September 20, 2020

More Resignations, but No Sign Yet of a Change in Gaming Culture

First, a popular esports tournament was canceled. Next, top gaming studio executives stepped down. Then, a prominent talent management agency for video game streamers laid off its employees and closed.

The stream of reports of sexual harassment and assault in the gaming industry that began in June has continued unabated, as more women — and some men — have come forward with accusations of mistreatment.

Despite the actions that companies have taken in response to individual incidents, gaming experts say they are hesitant to call the moment an inflection point for an industry with a long and difficult history of sexist behavior and abuse. This is not the first time women have spoken up. In 2014, in what is known as Gamergate, women faced death threats for criticizing the gaming industry and its culture. Last year, women again came forward with stories of abuse in what was seen as gaming’s #MeToo moment.

So few expect the resignations this time to quickly change a culture that for decades has often been hostile to women.

“You can fire people all day long,” said Kenzie Gordon, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Alberta who studies how games can be used to prevent sexual and domestic violence. But “if only the individual people are held accountable, that doesn’t have any impact on the culture of the organization as a whole, necessarily.”

The most extensive action has come at the talent agency Online Performers Group. The agency’s former chief executive, Omeed Dariani, was accused in June by Molly Fender Ayala, a community developer for the game Overwatch, of acting inappropriately toward her and propositioning her for sex in 2014. Mr. Dariani stepped down from his role the same day that Ms. Ayala came forward. He did not respond to a request for comment, and Ms. Ayala declined to comment.

Last week, with most of its clients working to terminate their agreements and distance themselves from the talent agency after the allegation, the group itself shut down. The new chief executive, Shane Wilson, broke the news to about 10 employees on a video call, several former staff members said.

“It’s heartbreaking, O.P.G. went out of business today,” Mr. Wilson posted on his LinkedIn page. He did not respond to a request for comment. Two days later, the agency’s site was unavailable.

Some employees had already quit the company after the claims against Mr. Dariani. And Oliver Pascual, a senior account manager there who was laid off, said the majority of the group’s 70 content creators and streamers had signaled their intentions to leave.

“The clients leaving was likely a big reason, but I think it was also a matter of the public’s opinion of the company by that point,” Mr. Pascual said in an interview. “We had always prided ourselves on O.P.G.’s pristine reputation, and after those allegations, it was tainted and hard to recover from.”

Days earlier, several top executives stepped down at Ubisoft, the French video gaming company that develops games like Assassin’s Creed and Just Dance, after a “rigorous review that the company initiated in response to recent allegations and accusations of misconduct and inappropriate behavior.” Serge Hascoët, the high-profile chief creative officer in charge of Ubisoft’s games, was one of the departures after accusations were made against him in a French newspaper. He could not be reached for comment.

“Ubisoft has fallen short in its obligation to guarantee a safe and inclusive workplace environment for its employees,” Ubisoft’s chief executive, Yves Guillemot, said in a statement. “I am committed to implementing profound changes across the company to improve and strengthen our workplace culture.”

ImageAttendees of the Paris Games Week last October playing a game from UbiSoft Entertainment. Several of the French gaming company’s executives have stepped down.
Credit…Benoit Tessier/Reuters

And in early July, the fighting video game tournament Evolution Gaming Series, known as Evo, which draws thousands to Las Vegas each year, canceled this year’s virtual tournament and announced that its chief executive, Joey Cuellar, would “no longer be involved with Evo in any capacity” after a gamer said on Twitter that Mr. Cuellar had acted inappropriately toward him and other teenage boys in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

“We are shocked and saddened by these events, but we are listening and committed to making every change that will be necessary in making Evo a better model for the stronger, safer culture we all seek,” tournament organizers said in a statement published on Twitter. Mr. Cuellar apologized for his actions in a since-deleted tweet. He could not be reached for comment.

Kishonna Gray, a professor of gender and women’s studies and communications at the University of Illinois, Chicago, said she viewed the statements and reactions from gaming companies as attempts to “pacify” people until they stop talking about the companies’ problems with diversity, inclusion and harassment.

“They just purge the evildoers and think that they’re OK, not realizing that they’re all complicit and that there’s a culture that devalues women,” said Professor Gray, who studies the gaming industry. She said she wanted to see evidence of companies hiring and devoting resources to diverse candidates.

Neither Evo nor Ubisoft responded to a request for comment about specific changes they planned to make.

Ms. Gordon said she was heartened to see people in positions of power forced to step down over the accusations, but said it was too early to see evidence of a true shift. A “culture change” has to start at the top, she said, so she hoped women and people of color would be given more senior roles in gaming companies.

“If we saw things like that, and not just kind of being a symbolic gesture but people being put into positions where they could affect how the company operates, that might be indicative of something,” she said.

Carly Kocurek, an associate professor of digital humanities and media studies at the Illinois Institute of Technology, said sexism in gaming has its roots in the very beginning of the industry in the 1970s.

Dr. Kocurek, who researches the cultural history of video games, has written about Brenda Laurel, one of the first female game designers, who worked at Atari in the 1980s. When she started the job, Ms. Laurel was one of the first women at the company, Dr. Kocurek said, and told her male colleagues that they could no longer use the women’s restroom as a smoking lounge.

“Everyone laughed, because they thought somebody had gotten their wife or girlfriend to come play a prank on everyone,” said Dr. Kocurek, who interviewed Ms. Laurel for a book about her pioneering accomplishments in gaming. The men thought it was “so ridiculous that a woman was working there.”

Game companies are somewhat more diverse now, but Dr. Kocurek attributed the longstanding sexist attitudes to these male-dominated beginnings.

“If you don’t actively try to change these things, they don’t change that much,” she said. “There’s been a few times where there’s some pushback and there seems to be a real conversation happening, and then it just kind of fizzles.”

As more women join the video game work force, its white male-dominated culture is pushing back, said Anita Sarkeesian, a media critic, podcaster and creator of the Feminist Frequency nonprofit group that provides educational resources related to gender, race and sexuality, and operates a confidential emotional support hotline for people who are harassed in the gaming industry.

They feel like “they’re losing this culture war to what they would call the S.J.W.s,” said Ms. Sarkeesian, referring to the term social justice warriors.

“And their reaction is violence,” she said. “That is the environment in which these stories of abuse are coming out.”