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Dr. Rachel Kowert of Take This breaks down how extremist groups take advantage of the reluctance of some companies to stand up to online harassment.

Bryant Francis, Senior Editor

March 28, 2024

7 Min Read
A man holds a finger up in a "quiet" signal.
Image via Adobe Stock.

At a Glance

  • A recent harassment campaign targeting narrative consultancy firm Sweet Baby Inc. has been met with silence by its partners.
  • This is despite the campaign's organizers spreading misinformation about how their games were made.
  • Failing to speak up could fuel further threats and harassment, says Take This Research Director Dr. Rachel Kowert.

Dr. Rachel Kowert is literally at the center of a mass conspiracy theory. In a conversation at the 2024 Game Developers Conference, she pulled out her phone and shared an image of a red-string case board assembled by an unnamed participant in an ongoing harassment campaign against narrative consultancy studio Sweet Baby Inc.

The conspiracy in question has to do with a mission to promote a "political agenda" on game developers through threats and intimidation. The agenda is supposedly that Sweet Baby and other organizations are dictating these companies include characters from diverse backgrounds in their games.

Kowert's name is near the center of the board. Strings connected her to video game mental health nonprofit Take This (where she serves as the Research Director), to media outlet Kotaku (where she does not work, though she was profiled by the site in 2023) and then, things... get out of hand.

The strings link her to the United Nations, the British Parliament, and the government of Brazil, all through her membership in the Extremism in Gaming Research Network. Tangential links between these groups became hotspots for conspiratorial activity, creating an implication that Kowert has influence over entire governments to push an agenda.

Related:Are game studios suddenly abandoning Black developers?

"It's much easier to target a single person than an organization," Kowert explained. Since Take This spoke out against the harassment campaign and offered resources for affected individuals, she's faced a barrage of death threats and hate mail that have shaped how she goes out in public and even navigated GDC (the conference provided her with an extra security detail).

"They seem to have glommed on to me in particular because I have been doing work for the last couple of years funded by the Department of Homeland Security."

That research is, ironically enough, about online extremism in video game spaces. In 2022, Kowert told Game Developer that "rising occurrences of hate, harassment, and extremist radicalization within these spaces have personal and societal repercussions on safety and well-being, including mental health." Now, she is, unfortunately, living proof of her own words.

Though Kowert seemed undoubtedly shaken over her experience, she had a broader concern: individual developers at the companies Sweet Baby has consulted with have spoken up in their defense (fueling even more harassment), but their employers have not.

As she mentioned in her GDC microtalk given shortly before we spoke, her research indicates that silence is not a consequence-free act. "It is truly unfathomable in 2024 that senior leadership has not addressed this harassment. They have become complicit in this by not speaking out," she said to the crowd.

In our conversation, Kowert added more context to her presentation and again urged major studios, publishers, and platform owners to step up—or the problem could become worse.

"Don't feed the trolls" isn't always enough

When individual people are attacked by online harassment campaigns, going dark and not responding to the death threats and hate mail is a valid tactic, Kowert says. But when groups on the sidelines say nothing, the consequences come quickly.

"The problem is that when leadership is not speaking up, it sets and reinforces cultural norms," she explained. Just as when leaders ignore harassment or toxicity in the workplace, ignoring it in the communities around their company presents a message of tolerance for it as well.

Even when individual developers speak up (as some from both Marvel's Spider-Man 2 developer Insomniac Games and Alan Wake 2's Remedy Entertainment have), they become isolated people that the campaigns can rally against. Rallying the horde against individual "ne'er-do-wells" is a powerful sensation, especially when you feel like you can legitimately bombard a person with harassment.

It's why companies making these statements—and not just CEOs—is important. Kowert downplayed the idea that someone like Ted Price, CEO of Insomniac Games (the studio behind Marvel's Spider-Man 2), should make that individual stand and that it should rather be Sony or Insomniac that sends that message.

Or Remedy Entertainment, or Ubisoft, or Rocksteady Games...these are among the many companies that have contracted Sweet Baby for their services.

It's tempting to ignore ridiculous lies

Some well-meaning developers and executives expressed to GDC that the lies fueled by the ongoing campaign were so ridiculous that responding, in turn, risked giving them more oxygen.

It's a sentiment that comes from a well-meaning place. Let's say a game industry professional with zero ties to the victims of death threats and harassment heard the claims made by the campaign's organizers about a political agenda and instantly knew how ridiculous and hateful they sounded.

Once they recognize that their peers feel the same way about the claims, they could easily assume that the claims aren't spreading or don't have an impact. And from there, they don't see a reason to say anything about it themselves.

It's an assumption Kowert says is "inaccurate." "It's important to understand that when these things happen, there's a weird assumption that what happens online...seems magically convinced within the invisible walls of the internet," she observed.

But victims' distress is still very real. Kowert was glib about appearing on the "case board" but admitted she was "distressed" by the image. And paranoia over the threats she's received is seeping into her daily life, too. "I was very convinced someone was following me home the other day," she said, referring to a driver whose car happened to mimic her route on a drive home.

One of her kids was in the car with her and asked why she suddenly led them on a different route home to shake their possible pursuer.

"Clearly, nobody's following me home," she said with frustration. But in the moment, she was convinced, and the spread of the lies and barrage of death threats was very, very real.

There is proof that studios speaking up works

Kowert was generally frustrated at how the video game industry seems to have learned so little from the events of Gamergate in 2014. But there was one major turning point from that year that seems to be regularly forgotten: game studios did begin speaking up about online harassment. And the first large one was Blizzard Entertainment.

There's a bitter irony in that fact, given the allegations later made in a since-settled lawsuit filed by California regulators about sexual harassment and abuse at Blizzard. But when studio co-founder Mike Morhaime addressed the crowd at the opening ceremony for BlizzCon 2014, he gave the most prominent condemnation of Gamergate seen by that point. "Over the last couple of months, a small group of people have been doing really awful things. They've been making some people's lives miserable, and they are tarnishing our reputation as gamers," he said. Cheers from the crowd erupted as he proclaimed, "It's not right."

Morhaime's words were unspecific, a little late, and maybe flawed ("tarnishing the reputation of gamers" is low on the list of harm rendered by Gamergate's proponents). But the company deserves credit for weighing in at a moment when other studios remained silent, especially when it had not been a direct target.

In the months before, many major outlets had failed to cover the ongoing campaign, successfully blitzed by bad-faith arguments about "ethics in games journalism."

Today, that phrase is a punchline. For three months, it was a sneering cover for death threats and harassment.

Blizzard didn't end or even slow down Gamergate, but merely calling out the actions of a "small group of people" and saying "it's not right" showed how isolated and ill-motivated the campaign was. The number of people watching the opening ceremony and cheering at his words may very well have outnumbered Gamergate's rabid enforcers.

Why did Morhaime choose to speak up? He hasn't addressed the topic since. Maybe he thought, as Kowert did, that allowing harassment to thrive in game communities is bad for business. She shared data in another GDC session indicating that six out of 10 players say they'll play a game if it has a better reputation, and six out of 10 players won't spend money on a game if there are high rates of toxicity. With the company about to reveal the existence of Overwatch, maybe there was an effort to embrace the game's hopeful tone and press against online toxicity.

Or maybe he recognized what Kowert's research has borne out. That such groups prey on isolated, vulnerable individuals, and as a speaker on a massive stage at Blizzard's flagship event, he could make a real difference.

Hopefully, other leaders come to the same realization today.

For now, Kowert urges developers to seek resources in their company if they're being harassed. And if those aren't available, Take This has prepared some that may help those affected by harassment and death threats through a dark moment.

Disclaimer: The organizers of GDC provided additional security for the author of this piece while leading a session named GDC 101, following the publication of our earlier story on the harassment facing Sweet Baby Inc..

Game Developer and Game Developers Conference are sibling organizations under Informa Tech.

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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.

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