The Sweet Baby debacle is a depressing throwback to Gamergate - aren't we past this?


It happens with depressing regularity, but still: what week is complete in gaming without an army of keyboard warriors smashing chips off their hardware in outrage?

This time around, the company in their crosshairs is Sweet Baby Inc., a consultation firm based in Canada. They’ve only been going since 2018, but they’ve already built up quite the CV, working on AAA titles like God of War: Ragnarok, Spider-Man 2 and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, as well as awards darling Alan Wake 2.

It’s an amazing resumé, but then the work that these guys do is quite specialist: among other things, they offer studios cultural and authenticity consultations, helping them approach issues like diversity, race and gender in a sensitive way. Herein, as you might be able to guess, lies the rub.

The gaming space (or at least, some of it) being what it is, this has not gone down well in certain corners of the internet. The company has been accused of being “woke” (because what 21st century trolling is complete without use of that word) and of introducing diversity into video games “by stealth”, like some kind of feminist, LGBT sleeper agent.

One quick search on Twitter turns up hundreds of furious comments. “Screw Sweet Baby Inc, [gaming website] Kotaku, and every company that tries to create division in our space,” reads one of the more polite ones; conspiracy theories abound. Yesterday, Elon Musk got involved, adding rocket fuel to the fire by tweeting that “video games need to get rid of the woke bs”.

On Reddit, things get even more disturbing: a recent report by Kotaku described how images of “idealised female bodies” from video games were being shared on dedicated anti-Sweet Baby Inc channels.

This has been accompanied by posts encouraging gamers to “reject modernity”: aka the more realistic female protagonists we’ve seen in games of late, in favour of the more brashly sexualised figures of years past (think Lara Croft, Bayonetta… and so many others).

Lara Croft (Amazon Games)
Lara Croft (Amazon Games)

In other words, straight white men have something to say about the influx of diversity into the industry. And it’s not just exasperating, it’s worrying because this whole saga conjures up disturbing parallels to the original Gamergate scandal.

Starting in 2014, Gamergate 1.0 was basically a harassment campaign targeting prominent women in the video game industry – including media critic Anita Sarkeesian and developers Zoë Quinn and Brianna Wu.

Conducted in the name of “protecting the gamer identity” from scary concepts such as feminism and progression, this included doxing, rape threats, death threats and relentless online trolling. Sarkeesian later told the Guardian that she faced multiple hacking attempts, was reported to the FBI and had trolls attempt to post her home address, and parents’ information, online.

At the time, Brendan Keogh of Overland wrote that the whole thing “does not represent a marginalised, discriminated identity under attack so much as a hegemonic and normative mainstream forced to redistribute some of its power.”

And that still feels true. I wasn’t writing, or even much into gaming, at the time of Gamergate, but as a woman working in this space, it’s a deeply scary thing to read about – and it hasn’t gone away.

Protagonist Frey from Forspoken (Square Enix/ Luminous Productions)
Protagonist Frey from Forspoken (Square Enix/ Luminous Productions)

Threats against female players online are still commonplace, and women in the industry have spoken out repeatedly about the unwelcome advances and sexual harassment they’ve been subjected to in the industry: just last year, multiple women reported being drugged and abused at the Game Developers Conference in America.

Despite the #MeToo movement making an appearance in the gaming space in 2019, this is still happening. Combined with the trolling Sweet Baby Inc has received in recent weeks, it feels like we are still desperately overdue a meaningful reckoning when it comes to curbing this kind of toxic behaviour.

That said, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Despite the best attempts of the Sweet Baby haters to claim the opposite, there’s no “stealth” agenda about what it does. Video games are becoming more diverse naturally: it’s what happens when a previously hegemonic space starts to open up.

Today, almost half of all gamers are women, and women make up 30 per cent of employees in the industry (it doesn’t sound like much, but it’s on an upward trend), while markets in India and Africa are exploding in size and importance.

At the same time, recent titles have introduced us to heroes like Frey from Forspoken, the first black Spider-Man in Miles Morales and even Grand Theft Auto’s first female protagonist. The games we make are starting to reflect a whole range of experiences and backgrounds, as it should be – what a shame some people can’t accept that.