Why Simon Karlsson Took “A Song For Viggo” Into a Safe Space Forum Laura Kate June 30, 2014 Features Back at the beginning of June this year we at Indie Haven chose to spotlight A Song for Viggo in our regular Kickstarter Weekly feature. With a Kickstarter running until June 29th, the game appeared from its pitch and video to be a very polished and unique looking papercraft style game dealing with some difficult issues that are hard to do justice in an interactive experience. The game centres around a father who accidentally kills his son by running him over with his car and the various emotional stages of grief he and his family go through in the wake of losing a child. Right from our first moments covering the game we were very excited about the potential of this game, if it pulled of what it was aiming for correctly. However Alison, who wrote the roundup, did already have concerns about the risks of tackling this kind of narrative and not handling the game properly. “The issues handled by the game are obvious serious ones, and ones that affect a lot of people in the real world. Depression, familial strife, suicide and the loss of a loved one are real problems and something games generally either botch or stay away from entirely.” Following the launch of the Kickstarter and our spotlight on the game the project generated very little noise. It quietly plodded along toward its goal, being free of public issue until the day before the Kickstarter ended. With the funding period ending on June 29th, the game’s developer Simon Karlsson decided to put up a Kickstarter backer update that ruffled a lot of feathers. “Today, a man said that I’m disrespectful, and exploiting tragedy, and he prays that God forgives me.” To summarise the backer post, developer Simon Karlsson decided to post to his backers admitting to them that he had taken his game onto a forum for fathers who were grieving the loss of a child. This was meant to be a safe space, designed to allow them to deal with their issues at their own pace. Unsurprisingly to many, bringing his Kickstarter onto that online forum did not go well for him and according to the backer post he was told by one father that he was, as stated above, “disrespectful, exploiting tragedy and he prays that God forgives [him].” The problem for Karlsson seems to have largely stemmed from the tone of his backer post. Many people read it as needlessly aggressive toward the families he had intruded upon. He appeared to be seemingly blaming the parents on the forum for not understanding his intentions with the title and proceeded to list how many sites had given his game positive coverage (including us at Indie Haven). It looked as if, by listing said badges of honour, he was trying to excuse the hurt he had clearly caused to a number of people. The backlash was immense and swift. Simon locked his Twitter account so that his tweets would be private, refused to listen to well reasoned arguments against his actions in the comments on Kickstarter and basically shut down all outward messaging while the issue was at its peak. This approach probably would have allowed the controversy to settle down long enough for him to write up a decent apology and response to his critics, but he unfortunately poked the hornet’s nest by tweeting at critics of his actions telling them he was banning them for ruining a game that he thought could help people. His angry tweets to calm, reasonable backers with high numbers of followers caused a wave of Twitter anger and a decent number of donations to be withdrawn or reduced. Having been following the events as they happened, this was the point we at Indie Haven decided to try to get in touch with Karlsson and set up an interview. We hoped that we could try and get to the bottom of what led to this huge PR issue for the developer, as well as offering him a platform to share his side of proceedings and say anything he wanted to get out to the world. To preface what follows, Karlsson’s English is fairly poor in places. We have made edits to his written responses that maintain his intent and tone, but that serve to make his answers more easily digestible. We have Karlsson’s permission to make these edits to correct his poor English. Additionally, while Karlsson would not disclose what forum he had been posting on, he did tell us that his forum posts have since been deleted. What follows is an approximation, provided by Karlsson, of what his original forum post looked like. “Hey, this might be a strange post for you to see, so bear with me. I’m creating a game (interactive story) about depression, about a father that accidentally runs over his son with the car. This story is about the aftermath, I hope this project can reach out to parents who lost someone, or suffer from depression, so see that they are not alone in this situation.” As you can see in the above approximation of his forum post, there are a couple of reasons this may have rubbed grieving parents the wrong way. The very direct addressing of killing a child and the idea of crafting that moment for the traditional view of a video game are probably the things that stood out most, but those are far from the only issues. What we were personally most interested in finding out from Simon was exactly why he felt that taking the game to the forum in the first place was a good idea. As it turns out, he had been getting daily messages from parents reaching out to him on Kickstarter about how much the idea of the game appealed to them and he assumed that this meant that the result would be the same if it was him doing the reaching out. “Oh, it’s been so many, one parent a day, or a person who suffers from depression. They’ve said that they think that the game is for a good cause and that they wanted to share their own experiences, to see if that can help others recognize similarities in the game itself. They came to me wanting to help make the game better.” “I stepped out of my bounds. For some reason when people always contacted me about their stories, I didn’t think twice about how that might be different to entering their private zones uninvited. I posted a short text where I said that this is a project that hope to be a therapeutic tool maybe could help them. Two people were offended by this post while two others supported it. I’m so sorry, because just entering a private zone like that is not okay, and I don’t have any experience towards approaching such a zone. Even if my intentions were good, it didn’t matter. People got upset and I really apologize for that. No one, should “market” a project, when you don’t know what kinda stages of grief people are on. It was a safe space for them, and it was entirely the wrong move for me to enter that with my game.” As mentioned earlier in the article, many Kickstarter backers were unhappy with the tone of Karlsson’s backer update, the accusatory nature of the post and the way he responded when faced with polite criticism of his actions. We asked him if he could talk us through whether he felt their claims of an accusatory tone held weight and his view looking back on his actions towards his critics. Much like our last question, he was very quick to take an apologetic tone for his actions. “I was busy being full of myself at the time. When my backers initially commented and gave me advice, I didn’t really listen and was more busy trying to prove them wrong. I should have defended them when people were calling them haters, instead of not listening to what they actually said. Their initial messages did make me realize my wrongdoings by posting on a such a private zone, it’s just a shame that I realized it a bit too late. Because they weren’t haters, not at all – they were just trying to help out. I’m disappointed with myself in hindsight, with how I handled it and how quick some of my backers were to call my critics haters.” “I got upset this morning, which is where I lashed out at them on Twitter. My actions were very uncalled for. I sincerely hope that they can forgive me, or try to trust the good intentions with the project… because, I did make a really big mistake. I just woke up at the morning, hadn’t sleep the night before I kind of did unfollow them just in a fit of rage, thinking shortly “I don’t need negative comments”, without even noticing that they didn’t even give negative comments. I’m sorry to those I shouted at when I blocked them. Harsh words came from me, saying “Blocked, your are destroying a project which could help people.” That was so dumb and not true at all. In the end they were the only ones who actually gave me real advice, instead of not just praising their socks off as many others did following my actions.” Before Karlsson had to leave, we wanted to ask him if he could provide any words that might reassure backers who removed or reduced their pledges before the project ended that he had learnt from his experience. His answer, at least for us, seemed like the words of someone who regretted his actions pretty sincerely. “I’m sad if you cancelled your pledges, but I do understand. I understand why I now have this distrust because of recent events. I think even if its been a really strange chain of events, I hope I learned to listen a bit more and respect serious advice. But, even if people don’t pledge, I would very much like to show you all that in the end I hope to help out a bit with this project. I honestly didn’t help any people today, but I hope to do in the future. I really do.” Looking back over the whole series of events, our general feeling is that Karlsson was a man who made an ill-informed bad decision, and handled the subsequent PR situation rather poorly. He got defensive at his critics rather than stopping to take in what feedback they had for him and their perspective when criticising, then retreated behind a wall to throw verbal potshots at anyone who tried to tell him that he was in the wrong. None of his actions read as malicious, more the actions of a man overwhelmed by the negativity he received for an insensitive decision and struggling to work out how to process the criticism sent his way. Ultimately all we can learn looking back on this whole event is the value of respecting safe space communities in game design, as well as the importance of taking on board criticism and standing around long enough to hear the complaints that are coming your way. In the end Karlsson’s game, A Song For Viggo, did still meet its Kickstarter goal and it still looks like an incredibly ambitious title. We just hope that, for his sake and the sake of those who have experienced situations similar to those in A Song For Viggo, that he handles the game going forward with a great degree of care.