Reviewing the latest and greatest video games before they’re released is a dream job for anyone who grew up enchanted by the glow of a computer monitor or console.
That’s a dream that’s quickly shattered for women in the field once they publish their first review.
“You just KNOW when you're going to get harassed,” says Susan Arendt, prolific podcast host and co-founder of the mental health non-profit Take This. “If the game with all the hype has anything wrong with it, and you're honest about that, or even just want to provide any context outside of ‘it's fun’, you're going to get harassed. It's a given.”
Arendt hasn’t reviewed a video game since 2017, but recalls continuously second-guessing herself, and always asking herself whether sharing her opinion was worth the very real prospect of hateful and threatening messages.
Recently, another case of targeted harassment showed the problem is only getting worse.
When the review embargo lifted on Cyberpunk 2077 on Tuesday, many reviewers gave the hotly-anticipated role-playing game less than stellar reviews overall.
Both men and women criticized Polish game developer CD Projekt Red’s long-awaited title — it officially goes on sale December 10 — for accessibility shortcomings around a lack of epilepsy trigger warnings, how it objectifies and fetishizes trans people, its frequent graphics glitches, and an open-world format that’s as wide as an ocean but as shallow as a kiddie pool.
“You just KNOW when you're going to get harassed.”
As a result of these negative reviews of a video game that claims a cult-like devotion of hardcore, largely male fans, the female reviewers themselves have become the target of some ire — not a hugely hyped-up video game that’s a letdown. (Despite this, Cyberpunk 2077 is still coasting at a 91 out of 100 on Metacritic, thanks to glowing reviews from typically industry-friendly publications like IGN and Game Informer.)
Games journalists past and present tell Inverse that in reality, the career is a vicious cycle of paranoia, harassment, and, in the worst cases, physical harm, particularly for women who take up the role.
Game Informer reporter Liana Ruppert did her job admirably by pointing out the game includes multiple unavoidable epilepsy triggers that slipped past console certification. In her review, Ruppert details that she suffered a major seizure, and came “close to another one,” several times while playing Cyberpunk 2077.
Ruppert writes that there is a moment where your in-game character essentially jacks into the matrix. It features a series of white and red blinking lights, similar to a neurological device meant to actually trigger seizures for diagnosis. She published a guide on how to avoid the parts of the game that triggered her epilepsy, which linked back to Game Informer’s 9/10 review.
A day after Ruppert’s article was published, CDPR publicly addressed its oversight, stating that it would add a separate warning in Cyberpunk 2077 and is “exploring” a permanent solution to make the game more accessible to players with epilepsy. On Tuesday, the game’s official Twitter account thanked Ruppert for her reporting: “Thank you for bringing this up. We’re working on adding a separate warning in the game.”
This didn’t stop fans from wrongly lambasting Ruppert for alleging that CDPR purposefully put an epilepsy trigger in Cyberpunk 2077, which is not in her review. Ruppert says she received “hundreds” of messages disguised as supportive that contained flashing lights intended to induce photosensitive triggers.
VentureBeat reporter Jeff Grubb, on the other hand, was disappointed with the Cyberpunk 2077 and didn’t hold back any criticisms in his review. He too was subjected to harassment and insults across his social platforms, but the YouTube comments for his review’s complimentary video are a mix of supportive messages and name-calling.
Grubb believes game reviewers face a unique kind of backlash because of the price of video games, compared to other forms of media, like movies and music.
“There's economic angst we feel about the value of games,” he says. “You want to feel good about spending your resources on these things, and any negativity can put a dent into that.
“The reaction is to lash out against that and deny it and punish it," Grubb says. "Because when we read a negative review, we infer that the critic is suggesting we could have spent our time and money better. When we spend years looking forward to something, that is often the last thing we want to hear.”
Polygon reporter Carolyn Petit also tweeted about the onslaught of hateful and threatening messages she received for her ambivalent review of Cyberpunk 2077. She notes how “the objectification of trans people is just background texture, nothing more” even after CDPR stated it wanted to make its release “really inclusive.”
Reviewers across the board have criticized the shortcomings of Cyberpunk, a game that CDPR has been promoting since 2013. Yet critics who are women have received the brunt of it.
The disparity is nothing new to journalist Sarah LeBoeuf.
“Men get backlash, but it’s not quite the same as being told someone wants to rape and murder you because of your opinion about a video game,” she tells Inverse. “In my experience, men in games media are given the benefit of the doubt, while women must constantly prove that they belong.”
This most recent wave of hate is another reminder of the enclaves of toxic fandoms that have long been at the core of gaming culture that was first exposed by the Gamergate controversy in 2014 but has continued to fester. This vitriol rears its ugly head every few months, like in April and May of this year, when an outraged subset of gamers enacted mass “review bombing” of The Last of Us Part II because the game includes queer relationships and gender non-conforming characters.
“Men in games media are given the benefit of the doubt, while women must constantly prove that they belong.”
The industry has faced multiple “moments of reckoning” that were supposed to establish progress toward a more inclusive and non-predatory gaming scene, yet the issue seems to have worsened.
The way Arendt and LeBoeuf see it, the ball is squarely in the court of sites like YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook. They are responsible for the harassment and threats posted on their platforms.
“Channels that encourage targeted harassment need to be deplatformed,” says LeBeouf. “For that to happen, we need execs at Twitter, YouTube, and other outlets to have a better understanding of the damage being caused on their platforms. In the meantime, we’ve got to look out for each other. People in positions of power and/or with large platforms should be leading by example.”