Category Archives: Ethics

The Gamish Inquinnsition

In all the recent debate about conflicts of interest between the gaming press and indie game developers, I would guess that no more than 25% of the participating debaters are genuinely interested in journalism ethics. My reasoning? Linguistic subtleties:

Word choice is the body language of the interwebs.
Word choice is the body language of the interwebs.

Another 60% of people in this conversation can easily be sorted into 2-4 teams, each vehemently defending their own in this year’s Butthurt Biathalon, a lesser-known social justice event held in the Oppression Olympics off-season. Another 10% are just there with popcorn and the occasional snarky comment.

An unacceptably large 2% are hell-bent on harassing, threatening, and abusing people because they hate women, hate people who hate women, hate women who hate women, hate people who pretend to be women (hating women), or hated Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman (and are VERY confused right now).

And 3% are game developers, publishers, writers, reviewers, and other folks trying to balance the awkwardness of wanting to participate in this conversation (because we are also mad, sad, and opinionated) with the reality that we are damned if we convey support to any person, group, hashtag, or idea in this particularly ugly gaming family feud.

Sure, Jane Doe and John Cougars-should-rape-you-feminist-scum can safely participate in the discussion behind their cute internet pseudo-anonymity, but some of us work here.

How can I participate in a conversation this gnarly when the entire career of an indie game developer today is made or broken by social capital or lack thereof? Well, I guess it helps that I don’t give 2 fucks. Or wait… I DO…

Fuck Abusive Internet Harassers And Fuck Social Justice Profiteers

I am pissed about the disgusting harassment and threats against Zoe Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian, and others. Campaigns of abuse and harassment against any human being is deplorable and totally inexcusable.

I’m also annoyed that social justice warriors are tripping over themselves to condemn as “abuse and harassment” almost any criticism of the personal or professional conduct of public figures like Quinn and Sarkeesian. An inability to separately evaluate various facets of a subject demonstrates poor critical thinking no matter how you try to spin it. For instance, I can agree with the vast majority of Sarkeesian’s feminist analysis of sexist tropes in games while also criticizing particular fallacies in her arguments WHILE ALSO defending her from inhumane, savage threats and harassment. Nuanced opinions: they’re a real thing. Google it.

I do not agree with what you have to say, and believe you to be a supreme shitlord, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it. – Voltaire

However, I also hate how people are taking condemnations of harassment and abuse against Quinn as blanket statements of support for her as a person and a creator.

When self-appointed moral crusaders are not walking their own talk, I want it exposed. I appreciate whistle-blowers. Transparency allows the public to review the claims and evidence and come to their own, sometimes hilariously batshit, conclusions, but only if allegations and evidence come to light. Also, much of the judgment people pass is not based on the mistakes public figures make but HOW THEY RESPOND when the shit hits the fan (which never happens if nobody goes public). It’s not ethical to take the moral high road when the low road is closed because you flooded it with a raging river of your unethical shit.

Quinn routinely promotes herself as social justice ally, yet she violated the explicit terms of sexual consent she herself established with her sex partner, then discouraged her partner from telling people because she feels she is personally too important to gaming. In fact she described herself as one of the “only strong voices for equality” in games, then she iced that self-important shitcake with manipulative emotional abuse like threatening self harm to elicit guilt and support from a person she abused… classic domestic abuse tactics that survivors should recognize and condemn regardless of the perp’s gender, sex, or SJW messianic complex. It is totally possible to be both financially poor and a profiteer. Quinn is profiting in terms of social capital, status and reputation—which probably mean more to her than money since she works on so many projects with non-commercial goals.

I have no sympathy for people who prominently promote themselves as brave social justice fighters, and climb up on a pedestal KNOWING they are now a public figure representing important causes, then claim that whatever they do in their private life is nobody’s business. If you are a public person basing your reputation on ethical claims, then yes, your personal conduct will most certainly be subject to ethical inquiries. These social justice profiteers know ideological opponents are watching them, looking for ammunition to argue against them, not just as individuals, but as proxies for entire movements. DO NOT take up a mantle like that if you CAN NOT walk your own talk. And if you do mess up, please do effective damage control to save not only your face, but the reputation of the causes on which you have built your professional, public reputation.

And no, for a feminist, playing the helpless victim card and letting obnoxious white knights fight for your honor like you’re the proverbial princess in the castle, is not an acceptable alternative to spinning your personal shortcomings into a productive dialog about important issues, like, for example, how to negotiate and re-negotiate sexual consent in a relationship so everyone can meet their needs. Whether someone requires monogamy to accept the risk of unprotected sex or whether they require an unconditional free pass to sleep with other people whenever they like, it’s all good, but only if everyone involved is aware and consenting.

Depressingly Few People Talked About the Consent Issue

The first I heard of Zoe Quinn was when she was promoting Depression Quest with a tacky tie-in to Robin Williams’ suicide. As a marketer, that’s gross (yes, I am aware she was conflicted over it, and I suspect the overzealous press coverage made her decision look worse than it would have if she had truly released the game quietly by refusing to do promotional media interviews).

Bubbles from Trailer Park Boys thinking "That's Greasy"
Me watching Depression Quest promotional articles ride the coattails of a beloved celebrity’s tragic suicide.

As someone who has been eligible (though not always collecting) social security disability most of my life for dysthymia with bonus major depression and post-partum depression at various points, who fights the good fight every day, I would much rather see one particular experience of depression represented as a specific character in a broader, better developed narrative. Presenting a game as “about depression” rather than about an interesting and capable human being who happens to have depression implies that 1) depression defines people who live with it, and 2) there is a universal experience of depression that is sufficiently common to teach the reality of the condition to people who don’t have it.

Game developers and press need to be careful when they promote games about exploring (and teaching) specific experiences of marginalized groups without clearly binding the game experience to a well-rounded character with other traits and identifiable context (clearer socio-economic markers, hobbies, etc.) to understand that this is one person experiencing depression, not this is what depression feels like, full stop. At least it didn’t teach people that having a period was as crazy gross and unmanageable as this story implies.

For example, medication is not a common part of living with depression, especially outside countries with aggressive psycho-pharmaceutical industries, but it feels like an essential aspect of managing depression in Depression Quest.

Depression Quest felt like it would make a great propaganda game to encourage people to accept expensive therapy and medication as the best treatments for depression.

People could play it while on involuntary 72-hour hold at the psych ward until they comply with the recommendations of a random psychiatrist they didn’t choose and just met.

Maybe I just couldn’t immerse myself in the melodramatic piano (the intro to the game insisted I turn on my speakers so I was expecting… something else). Maybe my first play through just ended with too much of a cliff-hanger (someone offered me the number of their mom’s therapist and then… nothing else). Who knows, it just struck me as over-reaching and quickly executed (endless exposition, the lazy designer’s polaroid print photo motif (though I guess that does establish the time period you are in), and jumbly writing (“You’d like to be doing more with your life, as would your parents”)) . I’ve played much more entertaining games that better modeled the sisyphean ordeal I experience living with depression (most recently pubs in Dota 2: feeling like I don’t even want to leave the base again, it’s futile, we’re fucked, 1 person is always disconnected, 2 people never speak English, what’s the point, gg *leave game*, when it gets really bad have ideation of deleting Dota, talk it out, self-medicate, pick again).

There was one thing I really liked though. I appreciated that Depression Quest managed to become another critically-acclaimed interactive fiction dealing with serious issues WITHOUT the player finding even one super-convenient journal entry or uncannily relevant bit of graffiti (like, I get that it’s easier to tell than show, so you can take a tricky bit of backstory or foreshadowing and have one of the characters write it on a leaf of paper or wall but you gotta admit that’s really fucking lazy).

So, yeah, I was not a Quinn fan based on my extremely limited exposure to her work before the Quinnspiracy media circus erupted. But I also was not prejudiced against her. I liked her bio and personal site. I thought she was a kindred progressive, and we both seemed exceptionally interested in Gary Busey’s face.

I can only guess that if I had liked Quinn’s games more, I would be able to understand why pretty much everyone in gaming has been defending her unconditionally.

Even in the face of some extremely gross accusations (replete with corroborating screenshots, that could be doctored, but I have no reason to believe that they were).

Speaking of defenders, this was the most chivalrous white knighting I have ever seen:

White Knight badass, yes, even for Anna Anthropy (wtf with singling her out in the list)
White Knight badass, yes, even for Anna Anthropy (wtf with singling her out in the list)

I Believe You, It’s Not Your Fault

Cut to the sordid posts by Quinn’s ex Eron Gjoni. It’s a train wreck, yeah. But I came of internet age when LiveJournal was in full swing. Some people like to spill their guts online, and other people like to read it. The system works.

My main reaction was that I was glad men like Gjoni are willing to speak publicly about abusive relationships (not in a whiny MRA way that hijacks and derails feminist conversations, but as a legitimate other conversation that people who care about domestic abuse also need to be having). There is much more public discussion of male-on-female abuse because our criminal justice system (rightly) only prosecutes violent abusers (emotional abusers and people who only violate a relationship’s terms of consent in non-violent ways are not subject to legal inquiries, nor do I believe they should be).

That means the majority of partner abuse (between any genders) is happening well outside the criminal justice system we rely on to punish people who violate us in traumatic, personal ways that impact our physical and mental safety.

The only justice anyone can seek after an abusive but non-criminal violation of sexual consent is social validation (unless you’re violated by a controversial person in Sweden). We can only tell our friends and family, and hope people believe us, validate our feelings, and help us heal. Wanting the world to know your ex treated you like shit, and is in fact a shitty person sometimes, is a very normal way to feel. For most of us though, we are private people that the general public neither knows nor cares about so the stakes are a lot lower if we overshare online.

That Gjoni chose to make his story very public reflects the fact that Quinn lives her life more publicly than most. She is a publicity-friendly developer who once participated in the failed pilot for a television series about indie game jams and part of her income comes from crowd-sourced funding via Patreon. For Gjoni to just tell his family and friends probably did not seem sufficient when so many people all over the world know his ex and believe her to be not only a very ethical person, but someone who specifically stated that what she did to Gjoni constitutes a violation of sexual consent. I totally understand why the guy thought he would feel better if everyone knew, not just people close to them. I also bet he will regret this someday because Quinn suffered a truly inordinate amount of abuse for a transgression that is extremely common in our sex-negative culture where people routinely use dishonesty as a risk-management strategy to fulfill all of their social and sexual needs without severing primary relationships.

And, although I understand how Quinn might feel unfairly targeted as a talking point for this subject, I think it is especially important for victims like Gjoni to tell these stories when the violator of sexual consent is someone who is generally believed to be a very ethical person, someone who profits personally and professionally from the goodwill of social justice allies. I am always grateful to know when someone is not walking their talk because talk is cheap but living your values can be very, very costly. I respect people who pay that price, whether it means informing your primary partner before you fuck a few other dudes or letting your monogamous partner know you already fucked a few other dudes before he has unprotected sex with you.

Honesty is the only way we will collectively liberate our sex lives from an icky, shameful, sex-negative past. We need to bring short and long-term polyamory out of the closet and into a safer world of sexual honesty and maturity. This is the conversation I wanted to see after the scandal broke, not a bunch of asshats flaming Quinn about game press conspiracy theories.

Aren’t Ethics in Fucking As Important As Ethics In Journalism?

I care a LOT about the consent issue, and next to NOTHING about the unfounded allegations that Quinn got favorable game press from people she dated (there is no such favorable press from the dudes in question, so I’ve no idea how that allegation passed anybody’s sniff test). If you can find a glowing or even moderately good review of Quinn’s work by any guy Gjoni called out, please link me directly because I have seen no such smoking gun.

Look, Quinn was not the only person to ever fuck a coworker, business associate, or boss in the games industry. She was not the only person to ever cheat on someone and then fool around with them like nothing happened.

But as a voice for social justice in the games industry, she was in a unique position to lead a conversation about the important issue of sexual consent.

We know these harmful but legal violations of consent can be deeply traumatic (and scary, incurable STIs are no joke) but we don’t engage in enough public brainstorming and education about how we can prevent them.

Most of us have known or dated someone who was emotionally scarred from a sexual betrayal, and it negatively impacted other areas of their life (especially future attempts to trust other people). It’s not the sex that is immoral in cheating, it’s the emotional trauma inflicted on the partner(s) whose intimate trust (and often the terms of their sexual consent) was broken. People in all sorts of relationship configurations (poly, open, swingers, etc.) have proven that having sex with more than one person while maintaining one or more committed relationship does not itself cause harm. It’s the betrayal and sexual exploitation that causes harm, particularly withholding information to avoid losing romantic/sexual access that your partner would otherwise revoke.

This stuff happens every day. Often among generally nice people who know it’s hurtful, know it’s harmful, but they do it anyway. People who sincerely love their partners cheat anyways. We need to ask why this happens. Why can’t we just tell our partners we want to fuck around? Why can’t we negotiate sex and relationships better? Why do so many people say they are in a monogamous relationship when they really, really, emotionally and/or sexually, are not?

There was even an important feminist conversation to be had about the unfounded allegations that Quinn fucked journalists for favorable press. Even if it were true, why is it so controversial to mix sex and business relationships when so many people mix friendship and emotional support with business relationships without nearly as much criticism? The main benefit of sex with other people is typically social validation (I am attractive/likable, I am worthy, she/he chose me, etc.) which is the exact same currency friends trade in. Whether you’re blowing bubbles or dicks together doesn’t really matter as much as the fact that you are bonding over social experiences. In my mind, Quinn was no more or less likely to get favorable reviews being friends with game journalists than she was if that friendship involved sex. But many gamers sounded particularly mad that there might have been sex involved. I found that weird, and way more interesting than the stupid sex-for-press allegations.

We could talk about these things without vilifying Quinn for being an imperfect human and without judging Gjoni for not handling the situation in some magically perfect way that allowed him to seek justice, heal, and cope without also throwing Quinn under a bus full of opportunist internet assholes.

We could, but we didn’t. And I remain disappointed and annoyed. But also suspicious that coming out with any kind of opinion on this, will reduce my social capital as an indie game developer.

Choose Your Battle Class: Social Justice Warrior or Gamergatekeeper

If I post this, I worried that people who love Quinn will question

  • my right to speak on this issue (there is an elitist vibe around the indie game dev clique close to Quinn and I have seen many gamers dismissed because they are nobodies, they aren’t even “gamers” any more)
  • my ethics
  • my feminism
  • my credibility because I’d rather help marginalized people build a professional quality game to jump start a sustainable career in game development than promote game jams where people can make a (usually) buggy unfinished game with (usually) no hope of earning a reasonable return on their time invested (plus TFYC sounded accessible to an introverted mom like me, whereas participating in a 3-day game jam isn’t something I could do)
  • my commitment to sparkle motion
  • my social justice warriorism (I prefer ‘social justice shitlord’ or SJS, thanks)

And people who hate Quinn will mistake

  • me for a SJW because I have a nuanced critical opinion rather than an unconditional throbbing hate-on for anyone
  • my personal views as a feminist for their favorite faux-feminist straw man arguments (though I guess I will get that no matter what because reasons, ovaries, and all that bitching about sexual consent)
  • me for a person who diametrically opposes them or their allies (because I’m not #notyourshield or #gamergate or #commitedtosparklemotion)

Luckily, few people know or care about my blog so the consequences of this post may be postponed indefinitely. I just needed to vent my frustrations after 3 weeks of not seeing anyone care at all about the consent thing (and seeing tons of people call Gjoni an abuser for… reporting abuse the “wrong way” or whatever rationalization they came up with).

I also realized I was actually *scared* to publish this (having drafted the gist of it over a week ago) because I had seen so much effort to suppress ANY critical discussion of Quinn’s conduct (including whatever prompted the deletion of this other female game developer’s Tumblr and Disqus account). That fear was a red flag that convinced me these are important things that ought to be discussed in public.

What do you think? Or did you not have to think much at all because you went into this race with a horse already picked? Either way, this is just one social justice shitlord’s opinion.

Fear and Longing in Game Marketing

I’m still digesting Game Zichermann and Joselin Linder’s book Game-Based Marketing. Not even twenty pages into the book, the unmentionable side of game marketing hits the fan:

According to Zichermann and Linder, frequent flyer programs “are particularly and extraordinarily powerful. They routinely cause players engaged in the game to make decisions that are counterintuitive to their well-being—and checkbook—in order to “level up.”

And the book then gives the ridiculously evil (but true) example of well-to-do people taking “mileage runs” (flights to destinations they do not want or need taken only to earn more points), despite the huge costs of air travel to the buyer and the environment.

Is the future of game marketing compelling people to do wasteful, absurdly unproductive things to gain points or a competitive edge in game marketing systems that basically pressgang customers into unwitting contract jobs, driving them to execute purchases, marketing, and PR tasks for relatively minor rewards?

It’s a joke that MMOG players are the only people who pay their employer (the game publisher) for the privilege of hour after hour of menial labor (referring to the grinds in most mainstream MMOs that happen once you are established and invested in the game). It seems that customers of products in many non-entertainment markets will join the grind soon enough, and maybe for far less entertainment value or personal benefit than MMOG players receive.

Games + Marketing = Persuasive Power Up

Anyone who knows the power of marketing already understands that persuasive marketing messages can change minds, spread ideas, and prompt actions.

The power of marketing can be used to promote things that are good for the audience or things that are bad for the audience but good for the person promoting the message (and every shade of mutual benefit in between those obvious extremes). Sometimes, the marketing message benefits the marketer more than the buyer or the seller of whatever is being promoted.

Although I love marketing and am deeply fascinated by it, there is a damn good reason consumers hate marketers and are suspicious of our intentions. We actively seek to manipulate their thoughts, feelings and actions by tapping their deepest desires and fears. What’s not to like, right?

So, here is the ethical dilemma with games in marketing: if television and print ads have the potential to be propaganda for war, racism, sexism, agism, sizeism, and [insert your most reviled ism here], imagine what an unscrupulous marketer can do with the power of game mechanics?

Recreational Games = Consensual Fun

Any gamer knows how a good game consumes you.

Often, this consumption is mutual: the gamer can’t get enough of the game, and the game can’t seem to get enough of the player’s time and attention (and money, in the case of games with ongoing subscription or micropayments). But because gaming is traditionally in the realm of entertainment and recreation, quitting the game is also often fairly trivial. Painful for certain people, but easily accomplished because there is no rational everyday situation that forces you to log back into World of Warcraft or start up a new D&D group. Either you want to do it, and knowingly participate in it, or you choose not to participate at this time.

The world of videogaming is optional, though powerful. You can avoid recreational gaming’s siren call, despite its impressive ability to manipulate our behavior and retain our interest at nearly irrational levels (it’s not uncommon for a gamer to grind achievements and game progress like it was their job).

Marketing Games = Pervasive, Hidden

The world of marketing is not optional; it’s pervasive and inescapable. I’m marketing to you right now. You don’t need to think about it, choose it, or even notice it. But I am marketing these ideas. We are all marketers when we communicate and present ourselves and our ideas. We all refer friends and family to products and services.

In the new world of always-on pervasive marketing games both conscious participants and oblivious participants are compelled to make “counterintuitive choices” (as Zichermann and Linder politely phrase it). Economists often talk about demand as if it is this natural force in the world, but everyone knows demand is crafted by marketers using the raw materials of people’s inner fear and longing. Human nature and survival does not demand fluff like ringtones or diamonds. Marketers ensure that people demand these things by creating markets, and so gaming too will be used to create demand for all sorts of products.

What effect do game mechanics have on the natural forces that keep market-based economies working well? Could a well-designed game encourage consumers to change markets in ways that are undesirable overall? How do we design games that contribute productively to a market, rather than distorting or detracting from natural market equilibriums?

Will the FTC respond to protect consumers from the intense draw of marketing games as gambling and affiliate marketing have both come under fire? Will there be a consumer backlash? And if so, will that backlash have a chilling effect on recreational gaming (optional games for entertainment)?

Conscious Consumer-Marketers

The conscious consumer-marketers have increasingly recognized their ability to get or retain something of perceived value for sharing stuff with others or simply doing what they’re told (for example: “login to Coke Rewards at least once every 90 days or you’ll lose your points” does nothing to provide real value to customers, it simply uses fear to coerce reward program participants to execute a desired behavior, increasing engagement with the brand (and inflating site metrics) at the expense of the customer’s time and energy).

Imagine what a drain on collective productivity it would create if even 20% of the brands we buy regularly demanded that level of participation and attention from us (on top of the energy and time to actually buy and use their product)? Would we consciously give that much of our time to rewards programs if there were many programs competing for our attention? It is possible that frequent flyer and credit card reward programs have enjoyed such great success, in part, because they are not competing with a reward program or game for every brand.

Remember the 1-to-1 marketing trend last decade and how, eventually, marketers had to admit they were maybe asking for too much from their customer relationships and coming off more like an annoying, desperate suitor who continually wants to be more-than-friends with customers? A 1-to-1 relationship between a customer and all the brands they buy is as untenable as participatory gaming between customers and all the brands they buy. Is the solution meta reward programs that simplify the customer relationship or would that divert the loyalty and business benefit to the meta reward program company rather than participating brands?

Marketers need to be careful not to start thinking of their customers (who pay the bills) as their employees who can be sent on quests to build website metrics or generate leads from friends and family for token rewards. It might work in the short-term, but once it catches on in a big way, it will become a major pain for consumers.

Oblivious Consumer-Marketers

I’ll visit the concept of the oblivious consumer-marketer in a later post, but it’s a really important, transformational trend in our culture right now. Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and more conspire to make us all into PR independent contractors, marketing affiliates, and brand evangelists. And the scary part is that we might not even notice.

Ethics Checklist for Game Marketers

As I’ve spent the better part of the last 8 years researching, testing, and devising ways to apply game mechanics and interactive entertainment software to marketing (particularly in the adult entertainment industry), this ethical issue is always gnawing at the back of my mind. We know what games can make people do. We know what marketing can make people do. Both tap the fear and longing that lives deep inside of us, often in ways we do not fully appreciate while it is happening.

Here’s a short list of ethical issues to address when you’re leveraging the power of games for marketing:

  • Does this game collect too much personally identifiable information about individual players? Does your game really need to know your player’s full name, e-mail address, or phone number? If no, then don’t ask for it. Save the player time and save your company the responsibility of securing excess personal data.
  • Does this game give players privacy controls? This point is especially important if the game hooks into any part of a player’s online social graph.
  • Does this game always provide a reward when the player executes a desired action, or does it maintain participation based on fear and negative feedback alone? Is the player coming back to get something or to avoid losing something? Negative feedback might get results sometimes, but it wears on people and can build deep-seated resentment. Not exactly the kind of experience you want associated with your brand.
  • Does any part of this game offer a viable solution to a problem the player cares about? A marketing game can be a viable product in its own right, such as a charity contest that motivates fundraising while engaging the players in a competitive game that also solves a real-life problem the players care about.
  • Does this game encourage grinding or mistake sisyphean ordeals for gameplay? Are players pushed into repeatable busy-work or impossible challenges because your game mechanics are poorly designed or inadequately play-tested with no regard for balance or real player feedback?
  • Did you playtest this game and balance it from a player perspective (or hire someone who knows how to accomplish this)? Marketing games are not broadcast ad channels nor are they social media channels for conversations. They are game systems, which are notoriously easy to dream up (or copy) but very challenging to balance and execute well. It’s not enough to know what game mechanics to use; you need to know how to use them in a way that doesn’t leave your players upset that they wasted time actively playing.
  • Do you really understand the total cost of providing the rewards promoted in your game and can you deliver on the rewards promised to your players? I worked with one client who literally told me that it was fine to have a broken points-redemption system because at some point in the future, they could change the value of the points. Now this was a very simple program where xyz points = x cash rebate. Can you imagine the customer backlash if people played along, did what they were told, and saved up points to acquire x cash rebate… only to find the value of their points nerfed unceremoniously in the future? Please, please, please don’t do this. Design a rewards program that you can afford at any given volume of participants.
  • Does this game respect player’s limited time and energy? We all have families, significant others, jobs, errands, hobbies, and countless entertainment options. Time is more valuable than money (thought it’s very, very easy to convince people otherwise). We do our players and customers a grave disservice when we compell them to squander their time with us, whether it’s on a laborious, crappy shopping cart system or a laborious, crappy social networking game.

What ethical issues do you think game marketers should consider? Add a Comment

Broken Context

I stopped blogging a couple years ago, but kept my old blogging domain name. I recently set up a tumblr scrapblog on that domain, So today, in Google Analytics, I was surprised to see some traffic still trickling from an old Broken Toys post mocking me for having a sense of compassion regarding a 2006 Ansche Chung griefing incident in Second Life. A quick recap of the incident: a real life female entrepreneur was ambushed with several minutes of disruptive prim spam shaped somewhat like pink dicks during an in-SL live event with CNET reporter Greeterdan Godel (Daniel Terdiman). Griefing and poorly designed prim penises are nothing remarkable in SL. However, what struck me then about the story was how this female business woman and her family felt about the incident.

She and her family were not just offended or hurt by the disrespectful joke, they also felt violated because of the sexual theme of the attack (no matter how silly, a dick is a dick; her attackers could have used any 3D shape to pummel her event but they chose to use cocks). Ansche expressed strong emotions using controversial language, basically claiming the in-SL attack felt something like a rape. Since virtual rape is an impossibility (anyone can exit a game or turn off their computer), I realized that sexual themed griefing is really the internet’s equivalent of sexual harassment and, yes, sexual violence. A lot of people took offense to the idea that Ansche felt raped. Please note that at no point did Ansche publicly say she was raped or that what happened to her in SL was the literal equivalent of an offline physical sexual assault. Her husband simply stated that she felt raped; in other words, that the incident made her feel violated in a sexual way. Sexual abuse is a spectrum that runs from the highly debatable, minor transgressions to the undeniable extremes of physical sexual assault; the only commonality between incidents of sexual abuse is that the victim felt violated in a sexualized context. People who think sexual harassment and violence are just physical acts might consider reading up on sexual abuse just to get a few more perspectives on the issue (or at least skimming their employer’s sexual harassment policy for some insight).

I empathized because I could not imagine a business woman NOT feeling sexually harassed if someone she didn’t know came into a live event where she was speaking and started throwing pink dildoes at her on stage (so many dildoes that the event had to be stopped and moved to a new location). Regardless of whether the joke was funny or not, it obviously had sexual themes. That some people are sensitive to sexual harassment shouldn’t surprise anyone. From bullying, bra-snapping boys in junior high through obnoxious ogling male coworkers who strain professional relationships by asking for (very unwanted) dates, almost every woman has had experiences that were in no way equivalent to the crime of rape, yet were more emotionally unnerving than they should be due to the unwanted sexual tone in the incident. Would sexual harassment policies even exist if people didn’t admit that when interactions include unwanted sexual themes, however subtle, they sometimes have a different and altogether more stressful effect on the victim? If a coworker compliments your neat handwriting at work, that alone is not likely to creep anyone out. If they compliment your perky tits, that can be really uncomfortable. It’s a fact of life that sexually themed language, media, interaction, and, yes, SL griefing will have different effects on people depending on the experiences and emotions of everyone involved. For Ansche, clearly the dick deluge left her feeling violated.

So, I wrote a blog post defending her FEELINGS. Three different ladies in the games industry wrote to me privately to tell me they appreciated my post. It was thoughtful in tone and did not trivialize the serious crime of rape, however several guys in the games industry (who are not known for their emotional IQs) criticized my post at the time and accused me of conflating rape with what happened to Ansche . None of the people who agreed with me that they felt bad for Ansche (because of how she felt) would say that publicly though because of the backlash from all the people who were rolling their eyes and feeling superior to Ansche because they could see the humor in her humiliation, the everyday griefing in what she experienced as sexual harassment while she was just trying to do her job (her SL business was actually supporting her in real life). People who knew me, understood why I thought the incident was worth remarking on publicly. Someone had to question the “griefers will be griefers” free pass that everyone was giving this incident. And I felt that someone who did understand Ansche’s emotional reaction should say so out loud rather than quietly thinking “hm, that would suck if it happened during my interview” like so many women did. I study sex in games, and my primary research focus for a little over a year in 2004 was researching emergent gameplay in online multiplayer games (including griefing, which is just another form of emergent play which for better or worse provides entertainment and retention for the griefers and their audience).

Sexual griefing is something I understand and have few problems within the context of a social, recreational game where the griefing target has plenty of choices (you can report people, you can block people, you can teleport away, you can log off, you can switch servers, you can switch games). But Ansche was at work. She couldn’t just leave her own speaking event. She didn’t have access to controls on the land where she was being interviewed and there wasn’t any feature she could use in-game to block the type of harassment during the event. The only power she had was to end her event, relocate it, or laugh it off and try to continue her event with the ridiculous griefing underway (this would have been my reaction, but that does NOT mean her reaction was any less valid).

Anyway, for anyone who comes across the Broken Toys post with the out-of-context quote pulled from my old 2006 blog: I was being compassionate and discussing an issue without mocking anyone else’s view point. I never said in-game griefing could be the equivalent of the crime of rape. I acknowledged that a victim of sexual themed griefing in a virtual world could feel violated the way Ansche did. Even today, I encourage people to think about the offline parallels (sexual harassment), especially when you consider that the woman was at work when this happened, not playing some frivolous recreational game that she could abandon for a round of Tetris once the dick storm started. Anyone who reads Broken Toys knows this guy knows a lot about games but you can’t view everything that happens in virtual worlds only through the “game designer” lens. Virtual worlds are conduits for real life, not just fun and games; there be ethical issues here too, not just dragons and gamer bullshit.

Hit a girl with dicks while she’s playing an online game, that’s griefing. Hit a business woman with dicks while she’s working an event in a virtual world… there are other words for that, perhaps depending on who you ask.

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