On Stephen Shellen and Why Gaming Must Grow Some Empathy

This year’s E3 Eidos conference showed how David Sarif will be played by a new actor in Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. Since then, threads speculating about the circumstances of the swap have popped up at the official Deus Ex reddit page. And that is understandable. Sarif is, after all, one of the more popular characters in the franchise reboot. Fans want to know about the reasons behind such a big change. But there is an uglier side to this.

A few years ago, Shellen created a series of conspiracy theory parody sketches in which he plays a nutjob character called Hobo Steve. One of the videos got ripped from the channel and was reposted without context. Within days, 20-something major gaming and tech news sites ran near-identical and utterly vitriolic articles claiming without a shadow of a doubt that Shellen is insane. In the four years since, most have been removed, but a couple remain. Here’s the one published at The Escapist. And Neowin too. These remaining articles are still the top search results for “Stephen Shellen” – you go try it. They play a disturbingly vivid testament to the dirt-low level that mainstream gaming journalism finds itself at.

So now that it is clear that Shellen is not returning for Mankind Divided, he is once more in the spotlight. Only this time, the picture of Shellen that these articles painted has become common knowledge. All these new threads overflow with the effusive opinions of fans who are now convinced that Shellen is unstable, that he got fired for being crazy, and worse, that he only got hired for the role of Sarif in the first place because he is paranoid. No one says it but the implication is clear: Eidos are keeping conspicuously quiet about all this, so clearly something must have gone down. So it’s Eidos versus Shellen, and you feel you have to pick one. Crazy is uncomfortable, it’s awkward and difficult to address so it’s easier to just not check if it’s actually true and you side with Eidos. How else would you explain all those articles? News sites are generally accurate, right? You can’t just publish anything on a mainstream site, right? And cue new speculation, not about Eidos’ corporate policy, but about Shellen’s private life and mental health status. On Eidos’ own official Reddit page.

I smelled a pretty big rat. I wouldn’t usually care, but it’s like when you read a story and you’re not quite sure if the events are real or if the hero is in a coma. It bothers you, it makes you feel queasy, and so you want to know what is actually up. So Shellen and I have been talking quite a lot. This article is an attempt to summarize everything he has told me, and it was published only after he was happy with its accuracy. What is clear to me is that the damage done by all those poisonous articles could have been mitigated if left in the past. After all, most news sites did the honorable thing and deleted theirs. But no, of course not, that’d be too easy and so it didn’t end there. Now it’s the consumers, the gamers that are making the lives of Shellen and his family members hell. Look, I know this is the Internet. But actions still have consequences.

Shellen has been harassed by gamers (not even going to call them fans) ever since this started. The range of transgressions is worrying. He has been inboxed disturbing messages. His Wikipedia page has been vandalized with everything from harmless jokes to implied death threats (and yes, these edits are documented.) The latest resurfacing of the fruitfly scandal (fruitflygate?) has only served to bring on a new wave of users spreading slanderous gossip and directly sending Shellen offensive messages. They are doing it ‘for the lulz’ and possibly to some degree, expecting Shellen to understand the humour. But he is not young and he is not savvy to Internet and mainstream gaming cultures. The last time he was in touch with the industry was in the early 90s. That’s back when the biggest deal was the race between Nintendo and Sega to see who got to 32bit first (Sony won, by the way). I’d be willing to bet most of the harassers were not even born by then. I wish these people developed enough self-awareness to understand that what they are doing is not funny. It’s hurting real people who are not in on the joke.

So let’s have a little chat about boundaries.

This whole mess also means Shellen couldn’t get a single job in the gaming industry since HR. Not returning for Mankind Divided was his choice as the fruitfly thing affected him badly, but he would still like to do voice acting in other games. This is a big deal to him. Like I said before, if you google him, the top search results are the nasty articles. Then there’s the discussions on forums and social media. Some even try to diagnose mental issues on him. In real life, veteran psychiatrists refuse to offer a diagnosis without tests and a hefty amount of therapy sessions. It’s got to the point where I’ve seen posters on Reddit trying to outdo each other’s outlandish claims regarding what Shellen supposedly believes, Stig-style.

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“Some say his voice can only be heard by cats, and that he has two sets of knees.”

I firmly believe that Eidos should be deleting these threads from their various official boards. Hell, part of the reason this escalated so much in the first place was because they refused to stick up for him when over 20 gaming news sites simultaneously ran the same vicious story about Shellen’s supposed breakdown. All based on nothing but a contextless ripped video, by the way. And yes, I believe it is absolutely not a company’s responsibility to stand up for an employee’s personal struggle. But the article writers made it Eidos’ business. They were the ones that associated Shellen’s name name with Eidos’ in a negative context. See it this way: Outsiders speculated about an employee’s intimate life details in relation to his work in the company. This lead to the consumers of the company’s products spreading gossip about it, often on the company’s own turf. They then chose to do absolutely nothing about it, allowing the speculation to accelerate. A simple statement would have fixed everything. Shellen would have felt valued by Eidos, his family wouldn’t be going through this mess, and we would still have his voice in our games. Studios wouldn’t be avoiding him like the plague.

Look, I was pretty confused by all this when I first learned about all this too. The questions you have are likely the same questions I had. So we’re going to do this as a kind of dialogue. A FAQ, if you will.

Did Eidos fire Shellen for being nuts?

No. They even begged him to come back for MD. He was not fired, and neither did he quit. As of the wrap-up of HR, Sarif was meant to stay dead. It was only when Eidos decided to bring the character back that they contacted Shellen to ask him to sign a new contract. But because Eidos stayed silent regarding all the slander that went down following hashtag fruitflygate, Shellen did not feel comfortable working with them anymore and chose not to return for the role.

And even if – even if – Shellen was mentally ill, to fire or to make him quit for being disabled would violate the Duty to Accommodate bill, which is part of the Canadian Human Rights Act. Eidos would be in very hot water if they had done that.

So is Shellen actually crazy?

A) I’m not a doctor and B) his mental health status is literally none of anyone’s business. But I do understand that in setting out to write this article, I implicitly accepted to talk about it.

According to Shellen and his partner, the only mental illness he has been officially diagnosed with is post-traumatic stress disorder. He developed the condition as a result of his ex-wife and two children having been attacked, and then from being homeless for a considerable amount of time. And my personal opinion? No, he is not delusional. For a while it did bother me that he could just be acting sane. Acting is his job, after all. But here’s the thing. When we first talked, he had no clue who I was or if my intentions were what I said they were. I daresay he even felt intimidated, because I totally could have turned out to be a troll fishing for information. I don’t think you can really act if you don’t know your audience.

For that reason I feel Shellen has always been sincere and sane when talking with me. He is also articulate and rational. Key aspects of his story were verifiable by other people. His history of being stalked has clear causes, events, and dates. In my humblest of opinions, there’s just too much that checks out for it to be all a delusional fantasy.

The fruit fly video seems so legit though. Are you sure he’s not just backpedalling regarding its origin?

Once more for the people in the back: The fruit flies video is a 5000% staged parody. It’s part of a series of sketches. Here is one of the other videos, feat. an impressively well-toned shirtless Shellen. The channel these were for is called TrutherGirls, and yes, the hosts do talk a lot about conspiracies. But this is not Shellen’s channel.

What about all that stuff he talks about? He is a conspiracy theorist, right?

90% of what people are saying he believes is bullshit. He doesn’t think the illuminati are after him, and he doesn’t actually believe in insect drones (although they exist). But yes, he does believe there is corruption in Hollywood and in the Government.

Okay. From here on it gets very delicate. I urge you to not joke about this. It is incredibly personal and painful to Shellen and his family. I feel I should also mention that his partner, whom he has known for 40 years, was in the same room when he told me all this. It doesn’t make what he said fool-proof by any means, but I feel that having someone else in the room lessened the chances that he was lying or exaggerating. So here is the story: Shellen’s background is Hollywood. Over a decade into his career, in the early-to-mid-90s, he found out that there was a lot of child abuse going on. It involved people who considered themselves too rich for the law to be applicable to them. Shellen made the mistake of being vocal about it. Some people didn’t like that, and made his life hell in retaliation. They took his company. His ex-wife and two toddlers were attacked in their own home. The idea was to intimidate Shellen enough to make him shut up. But he didn’t stay silent quite as much as they wanted. That’s when the stalking started. Eventually it all messed him up so bad that he ended on the streets. Okay, you might need a minute to take that all in. You good? I’m not asking you to take this at face-value, but perhaps I can suggest you keep an open mind.

In the days following our initial conversation, I was absolutely ruthless. I picked my notes apart and scrutinized every word. I researched the fuck out the story to see just how many discrepancies I could find. I have to confess, I wanted to catch Shellen out lying because the story is just so sad. The terrifying part? The more I looked, the more it checked out. I’d give details but as you can probably imagine, it’s all pretty personal stuff. You don’t have to believe me. But I feel I should just let you know that I questioned everything.

One more thing. Let me ask you, have you ever suspected there’s corruption in the government? That some gaming sites take secret payoffs from developers in exchange for good reviews? That cops target black people on purpose? That some other group deliberately aims to control some facet of society? Then congrats, you are a conspiracy theorist. Shellen was neck-deep in Hollywood culture. The average person hasn’t experienced what people like him have. To say that it’s all impossible is both pig-headed and small-minded. He is not the only one with a story like this, by the way. Really famous people like Elijah Wood also have them.

I can’t say for absolutely sure if everything Shellen told me is completely true. As far as conspiracy theorists go, though, his claims appear plausible to me, if that means anything.

Why is he so against transhumanism / augmentation?

Did you play HR? Remember all the bad things that happen to the characters, Adam included? You know, not owning your body anymore because technically you’ve signed it out to a corporation? The identity issues that arise from heavy body modification? And the question of who exactly gets augmented? Shellen thinks that these are real potential problems that we should think long and hard about before jumping head-long into transhumanism. Progress is fantastic and all but sometimes it’s good to question things. This is a healthy mindset.

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And we all know how that went down.

I hear he was not exactly a star employee.

Some truth in that, but mostly no. After I showed him each draft for this article, Shellen always emphasized that I should make it clear that he was sometimes not the best co-worker. Some of it was his fault, some of it wasn’t. The narrative I hear a lot on forums is that Shellen was such a problem worker that Eidos wanted to kick him out, and that is why he is a “disgruntled ex-employee”. This is absolutely not the case.

The stuff that wasn’t his fault: Like I said, Shellen has been officially diagnosed with PTSD. That comes with sleep problems and panic attacks, among other such joyful things. When he began working on HR, he fucked up a few times and mixed his sleeping medication with alcohol. He showed up to the studio in a condition unfit for work once. Shellen’s partner confirms that his work ethic was otherwise a good one. He gave up drinking during the production of the game. HR was a positive motivation for him to go clean. I have little doubt this is true, as Shellen has shown me email logs where he is discussing the matter with a co-worker. They were pleased with him for his positive life changes.

The stuff that was his fault: Shellen has a temper and can be impulsive. He snapped at the sound director after HR wrapped up, when fruitflygate broke out. They were friends. He felt betrayed by Eidos for their passivity and took it out on the person he hoped would help him. Ugly things were said that he regrets. Not condoning Shellen’s actions here, of course, but this incident happened after he had finished voicing Sarif. You can’t discipline an employee when they no longer work for you.

Why should I care about this?

Because gaming journalism is a shambles, and it’s a shambles because the community has become pretty toxic in the last decade or so. You can try and pin the blame on a single group all you like, but as I’ve written before, this is all our baby. The articles making wild gossip about Shellen were bad enough. They were way, way out of line. I study journalism at university, and the first thing they teach you is that publishing libel will get your ass handed to you in court. If the rest of the publishing industry did a fraction of what gaming journalism gets away with, all writers would be in jail. But guess what, these authors are part of our community. They are gamers too. As consumers, we’re doing just as bad as they did when we keep speculating about a voice actor who isn’t even savvy to the gaming industry. It’s callous and it’s cruel. The Internet needs to move past this particular brand of venomous culture and grow a sense of empathy. Or else gaming won’t survive very long.

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11 thoughts on “On Stephen Shellen and Why Gaming Must Grow Some Empathy

  1. Great article.

    Shame for fans of the David Sarif character, although I’m sure the new actor will be able to fill the character’s shoes. Hopefully this incident will encourage Eidos to come to support people who have a hand in their works by stepping up for false claims and blown of proportion stories. I mean really, it was based off an out-of-context video.

    As for empathy, I think when it comes to gaming specifically they have to take advantage of the fact that games can really immerse the player in its’ settings. We identify with the character we are controlling, we see their struggles and share their goals. I think good games are those where we get to see a totally different perspective but can still relate to the character and want to see them succeed. Maybe a game set in Syria about someone trying migrate after losing loved ones in the war, if done right and consulted by or even developed by someone who has gone through these trials it could be a great way to tell a very engaging and grounded story within the context of a game. Really get the idea out that games can explain different concepts and backgrounds instead of just being Hollywood-like trite.

    Like

  2. I know Stephen. He is completely normal. He has a great sense of humor. I guess everyone doesn’t get that. He has definitely gone through some shit but he owns it. He is not crazy. Don’t judge him on that video. I can’t even believe that I have to defend him.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Dianne! Going to paste your other comment here, as both are important:

      “I know Stephen Shellen. Yes he has definitely been through some hard times but he is not crazy. He is a sweet, caring man with a hell of a sense of humor. Unfortunately most people don’t know that. Damn he deserves a break already.”

      Dianne, I am not sure if the exasperation you are expressing is regarding the slander this article seeks to denounce, or the article itself. If it’s the latter, I invite you to re-read it in the knowledge that I am on Mr. Shellen’s side. I sought to speak to him when the scandal resurfaced because something did not seem quite right to me. I wanted there to be a published article to counter all of the poison that has been written. I make no money doing this. Nothing whatsoever. And the article wasn’t published until Mr. Shellen was totally satisfied with the content – it took 2 complete rewrites and 3 drafts. We worked closely on this.

      But I also wanted the readership to take the matter seriously. “Gamers” tend to be hyper-cynical young men who don’t take well to appeals to emotion nor to being told what to believe – unless, of course, it’s something negative and outlandish that they feel they can get a cheap laugh out of. Hence why the tone of this article is inviting the readers to draw their own conclusions rather than presenting my personal opinion of Mr. Shellen. The audience this is for would not give a second thought to what I wrote here if it contained anything but clinical rationality.

      And here’s my opinion, to add to yours: Mr. Shellen is incredibly sweet, down-to-earth, and SANE. Reminds me a lot of my own Dad, whom I am close to. Getting to know him made me want to curb-stomp every asshole in the gaming community who ever caused him harm.

      Thank you for your testimony, Dianne. You are a good friend.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I have had the pleasure of speaking with Stephen Schellen a few times. He is a kind and compassionate human being in my view and far from being crazy. His fruitfly videos were the first thing I ran into before meeting him. The video sent me into gales of laughter. I cannot for the life of me understand how any reasoning person could see this video as anything but comedy and satire.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Shellen is a quirky and wacky guy. He does crazy spontaneous things but he is not crazy. I am happy to call him my friend…we could all use a bit more Steve Shellen crazy…I think it is healthy!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks for writing such a brilliant and honest article about my friend, Stephen. I had the pleasure of him staying with me for a week, and then he and his partner for another week. We spent countless hours talking about his past, and world affairs in general. I saw absolutely nothing in his personality that would suggest insanity or instability.

    What I DID see was a man with a huge heart and great compassion for humanity. I saw a man who has been abused in the most horrific ways by the very community and “government” that we’re told we can trust.

    I will always hold a special place in my heart for Stephen because I got to know the REAL person behind the Hollywood facade.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. *sigh* Nothing but endless fool, copying everything they here, uttering venomous nonsense and giggling at it like maniacs.

    A beautiful read, rare wisdom to see in a Sea of mediocrity and patheticness.

    Last time I seen an actual real human being like this was like 6 months ago, and that’s tragic, well done striving for justice.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This article is an excellent summary of Stephen’s life, as he has told me in many segments during their stay for one year+ sharing my house and studio. From this experience I can tell you that he is ABSOLUTELY NOT CRAZY by any means. Yes he is traumatised by the horrible stalking experiences. Truly anybody would feel that way. He is an excellent artist in several disciplines despite the trauma. He’s simply a great guy with a lot to say.
    Respect to him.

    Like

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