March 17, 2024

Virtual SEA Editorial Team

Allegations of Toxic Workplace Behavior and Sexual Harassment at Persona Theory Games

March 17, 2024 | Virtual SEA Editorial Team
Content Warning: This article and the collected evidence within contain detailed accounts and discussions of sexual harassment, suicide and abuse.

Malaysian indie game studio Persona Theory Games, led by Saqina Latif, has been rocked by a flurry of allegations concerning toxic workplace behavior and sexual harassment in December 2023 and January 2024.

Renowned as an indie narrative game studio hailing from Malaysia, Persona Theory Games sprouted from the core team behind the widely acclaimed horror found-footage game “Sara is Missing” (Kaigan Games, 2016). Since its establishment in 2017, the studio has swiftly garnered attention with releases like “Fires at Midnight” (2020) and their flagship game “Kabaret” (2023), receiving critical acclaim and support from esteemed sources such as the WINGS Fund and ID@Xbox.

Studio members, including Saqina Latif, have held important roles as mentors and fellows in prestigious programs such as YSEALI Game Changers and the U.S. Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program. They’ve also contributed significantly as resource speakers at globally recognized events like gamescom asia, Berlin Youth Summit, the Games for Change Asia-Pacific Festival, and the Women in Games Career Expo.

Adding to their accolades, Latif recently earned a place in the Game Awards’ Future Class cohort. This exclusive program celebrates individuals worldwide who embody a forward-thinking, inclusive vision for the future.

Saqina Latif - Nominee of the Future Class 2023 by the Game Awards.
Saqina Latif was nominated to the Future Class 2023 by The Game Awards.
(Source: The Game Awards, image no longer online)

However, amidst these achievements and accolades, the recent allegations of toxic workplace behavior and sexual harassment have cast a shadow over the studio and its leadership, sparking intense scrutiny and raising profound questions about the culture and conduct within Persona Theory Games. 

How the allegations came to light

The outcry erupted on December 8, 2023, when user @JL_icious took to X (formerly known as Twitter) to share a Reddit thread, igniting a firestorm of accusations against Persona Theory Games and their head of studio, Saqina Latif.

“I did an internship at an indie studio and was sexually harassed. […] I left immediately and reported the guy, and my boss didn’t do anything. I wasn’t even paid! This guy was harassing men, women, full-time employees, everyone! […] It was Persona Theory (Games).”

– User maybeesfly on Reddit

This revelation emerged just days after Latif’s prestigious nomination in the “Future Class 2023” by The Game Awards, adding a stark contrast to the accusations posted on Reddit by a user called maybeesfly, which were dated four months prior.

Following this exposure, numerous individuals came forth, echoing the allegations against Persona Theory Games, many of whom were former employees, interns, or industry colleagues in Malaysia’s game development sphere.

The allegations swiftly reached Virtual SEA, prompting an investigative response. Persona Theory Games had earned accolades as one of Southeast Asia’s lauded game studios, notably praised in prior reviews for its depiction of Southeast Asian cultures in gaming. This history led our editor-in-chief, Andreas Betsche, to invite Saqina Latif to speak on a panel at gamescom asia 2022.

However, our in-depth investigation and collation of statements paint a troubling picture—a purported toxic work environment marred by fear and instances of alleged sexual abuse within the acclaimed Malaysian studio.

More former employees and interns report allegations

Following the accusations in early December, Virtual SEA interviewed former employees, yielding more than 25 statements substantiating the public allegations. VirtualSEA has received many statements from former PTG employees, including interns, who have chosen to remain anonymous. The number of statements from various sources alarmed the local and regional game development community, prompting reactions from social media and involved organizations.  

Statements on Sexual Harassment

Several former employees and interns leveled accusations of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior against Aidyl Abadi bin Anwardi Jamil, known as “Buddy Anwardi”, then the Creative Director at Persona Theory Games.

Evidence surfaced in the form of Discord screenshots attributed to a user called “ZeroG,” allegedly Buddy Anwardi, engaging in explicit conversations and sharing pornographic content with coworkers. Of the accounts shared, their sources confirm that these are communications with the Discord account of Anwardi.

One of the many disturbing chat messages “ZeroG” sent to interns at PTG (Source: Anonymous)

The statements revealed a pattern where Anwardi boasted about his sexual experiences, displayed misogynistic and sexually charged behavior, made explicit references to adult content, and objectified feminine bodies during discussions about storytelling and lore.

Reports detailed instances of Anwardi’s alleged misconduct extending beyond verbal harassment to physical advances, with accounts of unwanted physical contact and inappropriate behavior, including unwanted hugs and groping.

Additionally, statements corroborated that Anwardi allegedly directed interns to watch pornography and engaged in explicit conversations about his arousal, creating a highly uncomfortable work atmosphere.

Even though Saqina Latif was not directly implicated in the reported sexual assaults, sources claimed she was aware of the situation but chose to remain silent. 

Statements on Workplace Abuse

In addition to sexual harassment, allegations of a toxic work environment under Anwardi’s management emerged, with claims of interns being subjected to unpaid labour, verbal abuse, and discriminatory practices.

Interns reported exploitation, feeling undervalued, and enduring excessive workloads, often without compensation or acknowledgement. They detailed instances of threats, belittlement, and intimidation tactics employed by Anwardi during company meetings.

Former employees cited instances where Anwardi altered creative directives arbitrarily, disregarding the efforts of the writers and exerting verbal pressure, creating an atmosphere of uncertainty and fear.

Reports highlighted Anwardi’s misuse of interns for personal tasks, such as chauffeuring for personal errands and office cleaning duties, alongside inappropriate behavior during work hours, including playing games and neglecting professional responsibilities.

Multiple testimonies corroborated Anwardi’s alleged volatile behavior, lack of empathy towards employees, and a consensus that the workplace became untenable under his leadership.

Again, witnesses accused Saqina Latif of either tacitly accepting or condoning Anwardi’s behavior, perpetuating a culture of complicity and dismissing concerns about the toxic environment. Some voices corroborated that she dismissed complaints and normalized the toxicity within the industry.

The collective testimonies painted a distressing picture of an environment tainted by harassment, fear, and unchecked abuse of power within Persona Theory Games. When confronted with these accusations by Virtual SEA, neither Saqina nor Anwardi did not issue a comment.

Responses by Persona Theory Games

When a Reddit post surfaced in August 2023, sparking local community concern, Malaysian media outlet GamerBraves initiated contact with Persona Theory Games. According to GameBraves, the company’s response was: “The person in suspicion had resigned prior and had not been working at the company for the last few months.” 

Fast forward to December 20, 2023, and Persona Theory Games released a formal statement to Virtual SEA and other media outlets after increased public pressure. The document highlighted the company’s recent transformation, citing “significant changes” such as new management and a reinvigorated commitment to cultivating a positive and inclusive workplace culture. Emphasizing the importance of employee well-being and company integrity, the statement outlined proactive measures, including the temporary replacement of Ms. Saqina  Latif by Mr. Abu Huraira and Mr. Ahmad Helmi as Acting Co-Chief Executive Officers.

Persona Theory Games Statement on Workplace Abuse and Sexual Harassment
Persona Theory Games’ official statement. (Source: Persona Theory Games)

When asked for details regarding the allegations and the company’s response, Mr. Abu Huraira, one of the newly appointed CEOs, acknowledged management’s awareness of the allegations and claimed that necessary actions were taken. He asserted plans to establish a comprehensive workplace harassment prevention policy, encompassing various forms of misconduct and delineating appropriate reporting procedures. Virtual SEA has received a copy of the said policy, which shows significant efforts by Persona Theory Games to avoid similar incidents in the future. However, the question of why these incidents could happen without substantial consequences for several years remains.

Despite attempts to glean more insight, Virtual SEA’s continuous inquiries directed at Buddy Anwardi personally—integral to the allegations as many former employees have accused him —remained unanswered. Likewise, Saqina Latif said she wouldn’t comment on the situation.

Responses by the industry

In the wake of the sexual harassment allegations swirling around Persona Theory Games, the Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC), the government agency responsible for developing and leading the country’s digital economy and the organisers of local gaming event Level UP KL, has responded to Virtual SEA’s inquiry with a cautious stance. While acknowledging the gravity of sexual harassment, MDEC refrained from commenting directly on the allegations, citing the absence of official reports. Instead, they pledged to monitor the situation, leaning on official complaints to guide potential interventions in criminal or civil matters.

The International Game Developers Association (IGDA) Malaysia took a stand against sexual harassment without explicitly naming Persona Theory Games. Meanwhile, solidarity emerged within the Malaysian game development community, as studios like Kaigan Games, Weyrdworks, and Cellar Vault Games voiced support for the alleged victims.

Malaysian game development community members shed light on their attempts to address the issue when the initial Reddit post surfaced. However, their efforts encountered obstacles—slow progression due to diverse entities lacking the expertise to handle such cases and grappling with legal ambiguities and procedural constraints within the local jurisdiction.

Despite the allegations, the Malaysian authorities, such as the police or the Director General of Labour, have yet to launch an official investigation due to the absence of officially filed reports, according to our information. 

While the WINGS Fund, who financed Persona Theory Games before, announced its plans to initiate an independent inquiry into the matter, organizations like The Game Awards and the YSEALI program, which only recently decorated Persona Theory Games and Saqina Latif,  have maintained silence despite outreach from Virtual SEA.

As with Saqina and Anwardi, continuous efforts were made to reach out to The Game Awards and the YSEALI program. However, they have yet to procure any comments from the said organizations for reasons such as their decision to remain silent or refusal to respond.

Finally, the absence of official reports and the intricate legal landscape have blocked formal investigations, leaving a vacuum in understanding and action. As industry voices align in condemnation and support, the unanswered queries persist, underscoring the pressing need for clarity, official engagement, and transparent procedures in addressing such sensitive allegations within the gaming community.

The games industry needs to act!

What becomes apparent in this case is the culture of silence that prevailed at Persona Theory Games and within the local games industry, alienating alleged victims and protecting the corroborated perpetrator. 

The call for action within the Southeast Asian gaming industry echoes louder than ever in light of the reported abuse and harassment incidents at Persona Theory Games. This isn’t an isolated Malaysian issue; it mirrors a global pattern of neglecting complainants’ concerns without adequate safety measures or oversight to prevent such occurrences.

Sexual harassment and toxic work environments have become prevalent practices in the gaming sphere, with similar reports surfacing worldwide. The industry needs robust mechanisms to address these issues effectively and pursue legal action against perpetrators.

Notably, Malaysia’s Anti-Sexual Harassment Act 2022, partially enforced since March 28, 2023, indicates a step towards regulation. However, its availability and enforcement during the reported incidents remain questionable.

Malaysian authorities and gaming associations bear the responsibility of taking a definitive stance against sexual harassment and workplace abuse. This demands the implementation of concrete strategies and stringent regulations to deter and address such events proactively.

Crucially, there must be a culture where complainants feel safe and empowered to come forward publicly without fear, trusting that authorities will act decisively in their best interests. It’s time for a collective and unwavering commitment from industry leaders to prioritize the safety and well-being of all involved in the gaming ecosystem.

Virtual SEA Editorial Team

The Editorial Team of Virtual SEA comprises of writers from Southeast Asia and other countries across the globe. We are passionate about gaming and strive to promote and support the Southeast Asian gaming industry. We contribute to Virtual SEA on a voluntary basis, with the sole aim of nurturing and advancing the games of our cherished region.

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