British journalist Helen Lewis participated in a podcast included in “Watch Dogs: Legion”, Ubisoft’s latest release. Her voice will soon be removed from it: the French video game giant, recently targeted by a series of sexist scandals, has yielded to accusations of transphobia targeting Lewis.
The summer of 2020 has been disastrous for the image of the Ubisoft company, and autumn is not looking brighter. The French video game giant, to which we owe successful franchises such as Assassin’s Creed, Just Dance and Rayman: Raving Rabbids, was criticized at the beginning of July with various investigations, in particular in Libération and Numerama, for gender-based and sexual harassment factors that would have been tolerated or even covered up by the company’s management.
In early October, Yves Guillemot, CEO of Ubisoft, recognized the extent of the problem in a letter to its 19,000 employees recently surveyed by an independent anonymous survey. In its message, unveiled by Libération, we learn that 25% of the 14,000 employees who participated in it “have experienced or witnessed, over the past two years, inappropriate behavior” in their workplace. And of the big boss promising answers adapted to “inappropriate behavior” as well as in-depth changes in a corporate culture deemed toxic.
A month after these fine words, Ubisoft stood out by dismissing from its latest hit game Helen Lewis, victim of online harassment for years because of certain stances taken by her. 37-year-old journalist based in London for The Atlantic magazine, she covers subjects ranging from politics to culture (theater, video games). Twitter user since 2007, this feminist activist has more than 134,000 followers and this year published her first essay, Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights. The fact that a company recently marred by sexist scandals decides to cut ties with a personality like Lewis might seem paradoxical. Not that much, on closer inspection, as the affair shows some “woke-washing” on the part of Ubisoft, now quick to quench any fire started by indignant activists – even if it means igniting others in the process.
Released on October 29 2020 for Windows, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, Watch Dogs: Legion is the third installment in a popular franchise created in 2014 by Ubisoft. “Mass surveillance, private militias bringing order to the streets, organized crime… Enough! It is time to end the oppression. Recruit multi-talented insurgents to hunt down the profiteers who tarnish the city’s splendor. The fate of London rests on you.” This is how the publisher’s official website presents this dystopian game, mainly developed by Ubisoft’s Toronto studios.
The role of Helen Lewis, British journalist for the American monthly The Atlantic, is minor in the game, but it fits in with an innovation welcomed at the release of the game: the involvement of British podcasters providing content specific to the game, in order to “experience London life in a more complete and modern way”, according to Game Radar. Basically, players can listen to “real” podcasters (declaiming nevertheless a scripted text related to the game’s open-world) while strolling in the virtual London of Watch Dogs: Legion.
Lewis is part of the political podcast team of Oh God, What Now?, commissioned last year by Ubisoft to provide content, in this case explaining the rise of fascism in the game’s futuristic London.
Secret projects! Last year @Ubisoft approached us to create in-game politics podcasts for new game #WatchDogsLegion. Now they're out, with @IanDunt @charleskriel@Leftist_Gamer @Psythor— OH GOD, WHAT NOW? Formerly Remainiacs (@OhGodWhatNowPod) November 2, 2020
@DJTashLC and here @helenlewis explaining future Fascist London… https://t.co/pRvDg1vdKH
Last Friday, less than a week after the release of the video-game blockbuster, the specialist site Kotaku announced that Lewis’s interventions would be purely and simply erased and then replaced in a future update of the game. “We have been informed of controversial remarks by a journalist who performs a voiceover in two podcasts integrated into Watch Dogs: Legion. Neither Ubisoft nor the game reflect the views of the journalist, ” the company explains in an email to Kotaku. We have since learned that despite the eviction of the “controversial” collaborator, the company should nevertheless keep the script of the text that she declaimed, and of which she was the author.
The feminist schism on the “trans question”
What inadmissible statements earned Lewis such treatment? According to Kotaku, these are comments “on gender identity” made in various media with which Lewis has collaborated, including the left-wing weekly The New Statesman. Like J.K. Rowling, the creator of Harry Potter, Lewis would be, in the eyes of some LGBTQ+ activists, an unforgivable “TERF” (a feminist who would not recognize trans women as women).
Even though in France, the debate on the issue is much less publicized than across the Channel, it still caused a controversy in February 2020 with the depublication by the Huffington Post of a feminist column signed Pauline Arrighi, writer and ex spokesperson for Osez le feminisme! (‘dare to be feminist’). Her text, accused of being transphobic by many French LGBTQ+ activists, was finally republished by Marianne under the title “Trans: is it enough to proclaim yourself a woman to be able to demand to be considered as such ?”.
One could read in particular: “Being a woman is not a feeling. This corresponds to a very specific physiological reality and to an equally specific social experience. All this is real… In our societies, being a woman means suffering and being exhausted every month but having to work as if nothing had happened.” The text argues that “in a still patriarchal society, the words“ woman ”and“ man ”must retain their meaning” and that, far from an innocuous debate, “it is the future of feminism and equality policies who are at stake ”. Feminists accused of being “TERF” thus consider this infamous qualifier as misogyny, manifested by an invisibilization of the biological suffering suffered by women, injunctions to silence, calls for boycott as well as verbal and physical violence.
Lewis, representative of a “hate movement”?
Ubisoft’s statement does not write the charge of “transphobia” in black and white (possibly for fear of a libel lawsuit) but Kotaku linked this communication to several angry online reactions after the announcement of the involvement of Helen Lewis in the game, in particular on certain gamer forums and on Twitter (even though neither the game nor Lewis’s words address “the trans question”).
On November 3 James O’Leary, an e-sports commentator who had promoted the game a week before, made the following announcement to his 16,000 Twitter followers:
I’m retracting my support for Watch Dogs: Legion due to their including of a transphobe in the games journalist selection for the in-game Radio.— James ‘Stress’ O’Leary (@StressCasts) November 3, 2020
Don’t buy the game, and don’t use my code if you do buy the game. I’m not about supporting Transphobes. https://t.co/Bm5bGvi5iw
Ten days later, his warning had only been re-tweeted 4 times.
this is the lady watch dogs legion has hosting its in game podcast about how we all need to join the resistance against fascism lmao pic.twitter.com/871Q71vn0Q— yuuko from nichijou (@headfallsoff) November 4, 2020
Much more viral, the above post, dated November 4 has been re-tweeted a thousand times. Attached is a screenshot of the title of an article by Helen Lewis for The New Statesman in May 2019, titled: “Welcome to the age of ironic bigotry, where old hatreds are cloaked in woke new language”, with the explicative subtitle: “If you understand why ‘Zionist’ has become an anti-Semitic codeword, there’s no excuse for calling women ‘terfs’”. The article develops the following theory: in the same way that anti-Semites would use the excuse of anti-Zionism to make anti-Jewish remarks, some “woke” activists would hide behind the charge of transphobia to insult and denigrate feminists critical of trans-activism.
This series of accusatory tweets is by Jackson Tyler, a video game podcaster who describes himself to his 8,000 Twitter followers as “queer, poor and mentally ill” in his thorny tweet. Faced with the enthusiasm of some gamers who did not understand the sarcasm of his words, Jackson explained his criticism in another tweet: “I must insist: one of the main voices of the“ resistance ”in the game is in fact a representative of a hate movement active in Great Britain”. Her message was relayed in particular by the specialist journalist Carli Velocci (4,700 subscribers) and Lisa Harney (9,200 subscribers), an American LGBTQ+ activist calling for a boycott of the publisher (“No Watchdogs 3 no Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla no money for Ubisoft”).
“Woke-washing” and good conscience
Among the recently dug-up examples purporting to prove Lewis’ said membership of a “hate movement” (implied: transphobic) are several articles like this column for The Times in July 2017 titled “A man can’t just say he has turned into a woman”. The beginning of her article does recognize, however, that “transgender people face discrimination at work, casual abuse in the street and long waits for NHS care”.
In another article published in January 2019, Lewis summed up her position as follows:
“I have been harassed online for two grueling years, called transphobic or TERF – despite my belief that trans women are women, and trans men are men – for expressing my concern about self-identification [the fact that a man can call himself a woman on the simple faith of a statement, without medical advice. editor’s note] and its impact on non-mixed places [prisons, locker rooms, etc. ed]”.
The fierce criticisms of Lewis illustrate the constant redefinition of the term “transphobic”. As Slate recently wrote, “the meaning of the word has been expanded so much that many trans people are now considered transphobic”.
The accusations of transphobia, which can be found questionable, are therefore not recent, and given the massive audience for the Watch Dogs franchise (more than 10 million copies of the game of the first two instalements were sold according to Ubisoft in March 2020), the renewed criticism of an almost invisible collaborator in the game did not a priori represent any concrete threats to its sales.
In a Spectator article criticizing Ubisoft’s “cowardice”, journalist Nick Cohen writes on this subject:
“It was more of a Twitter shower than a Twitter storm, but the shower was enough”.
Despite their fragile foundations and the absence of press articles relaying them, these accusations succeeded in “erasing” (from the podcast) a woman deemed undesirable in a popular branch. What’s more, she is a feminist journalist who covered the subject of Gamergate by protesting against the violent online treatment of female gamers players and specialised journalists! Of course, this is not a full-time job, or even journalistic work, but the symbol remains solid. As much as the consequences on the person targeted, judging by the testimony of her husband, a journalist at the Guardian:
My wife @helenlewis has been the subject of sexist, misogynist harassment and abuse for years. It is appalling that @Ubisoft has contributed to this by pandering to a small campaign of misogynist hate against her. Chilling that this passes for progressive.— Jonathan Haynes (@JonathanHaynes) November 7, 2020
A still insufficient woke-washing, in the eyes of some, like the transgender journalist Julie Muncy who, in Wired, welcomed Ubisoft’s decision while criticizing its laxity:
“This is what happens when you fail to carefully examine the potential offensive positions of contributors to your products: they end up taking offensive positions, scaring away potential users and anyone with decent taste. If companies like Ubisoft want to show their support for transgender people, they are going to have to put in a little more effort”.
Guilt being contagious, Helen Lewis’ collaborator on the aforementioned podcast, Ian Dunt, also took a beating after tweeting his support for the reporter:
As one of the other voices in the game, let me go on record to say that I'm incensed by this. Whether you agree with Helen's views on trans issues or not, they are legitimate debate and she is entitled to hold and express them. https://t.co/LmdffttnTB— Ian Dunt (@IanDunt) November 7, 2020
More than an occasional collaboration with a journalist, it is this right to debate that has been trampled on by Ubisoft’s decision, especially since the heroes Watch Dogs are dissidents of an authoritarian state.
To justify their decision, the video game juggernaut, determined to re-acquire a benevolent image after a calamitous summer in terms of public relations, said:
“We were made aware of controversial remarks from a reporter (…) The development team worked with an outside producer to select host profiles for these podcasts, and they were not aware of the controversy at the time of their selection nor recording.”
In addition to the poor credibility of this statement, since Helen Lewis has been making such comments since at least 2017, and that it was in 2019 that she was approached to participate in the game, it should be noted that Ubisoft uses two variations of the term “controversy ” to justify the eviction of the journalist. According to the Oxford dictionary, controversy is “prolonged public disagreement or heated discussion.”. Ubisoft, the world’s largest video game sector employer, clearly seems to prefer uniformity, even of having a ‘façade’.