When Rare announced their pirate-adventure-sandbox Sea of Thieves to the world, the studio put an emphasis on developing the game alongside a community of players. A part of this was establishing a Pirate Code that dictated — among other things — “Everyone is welcome on the Sea of Thieves regardless of age, gender, race, sexuality, nationality or creed.” But since release there have been growing concerns among some of its players about Rare’s reluctance to intervene in community issues, and worse yet, that they’ve featured streamers renowned for their unpleasant reputations in the game in their official events.
The controversies amid the Sea of Thieves community have involved issues familiar to online gaming: players targeting individuals based on their gender, race, and sexuality; purposefully loading into the same servers as streamers to disrupt their broadcasts; and taking their issues from the game out in the real world. It’s also involved elements that are specific to the kind of game Rare made: a multiplayer pirate game of exploration and combat, where the line between acceptable behaviour (killing an enemy crew, sinking an enemy ship, and stealing their stuff) and harassment (hate speech and targeted abuse) is often overstepped, and justified with the shaky logic that the game is called “Sea of Thieves, not Sea of Friends”.
An early sign that something wasn’t working came in late 2018, when the popular streamer Jaryd “Summit1G” Lazar started broadcasting Sea of Thieves to a large audience on Twitch. Lazar brought plenty of new players to the game, but ended up clashing with members of its existing community by his behaviour both on and off stream. Rather than confront the problem, Rare remained largely silent on the issue for a year. And then, in late 2019, the developer invited him to join an official livestream.
Responding to a request for comment, a Rare spokesperson states, “We take all complaints seriously and we treat all our players fairly. All customer service complaints are treated with the same level of seriousness regardless of where they originate, or what the topic at hand is. We review every ticket thoroughly for evidence of behaviour that violates our community Code of Conduct and take action wherever evidence is found.” However, a significant number of streamers and players would disagree.
Lazar had been a controversial figure in Sea of Thieves for a while. Back in July 2019, long before Rare invited him to be on their show, he broadcasted a number of rants about the game while streaming. During this he called its development team “stupid fucking devs” (8 minutes 30 seconds onwards), and highlighted tweets from players who disagreed with him or who were critical of his behaviour, that inevitably led to critisim and harassment of those players. As a result of these posts, his fans continued to clash with members of the community, with one member having to change their online identity and leave the Sea of Thieves community as a result of the negative attention and death threats they were receiving.
On Twitter, he also encouraged his one million followers to send him information for alliance servers to invade on stream, taking the action out of the game and into community discord servers. Alliance servers see players take control of all the available ships, usually for community events or special occasions, but occasionally to exploit the game and grind without PvP. Rare has never explicitly condemned this exploit, but it soon became a huge point of contention within the game’s community, mostly fuelled by the attention that Lazar brought to it, and the abuse that was directed at players. (Lazar did not reply to repeated requests for comment on this story.)
Breaking up alliances is completely fair game inside Sea of Thieves, given it’s a pirate game. But the methods he was using split the community in half. Some argued that the streamer was simply reintroducing PvP back into these servers through metagaming, while others were critical of the ways in which Lazar used his audience and influence outside of the game to infiltrate these servers, comparing it to the unpopular practice of stream sniping.
Several of his viewers would enter Discords or comment on Twitter, picking fights and harassing anyone they believed to be playing the game in this way in the hopes of passing on server details to their favourite streamer, or acting as part of a spy network for them. This behaviour arguably breached Rare’s own community guidelines on the topic — “Disputes are settled on the seas,” — but Rare didn’t step in. Their only response was to restate their community guidelines in an update video, and delaying Lazar’s scheduled appearance on their weekly development stream in January 2019 due to backlash. This lack of direct involvement left their community to wrestle with the issue alone.
In October 2019, Rare announced a surprise livestream with Lazar and his crewmate Pace22. This decision baffled many within the game’s community, who let their voices be heard underneath the announcement. Many of these players had been targeted by the streamer’s fans in the past, or had friends who had been targeted, and believed Rare was condoning this behaviour by partnering with him on their livestream.
The Summit saga was indicative of the perceived problems with Rare’s community management, with their approach accused of being more reactive than active. Instead of Rare taking steps to de-escalate conflicts within the game’s community, players we’ve spoken to argue they’ve commonly waited for things to escalate further or even refused to comment entirely.
On July 14, 2020, some prominent players spoke out against Rare’s management of the community. The couple behind the Twitch streaming personality Rocco — a glove-puppet cat who streams Sea of Thieves, with one half of the couple playing the game and the other puppeteering and staying in character as Rocco — issued a statement on Twitter, stating in part that they “experienced targeted harassment.” The couple had been very invested in the game and even have their own Easter Egg in it. In the statement, the Sea of Thieves partners detailed their problems with Rare’s handling of their experiences of harassment, claiming that Rare was dismissive of the issues they had begun to raise in May 2020 regarding toxicity within the community.
The couple had been the target of misogynistic and ableist abuse for five months at the time of reporting these issues to Rare, after becoming entangled in a harassment campaign from fans of the popular Sea of Thieves streamer and partner Pace22. Pace22 built his audience on highlighting the game’s potential for PvP, broadcasting his daring heists and server takedowns to an audience of thousands. He’s commonly among the most-viewed streamers in the Sea of Thieves directory on Twitch, and has as a result become one of the figureheads of the game’s PvP community, along with Lazar.
Many of these abusive comments came from accounts that were either named after Pace22, or using an altered version of his catchphrase, “Pace22 Get sunk.” Oftentimes “Get sunk” was replaced with “Get raped.” Some of these abusive messages have since been linked to other smaller content creators within the community, including many players who were known to tune into streamers and then try to get on the same server to harass them and send them abuse in-game. (Pace22 did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)
“I have screenshots of [people] saying everything from, ‘Give me your OnlyFans’, ‘Get Raped’, and, ‘Are you typing with your little stub’.” says Rocco’s puppeteer, who requested anonymity out of concerns about harassment. “You’ve then done the span of [threatening] sexual abuse all the way to making fun of disabilities. It’s interesting to see them do the mental gymnastics of being like, ‘No, this game was built on toxicity, this game was built on telling people to ‘Get raped’.’ It’s like no, it wasn’t, but Rare never told you otherwise.”
To address this situation, Rocco’s creators initially tried to handle things privately, contacting both Rare and Pace22 over email to talk about these accounts. Dissatisfied with how their conversations with Rare were going, and frustrated by Pace22’s lack of response, the couple eventually broke character on stream, acknowledging the issues that they had been having publicly.
In response to this, Pace22 vehemently denied any responsibility for the abuse and demanded a public apology from Rocco’s creators in the Official Partner Discord for, “Dragging my community and myself though the mud on her stream.” In the logs we’ve seen from the Partner Discord, a Rare community manager stepped in on multiple occasions, but not with any intention of speaking to the two partners and trying to resolve their differences, instead telling them to take the argument to the DMs. This interaction has since drawn criticism.
“There’s no way that a community manager in any case should see two high profile members of the community and encourage those two people to take it to the DMs and argue there,” a former Sea of Thieves developer tells me, asking not to be named. The game’s own developers have been in a tough spot. Current and former developers, who have been sympathetic to the couple both publicly and privately, have been dissuaded from speaking out in fear of facing repercussions from Rare for taking a stance on the issue. The few who have commented have either been told they are at risk of losing their jobs or have been frozen out by existing members of the studio, with whom they had previously been on good terms.
Very little action was taken to resolve the two partners’ differences and the couple eventually released a statement about the experiences. Rare did at least ban some of the accounts of players who had harassed the couple. This didn’t stop the harassment, however. The bans painted a larger target on the couple within the game’s PvP community, who believed they were abusing their power to get people removed.
Lazar, who had stopped streaming Sea of Thieves regularly by this point, added fuel to this theory, negatively responding to the news of the bans on stream (which you can watch here). In this rant he called the couple “little bitches” for “trying to get people banned from video games,” before addressing Rocco’s creators directly with the following outburst: “Suck my fucking dick, I’ll say it to you, bitch. Suck my dick. If I see you at sea, I will fucking silently shit down your throat and not sink your ship, and there’s really nothing you can do about it as long as I don’t say anything.”
The harassment increased over the weekend of July 18. The couple tells me they were doxxed, and their place of work and their work phone number was passed around a group of individuals who tried to intimidate them further. A number of threats were made to them and their boss over their work phone, with the harassers threatening to get that “Rocco bitch,” and stating their intent to “pay them back” for the bans. The couple eventually involved the police, informing them of what was going on. The couple also eventually lashed out at Rare for their inability to step in sooner. This took the form of messages to the executive producer Joe Neate and head of video and creator engagement Jon McFarlane, with whom the partners had previously been on good terms, where the couple referred to them as “monsters” and told them about threats they were facing. This is the action that has subsequently been used to justify their removal from the Partner Programme.
“We spoke up about legitimate harassment and have been blacklisted, unfollowed, nobody will talk to us,” they allege. “We were literally having messages with people that were going back and forth, really friendly, to suddenly really cold, corporate copy and paste responses, and then dark.”
After Rocco’s creators came out with their statement, a number of other streamers left the Partner Programme in solidarity with the couple, including Jason Sulli, Carrillo, and Gullible Gambit. These were streamers who had built their community around streaming Sea of Thieves.
Since leaving the Partner Program, Gambit (who streams under the LGBTQIA+ tag and is open about his sexuality on stream) has also been vocal about his own experiences of harassment within the game’s community and what he perceives to be a failure on Rare’s part to protect those streaming under this tag on the platform. He believes that by failing to take an active role in moderating community issues, the studio has emboldened the worst aspects of its community.
Gambit told me over a call, “My other reason for leaving the Partner Programme [besides standing up for Rocco’s creators] was because of the harassment I was receiving on my channel, and from the Sea of Thieves community to my community… This has been going on for so long and I’d been so mired in Sea of Thieves that I didn’t really see it from another perspective. I didn’t have perspective until I started streaming other games. I started streaming another game and realised I wasn’t banning five or six accounts every day for homophobic hate speech directed at me and my chat. I was like, ‘Why is that a thing?’ Why is it only happening when I’m streaming Sea of Thieves?”
ComradeMolly, another streamer who streams Sea of Thieves under the LGBTQIA+ tag on Twitch, recalls, “When I first got involved with the Sea of Thieves PVP community, some of the younger underground PVP crews decided to start making transphobic jokes about me in their Discords, and that quickly also became in-game harassment when they would find me in the arena. Some familiar names would occasionally crop up in my Discord DMs or in my Twitch chat when I was streaming, but it was almost always just low-effort trolling just trying to insult me.”
In regards to Rare’s response to this problem, ComradeMolly believes Rare isn’t doing enough in their community management. In particular, she wants the studio to have clearer guidelines on what constitutes hate speech, and to communicate to players exactly why they are banned when they try to log in. Most of the LGBTQIA+ streamers I spoke to for this article had similar concerns, going so far as to say they’d no longer stream the game, nor recommend it to their friends in the LGBTQIA+ community.
While they declined to comment on individual cases, the Rare spokesperson did give us this update on their Partner Programme. “We have already implemented changes within the Partner Programme to ensure that our creator community remains a positive and welcoming space, and we will work closely with our partners to ensure it remains so.” Given that Partner affairs are under NDA, however, we have no way to confirm what these changes are or whether they have been effective.
As for their response to criticism from LGBTQIA+ creators, the Rare spokesperson responded with the following sentiment. “We’re committed to supporting our LGBTQ+ partners, streamers and creators — diversity only enriches our larger-than-life pirate community, and makes Sea of Thieves’ world a far more interesting one to explore and enjoy.
“As stated in our Code of Conduct, Sea of Thieves is a game for everyone regardless of age, gender, race, sexuality, nationality, creed or disability. Prejudice of any kind is totally unacceptable. We will continue to support and promote our LGBTQ+ community of creators with our activities across our community, within the game, and with the events we run our partners.”
It’s great to hear Rare reaffirm this commitment, but exactly what this means is vague and doesn’t seem to directly address the concerns of those who feel unsafe or unwilling to put themselves through more harassment in order to stream the game.
Regardless, many within the community have made it clear they don’t believe Rare is doing nearly enough. Numerous individuals including those mentioned above have expressed concerns over the growing toxicity surrounding the game, and Rare’s unwillingness to speak on these concerns beyond vague declarations of support.
Gambit agrees. “This is a butterfly effect we’re seeing spill out from Rare not saying anything regarding members of the community and their trolling and harassment and everything. Because I think a lot of the Sea of Thieves community is now made up of those kinds of people, for better or for worse. I’m sure there’s a lot of good eggs there as well, but you know we have a lot of people coming forward about the constant harassment in the game and outside of the game and around the game’s community, so I do think there’s something there… As far as what Rare can do to come back from it, I really don’t know.”
Jack Yarwood is a freelance feature writer, who writes primarily about the games industry. He has also written for Eurogamer, Vice, and Rock Paper Shotgun, among others.