Revealing MESconduct (pt2 of 3): Investigations & Lessons Learned
TLDRUPFront: A review of 11 alleged perpetrators and 180 accusations of misconduct across six pools investigated 2016-2018 in a volunteer gaming organization. Each pool describes the warning signs, challenges, and lessons learned from the investigation of the type of reported misconduct volunteer organizations face.
This article is part two of three in a series based on two years of volunteer work investigating accusations of misconduct in a volunteer gaming organization, the MES. However, these circumstances and lessons learned are not limited to gaming organizations. As society comes to grips with a new reckoning on misconduct, volunteer organizations struggle with unique challenges in handling these situations. In part one of the series, I described the tension between survivor privacy, community education, community safety. Part 1 also covers frequently asked questions about where the information came from, whether it is publicly available in other forms, and my motivations in doing this.
What is a Broken Stair?
This article focuses on community education and community safety by evaluating pools of investigations around six pools of misconduct. The six pools all evolve from the concept of a “Broken Stair,” which may be unfamiliar to some. Broken Stairs originally termed “missing stair” in 2012 (1) and popularized in 2019, is a key concept in community safety for gaming organizations. Broken Stairs are individuals who harass, abuse, or commit sexual assault. Simultaneously, the community “worry, warn, watch, and workaround but doesn’t, or can’t, take action to fix” (2) the broken stair. A whisper network emerges to those in the house, “just avoid that stair.” The rest of the organization or community learns to avoid that individual. Like a broken stair never repaired – those in the house learn to avoid stepping on them.
Allegations, Accusations & Investigations
I use terms like the alleged perpetrator and accused for two reasons. First, this was the MES’s requested internal policy during the time I volunteered with the organization. Second, volunteer organizations do not have the resources to make definitive findings to a criminal or civil legal standard. Investigations on received accusations can only identify information that is consistent or inconsistent with the allegation. Often in the process, new allegations surface, and corroborating information from additional sources arises. From this information, the organization must decide on an administrative action: to do nothing, to issue a punishment or expel the member. For the MES punishments range across administrative options such as the loss of accrued membership benefits, prohibition on holding official positions, and suspensions. Motions to expel are handled separately from punishments. And the decision by the MES Board to expel a member can be made in conjunction, or separately, from punishments the MES takes. An organization’s choice to take action doesn’t establish the truth of the incident alleged – only that the organization found the information obtained in an investigation consistent with an allegation. The information presented below is based on this author’s role in the investigation process of the reported, alleged incidents. Ultimately, the question of whether the information obtained through the investigation was sufficient to substantiate the allegations, as well as the ultimate determination of what punishment, if any, was to be applied to the accused, was made by MES itself and not this author.
Structure of MESconduct Part 2
In this article, I expand upon the concept of Broken Stairs by identifying five additional representative types of misconduct volunteer organizations face. These six representative pools cover 180 investigated offenses across 11 alleged perpetrators that I worked on during my tenure as a volunteer investigator with the MES. On average, each alleged perpetrator had 16 investigated offenses, but this average skews to Broken Staircases. The median of investigated offenses per alleged perpetrator is five.
Due to the length of Part 2, I’ll break the post into sections for easier reading. In this main post, I’ll outline organizational elements within the MES for those unfamiliar with how the organization works. These provide important context in how social cachet, informal, and formal power accumulate in the gaming organization. Understanding power is vital to understanding misconduct. Then I’ll outline the level of offenses assigned to these allegations during the investigation. Next, I summarize general lessons learned common to all pools. Then I list the alleged perpetrators’ blinded names. This post ends with a request for the MES to follow its own disclosure rules that it applies to primary officers to these individuals for community safety purposes.
The other parts of the article, accessible through links, are the six pools of misconduct themselves: Weaponizers, Creaky Stairs, Broken Stairs, Violent Actors, Broken Staircases, and Serial Predators. Each sub-section focuses on a specific pool in detail. Each pool summarizes the kinds of accusations, warning signs, challenges, outcomes, and lessons learned of those accusations and investigations. The lessons learned in each pool aren’t always limited to that pool. Many of them apply across pools.
Part 3: Origins & Organizational Risk Factors continues community education by shifting from investigations to trends. What happened along the way for the MES to find itself in this situation? What organizational risk factors do volunteer organizations face in their model choices that can increase, or mitigate, this risk. I hope to publish Part 3 in mid-November with the caveat we’re still in 2020 and a Presidential election year.
How Volunteer Recognition & Officer Structure Relate to Misconduct
In the list of alleged perpetrators and lessons learned, I list Membership Class and Officer positions frequently using MES terms. In this section, I explain those terms using the MES’s own Membership Handbook. Why is this important? Because misconduct, whether low-level toxicity up to and including harassment and assault, is often based on perceived power imbalance. In volunteer organizations, power originates in part from volunteer recognition and volunteer officer structures.
Volunteer Recognition: Membership Class
The MES organizational structure consists of jurisdictional units known as Domain (local), Regional, National, and Board-level (see MH 2018Q1, p11-12 and MH 2020, p15-16.) As a recognition system to encourage volunteering, these units can award Membership Class. These Membership Classes convey three important pieces of information for understanding misconduct in the MES. First, a high Membership Class serves as a proxy for volunteer involvement. The more volunteer involvement a member has, the more interwoven they’ll be in the organization through current positions and relationships built through past posts. Second, Membership Class also serves to convey social-cachet and standing. Illustrating this in the 2018 Membership Handbook describing Membership Class as:
“…earned through accumulating prestige points, it represents much more. It is a symbol of dedication and service to the Club and its values. When accepting a new member class, you agree to serve as an example of this service and dedication to other members of the Club. The higher one’s member class, the more one is expected to act as a leader, maintain a positive attitude, and set a higher standard of ethics and responsibility.” (see MH2018Q4, p35).
The titles associated with each Membership Class convey members’ prestige, standing, and regard in the MES’s eyes. They have been consistent over time (see MH2018Q4, p31 and MH2020, p36). The Membership Classes, respective titles associated with them, and the organizational level that can grant them are listed below.
|Membership Class||MC Title||Level of Organizational Unit Coordinator that can Award|
|15||Trustee||Board of Directors|
Third, the alignment of higher Membership Class ranks with higher approval levels required to gain that rank conveys organizational endorsement for high Membership Class members’, especially for new members to the MES. I use the groupings outlined in the table above when providing Membership Class demographics on alleged perpetrators: Domain (1-8), Regional (9-11), National (12-14), and Board (15+).
Volunteer Structure: Officer Positions
The MES uses the same organizational units of Domain, Regional, National, and Board to identify a volunteer officer’s authority across three functional roles. Storytellers are volunteer officers responsible for running games. As a gaming organization, these are considered the most prestigious positions and receive the most member attention. Coordinators are volunteer officers accountable for all out of game logistics and investigating member misconduct. Convention officers are like Coordinators but responsible for official convention events. For each functional role, a “primary officer” is directly elected by the members or appointed by the Board. An “assistant officer” is one appointed by a primary officer.
Misconduct Arises when there is Perceived Power Disparity
Volunteer recognition and officer structure combine in volunteer organizations to create a risk of misconduct. Officer positions, combined with the social cachet and organizational endorsement communicated by the high Membership Class, create this perceived power imbalance. Part 3: Origins & Organizational Risk Factors covers this dynamic in more depth.
Categories of Offenses
The MES defines offenses and punishments across five categories of increasing severity. These definitions are fairly consistent over time, with some modifications between the Membership Handbook’s two most recent publications. Where variations exist between sources, I used the ones in force 2016-2018 (See MH2018Q4, p64 and MH2020, p84-85).
|Minor||Mere lapses in judgment.||Minor rudeness, conduct the average member would find beyond the bounds of decency, or clear violation of the Code of Conduct that does not otherwise constitute an offense. Filing a frivolous appeal or request for investigation. This does not include ones which are simply denied, but rather one that had no good-faith basis or was submitted with bad intent.|
|Moderate||Lapses in judgment with notable effect.||Significant rudeness to members, outbursts, or arguing with a presiding officer
Violating a suspension. Please note one may communicate without penalty with one’s Coordinator staff even while suspended.
Lying to an officer in their official role, such as misrepresenting one’s MC or lying to conceal a breach of the rules.
|Major||Significant issues with broad effects||Violations of site policy the offender knew or should have known about, such as hotel policy at an event.
Severe instances of cheating, such as abusing the rules to take advantage of a less knowledgeable player.
Abusing a club office to damage a member.
Threatening violence or harm against any club member.
|Severe||Serious offenses quite harmful to the Club.||Any offense aggravated beyond Major, but not meeting the criteria for an Extreme offense.
Minor physical violence at a club event that does not result in injury, such as a slap or a shove.
|Extreme||Reserved for only three categories of infraction.||Causing physical harm injury or intentionally causing significant psychological harm to another member at a club event
Aggravated unwelcomed conduct, such as unwanted physical contact of a sexual nature, at a club event.
Greek characters blind the names of alleged perpetrators in Part 2. The list of alleged perpetrators discussed in the pools are:
- Beta was an MC 12-14 General Member with 15+ years with the MES.
- Epsilon was an unknown MC General Member with 15+ years with the MES.
- Gamma was an unknown MC General Member with 15+ years with the MES.
- Nu was an MC12-14 Assistant National Storyteller with 15+ years with the MES.
- Omicron was an unknown MC General Member with an unknown number of years with the MES.
- Pi was an MC 1-8 Assistant Regional Storyteller with <10 years with the MES.
- Rho was an unknown MC General Member with 15+ years with the MES.
- Sigma was an MC12-14 Assistant Regional and Assistant National Storyteller with 15+ years with the MES.
- Tau was an MC12-14 Director of the Board with 15+ years with the MES.
- Theta was an MC12-14 Assistant National Storyteller with 15+ years with the MES.
- Upsilon was an unknown MC General Member with 15+ years with the MES.
Across the alleged perpetrators, based on the investigations, the highest administrative punishment the MES administered was Major for five accused, Severe for three, and Extreme for the final three accused. In many investigations the MES took the additional step to move to expel the member.
The Six Pools of Accused Misconduct
You can follow the links below to navigate to the specific misconduct pools. Each pool describes the warning signs, challenges, and lessons learned from the investigation of the type of reported misconduct volunteer organizations face.
General Lessons Learned for Volunteer Gaming Organizations
Serious misconduct occurs in a system. Organizations must move beyond the transactional approach to misconduct treating it as an isolated series of incidents or individuals. Misconduct is a system of enablement that tolerates individuals and accumulates incidents. Fixing the problem means more than investigating the incidents but fixing the system which allowed those incidents to occur. Otherwise volunteer rotation erodes institutional memory and lessons learned and the efforts at a point in time may not improve community safety over time. Creaky Stairs replace Broken Stairs, and Broken Staircases arise again in positions of influence of the organization. Part 3: Origins & Risk Factors explores these aspects further.
Risk in volunteer gaming organizations can significantly exceed national averages. Across my volunteer period of 2016-2018, the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) reported a national average of ~42.6 rapes per 100,000 people. (3) A simple estimate of a similar per-capita rate for the MES indicates an alleged incident rate two-to-three times higher than the national average over these two years. I doubt the MES is unique in this risk. Any organization can, and should, publish without compromising survivor privacy the reported per-capita incident reports of rape, violence, and stalking annually or over a 5-year rolling average. The calculation for a per-capita rate of a small population group is simple: (alleged incidents/orgpopulation)*100,000)). A generic gaming organization of 1,000 members that receives one allegation of rape a year has a per-capita rate of 100, nearly twice again as high as the national average. Even these estimates are likely low due to under-reporting. However, it allows meaningful conversations to occur. What is the relative risk of a volunteer organization compared to the national average or other volunteer organizations in the same space? It also allows discussion on how to reduce the risk level and whether it is declining or not.
Misconduct thrives on perceived power disparities. Power has many forms in a volunteer organizations: longevity of membership, positions of authority, informal influence on leaders, and social cachet conveyed by volunteer recognition. Eight of the 11 alleged perpetrators were known to have 15+ years with the MES. Five of the 11 alleged perpetrators were known to have MC12-14 at the time of the incidents and investigations. Five of the 11 alleged perpetrators were known to have Regional or higher positions. Four of the 11 alleged perpetrators held Assistant Storyteller positions at Regional or higher levels, which is surprising. “Games” are the MES’s primary purpose, and Storyteller positions provide higher social cachet than other offices. In social organizations, – cachet is a form of power. Additional unique risks to gaming organizations arising from the games they play are covered in Part 3: Origins & Organizational Risk Factors.
Don’t use membership recognition to convey behavioral standards you don’t intend to enforce. Five of the 11 alleged perpetrators were MC12-14 at the time of the alleged misconduct. High Membership Ranks are supposed to “set a higher standard of ethics and responsibility.” Titles of high Membership Ranks are ‘Luminary,’ ‘Executive,’ and ‘Fellow.’ Volunteer recognition systems are important to organizations that depend on volunteers to exist and operate. But these recognition systems shouldn’t convey behavioral standards if those standards aren’t enforced.
Don’t limit disclosure of misconduct to “primary officers” only. Four of the alleged perpetrators, including both accused Serial Predators, held “Assistant” positions at Regional or higher. One of the accused Broken Staircases was a general member. MES policy only requires publication of results if an individual holds a “primary,” elected by the members or appointed by the Board position. Of the 11 alleged perpetrators, only one individual held a position requiring disclosure, which the MES disclosed. Lack of notification creates a gap into which significant misconduct can ‘disappear’ for lack of transparent reporting if general members or assistant officers conduct it. Secondary positions in large organizations still hold authority and influence, contributing to the perceived power imbalance enabling misconduct, especially for positions at national or above levels.
Demographics of misconduct in volunteer organizations match those of the general population. Across all 180 pooled investigated offenses, the accused’s demographics were mostly, but not exclusively, male. Women members reported suffering disproportionately more incidents of misconduct. However, members across all gender identifications, including men, also reported being targeted. Reported misconduct occurred in vulnerable populations across all gender-identifications and sexual orientations.
Alcohol enables misconduct. Accusations that alcohol contributed to misconduct occurred across all six pools. On average, alleged perpetrators were more likely to be accused of being intoxicated than their targets. Investigations found information consistent with this. Organizations that allow members to drink during events or facilitate a drinking culture after events take upon themselves an increased risk. Not because of impairment of capabilities by targets but the increased brazenness of those engaging in misconduct. Organizational risk factors are discussed in Part 3: Origins & Organizational Risk Factors.
Pools of misconduct enable one another. Not only do the alleged perpetrators co-inhabit several pools, but the pools themselves often work in interaction to enable one another. When Broken Staircases are ignored or only managed under great duress, it signals that less visible accusations will be an uphill battle. Weaponizers may not condone the behavior of Broken Staircases or Serial Predator. Still, their willingness to weaponize investigation procedures for personal misconduct undermines the system as a whole in its ability to be credible and trusted.
Community safety requires ethical transparency not private discipline and a code of silence. Organizations that exclude their membership from the reality of alleged or actual misconduct will make it more difficult to gain support when confronting it. Quietly sweeping the problem and only informing the most current targets prevents prior survivors from gaining closure and perpetuates disbelief that the problem isn’t serious. Failure to warn the larger community means shifting-the-burden to another volunteer organization that will also struggle to manage it, especially if unaware. Gaming organizations such as the MES should reconsider public notification procedures for serious misconduct. The announcement of a minor infraction on an elected officer is less important than the notification of an alleged perpetrator who falls into one of these pools of serious misconduct. At the very least, ask your members. Involve them in discussing what disclosure levels allow them to make informed decisions of how they participate in organizations and games.
Request to the MES to Confirm these Accusations & Investigations
In keeping with the final general lesson learned, I am calling upon the MES to do the right thing. Follow its procedures to release limited information found in “Notifications Regarding Officers” of their handbook (see MH2018Q4 p70-74 and 2020 MES HB, p95) and apply it for these alleged perpetrators. This information consists of:
- The name of the alleged perpetrator.
- The rule(s) or policies that were found to have been violated (e.g., Offense Levels).
- What Disciplinary Action the MES issued.
- What penalties were levied (e.g., loss of prestige or MC, suspension, etc.).
- The current status of the alleged perpetrator in regard to the MES (e.g., Member, Non-Member, Non-Member with Do Not Renew.)
If the MES declines to produce this information within a reasonable time period following the publication of this article or offer a suitable compromise confirming these are real investigations with real consequences, the InfoMullet reserves the right to take further action at a later time, though we will not disclose survivor information without prior consent.
I can assist the MES with information to validate these allegations and their investigation records for each alleged perpetrator. I will provide this information to an appropriate officer on request to facilitate proper identification.
MH2018Q4: MES Membership Handbook 2018 Quarter 4 Update
MH2020: MES Membership Handbook 2020