Collegiality and Consequences

The thoughtful and courageous Courtney Stanton has recently gone from “very excellent” to “extraordinarily excellent” in my personal estimation. (Want to know how to do this? Be awesome. Then keep being awesome, but add data.)

In the course of blowing my mind, she said something that I think is remarkably important and I’d like to single out. At the end of her post, she writes an open letter to one of her harassers, concluding with this:

But kid, let me promise you right now: if you ever try and use the computer programming skills you got in community college to work in the video game industry, I will be expecting an apology from you about the harassing tweets and disgusting images. I can have a long memory when I choose to, and since you made such a compelling case for me to do so, I’m choosing to now. I hope you eventually grow up, but in the meantime your behavior shows you to be exactly what this industry doesn’t need. I’m not afraid of making that fact known should you attempt to enter it. You wanted my attention; you got it. Enjoy the consequences.

I recently wrote about being honest about people’s flaws, but I was putting it in terms of who you might or might not want to work with as an individual. However, Courtney’s hit on something even bigger: that these choices have an impact on the entire community. Let enough rape apologists, or trolls, or just plain jerks into a group, and eventually they start setting the social norms. That in turn has an effect on who wants to be in the group, and how they are treated when they are there, and I think we all know how this one goes.

My post, too, assumed a basic level of human decency. I’m happy to empathize with a colleague who tends to give harsh feedback on projects; if you’re prepared for it, his feedback is actually very helpful. But am I willing to empathize with someone who deliberately causes pain to others? A harasser? A abuser? A rapist? I’ve got a line, and once you’ve crossed it, crossing back is going to be pretty hard.

This is feeling particularly relevant right now, because recently I’ve done a lot of community, leadership and mentoring work. In the last ten days, I’ve:

  • Made over a dozen professional introductions
  • Arranged a job interview for a former student of mine
  • Critiqued a research design for a colleague, and suggested fixes
  • Volunteered my time to guest lecture in a different colleague’s course
  • Helped a peer refine her dissertation proposal
  • Consulted with a startup about their new product
  • Helped two would-be entrepreneurs understand my sector

And that doesn’t even count the meetings I’ve scheduled for the coming weeks and months!

I’m writing about this not to pat myself on the back*, but because it’s made me think about my responsibilities and obligations. Yes, I try to judge everyone fairly, but I have a limited amount of time and lots of people I could be working with. In whom do I choose to invest my time? When I help someone become part of the game design community, or for that matter the academic community, I should remember to consider how their presence is going to influence that community in the long run.

I’m lucky that, as far as I know, the people I choose to work with are Good People. For example, the only reason I’ve ever had to cringe at a joke has been because of a truly groan-worthy pun. I don’t worry that they’re going to behave unethically or exploit others or engage in random acts of senseless cruelty. But I’d like to formalize that commitment, so here goes.

If you ever would like help from me; if you would like introductions to my network; if you would like direction in your job search; if you would like to collaborate with me on a research project; if you would like me to guest lecture in your class; if you would like my advice about graduate school admissions, or your dissertation, or how to be a productive scholar; if you would like my insight into game mechanics or psychology or learning; if you would like any of these things, don’t be evil, because I will hold you to account.

You are probably wondering what I mean by evil. I happen to like Jonathan Blow’s summary: “selfishness to the detriment of others or to the detriment of the world.” In the end, though, I’ll be using my personal moral judgment. I’m by no means perfect, but I spend a lot of time thinking about how to behave ethically in the world and how to be a decent human being. I already use those ideas to guide my work, my relationships**, and even how I spend my money. It’s time to apply the same ideas to my life as a mentor, leader and teacher***.

Yes, there are a lot of corner cases and ambiguous scenarios. (“What if I did something evil a long time ago, but I’m reeeeeeally sorry now?”) If you’ve changed, or you didn’t mean it, or it was totally justified****, fine! The world is a complicated place, and I get that. But the burden of proof is on you, not me – and at the end of the day, I may still decide you aren’t a good investment of my limited resources. For that matter, my resources aren’t infinite. I may have to turn you down no matter how awesome you are.

By making this commitment public, I’m hoping to inspire others to do the same. I know so many people who mentor and advise and teach and lead, and I know that many of them likely already do think carefully about who they invest their time in. But what if we let people know that? What if people who care about our industry had an explicit model for decency? What if virtue – yes, I know, an unpopular word – were a way to access informal networks and formal power? I don’t know about you, but I think the game industry would start to look rather different from the way it looks today.

(I give it five minutes before I get trolled for this, but I’m posting anyways.)

* Okay, maybe a teeny bit of back-patting.

** In my personal relationships the bar is actually quite a bit higher than “don’t be evil,” but that’s another post for another time.

*** In some ways, I already think about this as a teacher. I have to teach the students I’m sent, as long as they conform to my institution’s standards, but I can infuse every lesson with a clear moral stance. I’ve been reading The Sociological Imagination and it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that, in fact, it’s impossible to teach without one. I just try to be conscious and explicit about mine. This is probably also a topic for a longer post, huh?

**** On second thought, you’re probably not gonna get very far with this one.

1 thought on “Collegiality and Consequences”

  1. So I either have to stop being evil, or else make sure I don’t get caught by you??

    In all seriousness, it’s funny you wrote this today, because a contact of mine this very morning expressed a ethical position that made me certain not to work with him again. I didn’t express such to him in so many words, but the damage is done. I will also tell anyone else who asks me about him in the future not to work with him.

    I think people often overlook the importance of ethics; I’d even go so far as to say that there are many people who believe that bad or “flexible” ethics can help you get ahead in business. Maybe they can, but I think that more often than not, the very reasons you discuss here, they simply bite you in the ass.

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