Phasmophobia is probably the best ghost game ever made, retains a considerable playerbase, and this year has been dealing with a community scandal that, over the last week, blew up. The furore centres around an administrator for the game's Discord, who goes by the handle of Charcoal Salamander, who is accused of both offering to share nude photographs with another community member, and making racist comments. What happened with these accusations, or didn't, is what's brought this to a head.
The controversy began in January when Charcoal was accused of sexually harassing another community member on the 25th. Developer Kinetic Games suspended them while investigating, before accepting Charcoal's evidence on 30 January with other admins spending "around two weeks" before concluding Charcoal "never did anything wrong nor did he harass people." Charcoal was subsequently reinstated to their position.
Things subsequently went quiet until August 15, when the studio received a further email about the allegations. As it did not contain any additional evidence, and had previously been 'resolved', lead developer DK decided the studio would not investigate itself.
On 27 August, things began to happen. The allegations began to re-acquire traction within Phasmophobia communities on places like Discord and reddit, while a new account on the latter began messaging Kinetic Games' lead artist Corey 'CJ 'Dixon about them (CJ from hereon in).
Charcoal is accused of using racist language on at least two occasions, with video of scrolling screencaps showing them talking about "squinting" in the context of Chinese people, before going on to tell a racist joke about Japanese people. The second accusation is that Charcoal received nude pictures from someone else, and offered to share them with a friend in DMs. There's no indication as to whether he did share the pictures or not, only that the offer was made. There are screenshots of exchanges that appear to back up these claims. Other claims, which don't seem to have any proof associated with them, I'm going to leave aside.
CJ's responses to this reddit account's concerns about Charcoal were not good. In DMs that were later made public, the developer writes: "The whole sharing nudes thing, he's explicitly said he didn't ask for them, she sent them anyway at own risk. So if he wanted to give them to a mate thats fair game imo. I dont agree with it, but its not punishable as in removing them from the team. But I can have a convo with them."
Phrases such as "fair game imo" in the context of sharing nude pictures should have anyone with a bit of decency cringing, and is probably as bad as responses get. Lord knows that the internet and wider society has issues with this stuff, but it's not normal and never 'fair game' to share nude pictures without consent: it is a criminal act under various pieces of UK legislation, and can be described as revenge porn.
When CJ's comments were made public it triggered a community explosion, with no shortage of people condemning the developer's response. To be absolutely clear about where we are at this point: people believe Charcoal should be stripped of their responsibilities and banned for these alleged past acts; people are further incensed by developer CJ's comments, which are widely seen as downplaying the allegations and representing some unpleasant strain of 'bro' culture.
The controversy reached such a pitch that Kinetic Games belatedly realised it had made a mistake in its handling of this situation. It issued a statement on Saturday saying that "we would like to apologise for the way we have handled the situation, keeping the admin on as long as we did and for the slow response, he should have been removed from his position and banned sooner."
Our response to recent events. pic.twitter.com/3nihbzau4bOctober 1, 2022
It says that upon the allegations being freshly re-surfaced with these new screencaps it began an investigation in conjunction with its Discord admins. "We came to the conclusion that the admin involved needed to be banned from our discord server, he will no longer have any involvement with the Phasmophobia community and there is no opportunity for him to be involved in the future."
Recognising that CJ had also become part of the story, the statement goes on to "apologise for the way one of our developers approached the situation, he has since apologised for his words and will learn from this experience in the future [...] This will not happen again going forward."
This did not settle things. People were angry about what Charcoal has been accused of doing, they were angry about Kinetic Games seeming to be dismissive of the allegations for a long time, and they were furious about how CJ had attempted to handle matters.
I have omitted elements of this brouhaha because, honestly, it's a big old mess. But it is worth saying that, as well as the bad stuff, CJ did engage with the account making these allegations and pressed for proof that could be acted upon. This contradicts the idea he was outright dismissive of the claims. He's also clearly realised he's made a mistake and, albeit after his responses were exposed, issued a fulsome apology on social media.
But in a sign of how fraught things had become around his and its involvement, Kinetic Games has now issued a further statement clarifying elements of the initial statement.
We wanted to clarify our version of events and the reason we took the actions we did and to further apologise for how we handled the situation. pic.twitter.com/RTr37DJq10October 2, 2022
I wouldn't blame you for skipping that wall of text. It gives a timeline of events from the developer's point-of-view, admits this matter was handled poorly, and emphasises that CJ has issued an apology and wrote like they did because of "misinformation" about what had gone down. It ends (emphasis theirs):
"None of the Kinetic Games development team condones sharing private images of any kind without consent. We would also like to emphasise that we do not condone the racist remarks that Charcoal had posted, and they do not reflect the views and values of the rest of the team.
"We will be restructuring the official Phasmophobia Discord's staff. We will be vigilant of any future misconduct, and we will react firmly and appropriately. Finally, we will make sure to be involved personally with any investigations in the future, should they occur.
"We sincerely apologise for how we handled this situation, we recognise the mistakes we have all made, and we will do better."
This is on one level a sadly all-too-common story on the internet, one that allegedly involves sharing nudes and racism in nested-away spaces. On another, it's an unusually messy example of the problems contemporary developers face when things like community management and semi-official Discord channels aren't treated with the professionalism that these areas often require.
As will no doubt be clear by now to Kinetic Games, it doesn't matter to most people that the developer didn't really run its own Discord channel, preferring instead to use it for announcements, the occasional dev drop in, and leaving the day-to-day management to volunteer community members and admins. That may seem an ideal solution but, then again, most island utopias have a tendency to end up like Lord of the Flies.
This is an object lesson for developers in how one bad apple can eventually rot the whole barrel. By leaving this matter in community hands for so long, and trusting that the right conclusions had been drawn, Kinetic Games left itself open to the charge of, essentially, not caring about some pretty unpleasant stuff that was going on in what I'd regard as an official channel for the game: perhaps the main one.
The studio has, albeit belatedly, done the right thing. One of its developers has learned a tough lesson about how to respond to serious allegations. And Charcoal has been smoked. It feels like things are now cooling down, though the stench may yet linger for a while. Ironic, of course, that a game about mostly unseen horrors should come unstuck for refusing to take the real-world ones seriously enough.