Dead Island shitstorm: even if it was a “private joke”, it’s still not okay

So there’s been a bit of a controversy surrounding the accidental release of a debug build of Dead Island on Steam and the discovery of a skill called “Feminist Whore” buried in the code of said test build. I’m not going to waste too much space summarizing the incident, so if you have managed to avoid the internet shitstorm thus far, the Escapist has a pretty good summary of what exactly happened. Go read it. I’ll wait.

… okay. Amusingly, I’m feeling a bit vindicated about some stuff I said about Dead Island after watching the E3 pre-release trailer. It seems that  my belief that the game was a cynical attempt to package a healthy dose of T&A along with good old fashioned zombie killing might have some grounds after all. But this isn’t about saying I told you so.

Now, a lot of people have said a lot of things in response to this. Some people have professed horror that this could have ever happened. Many others have tried to dismiss the incident with a wide variety of justifications – from ‘it was a joke’ to ‘I wasn’t offended’ to ‘you feminists have no sense of humor’ to ‘it’s not sexist it’s just code’. And Jim Sterling, that bastion of civil behavior and tireless supporter of feminism, responded (somewhat predictably) with:

That’s definitely the kind of thing you want to make sure you take out, because I can tell you from firsthand experience that pissing off the more radical of feminists is way more trouble than it’s worth.

(emphasis mine)

Now I could take on Jim Sterling’s response. It seems to me that there are a lot of reasons for being upset about this incident, not the least of which is the base level of misogyny and sexism still present in the gaming industry. But you know what? I’ve devoted more space here to Jim Sterling than I really care to, and I don’t have anything to say about him that I haven’t said previously. So if this isn’t about saying ‘I told you so’, neither is it about Jim Sterling’s problematic understanding of why this should be a Big Fucking Deal.

It’s not even about the responses of those who have tried to handwave or otherwise justify this incident as not being a big deal. I could have written about that, but Tracey John already beat me to the punch with a well-written post about why misogyny in code is still misogyny. I don’t really have anything to say that she hasn’t said already. And over on VG24/7 Brenna Hiller did a wonderful post on how this incident plays into the sexism in the hobby as a whole.

So what am I adding here?

“Feminist Whore” is not a joke

This about the idea that “Feminist Whore” was a “private joke”, a joke shared in the office that is only offensive in the context of being shared with the world. I’ve seen that in more than a few places. Heck, the Escapist’s summary ended by saying that they hoped this was nothing more than an in-joke. And Techland’s official response, too, plays on this idea (again, emphasis mine):

It has come to our attention that one of Dead Island’s leftover debug files contains a highly inappropriate internal script name of one of the character skills. This has been inexcusably overlooked and released with the game. The line in question was something a programmer considered a private joke. The skill naturaly [sic] has a completely different in-game name and the script reference was also changed…

Here’s the thing I can’t get past. I can’t conceive of a situation that is not rampantly inappropriate in which an office in-joke that would cause a coder to implement “Feminist Whore” as a skill name in a debug build. Now that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t an office in-joke anyway, but the thing that concerns me is this: we can’t know the environment in which this “joke” was conceived, but we know that misogyny is very prevalent in the game industry and that harassment is a very real and ever-present phenomenon.

Seriously, go read that last link. Go read it now. If the sorts of “jokes” that happen in game studios can include employees wearing shirts that say ‘dead girls can’t say no’ and women being interrupted during meetings by male employees telling them to make them a sandwich, I don’t see why we should assume that this joke is benign. In an environment where jokes that trivialize sexual harassment, assault, and rape are considered funny, why should we assume that this anonymous coder is an anomaly?

Furthermore, the studios are responsible for creating the work environment in which this coder was working, an environment in which he had the idea that “Feminist Whore” was appropriate to implement in a debug build. So I don’t think we should be so quick to absolve the studio of responsibility, even if they claim ignorance of this “joke” up to this point.

I don’t know the makeup of Techland or Deep Silver. I don’t know if there are female employees who worked on this game. But if there are, I hope to god that this wasn’t something that they had to deal with as an office “joke”, because that would really break my heart.