CW: References to instances of abuse, sexism
The names of some individuals have been removed to place focus on systematic issues rather than individual actions. I've kept the names of others that I quote directly.
Yesterday, PSR, the central community for Pokemon speedrunning, reinstated an admin who stepped down in July after being accused of abuse. This is the statement posted by the PSR admin team announcing the reinstatement:
As a result of the investigation that started back in July, [the accused admin] has been re-added to the admin team. To echo what was said back when this all started, we want to make sure PSR is a safe space for all members of the community, and so we take matters like this very seriously. If anyone has any geniune [sic] concerns about this decision, please do not hesitate to reach out to anyone on the Admin team via DM. We still ask that everyone respect the privacy of all that were involved with this situation, however we want to make sure that we listen to any concerns.
Shortly after that announcement, I contacted the admin team directly to receive more context. This essay is my attempt to organize my thoughts after discussing this and other issues surrounding PSR with various people I'm close to in the Pokemon speedrunning community. While I will allude to opinions shared with me by others, I don't intend to speak for anyone besides myself – if you recognize your views being shared here and feel that I did a poor job conveying them or wish to add your opinion, please reach out to me on Discord (Corvimae#8392) or Twitter (@Corvimae).
1. Running in the 20s
Speedrunning is undoubtedly a male-dominated hobby, as is the case with most online video game spaces. Even though roughly as many women as men play video games, gender-targeted advertising and the outsize influence (not to mention sexism) of men within development studios and publishers heavily influenced the demographics and social beliefs of those who engage with video gaming as a hobby, creating a male-led industry largely catering to the interests of male gamers. This is, hopefully, not a contentious point to anyone reading this; women have always dealt with undue sexism in online gaming communities, and while some communities have tackled this issue in earnest and built spaces that are open and accepting to women and minorities, the issue is engrained in the legacy of online gaming (look at the comment section of any Anita Sarkeesian video if you're not convinced).
Despite what sexists would have you believe, there is no intrinsic difference between any gender that might prevent someone from engaging with speedrunning. Even if you subscribe to the (evidence-less) idea that female-assigned people are somehow "less capable" of twitch reaction-based gaming at a competitive level, this has no effect on Pokemon speedruns, which don't feature those sort of inputs.
I mention this because Pokemon, as a series, has fairly equal gender parity in its fanbase. All else being equal, we should thus expect to see at most a 5-10% gap between male and female Pokemon runners. And yet, at the time of writing, PSR has less than a dozen active female runners despite hundreds of active male runners (Note: PSR doesn't offer pronoun roles, so this is an estimate based what I've observed).
Now, I don't expect the gap to be that small. As stated before, speedrunning is male-dominated, and thus there are many more male runners than there are woman and non-binary runners. I don't expect PSR to fix this – it's a movement that has to take place within speedrunning at large, something that GDQ has led seemingly well thus far. What I do hope is for PSR to act in support of that goal, rather than foster an environment that works against it. As it stands, I don't see any reason to believe that it is.
2. Tacit Endorsement and Self Exile
Engaging with PSR is not a requirement to be a Pokemon speedrunner, but it is critical if one wants to have a voice in the decisions surrounding around the games they run. Even if the community around a specific Pokemon game is not centered on the PSR Discord, the leaderboards are, and thus all runners must choose to either engage with PSR or come to terms that they will not have input on the rules surrounding their game of choice.
This is not an issue unique to PSR by any means. All speed game communities have a governing group of moderators as a result of how speedrun.com organizes and allocates power for individual games. Whether or not this hierarchical arrangement is good or necessary isn't the focus of this essay, but it's worth recognizing to better understand some of the underlying forces behind allocation of power in speedrunning communities.
Where PSR does differ is in its position as a centralized authority of speedrunning for all Pokemon games (besides the Mystery Dungeon spin-offs, which has its own server), rather than for a Pokemon game. This is a relatively rare arrangement as far as I'm aware. Most speed games have their own community even if they are part of a larger series or at most share a community with a sibling game; I'm involved with the CrossCode speedrunning community, which lives off in the corner of the official CrossCode Discord, not in some larger RPG speedrunning Discord. Final Fantasy X speedrunning shares a Discord with Final Fantasy X-2, but they are not part of a larger Final Fantasy Discord.
PSR's hyper-centralization does, on some level, make sense at first glance. Pokemon is stubbornly itself, with each main series game following the same "eight gyms and then a final gauntlet" formula for over two decades now. Consolidating the governing forces of the community allows for standardization, which in turn makes it easier to run multiple games in the series, as the expectations you have from one game carry neatly to another. While I personally think this standardization is overly rigid and ultimately erases the differences between games, I do understand why it appeals to many people.
But opinions on rulesets notwithstanding, centralization of community power carries additional social costs. Hierarchical distribution of power is intrinsic to any community with moderators, but as a community grows, the power those moderators command increases in turn. In internet communities, those with moderation privileges dictate the environment through both the elevated status of their own speech as well as the conversations they allow to persist. If the administrators of a community are quick to suppress the expression of bigotry, the bigots will grow frustrated and leave. If the administrators leave such expression to the "marketplace of ideas" and the community is not united enough in its opposition to intolerance, those affected by that intolerance will leave until only the intolerant remain.
No matter what community this occurs in, the outcome is upsetting. A runner driven out by intolerance loses their ability to influence the rules surrounding the game they care about unless they force themselves to engage with an atmosphere that is hostile to their safety and/or existence. While this clearly should never happen, the formulaic nature of Pokemon at least presents an "escape hatch". If the community of a game in the series has been colonized by the intolerant, the runner can still run a similar game in the series that does not host a toxic community. The "consolation prize" of "being able" to drop a speed game and learn an entirely new game to escape toxicity is awful, and, as is unfortunately often the case, forces the victim to make concessions for their own victimization, but does at least allow the individual to remain engaged with a property they care deeply about, even if the scope of that involvement was forcibly altered.
PSR does not allow this. If someone is driven from PSR, they are exiled from Pokemon speedrunning as a whole – there is no "escape hatch". Sure, you can still run Pokemon independently, but your voice is silenced. If you want to submit to leaderboards for any game in the series, you are forced to indirectly engage with PSR. In July, when the accusations mentioned above broke, emray left Pokemon speedrunning entirely, and I fully support that decision. Refusing to engage with PSR demands leaving Pokemon speedrunning in any "official" capacity. An entire series is cut off to a runner that does not want to tacitly endorse the actions of its governing body unless they accept never having a voice or submitting to leaderboards again.
There is a pressure to stay and accept the way things are, or to try to change the institution from within. This pressure is ignorable to those unaffected by the status quo (though many choose not to ignore it, and that is worth celebrating). To those of us who can't, we are forced to choose whether to accept and contribute to a community that fails to represent us, or to move on entirely.
3. Why Won't These Combees Evolve?
I got involved with Pokemon speedrunning about three months ago, and looked into joining PSR a couple weeks after. The overwhelming feedback I received from those I respect within this community was to avoid PSR at all costs – that for my own mental health I should stay away from PSR entirely, and if I must engage with it, to do so as little as possible.
PSR is the Discord linked to from almost every Pokemon game on speedrun.com. It is the arbiter of the ruleset of every one of those games. And its introduction to me was that it is an unfortunate reality of Pokemon speedrunning, a necessary evil you tolerate if you want to enjoy this hobby. The most vocal warnings came from minorities, all of whom have completely broken their association with PSR and simply accepted the tradeoff described in the previous section – that they would hold no influence on what they love, because that was a worthwhile tradeoff to avoid looking at PSR.
Before writing this, I asked in the Frame Fatales Discord (GDQ's community for women and femme-leaning non-binary people in speedrunning) if anyone had run or considered running Pokemon, and if so, whether they engaged with PSR. The responses I received were unsurprisingly negative. One runner told me they had considered running Pokemon, but the thought of involving themselves with PSR put them off entirely. Another said they just pretend the server doesn't exist. I learned the #pokemon channel exists on Frame Fatales because the Pokemon speedrunning community is so uninviting to women.
When you step back and look at the leadership structure of PSR as a whole, this shouldn't be a surprise. PSR is an extremely male-dominated space. There are no women or non-binary admins nor moderators (as far as I know; again, PSR does not have pronoun roles. If this is not the case, please let me know.) I do not know the racial and queer demographics of PSR or its admin and moderator team, or else I would comment on that as well. I recognize this is a self-fulfilling problem; a lack of diversity in the community leads to fewer diverse candidates for leadership positions, which in turn leads to less diversity. This is a hard problem to solve for sure, but a problem nonetheless.
My goal is not to "call out" or "cancel" the PSR admins for this, but rather to raise awareness to a very real social imbalance. It is not my belief that the admins went out of their way to intentionally create a space that is exclusionary to women and minorities, but that is the community that exists today. When the admins say they "want to make sure PSR is a safe space for all members of the community", I genuinely believe that. But creating a safe space requires making a conscious effort to identify and remove toxic individuals, or else the paradox of tolerance undermines the effort entirely.
PSR has showcased outspoken bigots and individuals accused of sexual assault in its marathons. Advocates of "leaderboard integrity" have driven valuable members from this community with their insistence on celebrating the accomplishments of those who have grievously harmed others over the comfort and inclusion of their victims. And now, a person accused of abuse is once again granted admin privilege and we are expected to simply blindly trust the investigation.
4. Trust and Fault
The decision to reinstate the accused admin is upsetting to not only myself but many others I've spoken with over the past day. The statement presented by the rest of the PSR admin team provides nothing to assure us that this decision was made in the interest of the community at large, and my private conversations with the admin team have done little to change this.
I understand the need for discretion with regards to sensitive private conversations, but that requirement acts in opposition to stated goal of making PSR a safe space. All of the women I've talked to about this understand the consequences of false allegations (though the number of false allegations is incredibly small) and want this to be resolved fairly for everyone involved. But the information presented does nothing to alleviate concerns. Everyone I spoke with was nervous and/or uncomfortable about this decision. Even after receiving more details in private from the admin team, our worries remain.
I was told that the accused was given a chance to provide additional context to the evidence presented by the accuser, but that evidence was then treated as the final word rather than giving the accuser a chance to respond. This is a major failing of the investigation that reveals the concerns I have with it; largely, that we don't know the details. There is an undue amount of trust expected of us, and when this trust is requested from the figureheads of a community that already has major issues retaining and elevating diverse voices, it's hard to accept.
I was told that the admin team interacted with the accuser through the admins of another speedrunning community. That other community has stated that the accused will never again hold power there, and this forces me to wonder why PSR did not arrive at that same conclusion.
As stated before, I don't blame anyone in particular for this. I'm glad an investigation took part, even if the investigation falls flat for me due the likely biases of the investigatory body and the lack of female voices involved. This is a difficult and stressful issue to handle for a volunteer admin team, and thus my concerns lie with the environment that lead to these decisions rather than the individuals that made them. I appreciate the admin team taking the time to speak with me and give me more context, and hope that if they read this, they recognize that I raise these concerns in good faith and out of a genuine desire to improve the community through the promotion of diversity so that this hobby becomes accessible to everyone.
My involvement with Pokemon speedrunning has been wonderful.
My involvement with PSR has been almost entirely negative.
The Pokemon speedrunning community is home to some truly amazing people that I'm thankful to now call friends, and this only makes it all the more disappointing that in order to share this hobby with them I feel the obligation to engage with a community that I feel uncomfortable in and fails to represent me.
As a new-ish runner I don't expect to make a huge splash by writing this, but I do hope that others might see this and better recognize the institutional failings of PSR and how it gatekeeps access to this hobby to the unoppressed or those willing to passively accept these issues. As long as these problems remain unaddressed, I plan to no longer submit runs to any leaderboards administered by PSR, and invite anyone with similar concerns to join me.
Thank you to the PSR admin team for giving this essay attention and reaching out to speak with me about these concerns.
Sept. 25, 2020, 4:26 PM - Clarified that the Pokemon Mystery Dungeon series is centered around its own Discord, not PSR.