On Stephen Shellen and Why Gaming Must Grow Some Empathy

This year’s E3 Eidos conference showed how the character of David Sarif will be played by a new actor in Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. Threads speculating about the circumstances of the swap of Stephen Shellen for Rick Miller popped up all over the official Deus Ex reddit page. 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.

A few years ago, Shellen created a series of conspiracy theory parody sketches in which he plays a mentally-unstable character called Hobo Steve. One of the videos got ripped from the channel and was reposted without context by Youtube user The Aspergite. Within days, 20-something major gaming and tech news sites ran near-identical vitriolic articles claiming without a shadow of a doubt that the the video represents Shellen engaging in a real conspiracy rant. In the four years since these articles were written, 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.

The matter eventually died down, but now Shellen is once more in the spotlight. Only this time, the sensationalist picture of Shellen that these articles painted has become a kind of meme. No one seems to want to question it. All these new threads overflow with the effusive speculations of fans who are now convinced that Shellen is unstable, that his contract was terminated due to this instability, and worse, that he only got hired for the role of Sarif in the first place because of it. 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. No one says it but the implication is clear: As Eidos are keeping conspicuously quiet about all this, clearly something along these lines must have gone down.  Fans feel that there is a conflict they must pick a side on, Eidos versus Shellen. No one wants to associate themselves with mental illness, so it’s easier (and more fun) to just parrot the memes without questioning the sources. News sites are generally accurate, right? You can’t just publish anything on a mainstream site, right?

I smelled a pretty big rat, and so in the spirit of ethical journalism, I contacted Shellen to get his side of the situation. This article is an attempt to summarize everything we discussed, 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. Since that has not happened, now Shellen and his family are facing a new wave of harassment and stalking. The range of transgressions is worrying. He has been inboxed disturbing messages, some of which he still keeps. His Wikipedia page has been vandalized with everything from harmless jokes to implied death threats (and yes, these edits are documented.) These fans are doing it for entertainment and possibly to some degree, expecting Shellen to understand the humour. But Shellen is not savvy to Internet and mainstream gaming cultures. This has also resulted in Shellen not being able to return to the gaming industry since HR. Not returning for Mankind Divided was his choice as the fruitfly thing affected him badly, but he would still would have liked to do voice acting in other games.

Part of the reason the situation escalated in the first place was due to how Eidos refused to stick up for Shellen when over 20 gaming news sites simultaneously ran the same vicious story about his supposed breakdown. A simple clear-up tweet would have sufficed, or even just quiet emails to the editors of the publications in question. After the speculation about Shellen’s personal life erupted on their official boards, something should have been done as well. While I feel it is not a company’s responsibility to stand up for an employee’s personal struggle, the article writers made it Eidos’ business. They were the ones that associated Shellen’s name name with the company’s in a negative context.

I get this can be pretty confusing and complicated. 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 asked him to return 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 remained silent regarding the slanderous articles, 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 a lot of trouble if they had done that.

So is Shellen actually crazy?

A) I’m not a doctor and B) his mental health status is 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 youngest children having been attacked, and then from becoming homeless for a considerable amount of time. As of editing this article (August 2017), I have spoken with Shellen and his family for over a year on a regular basis. He 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 within the Hollywood community 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.  I do not believe he is delusional.

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

The fruit flies video is a 5000% staged parody. It’s part of a series of sketches. Here is one of the other videos. 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?

A big portion of what is said about what Shellen believes is fabricated for sensationalist purposes. He doesn’t think the illuminati are after him, and he doesn’t actually believe in insect drones (although they exist). But he does strongly believe there is corruption in Hollywood and in the government.

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 happening behind the scenes. 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, and experienced retaliation. His ex-wife and two youngest children were attacked in their own home. The idea was to intimidate Shellen enough to keep him quiet. When that didn’t work, he began being stalked. This affected him so greatly that he lost his home. 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 story in depth 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. However, the more I looked, the more it checked out. 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. He is not the only one with a story like this, by the way. Very famous people like Elijah Wood also have them.

Why is he so against transhumanism / augmentation?

Did you play Human Revolution? Remember all the bad things that happen to the characters, the protagonist included? 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 to be augmented? Shellen thinks that these are real potential problems that we should think long and hard about before jumping head-long into transhumanism. Progress can help many lives, but sometimes it’s good to check the ground before stepping forward. This is a healthy mindset.

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 dismissed him, and that he is a “disgruntled ex-employee” as a result. This is absolutely not the case.

The stuff that wasn’t his fault: Shellen has been officially diagnosed with PTSD. This comes with sleep problems and panic attacks. When he began working on HR, he slipped up a couple of 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, which 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, who he was friends with, after his work on the game wrapped up, when the articles were posted. 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. This is all our baby. The articles wrongfully slandering Shellen were bad enough. They were way, way out of line. 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.

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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.

    Liked by 1 person

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