(CW: rape, sexual assault, gaslighting, emotional abuse, suicide)
August 26th, Nathalie Lawhead (Tetrageddon Games) published a post on her blog, titled, “calling out my rapist.” Hours later, Zoë Quinn (Depression Quest) shared screenshots of their own written testimony, describing how Alec Holowka (Night in the Woods) had physically, sexually, and emotionally abused them. Senior Editor of Polygon Patricia Hernandez corroborated Quinn’s account. Holowka’s own friend and collaborator Scott Benson tweeted in support. This empowered Adelaide Gardner to do similarly the next day. In a Twitter thread described the ways in which Luc Shelton (Splash Damage) had sexually assaulted and gaslit her.
Things rapidly escalated throughout the week. More women stepped forward with their own accounts of abuse as the news released. On August 28th, the Night in the Woods team publicly distanced themselves from Holowka. Two days later, in a Kickstarter backers-only post, Benson stated “the things that Alec did during the bad times were worse than we knew.” The full post can be read on Reddit. Three days after this, Eileen Holowka reported her brother’s death. It is a rumored suicide but remains unconfirmed. September 3rd, Benson shared the emotional abuse that both he and Hockenberry experienced while working with Holowka.
A Tragic Industry
What is so arresting about all of these reports is how familiar all of it is, and not just because the gaming industry has been around this block countless times before. The victims’ words were like reflections of own former internal monologue:
“I shared a lot with him because I thought he was a friend.”
“He’d act normal when other people were around and lay into me as soon as we were alone.”
“I wasn’t keeping his secret. I was keeping mine.”
Unfortunately, this is not unique to the gaming industry in particular. We see it in all fields.
There is quite a bit of opinionated “discourse” regarding whom to believe or blame. What’s more important, however, is acknowledging how massively tragic the gaming industry has allowed itself to become. When your consumers are consistently having to revisit the question, “How can I ever play [TITLE] again?” your industry has failed.
Short answer: you can’t. At least, not in the same way you had before. Knowledge of another’s wrongdoing should change your relationship with a person and your perception of their work. So what are we, the gamers, meant to do about it?
No one is coming forward with the intention to ruin your gaming experience. In fact, most of the victims who have come forward have been remarkably concerned about the rehabilitation of the abusive parties. After recently opening their Twitter again, Quinn issued a statement expressing sorrow over their abuser’s inability to get help. In her interview, Gardner demonstrates considerable resilience and forgiveness in a sexist industry. As Lawhead has stated in her most recent blogpost, “We need rehabilitation, not excommunication.” Hopefully, these reports will open up an opportunity for justice. In the meantime, organizations like RAINN (Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network) and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline are great opportunities to learn more and offer support.
Give credit where credit is due.
Acknowledge and celebrate the work of the other members of the development and creative team. According to Benson, Holowka was inconsistent in his work, leaving both he and Hockenberry to regularly pick up the slack. “I redesigned the entire game in full about 7 times that year, trying each time to get Alec excited about working on it.” Night in the Woods is not the legacy of an eccentric genius, but a testament to the efforts of two enduring game devs who decided to stay loyal to a shared vision. Mae, Bea, Gregg, and Angus are the gifts of Benson, Hockenberry, and Co. Unless it’s a particular trigger to you, there is no need to boycott NitW, because their work still matters.
Stop the hero worship.
Devs and designers are artists crafting [hopefully] entertaining and inventive pieces. But they are fallible. As Gardner said in her interview, “…the fact is that bad people can create beautiful things.” However, this should not elevate them to godlike statuses. Continuing to think of them as such makes it impossible for victims to successfully report their abusers. It also encourages the abusers’ unhealthy self-perceptions as well. Do not offer your loyalty so cheaply. As Lawhead stated, “It takes a village to enable an abuser.”
Value the good, discard the bad.
Comic book artist Tess Fowler gave one fan this advice: “The good he gave you is not invalidated by learning who he is. It’s still relevant because it’s in YOU. Take the good. Keep it. It’s still good.” I return to this advice now more than ever. If a game has impacted you in a positive way, by all means, keep playing. As disgusted as I am with Soule’s conduct, I’ll still play Skyrim. I’ll just stop running or writing to his scores. Despite Shelton’s involvement, Splash Damage still produces some fun titles. You come to games with your own capacity to reason and interpret. Devs don’t give you that. That’s yours. Use it.
How you can help:
The gaming industry is in a tragic state. But it doesn’t have to be. If you’re wondering how you can support the devs and content creators referenced here:
Adelaide Garner has a Ko-fi page for her work in the TTRPG sphere. Consider following her on Twitter @ohadelaide and checking out the many actual play streams she features in, such as The Purloin Code.
Scott Benson and Bethany Hockenberry: If you’re a backer, the creators are still posting updates on the Kickstarter page for Night in the Woods. Hockenberry set her social media accounts to private. However, you can still check out Benson’s BAFTA award-winning work, and interact with him on Twitter @bombsfall.
Enjoy, explore, and let games and their creators inspire you. But don’t let them define you. These creators certainly haven’t.