I hope you’ve been doing okay. I feel a bit guilty, to be honest, about you being removed from the project we were working on together. I didn’t say anything to you after the end of our conversation where I told you I was uncomfortable with continuing to stay in contact, but I was uncomfortable throughout much of our conversation past the first day, especially when you admitted that you wanted to “stay on my radar in case things went south with my S.O.”. I don’t think you’re a bad person at all, and I think you’re a very talented engineer and you do very good work. However, while I didn’t have capacity to tell you more about why it made me uncomfortable, or how you should try to interact with women at the workplace, or some of the other thoughts you confessed in me, I’ve been thinking about it again because of the news about the lawsuit opened against Activision Blizzard. I wanted to tell you a bit more about my thoughts, and some of my own experiences so far in my few years in the gaming industry.
Pretty quickly after you first reached out when you heard I was switching teams, you asked me a bit about my thoughts about working at Riot, especially after Riot’s own culture of misogyny and sexism disguised by a sort of “fratty gamer bro culture” that came to light in 2018. That article came out right when I was in the middle of my interview process for interning at Riot as a software engineer, and it made me stop completely in my tracks. Riot had been my dream company before that, and what drove me to Riot was its culture – I’ve talked before about attending a Riot Games information session at my college as a freshman, and learning about Riot’s cultural values and realizing they were taken word-for-word from Day9’s StarCraft Manifesto, and thinking to myself, “Wow – that’s a place where people are probably just like me.” But reading the article Kotaku published was chilling. From what I had read, I was no longer sure if it was a culture that would accept me – a place where I could feel safe enough to bring the best version of myself to work, and not feel demeaned or lesser. I remember replying to my recruiter’s email that I had passed the coding challenge with a link to the article and wanting to chat a bit more about what was inside. She agreed, and we chatted for a while, and she told me about how she personally had a positive experience at Riot (she was also on a women-majority team), but that what is in the article is definitely real and that she wasn’t dismissing the severity of what had taken place. I asked all of my other interviewers afterwards as well the same question, and always received the same answer – I was searching for answers, specifically an answer that would tell me that what was in the article wasn’t true or that Riot was a place I could be welcome at. But of course this wasn’t an answer I could get. I ended up deciding to accept the internship anyways, despite what my friends were advising me to do, because I had to see for myself what was going on. It had been my dream job. I felt like I owed it at least a shot, and in the worst case, I had an end date (the end of the summer) and I could potentially quit at any time as well.
Reading the article about Blizzard definitely gives a sense of déjà vu. It also reinforces that while what happened at Blizzard is definitely particularly insidious, it doesn’t mean other gaming studios are “exempt” or “innocent”. There’s a lot of this attitude of “Wow, thank God we’re much better than what’s going on at Blizzard!” that I’ve been hearing, and it frustrates me to no end – make no mistake, this is a gaming industry problem. Riot has made great strides in advancing their culture since their moment in 2018, but we’re definitely still a far cry from perfect. And a lot of times, despite the visible examples that people like to tout of fabricated stories, there are a far larger number of women who have minimized their experiences or who are still silent about experiences they’ve had that they’ve been wronged by in the industry. The gaming industry is also one with a revolving door – people frequently hop from AAA studios to indie game studios, and it’s foolish to think that the bad actors in this space are limited to just people at Blizzard.
It was really hard for me to read the article about Blizzard, especially about the employee on the trip who committed suicide. I hope you read it as well A., even though it’s a difficult read.
To some extent, it’s still true that I’m known at work for being really energetic and friendly – a stark contrast to the stereotypical introverted and slightly awkward developer that made up most of my previous team. I knew a number of people either from the internship or different groups I was involved with, and often greeted people I passed by when I was in the office, and every time I turned back to a teammate (if I was walking with one), he’d always say to me (“he” is actually the right pronoun to use because I was the only woman on that team), “Wow, Grace! You’re so popular!” as a joke. But that’s how most of my interactions with people was written off, and when I was an intern, I always greeted the security guards in my building that I passed by every time I took the elevator or left/entered the building. I got to know them to a basic level – their names, when their shifts were or how late they were working, if they had eaten yet, etc. We were friendly with each other. When I neared the end of my internship, I mentioned to one of the security guards as I was waiting for the elevator to come with my team when we were on our way to lunch that I had about a week left of my internship. In response, he asked me if he could have my phone number – I was slightly taken aback, and looked at my team in a bit of panic as the elevator arrived and the door opened. My tech lead laughed and said, “Grace, you’re so popular!” before telling me that they’d go ahead and for me to catch up.
To be honest, if this was something that happened to me now, I’d be much better about saying “no”. But, I was just a college kid at that time who was unfamiliar with how professional relationships work, or what was or wasn’t a normal interaction at work (especially for a workplace like Riot that’s a lot more relaxed). I also felt a bit of panic about, well, this guy was a security guard – isn’t he supposed to be responsible for my safety? I also remember mentally thinking through my head, “OK, I have X many meetings this week – for every meeting that I have on main campus, I have to pass by here twice and greet him, so probably in just one day I’d come by almost ten more times. Won’t it be awkward given how much I see him if I reject him?” He was much older than me (he had mentioned his kids before, and I knew he was at least twice my age), and I ended up giving him my number before nervously ducking out and running to catch up to the rest of my team.
He ended up texting me almost every day, asking me about how I was doing or questions about my college. The questions started getting more personal, and while I kept up responding for about two weeks before I started feeling pretty uncomfortable and stopped replying, the messages kept coming. He continued to message me almost daily for about five more months despite my silence, and he would get a new number every few weeks and let me know with the text of “Hey Grace, it’s [redacted] – I got a new number. How have you been?”
There were quite a few things on my mind when I was returning full-time, and to be honest, one of them that was at the forefront of my mind was seeing this particular security guard. Did he still work at Riot? Would he be angry that I had stopped responding? What should I say? I’d end up seeing him multiple times a day if he did indeed still work there. I was so anxious that after my first day, I went to the head of security and asked him if the person still worked there. He furrowed his brows, and asked me why I was asking. Before I could reply, he told me that the person was let go because of some complaints about him approaching other female Rioters, and he told me that if that was the case, to be assured that I wouldn’t see him on campus.
I also remember after my internship, one of the Rioters who I had met over the course of the internship program sent me a friend request on Facebook (I had reactivated it at that time to apply full-time and hopefully get a counter-offer to help negotiate my Riot full-time offer). After seeing that he was mutual friends with other interns (so it wasn’t just me), I accepted.
One night, out of the blue, he started messaging me and when I asked him how he was doing, he told me he had been drinking. He ended up confessing in me some deeply personal things, such as how he wants to find somebody to date and get married and start a family with soon, and also about some issues he had because of his mother being an addict growing up. I was taken aback and a bit uncomfortable with how intensely personal these confessions were, but still gave him some reassuring responses. He continued to message me here and there, always at night, and slid in comments such as telling me I was beautiful or that I was like a ray of light in a room that, while flattering, made me uncomfortable, and I never acknowledged them. He mentioned once a place that he was familiar with that he could show me around, and when I responded with, “Oh yeah! I’d love to go there; my boyfriend and I were thinking of a trip there sometime!” (with the intention of establishing boundaries), he told me that my boyfriend was a “lucky man”. I was anxious about seeing him when I returned, because I was uncomfortable about the boundaries he crossed with me.
I also struggled when I returned due to issues with my return offer and navigating working with and communicating with first manager. There’s more stories there that I simply don’t have the energy to talk about. When you mentioned how you were second guessing how you had reviewed my PRs (and whether or not some of the comments you put were in part because of my gender), I felt really bad. It’s kind of my worst fear – every woman engineer’s worst fear, I think – that people are just being nice to me. It’s a toxic concoction of imposter syndrome and being underrepresented and alone in the office (in my case, the only woman engineer ever hired and the only woman on the team while I was there), and having somebody tell you explicitly that they sometimes wonder if they’ve been extra nice to you on code reviews because of your gender and a struggle that they have with treating women like normal people just makes me feel bad about myself. I write good code. I’m a competent engineer. But moments like that make me start doubting myself – it’s difficult to not feel that way if you can’t trust that your coworkers are treating you just the same as they would treat other engineers. I appreciated that you were honest with me, truly – but your confessions to me were a bit misplaced. I’m not your therapist. And sometimes, these kinds of confessions can make the other person feel really bad. I hope you don’t feel discouraged in your journey to try to treat women as normal people. There is also nothing wrong with taking a romantic interest in me, A. It’s flattering, and you are absolutely not a bad person for it. But it can make others feel uncomfortable when you say that you can’t see women in the workplace, especially women who you find physically attractive and “cool”, as anything but a romantic interest first. It’s not that it’s wrong to be friends with women; I have lots of other friends who are coworkers that are straight men.
Not every woman you meet has to be a romantic interest. We’re people too. We should be people first to you. It made me feel really bad when you said that you didn’t see me as a normal person, and it made me uncomfortable when you had tried to pursue me romantically even knowing I had a boyfriend, and even mentioning that you just wanted to “stay on my radar” in case he and I broke up. You had worked with our company before, and what you had said to me was less so because you were romantically interested in me but moreso just because I was a woman in your vicinity that was somewhat conventionally attractive and that you got along with.
That didn’t have to me. That could have been anybody. The last time you worked with Riot before I returned full-time, there were no women engineers on the team. That could have been the me from when I was in college and interning, and unsure and uncomfortable with saying “no” and nervous about how people could react. So that’s why I talked with my manager – not just because it was an exchange that I felt uncomfortable with, but also because there was feedback to give you about how you treating and telling women what you told me can make them feel uncomfortable.
I’m not sure if that feedback ever went to you. They never told me much about what happened afterwards; all of the escalations that took place were out of my hands and by shadowy figures. I hope you keep working on seeing women as normal people, and I think that in the future, you should still try to build relationships with them – strictly platonic ones. If more happens, that’s fine (but you should still be really wary of trying to pursue a romantic relationship at the workplace, and consider your position and the other person’s) – but first, maybe just try to get to know us.
I think it would help a lot with making any women you work with in the future more comfortable. We’re competent employees just the same as you or anybody else, and we would feel a lot more comfortable if you would try to treat us that way as well. We deserve to feel safe at work and be treated respectfully, and are more than just potential romantic objects or sexual beings.
My heart is broken reading the lawsuit against Blizzard. The gaming industry has to do better. I hope I’ll see it become better.