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The Truth Is Out There

Jennifer Hepler Did Not Quit BioWare Because Of Harassment, Plus Updates On Xbox Support

Yesterday, we started noticing traffic on a story from February 2012 -”Inclusion: What Jennifer Hepler’s Story is all About.” It was a while later we realized the traffic was as a result of a new story popping up saying the BioWare employee was quitting her job there as a result of the terrible harassment she received, including threats against her children. But here’s the thing, according to Jennifer Hepler herself – that’s not why she quit. This story just happened to bookend a week when we posted about another instance of video game related harassment so we’re going to fill you in on the latest for both. 

So what the hell happened this time? Hepler was interviewed by Brian Crecente of in what was a larger piece on something we know all too well – harassment in the video game realm. We actually posted a link to the Polygon piece in Things We Saw yesterday but after seeing how many sites were running with the flashy, yet utterly inaccurate, account of Hepler’s departure from BioWare, we figure it would be best to give the truth another bump.

“Jennifer Hepler left BioWare this week to begin work on a book about narrative design and do some freelance work,” wrote Crecente, “Her most recent job title was senior writer on Dragon Age: Inquisition. But it was Dragon Age 2 that led to the death threats, the threats against her family and children and the harassment.”

Polygon never inferred Hepler’s threat experiences (including those directly aimed at her children) led to her departure but thanks to particular wording in the UK’s Metro’s coverage of the story, that’s what everyone believed. Kotaku says this portion of the story was added to the article later for clarification:

When asked if the harassment led to her depature, Hepler told Polygon “No, leaving Bioware was for family reasons. I am going to be working on a text book on narrative design among other game-related freelance projects.”

Unfortunately, many sites ran with stories and titles which inferred harassment was the reason for Hepler’s departure. That’s unhelpful. Why? Because it sends a message saying harassment is an acceptable form of feedback, and because of stories like the one we ran on The Mary Sue on Tuesday involving a paying Microsoft customer on the end of some pretty terrible harassment from another paying customer and Xbox Support’s well, lack of helpful support in that area. After posting about Jenny Haniver’s story, other outlets picked it up and spread it so far, Microsoft finally spoke with Haniver. She’s been keeping dated updates on her original posting, the whole thing should be read, but here’s a portion from her phone call with them:

I also explained that I wish you would be notified if action were taken on a complaint you filed. She responded, “We do have a system in place where we will notify sometimes, feedback stating that an enforcement action has been taken on your complaint. The problem is is that when it comes to notifying every single person, there are privacy concerns and also concerns with retribution being taken if people are realizing that it’s specific complaints against a specific user, action has been taken. So we want to find a way to find a middle ground, where our customers can feel that they’re safe, and that when they make a complaint that we’re acting on it, while at the same time respecting the privacy of everybody on the service and not creating a culture where people are going to want to go ahead and file complaints for retribution or just against people they don’t like, or things like that. It’s hard to find that middle ground.”

She went on to tell me that my story was really helpful to them, “because it helps [us] mold a system that’s going to work really well”.

I was also informed that when I contacted @XboxSupport, they passed it on to the enforcement team (although I don’t know which contact was being referenced). She said, “Enforcement action was taken at that point. I can’t give you specifically the kind of enforcement action that was taken, but I can let you know that an enforcement team did act at that point. That’s not always going to be visible for you, it just kind of depends on what they did, and what kind of enforcement action they set in place.”

She said as well that she understood my initial concerns that action was not being taken, and my complaints were not being heard.

Regarding the Twitter team’s basic lack of any meaningful response, she commented: “I understand their policy as far as communicating too much, but at the same time, I completely agree with you in that it should have been very apparent from the beginning that rape threats are not something we tolerate. We want the service to be safe for everyone, and enjoyable for everyone. Now obviously there are always going to be people online and on the internet that are out there to cause trouble, but we want to be creating a culture where you’re able to report those people and feel like you’re going to be safe going forward.”

She continued, “I do want to apologize that, in this instance, you weren’t reassured of that. And you weren’t provided that confidence from us. Because even though we did take enforcement action, it doesn’t sound like we gave you that assurance. And so that’s only half of the job done, if we’re not reassuring you and making you feel safe going on to the service and playing. So I definitely do want to apologize for that, and let you know that we are receiving your feedback and that we are making changes going forward and trying to find ways to make sure that customers feel safe and see how we can reassure the person that’s putting forth the complaint, while like I said respect the privacy of everybody else.”

She emphasized that “…It’s pretty great to just be able to hear your story” and went on to say “it’s something that we need to hear, you know, I’m sure lots of customers go through situations and they never reach out and they never tell us, and if we’re not hearing it and we’re not receiving that information, then we can’t really improve.”

I think it’s a pretty great response from Microsoft but I hate that it took so much attention placed on one case to get it. Especially when you consider there’s likely thousands out there and possibly more going unreported. And wouldn’t you know it – while Haniver’s post had three comments before ours went up, it now has over 60, many threatening her (which she’s left up and pointed out for visibility). But Hepler at least sees how her experiences can turn into something positive. After her initial experience with violent threats, BioWare Community Coordinator Chris Priestly said the studio would be donating $1,000 to the anti-harassment volunteer organization Bullying Canada, and encouraged their community to also donate if they could.

“The outpouring of support I received — large amounts from female and gay fans — was incredibly heartening,” she told Polygon. “Without the negativity, I’m not sure that I would ever have heard from all of these people confirming that there is a need for characters that tackle touchy social issues, for characters who are untraditional or even unlikeable. It has definitely strengthened my desire to continue to make games that strive for inclusivity and that use fiction and fantasy to explore difficult, uncomfortable real-world issues.”

And considering her own children were brought into the mix, Hepler also told them she’ll be raising children who “won’t have that sense of entitlement where if they don’t enjoy a particular entertainment product they think it’s fair to attack the creators personally…I definitely try to make them understand that there are real people behind the shows they watch and the games they play.”

Don’t forget, if you say nothing, harassment on this level will continue, and people will continue to insist it’s normal. It’s not. If you say something, it could potentially have a big impact on helping toward a positive change in the industry as a whole.

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  • BabeWoreRed

    “Don’t forget, if you say nothing, harassment on this level will continue, and people will continue to insist it’s normal. It’s not.”

    THIS. Trolls seem to be explained away with a logic similar to the equally ridiculous and intolerable “boys will be boys” mentality.

  • Ashe

    Every time I hear ‘boys will be boys’, ESPECIALLY if it’s from a woman, I upchuck a little.

    It always seems to be used with negative behavior. Rarely positive. HMM.

  • Aeryl

    I am to a point where whenever I head anyone say that crap, I point out that they don’t have a very high opinion of men.

  • Anonymous

    Exactly. I have a husband, two fathers, a brother and a bunch of male friends who I am willing to bet life and limbs on would never ever issue rape threats or attack a woman for the audacity of workng wih games! Explaining awful behaviour like this as being somehow Y-chromosome related is a terrible insult to them and the vast majority of men who don’t behave like that.
    I for one have a much higher opinion about men.

  • Ashe

    I…really like that retort. I’m going to have to use it.

  • Killemalla

    Slightly off topic, but Dragon Age 2 BLEW MY MIND. Everyone in the game felt like people, some of them total jerks, some of them nice, most in between, but actual imperfect people. NOT CHARACATURES. Writing where you can get that feeling… I hope wherever she is employed in the future takes full advantage of her talents.

  • Anonymous

    Or boys, for that matter: “boys will be boys” implies that this sort of behaviour is somehow excusable for younger males, when surely the point is that it’s excusable no matter your age or gender?

  • Vian Lawson

    You know, even if it were normal (it’s not) it wouldn’t be acceptable.

    It sucks that girls and women have to keep insisting that abuse and threats are not part and parcel of gaming, (or having opinions, or speaking while female). Hopefully our daughters won’t have to.

  • Anonymous

    First off, hats off to you for reporting the story accurately and getting why accuracy matters. I got told off on the Metro article that I was literally supporting and enabling Hepler’s bullies by pointing out the misleading headline and that did just happen to sting a bit that someone preferred the fantasy of a woman torn apart by men to the reality that she could actually be capable of making major life decisions without ceding power to the losers.

    Also, an annoying side effect of this is now it’s very hard to criticize the writing she did on Dragon Age 2 without getting lumped in with the people who sent her death threats. I hated her take on Anders. I hated DA2 as a whole, but she was only a small chunk of that and really, the gameplay parts (the REAL crimes against gaming) were entirely separated from anything she could have possibly influenced.

    And I still wouldn’t send her a death threat even if she did. I might pick it apart on the internet, I might make a mental note to not make the same mistakes in my own work, and I might darn well make an active decision that I just didn’t like her writing and I might then choose to not purchase products she wrote. You know, the actions of a sane person dissatisfied by a piece of entertainment.

  • Vian Lawson

    I think that you are right that a lot of people want to feel Helper was broken, rather than that she continues to make decisions that are right for her. Sod them. I want to read her book.

    I didn’t mind DA 2, except that it was such a long, depressing drop in quality from DA1, except in terms of writing. I didn’t like what they did to Anders either; I could see the story reasons for it, but not the character ones. He stopped being a person, and became a plot device.

    But a lot of the writing – the framed narrative, the unreliable narrator, the journeying through time instead of space, the off-siders who had their own lives and problems, the larger conflicts and even the fact that ultimately you can’t “solve” them were interesting directions to take the game in. Not always successful, but interesting. Re-using the locations, for example, was (ahem) not successful, but it might have worked, if they’d bothered to make more than one cave/house/warehouse design. Going back to a place you know from years before has oodles of story possibilities; going into the same generic cave every time the story calls for one? Lazy, or cheap, or rushed game design. I think they have got the message on that one, though :)

    I wasn’t a fan of the fighting style because of the lack of opportunities for tactical play – in DA:O I mixed up the party and the tactics a lot and was the happiest of campers. DA:I? It was much less thinky and much more rotation based. But then, fighting isn’t my strong point; others may have found it to their taste. Also, thinky is totally a word.

  • Anonymous

    So, action was immediately taken, but because of their policies she didn’t know it was taken.

    So the thing she asked for was done, but no one told her it was done.

    So the thing she asked for was done, pretty much right away.

    So she got what she wanted, prior to the giant multi-site campaign.

    So Microsoft did exactly the right thing, but they didn’t tell anyone because of their policies not to tell anyone.

    I think we’re all glossing over the point… she filed a complaint, and immediate action was taken, but it looks SO much better to run stories like “Microsoft doesn’t care about rape threats” than to actually dig and get your facts straight.

    So now, that the facts are out, what’s the correction? Buried in an article largely about something else… no where did it say “we were wrong to post completely factually inaccurate information.”

    So basically, this (and other sites) are completely unwilling to do what they were asking of Microsoft (who did nothing wrong in this case), which is apologize.

  • Nat

    I think the problem was that there was no way to ensure that the complaint was being followed up on or was just sitting in a queue waiting to be addressed. So couple with feelings that such issues cause, XBox twitter did nothing but make the situation worse by being asinine (when a simple – If you want to follow up on a complaint filed, please go to or call xyz number to verify).
    A lot of client and customer service departments usually have *some* way of being able to track your ‘case’, bei it an acknowledgment email sent to you with a case # or what have you. So even though the policy isn’t to talk about it, well, no one was asking to talk about it, this user wanted to be assured that this was being taken care of and the way their CS is set up didn’t make that easy. So even though they did take care of it on the back on, on the front end they still have some work to do because (and I don’t know if you’ve ever worked in a CS position?) just reassuring a client that something is being done/acknowledging that something will be done goes a long way.
    Because harrasment like this is such a current hot button issue and people are actively looking at company policies for things like this, a certain amount of ‘transparancy’ would go a long way to affirming that Microsoft does have a firm policy and procedure in place. It’s all about making your users feel safe and knowing that there is a 0 tolerance policy in place — which is stated in the paragraph following that bolded bit.

  • Nat

    As I commented to another user, a certain amount of transparency and a reliable and easy to use ‘case tracking system’ would go a long way to helping with this. I think it’s unreasonable and unfair to expect such a lengthy apology for EVERY infraction — It wouldn’t be needed if Xbox’s twitter hadn’t been such a jerk about things. A simple answer of ‘please contact xyz to follow up on these things, we don’t have access to that information’ would’ve nipped this entire thing in the bud.

  • Jill Pantozzi

    We have no reason to post a correction or apologize because the information we had on the original post was correct. Microsoft wouldn’t comment on the case.

    And we still don’t know whether or not action was taken after her initial report via her Xbox system. She wrote: “I was also informed that when I contacted @XboxSupport, they passed it on to the enforcement team (although I don’t know which contact was being referenced). She said, “Enforcement action was taken at that point.”

    This is referring to when she took her case to Twitter after not hearing anything. And again, no one here ran a story which said, “Microsoft doesn’t care about rape threats”

    And as Nat mentions, progress still needs to be made. A system of letting users know how to follow up on a complaint or a way to track it, would go a long way.

  • Jill Pantozzi

    I think as long as your criticisms aren’t aimed at her as a person or violent, criticism is perfectly fine.

  • Vian Lawson

    Slightly OT.

    She said, “Enforcement action was taken at that point.”

    Is it just the tech writer in me, or was anyone else cringing at the use of the passive voice in this statement by MS? It’s the number one rule for writing an apology or explanation; active voice, or it sounds like you’re hedging, even when you aren’t. Not to mention the ambiguity; was the action taken when she contacted support, when it was passed on, or was the enforcement the act of passing it on? I could argue for all three readings.

    Slightly less OT.

    Hey, Princess? MS hasn’t disputed the timing of when they took action, have admitted the shortcomings in their reporting and discipline system, are looking into fixing them, and actually thanked Jenny Hanniver for coming forward, bringing the issue to light; they seem to me to be saying that they have benefited from the exchange. Apologies are warranted why, exactly?

  • Magic Xylophone

    I agree that the kind of trolling she received is completely unacceptable and repugnant, but as far as “saying nothing” goes… well, I think it might be best to limit mention of these putrid assholes to reports through official channels. In my experience, the more publicity trolls get, positive or negative, the more compelled they are to act out. Which is not to say that any of the people who have suffered this kind of harassment are “to blame,” just that widely repeating the insults and threats they get and admitting how much it hurts them is an inadvisable tactic when dealing with shameless, anonymous sadists.

  • Magic Xylophone

    INexcusable, I think you meant.

  • Anonymous

    Argh! Yes, absolutely, INexcusable in the second case. Nobody should be given leeway for this nonsense.