In March 2015, at a party at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, Megan Farokhmanesh met a developer from the respected studio Naughty Dog. As they were talking, she says, he asked if she “fucked all her sources like on House of Cards.”
Farokhmanesh, who had been working at Polygon since 2012, had just been promoted to senior reporter, but she had no idea how to deal with something like this. “It had never happened to me before,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do.” She didn’t report the incident to her boss, she said, and she only went public with the story a few weeks ago. (A PR representative for Naughty Dog did not respond to a request for comment.)
“It’s tough when you’re in the position of being a reporter because you need people to trust you,” Farokhmanesh said over the phone. “It’s hard to build trust without ‘playing the game.’” To her, that meant going to parties and having drinks with potential sources, situations that could sometimes put her in a vulnerable position. When she was younger, Farokhmanesh says, her willingness to “play the game” led to her having trouble seeing what was innocuous behavior and when someone had crossed the line into harassment. She also didn’t know who she could trust to take the incident seriously. “It’s sometimes hard to approach an older male boss,” she said. “I didn’t have other women to talk to.”
For a long time Farokhmanesh deliberated whether to speak about it to anyone else. “The goal is: ‘What is the best case scenario? What would make me happy?’” she said, trying to explain her thought process at the time. “The answer is ‘nothing.’ It shouldn’t have happened in the first place.” Last month, after reading the account from former Naughty Dog employee David Ballard, who said that he had been sexually harassed and that Sony’s HR had not taken his complaints seriously, she made the choice to tweet about the incident, which she described as cathartic. “When you see others speaking up about the harassment they’ve endured, it hits home about how widespread it really is,” she said. “I’m not exaggerating when I say that every woman I am close with has a story about sexual harassment or assault.”
These stories have become ubiquitous in recent weeks, as revelations about Harvey Weinstein opened up the floodgates and started a movement that has led to many women (and men) sharing their own experiences with harassment. But sexual harassment is not new to any industry, including the world of video games. One reason so many of these experiences stay buried is that victims don’t feel comfortable speaking up. Instead, they build private networks, whispering to one another about the men to avoid and the companies that won’t listen. Sometimes, they even warn one another not to go to HR.
A contractor at a large game studio, who asked that I not use her name, said that she had an inappropriate conversation with her boss in 2013. During a performance review, she said, her boss told her that she was doing well but also noted that she was “attractive,” implying that her looks were a distraction to the rest of the team. Although she doesn’t remember the exact phrasing, she knows that the conversation made her uncomfortable.
The incident left her confused and she went to HR. “The advice given to me was simply, ‘You won’t always get along with your bosses,’” she said.
She also said that male co-workers would frequently hit on her. “In one case, a very talented artist told me that he wanted to see me naked and repeatedly asked me to send him nude photos while I was at work,” she said. “He was a very popular and talented artist so I didn’t have the courage at the time to go to HR and get him in trouble, because a part of me still thought he was a cool dude… I was still trying to figure my own shit out with my career and he was also offering me advice so it was all very confusing for someone new to the industry.”
Now, the contractor said, the experience has left her jaded. Without the security of full-time employment, she felt especially vulnerable. “Unless the harassers do something super illegal, I think HR just wants to sweep the ‘minor’ issues under the rug and pretend it didn’t happen at the expense of the intern. It feels corporate and heartless and sort of tainted my view on working with larger studios with strong office politics,” she said. “To my knowledge, it is very difficult to get fired from [this studio] once you are hired on full time. I really doubt they would want to give up one of their own.”
The woman left this company once her contract ended but was asked to return a few years later as an intern. “I had always gotten along with the department that had asked me to join the team,” she said. “I really felt like they were trying to help me accomplish my long-term goals of becoming a creative artist in the industry, so I took the job.” Over the course of my correspondence with her, she admitted that despite her negative experiences, she’s still fond of this studio. “It might sound weird now that I have said a lot of awful things,” she said, “but a lot of the team I had worked with are a sort of studio family to me and I still keep in frequent contact with them.”
She said she’d warn other interns about potential harassment, but as the company hired more women in her department, harassment became less of an issue. “The more time I spent there, more female interns got hired,” she said. “I think once they hired more female interns, things began to change, because they did band together and that probably intimidated some of the men.”
As time went on, the interns began building their own support network, socializing outside work and forming their own groups on Facebook and Discord. “I didn’t really encounter issues with sexual harassment during this time and I do think it was because I wasn’t sitting off by myself like I had been before,” she said. “We all became close friends, sort of bonding with our internship status.”
Ultimately, it wasn’t HR that helped this contractor feel safe and comfortable at work. It was creating her own support group—a common tactic for women across the video game industry.
“Women talk, but not to HR. They talk in bathrooms at GDC, at happy hour after most of the co-workers have gone home, in DMs and safe spaces online and off,” said Elizabeth Sampat, a game designer and activist who has worked for PopCap and Storm8, in an e-mail. “Instead of reporting, you make sure to never go to a work function without a couple friends stuck to your sides… Instead of reporting, you quit.”
In March of this year, in response to an infamous anti-diversity memo that was circulated at Google, Sampat made a short game on Twine called 8 Vignettes From The Tech Industry, a nonfiction account of eight incidents of misogyny she has experienced in her time in the industry. One of these vignettes describes an incident during an exit interview with HR after quitting a job in the games industry. In the game, HR asks her whether she is leaving because of “the unpleasantness last month.” She responds, “Yeah, it’s because of the unpleasantness. How many people reported him for sexual harassment? And you did nothing. You know who I am. I can’t stay after that.”
Sampat is a survivor of abuse and an outspoken advocate for women in games who has spoken on the subject at GDC. When one of her workplaces protected someone accused of sexual harassment after several women reported him, she said she took it very personally. “Hearing that a place I loved was protecting abusers was one of the most painful things I’ve experienced professionally.”
“When you’re new, one of the first things you are taught by other women in games is HR is not your friend,” she said. “There’s no trust on the part of the victims, because they know they’re expendable; there’s no trust on the part of management, because they feel like a witch hunt is brewing.”
When it feels like HR isn’t on their side, vulnerable people in the games industry have to take alternative measures to protect themselves and their peers. One choice is to talk on the downlow, hoping a network of gossip can protect people from abusers. Another is to talk about it publicly, though it may pose a risk to their careers. Farokhmanesh told me that she’s not sure that publicly naming abusers will create an environment where people in the industry feel comfortable reporting abuse. She also said that being able to talk about what happened and to hear from other people who have been harassed was “healing in its own way,” especially because Ballard had spoken out.
“Seeing him speak up about his own experiences made me feel that I was less alone in this, and that it was okay to talk about what happened to me,” she said. “I wanted to talk about what happened to me for me, but I also wanted to let him and others like him know they weren’t alone.”