A Death in the Family: Alec Holowka Zoë Quinn & the Gaming Inquisition

“Of all the rumors and conspiracy theories that have been going around for ages about the industry, I will tell you that the reality is far worse. And the far worse reality is: this is an industry full of greedy, social lunatics. They’re all fuckin’ crazy, greedy, selfish people, um, who…who aren’t knowingly doing anything bad, but are simply awful. Awful and void of any artistic value.” – Edmund McMillen


The above quote by Super Meat Boy developer Edmund McMillen was made in his 2014 response to then circulating GamerGate theories as to what accounted for the corruption in the Independent Games Festival, a staple accolades distributor within the indie games community that had come under fire for showing obvious bias to those in former IGF president Brandon Boyer’s personal sphere. These theories ranged from money making schemes to operatives working with or in DiGRA, a tax funded “think tank” that serves as little more than a vehicle for self important ideologues who don’t play video games to go on tour and proselytize, via anachronous PowerPoint, to empty office rooms about the latest progressive trends to ooze from between the cracks of closed Facebook groups and discord servers. McMillan had a much simpler take at the time, and this observation is more relevant than ever before as this described behavior has now claimed the life of one of their own, Night in the Woods co-creator Alec Holowka.


Cult of Personality

At the center of this death is, predictably, Zoe Quinn: a grim satellite who orbits around industries she is incapable of participating in in any meaningful way but who is able to cajole the sympathetic industry press she’s made a bed with into inviting her to events and describing her as ordained. In lieu of producing content, she will occasionally place herself at the center of controversy and then cry foul at the inevitable backlash when visibility or Patreon income get below the acceptable stressor limits that Topamax is able to mitigate. She is earnestly, breathlessly, endlessly referred to by the increasingly propagandized press as being a “games developer” despite having made one simplistic click-sim that could only just pass the Greenlight standards for hosting, and while the quality of Depression Quest is often a point of ridicule, it may be that she simply needed a hastily fashioned but technically finished piece to manipulate others into legitimizing for the purposes of establishing herself as a peer.


Following the lead of fellow gender-grifter Anita Sarkeesian, she also amassed 85 thousand dollars of Kickstarter money for a game that has since been given up on as vaporware. She went before the UN and made the perfectly reasoned argument that the government should step in to keep people from commenting negatively on her actions. She sabotaged a game jam organized by a progressive outlet seemingly because it conflicted with her own. And she has herself been accused of sexual harassment, a claim that resulted in notorious woman-respecter and one hit wonder Phil Fish having another of his then patented Twitter tantrums. These are but a few of the many readily available and largely ignored behaviors of a person whose insatiable appetite for validation knows no limit, but in light of recent events I believe one of them stands out against the rest as foreshadowing so arrant it could be pulled straight from pulp fiction.


Object Lesson

In 2014, Cole Nasrallah (then known as Mallorie) made a public post on Facebook describing events that took place during a 2007 photo shoot Nasrallah was hired by Quinn to organize. Nasrallah, who is a professional photographer, was there less than a day before Quinn began recounting a wild series of stories centered around sexual assault that featured herself as the victim:


“While we tried to plan a shoot for the next day Zoe, and Co. chatted with me. She claimed to have stabbed a man – attempted rapist – in the face, who had grabbed her. She relayed to me no less than three other accounts of alleged violent assault. I will not share the details here, I feel that would be fundamentally indecent. I was alarmed at this, and I admit, by the time she made the claim that she stabbed a man in the face with a knife* and ran away, I was skeptical as well. Two claims involved alleged workplace incidents, and were her prime explanation for why she could not hold a job. I was mildly disconcerted, because true or false, these stories have good cause to make one uneasy. She also claimed to have reported nothing to police, or management at her work.”


It bears repeating that this isn’t something posted in reaction to the allegations against Holowka, this was an event from 2007 being described in 2014. And that was only part of it, the rest of the post, the comments, and a 2019 follow up expound on the story and include screenshots of Quinn’s forum activity where she continues to indulge violent fantasies and spin improbable victim narratives. This account by Nasrallah, while at least in part is backed by the forum screenshots, has its detractors. Blogger, and Mike Cernovich superfan, Margaret Pless for instance made the argument on her blog at the time that Nasrallah’s account is unlikely because she simply didn’t like Quinn for being an unprofessional model and for not paying what money was owed. One could conceivably take this stance, but one would have to concede that Nasrallah was incredibly lucky to fabricate and describe a pattern of behavior exactly in line with what we see today. And that’s saying nothing of the pages of screenshots and emails; were those fabricated, too? However, if Nasrallah’s claim does have merit, then there are two key takeaways from this post that should be considered under the current circumstances: that Zoe Quinn has no qualms with making blatantly dubious claims of sexual assault and that Zoe Quinn is not shy about sharing these claims with seemingly anyone who will listen.


Gone, but not Forgiven

These allegations came in the wake of Nathalie Lawhead making a similarly unsubstantiated claim against a more successful figure in the games industry at the end of August, a claim that, as it went on, revealed a more lengthy grievance for 2,320 dollars she felt owed from the games company her accused was then associated with. Not to be outdone, or as some have speculated, in a pre-meditated joint attack, Quinn then dropped her claim shortly after. This claim was filled with the usual mewling, shrinking violet language that Quinn adopts when presenting a narrative for her pocket-press to regurgitate across the internet.


This language stands in sharp contrast to her typical coarse, masculine affect, replete with cursing, scatological references, and threats of violence that have more in common with the cartoonish windmill painted of the “trolls” she often sets herself against. We are led to believe that she was scared, vulnerable, physically confined and slowly isolated, a completely helpless tower damsel scenario of the variety that Sarkeesian might bemoan if you changed the names around and put in your video game. Frailty, thy name is Quinn.


After Holowka’s suicide, the loyalty oaths began almost immediately. Depending on how keen one is to cancel culture, especially on the left, one may or may not find it the most disconcerting that his own sister was willing to go all in with Quinn’s narrative without hesitation. Holowka’s sister is herself a self described feminist and has all the markings of a standard ex-campus progressive. Whether or not she actually believes Quinn’s account, however, is irrelevant. A positive signal towards it is absolutely critical if she, or any of the other ideologues and unknowns crawling out of the woodwork to rebuke him with cavalier Official Statements™, are to remain in good standing among their socially ravenous, dogmatic peers. 


Not to be left out of the effigy burning, Holowka’s co-creator Scott Benson cast his own stone at the procession by issuing an account of working with Holowka that describes him as unstable and volatile. Many of the instances listed in this account could have conceivably been handled with direct language or a refusal to be party to them at the time they happened. Others sound like the result of pressures one might reasonably expect from being part of a small team struggling with time and money, especially with someone in as fragile a mental state as so many are eager to remind us that Holowka was in. Through Holowka, Benson scored a hit with Night in the Woods and took the opportunity of his death not to recuse himself from comment or simply stand by the work they created together, but instead to relieve himself of constipated anger while simultaneously setting himself up as a lesser victim in the narrative, deserving of any runoff sympathy from Quinn’s allegation.


The press coverage has been dully redundant. Each headline from the usual gamut of religio-political outlets avoid unpleasant use of the word suicide and opt instead to refer to Holowka as having “died”, treating it as an occurrence within a vacuum. Using soft words and obfuscation is typical of an ideological press when they have a stake in downplaying something objectively terrible that’s happened which doesn’t fit their narrative, most especially if they may have had a hand in facilitating it. The contents of these articles spotlight Quinn and rehash what they had written just days prior when celebrating her allegation and follow the formulaic script that women in games are somehow, always, eternally under dire threat despite being given preferential treatment at every possible level and the ability to wield social media as an unstoppable destructive force against whomever they please. But they also feature the bonus insult to readers’ collective intelligence by suggesting his death was the fault of trolls, or gamers, or GamerGate, or whichever other coat on a hook that casts an ominous shadow is currently en vogue with those seeking to misdirect an audience.


The Weak and the Wounded

What to make of Alec Holowka? 

It’s clear that Alec had struggles with mental illness, a fact Quinn herself says she was aware of before deciding to attack him. And this attack is what fundamentally drove him to suicide: these sometimes vague, sometimes unnecessarily explicit allegations that were dug up seemingly to hitch a wagon to Lawhead’s claim jettisoned Alec into exile from the only industry in which he saw himself viable the moment they were published, and Alec lacked the fortitude to live as a pariah. To anyone looking at this case with even an iota of intellectual honesty, Quinn’s behavior matters when taking these allegations into consideration: her history of telling unlikely sexual assault themed stories to near strangers matters. The unceremoniously shouted down accusation of sexual harassment against her by Wolf Wozniak matters. The unaccounted for Kickstarter money matters. The unprincipled, promiscuous behavior matters. The general belligerence and dishonesty that a variety of unrelated sources have reported either witnessing or being subject to at her hand matters.


And they matter because they are exactly the red flags deserved of scrutiny that inquisitorial cancel culture allows bad actors to bypass when they target someone else with a serious, potentially life-ending claim.


If we are going to say that since Alec had a history of volatile behavior it’s possible he’s guilty of everything Quinn described, this is the stance that Benson and Holowka’s sister imply they’ve taken, then it’s important that we are at least willing to admit that the same could be said of Quinn: that since she has a history of duplicitous behavior, it’s possible that she made it up, in whole, in part, or in exaggerate. There is as much to make this case against Quinn as there is to make hers against Alec, seemingly moreso since Quinn’s run-ins have often been documented in one fashion or another. But when allegations from such a dubious source are enough to drive a man to suicide and then warrant an immediate show of fealty from those who were closest to him, the answers as to why may lie less with the players themselves and more upon the stage which they are set.


Western games development has a pathological problem in that it is a relatively small clique that, if McMillen’s earlier quote is to be believed, had an already unsavory element that has since taken to evangelizing on social media and beyond in the polarizing wake of events like GamerGate and Trump’s election. Weaker, agreeable personalities like Benson, who will take all manner of abuse until they feel they’re in a safe enough position to lash out, and the unstable, mentally ill like Holowka, who are prone to cycles of aggression and despair, may feel a false sense of empowerment and agency by misdirecting their negativity into industry encouraged but ultimately impotent blank-check tirades about political figures, or by purity spiraling into an ideological rabbit hole, or by casting themselves as the hero of a chosen “marginalized” group and picking fights with random people on their behalf without a hint of nuance or self awareness. This frenzy makes a cozy home for social predators like Quinn, who have no real skin in the game but check enough ideological boxes to operate not just unopposed but enforced, feeding on and exploiting the foolish or broken who both make the mistake of letting them in and hold the relevance they covet but are unable to earn through merit.


If an unlikely policy revision in the community’s handling of Twitter-tattling and emotional politicking isn’t made, that is to say, if the customer focused industry standards of the 90’s and before aren’t revisited and imposed so it might begin to resemble something sane and reasonably discreet, then we can expect the breeding ground of paranoia and fear to continue to grow, attract and favor the worst among them, rendering the industry an unproductive machine that spawns entertainment of the darkest variety.


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