In the wake of a series of incidents, in which employees of video game companies suffered harassment and online abuse, Polygon contacted 25 games companies and trade organizations to discuss the problem.
We asked them a simple question:
"Please can you share with us how [your company] plans to deal with any situation in which an employee comes under abuse, doxxing or threatening messages. Alternatively, please let us know what steps you are currently taking to tackle this issue."
We later clarified that our story would include all responses.
Out of a selection of 25 companies and trade organizations contacted by Polygon, only six were prepared to offer up a statement. They were CCP, Electronic Arts, Gearbox, Nintendo, Microsoft, and the IGDA, which represents game developers. Each of the statements are presented later in this story.
The following companies declined to take part in the story.
And these organizations did not respond to our request for participation.
We also did not receive a reply from the Entertainment Software Association, a trade body which represents the interests of games companies and hosts the annual E3 event.
This reluctance to talk could be a manifestation of fear. Companies might be afraid of being caught in the crosshairs of organized online abuse campaigns by hate groups such as GamerGate. But are companies prepared for such campaigns?
Obviously, companies are free to keep their internal policies to themselves and to decline press interviews on specific topics. But employers with coherent plans that benefit their employees are usually happy to discuss them with the media, if only in the most general terms.
One company spokesperson initially stated that its consumers are "fantastic" and do not engage in bullying, but later retracted that as an official response, and declined to offer a statement.
Those organizations that did respond to our question generally condemned online bullying in broad terms. With only one exception, they offered little in the way of information about practical support mechanisms.
Social media has given games companies a direct line to consumers, a useful marketing conduit through which social media professionals create digital quasi-relationships and seek to sell products. Sometimes, companies use public faces — either marketing people or creative / executive leaders — to front these efforts.
But social media goes both ways. When some consumers are unhappy, they react badly, firing off angry messages to company representatives. Or they seek out individuals and target them directly.
Sometimes these explosions of anger spring naturally from a general disagreement about a company decision or direction. On other occasions, it is clearly designed to hurt its victims. Often, it is coordinated or it is encouraged in online forums or by rabble-rousing social media influencers.
Gamers have long expressed passionate opinions about the products they consume, and the companies that make those products. But only in the last few years, have these opinions been twisted into poisonous hate campaigns, which often include violent messages and even death threats.
From the outrage over BioWare's narrative decisions in Mass Effect 3 in 2012, right up to Beamdog including a trans character in Baldur's Gate: Siege of Dragonspear, hate campaigns often focus on the consumer's perceived right to dictate how companies present and manage their own products.
The campaigns are often reactionary in nature, railing against any kind of change to the status quo. This is most especially the case when companies take a progressive path through issues like feminism and race. In many cases, women are targeted with grossly sexual slurs and imagery.
Game execs at Sony Online and Bungie have been doxxed, with serious legal repercussions. Other execs and creatives have lost their jobs, or just decided to quit, following intense social media abuse. Others have stepped back from social media, following threats against family members. These examples only include those people who work for large companies. Independent game developers and small companies are often targeted too.
So how are companies preparing themselves for this issue? It's revealing that those companies most willing to talk, were also those whose employees have faced the most vitriolic abuse.
Repeatedly voted in past years as "the most hated company in America," EA employees have long faced harassment and abuse. Dragon's Age 2 writer Jennifer Hepler faced intense abuse for some game design opinions she once shared. BioWare also suffered a hysterical reaction to the company's storytelling decisions. High-ranking officer Peter Moore is often a target, including threats to his family. EA also recently hired former Ubisoft creative leader Jade Raymond, who has faced intense harassment during her career.
"We’ve definitely had experience with it," said vice president of corporate communications John Reseburg. "Unfortunately we’ve had some development leads and other employees who participate in social media experience threats and harassment in some way, shape or form. Really ugly and unfortunate, sometimes quite personal stuff.
"So it is something we are familiar with, and why we work to take this dual approach of educating our employees about what can occur online (and if it does, how to report it), and then assist employees in situations to the extent we can where there is a real threat or dangerous issue.
"This is something that we have, and continue to, pay great attention to. It’s a real issue, and we continue to do what we can to help our employees."
Reseburg also provided an official EA position on the matter:
"EA has no tolerance for those who abuse, threaten or harass our employees. We take all instances of such conduct very seriously, assess each issue based on the individual circumstances, and work to help our employees through any legitimate threat or dangerous situation. Where appropriate, EA will work with law enforcement, both domestically and internationally, to ensure a safe environment for our people. On an ongoing basis, we also work to ensure our employees understand that engaging in social and online conversation is taking part in a global dialogue where, unfortunately, these situations can and do occur. When they do, we assist our employees as much as possible."
Nintendo is a popular company that takes great pains to maintain a welcoming facade to its audience, without engaging too closely, outside its own carefully prepared presentations and product launches.
One of its employees was recently hounded out of her job by a hate mob, who abused her and uncovered details about a second job she was working, which were then sent to her employer. Nintendo stated that her moonlighting ran counter to her contract, and her employment was terminated.
Nintendo is generally secretive about its internal affairs. Nonetheless, a spokesperson sent Polygon the following statement:
"Nintendo firmly rejects the harassment of any individual in any form, including through social media or online game play. We take steps to support and protect our employees through policies based on best practices in this area and consistently evolve that approach as online harassment grows more complex and challenging.
"We also seek to maximize consumers’ enjoyment of our games and experiences by limiting their exposure to negative communications and online interactions.
"But it takes more than the best efforts of any one company to protect an individual being harassed online. Nintendo is committed to continuing its work within the industry and the broader community to ensure that people can both work and play without the fear of hate-fueled attacks."
As one of the world's biggest employers, Microsoft has a policy for just about everything, from sexual harassment to the correct formulation of email subject lines.
Some of the Xbox division's decisions in recent years have proven controversial. In 2013, when game director Adam Orth engaged in a social media flame war with critics, he became engulfed by abuse, and ended up leaving the company.
A Microsoft spokesperson sent over the following statement:
"We do not tolerate harassment of any kind. At Microsoft, we believe that everyone has the right to create, play, and share their opinions about games without the fear of being a target of violence, harassment, or threats.
"No company is immune, and that’s why we work with industry partners to look for ways to take a strong stance against this issue. We are committed to creating a safe and healthy work environment, and that includes taking appropriate steps to make sure our employees are protected. Our success depends on our employees, and their well-being will always be a priority."
Icelandic company CCP appears to offer its employees the most coherent policy in the industry, regarding abuse.
As creators and custodians of the Eve Online world, the CCP team maintains a close relationship with its army of fans, who are extremely passionate about the game, and about any changes the company makes. Thus far, individuals seem to have not been targeted for abuse, but the company does have a policy on this issue, which it has formulated from long experience working with fans via social media channels.
A spokesperson sent Polygon its internal documentation on this issue, which includes practical tools for how to deal with what it calls "developer abuse." These include reporting mechanisms that ensure transgressors are identified and penalized as well as personal tips on how best to cope with abuse, such as "stepping back from the internet and cooling off for a few minutes, and not validating the offensive comment with a response."
For more serious abuse, the policy mandates that more senior managers are involved. "We will sit down with the member of staff who has come to us with concerns, go over the issue in detail and work on a resolution this is satisfactory for the victim of the harassment," states the policy. "From there, we will decide collectively whether there is a need to involve other departments or outside authorities in the situation."
A CCP spokesperson highlighted the following passage, as demonstrative of the company's overall policy:
"We take this type of behavior incredibly seriously. While instances of developer harassment tend to be few and far between, CCP does not condone harassment, victimization, threats, or abuse directed toward members of our staff, and employees of CCP should not tolerate this kind of behavior.
"The Community Team is here to help, support and advise you [employees] if this happens, and we can assist you in resolving situations like this if they occur. Never hesitate to get into contact with us if you feel that you are subject to developer harassment, we will work through it with you and ensure that you get all the help and support needed to resolve the problem from relevant departments within CCP."
Gearbox was one of the smallest companies Polygon contacted, employing just a few hundred people. The company's CEO Randy Pitchford is a polarizing figure who has attracted abuse, most especially concerning the company's widely panned 2013 release, Aliens: Colonial Marines. Pitchford gave a speech during that time, calling some of his critics "sadists."
A Gearbox spokesperson sent over the following statement:
"At Gearbox we don’t have a 'policy' but we do have a philosophy. Our philosophy is that we’re all for one and one for all. Anyone working at this studio knows that if they become the victim of any kind of online harassment, they have the support of the entire studio having their back.
"The reason we don’t have an official policy is we’re not really an ‘official policy’ kind of company. We’re more along the lines of culturally driven where edge cases are handled dynamically and if something happens often enough to move it from an edge case to a process, we’ll tend to evolve some best practices that iterate from there.
"We know that with unfortunate things like online harassment, each case can be different. So, there’s not always going to be a catch-all solution to fix things. One constant with us though, is that whenever one of our own finds themselves in need of help, they know they can count on their teams and colleagues here for support."
For this story, Polygon sought to find out how big companies are dealing with abuse and harassment. Abusers generally target individuals, very often independent developers or people working on small teams.
Game developers who seek to tackle emotive, social or broadly progressive issues, are now at the frontline of abuse campaigns that are often motivated by extreme ideologies or suggestive of reactionary ideas about the nature of entertainment.
A few years ago, Polygon ran a story about abuse, in which victims talked about their experiences. Since then abuse campaigns have intensified to include tactics like doxxing and targeting family members.
Times have changed. Individuals we contacted for this story to talk about abuse either said they did not want to bring up an upsetting period in their lives, or said they were afraid for the safety of family members and colleagues.
We also asked the International Game Developers Association to give us a statement on this issue. Here's an excerpt from a longer statement sent by executive director Kate Edwards:
"Game companies have a responsibility to support their development professionals who are singled out on social media, particularly if the attention is negative and can thus be detrimental to both the individual and the company.
"Companies must take such actions seriously and institute policies which protect their employees when the attention is related to their creative output for that company. Resources should be in place not only to protect the physical and mental well-being of the employees, but also to take appropriate actions to respond to online feedback — whether that response is in the form of public statements or reaching out to law enforcement for intervention.
"The way in which game developers are treated on social media needs to be incorporated into any company's broader policies on wellness and safety, considering online harassment is as real and impactful as workplace injuries, for which safeguards have been in place in modern workplaces for decades. Today's workplaces include the online sphere and companies must account for that dimension as part of their overall plan for keeping their employees safe."
Crash Override is an organization set up by independent game developer Zoe Quinn, to assist victims of online harassment. Quinn, a creator of unconventional games, has long been a central focus for abuse, and was a central target for GamerGate.
We asked her for "minimum expectations" of what employers should be doing to protect their employees. Here is part of her reply:
"At a minimum, employers need to be aware of the possibility, and get educated on the specific ways online abuse manifests above and beyond harassment, and can take the form of stalking, smear campaigns, doxing, hacking, and swatting.
"Companies need to take a real stance against the abuse happening in our industry, because communication between employees and employers is important. Employees need to know that they can talk to employers about their situation without fear of being fired for being too much of a risk, just because multimillion dollar companies might be worried about anime avatars yelling at them on Twitter.
"Companies have many more resources than individuals, and offshoring all the risk and responsibility of dealing with abuse to the people who are targeted by it is cowardice, full-stop. We need more than toothless 'we think harassment is bad' statements to achieve this. The industry in general needs to work on its working conditions, and to invest back in the people who make it what it is instead of treating passionate, hard-working people as disposable.
"They also need to know that although it can happen to anyone, marginalized people are disproportionately targeted for abuse. Any company that is making a commitment to diversity needs to plan beyond just hiring more marginalized people, and prepare to support them beyond the hiring process. "