Alice Mercier isn't the real name of the games industry veteran that reporter Josh Mattingly harassed on Facebook. She isn't willing to give her real name, at least not publicly; she's afraid of the professional repercussions. This is a theme that will come up again and again over the course of our interview, and every subsequent conversation: weighing the toll of harassment against the cost of confronting it.
Last week, an abridged screencap of Mercier and Mattingly's Facebook conversation made its way around social media and then gaming news sites. It's shocking and uncomfortable to read: a stark illustration of the kind of treatment of women in the games industry that gets glossed over or discussed in general terms, but rarely gets exposed in so raw and ugly a form.
Mattingly asks Mercier—her name and face blurred out—for a lead on a project in development at another studio. They make some polite small talk. And then, suddenly, he starts offering to kiss her vagina. She tries to steer the conversation back on track and ignores his sexual comments; he escalates them.
Eventually, she signs off without a goodbye; several hours later, he sends an offer for oral sex so graphic that it's blurred out of the initial thread that circulates.
Mercier is a friend of a friend, which is how we have come to be in touch, and why she ultimately agreed to talk to me. So far, she's existed as a figment: a blurred-out name and portrait in a Facebook thread. Mattingly has said his piece in a blog post in which he apologized publicly for what he said. Mercier's words, thus far, have been limited to the original exchange on Facebook, to those careful attempts she made on the night of January 18 to deflect Mattingly's increasingly explicit advances.
When we finally talk, I'm struck immediately by how much Mercier feels obliged to qualify. Without asking, I learn how she dresses for work and professional events; how she acts in professional contexts; the image she strives to project; her boundaries for friends and friendly acquaintances and colleagues. She also tells me, unprompted the exact scope of her previous contact with and relationship to Josh Mattingly leading up to the conversation where he told her repeatedly and explicitly what he'd like to do to her vagina. She's seen the comments on Mattingly's apology post, and she's acutely aware that, in the court of public opinion, it's she, not necessarily Mattingly, who is on trial.
"I know there were people saying that I was leading him on, or that I should have shut it down," Mercier tells me. Anonymity has let her follow the conversation around the Facebook thread as it unfolds. Few of her peers know whom they're discussing.
Mercier: "It gets difficult, because you're in shock, and your brain isn't really thinking, 'I am going to tell this guy that this is not appropriate.' It's more of 'I'm just going to ignore this and hope that it gets dropped.'"
"Even right now, my mind is still blown over it," Mercier says, then pauses. "I've had people in this industry say things to me, but I don't know what it is—that one in particular just really threw me off."
She goes on: "It gets difficult, because you're in shock, and your brain isn't really thinking, 'I am going to tell this guy that this is not appropriate.' It's more of 'I'm just going to ignore this and hope that it gets dropped.' Because, you know, there was the original intent to his conversation, which was trying to get information about another studio and their game—which I legitimately know nothing about—so it was more of, 'okay, well, I don't want to be rude. I don't want to potentially burn a bridge here, because what if there's a future where I need that press contact, or a professional relationship, and the industry is so small?"
When I point out the irony—that, of the two participants in the conversation, Mercier was the one worried that her behavior might burn a professional bridge—she laughs ruefully.
To say that most of the women I know in the video game industry have a harassment story isn't really accurate: most have more than one.
"As a woman in game development, I have only so much political capital to spend before I get dismissed as a chick, [as] crazy, hysterical, shrill, stupid, not a real woman, not a real gamer," one developer tells me. After six years in the industry, she says, "I've been soaking in it so long, I mistrust my own internal calibration."
Like Mercier—like every woman quoted in this article—she asks that she not be publicly identified.
Mercier herself has worked in the game industry for the better part of a decade. In that time, she's learned to police her own behavior scrupulously, to navigate a potential minefield of sexual comments and predatory behavior and keep quiet for fear of being labeled a problem.
At a gaming convention, one professional acquaintance cornered her into an extended and increasingly sexual hug. "I'd be thinking, 'please let me go,' but then there were a bunch of people around me, and the people that were around were people I'd be interested in working with, who worked for companies I'd love to work for," she tells me. She remembers what she told herself: "Try not to make a scene, because you don't want to be 'that girl,' and you don't want to ruin the overall mood."
"That girl" is the bogeyman, a cautionary tale to keep the ladies in line. "That girl" is the woman who is iced out for speaking up and ruining everyone's fun. I hear about her from almost every woman I interview.
Are Mercier and Mattingly friends, as he's claimed? They've met in person twice, she says, both times at professional events. Mercier works in a public-facing position at a developer; her job involves cultivating and maintaining friendly relationships with members of the press—people like Mattingly, who was founder and CEO of the indie gaming website IndieStatik. (According to a January 22 statement by IndieStatik, Mattingly has at least temporarily stepped down from that position in light of his actions toward Mercier.) They'd stayed in loose touch, followed each other on Twitter, had talked about getting together for a group board game night that never materialized.
Then, on a Saturday night earlier this month, he sent her a friend request on Facebook. "I accepted," says Mercier, "and within a minute, he sent that message. I thought it was going to be 'Hey, thanks for adding me, how've you been doing?' Instead, it was 'Hey, what's up, do you know this studio? I will get down with your lady bits.' "
Video games are a prestige industry: a job market where supply is so much greater than demand that the primary currency of the industry is getting to work in the industry. Games professionals are notoriously overworked and underpaid relative to their qualifications, and labor issues are rampant.
According to a 2013 survey by Game Developer Magazine, women make up around a fifth of that workforce; they're paid an average of about 25% less than their male counterparts. At professional events, they are frequently assumed to be clerical staff or day labor. Online and at work, they face a gauntlet of harassment from fans and professional peers.
In an industry as fiercely competitive as video games, professional reputation and contacts are everything. Employment is uncertain and often project-linked. Massive layoffs are common, and the ratio of qualified up-and-comers to jobs is enormous.
In a machine where every part is backed up with endless potential replacements, no one wants to be a squeaky wheel.
"The code of silence is real, and it's very dangerous," writes one independent game designer. She's talking about Mattingly and Mercier, but also her own experiences with members of the press. "Why would a woman want to talk about abuse and harassment in an environment where her harassers are staff on game websites and her peers are jockeying for the same job as her? That's one powerful dynamic to contend with."
Sometimes, the danger of confrontation is more concrete: a group of women tell me about a team leader at a major company who they say serially and aggressively harassed the women he supervised, singling them out and isolating them from colleagues before he allegedly began to make sexual advances. They say that, when they confronted him or rejected his advances, as all ultimately did, he began to systematically undermine their careers, cutting them off from opportunities, leaving them out of critical e-mail threads, or simply ignoring them entirely.
"It still makes me sick to think of how many young women left the industry, an industry gasping for more female contributors, because of this one guy," one of the women he allegedly harassed tells me. Frightened for their jobs, she and several colleagues finally compared stories and collectively went to HR. They say that their harasser was fired but that he got an equivalent job—again, in a managerial position—at another company. The women who reported him, meanwhile, tell me they were banned from discussing the case.
There are things you learn, when you're a woman in the game industry, that do not appear in training manuals or HR handbooks: how to grit your teeth and keep your head down and keep moving; how not to be a buzzkill or a squeaky wheel; how to deflect without confronting. You learn the same lessons that women learn everywhere, reformatted for a professional context: that it is your responsibility to anticipate and absorb a continual stream of microaggressions and outright abuse. Harassment is so common and so thoroughly normalized that learning to dodge and absorb it becomes as routine as carrying an umbrella.
"I have had to go through it so much that I start feeling that it's never going to change, and you shouldn't expect it to change, so if you kind of roll with it and just don't make waves, maybe it'll make things easier for you," Mercier tells me. She recalls a professional event, to which she brought a friend and now-former colleague who was interested in moving into the field of one of the party's organizers. As they were saying goodbye, he tried to convince Mercier's friend to come to his hotel room then and there for a "private interview."
"I profusely apologized afterwards," Mercier says. "I felt responsible, that I had brought her to this. I was the reason they had crossed paths. I told her, 'I am so sorry that this happened.'" She'd never seen the host do something like that before. But, she thought, she should have anticipated it all the same. After all: she knew what kind of things happened at industry parties.
"I can't do that anymore," Mercier says. "I just can't."
That's why she assented when the friend she'd vented to asked for permission to post the conversation publicly (with names and photos blurred, and identifying details removed)—and why she agreed to this interview. "I felt it was important that I begin standing up for myself and let this incident be known," Mercier says—even if she can't do it under her own name.
Mercier is in her early 30s. She has been gaming since before grade school; she can't remember a time before she wanted to make video games. "It's a medium I seek solace in during tough times, [one] that has provided me with a lot of joy and treasured memories, and one that—despite the unfortunate negatives—I'm immensely proud to be a part of," she writes in an e-mail. She won't talk about her current job; she's concerned that any details in connection with it could be used to identify her, or follow her back to the office.
Mercier: "I felt it was important that I begin standing up for myself and let this incident be known."
This is as much as she'll tell me: "There are really amazing people in this industry that do not behave in this manner—of either gender, any orientation. But it's not an isolated incident. It still happens, and it happens frequently enough that it is an issue."
After almost 10 years, Mercier is tired. "I've even been thinking about getting out of the industry as a whole, which would just be absolutely crushing for me, because it's something I've wanted to be a part of my entire life, but I just—It's worn me down a little thin."
Mattingly's recent apology was long and apparently sincere. He cited a brother's suicide and subsequent struggles with depression and substance abuse. He broke down where he screwed up and described what he would do to fix it.
What he hasn't done, so far, is contact Mercier directly. She hasn't heard from him since he capped off a graphic description of the oral sex he wanted to perform on her with a blithe "hope you have a great Sunday!"
Mercier mentions this offhand in the same e-mail she sends to let me know that she's sent my editor the identity confirmation he requested—and to confirm, once again, that when this goes live, it won't include her real name.
Rachel Edidin is a writer, editor, and publishing consultant. She hangs her digital hat atracheledidin.com; with frequent forays to Wired.com, where she covers arts and pop culture; and Twitter, where she has opinions about superheroes as @RaeBeta.
Top graphic via Shutterstock.