It’s been a week since ArenaNet fired Guild Wars 2 narrative designer Jessica Price and writer Peter Fries without any warning, and the statements the company has released since then have only caused more outrage.

The short version of what happened is this: Price tweeted a thread explaining the intricacies and challenges of writing characters for a massively multiplayer online role-playing game. YouTuber and ArenaNet content partner Deroir replied to the thread with his layperson take on the subject, and Price was having none of it. She shut him down, drawing the ire of an internet mob — or at least the ire of bots and sock puppet accounts, according to Giant Spacekat cofounder and U.S. House of Representatives candidate Brianna Wu. Her colleague Fries came to her defense, and for both their troubles, ArenaNet fired them.

No matter how you choose to read the exchanges on Twitter, ArenaNet’s decision to fire Price and Fries has had an appalling ripple effect throughout the industry. According to a statement by Game Workers Unite, a grassroots organization that seeks to help game developers unionize, “This event carries echoes of Gamergate, and will only embolden harassers further.”

In the aftermath, Price has been subject to full-scale harassment on social media, and she turned her accounts over to a security team to handle. She returned online yesterday to speak out about the damage the ArenaNet has done, saying that not only did the company fail to condemn harassment but that it actually escalated it by calling her tweets “attacks on the community.”

And the consequences are already being felt. Some female developers have come forward to say that they’ve been harassed and their employers have received messages asking for them to be fired simply for expressing their opinions on social media.

A plague of online abuse

Developers are frequent targets of abusers online. They receive a barrage of venemous comments — sometimes for creating experimental games or for not delivering on some small promised feature … or for the simple fact that they’re women.

Indie dev Nathalie Lawhead has been vocal about this problem and her own harrowing struggles with it. She has created interactive ‘net art since 1999, winning accolades like IndieCade’s 2017 Interaction Award for her game Everything Is Going to Be OK and the Independent Games Festival 2016 Nuovo Award for Tetrageddon Games. She recently released her newest title, Cyberpet Graveyard.

She’s faced online abuse throughout her career, and these toxic attitudes translate into real-world spaces as well. When she demoed Everything Is Going to Be OK at Double Fine’s Day of the Devs, she encountered hostility from people just because it didn’t conform to what they thought a game should be. And she’s faced harassment from coworkers.

“There were points in my online life where I was being cyberstalked to such an extent, by people that I worked with, that I was terrified of anything I posted for fear of how that would be used against me at work. It might seem like silly hazing, but imagine being gay and that exists. You can’t show anything from your personal life because that’s going to be weaponized against you,” said Lawhead in an email to GamesBeat. “That’s something that happened in one workplace. I imagine this scenario now in the hands of an over-empowered fanbase that feels entitled to destroy anyone they disagree with. It makes games even less appealing to work in.”

Maximilian Arocena also develops experimental titles, using the moniker Colorfiction. His most recent release is the psychedelic exploration game 0°N 0°W. He shared with me a few abusive messages that he received for one of his titles, scrubbed of the person’s personal information. The language in these messages is appalling. The person shrieks in all caps, accuses him of being “too lazy” to make “a real game,” and liberally lobs profanities. It’s not constructive. It’s meant to wound.

“After several more interactions like this one with other people (particularly on Reddit when sharing the game), my responses gradually became drier and drier until I stopped replying,” said Arocena. “I just don’t see the point in it anymore, I’d rather focus the energy working or even taking a break. When going over comments or messages you start getting really good at apprehending by the first couple of words if it’s going to be something nice or toxic and your brain automatically shuts off and goes to the next one. It’s a sort of culling technique or self defense strategy that becomes subconscious after a while.”

For people who haven’t had to deal with online abuse, these kinds of messages might seem like a small annoyance. But imagine thousands of them screaming at you, telling you that you’re worthless and that the game you just poured months or years of your life into is worthless. Imagine these same people threatening you with violence or telling you that you should commit violence against yourself. Imagine opening your inbox and seeing nothing but a sea of rage.

And imagine those people now having access to your employer, who might — as Price put it — “fold like a cheap card table” and fire you. Imagine losing your healthcare or not being able to pay rent just because some people on the internet didn’t like a tweet.

Dealing with harassment

Colorfiction's dimension-hopping game, 0°N 0°W.

Above: Colorfiction’s dimension-hopping game, 0°N 0°W.

Image Credit: GamesBeat

Since ArenaNet, a few studios are now talking about how they would handle similar situations or, more broadly, what their policies are when it comes to social media. Earthlight developer Opaque Space released an official response that includes a pledge to support their developers “online and offline.”

“We do not view the discourse around tackling the challenges faced by the games industry, especially the many diverse professionals that work within it, as being ‘hate speech’ — in fact we believe these conversations are necessary and applaud our developers for engaging in the emotional labor to educate and discuss these issues throughout our industry,” said Opaque Space’s statement.

Though Remedy, the studio behind Alan Wake and the upcoming Control, hasn’t released an official statement, one of its developers tweeted that it’s having internal discussions about how to protect developers if they’re being harassed online.

Other companies haven’t commented on the situation. GamesBeat has reached out to Ubisoft and Blizzard to see what their policies are and whether they have a harassment response plan, and we will update this article if they respond. Although these companies are not indies, their approach could help guide smaller studios and developers on effective practices they may not know about.

Kitfox Games creative director Tanya X. Short shared their studio’s internal policy, which she wrote up around two years ago as part of a local game developer community’s effort to be “role models for the younger parts of our demographic.” The studio along, with a few other indie developers in Montreal like Spearhead and Clever Endeavour, pledged to have zero tolerance for harassment. Short’s policy is fairly general, partly because Kitfox has just eight people. She says if she were running a larger company, she would likely want to come up with more specific guidelines with concrete examples so that employees know exactly what kind of disciplinary measures might be taken in any scenario.

“The most important thing for me to communicate in thinking about harassment from externals to employees was that employees understand I want to protect them, and help them as best I can,” said Short. “I wanted a policy that was loose enough for it to be used as ground rules, but strong enough that employees could feel they had a basic expectation of what would happen. Hopefully my employees will hold me accountable, if I violate the ethos and spirit of that policy.”

Vicarious PR CEO Michael Brown says that several of his indie developer clients have asked him how to handle online harassment. The PR firm helps its clients set up processes that analyze why online abuse is happening, whether it’s because of the game, politics, or a personal vendetta. Then the next step is to attempt to de-escalate the situation.

“We give developers as much training as they need including scenario-based training whereby we play out what could happen in any given situation,” said Brown in an email to GamesBeat. “One of the most useful pieces of advice is ‘don’t kneejerk.’ Social media is full of instant gratification by design, so when an insult comes your way, it’s all too easy in the heat of the moment to fire back without thought or barriers. We often advise developers to first think before responding, it’s important to have zero tolerance stance to harassment but it’s also important that you yourself don’t stoop to their level by knee-jerking a response that later you would regret.”

If it’s one or two people who are being abusive, Brown says it’s possible to try to talk to them and defuse the situation. But if it’s a mass attack, Vicarious often recommends releasing one statement and then disengaging entirely.

“Let’s be clear: This doesn’t mean we allow developers to just sit and take harassment when it occurs, nor does it mean they cannot defend themselves against attacks, but what it does mean is taking a no tolerance approach to the perpetrators without adding to the aggression of the situation,” said Brown. “Ultimately, we want developers to be safe, offline and online and throwing fuel to a fire doesn’t help anyone, personally or professionally.”

Arocena says that when he does reply, he tries to do so positively as a way to disarm the attacker. After dealing with abusers online, he’s mostly come to view them as a waste of time and energy. He also says he’s also found a group of likeminded people who appreciate his type of games and will come to his defense.

“I thought about many ways to respond to these and eventually the strategy that worked best for me was to ‘show the other cheek’ in a way, no matter the abuse just respond in a kind and enthusiastic manner,” said Arocena. “It was a bit draining at first but then I noticed the harassment stopped.”

Arocena says he’s never blocked or reported anyone because he thinks it will create a “negative Streisand effect.” His tactic is to kill them with kindness.

“Where if you start blocking somebody and taking away their ability to vent in one manner they will simply find another more damaging way to make themselves heard,” said Arocena. “Additionally these things have a tendency to amplify in magnitude when more people are involved. As soon as a community hears that you are blocking people it just spreads like wildfire and attracts more people that engage you just to receive a reaction.”

But for some developers, the harassment is continuous. And for them, sometimes blocking is a necessary tool to deal with it.

“After the last wave of harassment, I’ve made it a habit to block liberally. It’s cathartic,” said Lawhead. “I learned that this is the safest because these people will often stalk you across multiple spaces, if they get obsessive about you, so it’s best to end it before it becomes a problem.”

Every developer has their own way of dealing with negativity, but it always affects them. For Arocena, it’s the reason he began developing under a pseudonym. Others have been driven out of the industry, like former Nintendo spokesperson Alison Rapp.

Like a lot of folks, developers can’t simply leave social media platforms like Twitter. These sites are crucial for things like networking, finding support, and staying relevant. This availability opens developers up to scrutiny and makes them vulnerable to the possibility that some disgruntled stranger might take it upon themselves to comb through every single post they’ve ever made.

“We really have to stop acting like social media is optional. It’s almost required in this day and age. When you’re being harassed, saying stuff like ‘just get off the web’ is not an option,” said Lawhead. “I have a right to exist, and set boundaries online. It’s everyone’s right to curate the content, and people that they engage with. Standing up for yourself, being ‘rude,’ or asserting yourself at people that enter your personal social media space, is something that no employer has a right to take from you.

“Working in games does not mean that my personal life, or my personal space, is owned by my employer or their fanbase. This culture that we have in games, this preference that consumers get at all costs and times, means that games are deteriorating our boundaries.”

Moving forward

Above: Opaque Space’s immersive VR space simulator Earthlight.

Image Credit: Opaque Space

The fear that developers might lose their jobs because their companies won’t stand up for them is only one of the consequences from recent events. Others are also rightfully worried that this will cause developers to pull away from players even more.

Studios are often already wary of talking too much about their works-in-progress. If they project a deadline and then don’t hit it, players might lash out at them. Or if they muse aloud that they might add this or that feature and then can’t, players might accuse them of being lazy or backpedaling. Why would developers want to share more about their work now that internet mobs seem at the ready to tear them apart for any reason and they can’t defend themselves without risking retribution? Price’s initial thread was an educational one, offering — free — insight into her work. None of her attackers seems to appreciate the time she took to write that out.

For developers who are afraid they’ll become a target of online harassment, resources like developer Zoë Quinn’s Crash Override Network are good places to start for preventative measures. After surviving the Gamergate controversy, she put together an advocacy group and support network to help those who are being harassed. On her site, she links to resources like Speak Up and Stay Safe(r), a guide by Feminist Frequency founder Anita Sarkeesian, writer and activist Jaclyn Friedman, and activist Renee Bracey Sherman on how to try to protect yourself from being doxxed or hacked.

Lawhead says that prevention is important, but so is talking about what happens “post-harassment.” Emotional burnout is a real danger. She says that after someone has been harassed and threatened online, it can affect how they see themselves and the people around them.

“You can end up feeling very abandoned, and like everyone hates you. I’m not new to this, but each time I felt like a wreck when it’s over. This is something that can last a long time, and you don’t notice how it affects you until it’s over,” said Lawhead. “Take care of yourself and focus on stuff outside of whatever part of your life that is being attacked. The world is bigger than these people. I have the joy for my work that gets me through times like that. This stuff isn’t easy, but you do get better at managing it. I think it’s important to understand that these are a lot of angry, sad, frustrated, people, and their sentiments do not reflect everyone’s opinion of you. There’s nothing wrong with you, and you shouldn’t internalize what is being said about you.”

A lot of people’s answer to harassment is to “don’t feed the trolls.” In other words, don’t engage and maybe they’ll go away. Lawhead says that this is part of the problem: folks sticking their heads in the sand, enabling toxic behavior to spread unchallenged. She compares it to the attitude that exhorts people to “don’t punch Nazis.” She encourages developers to stick up for themselves, but only if they feel like they have the energy to spare.

“Educating hateful people involves a lot of emotional labor. If you have it in you, it’s essential that you speak up. It’s not so much about reaching them, as it is about asserting that a thing is wrong,” said Lawhead. “We need to push back. If we don’t stand up for ourselves, nobody will. It’s only going to get worse if harassers feel like this works. It’s important to keep asserting ourselves. We have rights, and one of those rights is to safely exist online. The ArenaNet firing seems so endemic of sexism too. I’ve seen plenty of men that are much more rude in their online interactions and receive little to no consequence for it.”

In 2018, we live in a world where seemingly endless abhorrent headlines goosestep their way across the front page every day. Many of these headlines affect women, people of color, and folks in the LGBTQIA community. Many of these same people have to deal with discrimination in and out of the workplace. Those who want us to shut up about it, who plead for civility and ask that politics be tossed aside, perhaps don’t realize that these aren’t “just politics,” they’re existential threats. Now certain vocal, angry parts of the gaming community want to punish people for expressing anger or fear or frustration about these threats.

The damage from ArenaNet’s decision isn’t just being done to the women who are being harassed. It’s being done to everyone who is now afraid to speak out on Twitter. The damage is in the pause, the moment where marginalized people will now hesitate before sharing their stories. It renders people’s struggles invisible, because the people who are struggling are often the ones who can suffer the most if their livelihoods are taken away.

Short says it’s important to take a step back from whatever harassment you may be receiving and “remember that you are a human animal.” She encourages people to practice self-care, to “use your time and energy wisely.”

“In the same way that it’s important to question whether your work habits will burn you out in the long-term, it’s important to question whether your social media habits are sustainable. We all find connectedness a bit differently — some people are more confrontational than others. That’s OK, if it brings you happiness and achieves your goals,” said Short. “But it’s also easy to get stuck using social media to try to express frustrations, bitterness, and resentment which should find other, healthier outlets. So, it’s up to each person to reflect on their own motives, drives, and figure out how to be their best selves, given all the peculiarities of their situation. We can’t be happy all the time. But we can always strive towards happiness, if we choose to.”

IndieBeat is GamesBeat reporter Stephanie Chan’s weekly column on indie projects. If you’d like to pitch a project or just say hi, you can reach her at stephanie@venturebeat.com.