The videogames industry is having its #MeToo moment, and the backlash against it has been fast and brutal. Developers and creators are bravely going public about decades of exploitation, including at the hands of respected figures who have contributed to beloved franchises. The response has been moral outrage—not that there’s an epidemic of men hurting women and covering for each other, not that sexual harassment has been tacitly tolerated within the industry, but that women have the gall to complain.
By now, women and queer people know how much it costs to confront male violence. The developer Zoe Quinn, who has already faced some of the most poisonous online harassment as enemy number one of Gamergate, went public last week about the extensive emotional and sexual abuse they suffered at the hands of their former partner, developer Alec Holowka. (Quinn uses they/them pronouns.) Others, including Albertine Watson, also came forward about Holowka’s behavior. Like Quinn, and like most people who have been subject to physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, they had thought they were the only ones—until someone broke their silence.
Holowka’s colleagues on the popular game Night in the Woods were quick to cut ties with him. “Enough of the allegations are extremely plausible and just about all of it we’ve corroborated with other sources,” wrote Scott Benson on the game’s Kickstarter page. “I’m not going to list those out here, this isn’t a trial, and we don’t /owe/ the internet a comprehensive accounting of why so many people who have known Alec for years have looked at the accusations and believed them.”
Then, on Saturday, August 31, Holowka took his own life. This is a tragic story for everyone involved: for Holowka’s family, for his coworkers, and for the women he allegedly victimized over the years. Nothing has been proved in a court of law, but Holowka’s colleagues were quite clear that they find the allegations credible. “Those who know me will know that I believe survivors and I have always done everything I can to support survivors, those suffering from mental illnesses, and those with chronic illnesses,” wrote Eileen Holowka, Alec’s sister, in a post announcing the death of her brother and “best friend.” “Alec was a victim of abuse and he also spent a lifetime battling mood and personality disorders. I will not pretend that he was not also responsible for causing harm.” Eileen Holowka added that “in case it’s not already f****** obvious, Alec *specifically said* he wished the best for Zoë and everyone else, so don’t use our grief as an excuse to harass people.”
The family’s wishes have been ignored; the backlash against Quinn and others has been relentless. According to the logic of an army of concern-trolls, Quinn has blood on their hands. They should have taken Holowka’s fragility into account before “ruining his life.” They are worse than a murderer. Quinn deleted their Twitter account after a barrage of harassment and threats, many of them from people who consider Quinn’s chief crime “inciting harassment.”
The scale of hypocrisy here is so staggering it’s almost impressive. People, often young women, who dare to speak up can expect to face public harassment and private retribution. Young women can expect to be punished for the crimes men commit against them—but if they dare to speak up, they are the ones who are “ruining lives.”
The response to the death of Alec Holowka throws this double standard into razor-sharp relief. The harassment of Quinn and others has nothing to do with concern for Holowka and his family and everything to do with making examples of women and queer people who dare to speak out. The message is clear: Men’s mental health matters more than women’s. Men’s suffering and self-loathing is treated as a public concern, because men are permitted to be real people whose inner lives and dreams matter. Who cares, then, how many women they destroy along the way?