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Challenging the inevitability of online harassment | Opinion

Tackling harassment will be a long and bitter march, but understanding it is the first step

Online harassment has come to define so much of the industry in recent years; from Gamergate to Diablo: Immortal, abusive behaviour is the default response now for so many fans who feel in someway slighted.

Speaking at Sweden Game Arena last year following the collapse of Telltale Games, former narrative designer Emily Grace Buck told of how she received countless messages over social media, and even phone calls from fans, "many of them targeted harassment at me for not finishing a game I wasn't even working on".

Here, Buck hits upon one of the more troubling aspects of harassment -- its wild misdirection. The collapse of Telltale lies squarely with management who drove the studio off a cliff-edge while holding onto the desperate hope it could be plucked from the air at the last moment. Obviously that moment never came, and over 200 people lost their jobs overnight.

But fans of the studio's many successful titles, when faced with the prospect of never finding closure, exercised that frustration by harassing a recently laid-off writer who, at the time, had been working on a completely different game. More bizarrely still, a shared Google document set up by the laid-off staff to help organise fundraising efforts for those affected was hacked, and filled with misogynist abuse.

While Buck's story is a fairly extreme one, it's an experience almost everyone in the industry recognises -- whether it's happened to them directly, to their colleagues, or fellow community members. That developers are frequently subject to such levels of harassment represents not just failure of the industry at large, but an immediate problem to its long-term health. But what can be done to better protect and support developers that fall prey to the mob? In order to improve as an industry, we need to fully understand the problem and why it proliferates.

"[Diversity has made] the masculinity-technology conflation upon which geek masculinity rests increasingly untenable"

Michael Salter, Western Sydney University

Women, minorities, and members of the LGBTQ community receive a disproportionate amount of abuse in this industry, so it's not surprising perhaps that the answer begins with "geek masculinity" and the engendering of technology in Western culture as an inherently masculine pursuit. In a 2017 academic journal article titled 'From geek masculinity to Gamergate: the technological rationality of online abuse', Michael Salter from the Western Sydney University explored how social media platforms like 4chan, Reddit, and Twitter can promote attitudes and relations that "naturalise gendered inequalities and drive mass campaigns of online abuse".

This geek masculinity -- defined as a form of masculinity built upon gendered stereotypes about male mastery and female ineptitude -- has resulted in a masculine impulse to defend things such as video games "from perceived encroachment by women and more diverse users".

As a result, Salter argues, the increased diversification of video game audiences has made "the masculinity-technology conflation upon which geek masculinity rests increasingly untenable".

Therein lies the problem -- geek masculinity relies on what Salter described as "emotionally vital, if somewhat fragile, props" such as technological mastery and esoteric knowledge of nerd culture. When these are threatened, it's not just a product but an intrinsic part of male identity.

Consider the recent Diablo: Immortal debacle for instance, which saw a franchise born on PC for the hardcore gamer, now parsed down and made accessible for the modern casual mobile audience. The hashtag #NotMyDiablo made it patently clear that this was more than just disappointment for Diablo fans, but a threat to their identity.

The inevitable petition demanding Diablo: Immortals be cancelled also illustrates the mentality behind this behaviour. Started by an account named People For the True Spirit of Blizzard, and running with the headline Make Blizzard Great Again, the petition described the mobile game as "an outrage and a spit in the face of the Diablo community".

"The hashtag #NotMyDiablo made it patently clear that this was more than just disappointment for Diablo fans, but a threat to their identity"

In the days and weeks following that unmitigated mess, various hot-takes were offered about what Blizzard could have done to avoid it in the first place. Bethesda, for example, had pulled a similar move at E3 with a surprisingly heavy focus on its mobile game Elder Scrolls: Blades, but topped it with a teaser for Elder Scrolls VI. That 37-second-long trailer could well have been the difference between bubbling excitement and explosive fury.

Of course, that's speculation and it can never be known for sure, but it does raise the important issue of communication, something which has repeatedly cropped up in discussions regarding how the industry can better handle this problem.

Academic research currently being undertaken by Dr Alison Lamont and Dr Robert Busfield from Roehampton University, specifically looking at why gamers get so angry and the impact on developers and the environment in which games are made and advertised, raised this very issue.

After interviewing a number of developers from small indies to next-gen AAA studios, Lamont posited the need to rethink toxicity not as geek masculinity or gamer culture, but as a form of communication.

Overwhelmingly, it was agreed that open channels of communication are a good thing, but issues arise when the lines between personal and professional become blurred, and the accessibility of developers on platforms like Twitter, Reddit, Discord and Twitch expose them to personal attacks.

According to the early findings of Lamont and Busfield, there are two "fundamentally contradictory dynamics in play".

In a blog post on UKIE's website outlining their early findings, Lamont said: "Developers get the blame for 'poor communication' of the game's development when there is an outburst; yet everyone agrees that 'the Internet' is at the root of it as that these very personal, negative backlashes wouldn't happen face-to-face.

"So it's seen simultaneously as an 'individual communication problem' (and therefore fixable by taking the right steps, such as introducing community managers and closely monitoring player feedback) but also 'platform' problem about how we all communicate online (and therefore not fixable by any individual, but needs a platform-wide response)."

"On platforms like Twitter, what this ultimately leaves us with is a hyper-competitive space where controversial and outlandish comments rise to the top"

The idea that communication bears a substantial deal of the responsibility is supported by Andrea Braithwaite in her journal article titled 'It's About Ethics in Games Journalism? Gamergaters and Geek Masculinity'. In it, she argued that vitriol is default on social media because "being heard means being hateful".

On platforms like Twitter, what this ultimately leaves us with is a hyper-competitive space where controversial and outlandish comments rise to the top. We've also seen in recent years how ineffectual social media platforms have been at moderating its users -- an individual developer beset on all sides by abuse from disposable Twitter accounts is left with very few mechanisms to protect themselves. An issue which is worsened by the built-in social media metrics of likes, retweets, comments, and upvotes that, according to Salter, act "as a kind of 'scorecard' in the 'gamification' of online abuse".

When I spoke with professor Garry Crawford from the University of Salford and co-author of the book Video Games as Culture: Considering the Role and Importance of Video Games in Contemporary Society, he drew a parallel between the controversy courting of both traditional and social media outlets.

"Things like Twitter and Facebook fit into that old model of media," he argued. "It's the case that scandal and fear promotes and drives traffic. This is what tabloid press has done forever, and in some ways new media -- social media -- fits into the same pattern. It's the case of if there's controversy, these drive interest.

"These are money-making ventures and they will do what is in their interest if it becomes the point that harassment is losing them money, losing them traffic, that is when they will act on it unless they are forced to. But while it's driving interest, driving traffic, bringing people to their sites, it's beneficial to them."

It's important here to divert briefly into understanding the psychological aspect of this issues, in order to better understand the driving forces behind people's behaviour online and how they seek validation. Late last year I spoke clinical and systemic psychologist Silja Litvin who argued that mental ill-health is more of an issue in the gaming community than wider society because it provides an element of escapism that is naturally appealing to people with anxiety, for instance. However, the natural dehumanising effect of online communications can create further problems.

"When you are very immersed into media, and that becomes your preferred way of communication, studies have shown that empathy goes down," she added. "Which means that people cannot read or empathise what other people might be feeling or thinking."

"The built-in social media metrics of likes, retweets, comments, and upvotes... act 'as a kind of 'scorecard' in the 'gamification' of online abuse'"

There is a distinction to be made here that games don't necessarily have an effect on empathy, but rather the means of communication do. There is no evidence that playing games offline, or simply not engaging in online communication, has any influence. The issues rises from social media platforms or in-game communications like voice or written chat, which fail to properly emulate the experience of human interaction, providing instead something that is void of nuance and the natural feedback of face-to-face interaction.

Litvin also raised the concern of confirmation bias within online communities, which creates a breeding ground for toxicity. It's a problem online across the spectrum of ideas, and can be exacerbated by a few radicals in any given community who may go unchallenged, and are therefore tacitly endorsed.

These communities -- as suggested by YouTuber and writer Matt Lees during a talk at Gamescom in 2017 -- have become places "where disenfranchised people live".

"The internet was not built to be a place where people live," he said. "It's kind of like ghetto in a weird way. It's not the fault of people who design comment sections, but no one ever thought that people were going to live there, and now we do and it's awful."

Back in November last year, along with a dozen or so other industry professionals, I attended a roundtable discussion hosted by Lamont and Busfield at the University of Roehampton, which attempted to define the harassment problem. A number of areas were highlighted, from the industry's propensity to talk about games long before they are finished and oversell the product, to a lack of educating fans in what development really entails and the nature of increasingly long-running relationships a fan might have with a studio.

Considering everything above, the problem extends far beyond what the games industry can reasonably affect. It's emotionally hurt people lashing out, the almost cosmic scale on which social media influences our lives and habits, the deep-seeded gendering of technology, the paradox highlighted by Lamont and Busfield, and broader aspects of gamer culture.

By its very nature, this article can only begin to explore the issues, and each one is infinitely more complex than the outlines provided. But with that said, attempting to understand these problems is the first step in making improvements to the lives of industry workers affected by online harassment. In terms of practical, immediate solutions, the industry has fairly limited options, but it's desperately vital that we begin to move in the right direction.

"The internet was not built to be a place where people live... no one ever thought that people were going to live there, and now we do and it's awful"

Matt Lees, writer and YouTuber

Game Workers Unite, which just last month joined The Independent Workers Union of Great Britain as an official branch, is beginning preliminary work in this area. UK spokesperson Karn Bianco outlined some of the more immediate and preventative measures such as basic web security and anti-doxxing, but also the importance of solidarity and offering safe spaces where victims can share their experiences. Bianco said GWU can act as a "secondary lightning rod" by inserting itself between abusers and their victims, providing damage control and ensuring that anyone being abused isn't cut adrift.

As a fledgling union the approach is yet to be completely defined, but Bianco made clear it should be member-led.

"We want to see what people think can and should be done," he told me. "People who've been through that situation and didn't get the support they need. They can tell us directly what they think should have happened and we can push for that. But more concretely... there is definitely a lot of misunderstanding about what goes into making a game, and who makes it."

This presents an immediate conflict, noted Bianco, as putting the people who make games in the public eye can lead to the exact problems the industry should be trying to avoid, as individuals become singled out for abuse.

The idea that educating fans about the roles of individuals within a studio might somehow help temper abuse is an interesting one, and has cropped up in multiple conversations on this topic. During the collapse of Telltale, when the official channels went quiet, fans were left either screaming into the void, or at whoever was accessible. Developers with a stronger social media presence became natural targets as the community imploded. Whether educating fans would have a demonstrable impact remains questionable, but as Max Downton, commercial content manager at Splash Damage suggested, "there is an insatiable appetite among our fans to know everything".

"The issues may be bigger than the industry, but we should be challenging entitlement by taking small proactive steps, not blindly enabling it"

Could educating consumers about the people who make their games really help? Perhaps on some small level it would, but it fails to address the issue entirely. There is a need to restructure the relationship between fans and the people who make games, ensuring that developers have support from their employers, industry bodies, and each other.

Proper community management can play a vital role here at a studio level. As Downton suggested, a community manager can police the fans until they learn to police themselves by creating an expectation for what is and isn't acceptable.

"As developers we make decisions that upset players," he said. "And those players being able to tweet you, reply to you on forums, [message] you on Discord can be a lot for people to take in, especially people who aren't used to that. Community managers have had to learn to protect people, to stand up for developers and groups within their communities - and that often isn't the easiest thing to do."

There is an unpleasant parallel here between abusive domestic relationships and the relationship developers have with their communities. Aside from the common theme of financial dependence, there is the denial which sees abuse forgiven and publicly dismissed as "passion". However, the industry is in a position where it can change the nature of its relationship with fans. Studios can and should support their workforce in the face of harassment, not pander to the baying mob as we saw last year at both Riot Games and ArenaNet. It feeds into the culture of gaming entitlement and sends a very clear message: harassment works.

The inevitability of abuse is frightening. The issues may be bigger than the industry, but we should be challenging entitlement by taking small proactive steps, not blindly enabling it.

As noted by Matt Lees: "If you're still pandering to power fantasies in 2017 and still insisting that the customer is always right... do not be surprised to discover that your community is just people with fire and torches trying to burn you."

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Ivy Taylor avatar
Ivy Taylor: Ivy joined in 2017 having previously worked as a regional journalist, and a political campaigns manager before that. They are also one of the UK's foremost Sonic the Hedgehog apologists.
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