shutting the office

This post I’m going to talk about Adam Koebel, my personal feelings and sense of bitterness towards him, and minor reconciliation. As such, this post will include references to sexual assault.

Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.

Søren Kierkegaard, Journals IV A 164 (1843)

On March 31st last year, as part of his ongoing actual play series Far Verona, Adam Koebel roleplayed the unconsented sexual assault of one of his players. Despite some initial, considerable outrage, he continued to release content for his channel until the 4th April, with an apology on twitter that he posted the day before. On the 8th of June, in a blog post to his personal website, he says that he is moving on. A few blog posts here and a couple of tweets there, have been all the online activity I’ve seen. An announcement from July of that year, about his removal as a writer from the Dune RPG, is the last RPG post that I can see. For now, it does seem like Adam is “gone” in the online sense of the world.

I will lay my cards on the table. I was a huge fan of Adam’s show Office Hours where he took questions from listeners on TTRPGs. I sent two questions in, which Adam answered and was extremely nice towards. I never watched any of the actual play pieces he did; I’ve tried repeatedly to watch podcasts like Adventure Zone and Critical Role, but I invariably bounce off them after a time. I’ve come to accept that I just don’t like the format, and I’m going to stop forcing myself to like it despite the great popularity it has. I thought that Office Hours was an important series because the DM principles that Adam outlined seemed so essential. His views on the role of the DM resonated so profoundly with me that I would not be surprised if my style shifted overnight having watched his series. He captured nuances and talked in details that I didn’t think any other Youtuber was covering, and I ate it up.

I will joke about things that make me uncomfortable. It’s something I’ve always done, and it’s definitely gotten me into trouble before, and will get me into trouble again. It’s a coping mechanism for sure. There’s another element of this which is a very poor reaction to stress that I have. Stress causes me immediate and obvious pain, I’d describe it like painful pins and needles or a light burn that sort of throbs across my body. It’s very bizarre, but this also causes me to spasm, usually involving my hands. Uncomfortable situations cause me a great deal of stress, stress causes me pain and spasms, pretty simple – so I joke with people, I joke to make those uncomfortable situations go away. I’ll joke with people, and then go and privately spasm on my own time (as is my right). Maybe everyone does this and it’s not just me, I’ve not really asked.

Why am I talking about this? Because I joked at Adam’s expense about the events above. While I didn’t go onto twitter to send bile at him, I was incredibly bitter about the series of events with friends. For a moment, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that I really did hate him. This was a heady mix of him violating the DMing principles that he espoused, with a subject (sexual assault) that someone operating in his political sphere (TTRPGs being a pretty left space) should know better about. I wanted to tear him out of my life, and so I did. I unsubbed (gasp!), removed any mention of him from my RPG discord, disconnected a bot that fed videos from his channel to it. I left his community discord, and went about my life. Maybe there’s a sense that, by doing this, I was somehow unburdening myself, but judging by the fact that I’m writing about it now, that clearly wasn’t the case.

I felt like I had been betrayed. I felt like someone who I looked up to, who I agreed with the principles of, had exposed what their real character was. Everything else was for show, everything else was a fraud. This feeling wasn’t borne from some sense of moral revulsion, it’s far more basic than that. I had been lied to, I felt like a sucker – and nobody likes feeling like a sucker. Here I’d been, sending questions into, following, and recommending the videos of someone who clearly didn’t believe what they were saying! Now everything he said was tainted, how much else had he lied about? There’s a sense that, in sharing these videos and taking pleasure in featuring in a couple of them, I was now partially responsible for what had taken place.

In his blog post titled ‘Moving On’ on June 8th 2020, Adam talks about the community reaction to what happened:

I continue to be the recipient of hate, vitriol and targeted abuse both in public and in private spaces. I’m being emailed anonymous threats of harm if I ever return to broadcasting or attend a convention, messages telling me I shouldn’t exist at all let alone be allowed to “come back” — voices shouting that nothing I had previously said or done or made mattered in the face of my mistake. People are telling me that redemption, for me, is impossible.

Whenever there’s a public figure who has committed some awful act, it seems fairly common that they bemoan the effect it has had on them. My mind goes back to the apology letter from a certain Dota 2 commentator, accused of sexual harrassment, who stepped away from the scene while simultaneously saying they did nothing wrong, and that the toxicity in response was impacting their family. There’s a gut response here of like, fuck you. Don’t act sorry and wounded because people are rightfully disgusted by what you did. Don’t play the victim when you were the perpetrator. Don’t talk about yourself when you should be talking about who you wronged. I feel no sympathy in the Dota 2 case, possibly because I wasn’t terribly attached to that person, and largely because I feel what they did precludes them from working in that industry ever again.

If you look at some of Adam’s tweets, you’ll see the responses he’s describing in the post. You’ll also see a lot of supportive comments, and a lot of “head in sand” comments from people who don’t think Adam did anything wrong. The line from the blog that resonates with me most is the “People are telling me that redemption, for me, is impossible”. Does that not terrify everyone? I feel like this idea of people just being “damaged goods” that cannot be fixed leads to so many terrible things, with the least bad of them being “them getting harassed on twitter”. But simultaneously, would I want that Dota 2 commentator back in the spotlight? Would I not be utterly outraged if they were given air time? Is this a question of ‘degrees of bad’, where what Adam did was awful, but not so awful as to knock him into the “you’re never allowed to make content again” world?

I don’t know. If Adam came back today and started making Office Hours again, I wouldn’t watch them. As much as I loved the series, and as much as I thought Adam’s advice in it was incredible, my trust has been broken. But there’s a part of me which feels like people should be able to look back on the series, watch, it and learn. There’s a part of me which feels that if he did come back, I wouldn’t begrudge anyone who wanted to watch them – it just wouldn’t be for me. I’m not equipped to say how long Adam should be shunned for; I don’t think anyone is. I think it’s a personal decision for everyone who watched his content, or would come to watch it. I do think that people who sent Adam messages, saying he’s an awful human, threatening harm, whatever – those people need to take a look in the mirror. There isn’t a space in the TTRPG community for what Adam did, but there’s also not a space for that either.

In my day job, I try and find systematic reasons for why people have made mistakes. These aren’t mistakes in the Adam Koebel way, but mistakes in terms of programming and other worky-type things. It’s important for me to do this because I don’t think we get anything from blaming individuals in the workplace. I feel like it’s my responsibility to help create an environment where those mistakes aren’t so common, with a recognition that it could have been anyone who made it. I don’t buy the “personal responsibility” angle that basically defines the right wing, and enables people to hold some truly horrific views of other human beings. I want to do more to blame and hate broken and unfair systems, rather than the people that live in them. The question is how I can reconcile this with a belief that Adam screwed up, and that I won’t watch his content again? How can I reconcile this with a belief that I never want to see that Dota 2 commentator’s face ever again? What’s the system that led to them doing what they did? I don’t know.

The simple, systematic answer for the response harassment is that Twitter, Facebook, and other bits of social media are so bad. I feel like the lesson of the last 15 years, possibly the lesson of the 21st century, will be that these platforms were a mistake. I want to believe that, at some point in the far future, people will look back on this period in tech and think “what the hell were they thinking”. If that doesn’t happen, maybe the future is far bleaker than I want to believe. We’ve gained nothing from their existence. They’ve not promoted greater commonality of man, they’ve created factions and ingroups. They’ve not given us a venue to express our compassion, they’ve promoted hatred, publicized bile, and given a platform for ideologies that should have been destroyed long ago. Why should anyone be surprised that these awful comments are rife, when absolutely nothing about the platform inspires people to interact with any sort of candour or understanding. All of that UI design, that A/B testing, making it as easy and friction-free as possible to tell someone to kill themselves in 280 characters or less. Whatever we got out of this, it wasn’t worth it.

So what’s the summary of this blog post? Have I come to some eureka moment, where everything’s clear and delightful? No, not really. I’m still bitter about what Adam did. To my own chagrin, I cannot bring myself to watch the whole scene from Far Verona. I have tried on numerous occasions, but I just can’t stomach it – I close the video every time. Maybe there’s an element here that I don’t want to see someone who I looked up to, doing something so awful. There’s also the tiny fact that I don’t want to watch someone roleplaying sexual assault. I guess, if there was a summary of this it would be “how bloody awful this all was”. However, I am feeling better about having written it all down, so there’s that.

I won’t be posting about this again: despite the shortness of this post, I don’t think there’s anything more I want to say on it. What I will say, is that there’s still a void in my needs where Office Hours used to sit. I’ve tried getting into Matt Colville’s Running the Game series, and I do watch them from time to time, but I disagree with Matt on so many things, and dislike the lack of focus. It feels like the diet version of the series I loved. It’s like your favourite TV series getting cancelled, so now you have to watch the Netflix produced equivalent and it’s fine, but that’s all it’ll ever be. C’est la vie.

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