Game companies win a powerful new way to punish harassers

Colin Campbell, Tuesday, July 18th, 2023 9:42 am

Photo by Eddy Lackmann on Unsplash

It’s been almost a decade since GamerGate – a mob campaign designed to harass, intimidate and terrorize women and people of color who worked in gaming, including developers and journalists. Although the vile campaign fizzled out, it remains emblematic of an old and enduring ugliness in the game industry – misogynistic and racist harassment of workers.

Notably, those who engaged in harassment have largely gone on with their lives, without fear of consequences. They found safety in anonymity, and in the sheer volume of their confederate hatemongers. Their cheerleaders and apologists in the media moved on to new targets.

But a new ruling against a racist harasser could mark a boundary in the fight against toxicity in gaming. Last week, Bungie was awarded almost half a million dollars in damages against a scumbag by the name of Jesse James Comer, who was found to have conducted a hate campaign against some of the company’s community managers.

Carpet bombing

West Virginia-based Destiny 2 players Comer was found by a civil court in Washington State (Bungie is based in Seattle) to have spent hours “carpet bombing” a worker and their spouse with “racist text and voice messages” which were designed to frighten them.

Comer had become outraged when the community manager posted the work of a Black artist and creator of Destiny 2 fan works. Comer left multiple abusive messages and “repeatedly asked that the [targets of abuse] convince Bungie to create options in its game in which only persons of color would be killed,” according to the court documents.

He doxxed them by sending a rancid pizza delivery to their home, and instructing the (unsuspecting) delivery driver to knock on the door, loudly and repeatedly. He followed up by sending threatening audio files.

Although game companies have often been guilty of caving to online intimidation, or trying to ignore it, Bungie took the matter seriously. According to the ruling, the firm was “was forced to take expensive measures to protect [the employee and spouse] from the threat posed by Comer (who at that point remained unknown and anonymous). Bungie sent out executive protection within an hour of the pizza attack and notified the local police department.Bungie then engaged investigators and outside counsel to identify and locate who was threatening its employees.”

Significant ruling

The $500K ruling against Comer is significant, because it recognizes that there is a practical cost to game companies, when their employees are terrorized. This ruling essentially puts a price tag on worker harassment, that subsequent lawsuits will likely cite when they identify harassers, and seek recompense from them. The Comers of this world – and they remain numerous and dangerous – are finally facing serious consequences for their despicable behavior.

Kathryn Tewson, a paralegal who worked on the case, posted a Twitter thread explaining the case. “Why is this a brag-worthy win?” she tweeted. “Well, because the law moves slowly, frankly; much more slowly than either technology or culture. With this win, we helped to close that gap in some significant ways.

“For example, we got an official judicial recognition of the threat and harm posed by the well-documented pattern of escalating harassment that can culminate in tragedy via swatting and other real-world violence.Second, we got — as a CONCLUSION OF LAW — that when an employee is harassed by reason of their employment, that harassment damages the employer as well, and the employer can enforce the recovery of those damages in civil court.”

Bungie pointed out that the community manager needed time off from work to recover from the attack. Other workers expressed concern. One decided enough was enough, and left their job. Apart from the obvious misery and fear that Comer caused, all this has material costs, which companies like Bungie are clearly no longer willing to bear. In this case, Bungie presented the case that its direct financial outlay came to $380,189.22 “in actual damages to provide protection to its employees, to investigate who was harassing its employees, and to put a stop to such harassment”.

Comer admitted to his activities, but did not show up for the case.

Useful precedent

The order and judgment for the case makes a good point about the nature of defense against abusers. “It is unlikely that any individual employees who are subject to such anonymous harassment would have the resources available to uncover the harasser, much less put a stop to it – which is exactly what such anonymous cyberstalkers rely on in continuing their campaigns.”

But large companies like Bungie do have the resources. Now, a precedent has been set linking unlawful activity, like cyberstalking and making violent threats, to the financial interests of corporations.

As Tewson posted in her thread: “In addition to finding that Washington employers can recover damages for harassment of their employees under standard torts like nuisance and invasion of privacy, the Court also held that it would recognize A NEW TORT … Based on the Washington criminal statutes outlawing cyber and telephone harassment, the Court has created a path for those with the resources to identify stochastic terrorists and hold them accountable to do exactly that and recover their costs in court.”

Attorney Dylan Schmeyer, who represented Bungie in the case, tweeted his satisfaction at the outcome. “This one is special,” he wrote, as originally reported by Polygon. “I’m not sure I’ve worked harder on anything before. From investigation to research to drafting to project management. The outcome was just so damn important.”

He concluded forcefully: “Congratulations to my clients, who stood up and fought for something that mattered. Congratulations to my team. We made law. And a hearty fuck you to the dregs of digital society who do real harm and believe themselves above responsibility, beyond accountability. You aren’t.”

Colin Campbell

Colin Campbell has been reporting on the gaming industry for more than three decades, including for Polygon, IGN, The Guardian, Next Generation, and The Economist. © 2024 | All Rights Reserved.