Nintendo fired product marketing specialist Alison Rapp this week, a move that followed a ruthless online harassment campaign she’d endured from gamers peeved by changes to their beloved games.
The company insists the termination, announced Wednesday, has nothing at all to do with the harassment, but Rapp argues otherwise. Regardless of how things unfolded, the incident is the latest in a series of disturbing events that demonstrate just how precarious a position women hold in the gaming industry, and the lengths some people will go to in order to silence, or even force out, those they do not agree with.
Worst of all, those who so harangued and harassed Rapp will certainly see her ouster—regardless of its impetus—as a victory. That will only make the situation worse.
The campaign against Rapp revolved around criticism of changes made to games as they’re adapted to various regions or countries, something called localization. For the role-playing game Xenoblade Chronicles X, this included removing some of the skimpy outfits worn by teenaged characters and eliminating the so-called “boob slider” that let players change the bust size of various characters.
Some fans were not at all pleased by this. And it didn’t seem to matter that Rapp hadn’t worked on the localization of Xenoblade Chronicles X (and in fact admits liking the boob slider). She still became a target. As she’s catalogued on Twitter, the attacks grew so vicious and heavily gendered that she began to fear for her safety.
“Over the last few [weeks], I’ve had to talk safety measures [with] my family- including talks [with] police about possible suspicious activity,” she wrote on Twitter yesterday. “Throughout all this, [GamerGate] has been digging up all kinds of things about my personal life and contacting Nintendo about them.”
It’s unclear just what started the attacks, although simply being an outspoken feminist in the gaming sector often is enough. Independent game developer Zoe Quinn, vocal gamer and critic Anita Sarkeesian, and game developer Brianna Wu are among the women who’ve been harassed simply for speaking their minds. Rapp tweeted prolifically about feminist issues and the precariousness of women in the industry, often citing its culture as part of the problem. According to tweets from Rapp (who could not be reached for comment), the harassment started in October as frustration with Nintendo’s work started rising among gamers.
Such harassment has since the summer of 2014 been associated with GamerGate, a movement that likes to pretend it is defending ethics in gaming journalism but is far more interested in smearing and harassing anyone, particularly women, within the industry who calls for greater inclusiveness in gaming—a view many of those self-proclaimed guardians of ethics don’t like.
Still, it’s tough to say definitively that GamerGate, as a discreet organization, is responsible for the attacks on Rapp. Like many online movements, it is amorphous, and the nature of the Internet and social media, where people can hide behind the cloak of anonymity, makes it difficult to know associates with it and who doesn’t. According to some who identify as GamerGate, the Internet mob originated from a GamerGate splinter group called Revolt.
Far less important than affiliation are the tactics and attitudes these bullies—and let’s call them what they are—employ. GamerGate has become shorthand for the atmosphere of misogyny and prejudice long found within a segment of the gaming community and its core of young, white men. And that’s how we’re using it here. That attitude has been expressed in troubling ways: virulent and misogynistic harassment, doxxing, and smear campaigns designed to discredit and defame.
Rapp’s harassers dug up, and latched onto, a paper she wrote as a student in 2011. In it, she makes a nuanced and controversial argument about legal issues pertaining to free speech and censorship in regard to child pornography and Japanese culture. The paper is, to be blunt, convoluted, but argues that the West should not impose its morality on Japan. She may have reached conclusions people disagree with, but they stop far short of the “endorsement of pedophilia” her critics accuse her of.
Regardless, the paper and people’s reaction to it became the focus of a concerted campaign to get Rapp fired, a campaign that grew to include the Wayne Foundation (an organization that fights sex trafficking) and the neo-Nazi news site Daily Stormer urging people to contact Nintendo and demand her dismissal.
Through it all, Nintendo remained silent. It could have—should have—backed Rapp and emphatically denounced such harassment. Instead, it said nothing until Rapp said she’d been fired.
“Today, a decision has been made,” she tweeted Wednesday afternoon. “I am no longer a good, safe representative of Nintendo, and my employment has been terminated.”
“The reality is, I actually had no involvement with localized content changes of any kind,” Rapp wrote. “Come on, I *wanted* the… boob slider!”
But by being silent while she was attacked, Nintendo, unwittingly or not, created the impression that it had caved to her harassers.
Nintendo quickly denied that Rapp’s personal beliefs, or the campaign against her, played a role in her termination. She was fired, the company said, for moonlighting.
“Alison Rapp was terminated due to violation of an internal company policy involving holding a second job in conflict with Nintendo’s corporate culture,” the company said in statement sent to WIRED. “Though Ms. Rapp’s termination follows her being the subject of criticism from certain groups via social media several weeks ago, the two are absolutely not related. Nintendo is a company committed to fostering inclusion and diversity in both our company and the broader video game industry and we firmly reject the harassment of individuals based on gender, race or personal beliefs. We wish Ms. Rapp well in her future endeavors.”
Rapp doesn’t see it that way at all. In a series of tweets, she said the campaign against her led Nintendo to scrutinize her online activities, which led the company to “[strip] me of my spokesperson status and [do] a ‘lateral move’ so I wouldn’t lead games as a [project manager] anymore.” She says this was part of an ongoing culture clash with the brass.
I started at Nintendo more than 2.5 years ago and the latest bit of weirdness isn’t even close to the start of it all.
— smol pterodactyl (@alisonrapp) March 31, 2016
About a month after starting, I was asked to not tweet about rape culture because “it could become a big story.” — smol pterodactyl (@alisonrapp) March 31, 2016
I fought that. I also fought when I wasn’t allowed to stream games but other employees were.
— smol pterodactyl (@alisonrapp) March 31, 2016
I was consistently made to worry that getting another tattoo or piercing would mean they’d pull me from public appearances. — smol pterodactyl (@alisonrapp) March 31, 2016
Rapp doesn’t deny moonlighting (though it is not clear just what she was doing), and wrote, “Moonlighting is actually accepted at Nintendo. To pay off student loans… I started moonlighting under a fake name.”
“It was moonlighting Nintendo didn’t like,” she wrote, “despite the fact that it was anonymous.”
The trouble here is not that Nintendo fired an employee. If Rapp broke corporate policy, the company has the right to terminate her. The trouble is that Nintendo remained silent during an unwarranted campaign of harassment against an employee. Now that she’s been fired—regardless of whether that campaign played a role in it—it sends a message that the bullies behind that campaign have won, something they made clear on Twitter:
By refusing to defend an employee and take a firm public stand against harassment, Nintendo risks being seen as granting tacit approval to the harassment. That compounds the problem by encouraging the GamerGate community and those with equally narrow minds to continue their abusive, misogynistic ways.
The irony of it is that Rapp was not a sleeper agent covertly injecting feminism into Nintendo’s games. Her firing will do absolutely nothing to address the “problem” those who so loathe her sought to rectify. Nintendo’s localization policies will continue unchanged. No matter. The cowards and bullies who targeted Rapp will surely find someone else to blame.