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Open Roads Studio Co-Founder Steps Down Amid Allegations of Toxicity

Open Roads won't release in 2021, in part because of reported toxic behavior at developer Fullbright.
Open Roads won't release in 2021, in part because of reported toxic behavior at developer Fullbright. / Photo courtesy of Fullbright

Steve Gaynor, co-founder of Gone Home and Tacoma development studio Fullbright, has left his position as creative lead and manager on the studio's upcoming title, Open Roads, after several former employees claimed he fostered a toxic work environment.

The Open Roads Twitter account revealed Gaynor had left day-to-day responsibilities on the game to the team, and was now working solely as a writer in a tweet Wednesday night.

"We care deeply about creating games that have a positive impact," wrote the studio. "We are also fervent believers in fostering a work environment that is healthy and collaborative, where we can work with transparency, autonomy, and trust."

Shortly after that tweet went live, Polygon published a report detailing the hostile work environment that had allegedly grown under Gaynor's leadership. Twelve former employees, 10 of whom are women, said Gaynor would micromanage and undermine women who worked under him. One former employee said he would frequently laugh at the opinions of employees and attempt to embarrass them in front of coworkers, and six other employees corroborated that characterization.

Fullbright had no process through which employees could report Gaynor's behavior, lacking a dedicated human resources employee. One employee wrote to Open Roads' publisher, Annapurna Interactive, to detail what she described as "the worst professional experience [she'd] had in games."

Gaynor hasn't been accused of any physical harassment. Although he remains a writer on Open Roads, he left his leadership role in March and has no day-to-day collaboration with the remaining team members at Fullbright. Annapurna Interactive is operating as a mediator between Gaynor and the team.

Gaynor released a statement following the publication of its report apologizing for the pain he'd caused.

"Stepping back has given me space and perspective to see how my role needs to change and how I need to learn and improve as part of a team, including working with an expert management consultant, and rethinking my relationship to the work at Fullbright," he said.

"I care deeply about Open Roads and the Fullbright team. I'm sad to have stepped back from day-to-day development of Open Roads, but it's been the right thing to do. The Open Roads team has my full faith and support as they bring the game to completion."

A Fullbright representative told Polygon Open Roads would not arrive as scheduled in 2021.

Analysis

When news broke about the situation at Activision Blizzard, many rushed to attribute the toxic behavior to Activision's acquisition of Blizzard in 2008. This counterfactual narrative allowed its adherents a chance to plug their heads in the sand — surely their beloved developer had been pure and chaste before this massive corporate merger, and it was all big bad Activision's influence that led to this rampant sexism and harassment.

Of course, the toxicity at Blizzard predated the acquisition. That much was made clear in the lawsuit and subsequent reporting. And it goes to show that, no matter a company's size or reputation, it can fall victim to the same toxicity that permeates the industry.

The news about Gaynor's misconduct at Fullbright serves to underscore that truth. This is a studio beloved for its nuanced and progressive portrayals of women, for centering women in its narratives, and for making games freed from the hype cycle of triple A development. It's also a studio with a small, human-scale staff. Even still, all it takes is one toxic leader to create a hostile work environment. Misogyny and bullying are traits independent of artistic ambition.

If size and stated values aren't enough to protect employees from the environments their bosses create, those employees need to find another way to hold leadership accountable. That's where a union comes in. With a union, workers can band together and exert influence over their workplaces. They can withhold labor until toxic leaders are disciplined or removed, and they can put workers in a position to negotiate with management about what is and is not acceptable conduct in the workplace.

The Activision Blizzard case could be hand-waved away as a pitfall of big business — too much bureaucracy and entrenched power to stop toxicity from propagating. But the Fullbright revelations put the lie to that claim. Your company will never be your family, no matter how small or progressive it may be. The only real protection workers have is solidarity, and a union is the only way to effectively wield that solidarity.