The Gamer's Notebook

The Gamer's Notebook

Revenge of the nerds or flame wars 2.0

A simple misunderstanding turns super ugly for Bioware writer


By Chris ONeal 03/01/2012

In 1999, while most of the world was hunkering down in preparation for the 30th apocalypse, others were raging about Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Episode 1 was to be my generation’s connection to the mythology spanning three decades. Unfortunately, we were given Jar Jar Binks and a reason to go seething into the new millennium.

Nerds took to primitive AOL chat rooms to complain to their peers. Feeling cheated out of an experience that somehow belonged to them, to this day The Phantom Menace is looked down upon.

Thirteen years later, one false move by an entertainer or production company can send ripples of anger through the sea of Internet hounds around the world. Like a butterfly flapping its wings on the coast of an HR rep’s laptop, a tsunami of hatred can wash ashore hours later, engulfing the unsuspecting victim. Such was the case for Jennifer Hepler, who recently became the target of disturbing personal attacks.

Hepler, a lead narrative writer for Bioware’s flagship titles Dragon Age, Dragon Age II and Star Wars: The Old Republic, became the center of attention after an interview surfaced in which she mentioned that her least favorite part of working in the industry was “playing the games.”

Unfortunately for her (and for the dignity of all involved), this prompted a user on the popular website to post an image of Hepler with the words “cancer, sewage, infection” and “plague” over her face, alongside a doctored transcript of Hepler’s interview that conveniently removed the parts where she explains her love for story-based gaming.

Because these particular gamers didn’t agree with her statement and believed that everyone who works in the gaming industry should be a reflection of who they are, they labeled her as being all that is wrong with Bioware and the entirety of the gaming industry.

Which reminded me of the disappointment following Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.

When the theater went dark, and the iconic Star Wars theme soaked the undulating audience, some of whom were literally (literally) vibrating with excitement, a feeling of righteousness dawned upon me as if that were the moment I would be enlightened. By the end, much like Obi Wan Kenobi in Episode 3 as he watched his disciple Anakin Skywalker melt in molten hot magma, I felt betrayed. Why hadn’t the movie been what I wanted it to be? Didn’t they owe me the same experience an equivalent nerd 20 years earlier had received?

Why hadn’t Jennifer Hepler been what fans of Bioware wanted her to be? Every decision made by a developer like Bioware will be scrutinized by armchair programmers or literal player haters, and if the image crafted in their minds doesn’t match up with reality, they feel pain as if being dumped by a longtime significant other.

There is a huge difference between Star Wars and a woman expressing her opinion, though. One is a movie, and movies can be loved or hated because they are not human. (Just ask George Lucas, who went on to build Death Star out of fat stacks of cash.) But Jennifer Hepler is a real person, a real person who received threatening e-mail and phone calls, all because she stated her opinion.

In the end, Bioware co-founder Dr. Ray Muyzka released a statement in support of Hepler and donated $1,000 to the nonprofit Bullying Canada, a charity to fight back against bullying.

This sense of entitlement that runs rampant through the gaming community is the cancer suggested. Creativity is dampened by developers who design to give us what we want rather than originality. The treatment of Jennifer Hepler is more than enough proof to realize it.

So get mad and throw a controller out the window. But start calling writers, who happen to be people, “cancer,” and it may be time for you to reevaluate your priorities. In the end, it’s just a game. 

Chris O’Neal is trying to romance a Krogan aboard the USS Normandy. Follow him on Twitter @AgentONeal.


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