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Facing Down the Online Mob

As hype and expectations for major games spiral out of control, hate campaigns and death threats have become an occupational hazard for game creators

Final Fantasy XV has been delayed for a few more months, and some people are furious about it. No Man's Sky has been released, and some people are really furious about that, too. Some people were utterly furious when No Man's Sky was delayed a while back, too. You don't have to do very much, in videogame circles, to make some people furious, and when that happens, you know about it quickly; social media of various flavours provides a superb conduit for fury-transmission, letting people you've never heard of from continents away tell you how mad they are at you, how dubious they are of your parentage and the nature of your relationship with your partner, and which painful diseases or unfortunate incidents they'd most like to bring about your untimely demise.

Most of us will probably never understand the impulse that drives people to seek out and hurl abuse at strangers across the internet, least of all given the extraordinary disconnect in severity between "this person made a decision regarding videogame development with which I disagree" and an expletive-laden, graphically described death threat. Yet that impulse is far more common than any reason or logic would suggest; many game creators and those associated with them have become wearily accustomed to aggressive screeds in their social media mentions and email inboxes.

When a developer becomes the target of a sustained attack for some reason, the volume and aggression of those threats can become overwhelming, forcing people who rely heavily upon the internet for their professional lives to go offline. When coupled with the malicious distribution of personal information, it can also leave people with no choice but to leave their homes or seek assistance from the police. Amongst a flood of distant keyboard jockeys trying very, very hard to persuade you that they are violent psychopaths who live in your neighbourhood and hold a deep grudge, how is anyone to confirm that none of them actually do fit that profile?

"It's worth emphasising that we are still talking about a minority, and a small one at that... The minority, though, are still capable of doing real damage - not just making nuisances of themselves, but creating genuine upset and fear, and severely impacting the lives of their targets."

Where did this come from? Is this bile and aggression something that people have felt for years, but which remained hidden until they were given a direct channel to convey their twisted hatred to its targets? The temptation, after all, is to blame social media itself; there's no doubt that Twitter, in particular, is guilty of failing to take harassment seriously for many years. However, the truth is that ways to reach creators, journalists and so on have existed for years, and until recently, only a tiny and deranged minority took that as an invitation to spew death threats. Something else has changed. The origin of the hatred lies elsewhere.

Going back one step from social media, it's not hard to find the places where hate campaigns are spawned - Reddit, the "chan" imageboards, and so on. These are the places that were the birthing chamber for the wildly spasming hate movement, GamerGate, itself a precursor to the more scattershot mud-slinging of the wider alt-right movement. There's something about these online communities which seems to encourage and nurture the development of inane conspiracy theories and narratives of unlikely oppression. Lift the lid and peer into the origins of any hate campaign against a game creator, and you find a bizarre subculture in which the participants act as though they are playing some vast Alternate Reality Game, piecing together fragments of an imagined puzzle whose solution will prove that the games industry, and the world itself, is conspiring against game consumers.

This mechanism as it relates to GamerGate and its howling aggression against women, people of colour and LGBT people is well known and well understood. What's interesting, I think, is to see the same unhinged mechanism at work at the heart of established communities for games - like No Man's Sky, or Final Fantasy. Right in the midst of broad online communities ostensibly devoted to enjoying, anticipating and celebrating videogames, you find the same wheels turning; the same conspiracy theories, the same narratives of victimisation, and ultimately, the same torrents of abuse and the same death threats pouring out of the end of the funnel.

Before going any further, it's worth emphasising that we are still talking about a minority, and a small one at that. It's a noisy minority amplified all the more by sockpuppeting and astroturfing, techniques designed to use multiple accounts to signal-boost a message, but it's still a minority. The vast, vast majority of gamers are perfectly capable of being disappointed at a delay, or annoyed at a bug, or even somewhat pissed off at a feature being cut from a game in development, while still being genuinely horrified at people who take this as an invitation to harass, abuse or threaten developers. The calls which you can see on forums like Reddit for people to be civil and reasonable are genuine; most people's reaction to being disappointed by a game (or a movie, or a comic, or a TV show) is not to hurl abuse or to seek out personally identifying information in order to puff up their death threats.

The minority, though, are still capable of doing real damage - not just making nuisances of themselves, but creating genuine upset and fear, and severely impacting the lives of their targets. So, why has this become a thing? Where has it come from? Is it something about the nature of those online forums and communities that encourages this, or that gives it focus?

There's no one factor that explains this behaviour; it's a confluence of things, and no doubt there's a problem with the design of some online spaces in that they deliberately remove consequence from people's speech, a perversion of the notion of free speech which is then weaponised by a gang-like culture in which acts of viciousness are the currency of acceptance. Looking specifically at the fan spaces for popular games, though, there's another factor which deserves consideration; hype, and the extent to which expectation and anticipation for upcoming games is also focused and amplified by these spaces.

For games like No Man's Sky, that hype built up to levels that no game could ever fulfill. While the game has undoubtedly changed (and been pared down to a degree) over the course of its development, this is no different to any other game. The disappointment professed in fan forums for the game is directly proportional to the insane expectations built up in those self-same forums. The cataloguing and documenting of small changes to the game during its development as "proof" of Hello Games' supposed duplicity, though being undertaken earnestly by most participants, is exactly the same conspiracy theorist behaviour which spirals into a sharp peak of abuse and death threats every single time. (I mentioned Final Fantasy XV in the introduction since, as it's been in development for the best part of a decade, it also has devoted fans who are expecting it to deliver the moon on a stick - some of whom will undoubtedly go just as nuts as NMS' devotees when it fails to deliver upon their insane expectations.)

"Becoming the focus of an online hate group has simply become one of the occupational hazards of being involved with the videogame industry on any level. Employers need to recognise and engage with that reality"

Part of the reason for this exaggerated and unrealistic level of hype is, again, down to the format of these online communities - participants fuel one another's imaginations and interpretations, and reiterate ideas to the point where they are assumed to be reality, regardless of what a developer may have actually said. Another element, though, is economic. Games are getting more expensive (No Man's Sky, notably, is essentially an indie game with a AAA price tag) at a time when the income levels of their main demographics are steadily falling. Buying a new game at launch is genuinely a bigger economic investment for a twenty-something today than it was for a twenty-something a decade ago, or two decades ago; it's expected, in turn, to deliver more, to fulfill more, to simply be more. Link that to the echo chambers created by online communities, and it's no surprise that towering expectations build up, with equally shattering disappointment if and when those expectations are not met. Sometimes - recently, all too often - that disappointment is going to turn poisonous.

There are a handful of measures that could be taken to alleviate this. Companies like Twitter and Reddit could start taking the use of their platforms as blunderbusses for vile abuse seriously, though I wouldn't hold my breath on that front. Companies could certainly re-evaluate their marketing to a degree, and communicate earlier and better when features are cut or deadlines missed - though honestly, I'm not sure how much that would help, since despite the strident claims of the angry minority, No Man's Sky (to take the most recent example) really wasn't marketed in a way any more "dishonest" or "misleading" than, say, a movie trailer might be. Honestly, at the end of the day, the only real move that game companies have in this regard is the one they should already have made; they need to put policies and systems in place to protect and support employees who become the targets of online abuse. It's terribly sad that we need this at all, but we do; becoming the focus of an online hate group has simply become one of the occupational hazards of being involved with the videogame industry on any level. Employers need to recognise and engage with that reality; they may not be able to shut off the abuse, but they can at least give people assistance, advice and the security of knowing that their company and their colleagues have got their back.

Latest comments (8)

Connor Martin Aspiring game designer/tester A year ago
While the few in every assault on abuse is true, much of it is bluster from behind the screen. I'd love to see some developers, platform holders and even law makers start to really intimidate the crowd back, this behaviour exists because it is allowed. Grand punishment has always been a favourite of mine to deal with immature people, you scream at me I laugh at you while orchestrating the beautiful consequences of your actions.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Connor Martin on 22nd August 2016 1:05pm

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It is absolutely disgusting and ridiculous how some people behave given the thinnest veil of anonymity.

While I generally like and support the fact that one can use (a lot of) the internet mostly anonymously, allowing one to exchange information which may be otherwise restricted or frowned upon depending on where one lives, this freedom also unfortunately seems to allow a certain subculture to go insane.

Most people would not attack someone (verbally or physically) in the real world because of real consequences - from getting smacked in the face to getting sued. So why does it seem perfectly acceptable and safe to do so online? There needs to be a way for us as a global society to apply real consequences for unacceptable online behaviour too, while at the same time providing everyone with the right to free speech. But people also need to remember that "free speech" doesn't mean one can freely say anything with no consequences.
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Anthony ChanA year ago
Personally, I think the internet needs to adopt the standpoint of abolishing anonymity on officially moderated forums. There are many forums that require you to send a screenshot of government official ID that reconciles with a Facebook login to gain access. I honestly think that social media applications and sites need to start doing the same.

The moment somebody has to provide a piece of themselves that is real and visible to everybody, their actions are linked to a real and lasting persona on the internet, I think we will see a decrease in the highly toxic 'troll' behaviour that is commonplace today. Our obsession with preserving our privacy has led to our idea of entitled comfort hidden behind 'black out' internet curtains and created a whole new breed of bullies who actually in the 'real world' may be victims.

We have the technology using Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn to link accounts to our forum accounts. All we need is Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn to add a keyword 'verified' like Paypal. To become verified, you must provide government issued ID that reconciles the form data you have provided a social media site. In addition, recognized email service providers should request the same from every person who creates a new email address. And social media should only accept verified email addresses that link to the person creating the social media account.

Ultimately if these social applications agree to become gatekeepers in forging a less toxic community, and official forums only allow verified social media accounts to post on their sites, those who want to chat nicely about a game they are interested are free to join and the overall the community will grow. But those who just create accounts to troll, flame, berate, and bully other netizens will be locked out. At the end they can reside in the un-verified communities such as Reddit, and at the same time any developers who step foot into 'unregulated' communities would expect the harsh words. I would also hope that Facebook and Twitter would enforce this on their sites as well.

There is free speech (while hiding behind a curtain) and responsible free speech - and with responsible free speech you can still speak your pyschopathic/sociapathic/hateful mind as long as you don't care that people know who you are. However, I then wonder how many people would spurt off their hate if everybody could see the face behind the words.

PS: While it seems what I am suggesting might create a fanboy community, I emphasize chatting nicely. We are allowed to disagree or be angry about a game and we should be able to voice that on the official forums. I just think we can be angry without wishing one's untimely death, insulting parents, insulting one's personality or appearance or any other form of bullying - which has nothing to do with what the anger is about anyways.

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Anthony Chan on 19th August 2016 5:09pm

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Show all comments (8)
Robert B. Healy III Writer / Blogger A year ago
However, I then wonder how many people would spurt off their hate if everybody could see the face behind the words.
I've seen more than enough hate-filled vitriol being spewed from people on Facebook who have their real names, faces, city, school/place of employment, etc. out in the open to know that getting rid of anonymity will do very little to curtail such behavior.
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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic A year ago
The disappointment professed in fan forums for the game is directly proportional to the insane expectations built up in those self-same forums.
Actual NeoGAF forum thread:
Is Sea of Thieves what No Man's Sky should have been?
And let's remember that Sea of Thieves is set for a release some time next year.

Honestly, I think until the hype-train mentality that's embedded itself in a subset of gamers calms the fuck down, this situation will continue on and on, to a greater or lesser degree. A possible solution would be to have publisher or developer funded community outreach in places like NeoGAF, so that when expectations raise themselves to a point that is obviously ridiculous, someone can step-in and say "No, you're getting too worked-up, trust me."

Unfortunately, however, this is the very opposite of what most companies want with their marketing - they need the hype to build to unreasonable levels in order to get those impulse purchases and pre-orders from consumers on-the-fence. To intentionally lower expectations is to intentionally lower first-week sales, which not many companies will willingly do, regardless of possibly higher longer-term sales, better game-perception, and lower levels of abuse.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Morville O'Driscoll on 22nd August 2016 8:44am

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Sandy Lobban Founder, Noise Me UpA year ago
This is a real issue and shouldn't be taken lightly. There are many ill or deranged people with online accounts who are susceptible to obsessing about others. This maniac here took a dislike to a review of his book, and he tracked this 18 yr old girl down whilst she was working in asda. He travelled about 400 miles up from England to Scotland to carry out his actions. Real identities at least put a real name to the account, which might lead to them knowing they will get caught. . http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-edinburgh-east-fife-34775814
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Keith Donachie International Community Management, Gaijin EntertainmentA year ago
I don't think any of us in the "Gaming" industry haven't experienced this to a lesser or greater degree. Great article and I wholeheartedly agree with the comments here. About time the toxic few stopped spoiling it for everyone else and suffered the consequences of their actions.

Our industry really is no different to any other entertainment industry like the movies or music, we all rely on hype to some degree. As such we seem to be reaping what we have sown in all fields yet it seems really unchallenged hate only seems to happen in gaming entertainment. In the end, I predict that software development will not take chances anymore.

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Keith Donachie on 22nd August 2016 4:27pm

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Bonnie Patterson Narrative Designer, Writer 11 months ago
@John Owens: "Objective pre-agreed rules regarding what is and what isn't acceptable and a blind judicial application of those rules is what is required."

By "blind judicial application", I'm assuming you mean impartially? I originally thought you meant without needing any context, but figured impartially (e.g. If what a gamergater behaved badly then a feminist doing the same thing was also bad) was more likely what you meant. (Context is pretty essential when dealing with harassment because it involves repeated acts; if you consider it without that context, nothing is happening).

That's pretty sound in theory, but a couple of points are worth noting:

i) We do already have laws on what constitutes harassment and people keep forgetting that there's actually nothing anywhere that says they don't apply online. They do usually require a modicum of commonsense judgement in interpretation, however, as with most laws.

ii) Most sites and games already have a Code of Conduct or Terms of Play which people are supposed review before they join, joining being considered consent to being bound by them. Those involved in internet harassment consistently ignore them, or simply assume them to be different or absent or not apply to them personally. I'm sure there are innumerable MMO GMs reading who have received angry messages for "unfairly" banning someone who made their avatar a Nazi costume and sent hours-long anti-semitic rants to some players, or graphic descriptions of child abuse and so on and so forth. Even without reading Terms of Play, a little commonsense should reveal that if what you're doing has no other conceivable purpose than deeply distressing someone, it's not on.

People have got it into their heads that being a maximum [excretory orifice] is not only allowed online, but that it is mandatory.

iii) I've had a lot of messages where the sender seems to assume that there is a set of rules and their behaviour is OK if they are technically following the letter, if not the spirit. For instance, I've seen a lot where the sender has apparently believed that if he doesn't use any official swearwords, sending 60 hyper-aggressive messages to a total stranger isn't harassment.

Also on the subject of abolishing anonymity, it's a double-edged sword.

For a lot of online orifices, it's not a deterrent to have things linked to their actual name because their real name isn't yet linked to anything they value. For them, the reason they behave differently online to in their homes or schools is because there is no physical danger of retribution (and also because they cannot see or hear the impact they have - therapy along those lines has seemed very successful in most cases, when given to youths imprisoned for twitter threats - I remember a couple of cases, though, that are incorrigibly anti-social to date).

And there's also the whole side where forcing people to use their real identities online exposes them to their stalkers/harassers. A lot of women don't even like to admit to their gender online - hell, at university we were taught to hide our gender on any document - online or not - that might fall into someone else's hands. That's why a lot of women use only their initial rather than a first name or title on their ID, credit cards, in the phone book.

Which is not to say we shouldn't try to make the internet somewhere people can access and use freely to give their views, regardless of who they are - aholery is not inevitable.
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