Where there is smoke, there is often fire. Last week, there was a lot of smoke in the video game industry, as it grappled with a growing list of allegations against game developers, which ranged from sexual assault to managerial abuse. Some have admitted culpability, others have denied everything and hired lawyers. One of the accused has since died. As we reported last week, what started as three high-profile accusations has snowballed into gaming’s own #MeToo moment, as women and men come forward with stories previously kept secret.
Trying to keep up with everything that’s happened in the past few weeks, a mixture of testimonies and catharsis, has been dizzying. In the middle of writing this piece, Oculus co-founder Michael Antonov was accused of putting his hands up a woman’s skirt while she was in the middle of a virtual reality demo, a situation where she would not have been able to see what was going on. Antonov has not publicly commented, and a request for comment was not returned by the time this story was published.
What follows is the result of many days of reporting some, not all, of the allegations shared, and our reporting is ongoing. It’s an attempt to make sense of why last week managed to set so many allegations in motion, by closely examining several of them.
Last Wednesday, narrative designer Meg Jayanth, best known for her work on 80 Days, used Twitter to accuse Fallen London and Cultist Simulator designer Alexis Kennedy of being “a well-known predator in the games industry” and she’s been “warning people about him for years.” Jayanth alleged Kennedy would establish and exploit relationships with young women new to the games industry for sexual gain, and later “threatened many women with retaliation to ensure silence + compliance.”
“I know that Alexis has used his friendship with me and other established women in the industry to isolate young women + vulnerable people,” Jayanth tweeted, “to make them think they will not be believed, to isolate them from avenues of help. This is a deliberate, and a grotesque violation of trust.”
Reporters Laura Hudson and Ana Valens acknowledged they’d heard similar stories about Kennedy in the past. Failbetter Games, the studio Kennedy helped found in 2010 before leaving in 2016, said it believed the stories about its former co-founder and would “stand with everyone who has come forward to speak out about Alexis Kennedy.”
Separately on Twitter, current Failbetter writer Olivia Wood outlined a previously toxic relationship with Kennedy where, after the relationship fell apart, she said, Kennedy shouted at Wood and belittled her in front of colleagues. Wood saw this as explicit retaliation for the failed relationship.
In a 2017 PCGamesN story, Kennedy described how he became attracted to and entered an intimate relationship with another partner after working as her supervisor at Failbetter. The feature is meant to highlight the way they balance their professional and romantic partnership as co-founders of development studio The Weather Factory, but it also showed Kennedy’s apparent willingness to enter into romantic relationships with his subordinates.
Kennedy publicly responded to Jayanth on Twitter, acknowledging “a small number of fully consensual relationships with other people in the industry” and denying everything else. In a series of private messages to VICE Games, Kennedy said, “if everything Jayanth had said was literally true, which it isn’t, then that still falls short of abuse and clearly under the heading of being irresponsible.” He claimed to have contacted the police to “make a complaint” over Jayanth’s comments. We contacted the police department Kennedy said he filed a complaint with, and it would neither confirm nor deny the existence of a report.
Shortly after, Kennedy asked to have his previous (and on the record) comments retracted, which is against standard journalistic practice. Kennedy then passed on the contact information for his legal representation, who, when contacted, had no official comment. Kennedy’s current romantic partner and studio co-founder Lottie Bevan said on Twitter that “these stories are insane and untrue.”
Later, Bevan posted a brief update to The Weather Factory’s website, noting the studio’s upcoming Kickstarter is being put on hold.
“I was able to guess who this was without knowing the name, just by seeing the pattern.”
An effect of people coming forward with their stories has been putting faces to previously anonymous allegations. Community manager and marketing specialist Mina Vanir decided to come forward with some specifics about previous allegations they’d raised without naming the person involved. In October 2018, Vanir used Twitter to reveal an incident of alleged sexual harassment through a series of private messages with an individual who admitted to being “horny and lonely” and pressing their erect penis onto Vanir several times. The person said it “was a bit confusing how you [Vanir] responded at times” and claimed they “make sure I don’t do stuff that makes someone uncomfortable.”
In the messages, Vanir is upset and angry, and earlier this week, named the individual: business development consultant Vlad Micu, who, according to his LinkedIn profile, recently consulted with developers like Robot Gentleman and Little Chicken Game Company. They also published the messages unredacted on Twitter.
“I am not here to ruin your life,” said Vanir. “I am here to keep you from ruining the lives of others.”
Vanir told VICE Games the incident took place at a small European game development conference in 2017. When Vanir met Micu, they were a student and had just entered the industry, they said.
“Looking back at that particular day I feel quite stupid for sticking with him,” Vanir told VICE Games. “From the moment we said hi, he kept going on about how happy he was to see me because he was so alone.”
Vanir did not hear from Micu after the allegation, but Micu did talk to VICE Games. He shared a Facebook post published in February 2018 to friends and colleagues, in which he privately admitted the incident occurred but took issue with Vanir’s characterization. In the post, he said the “narrative risks reducing the intricacies of two complex human being into a simplified case of good versus evil.”
“Since the time of the accusation and my response,” said Micu in a separate statement, sent last week alongside the Facebook post, “I have made a conscious effort to openly talk to as many of my industry peers, partners, clients and conference organizers about what transpired and how I am wholly owning my mistake.”
Soon after Vanir named Micu, Turn 10 Studios environments producer Kristina Rothe said on Twitter she’d had “a number of interactions with the same guy [Micu] that made me not only feel uncomfortable but also really second guessing myself.”
“I was able to guess who this was without knowing the name,” said Rothe, “just by seeing the pattern.”
“I am not here to ruin your life, I am here to keep you from ruining the lives of others.”
Rothe did not respond to our attempts to seek additional comment. Micu claimed to have “text messages and witnesses to disprove Ms. Rothe’s allegations,” but declined to pass them on.
While much of this particular moment has been about sexual abuse, it’s hardly the only ways game developers are alleging unfair victimization. Last Tuesday, developer Tony Coculuzzi said he was “abused to the point of depression and suicide” during two years spent working under creative director Ken Wong at the studio Mountains. At the time, Mountains was developing the highly celebrated Florence, an interactive story about a relationship ending.
“My body literally stopped functioning because I couldn’t handle the daily abuse I’d received from him at work,” Coculuzzi tweeted. “I tried to blame this on silly things like ‘oh maybe I’m not used to the flu over here’ but I knew the real reason, I just didn’t want to admit it to myself.”
Coculuzzi doesn’t work at Mountains anymore, but producer Kamina Vincent does. She was the first person hired at Mountains, and thus the first person to work under Wong, too.
“There were things I would never want anyone to go through, and I never want to be in that situation again,” she said on Twitter. “The relationship Ken and I have is very different now. It’s not always perfect, we’re two very different people. We have both worked hard to get our communication to where it is today.”
Wong later issue a public response to Coculuzzi. The same statement was released to VICE Games.
“There are a lot of things I should have done better or differently during that time,” said Wong. “I wish I’d found kinder ways to communicate. I wish I’d shown my teammates more appreciation. I could have worked harder to build trust and empathy. This was my failure as a leader and as a coworker. To the person who wrote the thread and to the other people I’ve hurt through my career: I’m sorry.”
Coculuzzi didn’t find much solace in Wong’s statement, arguing it was an apology “to save face” and “a way to shrug off responsibility.” When asked for more specifics in a follow-up, Wong said he would need to speak with a lawyer.
Vincent, who said she “curled up and cried” this week over Coculuzzi’s allegations, said Wong has “changed and grown” and “Mountains is more than just Ken.” Though she has personally forgiven Wong for what happened between them in the past—the specifics of which Vincent did not publicly disclose and declined to share privately—said it “does not mean that others have to do the same and I do not want to diminish their experiences.”
“There were things I would never want anyone to go through, and I never want to be in that situation again.”
Everything above comes after the three allegations reported on last week, allegations whose consequences and impacts remain ongoing.
Jeremy Soule, a composer best known for his work on The Elder Scrolls, was accused of rape by independent designer Natahlie Lawhead and threats of professional retaliation for turning down sexual advances by vocalist Aeralie Brighton. Since the allegation, Soule told Kotaku the rape allegation was “false” and that he was “shocked and saddened that these outrageous claims.” As for the Brighton’s allegation, he “didn’t agree with her point of view.” Kotaku had an opportunity to review a transcript of sometimes flirtatious and sexual text exchanges between Brighton and Soule, which they said “paint a complicated picture of their relationship.”
Inspired by Lawhead, designer Zoe Quinn alleged Night in the Woods developer Alec Holowka of ongoing abuse, including keeping them captive in his home and being “mean and violent” during sex. Over the weekend, it was revealed Holowka had died by suicide.
Prior the other developers behind Night in the Woods had said they believed Quinn, and were “cutting ties with [Holowka].” A game in development, presumably being made in collaboration with Holowka, was cancelled.
Celeste designer Matt Thorson used Holowka as a composer on a previous game, TowerFall, and once lived with him. Thorson said they believed Quinn and admitted they were “shocked by her account” but not surprised by it. Albertine Watson, a designer who had been working with Holowka on another project, shared her own experiences, alleging “insults and hurtful moments [by Holowka]has eroded my confidence as a new game developer.”
Holowka did not publicly respond to any of the accusations made against him before he died this past weekend. Splash Damage programmer Luc Shelton, has not commented on allegations made by a woman named Adelaide Gardner, who claimed Shelton assaulted her in 2018, but Splash Damage said it was “aware of the matter and take[s]it very seriously … you should also know that the employee concerned denies any allegations of wrongdoing.”
Shelton may, in fact, never say anything. A callout or allegation, however credible, does not necessarily result in consequences. There is no clear path forward, and catharsis is not justice. This is unlikely to be the last time the video game industry goes through a moment like this, a needed reckoning of its past and present to ensure a slightly better future.
That future will, on some level, be influenced by what’s happening now.
“I hope our communities and industry can figure out ways to make this better,” said Quinn a few days ago. “I hope people hurt can finally start to heal.”
Editor’s Note: Briefly upon publication, this piece stated Kotaku reviewed text messages between Soule and Lawhead. They were between Soule and Brighton. We regret the error.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, help is available. Call 1-800-273-8255 to speak with someone now or text START to 741741 to message with the Crisis Text Line. If you need someone to talk to about an experience with sexual assault or abuse, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673), where trained staff can provide you with support, information, advice, or a referral. You can also access 24/7 help online by visiting online.rainn.org.
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