“Ahab is for ever Ahab, man. This whole act’s immutably decreed. ‘Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before the ocean rolled. Fool! I am the Fates’ lieutenant; I act under orders.”Herman Melville, Moby Dick
(CW: Links containing descriptions of sexual harassment, transphobic language, domestic abuse)
Over the summer, darkness lurking just under the surface eclipsed the fighting game community, exposing some of its most foundational figureheads and personalities as unconscionable, sometimes prolific, abusers. Resulting action was, thankfully, fairly swift and decisive – many prominent tournament organizers levied out bans and seemingly serious talks are under way to begin formalizing a proper Code of Conduct for FGC events. Enforcement of the action has unfortunately been muted due to the ongoing COVID-19 global pandemic, but these are important first steps nevertheless.
There has been much chatter amongst the community on social media if some of these bans are overreactions and oversteps, a grievance summed up by Ryan “Gootecks” Gutierrez in a recent interview. Is there a cutoff point for past behaviors that would be seen as transgressions against a formalized Code of Conduct in the present? Is a ban always the answer in most situations? Could this realistically be enforced across even just the United States, let alone globally?
All difficult questions that would require a lot of time, good faith, and diverse opinions. That said, while bans may seem harsh and fatalistic in one context, they should primarily be seen as preventative harm reduction for not just the community at large, but the various sub-communities the offenders enhabit. There seems to be a notion, sometimes expressed in good faith, that so long as someone acknowledges harm and keeps a low profile of sorts, the problems cease and life can continue. Even if the offender has multiple allegations spanning lengthy periods of time, the acknowledgment, the bare minimum, is enough for many to say “They did their time.” Where this notion falls apart is the ignorance to how far many abusers or narcissists with abusive tendencies are willing to go to protect themselves or their desires, even if it alienates everyone around them or fractures the communities they belong to.
Essentially, they are Ahab.
Ahab is one of the main protagonists of Herman Melville’s seminal 1851 novel Moby Dick, the captain of a whaling ship called Pequod. The book is a chronicle of the Pequod’s final voyage, a hunt for a massive albino sperm whale named Moby Dick who has taken Ahab’s leg on a prior voyage. Ahab is clearly focused on revenge, but it goes even deeper than that: he sees Moby Dick as an “inscrutable thing,” an unknowable force beyond nature that specifically wants to stop him from getting on with his life. Fate has cast him in the role as the enemy of Moby Dick, and neither can rest easy so long as the other lives. His obsession is such that it is hammered into his crew, who through either weariness or similar stubborn pride pledge their loyalty to Ahab, even as it is clear they are sailing to their death. And that death comes horribly, as Moby Dick destroys the Pequod and drowns all but one of its crew, including Ahab, after a 3-day showdown.
That is just a work of fiction, of course, but the observed behavior is anything but. While it may seem ridiculous that someone could be so blind as to the consequences and damage their actions are doing, reality has a funny way of proving that to be true. There have been many recent examples just in the fighting game community, both broadly and at a local level, where one individual takes it upon themselves, much like Ahab, to put themselves and their ego above all else, ignoring the wider reaching consequences. In this instance, there can be no other solution than a ban because the effects go beyond the individual and harm the community around them as well.
The most obvious example of one person butchering their nose to spite their face and in doing so torpedoing their reputation and hurting everyone around them, is the baffling case of Mike “Mike Z” Zaimont. Zaimont is a longtime member of the FGC who eventually transitioned into making fighting games. The game he worked on, a crowdfunded collaborative effort called Skullgirls, has a passionate fan base amassed through a completely open-ended relationship between the development team and its players. After its initial independent success, the Skullgirls team suffered a series of setbacks with publishers and funding, eventually creating their own studio, Lab Zero Games, and raising funding through more crowdsourcing after their IP holder was restricted from further financial support. To say that a very dedicated team (remember that) of developers, as well as the goodwill of its loyal fans, was crucial to the growth and development of Skullgirls, both as a game and a competitive mainstay at tournaments, is a massive understatement. That fact makes the events of recent months all the more galling.
Zaimont, who has already long had a reputation as an acerbic individual, came under intense scrutiny for a ghastly live mic gaffe. During a streamed tournament of Skullgirls, intended to raise money for the civil rights group Black Lives Matter, Zaimont, a commentator for the event, referenced the murder of George Floyd in an attempt at wordplay, which could be described as in extremely poor taste at best, and actively racist at worst. The comment was ignored on the broadcast, but Zaimont made a later attempt to defend his joke to the stream chat, drawing even more attention to the issue. He quickly issued a mea culpa via Twitter, which didn’t get him out of the hot seat but acted as a minor panacea:
That initial incident served as the catalyst for many who had been wronged by Zaimont in other ways to finally speak out. Less than a month later, he was again embroiled in controversy, this time over accusations of sexual harassment from women who had interacted with him, both online and at fighting game events. This prompted an even harsher communal response: a ban from the (presumed) 2021 Combo Breaker event, and an open statement from a host of commentators, organizers, and players of Skullgirls, recommending that Zaimont be banned for at least 2 years from any involvement or attendance at events featuring the game:
Even Lab Zero Games took notice, issuing a quiet acknowledgement of the allegations and a commitment to commenting on them at a later date. Curiously, despite this commitment, LZG maintained radio silence for the next month, leaving many people confused as to why there seemed to be such hesitance in even issuing a statement of some sort reprimanding Zaimont.
The reason for that silence was eventually revealed when Brian Jun, an art producer for LZG, posted a message on Twitter announcing his immediate resignation from the studio in protest of a behind-the-scenes power play from Zaimont:
In summation, LZG employees and its board of directors discovered a consistent pattern of systemic abuse from Zaimont that included sexual harassment amongst other forms of abuse toward his co-workers. All involved agreed that Zaimont needed to exit the studio, which he verbally agreed to. However, due to a deal struck previously in order to transition the studio into a 100% employee-owned worker cooperative, Zaimont was the sole owner of LZG, and thus held a disproportionate amount of say over the terms of his separation. The rest of LZG found his terms both inappropriate and illegal and rejected his demands. Seemingly out of spite, Zaimont retracted his earlier agreement to exit the company and dissolved the company’s board of directors, leaving him with total control over his own employment.
Jun wasn’t the only employee to walk out in outrage. Many more followed suit, with some, like former creative director Mariel Cartwright, elaborating on their own experiences with Zaimont. Across all of these resignations, a clear picture is formed: Zaimont, who had taken on the role of being Skullgirls‘ public face, frequently used his senior position to do whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted, while also cultivating relationships with those who could help boost his profile and come to his defense when he needed it.
Many people in the Skullgirls community have been re-examining their own relationships with Zaimont, and how those who crossed him were isolated and made to feel as if they made a mistake, if they had misjudged such an obviously important figure. This shows exactly why someone who has a proven history of abusive, narcissistic behavior can’t stick around: the longer they stay and amass social clout and even the barest modicum of power over others, the more that ego and narcissism will come out and hurt a greater amount of people. Appeals to reason and public shaming to get an apology didn’t really change him because those were acts of concession in order to continue doing what he had been doing. His white whale was the persona of “renegade, genius fighting game designer who is always right,” and at no point was he going to stop doing what he saw as necessary to achieve that, even things as deplorable as sexual harassment and taking tyrannical control of a company to avoid facing responsibility for those actions.
Much like the destruction of the Pequod, Zaimont’s actions have left Lab Zero Games utterly depleted of the talents that made its two efforts, Skullgirls and Indivisible, possible. This is not to say Zaimont did nothing; his code powers both games, and it was a significant contribution. But it has become clear that this was used by him in order to center his ideas, his viewpoint, to make him appear to be the sole reason why these games succeeded. There is simply no space in any community that is dependent on cooperation between different groups and insistent on inclusion to have an Ahab so dedicated to their personal validation and agendas that they would destroy everything else around them in order to achieve those goals. Skullgirls, its original team, and its community will survive without Mike Zaimont because it could not survive with him.
While Zaimont is the the biggest recent example, there are plenty of smaller examples of Ahabs obsessed with being justified in their harmful actions and their narcissism, harming or causing a schism in their communities. A partial list:
- Seon-Woo “Infiltration” Lee, who attacked his wife in a domestic dispute and, even after confessing to the crime and paying a fine for it, sought retaliation in court against both his ex-wife and several members of the Korean FGC who were critical of him on a message board. Insisting that he “didn’t assault his wife,” Lee sued the aforementioned group for libel but, according to his ex-wife, did not win. Commenting on the matter is still considered volatile there for that reason.
- Elliot Bastien “Ally” Carroza-Oyarce, a Super Smash Bros. player who was found to have been having a sexual relationship with an underage fellow competitor after having denied it in the past. Carroza-Oyarce “retired” thereafter, but the Smash Code of Conduct panel, who works in an unofficial capacity with many major tournaments to regulate behavior, had two active investigations against him, including the underage relationship, and subsequently ordered him permanently banned. He has since returned to competing earlier this year in his hometown of Montreal, Quebec, Canada, disregarding the panel’s recommendation, in addition to picking fights with the head of the panel in an attempt to prove that he was wrongfully targeted and to undermine their efforts
- In Philadelphia, a local player spoke out on behalf of one of their broadcasters, who she knew to be a target of harassment with unsatisfactory intervention from the local TO, who was also the owner of the venue these events took place in. The broadcaster confirmed this, and provided additional information. The TO’s response was to defend his decision on Twitter with increasingly belligerent responses, to the point of threatening legal action. A fellow community leader and member of the local FGC team resigned, citing his own frustrations with the response of the TO. The drama ended with the TO stepping down from running tournaments and solely running the venue, but not before banning the broadcaster from the venue in retaliation and posting a 48 page screed defaming her character and stubbornly insisting that he was made a victim of a Twitter mob
- In Michigan, one of the lead TO’s of the now defunct Michigan Masters tournament, Jay “Mr u Suk” Gary, spoke up this year about why he doesn’t attend local events. One of the nearby venues had levied a suspension for longtime FGC figure Chris “All Caps” Carey over a heated dispute, and that at a recent point he had threatened to attack Gary physically, although that didn’t factor into his month-long ban. Gary was upset that the threats to him had no impact on the suspension, hence the tweet. This was far from the first time that All Caps had faced a ban of some sort – he was banned from Michigan Masters as well as the Youmacon Battle Opera convention. The implication from that thread was that it was a long time coming, which was elaborated upon later, with numerous instances of All Caps espousing transphobic language and threats of physical violence. Some other locals chimed in, saying All Caps and his most fervent supporters made them reluctant to attend. All Caps responded in kind, not at all regretful over the threats or his own ban, and faced no further consequence despite the pushback.
In the final chapter before the Pequod confronts the white whale, Ahab laments to Starbuck, his first mate and the only person on the ship who confronts him about his obsession: “Why this strife of the chase? why weary, and palsy the arm at the oar, and the iron, and the lance? how the richer or better is Ahab now?”
Confronting an Ahab usually means confronting someone who is, in what can only be described as tragic irony, aware that they are being self-destructive. Ahab is under no delusions that his life is for the worse; in the same speech he laments that he “made a widow” of his wife as soon as he married her, and that he will likely never see his young son grow up to be a man. In spite of all that regret, Ahab pushes on with his doomed quest to slay Moby Dick, wondering all the while “what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me?”
These are the kinds of details that make Ahab a deeply complex, rich character to analyze in a piece of literature. Stories and narratives are often how many people try to make sense of the world, to take characteristics and traits that compound us in life and commit them to page or screen to try and share that with a wider audience to spark a greater conversation or hypothesis. But as rich and fulfilling an experience as that can be for fiction, stories can’t account for the countless collateral damage that these character flaws often have in the real world, or that the concept of ‘redemption’ and ‘character arcs’ don’t play nicely in reality.
A small community like the FGC has little to no resources to commit to truly restorative methods of justice, and instead must maintain its focus on protecting the people in it from harm by keeping those who would harm it out. As fascinating as it may be to wonder how someone like Gonzalo “ZeRo” Barrios would claim to not remember soliciting sexually explicit photos from underage girls twice before admitting it to it and deleting all his social media, that centers Barrios and his story, and not that of either his victims. That is the same mode of thinking that allowed that kind of abuse, which exposed itself more publically in many instances, to go underexplored.
Recognizing an Ahab is recognizing someone who is, regardless of their good sides and overall decency as a person, deeply toxic to a community. For all those good traits, their incapability of accepting the consequences of their actions and inability to change have greater potential for serious damage. The complexity inherent in trying to establish a baseline of expected behaviors should be acknowledged and brought to discussion, but it should also be acknowledged that there are some people whose potential for causing harm outweighs their potential contributions to a community. Bans cannot be the only answer, but they must be an answer, because the only way to stop an Ahab from causing more harm is to remove them from their position in the community, full stop. If that is still seen as an overreach of power, then the community has a lot of growing to do before it can confront the ugliness that plagued the summer.