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How a reckless lie caused huge internet drama for Path of Exile's developer

Path of Exile
(Image credit: Grinding Gear Games)

Yesterday, Path of Exile developer Grinding Gear Games and its community were the victims of an extremely asinine hoax. In a thread on the Legal Advice subreddit, a disabled person said they were banned from Path of Exile for using a macro to help them play. That post sparked discussion and outrage that quickly spread throughout Reddit and social media.

"I can't use one hand and some fingers on the other after an industrial accident," a redditor named poelegalthrowaway00 wrote in their now-deleted post. Here's a link to an image of that thread. They go on to explain that they can't play Path of Exile because the game requires players to frequently use potions to survive, which are bound to number keys and need to be pressed every few seconds (though that changes depending on your specific character build). "I physically can't press 4 keys every few seconds so I use a macro that automatically does it for me."

The issue apparently at play here was that using these kinds of automated programs is against Path of Exile's—and most multiplayer games'—terms of service. Macros that automate certain tasks, like when to trigger a healing potion, can be used to undermine the game and gain a competitive edge. In more elaborate cases, macros can be used to play a game without any human input, like in World of Warcraft's infamous gold-farming bots.

But using a macro to assist with a disability is a very different territory. Like a lot of ARPGs, there's a lot of clicking and button pressing in Path of Exile, and the game moves at an extremely fast pace with a lot of action on screen. Aside from a few basics like being able to rebind keys, there aren't a ton of built-in options that help make Path of Exile more accessible to a bigger audience. Some players even go out of their way to theorycraft specific character builds designed for disabled players.

In the thread, poelegalthrowaway00 explained they were banned for using the macro and was curious to know if they had any legal recourse against Grinding Gear since they supposedly had spent "hundreds of dollars" on the game's microtransactions. Naturally, the post quickly drew the sympathies of other redditors who upvoted the thread to r/legaladvice's front page. It then spilled over onto Twitter and other social media platforms. Players were upset. An innocent player had gotten caught up in the machinery of some automated system and was unjustly banned for it, and people wanted to see a happy ending.

The plot thickens 

People are already skeptical of people claiming to be disabled. So, congratulations, troll. You did it. You made the world a harder place for legitimately disabled people to get the attention of devs.

Steven Spohn

When I saw the thread, I contacted Grinding Gear Games CEO and founder Chris Wilson to see if poelegalthrowaway00's ban was being investigated. Wilson told me that the studio was looking into the issue but couldn't find any cases of a player being banned that matched the few details given by poelegalthrowaway00. "We're curious about what happened here because banning for this is not in-line with our internal policies and we can't find any evidence of it occurring," Wilson said.

Meanwhile, the backlash on social media was growing. Disability advocates like Able Gamer's Steven Spohn were discussing the incident and asking Grinding Gear to investigate and overturn the ban. Other gaming outlets like TheGamer and GameRant also published stories on the original Reddit thread, increasing the lie's visibility. But without any more leads, there was nothing Grinding Gear could do.

Then, late last night, poelegalthrowaway00 posted to the Path of Exile subreddit and admitted the whole thing was made up.

Path of Exile, like most ARPGs, requires quick reflexes and a lot of clicking on things. (Image credit: Grinding Gear Games)

In that second post (which was also soon deleted along with the original legal advice thread), poelegalthrowaway00 claimed to be "an educator" who was teaching their class about "how easy it [is] to manipulate public opinion and discourse through social media."

It was a bizarre and unexpected twist, made even more weird by poelegalthrowaway00's attempts to justify why they'd spread lies or how redditors should have seen through the bullshit. As if people don't already know or understand that it's pretty easy to make stuff up on the internet. And why pick Path of Exile's community, of all places? 

Minutes after that second post was made, however, it was edited and the original message was replaced by someone claiming to have hacked poelegalthrowaway00's Reddit account using their security questions. A few minutes after that, the post was deleted entirely—though not before people grabbed screen captures of it.

Poelegalthrowaway00's confession that they're really a teacher seems just as dubious as their original thread. The only thing we know for certain is that this was all a pointless and insensitive hoax.

"Honestly I feel kind of sick about all of this," Wilson wrote in a follow-up email to me.  "It's undermining the legitimacy of real issues and the Twitter thread caused us some pretty bad PR damage."

(Image credit: Grinding Gear Games)

Honestly I feel kind of sick about all of this. It's undermining the legitimacy of real issues and the Twitter thread caused us some pretty bad PR damage.

Chris Wilson

In addition to Grinding Gear being dragged through the mud—not to mention the stress it likely caused community managers and developers trying to fix the issue—it's equally infuriating how the post hijacked accessibility issues to express the obvious fact that lying can be harmful.

"Pretending to be a disabled gamer to harass a company is the lowest of low," Spohn wrote on Twitter after learning the truth. "People are already skeptical of people claiming to be disabled. So, congratulations, troll. You did it. You made the world a harder place for legitimately disabled people to get the attention of devs."

Spohn's point can't be understated: A lot of disabled players cannot play games without adequate accessibility options. Players often have to petition developers to include these tools or rely on third-party solutions like Microsoft's Adaptive Controller. It's why advocates like Spohn and charities like Special Effect do the work they do to raise awareness. 

The relationship between fans and developers can often be antagonistic. When players want something in a game to change, they feel that their best option is to speak up as a group. That's true when they want a weapon nerfed and when they want to stand up for a fellow player who they think was mistreated. It's not uncommon for these calls to mobilize the masses to go viral. It's an exploitable dynamic and poelegalthrowaway00 duped quite a large number of people exactly as they intended. But any point that poelegalthrowaway00 was trying to make is wholly undermined by the fact that they actively contributed to the pain and erasure prevalent in so many online communities—especially when you're a minority like a disabled gamer.

It's like Smokey the Bear trying to teach people about the dangers of forest fires by burning down a goddamn forest. Doing harm just to prove it can be done is horrifyingly malicious. Assuming poelegalthrowaway00 is telling the truth about being a teacher, I pity whatever students are stuck learning from that asshole.

Steven enjoys nothing more than a long grind, which is precisely why his specialty is on investigative feature reporting on China's PC games scene, weird stories that upset his parents, and MMOs. He's Canadian but can't ice skate. Embarrassing.