Atari-owned game archival database MobyGames has updated its crediting policy to allow developers to request the removal of "AKAs" that list out-of-date names they were previously credited under. This shift in policy is meant to be more accommodating for developers who do not wish to have prior names in circulation so they may present their full catalog of work in professional profiles.
Previously a developer who changed their name either as part of a gender transition, marriage, or an effort to flee domestic violence, etc. was able to have games credited under their old name added to their profile. When looking up those titles, the games would list the most up-to-date name.
Clicking on a developer's name, however, would take you to a profile page where the phrase "AKA" was listed at the top of the page. Under that phrase, you could find other names that a game developer was credited under.
In its reply to queries from Game Developer on this topic, a spokesperson for MobyGames stated that "We understand that this is an important question that requires a thoughtful and respectful response."
"MobyGames recently added the ability for AKAs to be removed from profile pages, giving developers more control over their public profile," the spokesperson explained. "This new feature and policy aligns with that of other major archival sites, such as IMDb, that seek to document all content and professional credits within an industry."
The spokesperson added that MobyGames is continuing to adapt its platforms and policies to "ensure that the site meets the needs of industry professionals and has the ability to change as new needs arise, while continuing its important mission of preserving and making accessible game information – credits, screenshots, formats, and release info – about computer, console, and arcade games."
This policy was particularly harmful to transgender game developers, who risked exposure to a number of social and possibly physical harms by having their former name (commonly referred to as a "deadname") listed on their profile pages.
MobyGames' policy had a discriminatory impact
MobyGames' statement to Game Developer came after we spent time speaking to transgender game developers about how the policy had negatively impacted them. When developers like Laura Heimann requested the removal of their deadnames from the site, they described being rebuffed by site moderators (who are often unpaid volunteers).
Heimann told Game Developer that after she made her own request of MobyGames, a moderator decided to link her current profile to her deadname credit and listed it as "credited as" so that her deadname was next to the name "Laura Heimann." She'd made this request as part of a broader push to update her online presence. "I've been on the internet since I was 10, [and] creating content since I was 11," she explained. "To think that I can 100 percent cut off the connection to [my deadname] is wishful thinking."
"However, I've spent the last two years cleaning up everything I can, cutting off connections to projects, usernames and posts that can easily out my deadname. Having this direct connection can be very harmful and potentially dangerous for me. It's a direct shortcut to something that could mentally ruin me."
Other developers who attempted to have their deadnames removed from MobyGames expressed similar frustration. The site's only assistance previously was to deindex the names of profiles from the site, and shorten those developers' names to just adjectives.
If we used my name as an example, "Bryant Francis" might be shortened to "Bryant F." when looking up the credits of games I've worked on.
The deindexing did show that site moderators took the requests seriously, but one developer pointed out a problem with the site's process. Because some developers made such requests in the MobyGames forums, googling someone's name and "MobyGames" would take someone right to a forum thread where their request was being actively denied.
Given how students, game studios, and journalists research individual developers, that wasn't a far-fetched scenario. MobyGames' spokesperson did confirm that developers who have had their profiles deindexed can reverse that process and make their profiles discoverable again.
What policies should archival sites use?
MobyGames, like movie and television archival website IMDB, is a commercial business originally founded by enthusiasts and now owned by a larger parent company. Though it has dealt with several policy updates over the years, and it's a valuable resource for anyone looking to research video game history, it's not what you'd call an academic institution built on historical best practices.
In forum threads reviewed by Game Developer, some volunteer moderators argued that removing deadnames from the site would provide an inaccurate description of history. The core of the argument was that if a developer was credited under that project by a certain name, then said name should be archived for the benefit of accuracy.
That policy works fine if a developer never has to change their name, but that category of people tends to be disproportionately cisgender men. The most common reasons for name changes include marital status, gender transition, religious motivations, changing one's name to escape domestic violence or otherwise being a victim of or witness to a crime.
(It is worth noting that cisgender men might find themselves changing their names for several of those reasons).
The developers who brought this issue to our attention pointed out the harm that the policy has on transgender creators, though they also acknowledged that (as with many challenges faced by the transgender community), inadequate policies that primarily harm transgender people can also harm the general population.
Graduate student Hibby Thach (who is finishing up a Masters in Communication at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and is an incoming PhD candidate at the University of Michigan School of Information) is a scholar studying identity, content moderation, and digital culture. Speaking to Game Developer, they spelled out that a deadname can represent more than a simple social identity shift, it might also carry the baggage of real harm or the pain of grappling with bureaucratic institutions that have been hostile to transgender people.
"When trans people have to experience that, it's not a small inconvenience...they usually have to pay money to experience this discomfort, this invalidation," they said, in reference to the fees affiliated with formal name changes in public and private institutions.
When reviewing MobyGames' announced changes to its policy on deadnames, Thach called it "good news," and that it was hopefully "a step forward for archival resources and databases like MobyGames to better consider transness in their work and technological design."
"Half measures can cause more harm than no change at all."
Dr. Theresa Jean Tanenbaum, an associate professor at UC Irvine Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences, referred Game Developer to the Name Change Policy Working Group, where she and fellow academics have assembled best practices and arguments for allowing name changes in academia. Like the game developers interacting with MobyGames, she and her colleagues have faced hostility when requesting name changes in academic papers, and dealt with arguments of historical accuracy and other bad-faith responses to their requests.
In response, she and her colleagues created a series of best practices for academic publishers to accommodate name changes, particularly for folks who change their names in the process of a gender transition. The group argues that name-changing procedures need to be accessible and comprehensive, should render deadnames invisible, should be executable in a timely manner, and that databases containing such information should be regularly audited to correct new instances of changed names.
The group warns that "half measures can cause more harm than no change at all." It's a comment that echoes the experiences of what developers described to us while reporting on this story. Having two different profiles for their work denied them the ability to easily link to older projects, but MobyGames' prior "AKA" policy risked linking their deadnames to their updated identity.
(There is one glaring conflict between MobyGames' new policy and the working group's recommendations. The site is specifically requesting time for its volunteer workforce to make changes, but delaying the requested changes does have consequences for the groups most harmed by inaccurate crediting.)
MobyGames' new policy does seem to be a band-aid on its prior half-measure. What's interesting is that right as the website announced it was making this policy change, the International Game Developers Special Interest Group on game crediting proposed a relevant update to best practices for updates to game credits.
The group argued that game developers (and sites like MobyGames) might benefit from tools that let developers be identified by an indexical signifier (that could be stored in a JSON file, for instance) that could be easily updated and propagated if a developer requested a name change.
The SIG's proposal overlaps with guidance shared by Tanenbaum and her colleagues. As they wrote over for the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), "the future of publishing is one that must make this distinction between the social identifier of an individual (the name) and the indexical unit that uniquely identifies that individual."
It's a delineation that speaks to a comment Thach made in our conversation about MobyGames' policy. "Names are so bureaucratic," they noted with some exhaustion. The older one gets in life, the more one's name is tied to finances, real estate, and career opportunities.
Changing a name costs time and money, and transgender people face a disproportionate amount of backlash when they take on the burden of right-setting their identity. Anti-trans bigotry among officials or general condescension from well-intentioned administrators can add layers of hostility to an already challenging process.
MobyGames' policy, if nothing else, seems to show that it wants to do right by developers. It also looks like there's still room to improve. Hopefully, those improvements come via financial assistance from parent company Atari.
Update: This story has been updated to reflect Dr. Tanenbaum's full name and actual position at UC Irvine.