Phil Fish's dramatic exit from the games industry has provoked a fair degree of navel-gazing among developers, writers and even certain groups of gamers. The basic story is pretty horrible; a talented developer who created a much-loved game finally reaches the end of his tether when a professional member of the games media makes a nasty personal attack on him, coming at the end of months of online abuse over social media from a whole host of attackers. He exits the industry, leaving it a poorer place without his creative talents. Everybody is very sad. The end.
The truth, of course, is much more complex - and even if much of the world seems to have slipped into a "let's not speak ill of the dead" mode over this entire story, it's worth bearing in mind that Phil Fish's online persona was itself abrasive, rude and combative. I've been told on numerous occasions that he's lovely in person, and have absolutely no doubt that this is true, but on the Internet, he'd never met a fight he didn't want to dive into feet first. Sometimes, he waged online campaigns that were very much justified - you'd see the occasional retweets of "#teamfish" going around at those points when he sallied forth against something or someone particularly unpleasant - but either way, he was always at the heart of mud-slinging of some form or another.
There are various phrases we've all heard while growing up which apply to a situation like that. If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen; don't dish it out if you can't take it; and so on and so forth. There's something about sticks, stones and broken bones which also applies, of course. Yet even while I'm uncomfortable with the sainting of Phil Fish as an innocent dreamer who was cruelly tortured and hounded from the industry by the social media masses, I'm altogether more horrified by the sheer outpouring of hatred which is dished out by "gamers" on social media once they sense some blood in the water. Is Phil Fish guilty of being a thin-skinned man who foolishly starts fights which go on to wound him far more than his opponents? Yes, certainly. Does that excuse the awful pile-on which ensued all too regularly? Absolutely not.
"What a high profile incident like the Phil Fish affair reminds us of is that it's the responsibility of everyone involved in games to work to control and limit this kind of toxic, unpleasant behaviour"
Moreover, it's not like this is the first example we've had of this kind of thing happening. In the same week, we saw death and rape threats aimed at a man's family because his company made minor tweaks to weapon balance in an online game. Plenty of other game developers and representatives of game companies have come in for similar outpourings of hate and vile threats - and that's even before we get on to question of the absolutely horrific treatment of any woman who dares to stick her head over the parapet in gaming (it's often not great for ethnic or sexual minorities either). The treatment of Anita Sarkeesian in particular was an eye-opener for many people - although plenty of people kept their eyes firmly closed even in the face of that awful incident, complaining that coverage of her treatment was silencing legitimate criticism of her work (it wasn't, but way to try to deflect from the issues) or effectively saying that Sarkeesian deserved such abuse for stirring up the Internet Hate Machine in the first place (she didn't, and saying "women should shut up if they don't want to be abused" makes you as bad as the abusers).
Social media is a nasty place. We know that. It goes far beyond games, of course - politicians, writers, actors and indeed anyone in the public eye, no matter how minor, can be turned upon and hounded for the slightest perceived slip or fault. I recall being shocked and astounded a few years ago by the story of a talented young singer in South Korea who ended up a virtual recluse with a security detail outside his family's home because a group of obsessive Internet users had decided (based on maliciously placed fake information) that his university degree was a fake, and began an orchestrated campaign of hatred which spilled over into real-life stalking and threats. It turns out that I was wrong to think that South Korea was a bit crazy in this regard; it's just that, as with so many other things about Internet culture, they're a few years ahead of us. Now hate campaigns here are just as crazy and unhinged. Hurrah for progress.
The gaming world does attract more than its fair share of this kind of thing, though, largely because the gaming world continues to attract a core audience of young males - essentially the same people who are most likely to act as online trolls and abusers, it seems. It's Catch-22, of course - trolling and flaming makes the community less attractive to people from other groups (women, minorities, other demographics, etc.), which means we remain stuck with a core audience of young males, and so the cycle continues. A savvy business or development type at this point will have noticed, if they haven't already done so long ago, that this kind of toxic environment isn't just socially unpleasant, it's also extremely bad for business, since it restricts the growth of the core gaming audience significantly. "Traditional game controllers and genres are intimidating for new audiences" is an idea we discuss quite often in gaming; it's important to recognise that those things aren't half as intimidating as being called a "slut whore" or a "fag" for joining an online game or posting a question or opinion in a forum.
What a high profile incident like the Phil Fish affair reminds us of is that it's the responsibility of everyone involved in games to work to control and limit this kind of toxic, unpleasant behaviour. We can't stop it entirely, of course - that's beyond the control of any company or individual, since this is simply a dark, nasty side of human nature we're talking about - but we can consider, as we build networks, games, online services and communities, how those are to be policed and how they contribute positively to making people feel safe and welcome as they play. We can try harder to step outside ourselves and understand that even if we're thick-skinned and unlikely to be targeted for particularly hurtful abuse, there are other people - our customers, our audience, our colleagues, our friends and family - who are not in that position, and try to build products and services that work for everyone, not just for the slice of humanity we're lucky enough to inhabit.
"There's a new strain of games media "personality" which has emerged in recent years which openly thrives off the primordial slime of negativity and hatred that pollutes so many comment threads and forums around the Internet"
That goes doubly so for the media, because one other thing that has been thrown into stark relief by Fish's departure is that certain parts of the media, far from trying to clamp down on abusive or toxic behaviour and comments, have actually been thriving off it. There's a new strain of games media "personality" which has emerged in recent years which openly thrives off the primordial slime of negativity and hatred that pollutes so many comment threads and forums around the Internet - a kind of games media "shock jock", a hugely negative, cynical personality who seems to have nothing good to say about anything, who channels the cynicism and nastiness of the darker corners of the gaming world into a slicker and more carefully packaged format. Marcus Beer, who trades as "AnnoyedGamer" and dropped the offending straw on the camel's back when he called Fish an "asshole" on a GameTrailers show, is one such character - there are quite a few others who are cut from the same cloth. The online personas these people present are calculated to justify and validate the kind of gamer who participates in flinging hateful abuse at public figures within the industry.
I recall, when I first started writing about games professionally, being absolutely stunned at the existence of some really cynical and unpleasant people in the games media - people who had simply been at these jobs for too long, had fallen out of love with games but had found themselves, presumably, with no marketable skills that would allow them to work elsewhere. It was an unsettling experience to go to events or travel abroad on press tours with people whose eyes glazed over if I talked about games I'd enjoyed recently, or who openly and with curious pride announced that they hadn't played a game in years. They were always a small minority, but they were generally not very pleasant people overall and they were always around. The Games Media Shock Jocks give the same impression - disgruntled men (for they are always men) who don't like games much and seem unhappy with their lot in life, but have found an outlet in cynically stoking the fires of discontent among angry, hate-spewing teens. Awful, soul-destroying work if you can get it.
This is where I firmly believe that the games media has a role to play in fixing the culture that has come to surround games. Not just in controlling the comments threads and forums they operate, which few websites do to any degree of professionalism or satisfaction, but also - and far more easily - controlling the kind of message their employees are putting out, and the kind of culture they're encouraging. I'm not calling for censorship, but rather for stepping back from the brink of "hey, this deliberate controversy-stoking is worth a few hits!" and thinking a little about your impact and your responsibility to the wider culture of games. Stoking the fires of fanboy hatred might earn you some traffic and a little ad revenue in the short term - but in the long term, it'll help to guarantee that core gaming struggles to grow past the stunted little niche it now occupies. The "shock jocks" emerging in the games media are at the vanguard of that. Tone it down, or give up the act; there's nothing big or clever about a grown man making his living by riling up abusive teenage boys. If you're in this industry because you love games, why are you spending so much time talking about all the things you hate?