Bully Hunters, the controversial campaign charged with fighting in-game harassment of female videogame players, has been shut down by its creator, marketing agency FCB Chicago, following a poorly executed debut livestream, and criticism of its messaging and connection to gaming accessory manufacturer SteelSeries.
Speaking to Polygon, FCB’s global chief communication officer, Brandon Cooke, confirmed the program’s demise. ““As this effort did not live up to our high standards, we decided to end this program, but hope the conversation it has raised around ending harassment in gaming continues,” said Cooke.
The campaign pledged to combat harassment of female players within Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, touting a “vigilante hit squad of elite female gamers” who can be called upon by victims of harassment to join their game and take out the offending party. It was criticized upon announcement for its aggressive tactics that engage harassers in a way that could increase hostilities. That criticism only grew once years-old homophobic and aggressive comments from Twitch streamer Natalie “ZombiUnicorn” Casanova, one of the stream’s hosts, were unearthed and questions arose about SteelSeries’ involvement in the project. Even small details such as the use of pre-recorded footage during the stream to showcase how the Bully Hunters system works came under scrutiny.
The backlash grew to the extent that the Bully Hunters website and Twitter account were taken down over the weekend, and the campaign’s corporate and non-profit partners began fleeing, citing displeasure in how the issue of harassment of women was presented by the campaign. Vertagear and Diverse Gaming Coalition released independent statements saying they received inadequate information from the campaign, yet remained partnered with them until the stream’s broadcast. CyberPowerPC and SteelSeries also distanced themselves following the stream.
The wake of the stream also brought past confrontational and homophobic comments from Natalie “ZombiUnicorn” Casanova back to the surface. Diverse Gaming Coalition cited those comments as another reason for parting ways with the campaign. “Various tweets show wrongdoing by host, Zombi Unicorn, which are actions that Diverse Gaming Coalition does not condone, although she was not solely to blame for the Bully Hunters initiative as a whole,” read the organization’s statement.
Casanova has not shied away from her past comments, acknowledging that she made mistakes and has apologized for them repeatedly in the years since they were made. Speaking to Polygon, Casanova said, “I paid for it, and I apologized for it profusely. I used that language in a moment of frustration. I was being harassed by a griefer who was hacking in the game to get to my location, and he kept killing me over and over again. It’s not an excuse. There’s no excuse to what I did, but I had never said anything like that before, and I never said anything like that again afterwards.” She added, “If you take those tweets and you look at what I’m responding to, I’m responding to people who are harassing and trolling me, and treating me like crap … I’m pretty sure everybody has at some point told somebody, ‘Hey, fuck off. Leave me alone. You’re being a dick right now.’ A lot of these people are acting like they’re holier than thou, like they’ve never made mistakes.”
Casanova emerged as the most vocal spokesperson for the group in the lead-up to its debut, due in part to her own experiences with harassment from parts of the gaming community as she grew in popularity as a Twitch streamer. She says that harassment has only grown since she got involved with the Bully Hunters campaign. “Now I’ve suddenly been labeled as this fake person who’s doing this for money when anyone who knows me knows I’ve been in the industry working for this for a long time. This one campaign isn’t the only thing I’ve done, and it’s not the last thing I do either,” said Casanova. She also denied having any control over the direction of the campaign.
Of the corporate partners the Bully Hunters secured during its brief history, SteelSeries’ involvement in particular was called into question as the women featured in the stream wore SteelSeries headphones, leading some to believe that the campaign was receiving monetary contributions from the company. In their own statement, SteelSeries denounced that claim and the campaign overall:
The way BullyHunters represented the gaming community was wrong and disingenuous. Most gamers don’t experience harassment, and more importantly, 99%+ of gamers don’t do the harassing … We would never take advantage of an issue like bullying to sell hardware. They asked us to supply some headsets, support the call for positive change, and we did. Although we still believe in a world where harassment isn’t tolerated, it’s clear to us that BullyHunters is hurting, not helping, that cause.
Cooke confirmed that FCB Chicago was the “sole creator” of the Bully Hunters campaign and that the project did “not provide any kind of financial or formal sponsorship” to any of its partnering organizations. “SteelSeries helped connect us with a few gamers and provided some headsets for the live event. That’s all. One [host was paid], but the other was not,” said Cooke.
Despite its controversial beginnings, shoddy launch and ultimate demise, Casanova believes the campaign succeeded in one of its goals: opening a dialogue on the harassment of women within videogame communities. “Love it or hate it, it did its job. It’s brought a lot of attention to this. It’s opened up the discussion to more people. Yeah, it’s brought a lot of trolls, but it’s opened the discussion,” said Casanova.