Update: Brandon Cooke, FCB’s global chief communications officer, told Polygon via email today that the Bully Hunters program has come to an end.
“As this effort did not live up to our high standards, we decided to end this program, but hope the conversation it has raised around ending harassment in gaming continues,” Cooke said.
Cooke added that FCB is looking “forward to finding new, more effective ways in the future to fight bullying in gaming and will share details on those when we are ready.”
Cooke also cleared up a few unanswered questions about the campaign — mainly who was paid and whether the brand partners received any compensation for their role in the initiative.
“The sole creator of the campaign was FCB Chicago,” Cooke said. “All other organizations mentioned in the campaign did not provide any kind of financial or formal sponsorship. In most cases they were just supporting the cause. SteelSeries helped connect us with a few gamers and provided some headsets for the live event. That’s all. One [host was paid], but the other was not.”
Original story: In just under 72 hours, the vigilante gaming group Bully Hunters went from an idealistic anti-harassment campaign to a prime example of what can happen when seemingly good intentions go wrong.
Bully Hunters is an initiative produced by marketing agency FCB Chicago, composed of an all-female organization made up of Counter-Strike: Global Offensive players trying to raise awareness of in-game harassment. The Bully Hunters website described the collective as a “vigilante hit squad of elite female gamers” who will enter CS:GO games when called upon, evaluate the situation and take out an offending player if the case is determined to be severe enough. A debut livestream, which reportedly featured pre-recorded, staged gameplay footage and specially branded SteelSeries headphones used for charity giveaways, aired Thursday night.
Reporters and other industry members criticized the group’s harassment countermeasures before the livestream ever kicked off. Their concerns were compounded after one host’s personal history of antagonizing people on Twitter and using homophobic language was dredged up, and questions about the involvement of companies like SteelSeries were aired. Even the use of pre-recorded footage during a live event raised alarms. It was the group’s anti-harassment techniques, however — which encouraged players to go in and take out bad actors — that drew the most ire.
Paste Games’ assistant editor Holly Green wrote about her concerns, pointing out that, “Not only does engaging griefers and trolls validate their negative behavior, it can also backfire and antagonize them, increasing the aggression towards their targets.”
The backlash that was already brewing after initial news reports became unmanageable following the event. Every aspect of the event was scrutinized — from the staged gameplay to the mental health statistics provided on stream. Critics on Twitter started pointing at holes in the event’s setup, which led to almost everyone involved backing away from the disastrous stream. Even the Bully Hunters website and Twitter account were taken down over the weekend.
Companies like Vertagear, CyberPowerPC and SteelSeries — as well as nonprofit bodies like Diverse Gaming Coalition that partnered with the organization — are now distancing themselves from Bully Hunters following the overwhelmingly negative response to the event. The methods used to bring attention to the harassment that women face left the companies feeling uncomfortable with how the issue was represented, according to public statements on Facebook.
“When we were approached with the background and goals of Bully Hunters, we put our faith in the cause and the organizers,” Vertagear’s statement reads. “However, the information that we received before the start of the campaign not only contradicted the execution of it, but we discovered after the fact that it was sorely lacking. Our biggest mistake was not thoroughly vetting the details of the campaign to ensure that the execution would be up to the proper standards expected, and we apologize for that and the horrendous results of this event.”
Both Vertagear and the Diverse Gaming Coalition say in independent statements that Bully Hunters campaign organizers gave them inadequate information, but the companies continued regardless. SteelSeries, which has been at the center of the debate since the campaign was first announced, posted a public statement on Facebook addressing its participation and condemning the organization’s tactics.
“The way BullyHunters [sic] represented the gaming community was wrong and disingenuous,” SteelSeries’ statement reads. “Most gamers don’t experience harassment, and more importantly, 99%+ of gamers don’t do the harassing. We’re well aware of the many faults with BullyHunters. [...] Although we still believe in a world where harassment isn’t tolerated, it’s clear to us that BullyHunters is hurting, not helping, that cause. On Friday, we ended our support and partnership with the organization.”
Things only got worse when past video clips and tweets from Natalie “ZombiUnicorn” Casanova, the prominent Twitch streamer and YouTuber who became the most visible spokesperson for the event, surfaced. A 6-year-old clip showcased Casanova referring to aggravating players with a homophobic slur. Tweets from Casanova that called other people a “bitch” and worse were shared around Twitter.
In a statement on Facebook, the Diverse Gaming Coalition highlighted Casanova’s past actions as part of the reason it was withdrawing support for the Bully Hunters initiative.
“Various tweets show wrongdoing by host, Zombi Unicorn, which are actions that Diverse Gaming Coalition does not condone, although she was not solely to blame for the Bully Hunters initiative as a whole,” the statement reads. “After the live-stream, it seems that Bully Hunters is still an initiative they wish to keep pursuing. However, this initiative does not align with our mission and vision statement as a non-profit. Because of this, we are deciding as of now, we are dropping as a partner from the Bully Hunters initiative.
“We believe in their intentions as a company to promote social good, but do not think they approached it in the best way possible.”
Casanova is more than aware of the concerns around her past behavior, and she has repeatedly defended herself and apologized for her past tweets. Talking to Polygon one day after the livestream and in the midst of dealing with accusations and attacks online, Casanova said that while there is no excuse for using a homophobic slur against someone, she feel that she has atoned for her actions.
“That was almost six years ago and I screwed up,” Casanova said. “I paid for it, and I apologized for it profusely. I used that language in a moment of frustration. I was being harassed by a griefer who was hacking in the game to get to my location, and he kept killing me over and over again. It’s not an excuse. There’s no excuse to what I did, but I had never said anything like that before, and I never said anything like that again afterwards.”
It’s not just Casanova’s use of the homophobic slur that got dredged up, though. People pointed to her use of words like “cunt” toward individuals on Twitter as its own form of bullying. Casanova told Polygon that it was infuriating to see those tweets go around taken out of context. The reality of the situation, she said, is that she was responding to people harassing her.
“If you take those tweets and you look at what I’m responding to, I’m responding to people who are harassing and trolling me, and treating me like crap,” Casanova said. “I get it, I’m not a perfect human being. I’m pretty sure everybody has at some point told somebody, ‘Hey, fuck off. Leave me alone. You’re being a dick right now.’ A lot of these people are acting like they’re holier than thou, like they’ve never made mistakes.”
Part of the reason Casanova decided to start working with Bully Hunters in the first place is largely due to her own dealings with people in gaming, she said. She’s been targeted by people for years, Casanova told Polygon, and as such, has become an outspoken figure talking about the level of harassment that women in games receive. Casanova has spent a large portion of her career as an influencer and livestreamer, and said the recent harassment she’s received remains some of the worst.
“I’ve never received this much hate and harassment in my life,” Casanova said. “I’ve always been known as one of the more genuine people in the industry with no filter, and I’ll say what I mean — and I get in trouble for it a lot. Now I’ve suddenly been labeled as this fake person who’s doing this for money when anyone who knows me knows I’ve been in the industry working for this for a long time. This one campaign isn’t the only thing I’ve done, and it’s not the last thing I do either.”
Casanova told Polygon she wants to continue working with Bully Hunters in the future, if the initiative is still active, but acknowledges that there were always concerns with the method the campaign used to raise awareness of harassment in games. Those involved in the campaign were labeled as harassers and griefers themselves for going after CS:GO players in-game.
Casanova repeatedly said she was given no control over the direction of the project, something the companies involved also spoke to in their own statements. Despite her reservations, she said event organizers addressed her fears well enough prior to the event to give her enough confidence to remain involved as a consultant and host.
“People can debate the merits of the execution, but I’m always going to remain supportive of the overall goal,” Casanova said. “I understood from the beginning that there would be backlash. I didn’t necessarily think that this tool would be the only way. It wasn’t my idea, and it was brought to me. I kind of fought it a little bit at first, but once the wording was changed and it was shown to be that it wasn’t meant to be harassing, it was just meant to send a message, I thought that maybe, maybe, people could accept that and at least bring attention to it.
“Love it or hate it, it did its job. It’s brought a lot of attention to this. It’s opened up the discussion to more people. Yeah, it’s brought a lot of trolls, but it’s opened the discussion.”
The more that comes out about Bully Hunters, the less anyone seems to want to be attached to the project at all — financially or otherwise.
Although most of the companies involved, including SteelSeries, have fled Bully Hunters, and the situation raised plenty of eyebrows, Casanova stands by the organization. She believes the campaign proves more than ever that there’s a problem with harassment in the industry that she wants to keep fighting against.
“We obviously need it,” Casanova said. “Look at the fact that so many people are pretending like they’re tearing apart Bully Hunters because of the bad execution, and in the process are harassing me and multiple other people so badly. Go through my timeline. Look at all the rape threats; the ‘whore’; the ‘cunt’; the ‘stupid idiot, you’re a slut, you’re an idiot, you’re not even a real gamer.’ That’s real harassment.”