Thursday, July 31, 2014

Critical Failure: WotC Employed Toxic Harassers As Consultants On New D&D

Last week, I cast a spotlight on the newest edition of Dungeons & Dragons and praised the Player's Handbook for taking the bold step to have inclusive language on gender and orientation right in the handbook. I heralded it as a great step forward and said "Kudos to WotC."

I take it all back.


The blog Fail Forward details how beneath the positive press for its inclusive language, the latest edition of D&D also counts among it consultants two men that have a long history of engaging in harassment, homophobic and transphobic behavior: RPGPundit and Zak S.
Seeing their names there in black and white was just too much, and people began to speak out. Most did so in private, others posted publicly but without naming names. This, I became aware, was because anyone who criticized the pair found themselves subjected to harassment, abuse and real world stalking... This is where Zak excels. He has in the past posted lists of people who he feels have displeased him in some way, complete with their real names. Those people then lists find themselves subjected to sustained campaigns of harassment.
While this behavior is alarming, it the choice of victim that is the most telling. These attacks nearly always target women and LGTBQ individuals, mostly freelancers and independent designers. Zak and Pundit have taken pains to defend themselves against accusations of transphobia, but I know several trans people who their fans have attacked and harassed. Zak described one of them as ‘mentally ill’, both he and Pundit told others they would be better off committing suicide. Recently, in a post defending Zak and accusing his detractors of misogyny, his girlfriend attempted to out a trans designer.
The anonymous tumblr Problematic Tabletop started cataloging some of their more public behavior. Fresh waves of hate mail forced designers to delete and hide social media accounts to escape. At the same time Zak put his setting book on sale, using promotional quotes consisting of people calling out his behaviour. This was not unusual, Zak’s business model revolves around publicly being a jerk. He is, quite literally, a career bully. 
Eventually, Mike Mearls, the lead designer of the newest edition of D&D, asked for people to come to him privately with any stories of harassment on the part of Zak S. and the RPGPundit had engaged in. Days later, Mike Mearls said that he considered of the claims didn't matter, because he couldn't find any evidence of either man using explicit slurs, so the matter was closed as far as he was concerned.
 Meanwhile, Zak was publicly speaking on Mearls’ behalf, saying that WOTC had found the claims against him to be baseless. Those who sent Mearls information began to panic, had he just shared their complaints with their harasser? Mearls responded that he had told Zak the claims were baseless, but hadn’t shared any names or details with him. Nevertheless they were not pleased, nor did they feel safe. Why had Mearls consulted with Zak before replying to them? Why was it more important to re-assure Zak he was in the clear than respond to allegations of harassment? Mearls again replied, saying that he was not taking the accusations seriously because some of the people stating them were members of the Something Awful forums... Meanwhile, The RPG Site, operated by someone Mearls hired as a consultant, currently contains such topics as: “Bruce Baugh can go fuck himself with a rusty spoon”, “Why I dislike feminism” and a thread defending the use of the word ‘Jap’ in WW2 settings...  
In investigating this story I heard the same tales over and over again. The RPG community is small enough that almost every woman, person of colour or LGTBQ individual seems to have had a run in with Zak or Pundit. The only reason I hadn’t heard about this before is because they are too afraid to speak out. Discussions happen in private, or with the names left out, because both Zak and Pundit are infamous for googling their own names and attacking their critics. Zak even now tries to portray these allegations as prudish conservatives out to smear him due to his involvement in pornography. Yet for that to be true almost every marginalised voice in the RPG community would need to be part of a secret right wing conspiracy. At a certain point you have to accept that that is implausible.
WotC has not made a public statement on the matter. All communication has been through private emails and a now-deleted G+ discussion. It's been nearly a month since this brought to light. WotC has been content to soak up praise and admiration for using inclusive language, but wants to dodge responsibility for using two poisonous people as consultants for that same new edition of D&D.

You don't get to have it both ways. Inclusive language has to accompany inclusive behavior-- otherwise, you're doing nothing but paying lip service with empty words.

Shape up, WotC.

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