Opinion

Richard Lewis: The #MeToo movement has exposed our industry’s ignorance

by Richard Lewis

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Many times in the past, I have said that when the #MeToo movement gets round to the world of gaming and esports, it will burn through us like a bushfire. I wasn’t joking.

That is 15 years of frontline journalism talking, 15 years of talking to victims, and 15 years of writing about the worst kind of abuses that have gone on in our small corner of the sports-entertainment industry. Many of the abusers get to avoid consequences indefinitely. Most victims don’t want to speak about it publicly and ask you to respect that, which of course you do.

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If they give you the blessing to go ahead and write about it, you then need to be absolutely certain in the veracity of the claims, which usually means finding other people who have been preyed upon by the same person and asking them if they too will be willing to go public. After that you need to find a publication brave enough to stand up to the lawsuit that will at least be threatened if not actioned once it’s out there. When I had a piece ready to go about one of the worst offenders in our landscape in 2015, with cast iron evidence of his transgressions, I couldn’t find a single outlet willing to take the story or even investigate further themselves because of the company he worked for. Simply put, their war chest was too big.

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Before I get into this I want to add a couple of points that shouldn’t need to be said, but such are the times. Social media isn’t the place to have conversations like this, but it’s what we have and it’s where we do everything. It also seems stupid to blame the platforms because when all is said and done, we’re still the ones behind them.

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There is a sensible and compassionate way to handle such allegations, but it is imperative to keep perspective while you lend support to those who come forward. In the social media era, character assassination has never been easier and the pressure to act swiftly, before all the facts are gathered, is too much for some companies to stand up to.

It actually harms victims if non-credible or false allegations are given oxygen because they are used to discredit the people making them as “just another liar.” You can offer support to those making allegations and wait for further facts before rushing to righteous fury. False allegations are rare but the destructive power of this particular type of lie should give anyone pause for thought. No matter what anyone states, innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt is a standard that should hold in all aspects of society, not just a courtroom. It is a dangerous thought process to start eschewing the basic right to allow the accused a right to be heard because you believe doing so might allow a handful of guilty people to slither away with slick excuses.

Conversely, if you’re the type of person who will immediately leap to attacking someone who is sharing their story, perhaps because they implicate someone you are a fan of, then you need to check yourself. Ask yourself why you would do that and I guarantee, if you’re honest with yourself, you won’t like the answers. If it seems unbelievable to you that sexual abuse can happen at this frequency then I can explicitly tell you how wrong you are.

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In the 80s, my mother worked on a program called the Victim Support Scheme. It was an initiative that worked in conjunction with local police to provide a place where victims of domestic abuse, sexual assault, and rape could talk in non-judgmental and safe spaces. Often, to ensure safety, they would come to the house, away from earshot of their abusers. As a child, I would passively listen upstairs as these women bared their souls, the banality of evil seeping into my subconscious. There was never a shortage of guests.

Often after they had left, my mother would cry and hug me for reasons I was mercifully too young to grasp. It is a certainty that someone you know and love has been affected by this type of abuse, though you might not know it. Think about that before you rush to pour scorn on someone sharing their pain.

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At this time, I have also seen multiple social media posts that are laundry lists of grievances completely unrelated to the purpose of the #MeToo movement. For shame on those people, sucking the oxygen out of a room it is already hard enough to speak up in. The lack of respect it shows to those who have suffered these terrible experiences is staggering.

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Being a selfish or otherwise shitty person should not be equated to being a sexual predator. It seems easy to forget in these wild times that in the broad spectrum of human behaviours and interactions, everyone still has the right to be an asshole. You are not respecting victims by drowning out their stories of surviving abuse by telling us about the boss who made a shitty joke at an office party. Cut it out.

I don’t want to be one of the people sucking the oxygen out of the room. I hope I’m not. The words below aren’t coming from me. They are coming from my friends and colleagues down the years. They are the collective anger of the ignored. It is something too many of us know to be true and yet have tolerated for mostly selfish reasons. I am glad to see actions finally matching up to the empty words people have bleated on auto-pilot for as long as I’ve been here.

The esports and gaming industry has long been a petri-dish to see what happens when people’s base instincts go unnoticed, unchecked, and unpunished. It is a world that thrives on exploitation and its unprecedented growth has been accelerated by the bullshit pressed firmly all around it.

Twenty years ago, it was failed businessmen lying to kids with big dreams. These days it’s millionaires looking for fast deals and asset flips. No governing bodies, no specific laws and only a handful of people keeping check on the scum that flows through the unmanned turnstyles. Some journalists who should, in theory at least, act as a watchdog have either been asleep at the wheel or, in the worst examples, actively complicit in assisting some of the worst offenders.

They express more concern on ruining the lives of people who say things they don’t like, then using the platform to go after the real problems, most of whom are smart enough to cloak their depravity by continually signaling that they have the right opinions.

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There is a certain type of person in this industry. They know they are a big fish in a small pond. They know that it is both niche and yet aspirational for so many young people that they understand instinctively the power they can wield over them. Their influence can help you get to where you want to go, or it can be used to make sure the door of every opportunity you crave is slammed in your face. They’ll use it too. Why wouldn’t they? Who’s going to stop them? Who’s going to speak out and risk the industry blackballing?

So, just like those Hollywood Producers, they ask for the favour and it’s always the same proposition put to you. “Give yourself over to me. Sell your soul. It’ll be worth it in the long run,” followed by “You’re not making any friends in this business behaving how you are. I’m not someone you want to piss off.”

It’s the poison of endless sycophancy that twists the egos of these people past the point of anything reasonable. Between the boozy backslapping sessions, they are told every opinion they hold is a fact, every suggestion they make is a game-changer, everything they produce is a masterpiece. The bigger the compliments, the greater the chance they reciprocate, and where balanced people, capable of self-reflection and humility, would question whether or not they were really that great, these people don’t. After a while what was offered up freely becomes an expectation. Then the expectation becomes a demand. Sadly, the abused know all too well what comes after the demand isn’t met.

Maybe you stand firm and then watch as the game of telephone spreads throughout the wider community. “She’s a bitch. She’s a liar. She uses people. She has a drug problem. I heard she fucked someone for a gig…” You’ll spend your nights crying between trying to claw back your reputation, and guilt-trip yourself for simply not giving them what they want. Or maybe you slam down a few more drinks to make the repulsive advances less so and do it anyway. After all, we’ve all had terrible one night stands. That’s how you’ll have to rationalize it at least, desperate to keep words like “coercion” and “blackmail” from your thoughts.

Because, yes, these narcissists have the same level of expectation about sex as they do about guest lists, bar tabs, and accolades. They deserve it. They earned it. It’s theirs to take. It starts with an over-familiar arm snaking its way around you, a pull at the waist so everyone can see. You want to stay for the evening, but not like this. You try to leave. They follow. They ask where you’re going. They tell you it isn’t safe. They offer their room. They’ll sleep on the floor. It’s late. No Ubers. Maybe to make the protracted sleaziness of it all tolerable you had a few too many drinks. You relent.

As bad as they might be, they wouldn’t do that. You drop your guard and sleep. In the dark you can feel them, suddenly next to you, silent. Shock takes over. Paralysis. They do what they want and you lie there. Then it’s over. You watch the sun start to creep through the blinds. Time to leave. They wake up and greet you with a smile. They offer to call you a cab. They are polite and nice in all the ways everyone told you they were before you met them. For many, that’s the worst part.

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If that sounds familiar I am sorry. I’ve heard variations of that story so many times, I’ve lost count. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. You’ve read the celebrity stories about the abusers and the rapists. People who get their own way all the time tend to push the boundaries about what they think they are entitled to. Combine that with a culture of silence, the NDAs and pay-offs and litigators waiting in the wings, all of this means mostly their foulness is an open secret.

We try not to think about what it means when we see powerful women in Hollywood praise Harvey Weinstein. We try not to think about the “atmosphere of fear” at the BBC that prevented staff from filing complaints against Savile while public money enabled his perversion. We try not to think about Jimmy Kimmel laughing off Megan Fox’s on-air statement about how she was sexually objectified by Michael Bay when she was just 15. Mostly, we just try not to think about it, far easier to dismiss these happenings as aberrations, reducing the suffering to the collateral damage cost of entertainment.

The world of gaming, streaming, and esports has all merged to become a budget version of Hollywood. The people at the top make too much money too quickly and are fawned over by millions. The people at the bottom are expected to debase themselves one way or another to climb the greasy ladder. In the middle are a mostly silent majority, fakers who profess their belief in the inevitability of our success, yet secretly believe scrutiny will ruin us all. How quick they all are to speak up only when someone has the courage to go first and only when a consensus view is established. We have become an industry of greedy cowards.

If you work in this business and what is happening is making you uncomfortable, I think I know why that is. I think you might too. Ask yourself, when you were at one of these after-parties, when did you buddy up with a vulnerable colleague and decide you were going to take it slow for the night and look out for them? When was the last time you saw someone behaving in a creepy or sexually aggressive fashion and tell them to stop? After witnessing this behaviour, did you ever privately bring it up with an employer ahead of an event or reach out and encourage those affected to do the same? When was the last time you used your position to genuinely help someone in the same line of work as you? Not virtue-signalling on Twitter, not pulling a fake “nice guy” act on camera… Actually putting yourself out there to help someone and make them have faith that this industry is a place for them too?

Just thinking this way and acting on it a handful of times across your career could save people untold amounts of harm as well as expose bad actors and prevent them from using gaming as a conduit to hurt others. You don’t have to be a superhero. It’s not all about you. But you don’t have to be one of the wilfully blind either. You know this can be a great job. Right now, it can also be a fucking nightmare for people who want to be where you are. You shouldn’t feel good about that, especially because it’s mostly preventable. People just have to give a shit. All it takes for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.

I am horrified it has come to this. I am disgusted when I see the confessions from people we knew had done wrong only now getting a fraction of their deserved comeuppance. I watch their self-pitying exits from the scene and understand they have learned little except not to get caught. At least now they are gone, and I am torn between hoping more of their kind will follow or hoping this time it is the last of them. We can all play a part in making that a reality.