It began with a seemingly harmless admission: Jennifer Hepler said she didn’t particularly care for the game portion of video games. This innocuous opinion would have been left alone, or subject to casual discussion, were it not for one glaringly significant fact: Jennifer Hepler writes for BioWare, developer of the titan franchises Mass Effect and Dragon Age. Hepler was responsible for much of the dwarf content in Dragon Age: Origins, and is credited for writing several characters, including Bethany, Cullen, and Anders in Dragon Age 2. She was most recently credited as a senior writer for Star Wars: The Old Republic.
She explained in a 2006 interview that her least favorite thing about working in the industry was actually having to play the games themselves. Hepler’s passion is writing, a passion she shares with the BioWare collective, as their games are renowned for their engrossing dialogue and story-driven plots. Nevertheless, fans were outraged that an integral member of the production team didn’t really have an invested interest in the gameplay. I suppose the internet has declared that all members of video game production teams are required to absolutely love the products they spend years toiling over, and any outlier is a liability to the project. Still, it’s a bit concerning to hear that someone who works in producing games doesn’t like games. However, that’s not Hepler’s job. Her responsibility is to make sure that what you read and hear complements what you play, and I’m willing to forgive her lack of enthusiasm for games, though I personally wasn’t very encouraged. However, she made some valid points regarding the option to skip combat scenes, as hardcore gamers have been allowed to fast forward through key plot cinematics in the past. We’ve seen that BioWare has, in fact, made these suggestions a reality, as Mass Effect 3’s “Story” mode allows player to skip combat in order to progress the plot. But BioWare’s fans were divided. Some were just more cruel and outspoken than others, making vicious remarks about Hepler. The ability to skip combat isn’t a new thing, as Destructoid detailed LA Noire’s option to forgo difficult combat instances for the sake of the game’s story several months ago. The game has been out for quite some time, and I can’t recall anybody from Team Bondi suffering for it (and I find it unlikely that such an option had anything to do with the studio’s closure). No, I think the issue is that these vicious gamers have decided that they just don’t like her. Hate festered and festered.
Then this image appeared.
Suspiciously, it seemed to exist only in .jpeg format, and attempts to find the original forum thread ended in vain. In this supposed post by Hepler, she claimed that Mass Effect 3 would feature fairly prominent homosexual elements, and states that Shepards would “accidentally observe an intimate homosexual encounter aboard the Normandy.” Naturally, this led to controversy as fans were left wondering why, after years of a heterosexual Shepard, was BioWare suddenly so generous in its inclusion of same-sex options? The language even suggested that exposure to a same-sex romantic exchange would occur regardless of the player’s intent to witness any such act. Even I was left scratching my head about this sudden change in direction, as BioWare had shown in Dragon Age 2 that it not only embraced same-sex romance options, but put the same effort into the writing for both orientations. Literally, the romantic animations were identical and the conversations hardly differed between male and female Hawke. Everyone seemed to be on equal footing. Yet the hate continued to flow in Hepler’s direction, ever plentiful. A page in the SWTOR wiki page cropped up titled Jennifer “The Hamburgler” Hepler, but was deleted after a moderator declared it “vandalism.”
Then, Hepler joined Twitter. The interned promptly exploded, and Jim Sterling over at Destructoid detailed the subsequent drama. Her critics attacked her directly via Twitter and spewed comments so vile that I don’t even want to repeat them here. The name-calling, sexist remarks and heinous memes ended with Hepler ultimately asking Twitter support to close her account after attempting to exchange barbs with her haters. She attributed this sudden onslaught of bullying to the fact that she was simply a female involved in the video games industry, which ultimately led to even crueler acts of hate as her tormentors ensured her that it had nothing to do with her gender; they simply loathed her as a person and for her writing. As of now, her Twitter page and handle no longer exist.
On March 22, BioWare’s Community Coordinator, Chris Priestly, posted an official statement on the forums.
Below, please see a message from BioWare co-founder Dr. Ray Muzyka in regards to the recent attacks on Jennfer Hepler.
“Jennifer is a valued, talented employee who has been with BioWare for many years and we hope will be with us for many more. It is awful that a few people have decided to make her a target for hate and threats, going so far as fabricating forum posts and attributing them to her, and singling her out for projects to which she has not contributed (i.e., Jennifer is not even a part of the Mass Effect writing team). All of us at BioWare support and will continue to support Jennifer fully, and are happy to see so many people out there are also supporting her during this difficult time.”
– Dr. Ray Muzyka. Co-Founder of BioWare; General Manager, BioWare Label; Senior Vice President, Electronic Arts
Somewhere between “fabricating forum posts” and “not even a part of the Mass Effect writing team,” my eyes burst into flames. The .jpeg was fake. Her bullies had whipped up the content, as they weren’t satisfied with the “we just don’t like her writing” excuse. No, they had to go and make one up because they wanted to hate her more. Here’s an idea, kids: go do something else. Rather than turn away from your waning hate campaign and find something constructive to work on, you made something up and motivated the internet to virtually crucify this woman for something she never said or did.
I don’t even… Just… What the hell? I made the mistake of viewing the latter pages of BioWare’s statement thread and was overwhelmed with the urge to vomit. Users stood by their beliefs that her actions warranted the sexist remarks, even after they’d learned that she hadn’t said such things. People justified the bullying, claiming that her inability to write made it acceptable. Internet, it is never acceptable. How dare you. How dare you. You people are the reason I suggest that we institute a licensing program for internet use. The anonymity of this world emboldens you, removes your filter, and turns you into sadistic monsters. Blizzard’s Real ID sounds better and better with each passing day.
Jennifer, there is no excuse for what these people said and did, and I understand the pressure to defend yourself via Twitter, especially after the unforgivable things that were said. But by acknowledging them, you enabled them. It may sound silly, but the schoolyard logic works. Rise above them. Be better. They don’t write for BioWare – you do, and they can’t take that away from you. But you encouraged them by taking the bait. It does no one any credit to reciprocate: two wrongs don’t make a right. When you’ve got Aaryn Flynn, GM of BioWare’s Edmonton studio, blasting back with this, then things really start to look bad for everybody. It just descends into madness. You all have accomplished so much, yet you’d stoop to these miscreants’ levels and engage with them? People who claim to be insulted by you all, yet still buy your games? As someone who’s been bullied, I know this is no easy thing to ask. When they hit you where it hurts the most, reflex kicks in and you’re compelled to strike back. Unless you honestly dislike the 140-character method of communication and new layout, don’t you dare leave Twitter. Stand up, face these people, and laugh at how utterly pathetic it is that something as stupid as a video game had them resorting to blatant sexism in a tantrum. Back up your claims and communicate with those willing to engage in a rational, mature dialog. I keep telling myself that this was an issue of fans fearing for unbalanced stories, but I know better.
As for the meme-makers, the slur-slingers, the ignorant sacks of Mountain Dew and puss that dare touch a keyboard and enter the internet with the intent of spreading malice and hate within a digital forum of free thinkers—unplug yourselves from this world and don’t come back until you’ve had a good, hard reality check. You disagree with this woman, so you throw away centuries of activism? You are the reason I hesitate before I call myself a “gamer” for fear of the stigma that may descend upon me. Not because it connotes geekyness or a taboo culture, but because of people like you; ignorant, bigoted children trapped in adult bodies who honestly believe that a video game is worth debasing another human being over. I’ve had enough. You are the dark underbelly of this otherwise-beautiful realm of ideas and individuals capable of engaging in mature dialog regardless of age, industry, gender, or country of origin.
We are gamers. We play games. We disappear into man-made worlds and suspend our reality at the behest of people we may never meet. We, for years, have been hastily-dubbed “geeks,” or “nerds,” though the rise of casual and sports gaming has allowed us to breach the barrier between us and the mainstream media. Finally, games have been acknowledged as “art,” though we’ve many miles to go on this arduous road to respect. Yet, for all we have accomplished, we are still sending children to school and watching them endure terrible acts of prejudice because of the ideas their parents embody and pass onto their sons and daughters. I know that too many of you reading this experienced it first hand, from the playground to high school—you were ridiculed because you were different, because you like games, or anime, or some sub-culture that kids in your class didn’t understand. And if this was ever you, then why would you, of all people, perpetuate it? Why are we not all on the same team, working for the betterment of the industry rather than tear it down? Do you want game culture to come into its own and be respected as entertainment worthy of red carpets and award ceremonies devoid of nearly-nude models and painful slapstick? Then be that change. Be the new culture. If you continue to slander names and dehumanize people because of how they look or the ideas the preach, and you’ve never experienced bullying, hate speech, or even the slightest bit of adversity, then I hope with all of my being that you get your wake up call soon, as you do this industry a great disservice by calling yourself “a fan.”
Those of you that know how it feels to be Hepler, to be ripped apart for a choice you’ve made or work you’ve done, you have no excuse.
I adore BioWare and Mass Effect. I bleed the N7 red and white. I trust in BioWare to make the right calls and ensure the delivery of quality content. If they feel that Hepler’s work is strong and belongs in the story they’ve crafted thus far, then I will trust in their judgment. If that trust is betrayed once that game is in my hands, then I’ll explain my dissatisfaction like a rational adult as I have done in the past. I expect you all to do the same, yet you disappoint me time and time.
You people who claim to know best: get over yourselves. You’ve taken your games too far. Your inflated egos have you believing that your opinion is life or death, that unless you are satiated by the developer’s offerings, their endeavors will fail. Not so, oh ignorant ones. You were heard this time merely due to the nature of your remarks, but Hepler still writes. She writes the games you claim to be your own. They are not yours, not in the sense you believe them to be, yet you maintain this inexplicable sense of entitlement.
You all think you know how to make video games? Then put your money where your mouth is and do so. Wow me with your prose. Ensnare me with your heart-wrenching stories. Bewitch me with lore and legend so deep that I lose myself in a world woven with numbers. Teach me to adore a character that exists only the realm of your design. Impress me with your lifelike physics and addictive combat. Then come and talk to me about how much of an expert you are on game writing. I dare you.
Until then, your existence in this world is forfeit, and you shall not be missed.
Update: It appears that some of you don’t understand the gravity of virtual and verbal attacks, so I’ve prepared a dose of reality for you. The following individuals took their own lives as a result of cyber-bullying.