Harassment seems ubiquitous, inevitable and inescapable in the world of videogames, and targets of harassment run the gamut from folk who show the slightest interest in games, to folk who regularly play and write about games as a career, all the way to folk who create games – and that harassment can come from folk in those roles, too.
People from any given group of people has experienced some form of harassment in videogames if they’ve spent any time playing with other people; women, however, experience far more harassment than men do, especially in the form of sexual harassment – suffice it to say, it’s not necessary to be a woman to be targeted for harassment, but being a woman is apparently a sufficient reason to be targeted for harassment.
Folk of other sexes and genders don’t fare much better, nor do gay gamers, or indeed, folk from any given group of people that aren’t the “straight white middle-class cis male” profile that’s continually reinforced as the norm.
Examples abound: recently, Anita Sarkeesian has been the target of nothing short of a continual storm of abuse for speaking out about women as players and characters in videogames in her Tropes Vs Women video series – including being made into a literal target in a “Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian” game. Phil Fish recently cancelled his upcoming game Fez II and chose to leave the industry entirely after receiving abuse online. Jennifer Hepler was also quoted in a recent article as saying that death and rape threats were made against her and her family (though this did not directly lead to her leaving the industry last year, as the Metro had reported - but it still demonstrated the full scope of abuse that is thrown at game developers). David Vonderhaar received multiple death threats after tweaking the stats of a gun in Call of Duty. Cliff Bleszinski recently asked who would want to be a game developer, in a climate where abuse is not only demonstrably common, but also expected.
The problem isn’t that people aren’t being nice, civil, or professional – after all, nobody is owed niceness in the face of hurtful behaviour. Calls for civility are typically abused by people in positions of power or privilege in order to silence people who have every right to be angry. “Professionalism” is often used as a catch-all term to dismiss someone based on their sex, race, class, clothing, writing style, speaking style, or pretty much anything else you can imagine that folk might not like
The problem is that people are threatening other people with murder and sexual violence, which is just not okay.
It’s easy to dismiss death threats on the Internet, because they often seem so ubiquitous, yet rarely followed up on – they’re passed off as being anything from “impotent anger” to “just a joke”. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Someone who has received a death or rape threat can never be sure that the person who sent it didn’t mean it – and that goes doubly when you’re being personally targeted out of a team of other developers, who have created work seen by millions of players.
So what is it that’s prompting these kinds of responses? Ultimately, it’s down to players feel like they aren’t being catered to enough.
The great irony of this is that videogames are one of the few artistic mediums where catering to players is actually so vital that it’s often built into the framework of the development process, right from step one. The development of videogames is an extension of and builds off of principles found in both software development and human/computer interaction, both of which stress the importance of user-centered design – focusing on the needs of specific users or groups of users and how best to catered to them.
That, of course, doesn’t necessarily mean that all types of players arebeing catered to – especially when the data used to design for a given user may indicate it’s most cost-effective and least-risky to cater directly to a demographic that historically has the money and time to heavily invest in their product. No prizes for guessing what demographic that tends to be.
It should be noted that there’s a line between what constitutes critique and what constitutes harassment – especially when we consider that many people, particularly those from marginalised groups, have a right to be incensed, about topics like inaccurate media portrayals of people like themselves. Their position is just and justifiable. To tell these folks otherwise – to ask them to lower their voices, to speak politely, to act with civility or to present themselves respectfully because “you’ll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar”, amounts to nothing more than tone policing: the idea that the importance, efficacy or validity of an argument is directly related to how nicely the speaker says it – which is not only an informal logical fallacy, but also kind of a horrible idea, if you think about it. Regardless, it can be extraordinarily difficult to cope with dozens of angry messages, regardless of how vital those messages are or how well-intentioned their writers may have been. This becomes readily apparent the power dynamic between two people is ambiguous, and if the point of contention is unclear or highly nuanced, as is the case between a creator and a consumer — a developer and a player.
So who must bear the burden of responsibility and accountability when players feel like they’re being neglected, and creators feel like they’re been targeted? As is often the case, the answer can’t be answered by picking one of two extreme options. It’s not always the creators’ responsibility to listen to, take on and incorporate critique into their work, and it’s not always the consumer’s right to have all of their desires met. Similarly, it’s not always okay for creators to blatantly ignore criticism, and it’s not always okay for consumers to be ignored.
It’s important to look at the whole context – the issue being raised, who the people are that raise it, who or what they perceive to be at fault, how accurate that perception is likely to be, and what place that issue has, both in a personal context for those involved, and in a wider societal or cultural context.
Imaginary gun stats being changed in a game with guns, lots of guns? Probably not going to add more weight to the massive burden on a marginalised community, directly manipulate the appointment of a dictator in Egypt, or even heavily contribute to gun crime in the US – and thus it’s probably neither warranted nor justified to send someone an aggressive message.
Scenes of women continually faced with sexual violence, in a medium where rape threats are aimed at developers, players and their families alike, in a society where 1 in 6 women can expect to be victims of sexual assault during their lifetime? Yeah, probably worth kicking up a fuss…
…but it’s never just, justifiable nor “just a joke” to throw in a rape or death threat.