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GamerGate Never Ended: An Interview with Nathalie Lawhead

(CW: rape, sexual assault, gaslighting, emotional abuse)

If you’re a gamer and have a pulse, you’ll already be abreast of the new allegations against three notable figures in the gaming industry: game score composer Jeremy Soule, Night in the Woods co-designer Alec Holowka, and Splash Damage tools programmer Luc Shelton.

It all kicked off August 26th, in a blogpost written by indie game designer Nathalie Lawhead. There she explained how Soule groomed and raped her. This encouraged others to come forward about Soule, including Aeralie Brighton, the voice of Sein in Ori and the Blind Forest. Mere hours later, Zoë Quinn posted a series of screenshots of a Notes-written testimony describing the abusive conduct of Night in the Woods designer, programmer, and composer Alec Holowka. (Quinn has since set all social media accounts to private.) The next morning, TTRPG content creator Adelaide Gardner shared her own testimony of Luc Shelton’s emotional manipulation and physical and sexual abuse in a Twitter thread.

Originally, this was going to be single op-ed about the news. But it kept coming. Instead Xbox Enthusiast has allowed me to expand this into a three part series on these events. Part one features my interview with the Amanda Palmer of video game design, Nathalie Lawhead.

Transparency and Honesty

Ashley Mowers: In your most recent blog post, you demonstrate how important transparency and integrity are to you, going so far as to share your own itch.io stats. What responses have you received to such transparency?

Nathalie Lawhead: It seems to shut down a lot of the ignorant arguments or invalidation happening, and turn it back to what’s important. I feel like truth is anyone’s greatest strength when challenging inequality, abuse, sexism, racism, or literally any other structural hatred that so many people suffer from. A lot of trolls have templated replies that they like to throw around. It’s thinly masked as intellectual, common sense, and sounds smart on the surface, but it’s really just hate.

Like, look at conversations of “cancel culture” that come up when an abuser gets outed. I think it’s a perfect example of silencing something using something that comes off as rational at the surface. If you investigate the arguments more, you see how it’s built to basically gaslight people standing up for a basic right.

Survivors of rape will get barraged with dumb questions like: “Why didn’t you go to the police?” “Why are you speaking up now?” “You’re just doing it for the money.” “You’re doing it for the attention…”

I was well aware of all this before coming forward, from helping other women trying to stand up to horrible people. It’s default bullshit. Smarter trolls come up with more elaborate pseudo-intellectual invalidation like “cancel culture.” I think the only way to combat any of this is complete transparency. I openly shared the frame of mind I was in and why I couldn’t go to the police. I shared why I’m speaking up now. It’s literally not a secret. There are quite a few agonized twitter threads from me talking about why I can’t speak.

I shared my revenue to combat why I don’t, and have never done, things for the money. It can be incredibly frustrating, and takes a lot of emotional labor. I get energy, and comfort, from knowing that it helps other survivors. Survivors, like women that have been abused, want more than anything to be believed. They accumulate so much proof. They lay themselves bare, and talk in agonizing detail about all the things surrounding their abuse. Sometimes it feels like enough is never enough.

Our culture is set up in such a way to silence that, and create distance between victims. You can’t speak up if you feel like you’re alone. If one person speaks up, and openly and honestly shares about how it was like, you’ll see about ten other people reacting with “oh my god, me too!” I think breaking that silence is the start. The only way to get hateful people to understand, and shut down their arguments, is to be completely honest.

At the end of the day all you can really hope for is that others get empowered and what you share keeps others from being hurt by the same abusive person. The work that women, and other survivors, are doing right now to stand up to abuse, is work that will positively affect the entire industry.

Changing the Industry

AM: In that same post, you describe abusive men as being allowed to “fall up” in their industry. How do you see consumers of gaming content contributing to this phenomenon?

NL: “Falling up” basically means you can be as horrible, relentless, abusive of a person as you want. As long as you are making moderately good work, are white, and are a man, people will give you a ridiculous amount of space to be that in.

Women, people of color, LGBTQ folk don’t exactly enjoy that. The opposite is true. They can be as perfect, hardworking, ridiculously talented, and put out the most amazing work, and they have to struggle just to get the basics.

You really have to account for sexism, racism, and homophobia, when we talk about our myth of what a “genius” is or looks like. When it comes to most white straight cisgender men in games, we constantly excuse abusive behavior as a necessary evil to genius. This is extremely dangerous and has contributed a lot to basically sacrificing victims to an abusive person.

From Lawhead’s ‘Everything Is Going to Be OK,’ an “interactive zine” exploring struggle and survival after abuses experienced in the gaming industry.

Like part of our culture genuinely believes that abusive men need to keep behaving this way to keep putting out their “amazing work”. There are so many examples out there of this. I mean, go as high up as Steve Jobs and you hear horrible things. Then these horrible things getting dismissed as part of some mystical process. We don’t really talk about the people that protect abusive people from themselves. If we did we would realize that it takes a village to enable them.

Our culture is rooted in looking away in interest of some kind of cultural contribution. So even consumers will excuse horrible things if a game, movie, fiction, work, etc… is good enough. What surprised me about a lot of these game-related #MeToo’s is that fans actually went the opposite direction. Shock and appall happened. I can’t speak in terms of this broadly, but from the handful of instances that I watched (mine included) I was very surprised to see that fans weren’t having it.

I would hope that this kind of behavior can grow, and start influencing how fans relate to abusive work conditions like crunch, not crediting people, silencing workers that speak up… all the other issues that happen in AAA or the mainstream.

I’ve always been extremely vocal about my criticism of gamers, and how they are used to punish marginalized people, but the reaction that I saw here really surprised me. Fan reactions to my story have kind of challenged some views. Maybe things really are changing and everyone is just sick of men that can do whatever they want and get away with it.

De-platforming Abusers

AM: How do you hope the gaming community will respond and grow from testimonies such as yours? I.e. if a gamer hears the dev of their favorite game has participated in unethical/immoral behavior(s), what would be their ideal response to the news be? Should that appreciation change/adapt in some manner? Should they boycott?

NL: Abusive people really need to be de-platformed first, to the extent that they can’t harm others, and then held accountable by the community. I think it’s important to realize that an abusive person doesn’t really make good work. A lot of covering for them, fixing their mistakes, filling in the blanks, redoing, and frustration on part of the people working with them, goes into it. The fact that a work is good is more often than not the group effort.

From a purely consumer and capitalist point of view: If we got rid of abuse altogether the work would be better. It’s not exactly the morally ideal argument to make, but that’s the practical reality.

We also really need to understand that we lose A LOT of amazing work, and talent, to abusive people. The unsung heroes are the ones you need to look at. The people removed from the credits, the women so taken advantage of that they disappeared, the unpaid workforce that is being burned through. That’s talent we’re not getting back. These are contributions we are losing.

It’s important to fight for the rights of the people that make the entertainment that you love. It’s also important to protect the industry from abusive people so we stop losing so much.

The Myth of “Genius”

AM: Do you think the video gaming industry is particularly susceptible to idolization or is this a feature of all art evenly? If particular to gaming, why?

NL: I think this has been a problem pretty much everywhere… Ever since we created the myth of “genius.”

Gaming is difficult because it’s very slow to validate the importance and contributions of marginalized developers.

Gaming was sold as a “man’s hobby.” Not even an art form really, just a hobby. Broadly speaking, it’s viewed as consumer entertainment.

The people fighting hardest for games, to expand its scope, and to validate it as an art form, are the people that gamers have been taught to hate. Women, queer folk, POC, are doing amazing work advocating for games as a valid platform. They’re often the ones defending it the most. Which is weird because they’re also the ones that get attacked the hardest.

The celebrity white guy that you admire is often someone that will just freely take from work from marginalized developers. He’s a reaction to the culture that we are building. He more often than not gets to enjoy the popularity from it, and reap that success, because of who he is. This is a power dynamic that we should challenge.

Hope for a Better Scene

AM: In an industry that never seems to improve, what keeps you returning to it?

NL: I love what I do. I love making this stuff.

I think the most hope for this industry is coming from the indie scene, and the alt game scene. I realize how rife with problems the scene is, but there are a lot of amazing people here pushing for it to be better. The conversations worth having are happening here. I think with the ice that gets broken here, it can eventually effect AAA. We’ve seen this happening slowly, and I think if we keep it up it can continue.

Games as Emotional Charged Experiences

AM: You chose to create Everything Is Going To Be OK as a way to process and represent your experiences. What do you think video games have the capacity to do or speak to differently than other forms of art?

NL: I think the fact that a game is interactive makes the message that you’re giving someone very personal. They are experiencing it with you, and acting things out. It becomes part of their own personal experiences too. There’s a lot of room for combining ALL the art forms (music, art, animation, coding) into a very emotionally charged experience. The way you design interactivity when talking about things can be very powerful to people. I wouldn’t say that it’s necessarily better, but I think it’s a lot more complex. What people take away from it can be extremely personal.

From Lawhead’s ‘Everything Is Going to Be OK.’ When first encountered, this creature empales themselves on a field of spikes, exclaiming, “That was surprisingly survivable!”

Nathalie Lawhead’s work, which is all free, can be found on itch.io and Game Jolt. The download of Everything is Going to Be OK comes with custom desktop wallpaper, screensavers, and additional original art from memorable scenes in the game. You can follow her on Twitter @alienmelon and Tumblr.

Ashley Mowers
Ashley is the Artist in Residence for the Institute of Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at the University of St. Andrews, where she is developing original material for the stage. In addition to writing for Xbox Enthusiast, Ashley is a cohost on The Min/Max Podcast, where they discuss all things nerd culture and theology.

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