Thirty-two-year-old indie game developer Zoë Quinn resurfaced bearing a fresh serving of accusations. Quinn alleged that she was coerced into an abusive relationship with Alec Holowka, a game industry luminary and designer of Aquaria and Night in the Woods.
Lured into moving to Winnipeg to live with Holowka, Quinn describes, in harrowing detail, physical confinement and alienation: “[he] slowly isolated me from everyone else in my life while absolutely degrading me whenever we were alone.”
“His moods would shift and he’d throw things and hurt himself seemingly at random and blame me,” Quinn further alleges. “He’d jam his fingers inside me and walk me around the house by them when I told him it hurt.”
As anticipated, the gaming community, who has long since exhausted of Quinn’s perpetual attestations of victimhood, responded with doubt and apprehension.
Whether or not you believe her, there’s something intriguing buried in these new accusations. Zoë Quinn didn’t incriminate just any prototypical ‘male chauvinist’ gamer—she accused Alec Holowka, a “soft boy,” of sexual and psychological abuse.
For almost a decade now, gaming culture has been under assault by so-called feminist critics demanding we rid ourselves of “toxic masculinity” and turn away from “sexist” video games in favour of PC, narrative-focused products. They argue that the sexual content in video games is somehow responsible for the way some men choose to behave. Feminist ideologies are supposed to save our community from rapists.
What the “feminist gaming turn” seems to have missed, however, is that the performance of male feminists, far from eliminating violence against women, functions to safeguard predators from detection.
Gaming culture’s “soft boys” are turning out to be wolves in sheep’s clothing—just as everyone suspected.
SOFT BOY POLITICS and THE TRAP OF WOKE MASCULINITY
The gaming community has seen a rapid contagion of male feminist allyship and the “soft boys” who embrace this behavior.
Soft boys are more “woke” than the “regular” men. They aren’t the Mountain Dew-chugging, Doritos-eating, Grand Theft Auto 5 player who yells homophobic slurs at other players on Xbox Live. In fact, games like GTA 5 and Call of Duty are total turn-offs for them. They like what girls like: ‘softer’ games. Adventure games like Night in the Woods, Gone Home, and Life is Strange. Sure, they’ll still play shooters, but they’ll do so in silence and shame, for their tastes are far too elevated for something so base.
In a traditionally male-dominated subculture, the soft boy stands out as the ‘woke’ alternative to the rest of us. Laying their cloaks at the feet of gaming women, soft boys seek to safeguard the genteel sensibilities of women.
This sea change comes at a time when the commercial interests of the game developers and the personal appetites of gamers keenly overlap to focus on a shared desire: women.
As the multi-billion-dollar video game industry continues to grow—surpassing both Hollywood and the music industry combined—advertisers and game developers are looking for new avenues of growth. The potential for a female market has the industry salivating.
One strategy to acquire this consumer base has been to capitulate to feminist games critics like Anita Sarkeesian, who has launched a campaign against games like Red Dead Redemption 2 and Hitman, declaring these games as hostile to women.
But whenever Sarkeesian opines about the “problematic” nature of long-established gaming products, her arguments seem to be endorsed and amplified by a legion of soft boy games journalists. For instance, as part of Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency project, former producer Jonathan McIntosh created a video called “25 Invisible Benefits of Gaming While Male.” Enlisting the help of one dozen “well-meaning men”—Psychonauts game developer Tim Schaefer, game journalists Greg Miller, Mitch Dyer, and Adam Sessler among them—McIntosh spoke out about the epidemic of “male privilege” in the gaming community.
His production was one of many touting the trope of toxic masculinity in video games, and how “unwelcoming” the scene is to women. Writing for the Vox gaming vertical Polygon, Colin Campbell spoke to numerous “experts” who “tackle the phenomenon of angry men, trolls, racists and misogynists who hover around the video game industry.”
Allyship, PC discourse, and feminist buzzwords amongst gamers has backfired, however, and is shielding predatory soft boys. Zoë Quinn’s story has all the trappings of this classic soft boy bait and switch. Holowka lured her in with the safety and security of performative male allyship, only to use that position to subject her to everything out of the “toxic masculinity” playbook to control and abuse her.
As Quinn tells it, Holowka positioned himself as a confidant and friend, talking her through the trauma of a prior sexual assault. They hit it off on Skype, talked for hours, and, preying on her vulnerability, the male feminist ally invited her to move in with him and three other friends to a house in Winnipeg–ostensibly to work on video games together.
According to Quinn, it only too Holowka a couple of weeks to convince her to move in with him, and she bought a one way plane ticket to Winnipeg. He had promised to pay for her return flight home.
That’s when things went horribly wrong.
The three other friends who were supposed to be staying with them never showed up; he eventually convinced Quinn to uninvite them. A skilled programmer in more ways than one, Holowka allegedly orchestrated a terrifying degree of codependence on him. She wasn’t supposed to leave the apartment without him, and he refused to give her the entry password in case she did.
Quinn further alleges that Holowka blamed her for a previous sexual assault, and over time, became both sexually and physically abusive.
Eventually, she managed to leave the “relationship,” convincing him to pay for the previously agreed upon plane ticket. In retaliation, Holowka allegedly blacklisted her from the game development community and, as Quinn puts it, “tried to ruin the career I’d barely started.”
As Zoë Quinn went on to create a host of unsubstantial projects, and inadvertently become the catalyst for GamerGate, Holowka won awards for his work in Night in the Woods—a game praised for its “wokeness” by the gaming press, positioning Holowka as a soft boy poster child.
GAMERS CLEAN HOUSE
Quinn spoke out following the publication of a post by another game developer, Natalie Lawhead; Lawhead claimed she was raped by prominent video game composer Jeremy Soule. Soule is responsible for the soundtracks of Skyrim, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and Guild Wars 2. Unlike Quinn, Lawhead offers a mountain of evidence to corroborate her claims.
Two days ago, game developer Adelaide Gardner came forward with accusations of sexual abuse by Luc Shelton, a programmer for Gears of War 4, alleging that he once handcuffed her so tightly that it left her wrists raw and bleeding. Gardner kept receipts of their relationship, in which he described himself as “quite aggressive and dominant with certain aspects of [his] life.” Shelton sociopathically laid out our “rules” for visiting his house and demanded their relationship be kept a secret.
These recent string of revelations follow the month of disclosures about the Yogscast gaming company: three of its streamers, Matthew “Caff” Meredith, Paul “Sjin” Sykes, and Mark Turpin, were each independently accused of sexual harassment. Prominent esports photographer Chris Bahn, nominated for Esports Photographer of the Year by the Esports Awards, also faces accusations of sexual assault.
All of this has become something of a watershed moment for the gaming community. More and more men are being exposed for sexual harassment, assault, and rape.
But it isn’t who you’d expect; the 8chan-dwelling shooter enthusiasts aren’t the ones taking the fall—it’s the male feminist allies. A Twitter account called @AbuseIndustry was set up following Quinn’s tell-all about Holowka, and is now retweeting accusations by numerous women against a host of industry men.
WOLVES IN SHEEP’S CLOTHING
Sure—the gaming community needs to clean house. But we can’t achieve this by superficially embracing the ideological tropes of feminist game critics. Feminist games criticism would have us believe that capitulating to some weird mélange of cultivation theory and gender studies 101 would root out men like Holowka and Shelton.
Instead of fixating on gaming culture or the games themselves, we should wake up and identify the predators who lurk within our midst. Gaming culture did not produce the men accused of rape and sexual assault. In fact, these men—accused of heinous crimes—are turning out to be the “performatively woke” outliers who are also the loudest voices against “toxic masculinity” in gaming.
As demonstrated by the mounting accusations against developers, streamers, journalists, and other industry leads, male feminist allies are wolves in sheep’s clothing—undercover predators.