Violence came home to the video game community this week with the shootings at a Madden esports competition in Jacksonville, Florida. A mentally disturbed Madden player went to the Madden NFL Championship Series with a gun. He killed two competitors — Taylor Robertson and Elijah Clayton — injured a dozen, and then turned the gun on himself.
The blame started immediately, with some saying EA and the NFL’s event security was lacking. On Fox News, a host blamed video game culture for the violence. EA expressed its sympathies for victims of the “horrible situation.” EA CEO Andrew Wilson flew to the Madden studio in Florida and canceled further qualifying for the Madden esports tournament. EA will review safety protocols for competitors and spectators. On Thursday, EA said it would set up a $1 million fund to support the victims of the shooting and set up a way for others to contribute as well. It also held a livestream tribute for the victims, “uniting in play.”
It was a swift and sincere response to a tragedy, and Wilson didn’t say anything to further inflame a volatile situation. By comparison, the NFL moved quite slowly. It was uplifting to see how the big company behaved so humanely and reminded us that games unite us, as opposed to making us violent. I only wish that other reactions to such tragedies could also focus on healing, not blame.
It was also in a way a reminder that esports has a long way to go before it finds its place in gaming. Separately, Riot’s Derrick “FearGorm” Asiedu, head of esports events, said in a response on a Reddit thread that his company has spent more than $100 million per year on developing global esports for League of Legends, and it is nowhere near being profitable yet. Riot will invest in esports because it believes in its future, but it will also pay attention to making sustainable net income.
That’s a wise approach, as Riot itself will face many challenges in trying to sustain League of Legends in the face of battle royale competitors like Fortnite and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. If both Riot and EA just kept racing ahead, without really thinking through what they have to work out, then they could do more to hurt esports in the long run.
A culture riot over sexism at Riot Games
And Riot, of course, has some other things to sort out.
Kotaku reporter Cecilia D’Anastasio ran an in-depth investigation that looked into how women are treated at the game development company. It cited 28 interviews that showed how deeply rooted the problem of sexism was at Riot, and how hard it would be to attract women (who are 20 percent of Riot’s staff) to a company with such a culture. That culture was presented as one focused on hardcore gaming. But in practice, it was more like a good ol’ boys club.
I was struck at some anecdotes in the Kotaku story. One woman said the team didn’t listen to her, so she tried an experiment with a male colleague. She presented an idea to the mostly male management team and didn’t get much recognition or agreement for it. Then she had a male colleague make a similar presentation to the same group later, and the male colleague was showered with kudos. It was sexism, but it was the kind that is very hard to prove and root out.
But I was more disturbed by one of the former employees who shared his story in the wake of the report. Barry Hawkins, a former production manager, told how he was at a retreat with Riot’s founders Brandon Beck and Marc Merrill. To make a point about how you don’t give up when trying to recruit someone, Beck said, “No doesn’t necessarily mean no.”
Beck laughed when he said it, and pockets of laughter broke out in the audience of about 160 people. But there was a lot of silence in the crowd. It was a double entendre, at once referring to being persistent in recruiting and also a kind of rape joke. It had co-opted a 20-year-old anti-rape campaign, No Means No, as another witness reported. Hawkins winced and noted that the leader of the meeting, recruiting head Nancy Hilpert, included the comment in a recap of the event. As diplomatically as he could, Hawkins took it upon himself to explain it was wrong to bake what could be perceived as a rape joke into the slide deck.
Hawkins was then invited to a meeting entitled “Riot Voice and Sense of Humor” with Beck, Merrill, and the heads of communications and legal. In that meeting, Beck pulled up an image of an iceberg with the caption, “Just the tip.” Beck said he had that T-shirt, and he wondered what Hawkins thought of it. Hawkins said he didn’t think it was appropriate. That led to back-and-forth between Merrill, Beck, and Hawkins.
“I think Brandon felt misunderstood and misinterpreted, and that my email implied that I thought he condoned rape,” Hawkins wrote. “After he had talked for several minutes, Marc said, ‘So what do you think about what he said?’ I replied, ‘I think he thinks these sorts of things are OK and I don’t.’”
Beck said he didn’t support rape, but also brought up culture and “having a sense of humor.” The head of communications said that Riot was “edgy,” and that if it started chipping away at those edges, it would become like Electronic Arts or Blizzard. Hawkins was uncomfortable, and he got the impression he was being accused of being too sensitive. The female in the meeting, the head of legal, said she was sick of having to hear such sexist banter all the time and she felt like punching the
founders “the guys” in the throat.
It turned out that, of all the people Hawkins had heard complaining about the rape joke, he was the only one brave enough to bring it up to Beck. And that, Hawkins said, was a real problem. After that, Hawkins felt he was on watch for “culture fit,” which was Riot’s code for whether he fit in with the people at Riot. He left the company in February, 2014. Zoe Curnoe, another former Rioter, also told a similar story to what Hawkins relayed, though she left the leader’s name out of it.
This week in response the Kotaku story and subsequent posts like the one Hawkins made, Riot published a blog post in which it apologized sincerely and explained how it will address this problem about having a sexist culture moving forward. The company said it listened to the complaints, apologized to its current and former employees, and also said sorry to its fans, future job candidates, and partners. Beck is no longer CEO, and Riot is now owned by Tencent. Last October, Nicolo Laurent became chief executive, and Merrill and Beck are still on the board. But they have recused themselves from the culture transformation, which Laurent is leading.
I specifically asked Riot Games PR what they thought about Hawkins’ post about Beck. The reply: “As we promised to Rioters and in our post this week, no one is immune from the investigation process. This will be looked at using the same process used for any another Rioter, including review by outside counsel, to determine the facts of the situation. To preserve the integrity of that process, Riot won’t be commenting on the allegations while the investigation is ongoing.”
Riot is searching for a new chief human resources officer and a chief diversity officer. In the investigation part of its post, Riot said, “No one and nothing is sacred. We are prepared to make big changes and have begun taking action against specific cases, including removal of Rioters, though we aren’t likely to get into those details publicly on a case-by-case basis for legal and privacy reasons.”
To me, this story about Beck is hard to reconcile with a man who made a wonderful speech in 2015 about how the game industry didn’t invest enough in people, and how Riot Games was one of the best places to work in the U.S. Hawkins’ story convinced me that the culture problem at Riot runs deep.
Cyberpunk 2077’s awesomeness
Those tales above raised so many sobering thoughts. But I was relieved that we got to have a glimpse of a real game this week. CD Projekt Red showed off a 48-minute gameplay video of Cyberpunk 2077. The video showed an amazingly detailed open world, as the narrator said the ambition was to create “the most believable city in any open world to date.” I interpreted that as a shot across the bow of Rockstar Games and the Grand Theft Auto team, as Cyberpunk 2077 was as incredibly hyper detailed as any Rockstar game I’ve ever seen. It’s the only game I’ve seen with such density of interaction and the realism integrity of Grand Theft Auto V.
The demo showed how everything in the game revolved around your decisions. If you wanted to go in guns blazing into a gang’s fortress, it probably wasn’t going to end so well. But if you took a less violent path, you could find stealthier ways to get into the gang’s compound and snatch the goods that you needed.
The demo of the upcoming game promised deeper the details of the open world, with fascinating futuristic touches such as cranial chip implants, robotic body modifications, hyperfast video communications, and surveillance drones. The dystopic city seemed like a living thing, and the choices for getting things done seemed like they had no limits. You could be as peaceful or violent as you wished.
It also had a hyper-sexualized environment, with lots of streetwalkers, sexy ads, and naked animated women who looked real. This hyper-sexualized part of the game is likely a small part, but it will no doubt prove to be controversial when the game comes out (CD Projekt Red has not set a launch date yet). I think a lot of people (who probably won’t actually play this game) will be standing on the sidelines criticizing its gratuitous sex and violence. CD Projekt Red also apologized this week when it tweeted a question that was considered a put-down for transgender people.
It’s a mature game, aimed at adults who can deal with subjects like nudity, drugs, and murder. For this game, it doesn’t feel gratuitous. It is the world this team is trying to create. I would never say the company didn’t have the right to make a game with this artistic vision. But I do think that CD Projekt Red will have to step up how it communicates about what it is trying to do with the game. I loved the demo. It seemed so real. But it also disturbed me.
All three of these things made me have one wish for the collective game industry. Tread carefully.
Updated: 9:35 pm 8/31/18: Re-characterized the quote from the legal chief.