The videogames industry is having its #MeToo moment, and the backlash against it has been fast and brutal. Developers and creators are bravely going public about decades of exploitation, including at the hands of respected figures who have contributed to beloved franchises. The response has been moral outrage—not that there’s an epidemic of men hurting women and covering for each other, not that sexual harassment has been tacitly tolerated within the industry, but that women have the gall to complain.
By now, women and queer people know how much it costs to confront male violence. The developer Zoe Quinn, who has already faced some of the most poisonous online harassment as enemy number one of Gamergate, went public last week about the extensive emotional and sexual abuse they suffered at the hands of their former partner, developer Alec Holowka. (Quinn uses they/them pronouns.) Others, including Albertine Watson, also came forward about Holowka’s behavior. Like Quinn, and like most people who have been subject to physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, they had thought they were the only ones—until someone broke their silence.
Holowka’s colleagues on the popular game Night in the Woods were quick to cut ties with him. “Enough of the allegations are extremely plausible and just about all of it we’ve corroborated with other sources,” wrote Scott Benson on the game’s Kickstarter page. “I’m not going to list those out here, this isn’t a trial, and we don’t /owe/ the internet a comprehensive accounting of why so many people who have known Alec for years have looked at the accusations and believed them.”
Then, on Saturday, August 31, Holowka took his own life. This is a tragic story for everyone involved: for Holowka’s family, for his coworkers, and for the women he allegedly victimized over the years. Nothing has been proved in a court of law, but Holowka’s colleagues were quite clear that they find the allegations credible. “Those who know me will know that I believe survivors and I have always done everything I can to support survivors, those suffering from mental illnesses, and those with chronic illnesses,” wrote Eileen Holowka, Alec’s sister, in a post announcing the death of her brother and “best friend.” “Alec was a victim of abuse and he also spent a lifetime battling mood and personality disorders. I will not pretend that he was not also responsible for causing harm.” Eileen Holowka added that “in case it’s not already f****** obvious, Alec *specifically said* he wished the best for Zoë and everyone else, so don’t use our grief as an excuse to harass people.”
The family’s wishes have been ignored; the backlash against Quinn and others has been relentless. According to the logic of an army of concern-trolls, Quinn has blood on their hands. They should have taken Holowka’s fragility into account before “ruining his life.” They are worse than a murderer. Quinn deleted their Twitter account after a barrage of harassment and threats, many of them from people who consider Quinn’s chief crime “inciting harassment.”
The scale of hypocrisy here is so staggering it’s almost impressive. People, often young women, who dare to speak up can expect to face public harassment and private retribution. Young women can expect to be punished for the crimes men commit against them—but if they dare to speak up, they are the ones who are “ruining lives.”
The response to the death of Alec Holowka throws this double standard into razor-sharp relief. The harassment of Quinn and others has nothing to do with concern for Holowka and his family and everything to do with making examples of women and queer people who dare to speak out. The message is clear: Men’s mental health matters more than women’s. Men’s suffering and self-loathing is treated as a public concern, because men are permitted to be real people whose inner lives and dreams matter. Who cares, then, how many women they destroy along the way?
For a small but vicious and dedicated sector of gamers, the humanity of women has long been an insulting proposition. Now it appears that a significant cluster of men who make and design games has fallen into the habit of treating women like nonplayer characters, expendable and replaceable. The allegations are not simply about rape. In fact, many of the allegations are not about explicit, physical violence at all. That’s what has got the fuck-your-feelings, ethics-in-gaming-journalism brigade extra confused and outraged.
I hate to be the one to break this news, but “not a convicted multiple rapist” is not, in fact, the gold standard for good male behavior. Most of the ways in which women are sidelined, harassed, worn down, and exploited within industries like games, often when they are at the beginning of their careers, are more insidious than that. Insidious enough that many of the more pernicious patterns of behavior aren’t, in fact, crimes at all—in part because the legal standard for rape, as Kate Millett memorably wrote, is set not at the level of women’s actual experience but just below the level of coercion that men consider acceptable. And that bar is low, low, low, low enough that it’s surprising how many still fail to clear it.
Nobody is pretending that any of this is easy. And nobody is saying that men’s feelings don’t matter—even if those men are abusive. I know a fair few men who have been taken to task for their behavior in public, and yes, those men have suffered. As psychiatrist Lundy Bancroft writes in Why Does He Do That?, “An abusive man deserves the same compassion that a nonabusive man does, neither more nor less. But a nonabusive man doesn’t use his past as an excuse to mistreat you. Feeling sorry for your partner can be a trap, making you feel guilty for standing up to his abusiveness.”
The threat that men will fall apart or harm themselves if women refuse to put up with their behavior is an age-old, tried-and-true tactic of control, and it plays on issues of identity that run hot and deep. Women are raised to put men’s interests before their own. Women are supposed to protect men from the consequences of their actions. Even if it means staying in an abusive relationship, or accepting social ostracism and shame, women are expected to suffer so that men can grow. Most women and queer people have been raised to treat men’s emotions with respect and deference, even at the cost of their own happiness, because most of us have been raised with the understanding that when men get upset, bad things happen. Men, too, even decent and nonsexist men, have grown up with this understanding—that male suffering simply matters more, or why else would we treat it as a public concern?
I’ve been there. I’ve been that person person struggling not to prioritize a man’s pain, and I know how hard it is to break out of that mindset. One of my ex-partners and former close friends is a multiple rapist who sexually, physically, and emotionally abused countless women, including me. When some of his victims began to put the pieces together, he assured us that he would end his life if it became public. We believed him. We knew that he was fragile, had accepted his narrative that he abused women for the same reason he abused drugs and alcohol—because he was in pain and could not help himself. He used the same combination of threats and performative weakness that crops up in every narcissist’s playbook, convincing us that he was both too powerful to be crossed and too weak to survive being held accountable. When the stories came out anyway, despite his best efforts, he did not choose to end his life. But yes, he did suffer. People who are held accountable for years of abuse frequently do—and their victims are not responsible for that suffering. Just like Zoe Quinn is not responsible for their alleged abuser’s decision to end his life. It was his decision to hurt them, and his decision to hurt himself.
Here’s a thought: What if people started thinking about the effect on victims’ mental health before they make the decision to abuse, bully, and rape? Women in games—like women in entertainment, politics, journalism, and every other industry that has been shaken by #MeToo allegations—have learned not to speak about our exhaustion, our pain and trauma. We have learned to come across as carefully neutral, as endlessly reasonable, to hide the depression, the fear, the anxiety. For every man whose behavior has been excused because of his mental health problems, there are countless women and queer people whose mental health problems have been weaponized against them, to dismiss what they say. The risk that male violence poses to women’s mental health—women who have been harassed or assaulted are far more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder, and up to 13 percent of rape victims attempt suicide—is not considered worthy of comment.
This is what happens within industries where men have most of the power and seniority—and, crucially, it is also how male power perpetuates. Women quietly drop out of professions and workplaces where they are routinely hurt, demeaned, and isolated. The damage is borne in private by the victims themselves, and by networks of women doing the emotional deep-cleaning so that men don’t have to be confronted with the damage they’ve done.
It’s work, and it wears you down. I’m a person with two jobs, and I spent at least eight hours I didn’t have to spare this past weekend holding space for friends who have been put in situations just like this, situations where they are powerless. If you’ve not been privy to that liminal sphere, if you don’t know the daily work that goes into maintaining those delicate tendrils of care, then it could well seem like this is coming out of nowhere. If you don’t know what it’s like to watch a friend fold quietly in on herself as she tells you about a man you both know, about what he did, and why she can’t ever say anything, because he can and will crush her dreams with a gesture, and he’s already hurt her enough—if you’ve not had to learn, at your cost, that the fragility of powerful, volatile men is far more of a hazard than their strength—then you might well ask, Why now?
My fingers are fairly itching with all of the stories I’m not telling here because they aren’t mine to share, and the consequences wouldn’t only be mine to bear. Secrets that eat you up from the inside. I don’t want to think about how much time I’ve spent over the past five years dealing with the fallout of male violence, giving advice, trying to mitigate damage, trying to protect survivors. I don’t want to think about it because most of the men in my life and in my fields of work don’t have to spend their energies on such things.
Some days it feels like the whole world is being held hostage to male fragility. Sometimes it seems that there’s no limit on what women, girls, and queer people are expected to tolerate in order to protect men from a moment’s uncomfortable self-reflection. Sometimes I don’t know who to trust anymore. There are so many men out there who appear to be allies, and yet who do not consider their own intimate behavior toward women to be at all relevant to the discussion. I don’t know who is going to turn out to have covered up for his violent friend, or taken his low self-esteem out on his girlfriend, iced younger women out of his industry when they refused to go on dates with him. I just want to know: What if we decided to care as much about the wellbeing of women who have been abused as we do about the wellbeing of abusers? What would it be like to live in a world, or to work in an industry, where the social consequences of hurting a woman weighed heavier than the social consequences of being one?
More Great WIRED Stories
- We can be heroes: How nerds are reinventing pop culture
- Why on earth is water in Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano?
- Jeffrey Epstein and the power of networks
- I replaced my oven with a waffle maker and you should, too
- Learn how to fall with climber Alex Honnold
- 👁 Facial recognition is suddenly everywhere. Should you worry? Plus, read the latest news on artificial intelligence
- 🏃🏽♀️ Want the best tools to get healthy? Check out our Gear team’s picks for the best fitness trackers, running gear (including shoes and socks), and best headphones.