The return of Gamergate is smaller and sadder


The Discord server at the center of Gamergate 2.0 is, in some respects, like any other online community. While I was there, I observed people talking about their day, their jobs, and their interests. Its members streamed themselves playing Bejeweled and showed off their personal video game development projects. But one chat room over, the server was filled with racist memes, sexist and ableist slurs, antisemitic messages, and incitations of violence against women and people of color. And at the center of it all was one video game narrative development company: Sweet Baby Inc.

This growing group of people want to believe themselves a new incarnation of Gamergate, a harassment campaign started in 2014 that targeted women speaking out against misogyny in the video games industry. Back then, the harassers used obfuscating tactics, cloaking their oftentimes violent harassment in the veneer of legitimate complaint. Social media gave a platform to those “legitimate complaints” while the games industry itself remained largely silent, allowing the movement to grow into a many-tentacled behemoth that bolstered the ranks of the “alt-right” movements that plague our political landscape to this very day.

But this time, instead of assembling under the false banner of “ethics in journalism,” this new campaign has chosen “wokeism” and Sweet Baby as the focus of their grievances. The result has been a wave of bigoted harassment targeting marginalized developers, journalists, and gamers. On social media, the employees of Sweet Baby are subject to a deluge of death threats. Developers who’ve spoken out in support of Sweet Baby are faced with similar treatment, with several making their accounts private in an attempt to stem the tide of abuse. Journalists reporting on the story have become subject to the same harassment they’re covering. The resulting frenzy has been amplified by major actors in the right-wing media sphere, including Libs of TikTok, Matt Walsh, Ian Miles Cheong, and Elon Musk.

“The things they say in our inboxes is … the most evil stuff you’ve ever seen in your life,” said David Bédard, co-founder and COO of Sweet Baby, in an interview with The Verge.

The harassment campaign against Sweet Baby echoes the Gamergate movement of 10 years ago, once again targeting women, people of color, and journalists in the games industry. But this time, the events are playing out differently. Developers and gamers are pushing back, affirming that the kind of diversity these people rail against is here to stay. And after speaking with Sweet Baby employees and spending time with their detractors, it’s clear the goals of this harassment campaign are largely a reactionary backlash against trends in video games that cannot be meaningfully stopped.

“The things they say in our inboxes is … the most evil stuff you’ve ever seen in your life.”

Reklama

Sweet Baby was co-founded in Montreal in 2018 by Bédard, who’d previously worked in games marketing at Eidos and Ubisoft, and Kim Belair, a writer and narrative designer who’d worked at Ubisoft and Reflector Entertainment. The narrative development company offers services like script writing, story reviews, and sensitivity readings. “Essentially, everything that touches storytelling in games, whether creative or technical,” Belair said in an interview with The Verge.

The neo-Gamergate fervor surrounding Sweet Baby started with a Brazilian Steam user by the name of Kabrutus. In January, he created the Steam curation page called “Sweet Baby Inc Detected” (SBID), which, the page’s description explains, is “a tracker for games involved with Sweet Baby Inc.” According to an interview with Kabrutus in Geeks and Gamers, he believes Sweet Baby is responsible for “forc[ing] political agendas and DEI (the abbreviation for diversity, equity, and inclusion) into their games.”

Kabrutus believes that any diverse characters or stories in Sweet Baby games are the result of its employees exerting pressure on developers to make additions or changes they might not otherwise make. “I started noticing patterns in some games, like ugly women and male characters being weakened to make female ones look stronger,” Kabrutus said in Geeks and Gamers. The game that brought his attention to Sweet Baby was God of War Ragnarök. “I think anyone who played God of War III would find it really weird when Kratos decides to spare Thor and says, ‘We must be better.’ That simply didn’t fit the character.”

According to Kabrutus and the thousands of followers he’s recruited through his Steam group and Discord server, developers have no choice but to make these “woke” narrative changes. SBID argues that game companies are forced to add “wokeness” to improve their ESG scores — a measure of environmental, social, and governance considerations — if they want to land investors. SBID supporters also argue that Sweet Baby has coerced developers into making changes through fear, pointing to out-of-context quotes from the company.

The most widely circulated example involves clips of a talk Belair, a Black woman, gave at the Game Developers Conference in 2019. In it, she counsels developers to “terrify” their bosses with the “threat” of “cancellation” if their requests for inclusivity are not met. 

But a look at the clip’s full context tells a different story. It’s clear that Belair didn’t want developers to scare their superiors into inclusivity. Instead, she wanted them to enlist support from the employees — those on the marketing and community side — who stand to receive the most backlash from players if those concerns aren’t taken seriously.

In reality, Sweet Baby and other video game consultants are contracted by the studios to support the studios’ own goals. 

“They consult,” wrote Mary Kenney, the associate narrative director on the forthcoming Wolverine game from Insomniac Games who worked with Sweet Baby on another Insomniac title, Marvel’s Spider-Man 2. “They do research, pitch ideas, give feedback, and maybe even write scripts. But none of that gets into the game unless the core dev team agrees with it.” 

“Sometimes we’ll be brought in to just look at a project storyline to give feedback on it to find ways that it can better kind of align with gameplay mechanics,” Belair said.

Kyle Rowley, game director on Alan Wake 2, responded to a rumor on X that Sweet Baby was responsible for changing Saga Anderson, one of the game’s main characters, from a white woman to a Black woman. “It’s absolutely not true,” he wrote.

To date, Kabrutus’ curation list features 16 games, including Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, Suicide Squad: Kill The Justice League, and Sable. All the games on the list are marked “not recommended,” a rating that has nothing to do with the game’s perceived quality — one game on the list, Tales of Kenzera: Zau, doesn’t launch until April — but because of Sweet Baby’s involvement in the game’s development. SBID serves as a warning to like-minded gamers not to buy anything on the list.

“We’re just tired of seeing people’s creative visions being butchered in order to add something that’s not even necessary or asked for,” wrote Xynjy, a moderator for the Discord server, in a DM conversation.

The reality is game development, especially AAA development, involves contributions from massive multidisciplinary teams, and it’s actually quite difficult to attribute any one element to an individual or specific team.

“You wouldn’t ask a programmer ‘which part of this did you code?’” said Bédard. “The whole thing is a team effort, and it only works because everything fits to the other parts really well.”

It is deeply ironic that one of the group’s stated purposes is to rally against “forced diversity” in games when developers are often forced to make their games more homogenous.

“I have never in my entire career seen anyone pressure a developer to make a character more queer or less white,” wrote Christina Pollock, a veteran game developer. “I have, however, seen many instances of developers being forced to change their characters to be straight and / or white.”

Many other developers echoed her sentiment. “The anti-censorship crowd like to argue that developers should be able to make the game they want, without being told to make changes to please the market,” wrote Gavin Young, a developer on Rainbow Six Mobile. “Believe me, we’re trying: we put diverse characters in games because they represent our teams and our friends.”

Another common refrain from members of SBID is that they actually don’t care if a character comes from a marginalized background, so long as their identity isn’t the sole focus of their character.

“My problem with most media nowadays is that they include Black or LGBTQ characters without giving some thoughts about them,” wrote SBID’s Discord moderator. “But [they] forget the most important aspect of a character: [their] relatability and how [they] feel like a real person that you can meet in real life.”

But that need for character depth is the exact reason why developers contract with Sweet Baby. 

For their work on Alan Wake 2, Belair said, “We were specifically called to look at Saga’s story, [to look at] how it’s told, how [the developers] could better shore up aspects of herself, how her story reflects aspects of her identity, and essentially how to realize her as a fully human, fully authentic character.”

This lack of understanding about game development, whether intentional or not, belies the group’s true function — a convenient excuse for “anti-woke” reactionary gamers to indulge in racist and misogynistic behavior that’s typically shunned in online communities. “When I act racist, homophobic or whatever […] I feel free,” one poster wrote in the Discord. 

The arguments and discussions observed in the Discord and on Steam all harken to the reactionary right-wing movement that has dominated the political landscape since Barack Obama’s presidency. Then, as now, many young white men have grown increasingly alienated from a world they feel has left them behind. A supposed de-emphasis of white males in pop culture in favor of women, people of color, and queer people exacerbated this alienation, especially in video games. 

Statistically, white men still dominate the video game space in terms of who is playing, making, starring, and writing about games. But the landscape is changing. Companies are putting a greater effort in diversifying their games. Games media is more likely to call out when diversity is absent or done poorly, and the kinds of anti-social behaviors that were once the hallmark of gaming culture are becoming less and less tolerated. As a result, Kabrutus and his followers feel disenfranchised.

“We’re in an age where […] if you don’t want to see a BLM or a Pride flag in a game, you’re a bigot,” wrote a member in the Discord. “Where if you care that the women in games have big tits while there are giant, muscular, shirtless dudes, you’re a misogynist.”

In order to regain some semblance of control, the members of SBID have chosen to attack something that neatly represents their every grievance — a small company that specializes in improving a game’s narrative staffed in part by women, queer people, and people of color. “We’ll have to make sure Sweet Baby is actually dead before picking a next target to go after together,” wrote a user on SBID’s Steam forum.

Based on the time I spent lurking in their Discord, it became clear these people aren’t actually here to create meaningful change for their cause. Most are simply there for the vibes, rancid though they are. “I’m just here cause it’s fun, nothing’s gonna happen,” one user wrote in the Discord.

“I’m just here cause it’s fun, nothing’s gonna happen”

“[There are] lots of emotions and passion bottled up from being silenced for an extended period of time,” wrote another member of the Discord. “This [movement] is basically causing everyone to vent out their frustrations.”

That doesn’t mean the group is harmless. Ten years ago, Gamergate unleashed a wave of harassment targeting women, journalists, and people of color. It created the template for a kind of violent, right-wing internet culture that persists to this day. And the guise of “ethics in games journalism,” thin as it was, allowed the movement to shield its true aims. Since SBID to itself as the second coming of Gamergate, it’s important to apply the lessons not learned from the previous Gamergate and call this bigoted movement for what it is, loudly and vociferously.

Diversity in video games isn’t going anywhere, and the practice of hiring consultants to punch up narratives certainly isn’t going to change. Improving diversity continues to be an animating force in the industry. Xbox, Nintendo, and Sony have made DEI a core part of their business with commitments to diversify not only their workforces but their games as well.  

“DEI is a moral necessity until the people making games are a decent approximation of the world they are making games for,” wrote Sam Barlow, director of several award-winning games, including Immortality, Telling Lies, and Her Story.

SBID’s championing of developer “freedom and creativity” fails to consider the possibility that the “diversity” they oppose might actually be what developers and gamers truly want. It’s the reason studios hire companies like Sweet Baby in the first place.

And while this movement matters to Sweet Baby employees because of the harassment they’re receiving, in the larger context of the video game industry, it seems to be quickly fizzling out.

Steam has apparently taken some action against SBID. As of publication, the vast majority of the SBID’s Steam discussion forum — 100 pages worth of threads — have been deleted, and existing threads are currently locked.

Meanwhile, Sweet Baby’s clients are sticking with the company. “The studios that we’re currently working with have reached out and offered their support, saying like, ‘Hey, we see what’s happening online and just know we stand with you,’” said Chris Kindred, a narrative designer at Sweet Baby.

In an email to The Verge, Gregorios Kythreotis, creative director on Sable, wrote, “[Sweet Baby was] lovely to work with, extremely professional and easy going, they respected our creative direction and it was a really great experience. We’re really grateful to them.”

Mary Kenney, who worked with Sweet Baby on Spider-Man 2, called them “one of the finest in the biz.”

“I’m so lucky to have worked with that team. I hope to do so again,” she posted on X. “I hope asshats don’t drive out some of the most talented, passionate people we’ve got.”



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