Full disclosure: Nathalie Lawhead and I are friendly acquaintances and mutuals on twitter.
Thanks to all who gave their input and help on this article. I want this piece to act as a springboard for future conversation. I welcome criticism and feedback. I hope you’ll agree that these are conversations we need to have.
On August 26th 2019, Nathalie Lawhead published a blog post detailing the sexual assault and worker abuse they suffered at the hands of Jeremy Soule. The game press’s response was quick and orderly. Currently the blog post has 199 ping-backs from many, many articles on the multitude of accusations that faced Jeremy Soule. The most prominently shared, at least on my twitter feed, was an article by Cecilia D’Anastasio with some help from Jason Schreier, published on August 28th, entitled “Two Women Accuse Skyrim Composer Jeremy Soule Of Sexual Misconduct.” Lawhead is non-binary. The headline was the first of many horrific choices.
Lawhead responded in January. This blog post has two ping-backs, both from Lawhead themselves. In this post, they outlined D’Anastasio’s interview process. D’Anastasio pressured Lawhead into disclosing details of their sexual assault. Though Lawhead was under the impression that these details were off the record and that D’Anastasio had only asked for them to cover legal bases, the final published article disclosed them in full. In response, Cecilia D’Anastasio denied this in a Twitlonger, saying that Lawhead put all of this on the record. Kotaku stood by D’Anastasio, only removing the details from her article after a three day negotiation with Lawhead. Afterwords, Stephen Totilo added a blithe editor’s note and empty apology to the bottom of the article.
Whether Lawhead actually said the details on or off the record is irrelevant. What matters is that they entrusted sensitive and traumatic information to D’Anastasio, believing that she would write a story that would warn others, highlight abuse in video game development, and provide evidence against Soule and other abusers. Instead, Lawhead was re-traumatized by the misuse of the information they gave. D’Anastasio wrote a highly salacious, gossipy article out the need for a good scoop. Lawhead’s account is a harrowing story of all kinds of institutional and personal forms of abuse, from casual misogyny and harassment to labor theft. Kotaku’s article highlights one “sensational” part, at the expense of Lawhead’s material needs and concerns. Of course, the relationship between journalism and its subjects is already fraught in capitalism. But D’Anastasio’s treatment of a sensitive story shows contemporary journalism’s most diabolical face. D’Anastasio sold Lawhead’s trauma for clout.
She has been rewarded. D’Anastasio has a job at Wired, helping launch a new gaming outlet. She won an award for gaming journalism this year, after Lawhead published her post. Meanwhile, her victim posts everyday about Kotaku’s treatment of them with little or no response. Additionally, their work does not get the attention it deserves. Kotaku would never write a story about Lawhead’s remarkable zine maker, especially not now. Their pain has been misnamed, marked, just another webpage on Kotaku’s endless stream of articles. There’s no room for anything else.
The fact is, we culturally value suffering over joy. Even when joy appears, it must come out of suffering. This shows itself in the way folks like Jason Schreier matter-of-factly report labor abuses and then breathlessly praise their creations. It shows itself in the headline of Cecilia D’Anastasio’s dreadful article: not “Talented Indie Dev Abused by Authority” but “Skyrim Composer Accused.” This framing matters. It is created by the material conditions – Soule is more well-known and better connected – but it also entrenches them. It matters that we frame the bravery of victims and survivors under the shadows of their abusers. It matters that we pay the most attention to the marginalized when they are harmed, and leave them alone when they attempt to build a life. It matters that these are the stories we are telling.
I do not mean to suggest that Kotaku or D’Anastasio or any other of the institutions responsible can make up for this with a heartwarming article or a headline change. Nathalie Lawhead’s abuse at D’Anastasio’s hands happened. It cannot be paved over with an editor’s note or vague gestures. Only real acknowledgement of harm and real change can make things right. Public apologies are not enough.
What happened to Lawhead is horrific. What makes it more horrific is that games journalism barely talks about it. Its coverage of gaming’s #MeToo movement marches on, and yet again, it leaves victims behind in its wake. If we aren’t asking what we can do to prevent other stories like this from happening, how we will restructure journalism to end abuses of power, and how we will let abused people speak up to help end their suffering and further their joy, what are we doing? It is frankly horrifying that Lawhead’s experience with D’Anastasio did not cause a sea change in how gaming outlets do journalism. It is horrific that those at fault have not even admitted wrongdoing, much less made an attempt to make things better.
The fact is, we do not have anything resembling an effective system of accountability and restitution in games. Nick Robinson still gets welcomed at industry events and runs a successful Patreon. Swery and Matt Conn get coverage of their games, without mentioning Matt Conn’s history of abuse or Swery’s constant coping for his friend. Even Phil Kollar, who thankfully has not made any real comeback, was quietly removed from Polygon. No public apology or transparent restructuring. Just absence.
All of these issues had, in one way or another, their day in the sun, but none led to structural, transparent change from those in positions of power. Polygon wished Nick Robinson well. Cecilia D’Anastasio and Jason Schreier left Kotaku for well-paying jobs. After the reveal of widespread institutional abuse at Ubisoft, many outlets, notably Giant Bomb, covered their press event as if everything was normal. Because there is no means of conflict resolution or accountability across the industry, those affected by the industry’s mistakes and malice are left to Twitter or Medium to put their story in the world. A more direct system of truth-telling and accountability must exist in order for things to get better.
Nathalie Lawhead’s story is one of many. I have focused on it here, because it is a haunting and open example of game journalism’s problems. There are more hidden stories I know; there are many more I don’t. We must help folks tell their stories and give them the means to help make change. It will require transparency. It will require redistribution of power. It will require widespread, institutional change. It will require time and thought and real conflict. But we need to have these conversations now, publicly. We need to plan forceful, deliberate, and pointed action. We cannot wait any more.