The Continuing Saga of Jennifer Hepler
Writer Jennifer Hepler has been in the spotlight again recently, as she announced she was leaving BioWare. The minute the news hit, stories cropped up that she was leaving over the extreme harassment she suffered over a 2006 interview in which she said she didn’t actually enjoy, or was good at, many aspects of gameplay.
But as quickly as the news that Hepler was leaving BioWare over threats and harassment spread, so flowed the denials. Leaving to pursue other opportunities, she said. Staying in the industry. Freelancing. But those moments between the rumor and the correction were enough to reignite a fire and flurry of discussion over the Jennifer Hepler saga, and it seems prudent to recap some of the history before offering a little commentary.
Hepler worked on several games for BioWare, including Dragon Age: Origins, Dragon Age II, and Dragon Age: Inquisition.
In 2006, Hepler gave an interview in which, among other things, she said she didn’t actually much like combat in games. The blurb most often quoted was (in response to a question about what she liked least about working in the industry), “Playing the games. This is probably a terrible thing to admit, but it has definitely been the single most difficult thing for me. I came into the job out of a love of writing, not a love of playing games. While I enjoy the interactive aspects of gaming, if a game doesn’t have a good story, it’s very hard for me to get interested in playing it. Similarly, I’m really terrible at so many things which most games use incessantly — I have awful hand-eye coordination, I don’t like tactics, I don’t like fighting, I don’t like keeping track of inventory, and I can’t read a game map to save my life. This makes it very difficult for me to play to the myriad games I really should be keeping up on as our competition.”
In 2012, after Hepler was targeted on 4chan by BioWare fans, Reddit users take the game a little more mainstream by using the 2006 interview to create insulting photoshops, sensationalizing quotes, and criticizing Hepler for her writing, her appearance, and her general existence on Earth. Some of the tamer photoshops compared her to other women in the industry by laying biased and edited “pedigrees” side by side; others were labeled “Hamburger Helper” and attacked her personal appearance.
A week later, in 2012 (still), Hepler starts a Twitter account and is immediately inundated with insults and threats (she’s a cancer, a poison, she should commit suicide or otherwise die, and her family should die, and by the way, she’s ruining all games and is ugly, too). Soon she’s asking how to delete her account, but also responds back to haters claiming they are jealous because she has two things they want to get their hands on: a gaming industry job and a vagina. Ouch, shots fired? The controversy ramps up, and Hepler supporters are also targeted with harassing tweets.
Dates unknown: Twitter and Facebook accounts crop up, mocking Hepler and parodying her, using the aforementioned nickname “Hamburger Helper.”
By 2013, the trend is still floating around, but is much less common, until last week, when Hepler announced her departure from BioWare.
Up to speed? Good. Now that a year-plus has past and the dust has partially settled, with the resurgence of the story come the apologists, the people saying “oh, well, it really wasn’t that bad. She should just grow a thicker skin.” Or that it wasn’t that bad, because, you know. Being called a cancer who should commit suicide is generally fine.
I will say that I see a lot of level-headed people in the communities, both male and female, who don’t like the roving packs of “manbabies” (a word I’ve seen pop up frequently) mobilizing to attack in such situations, and that makes me feel better about us all (even if I don’t think we should all always be lumped together). But some of the more intense apologist trends really stood out to me:
“But-but-but,” some people have said, “she yelled back on Twitter, so that means it’s okay to yell at her! Anyway, gamers bitch about devs and writers at all studios. She’s not special just because she’s a woman.”
“But-but-but, it’s just hyperbole! Why, over on NeoGAF in a thread about Hepler leaving BioWare, someone said Mac Walters, a writer who worked on Mass Effect, could be hit by a truck and nothing would be lost! Not only do we say this stuff about men, but it’s just silly extremes in the way we talk! It doesn’t mean we want them to die!”
And part of me wants to agree, because, sure. The hyenas like insults; it is their currency, and they are a sadly vocal minority who, when mobilized, seem like a majority. But honestly? Women would have to be on equal footing for equal insult effect, and the truth is that we simply aren’t. The online community at large is incredibly hostile to women who speak up, who hold controversial opinions, who might not be perceived as “real” gamers (see: all of us, regardless of objective fact), who do not fit into a very narrow perception of “attractive,” who do fit into a very narrow perception of “attractive”… honestly, having a vagina means it’s open season.
This isn’t to say that 100% of the community is awful 100% of the time. Let me make that clear. It’s just this pack mentality that crops up far too often for comfort, a pack mentality that targets many facets of gaming and geek culture, but is particularly frightening when attacking women. Not, mind you, because we are more vulnerable, but because the insults and threats can take on a special level of menace. Further, there’s a line between criticizing games for not being quite what was wanted and taking the time to photoshop pictures of a woman writing for said games.
And there was a lot more to the supposedly controversial interview than the oft-repeated blurb. The part that doesn’t seem as oft-quoted is this: “The biggest objection is usually that skipping the fight scenes would make the game so much shorter, but to me, that’s the biggest perk. If you’re a woman, especially a mother, with dinner to prepare, kids’ homework to help with, and a lot of other demands on your time, you don’t need a game to be 100 hours long to hold your interest — especially if those 100 hours are primarily doing things you don’t enjoy. A fast forward button would give all players — not just women — the same options that we have with books or DVDs — to skim past the parts we don’t like and savor the ones we do. Over and over, women complain that they don’t like violence, or they don’t enjoy difficult and vertigo-inducing gameplay, yet this simple feature hasn’t been tried on any game I know of.”
In small part, I’m shaking my head here over the “women don’t like x, y, or find z difficult,” because I’m against blanket generalizations, well, in general (and I know plenty of men who feel that way, too; they just aren’t mentioned as often). That said, digging into the history of the Hepler controversy has made me think about my own position on combat, and on the idea of time to play that she talked about here, and I’ve come to a surprising conclusion: I’m honestly not that into a lot of combat, either. I dislike buggy, non-logical, game-for-game’s-sake elements, and as I get older and find that I have less free time and more responsibility, I avoid a lot of games that don’t have smooth, logical control schemes (at least for me) and combat that exists in harmony with the narrative, however extensive (or not) the story is. Will I put 100+ hours into a game I love? Yes, happily. But I can also count the games I’ve loved in the last five years on a few fingers. Would I play a lot more games, however, if I could skip that annoyingly buggy section or that string of boring fetch quests? Yes, to the power of infinity. The gaming industry would collect a significantly larger chunk of my money by allowing me to tailor that experience.
I think, too, there’s plenty of room for games that don’t lean on the idea of more combat! more fire! more pillaging and destruction! Portal and The Walking Dead immediately spring to mind as examples hailed among the games of their respective years, and while they aren’t RPGs, they are games that put players firmly into a character’s shoes while offering a developing experience.
Some of Hepler’s more level-headed detractors have said that her suggestions, while interesting, would essentially turn a game experience into a movie experience. I’m not sure that’s quite true. In the sorts of games Hepler herself has worked on, there have been opportunities for player agency that extend beyond shooting/stabbing, and those are certainly gameplay elements, too (not that I don’t wish that movies sometimes had a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure option…), but further, Hepler, in a recent interview demonstrated that she does understand this very important aspect of gaming: agency and ownership, and how it differs from films. “So I think there’s a sense of ownership that fans get from a video game story that they don’t have with a movie. You don’t go into a movie thinking of yourself as Luke Skywalker. But you do go into a video game thinking you’re Commander Shepard [the protagonist of BioWare game Mass Effect.] I do think that’s a very different mentality.”
This is the heart of the RPG narrative, and, to resurrect that old dead horse, offering an optional button to skip certain combat moments wouldn’t take anything away from that experience. And the beauty of an option? It’s optional, you know?