By now, you all know the Adam Orth story. On April 4, 2013, the (now former) Microsoft employee published a tweet that changed his life forever. In commenting on Microsoft's Xbox One always-on policies with a hashtag #dealwithit, Orth brought on a firestorm of pure vitriol from gamers across the web. It was ugly. Four days later he resigned from his job, and during a talk at GDC today called "Mob Rules: The Destructive Power of Opinion and Online Community," he described how the outpouring of hate truly affected him on a deeper level.
"I was becoming the next victim of the internet hate phenomenon. It was an absolute feeding frenzy. My public and private life was fair game," he described. "People began to distance themselves from me. I was dejected, ashamed and embarrassed. I destroyed my career and feared being blacklisted by the industry. I went from income to no income."
Orth mentioned how the death threats spun out of control, how people were actually wishing cancer upon him and his child. It's a sad commentary on our society that this form of internet toxicity is seemingly acceptable in our society, he said. As Manveer Heir pointed out in his talk yesterday, misogyny, racism and homophobia is all too common nowadays, and Orth was subjected to it all online.
"The reason that internet threats are terrifying is not the possibility of the realization of a violent act; it's that society has regressed to a point that this behavior and discourse is an acceptable and expected response to something someone doesn't like or agree with," he lamented.
Orth continued, noting that "most developers don't even raise an eyebrow at this because this is the new normal. As an industry we've become desensitized to this insane behavior because it's overwhelming, ubiquitous and unstoppable. Somehow we've devolved while moving forward, and there's no going back..."
"Be the shining example to inspire others to action. Never forget the joy you get or that you give by illuminating it with video games"
Orth said he attempted to get comments from devs on the topic of internet toxicity, but none would go on the record by name, and even those who spoke anonymously were limited. From those he talked to, however, the pattern was clear: internet toxicity was hurting developers and making them rethink their career. "I just don't want to make games for these people anymore," said one depressed dev. Orth said he's witnessed an "us versus them theme" develop among game creators and players. "It's chilling," he said and that one developer quote "represents a total breakdown of how our industry fundamentally functions and foreshadows possible dark times ahead."
"Internet toxicity has the power to shit on something beautiful and destroy it," Orth remarked.
Indeed, there are some developers who've been driven away by internet toxicity. Flappy Bird creator Dong Ngyuen is the latest example. But the good news is that some companies are trying to change player behavior. Obviously there's no way to police the whole internet, but developers like Riot are at least setting a good example in how they've handled misbehaving players in League of Legends, Orth said, and he cited the approach thatgamecompany took with multiplayer in Journey which removes voice and text to focus on gameplay cooperation - it just removes the possibility of any toxic behaviors seeping in.
As bad as the situation has been, and as horrible as the outpouring of hate was for Orth personally, he actually appeared to be grateful for the experience as he reflected on what happened. "I survived," he said. "You either curl up in the fetal position or you carry on...This was the best thing that happened to me. When I tell that to people they can't believe it, but it's f***ing true. When everything burned to the ground, it became a forcing function for radical reset. I saw it as an opportunity of a lifetime. I grew closer to my friends and family, I matured as a person, I became a better parent, got healthy and lost 50 pounds, and I recommitted and rededicated myself to my creative life."
Orth is now making a game called Adrift, which attempts to shine a spotlight on the destructive power of internet toxicity and he asked the developers in the room to do their part. "Be the shining example to inspire others to action. Never forget the joy you get or that you give by illuminating it with video games," he said.
And for the developers who are either facing internet hate right now or those who could one day be the subject of such toxic behavior, he had a little advice: "Life is too short to worry about anonymous internet activity. You have to look inward and block it out. What they are saying is a reflection of their life, not yours. Fighting back on their level is pointless. Eventually they tire out. Keep building, keep dreaming."