An E3 Teachable Moment

Erin and I went guerrilla this E3. We had no badges, no space to show our games. We drove the 6 hours from Phoenix to LA, strolled in to the unbadged middle hall, moved tables we weren’t supposed to move, and started emailing journalists to come check out Scale and Gravity Ghost.

We had a blast, saw lots of friends, and got lots of great press coverage. Only one incident in our trip stands out as negative, but I think it adds a little bit to a discussion we finally seem to be ready for.

After the show was over each day, we hit whichever parties we could find, including a Steampunk todo at a fancy club. The music wasn’t really my taste and, as always, was too loud for casual conversation. We made our way to a middle room where things were chill and quiet. Soon enough we had laptops out and were demoing our games for the new people we had met. Fun times. I was demoing Scale to new friend Penny. Erin was next to me demoing Gravity Ghost to some other interested folks. As we were chatting design and wrapping up, we were interrupted by a loud, slurred voice.

“WHAT IS THISH GAY SHIT! Why are you looking at that gay indie shit?”

A drunk bro blundered into Penny’s personal space, his breath reeking of booze and loneliness. Let’s call him Dudebro. Penny – who is awesome – was having none of Dudebro’s shit.

“Hey! This is my boy Steve and his game is awesome! What games do you work on?”

“I work on REAL GAMES like *multi-billion dollar shooter franchise*.”

“Yeah, you look like you work on *multi-billion dollar shooter franchise*.”

I had to surpress a laugh. Was this guy for real? Anyway, she sassed him good. All he could muster was “Awww come on…you’re so mean…”

Penny then made him apologize to me for talking shit about my game, which was hilarious and great. I packed up my computer and started to move off. Dudebro was still trying to hit on Penny but she could clearly hold her own so I didn’t intervene. Eventually, she extricated herself, and we carried on chatting with friends.

Unfortunately, Erin was the next closest female in the doucheradius. Within seconds she tapped me on the shoulder. Dudebro had his hand wrapped around her hip and was leering over her. NOPE NOPE NOPE. No longer funny. I saw red. Then I put myself between him and her as quickly as possible, right up in his face. Not touching him – that’s assault – but in a way that made him visibly uncomfortable. Guess it’s not that awesome having a large, imposing person leering over you. I decided against saying ‘hey, that’s my girlfriend’ and instead went with a shouted “YOU DO NOT TOUCH A WOMAN WITHOUT HER PERMISSION.” I figured that was a more valuable long-term lesson.

He tried to weasel out of it, “What, touch her glasses?”

“I SAW YOU WITH YOUR HAND ON HER HIP, YOU DO NOT TOUCH A WOMAN WITHOUT HER PERMISSION.”

He had no interest in continuing to deny that he’d touched Erin or in continuing this very uncomfortable face-to-face conversation with a large, angry, completely sober man. So, off he went, tail between his legs, slinking through the crowd. Hopefully there was at least a moment of reflection there.

From my perspective, I’m glad I was there to intervene when it was necessary. I have no hesitation in doing so because I’m lucky enough to be a fairly large dude. From Erin’s perspective, this encounter looks a lot different, a lot creepier, and a lot scarier:

I’ve had my share of creepy experiences at conferences. I’ve never discussed them publicly, but I decided to write this after reading about similar experiences from other women at E3. I can only speak for myself, but to me it seems there’s a pattern to these accounts: the aggressors get away with it way more often than they should. We’re an industry of problem solvers and system designers. I think we can improve this.

I was showing my game Gravity Ghost at a bar at a WIGI (Women in Games International) event at E3. Things were going great. Tons of people were gathered around asking questions, asking to play, loving the game. I was having a wonderful time.

People had been playing the game all night. Since it was a bar, it was crowded and people were jostling around. At one point I felt someone standing very close behind me. I tried to move away but somehow he bumped into me again. I turned and said something like, “Sorry, I’m clumsy. I haven’t even had anything to drink.” The man’s response was to wrap his arm around my waist and say, “It’s all right, we’re all drunk here.” The way he had moved into my personal space made my stomach turn. He pulled his face in very close to mine. His beer breath was overwhelming.

Still very close to my face he said, “Let me see your glasses.” I got angry and said, “Why?” And he said, “Because I think I need glasses and I want to try – ”

I said, “No, you’ll break them. No, no, NO -” but he used his other hand to reach towards my face anyway.

At this point I turned and tapped my boyfriend on the shoulder. Steve saw the hand on my waist and put himself between me and this guy and just laid into him.

The whole thing was over in seconds. The drunk guy was gone into the crowd before either of us had a chance to really think. Because I felt that at least he wouldn’t bother me again, it didn’t ruin my night and I kept running demos. I tell myself that next time, the drunk guy might think twice about behaving that way.

I was very happy Steve was there since the drunk guy was 1) physically much larger than me, and had a hand on me that made it difficult to move 2) would literally not take “NO” for an answer, and 3) and seemed very intent on taking my glasses (which are in fact prone to falling apart).

I could have yelled, of course, but that option isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. A common element in the E3 stories in the link above is that these situations are paralyzing. Say you’re a PR rep for a large developer. Would you risk your shouting for help (or shouting “GET YOUR HANDS OFF ME”) in a room full of clients and peers when there’s no evidence that you’re in ‘real’ danger? Trying to physically escape is also a roll of the dice, depending on how badly someone is prepared to treat you. They might laugh, they might follow you, or they might just grab you tighter and physically escalate, blocking your escape.

There is no easy solution to the powerlessness we feel when somebody decides to mistreat us. In all honesty, if the drunk guy had decided to grab my ass instead of my waist, I probably wouldn’t have written this because of the shame and the victim-blaming that comes with the territory. If someone wrote, “This never would’ve happened if you hadn’t been wearing glasses,” we’d all know they were kidding. I look forward to a day when any victim-blaming sentiments will seem just as absurd.

Powerlessness Paralysis

The subject of this article is people who harass, intimidate, and grope women at industry events. Thankfully, this is a very small subset of the game development community. These assholes make things worse for everyone, and it’s about time we admit it and get serious about changing the status quo. Luckily, there are a bunch of straightforward ways to stop them from getting away with it!

Kotaku’s article entitled “The Creepy Side of E3” includes a story from a female journalist who had a looming security guard “wrap his hands around her shoulders” in such a way that “he could easily have moved her.” To an observer these situations often appear friendly. The journalist then backed up, and he followed her. She backed up again, told him “Don’t do that,” and he followed her again. If you saw this, would you know it was unwelcome? Would you take a second look, or would you keep walking?

Plenty of women attend industry events. Even when they have their guard up as high as it could possibly be, people behave badly (I almost wrote “these things happen.” See how easy it is to minimize who is actually responsible?) Unfortunately there is no way of knowing who will behave badly will be until it happens. At industry events, it’s likely to be someone with authority: an executive, a security guard, a journalist, a respected indie developer, or a drunk AAA developer with lady issues.

The pressure for women to stay silent in these situations is enormous. From talking to female colleagues, I know it can be tempting to let these infractions slide. The potential consequences for confronting a creep can seem much worse in the moment. “What if he’s somebody important?” is a real concern, especially if you’re just getting started as a developer. I’m grateful to the woman who reported the creepy security guard, and I’m glad the involved parties took her seriously. This is not always the case, but it’s been my personal experience that conferences (and the police) are good about listening and acting accordingly. They’d much rather have you let them know than let things get out of hand.

Clearing up Misconceptions

1) For those who will suggest that the drunk guy was being socially awkward, that’s bullshit. It’s bullshit because the ‘socially awkward’ defense is a contorted way of shifting blame away from the perpetrator. Your actions are your own, regardless motivations or internal state. It’s also bullshit because this guy wasn’t socially awkward. I know socially awkward; we can smell our own. This guy was a creep through and through. He knew what he was doing and it seemed to me (unfortunately) that it had worked in the past. I suspect his calculated, ongoing attempts at “physical escalation” align with some of the worst, most rape-y advice given out by some of the most misguided people in the Pick Up Artist community. Awkward dudes: I’m here to tell you that pickup artist bullshit is NOT the answer. It only makes you creepier and less likely to experience real intimacy with another human being, which should be your actual goal. Take that energy and work at making yourself the kind of person someone would want to be with instead. Anyway, I tend to empathize with people so I have to think that a super drunk guy stumbling through a bar with no friends to stop him from being a complete tool doesn’t have such a good life going. Or things aren’t going well for him at the moment. But, hey, being sad doesn’t give you the right to touch people without their permission. That’s kind of why laws exist.

2) The flipside of the socially awkward argument is the ‘you are being too sensitive’ argument. “The guy was drunk, give him a break, he probably didn’t mean anything by it.” Even if that’s true, touching someone in a hostile or sexual way (or both) is illegal. If the harassment is verbal, that can be grounds for a restraining order. Conferences take these incidents very seriously, as do the police, as do lawyers.

3) If you think this is about a desire to be rescued, you are missing the point. The woman who reported on the creepy security guard did so on her own just fine. The point is this: those situations are always frightening, and having someone else step in and say, “Hey, this isn’t right” can be a real lifeline. With Dudebro, Erin would probably have been fine, as it was a public environment with friends nearby. Probably. But it was still incredibly hostile, and she shouldn’t have to put up with that kind of nonsense while she’s trying to demo her game.

I could write a few sentences here about how we should care about hostility towards ladies at game industry events because it promotes diversity. To create a welcoming environment so more women will join the game industry, why diverse viewpoints are good for the medium, and so on. That’s a nice side effect, but the actual reason we should care is because it’s right thing to do. No person deserves to be treated like garbage, regardless their gender identity, race, physical features, or sexual orientation.

Steps in the right direction

Rather than focusing on the particulars of this story, I think it’s important to see it as part of a bigger picture. We can’t stop all bad behavior, but harassment policies at conferences are a good start. Someone’s name is relatively easy to find out if they’re wearing it around their neck. They can and should be held accountable for their actions. If your event doesn’t have such a policy, there are some excellent free templates here. And here’s a great first-person walkthrough of how to report harassment at a conference.

So far Erin has convinced two large conferences to publicly display a harassment policy. We found out later that without that policy, conference attendees would have missed out on a fantastic lecture by a renowned speaker. The speaker’s first question after being invited to speak was “what’s your harassment policy?” It’s a change that has helped already!

Industry events spill beyond conference halls to bars, clubs, and restaurants. The incident I described happened at a bar/club thing. If the folks putting on the event posted a well-publicized phone number to call to report harassment outside the event, that would be excellent. It’d be easy to do, cost nothing, and make women feel more welcome and safe, and that their concerns will be listened to and taken seriously. These are simple, policy-based answers to complex social problems. A patch, if you will.

A Cultural Shift

Early in the anti-drunk driving movement, campaigns focused on victims. The tragedies caused by drunk drivers, the stories of ruined lives. To their surprise, they found that sad stories weren’t fixing the problem. The powerful idea that turned the tide was “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk.” Take your friend’s keys away, call them a cab, appoint a designated driver at the start of the night. Take responsibility. These things were about changing the culture that abetted drunk driving, and making the observers – not the drunk drivers – the key to the solution.

When it comes to harassment, it’s tempting to avoid responsibility. That’s bullshit. Whether or not we realize it, we are all in the position of power. There are more good people in games than creeps. The tide has turned. We’re in a position of power regardless of our gender, or the genders of those involved. No matter who you are, when you see something that doesn’t look right, you can act.

You can approach and ask, “Is everything okay?” or “Can I offer any help here?” If you don’t want to do it alone, bring a friend or even say to a stranger, “Hey this doesn’t look right, I’m going to ask her if everything’s okay. Can you keep an eye on us?” If you’re wrong, it could be a bit momentary embarrassment for you. But if you’re right, you could salvage a person’s night or their whole conference experience.

If you’re certain that what’s happening is unwanted, and you feel safe in doing so, you can step up and say, “What you’re doing is wrong and you need to stop right now.” This is riskier, as it makes you part of the conflict. But, hey, remember that one of the other people involved didn’t choose to be. You can let the aggressor know that their behavior is not okay, is not harmless, and will result in you continuing to focus attention on them. Unwanted physical contact from aggressive men happens all the time to my female colleagues. The last thing these creepy dudebro types want is for their actions to be scrutinized.

If you feel unsafe or uncertain about approaching a conflict, call the police. Or conference security. Or club security. That’s what they’re for. You don’t need to put yourself in harm’s way. Just be aware that these incidents are common and that you can do something about them. If we’re all aware and willing to act it’ll be the harassers and the creeps who are made to feel unwelcome. It’s time.

2 Responses to “An E3 Teachable Moment”

  1. JAW
    July 20th, 2013 | 7:26 am

    This is a really good text about important things.

  2. Cory
    July 21st, 2013 | 2:06 pm

    Really great writing. Harassment and mistreatment is difficult enough for the people experiencing it without ham-handed, paternalistic speeches getting bandied about as an easy band-aid to the problem. Feels encouraging to read someone talking about it so effectively.

Leave a reply