Technology & Science

How one video game community is trying to 'police itself' amid sexual assault allegations

The esports world is grappling with how to protect competitors — many of whom are barely in their teens — and respond to serious allegations against members. One game community has come up with its own "conduct panel" to adjudicate complaints.

Conduct panel to adjudicate complaints is 'a noble intention' but comes with problems

Gamers are pictured playing Super Smash Bros. at a video game event in Los Angeles in June 2014. The competitive Smash world has seen a wave of allegations of sexual abuse in the past week, and the community is struggling with how to respond. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

By her own description, Kyle Nolla's in-box is overflowing.

Ever since a star player in the world of competitive gaming alleged another player sexually assaulted him when he was a minor, others have come out with their own stories of abuse — and turned to Nolla, who heads a panel set up to adjudicate complaints within the community.

"It has been a whirlwind," Nolla said, "and made a lot of people question what we're doing wrong in the community, and what we can do to fix it."

In the days since that first allegation, more than 90 accusations have been made against members of the competitive Super Smash Bros. world, said Nolla.

The top selling Nintendo-made game is far from alone. The larger esports world is now grappling with how gaming communities can adequately protect competitors — many of whom are barely in their teens — and respond to serious allegations against members. 

"It's been going on for two, going on three, weeks now of people coming out with their sexual abuse stories," said Dot Esports journalist Cale Michael. "We call it 'the gaming scene's MeToo.'" He says the stories have come from all over the gaming world: from developers, players and game writers.

Conduct panel

In late June, gaming news site Kotaku outlined more than 50 allegations of sexual misconduct in the Twitch streaming world, and just this week French game developer Ubisoft saw the departure of two prominent members — Paris-based vice-president Tommy Francois and Toronto-based vice-president of editorial Maxime Beland — after over 100 employees sent a letter addressing "grave concerns about ongoing reported harassment and an inability to feel safe or protected within our own studio."

After the Super Smash Bros. star made his allegation, other gamers in that community came out with similar stories, stretching back years. A prominent player who goes by Nairo (real name Nairoby Quezada) was cut from his team last week after being accused of sexually assaulting a then-15-year-old player. A few days after that, former pro Gonzalo "ZeRo" Barrios apologized for sending illicit messages to minors, and stated he would end all of his sponsorships and step back from gaming.

Oftentimes, Nolla says, players will sign contracts that allow companies to release them if allegations of misconduct emerge. And then there Nolla's SSB Conduct Panel.

Nolla, a PhD student at Northwestern University who studies the game, co-founded the panel in 2019 to address complaints within the Super Smash Bros. community — everything from players breaking equipment at a tournament to sexual assault — then recommend punishment, up to and including a lifetime ban from the competitive circuit. 

She is the only original member left and is its public face — the other members are anonymous to protect them from what has amounted to considerable community backlash.

"I would say that Smash is the first gaming space to try and police itself," Nolla said. "[The reaction] has been very mixed, to say the least."

It's a unique arrangement in the gaming world.

Many game communities have conduct panels that operate in conjunction with tournament organizers (TOs) and game makers. But Nolla says Nintendo is hands-off — despite the latest iteration of the game, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, being the best-selling fighting game of all time with over 15.7 million copies sold. 

"It's basically cultivated by the problem that Nintendo's not there to provide some guidance," said Michael. "They don't sponsor a lot of tournaments… the conduct panel covers all of Smash."

Both Nairo and Barrios left before the panel could arbitrate any claims against them. 

'A bit opaque'

Nintendo did not immediately respond to a request for comment from CBC News, though the Japan-based company did release a statement to video game news site IGN saying it is "deeply disturbed by the allegations raised." It hasn't stepped in further, though. 

Instead, this self-regulated system sprung up in the Super Smash Bros. world, which has extended to dealing with the recent flood of abuse allegations.

The panel hasn't come without controversy. Critics have complained it does not operate transparently enough, often withholding the reasons for its findings, or accepting evidence that may not typically be thought of as conclusive.

The conduct panel's own code of conduct, for example, it states panellists "shall not be bound by judicial rules governing the admissibility of evidence." The standard of proof is listed as "whether the panellsts are comfortably satisfied … that the alleged offence has been committed."

Former pro Gonzalo 'ZeRo' Barrios of Chillán, Chile, right, is pictured receiving the 2014 grand prize trophy from Reggie Fils-Aimé, then president and COO of Nintendo's North American division. Last week, Barrios said he is stepping away from the gaming community after he apologized for sending illicit messages to minors. (Bob Riha, Jr./Nintendo/Getty Images)

Nolla argues that the panel's process is vital to protect victims, even if it does cause public mistrust. Still, she says the panel's in-box is often filled with complaints and attacks after decisions are released.

"It seems to be a bit opaque," said Kharoll-Ann Souffrant, a PhD student in social work at the University of Ottawa who studies the social responses to disclosures of sexual violence. "It's not clear who is on this panel — not only their identity, but what is their expertise on sexual violence, the impacts on victims, on how to respond to allegations?"

Souffrant says the panel is inviting criticism by operating this way, and it needs to make its decision-making process more open while maintaining privacy for victims. 

The panellists are not elected but selected by existing members, and evidence is usually withheld when they release their judgment. If that judgment is a ban — as it was with Canadian Elliot Bastien "Ally" Carroza-Oyarce last year, thought to be one of the best players in the world — tournament organizers typically respect their judgment and bar those players from entering.

"I think that's definitely a noble intention," said Daily Esports journalist Dylan Tate of the panel. "But the effect of that is, at least for some members of the community, is they don't understand why some people are being banned the way they are."

Not enough

On top of complaints about the panel's lack of transparency, says a Montreal-based competitive Smash player, there's a bigger issue: Not enough people even know it exists.

Kelsy Medeiros, widely known by the gamer tag SuperGirlKels, says she only became aware of the panel after tweeting about the need for something similar last week, despite having spent years in the community. 

Rumours of abuse have long existed at tournaments which, she says, suffered from a combination of lax security and under-supervised minors, and there has never been a support system for victims.

Now, she worries that some people may not come forward due to simply not knowing about the panel.

Medeiros started competing in 2015, and soon became one of the best players in North America for her character category. She says she's seen improvements over the years, like TOs who are generally much more reactive to complaints of assault and abusive behaviour. And while security has gotten a bit better, she says, there are still serious advancements to be made at in-person events that draw players as young as nine. 

"I'm proud to be in a community that is constantly improving and searching for improvements," Medeiros said, "just, we have to keep going. We have to take more measures."

About the Author

Jackson Weaver is a multi-platform journalist with CBC News Entertainment. You can reach him at jackson.weaver@cbc.ca, or follow him on Twitter at @jacksonwweaver

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