Phil Fish, Gamer Fury, and the awful price of progress
How last week's nastiness is the byproduct of one of the industry's most positive trends
A pair of events from the last week have conspired to shine a spotlight on a very ugly side of the gaming industry. First, the antagonistic relationship between Fez developer Phil Fish, his critics, and the gaming press reached new lows, prompting Fish to publicly state he was getting out of gaming entirely, cancelling the sequel to his indie hit in the process. Second, a Call of Duty: Black Ops II patch reduced the damage or rate of fire on a handful of the multiplayer mode's guns, and Treyarch's design director David Vonderhaar subsequently found himself and his family subjected to abuse and threats over Twitter. That prompted writer Andy Kelly to set up a Tumblr dubbed "Gamer Fury", preserving the ugliest specimens and generally undermining whatever faith in humankind you had left.
But as foul and depressing as these events have been, they are a byproduct of advancements the industry has been championing for years. Social media is a powerful force now, both in the world at large and gaming in specific. It is the natural evolution of the Internet and an empowering technology, one that tears down walls and lets creators communicate with their audience directly.
At the same time, gamers can have their voices heard like never before. They can interact not just with their favorite developers, but with their fellow gamers. They can band together and crowdfund the sort of games they want to play, instead of picking and choosing from the games publishers thought would sell by the million. They can more easily form powerful communities around the games they play, creating meaningful relationships with their fellow fans. At their best, those communities can use their influence to make the world a better place, marshalling their resources for disaster relief, raising money for cancer research in memory of a fellow player, making medical breakthroughs of their own, or coming to the aid of a stranger under attack.
Social media has also changed the way the gaming press works, especially as it pertains to indie developers. Interviews are requested through Facebook, comments sought through Twitter. Developers are more accessible than ever before, and the diversifying industry that social media has facilitated means more opportunity for content that isn't filtered through the gatekeepers at major publishers. And just as the developers have more direct communication with their audiences, game journalists are similarly more accessible to theirs. Everything is pushing all of us out of our silos and into a more open field.
"Technology that empowers cannot discriminate. It cannot pick and choose which people are worthy of empowerment..."
These are all ultimately positive developments, but there is a cost to them. Technology that empowers cannot discriminate. It cannot pick and choose which people are worthy of empowerment because so much of its value is in eliminating the hurdles and gatekeepers that existed to make those judgments in the first place. The same tools that enable people to create feel-good stories like Caine's Arcade or the Molydeux GameJam also enable those who find fun in spreading misery. They enable the hateful to organize campaigns of intimidation, to indulge their worst selves, to engage in deplorable behavior from the supposed anonymity of a user name.
As long as we have the benefits of these tools, we will have drawbacks to go with them. We can try to restrict the tools, but this undermines their usefulness while only addressing a symptom of the problem. We can appeal to people's better selves and encourage them to treat each other with dignity and respect in all matters (and we do, if the flood of editorials about this very subject are anything to go by), but those who would be open to this message are likely not the ones causing problems in the first place.
I see no way to curtail the negativity in the industry and on social media, but this is not to say it is in any way acceptable. It is the awful price that must be paid if we want to keep the progress we have made. What we need to do is recognize that this toll, steep as it is, has already been paid. Now it's just up to us to make the most of what it has purchased, to use these tools to their utmost potential to make it worth all the bile, spite, and suffering that come with them.