Gross Expectations: Dealing With the Inevitability of Sexual Harassment in the Games Industry
Did you ever have a dream job?
Most of us have. Some hobby that we’re extra fond of, that makes us think, “if I could turn this into a job, life would be grand!” Those careers that we're convinced would be perfect - that would necessitate hard work, but with all the fun that came along with it, that would come naturally, right?
no job looks as good up close as it does from far away
At some point in pursuit of a dream job, you will be smacked in the face with reality. Because no job looks as good up close as it does from far away. Becoming a doctor, at least in the US, involves going deep into debt only to have to spend most of your time dealing with paperwork and other people’s poop. Detectives spend way more time at the desk than looking through crime scenes in cool hats. Even becoming a famous actor means sacrificing your privacy.
Of course, if you really love it, you do it anyway. But there’s nothing quite like the moment when you’re hit with the realization that your dream job isn’t going to be the ray of sunshine sprinkled with cupcakes that you thought it would be.
The External Threat
For most every gamer who wants into the industry, they have to come to terms with the fact that they’re not going to get paid all that much for what they do, and they’re likely going to have to deal with being brutally overworked when those deadlines start creeping up.
But hard work for relatively low pay doesn’t scare me off, no sir. You can’t put a price on job satisfaction, right?
No, that doesn’t get to me. What makes my heart sink, and my hands go limp on the keyboard, is the knowledge that all my efforts and all my dreams could be crushed flatter than Mr. Game and Watch, not because of something I did, but because of something someone else did to me.
speaking out against what should be seen as universally and unquestionably wrong could cause my entire community to turn against me and cost me my job. My dream job.
I read the piece on Kotaku about the harassment of Alice Mercier by Josh Mattingly. Now, sexual harassment doesn’t surprise me. At all. I’ve been sexually harassed throughout my life, more times than I could possibly count, for many different reasons and for seemingly no reason at all. Online and offline. I’ve also received threats and been told I should die, sometimes by my own hand, for saying things on the Internet that people don't like. And I’m not even close to Internet famous. I’m still pretty much an Internet nobody.
Women learn to expect all of these things, especially when entering traditionally male spaces. We’ve all heard the stories and we’ve all been given the warnings and we all know that we’re expected to expect it. What I can’t come to terms with is the lack of support I’m supposed to expect. The knowledge that speaking out against what should be seen as universally and unquestionably wrong could cause my entire community to turn against me and cost me my job. My dream job.
A Culture of Silence
The very first thing that the Kotaku article mentions is that Alice Mercier is a pseudonym. This woman can’t give her real name for fear of the retribution she’ll receive for speaking up against harassment by the owner of a mid-range Indie gaming community website that I’d barely heard of before this controversy came to light. The website is not even a year and a half old. This guy isn’t the CEO of IGN or Game Informer. When I first heard his name, I thought he was a baseball player.
There is so much pressure to keep silent about sexual harassment in this industry that this woman cannot give her real name when condemning grossly unprofessional and harmful conduct by a guy who I've never heard of before.
In the interview with Kotaku’s Rachel Edidin, Mercier explains how impossible her situation is:
I don't want to potentially burn a bridge here, because what if there's a future where I need that press contact, or a professional relationship, and the industry is so small?"
When I point out the irony—that, of the two participants in the conversation, Mercier was the one worried that her behavior might burn a professional bridge—she laughs ruefully.
I know that laugh. I’ve laughed the same laugh. The same mirthless, despair-riddled laugh that comes out of me when I see comments like “why didn’t she just tell him to stop?” Or, better yet, “why aren’t there more women in the gaming industry?”
Don't Be That Girl
There are four simple words that explain exactly why she didn’t “just” tell him to stop right away.
“Don’t be that girl.”
In the Kotaku piece, Edidin goes on to describe other stories she's heard from women in the industry who have dealt with sexual harassment:
At a gaming convention, one professional acquaintance cornered her into an extended and increasingly sexual hug. "I'd be thinking, 'please let me go,' but then there were a bunch of people around me, and the people that were around were people I'd be interested in working with, who worked for companies I'd love to work for," she tells me. She remembers what she told herself: "Try not to make a scene, because you don't want to be 'that girl,' and you don't want to ruin the overall mood."
"That girl" is the bogeyman, a cautionary tale to keep the ladies in line. "That girl" is the woman who is iced out for speaking up and ruining everyone's fun. I hear about her from almost every woman I interview.
Why aren’t there more women in the gaming industry?
What is it that makes me myself hesitate, wonder why I should bother, and turn away from my work in despair?
Because the question of sexual harassment is not an if, but a when. And when it does happen, there are three possible outcomes.
Option 1: I can sacrifice my principles and my dignity by putting up with it out of fear of retribution.
Option 2: I can tell the harasser to stop immediately and be branded as “that girl,” as I already have been branded and seen others branded on numerous occasions (“lighten up” “it’s just a joke” “don’t be so uptight”) and risk being frozen out by contacts, depriving my career of the oxygen it needs to survive.
Option 3: I can expose the behavior of the harasser to the section of the gaming community that is more sympathetic, possibly gaining for myself the support I need to continue my career, though it would most likely be thrown completely off track. And, of course, with the last option comes the inevitability of a flood of harassment from vicious trolls who will attempt not just to end my career, but drive me off the map by compromising my safety.
What fun options those are!
One Big Bummer of a List
I’m only basing this on what I’ve observed, over and over. It makes a career in the gaming industry a tad difficult to look forward to when a woman has to hide her identity as though she testified against the mafia because she refused to put up with a guy graphically describing what he wants to do to her vagina during what was supposed to be a business conversation. And what if she had been harassed by a bigger name in the industry?
This is just one incident to be added to an ever-more-depressing list that includes women who have dared to criticize video games, women who have created video games, women who have had any role in creating video games at all, and women who simply exist in the industry as women of color, trans women, or women who don’t have a very specific body type.
Why didn’t Mercier do something different in this situation?
Because she can’t win.
No woman can win in this rigged game that really only has three losing outcomes. Stronger, smarter woman than I haven’t found a way to beat it, so what chance do I have?
“Why aren’t there more women in the gaming industry?”