
But then we were talking earlier about what you’re supposed to do in a situation like this when the internet comes for you. You’re meant to be on subreddits at 3AM posting WhatsApp screenshots from five years ago in response to a Medium post that someone wrote that you’re going line by line –
🙋♂️ AK: RECEIPTS!
💁♀️ LB: Saying ‘Receipts! Receipts!’ And like, to be honest, I’m not doing that. I’m a 31-year-old woman, I have better things to do with my life than any of this. But if you don’t do that, the internet’s like, but then they mustn’t have anything to say!
🙋♂️ AK: But again, of course, it’s not the internet. It’s three percent or five percent or whatever it is of the internet who are all shouting.
I saw somebody else point out that one of the things about Twitter is that if you stand up in a room and say – and to be clear, there are quote marks around the next phrase – ‘Hitler had some good ideas about the Jews’ – which I do not believe, please don’t take that out of context – if you stand up in a room and you say that, then people will look at each other and go, what the fuck? And somebody will probably tap you on the arm and say…
💁♀️ LB: ‘Think you’ve had enough, mate.’
🙋♂️ AK: ‘You’ve had enough to drink.’ But if you say that on Twitter and you’re not a big name, you’ll probably get a couple of likes from passing loonies, and very few people will say sorry, what are you talking about? So you get a different kind of reaction. If you say something outrageous or aggressive, you only see the positive reinforcement, you don’t see the negative reinforcement. And again, I think that helps things get rolling.
But the other thing I want to say – I promised earlier I was going to talk about having been skanky and silly. Lottie looks alarmed.
💁♀️ LB: Never miss out an opportunity…
🙋♂️ AK: So here’s one of the other things about the situation that is a frickin’ missed opportunity as well. I said earlier that I continued a relationship with someone after I hired them and that was a mistake. And it was a mistake. But having taken some time to think about it, it wasn’t the mistake. The mistake was that I didn’t, when I founded Failbetter Games, put a policy in place about workplace relationships. And the thing is, it’s one of those things that you never think you’ll need until you need it, and by the time you need it it’s too late.
When I founded Failbetter it was me. It was literally me in a room. And then I got a mate to do some art, and that was it. And then we got three more friends in and it just… It wasn’t a thing. And much later, when we became a ‘proper company’, I paid a lawyer – two lawyers, actually – to put together a staff handbook full of things about maternity leave, paternity leave, compassionate leave, sick leave, grievance procedures, all the rest of it. And nobody thought to say ‘workplace relationships’.
But here’s the rub: if the person who I had this on-off thing with came to me and said, as they said quite often, ‘give me a job, I wanna work in games’… Eventually I said yes because we needed an editor and they were a good editor. (And to be clear, they were a good hire and they improved the quality of every project they worked on, even though they’re not on my Christmas card list anymore.)
But the moment they said ‘give me a job’ and we were sleeping together, I could’ve been in trouble and so could they.
If I’d said ‘I’m not giving you a job because we’re sleeping together’, then they might have said ‘this is discriminatory hiring based on a protected characteristic’.
If I’d said ‘I’m gonna give you a job, but we have to stop sleeping together’, then they might have said ‘that’s not fair’.
If I’d said ‘I’m gonna give you a job, but we have to tell everyone at the company’, they could quite easily have said ‘I have a right to privacy, it’s a human right and how dare you’.
But if I’d said, ‘look, there is a rule in the company that says you cannot date co-workers and/or if you date co-workers you have to declare it publicly and/or you have to declare it to at least one other person and that’s the basis that this is gonna be on’, that would have been difficult but survivable when we broke up later.
And as it was, we just assumed – like a billion other people frickin’ assume – that it’s gonna be fine, until one day it’s not. Because when relationships end, sometimes people behave badly. I behaved badly, I hurt her and started going out with someone else… I lost my thread. But that’s the thing, in creative industries, games, film, art, theatre (I mean theatre, don’t even get me started on theatre), one of the reliable features about humans is that they like banging other humans.
💁♀️ LB: I think the key thing is that in games, I would say not necessarily the majority but possibly the majority of people find their life partner or certainly date within the industry. Because it’s a creative hobby, it’s something we care about as well as what we do, you’re thrown together in situations and you care about the same stuff.
So it’s absolutely natural that you would tend to meet people who had similar interests to yours and form a relationship, and I think that’s a really wonderful thing. Certainly the vast majority of women in games that I spoke to and have spoken to have had wonderful experiences of people they’ve dated.
And of course you date people and you dump them and you’re cross with them afterwards, because that’s very human and that’s how relationships happen, right? But I think pathologising the idea of any relationship in games as a potential abuse niche is a really bad thing to talk about.
Because it doesn’t help. It doesn’t mean that people who are gonna take advantage of other people in a relationship are gonna stop doing that, and all it does is discourage people from potentially falling in love and having a wonderful experience.
🙋♂️ AK: That’s the thing, you know? You can say ‘don’t date coworkers’, and I think it’s wise to show restraint and discretion. But if you fall in love with somebody who you’re working alongside, and if you both are working in a job that you’re passionate about and you both respect each other and you both spend time together – what is it? One in four relationships start in the workplace, something like that?
💁♀️ LB: Yep. And we had a quite formative experience – or I certainly did. When we got together at Failbetter, we made a point of telling the deputy CEO – so the next most senior person other than Alexis – immediately, because you didn’t want to have any problems with allegations of misconduct, and I certainly didn’t want people thinking I was sleeping my way to the top. So we thought, just get it super out in the open.
And we deliberately didn’t tell everybody, one because it would be weird to be like, ‘hey guys, we sleep together now’, but mostly because we didn’t want to hurt the feelings of this other woman that had just been dumped and had to work with these two people which obviously put her in a difficult position. So we were trying to be nice, but we were trying to be careful at the same time.
And I was very disheartened to hear that one of the board members, when she was informed of our relationship, her immediate reaction was –
🙋♂️ AK: This was while we were both still there, to be clear.
💁♀️ LB: Yeah. Her immediate reaction was ‘Can Lottie leave the company?’ That was the solution.
Now, on paper, it would be ideal if we were not working together if we decided to pursue a relationship, because there is potential for complications later down the line. But things being as they were, you weren’t gonna leave ‘cause you were the CEO, I had just got basically my dream job working at a studio that I had admired for years, and it felt bad to think that I would have to change my life and career and not be able to pay rent and go through all that pain because there wasn’t any other way of dealing with the problem.
I think we’ve both spoken about… I don’t know if you’ve read about Mr McDonalds? I don’t know what his name actually is, but I think he was the CEO of McDonalds, and he recently got in a bit of a scandal and had to step down because he had turned out to be having a relationship with a junior employee in his company. And as far as I’m aware, there was no allegation of misconduct or abuse, but he was in direct violation of a company policy that clearly said you’re not allowed to have a relationship with an employee. And as a result of that he said, you’re right, I’m sorry, and he left. And that was kind of it. And I think if that had been the case with you and Failbetter, we wouldn’t be in the situation we are now.
🙋♂️ AK: And the fucking tragedy of it is that this happened. By the time you left Failbetter a year later, there was still no policy in place. I don’t think there is to this day.
So the lesson to learn from it is not, I would submit, ‘Alexis is a radioactive presence who jumps out of bushes at women and now he’s gone we don’t need to worry about it’, it should be ‘Jesus, that was a mess, let’s make sure it doesn’t happen again’.
But as a result of it being a ridiculous sex scandal the message everyone takes away is ‘if we just manage to remove all the bad apples, then nobody will ever have a relationship at work again and if they do it won’t be a problem’, which is not how reality works.
🎙️ EK: Yeah. Human nature is what it is, for sure. The cancel culture thing that always bothers me is what does it actually achieve? You’re saying ‘remove all the bad apples’ – that’s not possible. Does cancel culture bring some justice to the world, some fundamental justice that actually changes structural injustices in society? Not really. There are some obviously very bad people who have been taken down by witnesses who have come forward. You know, Bill Cosby, Jeffrey Epstein, there are some awful people out there. But for the most part cancelling people because you disagree with them, cancelling people because you’ve heard rumours… it’s a pretty destructive tendency that… I don’t know how we’re going to fix that.
In terms of what you’ve been through the last couple years, looking back in retrospect, do you have any advice for people going through a similar thing? Like how you coped with things, how you could’ve coped with things better?
🙋♂️ AK: Top number one advice – and I’ve spoken to other people who are, as it were, in Cancel Club, and some of them manage to do this, some of them don’t but everyone benefits from it – don’t look at the fucking internet. Don’t go looking for things about you. Because right now, unless you live in a cave and you’ve never seen another human being, somebody’s probably talking shit about you. Somebody’s probably saying things that aren’t true about you. Things that would really upset you if you heard about them. But the thing about Twitter (or the internet generally) is you can see it. There have been times when I’ve been silly enough to Google my name and I’ve found something that ruins my week. And I haven’t really learned anything, all I’ve done is feed a bad habit. And it’s so easy to say, what, somebody’s being shitty about you on Twitter? Just don’t look at your phone! But stuff gets its hooks into you…
💁♀️ LB: And it has an actual implication to real life.
🙋♂️ AK: That’s the thing. So just the psychological side of it, I think the thing is never go looking. Never go looking. It will find you, and if it doesn’t, you’ve nothing to worry about. And the other side of it of course is the impact on real life, which you were talking about.
💁♀️ LB: I don’t have any good advice on that, though. That just sucks. Like, don’t get cancelled, that would be my advice! It’s really bad!
The big thing that we struggled with… I think it would be worse if you were actually guilty of what you were accused of. We were really open at the beginning to the idea that Alexis and I had just, like, totally misunderstood the situation, and he had actually acted in a way that was really horrible and we just somehow hadn’t realised that. So we were open to theoretically soul-searching –
🙋♂️ AK: I mean, I wouldn’t say I was ‘open to it’ so much as I couldn’t stop thinking about it, but go on.
💁♀️ LB: But I think it’s important, because obviously if you’re in a situation like we were in, something has gone wrong somewhere. ‘Cause that stuff doesn’t happen every day, right? So something has gone wrong somewhere, and I think in our instance it was basically a runaway train of rumours that happened to be in the right place at the right time and it just kicked off. But as you have pointed out, Erik, there are some people who are guilty of what they have been accused of online, and I think if you want to be a good person then if somebody comes up to you and critiques you, you need to be open to that theoretically.
So that’s all handy dandy. But what it felt like after we had soul-searched and realised that really, no, this was absolutely mad and it was getting out of control and nothing that you were being described as was true, was that our reality – the reality of our every day, the reality of our egos (and I mean that in psychological terms, not our sense of how great we are but the sense of who we are) – were being challenged by thousands of people. Which is a really compelling challenge to your sense of self.
And I certainly felt shredded. I felt that everything I thought I was, my entire identity as a sort of left-leaning, kind feminist – the internet was telling me I was some sort of monster, and that didn’t chime. There have been people who don’t like me, but nobody in my life has been like, ‘you know when you kicked that old lady in the vagina? That was bad, and I hate you for it!’ Because I don’t do stuff like that, right?
So I think the most difficult thing for people going through something like a cancellation is this total challenge to your absolute sense of self. And I think if you are in the wrong place or you don’t have the support network in place, that stuff annihilates you. I think that’s why some people kill themselves after this experience. Because it is so awful.
🙋♂️ AK: And this is why it’s so shredding, ‘cause a lot of what we had thought was our support network turned out to be…
💁♀️ LB: …not our support network, because they couldn’t go public.
So the positive spin on this – which otherwise is just miserable – is if you are in a situation where the internet is against you, go and speak to people who are not on the internet who know you. And I don’t mean just your friends who will come round with a bottle of wine and say, oh my god, poor you, have some more, but I mean people in your everyday life. Go out and talk to people in the park. Or go to the shops and interact with normal humans. And you’ll notice that you don’t get the reaction from them that you get from the internet. You know, when we go to the shops we have a perfectly polite, natural interaction with other humans and we go about our day.
And every time I have something like that it reminds me that I’m not this horrible awful person that the internet sometimes wants me to feel like. It’s a very useful challenge to the narrative that is spun by Twitter, whether or not that’s deliberate… You know, I don’t think most people involved in the cancellation want to hurt you or me, I think they just involved themselves in a fun drama.
🙋♂️ AK: You remember I couldn’t go to the shops initially.
💁♀️ LB: I know. It was so awful.
🙋♂️ AK: Because I was sort of somehow convinced that people would’ve seen what was being said about me and I couldn’t bear it.
💁♀️ LB: Because that’s what it does. It warps your reality.
🙋♂️ AK: Like Lottie says, people who are outside the bubble, who aren’t, the phrase I’ve heard is ‘Twitter poisoned’… The reaction we keep getting is we’ll talk to friends and they’ll say, you know, ‘how are things?’ And we’ll say, you know, ‘pretty good, the cat hasn’t jumped out of the window lately but that bullshit from two years ago is still causing us problems’ and they’ll be like, I’m sorry, what, still? But how is this… How is this… What is even?
And the answer is there’s several dozen people who’ve decided it’s quite a fun blood sport, so they keep on kicking off.
My ex-wife told a friend of hers about the whole thing and the friend just couldn’t get their head around it. Ex-wife kept saying ‘so he was accused of misconduct because…’ and the friend’s like, OK, so he had an affair with this woman? But what’s the actual accusation? And my ex was, okay, well, you know, he slept with her… ‘Yeah, but what’s the accusation? She said… Was there… ???’ I think sometimes people have to work quite hard to maintain their belief in devils.
[To LB] What other useful advice have you got?
💁♀️ LB: I’ve got one other bit. Which is, like I said earlier, what you’re supposed to do in a situation like this is write some sort of incredibly raw eight-page blog post and post it across all your forums and respond to everyone and get really involved. Which is not advisable for your mental health. But the key thing is that Alexis and I decided very early on that despite the fact that people were saying really outrageously vile things about both of us online, we were not going to respond in kind. We were not going to get into the fray. We were not going to insult anybody we’d worked with and we were basically going to maintain our class rather than getting into it and saying ‘well you shouldn’t believe that person because they did this to me five years ago and therefore you can’t trust them’ because that’s just… you know, I think that’s childish, and that’s not the person I want to be.
At the time that was a very difficult thing to do, because obviously the urge to defend yourself when people say horrible things is huge. But now we’re two years on…
We were saying before this podcast [that] this is the first time we’ve talked openly about this experience because it’s so dicey and upsetting. And one of the things I’m deeply grateful for is I don’t think we need to be careful or clever with the things we say because we haven’t done anything that will come out. You know, we didn’t post under false accounts, like, sliding some information into important forums, and we didn’t say anything nasty about anybody that we then deleted but might be saved in the WayBack Machine, this kind of stuff. We were basically just normal humans, and at the time that was frustrating but in hindsight we can now go ahead on really firm ground because we never behaved like a lunatic.
That actually is really useful. If, for example, we do go through some sort of mediation or some sort of even legal proceedings – and to be clear I think that’s almost impossible and we don’t want to do it anyway – but if we go through any proceedings set in place by any adults, not having behaved like a lunatic is a really good place to start.
🙋♂️ AK: One of the rules I’ve seen is, always behave – I can’t remember where I saw this or I’d attribute it – always behave as if everything you write down, paper, electronically, whatever, might some day appear in forty-eight point font on the wall of a courtroom. Because it actually might. Probably if somebody shared more of my intimate messages with romantic partners, I’d be embarrassed. But that’s as far as it goes. I haven’t said anything I’m ashamed of. And, props to Lottie, I think I would have if it wouldn’t have been for you. Because you know the number of times I was furious and had to be talked down from posting things I regretted. And every time I’ve [not done that] I’ve been glad.
What we have done, more than once – and they’ll never see the light of day – but there’ve been numerous documents where I went line by line through somebody monstering me and said ‘And another thing….’ just to get it out of my frickin’ system, and then I consigned it to the recycle bin. Thank God. Because by the time you end writing it you feel cheap and dirty anyway, but it did help get it out of my system a couple of times.
💁♀️ LB: The flip side is the stuff we’ve seen on social…I had the very unenviable task of going through and collating a lot of this stuff for the people we were asking advice from, you know, from lawyers and PR people and marketers and mental health people who just were like, I’m sorry, what the hell is going on, could you please provide some sort of map?
So I focused entirely on the company, Failbetter, and their employees, the people at the centre of this, and focused only on Twitter, and I have a forty-two page document of really horrible things that people have said about us. And they haven’t got anything –
🙋♂️ AK: Is it actually forty-two pages?
💁♀️ LB: It’s actually forty-two pages long. And they haven’t got anything that we’ve said about them, because we made a point of not being dicks.
🙋♂️ AK: I did apparently tweet menacing poetry at someone.
🎙️ EK: You know, I’ve never heard of menacing poetry before. I’m fascinated by this concept.
🙋♂️ AK: Is it worth getting into with Erik? It’s not really, is it.
💁♀️ LB: I wouldn’t. I mean, it was a sort of jokey tweet before the allegations hit that in hindsight could be portrayed as threatening poetry, but to be clear I think it’s poetry that you wrote for Fallen London and it involves fictional characters. It’s not like you did a rhyming couplet which rhymes with ‘gun’ or something.
🙋♂️ AK: Yeah, I tweeted in-character from a Twitter account that I had kept after the Failbetter days.
💁♀️ LB: That was it, it was an in-character tweet. So I feel not that worried about that coming back to haunt you.
🙋♂️ AK: I think there is one other thing that comes from what Lottie said. Which is, in terms of advice, it’s very much oh I wouldn’t have started from there.
💁♀️ LB: Yeah, don’t get cancelled, guys!
🙋♂️ AK: Just… fucking talk to people. We did do some of this. We did try to talk to a couple of the people involved early on and it didn’t work. But here’s an example. One of the pebbles that started the avalanche, I think, was that a year after I’d left, Failbetter laid off a bunch of people that they shouldn’t have laid off in a very clumsy way… two days before the Christmas party.
And I had actually gone to one of the board and spoken to them about it ahead of time because I could see that there was something going on and I wanted to encourage them to do something differently. And even though by then I was no longer part of the company, everyone there was still my friend and it’s very hard to step away emotionally from a company you put seven years of your life and a marriage into (my ex absolutely says the start-up killed the marriage).
Well they laid people off anyway, a bunch of those people went to the press and said they’d been shabbily treated, and Eurogamer published an article about it quoting people. Eurogamer came to me and asked if I had anything to say about it, and I did, and I was the one person who went on record. Everyone else was a source.
💁♀️ LB: Was anonymous, specifically.
🙋♂️ AK: So I think Failbetter probably thought that I’d sort of whipped up the whole thing, for whatever motive I don’t know.
And I think if one of them had come to me and said for fuck’s sake, Kennedy, why did you talk to the press? Then I would have said well, the press talked to me and I was left with the choice of either lying, or staying silent, or speaking but not giving my name, or saying the stuff that I’d already said back-channel to you. And I wonder how things would be different if they had asked me that question. But we’ll never fucking know.
I think once you get the battle lines drawn, once you get people deciding other people are devils rather than humans, it’s very, very hard to go ahead and have [a] conversation. Which is why we are struggling with getting mediation out of Failbetter, of course. And if you talk earlier… I mean, you know this, you’ve been in the world, the number of times you’ve had a really serious argument with somebody and it turns out that you’ve been arguing for two hours because one of you literally misheard a word that the other used. And if you’d just sorted it out… This shit happens, and if it happens in a room, it sure as shit happens on the internet. So that’s my advice, is just fucking talk to people before it’s too late.
🎙️ EK: I mean, it’s all good advice. Stay classy, communicate, don’t live your whole life on the internet, it applies to everything. I think this applies even if you aren’t cancelled. If you’re just in a relationship, if you’re dealing with other people in the world, trying to not say horrible things and not be a total ass is never a bad idea.
🙋♂️ AK: It’s just once you’ve said something you can’t unsay it.
🎙️ EK: Right. No, I’ve learned that!
🙋♂️ AK: And if you haven’t said it, you can always still say it.
🎙️ EK: And of course, we’re all human so we all make that mistake from time to time. I think just being in a relationship with another person, we’ve all said things we regret saying. It’s a hard lesson to learn. Hopefully you learn it over time. I think the problem that we see with the internet, of course, is that you literally can’t take things back. It’s all there, it’s all documented forever. People you love may be forgiving, but people you don’t even know and don’t know you, they have no incentive to be forgiving or to be kind or to listen.
So yeah, it’s quite an ordeal, it sounds like, and I’m glad that things are better for you guys now, even if it’s not all better. And I’m glad that you’re out talking about it now, because it is such an odd story. Because unlike some other stories, there just isn’t much in terms of concrete allegations. It is a little hard, you know, reading over some of the stories about this and the blog posts, your statements, it’s kind of like, OK… It is a little hard to puzzle out what exactly the story itself is, other than the story that became the story based on the exaggeration around it and the rumour around it.
🙋♂️ AK: That’s a really good way of putting it. I don’t even know what to deny, because it is the story of the story rather than the story.
🎙️ EK: Yeah, it’s very vague, and it sort of takes on its own life, its own shape. Because there certainly are other stories out there about other people that are very, very concrete or that have a lot of backing or many… you know, some people have sixteen different accusers and you can really establish some sort of pattern, but in this case it’s really nothing like that. But it’s incredible that even when there’s something like this how huge the impact on people’s lives can be. I wish that people would be more careful before they go around spreading rumours and spreading these kinds of stories, and I do wish that in my profession we would have a lot more cautiousness and care about the impact on not just the accused but also the accusers.
There’s been some – I don’t know if you’ve seen what’s going on with Kotaku pulling a certain story about…
🙋♂️ AK: Oh, about one of the other people who got accused at the same time as me? I try to stay away from industry news full stop these days, but I did see that.
🎙️ EK: Well the accuser had been trying to get them to pull that article for years. That was another whole interesting story, but not a very pleasant one.
🙋♂️ AK: I mean, I don’t get the sense that anyone who actually starts… It’s quite rare for people who start these call-outs to end up being glad they did. I think a lot of people do things in the heat of the moment and then…
💁♀️ LB: I think the problem is there just isn’t any resolution. I mean, I don’t know what you’re supposed to do after a cancellation. I don’t know what anybody is supposed to do. The accuser, the accused, whether you’re guilty, whether you’re innocent…
Because, you know, one of the things that we had said to us when we were talking to people who weren’t on the internet when all of this was really happening, was we’d say ‘AK’s been falsely accused online and it’s been awful’ and people would say ‘Is there a court date?’ And we’d be like, LOL. He was accused of sleeping around with, like, two people, [and] he did, but consensually, so no, there’s not a court date?
There just isn’t any way to resolve it unless you are able to work with the people who have said that you’ve done something bad, to either make amends if you have done something bad, or to straighten out miscommunication, or just something. It just sort of lies there like a corpse in the middle of the room, and everybody just moves the furniture around it.
If I had accused somebody of doing something bad, I would want a resolution, I’d want them to apologise, I’d want them to make amends somehow, and then I’d want to move on. So I’m sure that’s how people feel who have said bad things about you, and I certainly know that from our point of view we want to be able to move on and do our jobs and not get shouted at everytime we do anything, and I’m sure this is true of every cancellation regardless of the details. I just think resolution is the really big missing part of this.
🙋♂️ AK: I think there’s one more apology I’d like to make. I did apologise at the time, and then later, to the lady in question for having hurt her and ended the relationship clumsily. I did apologise implicitly and I take responsibility for not having put a policy in place about workplace relationships, which because I was CEO was my failure. [But] somebody else accused me of flirting with her mother at her wedding, and I would like to apologise for that because I didn’t know that would upset her. That was part of the callout, that I flirted with someone’s mother at their wedding. And I think that was obviously a bad thing.
🎙️ EK: I’ve had people’s mothers flirt with me. Right in front of my girlfriend, too. I don’t know what it is…
🙋♂️ AK: I think it’s three glasses of wine, probably.
💁♀️ LB: That’s so mean!
🙋♂️ AK: I didn’t mean that! At weddings, the wine is going to flow. Sorry, that sounded really bitchy…
[More crosstalk, interview concludes.]