Paizo’s Controversy, Bad Behavior, and the Dilemma of Ethical Consumption

Folks who read this blog or who know me in person probably realize that I’m a pretty big shill for the Pathfinder RPG. While I love a lot of different role-playing games, Pathfinder has won my heart due to a combination of rules, art, and creative worldbuilding. On the other hand, while I have always appreciated the work Paizo Publishing has done in creating both Pathfinder and its sister game Starfinder, I’ve never particularly idolized the company. This week is a good example of why.

Paizo is currently embroiled in a major controversy of its own making, due largely to poor decisions by management and atrocious actions taken by some of its most influential members. The company has had some serious issues for a number of years, and many of those problems are now on display for the world to see. This has all raised questions in my mind about ethical consumption, especially when it comes to luxury products like RPGs. By continuing to buy Pathfinder products, am I condoning Paizo’s bad behavior?

The answer is…well, complicated.

What Sparked it All

Just before Gen Con, the biggest gaming convention of the year, Paizo fired its long-time Customer Service & Community Manager Sara Marie. This kicked off a wave of reactions that the company, in the depths of preparing for a major PR push for its next year of products, was ill-prepared to deal with. For starters, Customer Service Representative Diego Valdez quit immediately in protest.

I will never know why Sara Marie was fired. However, she had been an employee for 12 years and, as one of the most patient and understanding public-facing members of the company, was beloved by much of the community. Diego Valdez had similar high regard, and for good reason. Paizo’s customer service team has been a strength of the company for a long time. Even when the company completely fumbled the ball, such as by having a non-functional website in the month following the release of the Pathfinder 2nd edition playtest, the customer service team got through difficult times with aplomb. So, naturally, there was going to be a lot of disappointment from the fanbase about the unexplained firing of such a beloved and professional individual.

The firing seems to have been the straw that broke the camel’s back after years of a very hostile work environment behind the scenes. Following those two departures, a number of former employees aired complaints about Paizo’s management. Some of these issues resemble a typical dysfunctional office environment. Others, such as suggestions that Paizo’s long history of diversity and inclusivity in their products was a subject of contention in management, were more troubling. A good breakdown of who has made which complaints can be found in the Pathfinder 2e Reddit.

I don’t take all of these complaints at face value, as some of them are presented in a manner that suggests a deliberate misreading of context in order to pursue an agenda. However, too many of the complaints, including some of the worst ones, are corroborated by others. Furthermore, statements from current employees at Paizo reinforce the notion that the environment there is downright terrible. Through Gen Con weekend, the best hope anybody could seem to offer is, “It’s slowly getting better.”

Regardless of which details are true and which are exaggerated, something is very clearly wrong at Paizo.

Weak Responses from Management

Just prior to the start of Gen Con, Paizo’s President Jeff Alvarez posted a response to the allegations on the company’s forums. Unfortunately, it was the sort of non-answer that ultimately makes matters worse. Alvarez asserted that Paizo had always included people of color and LGBTQIA+ characters in their products, but did nothing to address the accusations that this had happened despite management, not because of them.

Following Gen Con, Alvarez posted another, more detailed response. This one deserves some credit for touching upon the specific complaints made. Among other things, it discussed anti-harassment training that the company mandated beginning this year and endeavors to strengthen their HR department.

Unfortunately, that response lacked any sort of acknowledgement that Paizo leadership is the problem. Through Gen Con weekend, the common theme from past and present employees alike was that the Paizo environment was uncomfortable due in large part to management taking a “you’re lucky to be here” attitude, as though employees should be willing to suffer poor pay and vast indignity because they get to work on games for a living.

The fact is that the Paizo creative team is not lucky to be there; Paizo the company is lucky to have them. And while their might well be some soul-searching going on among executives, the responses read all too closely to managerial responses in bad work environments that I’ve been in before. In those situations, management provided a few cosmetic changes, but the major problem remained because they refused to reevaluate their approach. Unless somebody is willing to look at themselves and admit that their behavior is a problem, they won’t change in a meaningful way.

The Dilemma of Ethical Consumption

My immediate reaction as this unfolded was to cut ties with Paizo and move on to other games that could scratch the same itch that Pathfinder does for me. Unfortunately, there is a major problem when it comes to just boycotting a company in this manner: corporate America is set up so that the people responsible for the problem are protected, and those who suffer are often the victims themselves.

There are occasionally situations like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey where those powerful individuals who directly committed a wrong are held responsible for their actions. Unfortunately, those are few and far between. Such situations get even rarer when the problem is not a specific person but rather a culture that a number of individuals in power have created.

I could very well boycott Paizo, and perhaps it will come to it in the future. However, the direct results of a large-scale boycott would hit the writers, editors, customer service workers, and the like. And while seeking new work would probably be in the best long-term plans for many of those individuals, I don’t desire to make their lives even more stressful than it already is.

Luckily, because Paizo’s forums and various social media outlets do give a level of direct interaction with fans, those buying the books do have a certain degree of power in this situation. They can’t force moves or revamp the culture, but they can communicate with people like Alvarez or publisher Erik Mona and remind them that they are watching. So far, the folks on the Paizo forums have done a good job of pointing out that Alvarez’s statements are either toothless or, at best, something that needs significant follow-up. The challenge will be to see if the community can continue pushing for accountability months and years from now.

To be clear, I’m not saying that a boycott is a foolish way to handle this matter. In fact, I hope the company is seeing a dip in sales and realizes that things will get worse if they don’t take real action. I’m just saying that a product boycott unfortunately tends not to provide the direct pressure to management that people would like.

Although I’m not personally boycotting Paizo, this news does have an effect on my purchasing decisions. It means that I’ll be looking more critically at products that come out. Are the products remaining diverse and inclusive? Does it seem that something problematic was put out because the publisher refused to listen to input from employees (such as the Agents of Edgewatch adventure path, where PCs take the role of cops who arrest people and seize their property at a whim)? The company is now well past the point where I can dismiss such incidents as isolated mistakes.

My own experiences with poor office environments leads me to be pessimistic about the future of Paizo. I’ve been in offices with similar problems, and the rote response is almost always for management to push noisy employees out so they can find people who will be more complicit in the culture as it stands. I hope Paizo breaks that trend and does get better, because the people who break their backs to make such high-quality products are the reason for the company’s success. Paizo has lost a lot of talented employees over the past few years; as more move on to better environments, there will be less and less of a reason to purchase their products at all.

Images: Paizo Inc.

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