In the past month, two well-known figures in the gaming industry have departed for apparently a similar reason, causing a noticeable disturbance in the force. At the end of July, the producer of the quirky indie game Fez, Phil Fish, halted production on the anticipated sequel, packed his bags, and left. Just like that. More recently (as in last week) one of Bioware’s senior writers, Jennifer Helper, left her position to pursue freelance work. While of course there are many differing aspects to the reasons why they left, I think it’s safe to assume that both occurrences, while not the reason in particular, share one unfortunate similarity: they were both being harassed by fans.
It’s really a double edged sword when an audience realizes how much power they have over content providers. The same audience that can let developers know when and where a game-breaking glitch occurs can also be the audience that tells the developers that their children should have been aborted and that the world would be much better if they killed themselves. But what causes such a disparity? What is it that allows people to think that this kind of negative activity is allowed? I think the problem is two-fold: anonymity and entitlement.
Anonymity is difficult to pin down, honestly. It’s a plague, but a plague we all have benefited from at one point or another. Certainly being behind a smokescreen can draw out the worst of human nature. Even when fighting with a random person on a multiplayer game over headsets, despite the fact that their voice can be heard, the veil of technology still lets people say pretty vile things. However, the very same veil that gives birth to such evil acts also allows for great kindness. Under the protection of anonymity, people feel safe to donate to people that might need help without feeling the worry that comes with attaching their name to the metaphorical check. People send anonymous love on tumblr just about as often as people send anonymous hate. It’s truly perplexing.
Some people say that the best solution for cracking down on the harassers that hide behind their anonymity is to do away with the entire concept altogether: force people to post under their real names so there can be real-life consequences. However, I don’t agree. Some of the best discourse online only occurs because people have anonymity. And I don’t think it would stop some people, really, as ones that like doing that sort of thing would certainly find a way to circumvent preventative measures.
So unfortunately for me, this is a moot point. I think the more pressing issue is the sense of entitlement with which people are growing up and how it’s manifested and concentrated in the gaming community.
Maybe I’m going to sound like an old coot waving her stick, telling people to get off her lawn, but when people are complaining about how they don’t have iPhones and various other luxuries because their parents hate them or for some other contrived reason, and it happens often enough that it’s reached meme status, I think we have a problem. And no, it’s not the parents’ fault. Not solely, anyways. It’s a problem that comes with technology.
For example, my cousin is entering high school this year. However, last year he was required to have a laptop at all times for school, so this forced him to either purchase a laptop or at least form a dependency on a school-issued one.
A laptop used to be a luxury item, but now it’s absolutely necessary for even the most basic of education. The feeling is similar concerning phones: if you don’t have internet on your phone, it’s only too easy to feel disconnected from everything. Because of the pressures put on us from the necessity of these expensive things, we feel like we need every new thing that comes out, the “best” thing, and we complain when we don’t get it because we’re being left behind in the past. We’re “failing” life because we don’t have the correct tools to succeed. And we feel entitled to these things because the media all around us tells us that we are. As expected, we’re pretty much evolving as corporations want us to.
This entitlement does not translate well to the gaming community, especially in the case of those who work on the games.
I’ll be the first to admit it: I’ve felt this way towards the writers and developers of the games I love. I’ve had times where I’ve raged over a certain plot point in a game, or a certain item I liked having its effects lessened because I felt like it was my right to have things go the way I wanted them to. I was playing the game, wasn’t I? I was supporting them with my money. And this is probably how a lot of gamers feel at times. However, with more attachments to things and more of a sense of deserving those things being driven home by outside sources, having something that doesn’t cater to specifically to your whims begins to feel like a personal affront rather than just an inconvenience. Which is stupid.
Something gamers forget is that we’re not playing our story. Though what we experience while playing the game is something that uniquely belongs to each of us, we’re playing through someone else’s idea, someone else’s graphics, someone else’s story. We’re basically intruders, but welcomed intruders. Like Santa Claus—but we tend to drop off curse words rather than presents. Because we forget this, we also forget how to be constructive. Instead of leaving comments like “this character is lacking because part of their lore doesn’t fit in with the pre-established lore” we get “stop making all these game characters fags.” Instead of “wow, I don’t think the specs on this gun should have been changed because of such and such” we get “go kill yourself.” We are destroying the thing we love. I’ll repeat that.
Gamers, you are ruining video games.
By continuing this hostility over aspects that we really have no right to be so hostile over, we create a divide between ourselves and the gaming companies that try to cater to us. In place of innovation, we get the same-old, same-old because that’s what makes us happy, or makes us the least angry. We get lackluster content. We get people who dread coming into a job they should love doing. We encourage brilliant people in the industry to leave their jobs. None of this is good. Many people commenting on both the case of Helper and the case of Fish have voiced the opinion that they should have had a thicker skin going into this business—that they should have expected this. But nothing can prepare you enough for receiving floods of threats every day. And maybe in some cases, within and outside of these specific two, the responses to the vitriol of the community could have been handled better, but I personally couldn’t blame any of them. People like Helper and Fish leaving is not a commentary on the weakness of developers, but a commentary on the pathetic state of the gaming community as a whole.
I would have thought that by this point we would have progressed beyond this point, but some of the most vitriolic arguments I’ve seen thus far can be directly attributed to another issue that can be drawn out of entitlement, and that’s power. Those in power usually feel entitled to maintain their crown so to speak, and the gaming community is no different. I don’t think it’ll come as a surprise to anyone to say that the kings of this medium of entertainment are straight, white males aged 15-27 (if I were to guestimate). Thus, along this logic we can presume that anything threatening that term of rule will be smacked down. So when fans dared to hope that the female version of Commander Shepard would be the face of the final installment of the Mass Effect series, we get other fans slamming down the idea because Shepard is a male obviously. In fact, many fans were outraged at the simple idea that a female version of the Commander be given equal airtime as her male counterpart, working up a torrent of backlash at the FemShep trailer for the game. And what female character discussion wouldn’t be complete without a conversation on every asset of how she looks? Discussions ranging how women who wear makeup cannot possibly be strong in character or in performance to the more worthwhile topic of why deciding on what a female character looks like should (or should not) be left up to the so-called ‘fans’ (and how that can be problematic in tune with standards of westernized beauty).
Another one point of contention that comes to mind is something that Helper had to deal with daily. In Dragon Age 2 one of the player’s companions was a mage by the name of Anders (who Helper wrote dialogue for). He’s a cool guy who’s kind of a terrorist, but he’s funny, so it’s okay. But you know what’s apparently not okay? The fact that he hits on the male player character.
Anders is the most open bisexual character in the game outside of Isabella, and if your character is nice to him, he will end up flirting with you no matter your gender. Some male fans were shocked and appalled that they were being forced to see him flirt with their character—while remaining unsurprisingly not appalled when Isabella flirted a female player character—despite completely ignoring the fact that their character could tell the mage they weren’t interested. It was the fact that a realistic reaction with a fellow who didn’t fall into a heteronormative romance dared to exist and made them feel uncomfortable.
The norm wants to stay in power, but as long as that continues to be, we’ll have stagnation in the games themselves and the community will worsen. As much as I feel terrible for those people in the gaming industry that have to deal with this bullshit daily, they play an important role. Only through their efforts can we hope to start breaking down this white boys’ club, but that comes with pain, tears, and threats on their lives. It’s not fair and game devs and writers shouldn’t have to just “deal with it,” so we, as other gamers more controlled in emotion, need to take responsibility on ourselves to call out these douchebags and more vocally support those that share their stories with us, whether it be through praise or constructive criticism.
While playing Fez, Burnie and Ben, two video game/media commentators from Rooster Teeth, discussed this issue in a different, but still eye-opening manner; especially poignant coming from two people who have to deal with these same kinds of issues every day. I’ve linked the video below and I’d give it a listen despite the length.