Sexual Harassment in the Gaming and Virtual Reality Worlds
“Law and Order: SVU” fans may remember an episode called Intimidation Games. It was based on a highly volatile controversy in the gaming world dubbed #Gamergate in 2014. The Washington Post created a guide to walk readers through what #Gamergate was, how it started, who was affected, and the aftermath. In a nutshell, Gamergate was:
an Internet culture war. On one side are independent game-makers and critics, many of them women, who advocate for greater inclusion in gaming. On the other side of the equation are a motley alliance of vitriolic naysayers: misogynists, anti-feminists, trolls, people convinced they’re being manipulated by a left-leaning and/or corrupt press, and traditionalists who just don’t want their games to change.
You have to read the Washington Post article to get your head around what sparked Gamergate. At the center of Gamergate is Zoe Quinn, a woman who coded, developed, and released what became a highly popular game known as Depression Quest. Somewhere along the way, Quinn’s ex-boyfriend claimed she cheated on him and slept with key influencer in the gaming industry to advance her career. A flood of internet trolls emerged and death threats were made against Quinn, now truly ostracized within the male dominated gaming industry.
The Washington Post summarized:
If you’re not personally a gamer, it can be tempting to dismiss it all as subcultural drama. But as the preceding paragraphs would suggest, that couldn’t be further from the truth…
there’s the sheer violence of the whole thing. We bust out the term “culture war” to describe any sustained conflict between groups with opposing philosophies and ideals. But when it comes to Gamergate, there’s also an aspect of literal war, as well: Threats [became] so violent that the FBI is investigating.
You can’t make this stuff up, so “Law and Order” released the episode Intimidation Games. It was received with mixed reviews but exposed the issue to a much larger audience outside the gaming world.
Now Get an Upload of This (Virtual) Reality
Imagine going to work and doing your share as part of a team, you pick up after yourself, you take your used coffee mug to the sink, give it a wash, or put it in the dishwasher. Pretty normal right?
Now imagine going to work and picking up someone’s dirty underwear from the “kink room.” There’s a used condom on the floor and it’s a workspace you’re expected to clean up. This isn’t a porn studio. This was in the green room of UploadVR, a San Francisco based virtual reality startup that received $4.5 billion in Series A funding in May 2017.
The Mercury News reported:
Elizabeth Scott, who had worked for San Francisco-based UploadVR as director of digital and social media, sued her former employer in May, claiming the company’s “rampant sexual behavior and focus” made it an unbearable place to work… [and] sued Upload for discrimination, sexual harassment, and retaliation
The company has made changes since the lawsuit was filed, including appointing Anne Ahola Ward as its first chief operating officer in June. Upload also brought in a human resources team, Ward said, which facilitated other steps, such as writing an employee handbook, putting in place procedures for reporting issues, and formalizing company guidelines and job descriptions. Other changes were more minor — such as launching an employee of the month program, and setting up team meetings, she said.
The Mercury News article was published in September. Since then Anne Ward left her position as COO of UploadVR and returned full focus to her ongoing role as CEO at her company CircleClick. The story at UploadVR takes sexual harassment to an entirely new level within a tech industry beleaguered by Silicon Valley’s “Bro culture.” The story is so incredible, the behaviors so incomprehensible, and the treatment of the women who chose to speak out simply unacceptable, the story was ultimately investigated and covered by CNN.
CNN recently aired the televised segment and it’s available online. CNN reported:
In May 2017, Elizabeth Scott filed a lawsuit against UploadVR, alleging gender discrimination, harassment and a hostile work environment. According to the lawsuit, a space called “the kink room,” which had been set up as a demo for an adult virtual reality company, was also used by male employees to engage in sexual activities.
According to the lawsuit, women were expected to behave as “mommies” and were tasked with “womanly” jobs like cleaning up after parties — including disposing of leftover condoms.
UploadVR founders Will Mason and Taylor Freeman acknowledge that the bulk of the cleaning duties fell to women — but said that was due to the functions of those women’s jobs.
CNN’s Laurie Segall interviewed Anne Ward who’s also known as the “Mother of Startups” in Silicon Valley. An excerpt of the interview is transcribed below:
CNN: You were painted as the female executive who was going to go in and kind of clean it up.
Anne Ward: I think to a large extent that’s how they viewed it. I saw the opportunity help a lot of people, to save jobs. So I felt I had no choice.
CNN: Were you aware of the extent of it when you walked into the role?
Anne Ward: No it wasn’t until I was announced that those women started to come to me privately.
CNN: What were you feeling?
Anne Ward: The kind of things that make you cry. Just so many women were so upset.
CNN: A lot of women said why are you going in and helping these guys, they didn’t create a safe environment for women.
Anne Ward: But then I would say those seven women inside that company needed a leader, and men too. There was a team that needed support.
Four months later, Anne Ward left Upload. When asked why she left Ward’s response was carefully worded:
“…As a business leader the things that I say and do affect others. But I will say what it came down to for me was respect. If I was a founder I would have stepped down, but that’s not what happened and that’s why we’re here.”
Who knows what the future holds for UploadVR, it’s hard not to hope for change without dropping the doubt. During her CNN interview, Anne Ward said she left UploadVR with her conscience intact. She continues to support women and men who show up with the right energy to improve the world through technology.
So what of the gaming world and life after Gamergate? Zoe Quinn is still dealing with the aftermath. She’s doing a book tour, still getting threats, and recently did an interview with The Guardian. According to The Guardian:
Quinn’s book, the newly released Crash Override: How Gamergate (Nearly) Destroyed My Life and How We Can Win the Fight Against Online Hate, outlines how an act of domestic abuse by a former partner became a cultural phenomenon and put her on the run – literally.
Since Gamergate, Quinn has continued to develop games and has launched an organization, also called Crash Override, to help victims of online abuse. She wants people to know the steps they can take to protect themselves online, but also ways they can help others who are being targeted.
And there you have it. The challenges for women in tech scale at incomprehensible levels. If it were only “as simple” as breaking the glass ceiling.