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 Polygon.com 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.