UPDATE 8th December 2018: Following the publication of this article, Sean Halliday was revealed to have ties to a website called Exclusively Games, owned by someone with links to GamerGate. Halliday told Eurogamer he had been offered a job by Exclusively Games and had been flagged as a moderator while considering the position. But, he told Eurogamer today, he has since declined the offer of a job.
ORIGINAL STORY 6th December: On 22nd October, Polish game seller GOG - a part of CD Projekt - found itself in trouble again on Twitter. It had insensitively appropriated the trans civil rights hashtag WontBeErased. "Classic PC games #WontBeErased on our watch," it tweeted. "Yeah, how's that for some use of hashtags?"
GOG quickly deleted the tweet but not before the internet noticed, and a stink was kicked up. Not only was it a problem on its own, but it was the third problematic tweet in a handful of months from inside CD Projekt. Once is a mistake; three times?
A day after the #WontBeErased tweet, a response appeared, but it wasn't an apology. "Yesterday, we posted a tweet containing a trending hashtag as a pun," it said. "The tweet was neither intended as a malicious attack, nor as a comment to the ongoing social debate. GOG should focus only on games. We acknowledge that and we commit to it."
It didn't go down well, as Sean Halliday knew it wouldn't. The tweet had been his fault and he'd drafted his own apology as soon as the shitstorm had appeared. He's still got the draft, he tells me over Discord, and he shares it with me.
"A tweet was posted that included the hashtag 'WontBeErased'," it began. "The context of the hashtag was missed, which was a huge oversight on my behalf. After coming to understand the hashtag, and the importance of what it represents, the tweet was promptly deleted. Please allow me to apologise profusely for the offence the tweet caused. This was not the intention of the tweet by any means, nor was there any ill will intended.
"I empathise and strongly support LGBTQ folk from all walks of life. Video games are for everyone, regardless of race, gender, sexauilty, ability or religion. It's a mistake that has cost me an incredible amount. Everyone has the right to exist and live, it was a shameful mistake to make light of this. I will do better."
"All I can remember was the manager sat there and went, 'We're parting ways with you.'" -Sean Halliday
But Halliday wasn't allowed to use his tweet. He tried repeatedly but his manager said no. "We are not apologising for this," Halliday was apparently told, and his manager wrote the GOG response instead - minutes after he fired Halliday.
"I'll be honest with you," Halliday tells me, "as soon I saw them coming towards me and ask me to go in the room I was like, 'I'm fucked.' I hadn't slept the day before I was so worried. I'd been working 10-plus years to get into a job like this and I was enjoying it, and I'd only had praise.
"All I can remember was the manager sat there and went, 'We're parting ways with you.' The only reason he gave was, 'It's gotten too much.' At the time I couldn't say anything; I'm not going to lie, I broke down a little bit. I wasn't crying but you know when you feel yourself about to cry? I was trying to keep it all in, trying my hardest not to speak too much because I could feel a lump in my throat, so I couldn't really argue with them. That was all that was really said.
"Then he sent the internal email out to everyone."
Halliday was processed through HR and not allowed to go back into the office. The email labelled it an "unfortunate event" and Halliday had no way of arguing. All he could do was be stared at as he left the building, and to top it all off, "It was pissing down with rain."
He rode the tram 40 minutes back to his Warsaw apartment and phoned his parents as soon as he got in. This wasn't his real home after all - that was back in Newcastle, in the north-east of England, where his parents live. Sean's move to Poland had been a big deal for the Hallidays. "My dad worked himself half to death in the NHS, and my mum's been a caterer and cleaner, and she's worked herself half to death. I was the first person in my family to, as cheesy as it sounds, achieve their dream," he says. "I remember my dad, the last thing he said to me when I got on the plane: he was proud to have someone in the family who had a job title."
Sean was phoning to tell his parents the dream was over after only six months. "I had to tell him straight away," he says. "And I don't know what happened, but for 35-40 minutes I just broke down, sobbing. It was horrendous.
"My dad was super-worried; he wanted me to fly back that night because he was worried I would do something stupid - and I'm not going to lie, the thought does come into your head. You're just in this one-room apartment in a grey building, and I don't know anyone here for the most part - my girlfriend lives in Białystok which is two hours on a train. You're just sat there with your thoughts. You don't want to play games, you can't go on the internet because everyone's talking about you. You're just not in the mood. I just broke down for a few days."
Time passed. For nearly six weeks Sean Halliday has been moping around a city he doesn't really know, with no money to spend (it all needs to go towards paying off an apartment lease he won't see through) and few - if any - friends to call on. He was fired 23rd October but hasn't been able to talk until now. Finally, last Friday, he flew back home, back to his parents' house in Newcastle, leaving his dream job and girlfriend behind.
How did it go so wrong?
For a while, it had been going so right. Halliday had been hired in early 2018 but didn't get to Warsaw until May. "Your main goal and purpose," he had been told, "is to moderate the GOG forums because they're so toxic." Halliday had a simple idea about how he could do it: ban politics. "I'm not a political person," he tells me. "That's one of the reasons I actually left the UK, to get away from the whole Brexit thing, especially in the north-east." He booted out all of the "super-right-wingy" and "super-left-wingy" people who were shouting at each other, and things calmed down. "We managed to fix that within a month," he says. "GOG was extremely happy with the results."
Then he branched out into social media, where he wanted to inject energy and personality into GOG's Twitter and Facebook accounts. Before he took over, GOG only made a few Twitter or Facebook posts a day, usually to announce a game release or sales. There was no dynamism, no conversation. Halliday wanted to ramp activity up, to go from a few posts to a dozen a day, and he wanted to create a conversation. He wanted to play on the nostalgic pull of GOG, which was founded on the idea of bringing old games back from the dead. "We know we're selling games and we know we have some classic games so let's have some fun with it," he decided.
One of the most effective ways he did this was piggybacking trending Twitter hashtags. Remember the "Your Halloween costume is 'sexy' + your biggest fear" meme? Halliday piggybacked it for GOG. "Sexy DRM" he wrote, a riff - a rather inspired one - on GOG's founding credo of never caging games in digital rights management (DRM) software. He even found a way to join in with #NationalFarmersDay, using a gif of Diablo 2's famous Secret Cow Level.
These tweets were hits, GOG was pleased, and Halliday was encouraged. "I don't want to toot my own horn but the results on social media were gold compared to what they'd been getting previously," Halliday says. "The only things I would ever hear from people was positives, like, 'Oh I really like how the social media's going.'"
Incident one: the Postal 2 tweet
This was Halliday's fault. "It was me who posted the tweet," he admits.
It was five minutes before a meeting and Halliday was looking for material for a Postal 2 tweet. GOG had just gotten the Paradise Lost expansion, released 12 years after Postal 2, and developer Running With Scissors wanted some promotion. Halliday had only been at GOG a couple of months.
"I was looking through the trailer to see what we could tweet and it was all head explosions and mass gore, and you can't really tweet that out," he says. "You can tweet some gore but this stuff was throwing a dead cat at someone and vomiting, and shooting their head and setting them on fire. I'm looking through this trailer like, 'There is literally nothing here.'"
But then something caught his eye: the character urinating on a gravestone. You don't see genitals, just a stream of urine. "I was like, 'This is the most safe for work thing we can find." So he asked if was OK and says he got the thumbs up.
"I didn't," he insists, "see the gravestone date at all."
The gif Halliday tweeted (I have an archived version of the tweet but not the gif in motion) was the player-character urinating on a gravestone belonging to "Games Journalism". The inscription underneath read: "Committed Suicide Aug 28, 2014." It's the date news stories started appearing about the GamerGate hashtag, which actor Adam Baldwin coined a day before.
The shit hit the fan.
But it wasn't immediate. Halliday says it took about 48 hours for the situation to escalate. Apparently it wasn't until Zoe Quinn, a game developer embroiled in a battle with GamerGate, joined the backlash (in a tweet now deleted) the thunderbolt of realisation struck. "I looked into it and that's when I started to learn more about GamerGate," he tells me. "And I was like, 'Oh, OK,' so we killed the tweet."
The original gif isn't around any more so I created my own from a trailer to get a sense of how hard the gravestone writing is to read; and to be fair, it is - the date especially. But the words "Games Journalism" can be made out, Halliday even acknowledges seeing them, so why didn't they give him cause for concern? Because, he says, he didn't really know what GamerGate was.
I find this hard to believe. He's saying he, a community manager in 2018 - someone who lives in gaming forums and on social media - had no idea what one of the most infamous movements in gaming in recent years was about. I even found an E3 2015 article written by Halliday about Anita Sarkeesian and Jonathan McIntosh, two critics repeatedly attacked by GamerGate. And in the article Halliday seemed to be doing a similar thing.
He wrote lines like, "Both McIntosh and Sarkeesian have been suspected of telling lies when it comes to their connection with video games..." and, "They are not people who enjoy games, they are people who enjoy power and accolades, even if that means stomping on the hopes of a movement, while dehumanizing [sic] anyone who dare question them."
How could a paid freelancer - a games journalist - writing this kind of sentiment be unaware of what GamerGate was?
The Postal 2 tweet apology was written by the same GOG manager who wrote the #WontBeErased response. "The intention behind our tweet was to inform about a release known for controversial content," it read. "Unfortunately, we've failed to make the association between the image, the date, and an abusive movement. Our intention was never to hurt or condone hate."
I spoke to GOG managing director Piotr Karwowski a few months later and he described the tweet as "a really stupid mistake" with no intention behind it.
"I don't want to be the person who says 'I'm ashamed GOG did this'," Karwowski said, "because if someone did it out of ill intentions, on purpose - they knew what this image meant - then that's a completely different story. To me this is a really stupid mistake and that's it. We apologised for it and I think honestly that's OK."
Halliday says he wasn't so much told off as reminded he should take care when using gifs in future.
Incident two: the Cyberpunk 2077 gender tweet
Roughly a month later, on 20th August, an eager Cyberpunk 2077 fan tweeted at the official game account declaring, "I WANT MORE GUYS", presumably missing an important comma. The Cyberpunk 2077 account sensed an opportunity and replied, "Did you just assume their gender?" aping a meme created to mock transgender struggles for recognition and equality in society.
The shit hit the fan.
But this tweet was not Halliday's doing.
"The Cyberpunk [tweet] isn't anything to do with GOG," he says. "CDP Red have their own social media team - there's five or six of them. The Cyberpunk tweet, the 'Did you just assume their gender?' one: GOG has nothing to do with that. It's a whole CDP Red thing. They have their own PR plans, their own staff."
Nevertheless, the fire was fuelled. It was the second CD Projekt-related Twitter controversy in as many months, and it laid the groundwork for the fallout to come.
Incident three: the #WontBeErased tweet
It's the evening of 22nd October and busybody Sean Halliday is doing a final tweet before bed. "I'll do one more tweet," he tells himself, flicking through European Twitter trends for a hashtag to piggyback. And he finds one: #WontBeErased. "I clicked on it and it was just people talking about their favourite games or films or music they wouldn't get rid of," he tells me. "I was like, 'OK, this fits perfectly with what GOG does,' so I put the tweet out.
"Then - it was like 20 seconds later - an American user sent a message saying, 'This is what the hashtag is actually about...' and it was something to do with a New York Times article - I don't take huge interest in politics in general, let alone American politics; I don't read the New York Times, it's just not something I do."
It was enough to convince Halliday he'd made a mistake, so he deleted the tweet. That's when he drafts his apology he never got to use, and that's when he notifies his manager on group messaging app HipChat, but apparently his manager wasn't overly concerned and logged off and went to sleep - which was more than Halliday could do.
"When I saw people thought I was attacking transgender people, I was - I had my apology ready because it was straight from the heart," he says. "I have no ill will against the LGBTQ community. Coming from the north-east, it's such a big mixing pot there - different genders, different sexualities, different cultures, different religions. I have no problem with it. My favourite shows are RuPaul's Drag Race and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. I follow a bunch of YouTube creators - Kim Justice is one of my favourites."
The next morning, Halliday arrives early at the office full of dread. "I couldn't sleep because I was like, 'Oh god, what the fuck - what the fuck is going to happen?" he says. But when his manager arrives a couple of hours later and calls Halliday into a meeting, he doesn't get the reckoning he'd been bracing for. Instead, it's a four-minute explanation of what happened and then back to work - or back to doing something which looks like work while his mind raced elsewhere.
Various people check in on Halliday - "I looked like shit" - but it isn't until after a solitary early evening dinner in the office, at around 5.45pm, Halliday sees the ominous sight of his manager, his manager's manager, and an HR rep walking towards him. And then we come full circle to the beginning of this piece.
Halliday was unable to answer the fallout following the #WontBeErased tweet. He had to watch as people jumped to conclusions about what happened - although it didn't take a genius to work out someone had been fired given the dramatic change in tone and activity of the GOG Twitter and Facebook accounts. But it took a bit more work to pinpoint that someone as Sean Halliday, and to drag up his contact details and phone him.
"They found the details of my English home," Halliday says, "and my dad was ringing me, like, 'I'm getting phone calls from Americans' - I don't know if they were all Americans, he's not used to accents.
"My dad said one of them was just shouting 'bigot!' down the phone. He's a 64-year-old old-school Geordie, you can hear his age in his voice. Shouting 'bigot!' and 'you should be fired!' down the phone... He was confused as fuck."
They came for Sean on Twitter, they came for him anywhere they could find him, and ironically Halliday found himself in the very thing he proclaims to have spent so long trying to avoid: politics. "That was the one thing I prided myself on, staying out of that whole [GamerGate] discussion for years when it was so fiercely contested," he says.
"No," he adds. "My interest is in video games. To me, video games have been a great help in bringing people together. One my current best friends is an Iranian immigrant and we only became friends because we used to argue over Half-Life 2 being better than Halo 2 - he was a Halo 2 fan."
World of Warcraft helped Halliday change from being "socially awkward" to talking to people from all different walks of life, he says; Pokémon helped him learn how to read and overcome learning difficulties; and Fallout 2 and Diablo 2 helped sharpen his maths because of their statistical natures. Games shaped who Sean Halliday became and what he wanted to become, and now it felt like the whole gaming world had turned against him.
I put Halliday's account to GOG. I put specific claims forward in order to fact-check them, and I asked broader questions like 'What kind of vetting procedure does GOG undertake before employing people?' as well. (For what it's worth, I've been through several months of Halliday's Twitter feed and seen nothing of particular concern. There is a tweet directed at KotakuInAction, the GamerGate subreddit, but it came after the Postal 2 tweet and opposes the "mob".)
GOG sent me this: "GOG doesn't have a policy of publicly discussing our internal decisions in regards to current or former team members. We are not going to comment on these claims, as these are mostly confidential and personal information."
And then: "We'd solely like to say that we never let anyone go due to an isolated incident."
Where does this leave us?
"I'm certainly of the view there is a discussion to be had about video game press and the industry..." -Halliday
It leaves Halliday without a job and down in the dumps, but I'm confident he'll eventually shake it off. And, all things considered, you'd be forgiven for at least suspecting GamerGate sympathies, if not outright support. It's why I decide to stop dancing around the issue and come straight out and ask him: do you support GamerGate?
There's a pause while he thinks.
"I'm certainly of the view there is a discussion to be had about video game press and the industry," he answers, "but I disagree with how most of the GG crowd handle that - though I can say the same about the very liberal side of the culture too.
"I don't really subscribe to any group. I find the whole concept to be a little toxic in general. I'm a huge believer in just talking to people and understanding them, but some you simply can not do that with.
"As for harassment of people," he adds, "insulting them and all that, no I'm not a supporter of that in any shape or form. Same with any walk of life ... the world's rough enough without us attacking each other.
"But as we discussed, I've been on the fiery end of both 'sides'. That highlights a problem with modern society in general: if you don't fully commit yourself to a cause or a label, you're seen as fair game to attack."
Which isn't a 'no', but it's not really a 'yes' either.
It leaves GOG without a lively Twitter and Facebook feed, evidently, but what about the bigger picture?
CD Projekt is adored and revered because it's done a lot of things very right. The games it makes are superb, the way it treats its audience is laudable, and the values it brandishes - gamers first! no DRM! - are exactly what we want to hear. But now we've also heard things we'd rather we hadn't. We've heard these tweets and we've heard reports of entrenched crunch culture, and as the company balloons and the spotlight shines, inside, the pressure rises.
We hope there's no fire to this smoke, we hope it will disperse so we can be unreservedly excited about Cyberpunk 2077, but for now this whiff of deeper issues lingers. CD Projekt called GamerGate an "abusive movement" in July, but when the stage was set for an unequivocal statement of intent responding to the #WontBeErased incident in October, the wishy-washy non-apology blew it.
The messy situation with Sean Halliday has done nothing to clear the air.