CW: harassment, gaslighting, suicidal thoughts
By necessity and signed paperwork, I’m keeping it vague. It’s also in the past. I’m posting it because I have this idea that we need to show that negative behaviour doesn’t have to be sexual. I also want to point out that my experiences may well have been a one off. Some people get bullied, some don’t. It’s possible that I’m bullying material.
I’ll provide a TL;DR. I was bullied and gaslighted at work and came close to ending my life.
Going into triple-A was becoming invisible, from a professional perspective. I worked as a game designer for a few years and I got to handle the aspects of design that weren’t really that cool. Keeping track of stuff. Doing the features that weren’t that highly prioritised. Despite that, I had a really good time working. I know I’m probably a bit weird, but I enjoy doing design documentation and figuring out complex systems. It’s rewarding.
I did what most designers do at some point. I built massive excel sheets with balance calculations that I barely understood because my math is terrible. I Googled most of it. I broke excel a few times. I plotted splines for NPCs and scripted super simple encounters, again because math and I are not best friends.
I spent a few years in the only company that I’ve ever been that had no toxicity issues building a user experience from top to bottom. Good times, but economically difficult.
And then came the darkness. At first things were good. The work was challenging and fun and my colleagues were nice. They still are, but I rarely talk to them anymore. Some of this still hurts.
I think there were four catalysts for the downward trend. A person or persons at the company started to harass me anonymously via my social media and a person I had had a very open conflict with was hired. I didn’t get along very well with the creative leadership. I tried, but it took a lot of effort and was impossible to keep up and I was being micromanaged to the extent that I had to run everything by them. I was actively trying to improve equality and diversity at the company and people knew this. Oh and maybe a fifth thing. I shifted from an administrative role to a creative role.
You already know what I’m going to do here, don’t you? I’m going to tell you about our biases surrounding creativity. Yup, you got it. Men are considered more creative than women, even when the ideas are the same.
BIPOC folx are treated just the same, but worse, because there’s this insidious thing called colonialism that states that there is only one perspective in design that is worthy of study, and that’s the white man’s perspective. A lot if this theory is borrowed from art criticism and design theory, because we have to start somewhere. I don’t have any snappy links to send you off to read about studies made, but I do have a bunch of references. Linda Nochlin’s Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? is a good place to start when it comes to the myth of the male genius. Follow that up with bell hooks Art on My Mind to get an intersectional perspective and finish off with the essay Designer/ Shapeshifter: A Decolonizing Redirection for Speculative and Critical Design by Pedro J.S. Vieira de Oliveira and Luiza Prado de O. Martins in the book Tricky Design: The Ethics of Things. In the essay Designer/ Shapeshifter the authors suggest the following:
Among the unfoldings of the colonial matrix of power lies the idea that human knowledges are homogeneous, globally transferable and, most importantly, universal truths; that all that can be known is known from the same point of view.
Yup. The Western European male body, that’s who! What does this have to do with male genius you ask? Everything. If we only accept one view as the universal truth, how are we ever going to see genius anywhere else? History seems to prove the male genius theory right. All those renaissance artists, all the sculptors and inventors. Except you forget that they were the ones with access to education, apprenticeships. Power. Hence, we’re used to seeing men as creative and women as administrative. Women are supposed to care for the male genius. Get him a sammich when he needs one. When women start inching in on that space, the reaction is usually to ignore them. Or ignore them and steal their ideas.
I’m sorry, I’m trying hard to be educational as well as illuminating. Is it working?
I’m not going to do a blow by blow of what I experienced. I’m going to rip the band aid off and hope the bleeding has stopped. Here is what happened in broad strokes and in no particular order and no particular company:
- When I worked in production, I was taken aside and given “feedback”1 by an upset person for two hours. This happened when the rest of the production team was away. I offered to set up a meeting with all of them, but that was rejected. This never happened to my male colleagues as far as I know.
- I was asked if I had evidence that the production method we used was according to the principles of agile by another upset person. I had to dig up a book to show this person that I wasn’t lying. Also, I wasn’t the only one coming up with production methods. It was team work. Except apparently when something was wrong, it was my fault. This never happened to my male colleagues as far as I know.
- When I started, I was asked if I knew what a cutscene was. I’d been in the industry for 10 years at that point. It seems super small, but have that happen enough times and you kind of start to see a pattern. It happened more than once with more than cutscenes, but cutscenes are what I wrote down.
- I was given the impression in a discussion that a thing I wanted to do was impossible. In a later meeting with the entire team, when I suggested the thing wasn’t possible, the person who told me it was impossible contradicted me and said we could do it. I was made to look stupid and life went on.
- Despite having a clear division of areas of responsibility, my colleagues always asked my male counterpart before they asked me. Also a tiny thing, but if it happens enough… ugh.
- Someone from the company I was at at the time downvoted every post about equality and diversity that I had on this blog. The reason I noticed it was from my (then) place of work was because at one point they went through 50 posts at once. I looked up the IP address because I thought it was an attack of some kind. They sat AT a company computer, downvoting 50 posts in one go. Dedication.
- When I brought this up to HR2 their response was that they couldn’t do anything because it was my personal blog. It wasn’t a company issue. I did not contest it, and I didn’t ask for more help.
- A colleague and what I suspect was another coworker, but anonymous, started to respond to tweets I sent out with the request that I stop talking about the “depressing” aspects of game dev, because it would “scare off women”.
- When I brought up the twitter incident with HR, I was again told that the company could do nothing, this was my personal social media. Again, I didn’t contest it and I didn’t ask for more help.
- When GamerGate happened, I sent out an e-mail to the spam/ nonsense addy that we as devs should support Zoë Quinn. The company leadership said “no, you can’t, we have to talk about it internally”. Then after some pressure they changed their minds and said “okay, but not as representatives of the company”. In other words we were not allowed to officially support someone who was being actively harassed by god knows how many people.
- I was sent a long e-mail by a coworker who told me that they were very upset that I dragged politics into the company spam channel. How dare I? Could I not respect their feelings? Could I please stop doing that immediately? This person was an open supporter of GamerGate.
- At some point I became the arbiter of if something was sexist or not, so I had to judge in several instances where people would ask me if something was sexist. I was associated with any decisions the company made around what was sexist or not, even if I never spoke up about the specific issue.
- I had several conversations with male colleagues where they felt bad about sexism and wanted me to comfort them and tell them that they were okay.
- A female dev quit because of the issues at the company. She sent out a long e-mail detailing the issues with an upcoming game and our company culture. I was called into a meeting and was asked to explain her e-mail to leadership. I had nothing to do with said e-mail. I was still asked to explain it. For an hour or two.
- The law in Sweden requires that a company with 25+ employees have an equality plan (although it was lowered to 10+ in 2017). I asked for five consecutive years if that plan existed at the company. It did not.
- When I posted vague but disappointed tweets and comments on my social media, I was asked to stop doing that. One of those comments was posted in a closed Facebook group. I asked what the rules were. They were never provided to me, despite me asking several times. When I wrote down the requirements on my social media posting in an e-mail and sent it to the people asking me to stop posting, they wouldn’t confirm that this was what they had asked me to do, or that they were allowed to require it.
- In another twist, I was called into a meeting with HR because they had “heard” that I was unhappy. Who they had heard it from was unclear, but most likely they were monitoring my social media, because it happened just after a post (again in a closed group) where I expressed that I didn’t feel great.
- My blog was policed, despite a limited readership (like, 30 readers or something). I was asked by the company to remove blog posts that didn’t comply with rules I had never seen.
- My talks were being monitored. I was told that as long as I acted as a private person, not a representative for the company, I didn’t have to inform the company beforehand. That changed, so that every talk I did on equality and diversity – even at gaming conventions and about TTRPGs – had to go through the company first. I asked for rules and guidelines. They never showed up. Talks that didn’t have anything to do with equality and diversity were never monitored.3
- An initiative to talk to game dev schools was started at the company. Because I was being monitored in just about every activity that the company had previously trusted me to handle professionally, I stepped down from advising at FutureGames. I couldn’t deal with the constant monitoring.
- The idea that I wouldn’t approach a task with a professional attitude broke me, to be honest. The lack of trust in me was crushing and hurtful.
- I was micromanaged by my creative director to the degree that he wouldn’t trust me with a line of text without overseeing it first.
- The usual – I would suggest something in a meeting, no one listened. Ten minutes later someone else would suggest the same thing and now it was the best idea ever.
- I was given more and more drudge work, and had less and less authority over my domain the longer I worked on the project. When I tried bringing this up, the first words were often “not everything is a sexist issue”, despite me never having mentioned sexism.
- I was asked on more than one occasion when pointing out my situation “are you sure it’s not just you”?
- I was asked to smile more, because people didn’t like that I had become withdrawn and quiet. It made them uncomfortable.
- A fellow designer in my field visited the office and asked what I worked on. When I told him, he said that the stuff I was doing was better left to a junior designer or an intern. That was the level of work that I was given. At that point I was a senior designer.
- I was told by my manager that they had a problem. They had a designer (me) on the team that no one respected. My manager however did not contribute to the issue, they were trying to help me. But it confirmed the fact that I didn’t have anyone’s respect.
- I was told that I had a reputation for being “difficult” and “paranoid”.
- I was told that I was being a nuisance, but I was never told exactly what it was I was doing wrong. I never got any clear direction. Just vague handwaving about attitude.
- At one point I was told my creative director thought I was incompetent. This was however something that seemed to fluctuate. Usually I was told my work was exemplary, but sometimes – probably when I disagreed about something – I was incompetent. I never knew why I was incompetent. They never told me.
- Because I suspected that my switch from production to design was part of why I was being treated worse and worse, I asked to return to production. The response was “sorry, but we don’t think you’re dedicated enough to production for us to let you back in”, meaning I had to stay in a discipline where no one respected me as evidenced above.
- My producer sighed whenever I brought up issues with the team or with production or pretty much anything. Eventually I stopped bringing stuff up.
- I was asked to see a therapist to deal with “my” problems. The therapist told me I had developed a clinical depression and that I should get the hell out of dodge. There was no doubt in their mind that the depression was caused by my situation at work.
- When applying for other jobs in the industry in Sweden (because why not at this point?), I was told by multiple sources that I was considered a pain in the ass, meaning that my reputation as difficult had spread. I was told that at one company I applied to, they had a meeting to see if I was worth hiring despite my “politics”. My politics being equality and diversity.
- During this period of time, I was talking to a few people around me who were outside the company but had insight into it. They were concerned about how my role and my influence was being diminished, month by month. Without them, I’d have been nuts by now.
- I was asked to leave a company the moment the game had shipped.
- When I left I asked for an employment certificate. The certificate omitted that I had worked in two roles.
There’s more. Of course there’s more. There’s always more, but this was painful enough. When I was asked about the work I was doing (on a junior level no less) I was actually ashamed that I couldn’t live up to people’s expectations to a higher degree than junior dev work. I thought it was my fault that I was being pushed aside, ignored, “forgotten”. To some extent that phrase that people used is still rattling around in my head “are you sure it’s not just you”. How could I possibly be sure it’s not just me? Maybe I DO suck? How DID I make it this far, really? Have I just been surfing around as a diversity hire? This is where the impostor syndrome comes in.
I’m using the quote below because I think it applies.
Factors outside of a person, such as their environment or institutionalized discrimination, can also play a major role in spurring impostor feelings. “A sense of belonging fosters confidence,” says Young. “The more people who look or sound like you, the more confident you feel. And conversely, the fewer people who look or sound like you, it can and does for many people impact their confidence.”
I was worn down, slowly but surely, to the point that I found myself staring into the dark waters of Stockholms ström one evening after a Christmas party that was particularly painful, thinking that maybe I should just take an extra step forward and be done with it. And it was all work. I’m not going to deny I didn’t have other issues, who doesn’t? But this was work. I was so utterly diminished by the constant check ins, the constant micro management and the constant need for control and lack of trust and lack of clear guidelines that I just wanted it to be over. I just wanted it to end. I managed to take a step back from that particular brink. I thank my family for that. I couldn’t do that to them so soon after my father’s passing. There was no other reason.
As a woman I suppose I should be used to not being trusted. I suppose I should be used to being questioned about every detail. I’m not. All I’ve ever wanted from this industry is to be able to make good games.
Granting respect to your fellow devs is not something that will diminish you. Not granting them the respect they deserve, however, diminishes them. Maybe that’s the point. According to some gamers women belong in the kitchen, after all, making sammiches.
- Meaning they were upset and agitated and told me that “my” production methods were questionable in several different and colourful ways. Never mind the entire team was behind them.
- Which was actually a thing I didn’t want to do, but my co-workers convinced me to do it. More fool me.
- Let me be clear. EA where I’m currently working is VERY strict with external talks. They do however have super clear rules and people to help you make a good presentation. And they’re up front with it. Sure, draconian in some respects, but I prefer draconian and clear to vague humming and hawing where anything can be a violation if someone says so.