Sponsored By

Steam and Discord are being used as a home base for hateful reactionaries to single out and harass game developers.

Bryant Francis, Senior Editor

March 11, 2024

7 Min Read
Peter Parker and Miles Morales, the Spider-Men, take on Sandman.
Image via Sony/Insomniac Games.

At a Glance

  • Narrative consultancy Sweet Baby Inc. has faced weeks-long harassment from players angry at their advocacy for diversity.
  • Conspiratorial accusations against the company have been spread through a dedicated Discord server and Steam community group.
  • It's unclear if Valve and Discord view this conduct as acceptable within the boundaries of their terms of service.

Narrative consultancy group Sweet Baby Inc. has become the target of an online harassment campaign for its consulting work on games like Alan Wake 2, Marvel's Spider-Man 2 and Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League.

Why? The answer is frustratingly hard to put down into words. Users on websites like Twitter and Kiwi Farms (a site known for organizing sometimes violent harassment campaigns) operating under the name "Sweet Baby Inc. Detected" have singled out the agency for allegedly having overarching influence on these games, and accused it of forcibly injecting a "political agenda" into them by advocating for diversity.

While the studio's contributions happen mostly on a microlevel (contributing story feedback, helping workshop narrative beats, and writing flavor text and barks with the lens of inclusivity in mind) their work has been reframed as shoehorning Black or LGBTQ characters into games for which they were not originally designed—sometimes through intimidation. It's a grim conspiracy theory built on out-of-context comments and a deliberate misreading of their mission statement, as well as racism, homophobia, and other layers of bigotry.

In an interview with Game Developer Sweet Baby Inc. CEO Kim Belair said the harassment they've been experiencing started bubbling in October 2023, around the release of Marvel's Spider-Man 2 and Alan Wake 2, with the worst hate coming from users on 4chan, Kiwifarms, and Twitter (Twitter was "the worst" until recently, she noted). In the last few weeks however, the harassment grew stronger after the groups spun up a Steam Curation Page and Discord server to organize and spread their conspiracy theories.

Despite that increased spike, Valve and Discord have allowed the Curation Page and server to remain online. Posts from the groups' moderators indicate the companies have warned them that content on their platforms may result in their being removed, forcing them to take some additional moderation steps, but still leaving them online.

Why? Both platforms have made it clear they don't want to be used as vectors for harassment. But slippery language in their terms of service has enabled bad actors to turn their platforms from ones where developers do business to ones where developers can be targeted for abuse.

That hole needs to be closed—fast.

Community and discovery tools gone awry

When word of the curation group "Sweet Baby Inc. Detected" first surfaced on social media, it seemed like a joke. What was the point of making a curation page "detecting" games that a consulting company worked on? Especially when the games are listed on their site?

The answer unfortunately goes back to how conspiracy theories spread rapidly in the age of the internet. In order to act like Sweet Baby is the center of some conspiracy theory, there has to be "evidence" that can be dug up. The bulk of that evidence has been in taking clips from GDC talks and interviews out of context to highlight only comments that support their narrative. Curating games in this fashion on Steam also allows the moderation group to use Steam's curation tools to claim they've "revealed" what games the agency has been working on.

There's a bitter irony for Belair and her colleagues, who structured their website and social media feeds to try and make their work as transparent as possible. "We care very deeply about getting more people into this industry, and increasing transparency in the ways that we work," she noted. "The reason that we had public spaces at all was to talk more about it and to invite people to to come talk to us so they can learn we can help them find their way in the industry."

When we first viewed the "Sweet Baby Inc. Detected" group's Steam Discussion page, the array of conspiracy-laden rants about the company were accompanied by messages from the organizers exhorting new members not to violate Valve's terms of service. The forums on that page have since been removed, with the organizers stating that "a influx of severe bad actors" led Steam Support to reach out to the group in some fashion.

On late Friday, the page owner added a note confirming they were now "on good terms" with Steam, and would be keeping threads locked to "prevent the worst."

The correlating Discord server has undergone a similar, but not all-encompassing purge. Initially, rants about Sweet Baby Inc. and its work were accompanied by a bevy of slurs, hate speech, and broader far-right conspiracies about "wokeism" and diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. And while all this was bandied about, moderators and prominent group members repeatedly warned each other not to violate Discord's terms of service.

Some time on Sunday March 10, the Discord server's moderators were informed that content on their channel risked violating the platform's terms of service, and that they needed to take extra steps to prevent the group from being banned. Group members posting on social media indicated that the moderators had taken such action.

On both platforms, group members spoke about how important it was to be on places like Steam and Discord to try and attract the attention of users with preexisting knowledge about Sweet Baby or why they are angry at its work. "A major issue comes down to this: we don't have enough platform [sic] to influence normies from," one user wrote, before invoking the 2014 online harassment movement Gamergate. "Normies have no f**king idea what's going on rn with any of this or any of what gamergate was."

It's dangerously close to self-awareness—an acknowledgement that these groups need to be on these platforms but their reason for being so would normally be what gets them kicked off. So obfuscation and banning the worst-behaving members of the group is the name of the game.

"They're trying to remain unpinnable," observed Sweet Baby Inc. chief operating officer David Beddard. "If you accuse them of doing something, they go 'no, no, no, we're doing this other thing.' And if you move to the other thing, it's like, 'no, no, we're doing this third thing.'"

He guessed that consciously or unconsciously, this is being done "by design."

Many members of this group must feel caught in between realities. They joined these groups to talk about their hatred for Sweet Baby Inc. and why they think it's ruining games. But they're being told they can't get too specific about why they feel that way, or they'll risk getting banned. And they need to not be banned, so they can recruit more "normies," so they can further their campaign against Sweet Baby and inclusivity at large.

It speaks to how emotionally abusive this process can be. If you've been riled up and convinced of a grand conspiracy theory through out-of-context clips, being lectured how you can and can't be angry while random bursts of bigotry go through the chat can unmoor you from reality and leave you with little more than anger to communicate to the world with.

Moderating speech is challenging, moderating harassment be hard

Belair admitted she isn't entirely sure how Valve or Discord should remedy the situation. She and her colleagues at Sweet Baby Inc aren't experts in online moderation—they're writers. Their job is to create fictional problems in video games, not solve real ones.

She urged Valve and Discord to recognize that harassment campaigns are continuously evolving, and that communications platforms need to keep pace with how they're being used to spread hate. "It's clear that some kind of evolution is needed, because this will only get bigger, and I don't mean for us," she said. "If this playbook can work as well now as it did 10 years ago [with Gamergate], it's going to keep working in certain ways, and they will find something bigger and worse to do than this."

Steam and Discord are two powerful tools that connect players and developers on a daily basis. Their policies should be engineered toward fostering better connections and even giving players space to voice their dislikes about a game or the video game industry as a whole.

But that's not what's happening here. Bad actors have exploited loopholes in their policies, and a small consulting studio with little say in the grand scheme of game production is paying the price.

The steps both companies have taken to moderate these groups appear to have had some effect, but allowing them to remain online serves the organizers' overarching purpose: recruiting "normies" with little knowledge of game development to capitalize on their anger and channel them into directing hate speech toward Sweet Baby Inc. and anyone else pressing for inclusivity in video games and beyond.

If those loopholes aren't closed, those bad actors will have learned they can target other developers, and this will be the beginning of another massive hate campaign that will leave our industry and its people worse for wear.

Game Developer has reached out to Valve and Discord multiple times for comment, and will update this story when they respond.

About the Author(s)

Bryant Francis

Senior Editor, GameDeveloper.com

Bryant Francis is a writer, journalist, and narrative designer based in Boston, MA. He currently writes for Game Developer, a leading B2B publication for the video game industry. His credits include Proxy Studios' upcoming 4X strategy game Zephon and Amplitude Studio's 2017 game Endless Space 2.

Daily news, dev blogs, and stories from Game Developer straight to your inbox

You May Also Like