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A former employee of the highly-regarded video game development studio Naughty Dog has accused the company of terminating him after he says he filed a complaint that he was sexually harassed by someone else at the studio. In a statement, Naughty Dog says it has no record of these allegations. In conversations with Kotaku, current and former employees say they are shocked and saddened by the entire situation, though they were aware he had a rough time at the company.
David Ballard, an environment artist who worked at Naughty Dog for two different stints between 2009 and 2016, wrote on social media this weekend that he was the victim of sexual harassment by a lead at the Sony-owned PlayStation studio, best known for Uncharted and The Last of Us. Ballard first wrote the statements Friday on his private Facebook, but they did not gain widespread attention until he took to Twitter on Saturday afternoon.
"In late 2015, I was sexually harassed at Naughty Dog by a lead," Ballard wrote. "My work environment became extremely toxic afterward. In February 2016 I had a mental breakdown at work & Sony Playstation HR became involved."
"When I told them about the harassment they ended the call and fired me the next day. They cited the company was moving in a different direction and my job was no longer needed. They tried to silence me by offering $US20,000 ($25,484) if I signed a letter agreeing to the termination as well as to not discuss it with anyone. I declined to sign. I have been unemployed for 17 months since."
Ballard added that he felt empowered to speak up because "of the strength I've seen in others coming forward about their experiences in the TV/Film industry," a reference to several recent stories about Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and his long history of alleged sexual harassment, rape, and other horrid behaviour.
Dozens of women have spoken out in recent days about Weinstein and other alleged harassers in Hollywood, and both men and women have shared their own stories on social media, most recently under the hashtag "Me Too."
On Sunday morning, Naughty Dog and its parent company, Sony, sent out a joint statement saying they were unaware of Ballard's sexual harassment claim:
We have recently read on social media that an ex-employee of Naughty Dog, Dave Ballard, claims he was sexually harassed when he worked at Naughty Dog. We have not found any evidence ofhaving received allegations from Mr. Ballard that he was harassed in any way at Naughty Dog or Sony Interactive Entertainment. Harassment and inappropriate conduct have no place at Naughty Dog and Sony Interactive Entertainment.
We have taken and always will take reports of sexual harassment and other workplace grievances very seriously. We value every single person who works at Naughty Dog and Sony Interactive Entertainment. It is of utmost importance to us that we maintain a safe, productive workplace environment that allows us all to channel our shared passion for making games.
Ballard has not responded to multiple messages by Kotaku via phone and email seeking more details on his allegations and reaction to Naughty Dog and Sony's statement.
Three current and former Naughty Dog employees, all speaking under condition of anonymity so as not to jeopardise their careers, all said they had not heard anything about Ballard's sexual harassment allegations until this weekend and that they were disturbed by the news.
Those employees said they did not know or want to speculate who the alleged sexual harasser may be. Each discipline at the studio typically has two leads, and by one estimate there are around two dozen at Naughty Dog.
One current Naughty Dog employee said that he and co-workers he spoke to were "blind-sided" by the news, and that while he believed Ballard's allegations, he also believed that the studio had been unaware of them.
"There definitely is not a culture of covering up bad behaviour," that person said. "I and quite a lot of other people wouldn't be here if there was."
It was clear to Ballard's co-workers that he was upset during his final months at Naughty Dog, those three sources said, and they said his self-acknowledged mental breakdown was clear to everyone at the studio.
But people who worked with Ballard said they had thought it was the result of Naughty Dog's long hours and high-pressure culture.
Ballard worked at Naughty Dog in Los Angeles from around February 2009 to around August 2014 before leaving for San Francisco, where he briefly took a job at Ubisoft, per his online resume and co-workers.
In the spring of 2015, he returned to Naughty Dog. One person who worked with Ballard said that the difficulties began then, and that Ballard had told people he was filing HR complaints, although to that person's knowledge, those complaints were not about sexual harassment but about other issues.
Ballard had said he felt harassed for leaving and then returning to the studio, that person said. The person added that they did not know about the sexual harassment allegations until Ballard posted them on Facebook last weekend.
In early 2016, the situation worsened, and Naughty Dog employees confirm that, as Ballard said on Twitter, he had a difficult mental breakdown. Some of Ballard's troubles became more widely known in late February of that year after he sent a hostile email to a tech artist that was CCed to everyone at the company, two people said.
Various rumours circulated at the studio and the situation was escalated from Naughty Dog's internal human resources department to Sony's HR.
"This is the hardest thing I've ever done," Ballard wrote on Twitter Saturday. "I will not let anyone kill my drive or love for the video game industry, my passions or life." He has not said anything else publicly since.