A Polygon article on the wider issue of developer harassment in the Games Industry has revealed that Jennifer Hepler, a senior writer on Dragon Age II and the upcoming Dragon Age: Inquisition, left Bioware this week to go freelance - after being at the centre of an internet abuse storm for her work on the series last year.
Hepler first came to the internet's attention when Dragon Age II released to decent reviews, yet also vociferous fan backlash against the game. The game's writing had drawn the ire of long time fans who didn't think the scope of the story and the characters matched with the wildly popular original, Dragon Age: Origins. At the same time angry fans dug up an interview Hepler had given to the website Killer Betties almost 6 years before the release of Dragon Age II. The original interview is no longer available on Killer Betties (archive here), but Hepler's old comments on video games as a writer lit the touchpaper to what would become a shameful act of harassment and abuse on the behalf of Video game fans:
If you could tell developers of games to make sure to put one thing in games to appeal to a broader audience which includes women, what would that one thing be?
A fast-forward button. Games almost always include a way to "button through" dialogue without paying attention, because they understand that some players don't enjoy listening to dialogue and they don't want to stop their fun. Yet they persist in practically coming into your living room and forcing you to play through the combats even if you're a player who only enjoys the dialogue. In a game with sufficient story to be interesting without the fighting, there is no reason on earth that you can't have a little button at the corner of the screen that you can click to skip to the end of the fighting.
Hepler's comments are innocent enough - as a writer it's not surprising that she would prefer the plot and characters of a game over the actual gameplay - but the timing of the 'discovery' hit the perfect storm of the backlash against Dragon Age II, and fans eager to find someone to blame for the games failures rapidly turned against her.
The reaction was immediate. Coining the nickname 'Hamburger Helper', fans proceeded to spew torrents of abuse and anger at Hepler - blaming her at first for issues related to the game such as changes to Dragon Age II's combat system (which as a senior writer she would've had no say on) and the quality of the writing, the rage quickly turned to making comments on Hepler's physical appearance, her gender, and ultimately threats on her and her family's life. In a since-deleted thread on Bioware's Fan Forums, the Bioware Social Network, one user described Helper as 'a Cancer' that was 'poisoning' the company:
I did my best to avoid actually reading any of it, so I'm not quite certain how bad it got.
I was shown a sample of the forum posts by EA security and it included graphic threats to kill my children on their way out of school to show them that they should have been aborted at birth rather than have to have me as a mother.
Weeks before the furore Hepler had created her own Twitter account, which was now bombarded with insults and threats from gamers across the world. Hepler and another Bioware employee, Aaryn Flynn, hit back at the abuse, with Hepler saying that her haters were "jealous that I get to have both a vagina AND a games industry job" - which only lead to even more abuse. In an attempt to stem the tide, Hepler ultimately deleted her Twitter account days later.
Bioware leapt to Hepler's defence, releasing a statement from Dr. Ray Muzyka, co-founder and then current General Manager of Bioware, as well as donating a thousand dollars to Bullying Canada, a local charity that helps young people who are victims of bullying, in Helper's name.
The abuse eventually died down last year, but ultimately, Hepler has left Bioware behind to write her own book about narrative design and become a freelance writer. Speaking to Polygon about her ordeal last year, she said that whilst the incident brought out some good, ultimately Fan-on-Developer harassment is a great threat to the Games Industry at large:
Games cost much too much money to focus on a niche market. To survive, they need to be such a broadly popular part of entertainment culture that you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn't play games. Women represent over 50 percent of the population, tend to be in charge of household finances, and are the majority purchasers of games (when factoring in games bought by women as gifts for husbands, children, friends, etc.). To indulge a community that is actively trying to alienate this powerful market segment (not to mention gay men, casual gamers of all types and anyone new to the hobby), is suicidal.
EDIT: I've changed the title and opening to this post after a long think about it - at first I struggled to fit the exacting details into Kinja's title-character limit, but that instead left me with a title that was admittedly more sensationalist than truly factual, and for that I apologise. I'd much rather openly admit the mistake that simply edit it and move along as if I hadn't made one.
As Hepler comments in the Polygon piece, her ultimate decision to leave Bioware at the moment is for family reasons. Whilst we could debate that the abuse she faced since Dragon Age II's release could have played a part in that, it's up to Hepler to say that rather than anyone else, especially me.