by staff writer Michael Brown
Jennifer Hepler, senior writer for the Edmonton-based video-game studio BioWare, has been the victim of a series of death threats aimed at her and her family over her work on Dragon Age II, a sequel in the Dragon Age franchise. The game was unpopular to many hard-core fans and the threats came at her via the BioWare forums as well as Twitter and in the form of emails and phone calls. The attack on Hepler stemmed from a six-year old interview in which she admitted she didn’t like combat in games. This was enough to send fans over the edge, blaming her for unpopular changes to the game, as well as describing her as a “cancer” that was destroying BioWare.
I was shown a sample of the forum posts by EA security,” says Hepler, “and it included graphic threats to kill my children on their way out of school to show them that they should have been aborted at birth rather than have to have me as a mother.
Another part of the problem for Hepler was BioWare’s sympathetic portrayal of homosexual characters, which has not only been the cause for some of the abuse but also much of the positive support from fans. ‘The outpouring of support I received — large amounts from female and gay fans — was incredibly heartening,” said Hepler. “Without the negativity, I’m not sure that I would ever have heard from all of these people confirming that there is a need for characters that tackle touchy social issues, for characters who are untraditional or even unlikeable.”
Hepler’s story is reminiscent of an incident just last month when fans threatened to murder a Call of Duty developer over minor changes to some of Black Ops II‘s weapons. A recent patch made a number of minor bug fixes and tweaks, including slightly reducing the damage caused by the AN-94 gun, and reducing the rate of fire of the DSR 50 and Ballista. All the changes are merely tenths of a second. Four days later, game developer Phil Fish got into an online argument with writer Marcus Beer, tweeting “I fucking hate this industry” (for the negativity and criticism it’s brought.) The back and forth ended with Fish tweeting, “I’m done. Fez 2 is canceled. Goodbye.” Fish later confirmed the game’s cancellation and has not responded to press requests for comment since the tweet.
Adam Orth, a creative director for Microsoft Studios, provocatively tweeted about always-online consoles in April in the thick of growing trepidation about that possible requirement for the newly announced Xbox One. The tweets spurred death threats, an apology from Microsoft and international news coverage. Orth left Microsoft about a week later.
The Jennifer Hepler situation, as well as that of the Call of Duty developer and others, casts even more light on both more general problems with cyberbullying and the targeting of women via Twitter, both of which are likely to see more strict legal sanctions in the future. Hepler has since left BioWare, but in a recent update to her story, she says the death threats weren’t a direct result to her leaving, but she also wanted to be closer to her family in the United States.
Developers who have spoken to Krypton Radio have said that harassment by gamers happens so frequently that it’s become a regularly expected element of game development. Some developers say it was among the reasons they left the industry, or that it happens so often that it distracts them from making games or that they’re considering leaving the industry altogether. Harassment has become so widespread that the International Game Developers Association executive director Kate Edwards says that the organization is looking into starting support groups and that while the harassment isn’t having a major impact on game development, “we’re at the cusp of where it could. Harassment isn’t new but we didn’t use to see the kind of vitriolic harassment that we’re seeing today. There needs to be a broader sense of how we’re going to cope with this as an industry.”
Nathan Fisk, lecturer at the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and featured in Bullying in the Age of Social Media , said, “I think fans harass developers for a range of reasons, but again, it is always about power and position. Fans are invested in the stories and worlds that developers create, and certain design decisions can be seen by fans to threaten those stories and worlds. Harassment silences and repositions content creators in ways that protect the interests of certain fan groups, which again is no justification for the kinds of abusive behavior and language seen online today.”
“It’s definitely gotten worse,” said Greg Zeschuk. “The threshold for a flip out or a major scandal has dropped. The smallest thing will set people off.” Zeschuk, along with friend, partner, and fellow doctor Ray Muzyka created BioWare. They have both left the company they founded and will likely never return. These days, Zeschuk is doing something entirely different: writing about and creating videos about craft beer.
While no longer in the industry, Zeschuk says he can’t help but still watch it and he’s noticed the rise in harassment. BioWare’s own Mass Effect 3 was the flashpoint for one of the most publicized recent gamer backlashes. At the time it seemed like a vehement, unprecedented reaction by fans who were unhappy with the ending of the Mass Effect trilogy, but while most displeased fans simply expressed disappointment, a small, vocal group began threatening and harassing BioWare and its developers. Zeschuk said the studio was “without a doubt” shocked by the reaction to the game’s ending and in particular to how virulent that reaction was. In an interview with Polygon, Zeschuk stops short when asked if the harassment was the reason he and Muzyka left the company they created.
From an editorial written by Activision social media manager Dan Amrich regarding the threats to the Call of Duty developer:
“Vahn often gets told he should die in a fire or kill himself or is a horrible person. If anybody thinks for a second that this is okay, it is not. But if the loudest voices in the Call Of Duty ‘community’ act like an angry mob instead, guess how the entire world views Call Of Duty? Now consider that these Internet Tough Guy rants and demands are not unique to COD, but exist everywhere, in many gaming communities. This is why the world often does not take gaming seriously; this is why gamers are assumed to be immature, whiny ***holes. Because the immature, whiny ***holes are louder. If you enjoy your games, have a little respect for the people who make them — and stop threatening them with bodily harm every time they do their job.”
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