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Advocacy microtalks at GDC directly confront enabling harassment campaigns

Game developers talk about creating a kinder and more diverse industry, but in order to get there, the industry's leaders must stand up to hate.

Imran Khan, Featured Contributor

March 26, 2024

5 Min Read
Developers speak at the advocacy microtalks GDC podium
via GDC

At this year’s Game Developer Conference, a pall hung over the San Francisco convention center where the talks were held. A seemingly innocuous talk on a Wednesday morning about Culture, Civics, and Karma were actually microtalks of different subjects, like cultivating your game’s community for communication and kindness. Under normal circumstances, this would not warrant security at the door, but these did not appear to be normal circumstances.

The panel, which was made up of Iain Dodgeon (director, OKRE), Chandana Ekanayake  (co-Founder/creative director, Outerloop Games), May Ling Tan  (social systems design lead, Bungie), Victoria Tran (community director, Innersloth), Jane Hoffacker  (CEO, co-founder, Incredible Dream), and Rachel Kowert  (research director, Take This). The panel was supposed to include Chantal Ryan (director, We Have Always Lived In The Forest), but Ryan was unable to make it.

Unlike a typical GDC panel, this was a microtalk, where each panelist got five minutes to talk a little bit about their subject. The talks began with Hoffacker, who played a large role in bringing Riot’s League of Legends TV show Arcane to life. When concepting out Arcane, Hoffacker identified that Western games typically do not have long-running cinematic times, which had typically been the domain of JRPGs, which made the creation of a TV show a leap outside their comfort zone.

Hoffacker also shared a perhaps unhelpful-for-most secret for getting Hollywood producers to pay attention to something you are trying to create: “Represent a gaming brand with hundreds of millions of dedicated fans.” Shouldn’t be a problem, right?

Next was Chandana Ekanayake, who spoke about cultural specificity as an asset in games. Ekanayake recalled being an immigrant child caught between cultures growing up and how that feeling self-reinforces in modern game development with mostly white leadership calling the shots, including decisions about hiring.

“People are generally more comfortable with other people that look like them or share similar values,” Ekanayake said.

He conceded that marginalized-focus games do not make enough money, but emphasized that is only in the short-term. It is possible, Ekanayake argued, to change the overall tide and make room for more kinds of people and kinds of games.

May Ling Tan followed Ekanayake to talk about instilling a culture of kindness in your game with examples of that work at Bungie. Tan started by defining a kind game as a multiplayer game designed from the start with systems that deliberately promote prosocial behavior. Things like safety, interdependence, belonging, empathy, and more would be examples of the kind of behavior a kind game would try to promote with its players.

For these things to come to fruition, the development team itself must be instilled with a culture of kindness, which Tan makes sure to distinguish from niceness.

Constructive criticism in a culture of kindness

“You can tell someone something sucks while still being kind,” Tan explained.

A core example was Bungie’s own Fireteam Finder tool in Destiny, which matched up players for puzzle-like Raids by introducing them, as opposed to putting them together and immediately starting like Deathmatch. The tool reminded players at beginning to be kind to each other and responses on Reddit and other social media were positive about it as a whole.

Next was Victoria Tran, community manager for the culturally gigantic Among Us. Tran believed that developers can bring their entire community with them in kindness. This involves encouraging healthy interest in the game as a two-way street by making things like moderation just as important as any other kind of interaction.

This is not just about creating a healthy environment around your game but recognizing that good communities are financially beneficial to your game. As no one can copy your community like they can copy your game, loyalty is worth a fair amount to a game’s financial health.

“Accounting knows the value of goodwill in a monetary sense,” Tran said.

Finally came Dr. Rachel Kowert, research director at mental health nonprofit Take This. Kowert explained that her talk was originally going to be about what to do if things go wrong with your gaming community, but she had made a last-minute change in the previous few days to address what to do as things are currently going wrong. In particular, Kowert wanted to speak about the ongoing harassment campaign involving video game consultancy firm Sweet Baby Inc.

More directly, Kowert made a strong declaration that games industry leadership is choosing to ignore the harassment, which is exacerbating the problem rather than minimizing it. She went on to call the culture of silence around harassment campaigns in general, but this one in specific, “irritating.”

“It is truly unfathomable in 2024 that senior leadership has not addressed this harassment. They have become complicit in this by not speaking out,” Kowert forcefully said.

Senior leadership's complacency and complicity

Kowert’s central point was that this complacency is cowardly, and it tells aggressors their actions are fine, if not implicitly encouraging them. Citing Gamergate, the 2014 harassment campaign in the game industry, Kowert pointed out that silence did nothing to stem the wave of hate 10 years ago and it makes no sense to use the same playbook again 10 years later.

Bungie was brought up once again, having filed a lawsuit against a toxic member of their audience, with Kowert pointing out that this action was seen favorably by the community. Moreover, doing anything short of making it an obvious company stance from leadership blunts the message.

“It has to be the loudest people in the room, It’s gotta be the people at the top,” Kowert said.

Game Developer and GDC are sibling organizations under Informa Tech.

About the Author(s)

Imran Khan

Featured Contributor

Imran Khan has been in the games industry in various forms for over two decades. He has been a former senior editor at Game Informer, a professional loudmouth at Kinda Funny, and news director at Fanbyte. He has also been doing PR for Vicarious PR and Head of U.S. PR for Japanese VR studio MyDearest, in addition to Producer work on their latest title Brazen Blaze.

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