Last Sunday, the popular ROM hacking resource website Romhacking.net rejected one fan’s Pokémon Crystal hack. While rejected hacks aren’t unusual, what was unusual was the reasoning. This fan hacked the game so that the Pokémon move “attract” worked on all genders, and it was rejected for being a “political statement” that would attract “SJWs” (social justice warriors). Since then, Romhacking.net has indefinitely suspended the staffer, but there’s still some question as to how this all happened.
Dr. Dos, a programmer and web developer, wasn’t surprised that it took a while for his Pokémon Crystal hack, which was his first ROM hack ever, to be reviewed by the staff at Romhacking. “The hack got uploaded in late March and the site lets registered users view the queue of submissions with upload dates being visible,” he said. “I got to watch as everything before my hack got processed, and then everything after. It was certainly easy to assume it was deliberately being avoided, but I gave them the benefit of the doubt and figured it might require somebody higher up to approve or something since it was a fresh account’s first upload.”
What did surprise him was the response he got once his hack was officially rejected. It read, “Sorry but this hack would ‘attract’ undesirable attention to SJWs as some sort of political statement which the site also does not allow.” The term “SJWs” is often used in a derogatory way to refer to people who talk about progressive issues; in this case, simply making a Pokémon move gender-agnostic seemed to apply. Dr. Dos was taken aback, and told Kotaku, “Gaming communities routinely get called out for fostering negative communities that push a lot of people away and cater to loud assholes, but I didn’t expect an official reason for rejection to use the term ‘SJW’.”
Romhacking.net, one of the biggest websites for sharing and downloading modifications of ROMs (files of old video games), hosts over four thousand hacks and has been in operation for over ten years. Within the community of people who like to hack old video games, it’s a big deal.
Dr. Dos posted about this on social media on Sunday. In response, Romhacking.net said on Monday that the staff member who rejected the hack had been “indefinitely suspended.”
“The staff member responsible for the rejection is not familiar with the politics of the day, and didn’t realize he used dog whistling language,” a representative from Romhacking wrote on Twitter. “He doesn’t hang out in the sections of the Internet where it is used, either sarcastically or for its intended purpose of being a hateful term. We deeply regret how this went down. We promise this mistake won’t happen again any time soon.”
Nightcrawler, the founder of Romhacking, told Kotaku via email that the organization as a whole did not stand behind the decision to reject the hack, that they stand with the LGBTQ+ community, and they want to make things right.
“As a group, we are terribly embarrassed and apologetic for the actions and words from one of our submission reviewers,” Nightcrawler wrote. “Our volunteer part-time staff members around the globe are often unable to make timely coordinated group decisions. Individual latitude is often taken as a result to keep the ball rolling with hundreds of submissions per month. Contacting us on the website (Help->Contact Staff) is important to both alerting us of problems like this and in resolving them. We do not have website submission support over social media outlets. We acknowledge the mistakes made here and will strive to do better.”
They also said that they’re taking this as an opportunity to put out a call for submissions for LGBTQ+ romhacks.
“We’ve carried such hacks since our first year in 2006 with Celes + Terra!” they wrote. That hack changed Final Fantasy VI to include a lesbian romance between Terra and Celes. “Let’s make this a call to gather up all the other completed LGBTQ+/SAGA themed hacks we can and proudly display them on ROMhacking.net!”
Dr. Dos’s Pokémon Crystal hack has also been resubmitted, and this time approved. He still has some concerns, though.
“Once I found out the person that rejected me had been ‘talked to’ my fears were: how many other hacks did they reject for being ‘too political?’” Dr. Dos wrote. “I’ve got enough of a voice on Twitter for these things to spread a little, but does everyone?”
Concerned fans on Twitter were also skeptical of the site’s public explanation for why this now ex-staffer used the term “SJW.”
“So he didn’t know what the term meant, but still used it as a reason for removing it?” one concerned person wrote on Twitter. “If this is true then who the hell was he referring to when he said that?”
Kotaku reached out to the ex-staffer who rejected Dr. Dos’ hack, but did not receive a response in time for publication.
It’s good to know that RHDN stands behind Dr. Dos and anyone who wants to make a ROM hack with LQBTQ+ terms. What’s frustrating is that it took such a public fuck up to get this staffer removed from the process, and that there isn’t a clear standardized method for accepting hacks at such a long-running site.
“I could’ve just not posted the e-mail and this person would still be deciding what gets approved/rejected,” Dr. Dos said. “There’s no real way for anybody outside of RHDN to know, so I do hope they have (or start to implement) some systems to better deal with a bad actor in the future.”