Fixing our broken internet culture
If we're serious about tackling harassment of developers, start with the culture of angry entitlement encouraged by many media figures
Comments from Hinterland founder Raph van Lierop about his experiences with the negative sides of the Early Access community for the studio's survival game, The Long Dark, clearly struck a chord with plenty of other developers. van Lierop's account was extensively shared and spoken about on social networks; though one couldn't help but note how many of the discussions about the piece took place in private - on personal Facebook pages, for the most part. Perhaps that, too, is a reflection of his core point; that there really is something a little broken about our Internet culture.
This isn't news to a great many people, of course; the sense of treading on eggshells around game-related internet communities is second nature to many developers and creators. A great deal of attention was paid to the eruption of online abuse and harassment that came hand in hand with "Gamergate", and rightly so; but in a sense this was merely a more-dramatic-than-usual eruption of a culture of anger and entitlement that's bubbled away quietly for years.
"The sense of treading on eggshells around game-related internet communities is second nature to many developers and creators"
A line can easily be drawn between the kind of people who orchestrate angry (and sometimes genuinely damaging) online campaigns against developers for perceived slights, and the kind of people who deliberately target women and minorities for harassment over issues, real or imagined, related to games. Sometimes, that line is easier to draw than others - such as when women who work for game companies are targeted for harassment over issues with that firm's games, regardless of whether they had anything to do with the issue in question.
That happened to former Nintendo employee Alison Rapp, who was targeted over localisation changes to Japanese games (largely to do with toning down elements deemed to involve the sexualisation of minors) that angry fans deemed "censorship"; Rapp worked in marketing, not localisation. It also happened to EA developer Allie Rose-Marie Leost, who worked in motion capture and found herself inexplicably blamed for animation problems in Bioware's Mass Effect Andromeda.
van Lierop was careful to acknowledge that the experience he and his studio had pales in comparison to those who have had to cope with massive, coordinated campaigns of harassment and doxing; but it's important to hear about this kind of experience too, and not to dismiss it as something minor, because it illustrates what exactly it is that's broken in internet culture. It's not just about misogyny, or racism, or homophobia and transphobia, though all of these things can and do amplify and exacerbate an angry backlash or witch-hunt.
"The energy some people are willing to pour into their anger over these things is remarkable and a little frightening"
At its core, though, even those who aren't a targeted minority can still face furious and damaging reactions to even the most minor of supposed transgressions. In van Lierop's case, it was the mere act of launching a countdown to a mystery event which turned out to be a new trailer and a handful of announcements, and not the launch of the game itself, which launched the backlash.
The energy some people are willing to pour into their anger over these things is remarkable and a little frightening. Contacting someone's employer to demand that they're fired over the removal of a breast-size option for an underage girl in a videogame is a pretty dramatic reaction. Spending time and effort to try to dig up personal contact details, addresses and social information about a person and their family and friends because you're mad that a videogame had a gay character in it, or needed a patch to fix bad animation, is dramatic to the point of being unhinged.
While perhaps not quite on the same level, it should go without saying that brigading an indie developer's Steam reviews (a vital part of their business' health) and sending them emails to say you hope their company goes out of business is also a grotesque overreaction to a website countdown turning out to be for a trailer, not a game launch.
For sure, we could all just treat this as being 'the cost of doing business'; some parts of the Internet are toxic (Reddit sure as hell being a prime offender) and serve to encourage and validate hugely anti-social and abusive behaviour. The vast, vast majority of people are still going to be reasonable and nice; they participate in internet communities for games because they love games and want to enjoy and celebrate them, not because they want to earn some kind of imaginary Internet points for joining in a harassment campaign against a developer.
"van Lierop is absolutely right; developers and creators don't have to accept this as just being something that happens"
For most developers the answer is to sigh and shrug, to accept that some days you're just going to do something - without even knowing that you're doing it - that results in your inbox being filled up with hate, your Steam reviews cratering and, if you're a company employee, your boss getting a ton of email telling him to fire you. In general those days will be rare, though you'll see them far more frequently, and feel their impact all the more aggressively, if you have the misfortune to be female, or LGBTQ, or black, or Jewish, or a Muslim.
Yet there are communities out there that manage to police themselves, demanding a higher standard of behaviour from their members, nipping in the bud the kind of entitlement and self-righteous anger that leads to this kind of reaction in the first place. In an ideal world, those who lead and moderate online communities would recognise the connection between permitting angry, petulant entitlement to be the background noise of their communities and ending up giving rise to harassment campaigns.
Short of that, however, there's a strong argument for developers and the media alike to take a stand not just against harassment, but against that culture in general; the sense of entitlement that leads people to get genuinely angry over games, the whole ecosystem of the media, of writers and streamers and Youtubers, supported overtly or tacitly by the industry, who have built up their careers on telling kids and teenagers (and, god help us all, more than a few people who are legally, technically adults) that it's okay, acceptable and even celebrated to throw a gigantic tantrum because you don't like something in a videogame.
van Lierop is absolutely right; developers and creators don't have to accept this as just being something that happens. It may all be down to a few bad eggs - and there's no doubt that the kind of people who do this try to fluff up their numbers with lots of fake accounts and identities - but that doesn't make it acceptable or mean that the industry, and people who love the industry, shouldn't try to root out, exclude and shut down these people, rather than tolerate them or, worse, pander to them.
The culture of entitled anger goes far beyond videogames, of course, and videogame creators and fans alone won't end it; but we could all do more to tidy up our own little corner of the world and make it into a happier, friendlier and all-around better place for people to do and enjoy great creative work.