Gaming culture has a problem and that problem has a lot to do with gamers themselves. To be clear, I’m not talking about all gamers but rather a subset of gamers whose antisocial behaviour and habits drive people away from gaming. Analysts at Piper Jaffray recently conducted a survey that found nearly 66% of high school students surveyed across the US claimed they were losing interest in traditional videogames with slightly over 66% stating they were interested in social, mobile games which was an increase from 34% who answered the same question the year prior. Gaming as we know it is changing for a variety of reasons and one of those reasons is gamers have chosen to turn on each other as well as the people who make the videogames they play. While gaming culture tries to evolve and leave the primordial seas, certain gamers are busy running along the shore with sharpened sticks trying to force us all back in.
The problem lies with the internet and the anonymity it affords its users. This effect certainly isn’t limited to just gaming circles but as gamers tend to be a largely wired group of individuals the impact is pronounced. Gaming has always had a social side but over the decades that’s changed, and you could certainly argue, not for the better. Back in the 80’s and 90’s, gamers would flock to arcades or journey to friend’s houses to partake in the hottest, latest releases. To illustrate how it’s changed, imagine four friends over for an afternoon session of GoldenEye sitting in their family den. Now imagine one of those children lets loose with a barrage of profanity laced, racist, homophobic rants aimed at his fellow gamers. Or imagine someone’s little sister is also invited to play and subjected to a stream of masturbation and rape jokes. There’s a very good chance that the child would simply never be invited back for another GoldenEye marathon. There’s also a chance that little Jimmy’s mother, having overheard the obscene rant would never allow that child in her house ever again and would make a quick phone call to inform the offending child’s parents of their unacceptable behaviour.
This type of antisocial behaviour infects network gaming and social interactions across the internet and therein lies the difference between gaming culture now and gaming culture then. There are few, if any, social repercussions in gaming today and the impact of these behaviours eats at the fun factor of gaming for a large number of gamers, children and adult alike. It doesn’t matter if you’re looking to game socially on your console or if you’re looking to partake in a general gaming discussion on the internet, odds are your experience will be sullied by another gamer hiding behind their internet pseudonym.
Researchers refer to this as “toxic disinhibition”. The anonymity the internet and online gaming networks offers often results in the complete abandonment of social restrictions that would generally be present in face to face interactions such as in the days when we gamed locally with other people in the room. The result of this “trolling” is we see more and more gamers being turned off of gaming, or seeing their enjoyment of games lessened, thus inhibiting the growth of gaming culture. The impact of this online disinhibition also affects developers who can find themselves loathe to engage their own fan base for fear of fanboy backlash through internet flaming.
Recently, gamers made headlines for their disproportionate backlash against Mass Effect 3 developer Bioware. The actions of certain gamers painted all gamers as whiney, entitled children prone to screaming fits when denied their pacifier. Bioware found itself facing a FTC complaint while its writers and staff were targets of hate campaigns and death threats as some found the end of their latest game offering to be unsatisfactory. Other gamers and non-gamers alike shook their collective heads in disbelief. Blizzard also suffered a ridiculous backlash from gamers when screenshots of their now released Diablo 3 title were deemed “too bright” by some prior to the game’s launch, prompting Blizzard to mock the users by releasing screenshots containing unicorns shooting rainbows from their posteriors. While Blizzard used the experience to have a bit of fun, the example illustrates a growing trend among gamers to instantaneously and viciously attack developers and other gamers alike for even perceived slights and as a whole, the gaming community becomes a less inviting place.
The online disinhibition effect certainly isn’t limited to gaming forums either as the development community itself isn’t immune from unprofessional behaviour. I’ve seen my own personal blog postings regarding my development experiences targeted by other developers leveling harsh and often unfair criticisms. For example, I’ve had a developer lambast the simply inclusion of our company logo on a splash page because “no one cares about your company”. I’ve even had a local developer I didn’t know and had never met criticize my company online for the slight of not consulting with their group prior to launching our first game. This type of challenging behaviour is far more likely to be witnessed online than in face to face interactions or official business communication and unfortunately it is becoming more prevalent.
They say in general you need a thick skin to blog but backlash I received from a recent blog post made me question the value of blogging my own experiences as a developer. I posted a personal blog listing some of the complete, all in one game engines available that may be of interest to independent developers. While researching game engines for my company I would have found such a blog useful as I looked for a game engine that offered features I required, such as Android and iOS porting and clearly the blog was not meant as an in depth review piece. As I had not the opportunity to try each engine I listed, I made sure to note that where I was unfamiliar with the engine I was simply relaying information and opinions from various reviews I had come across and I provided links to each product so users could conduct further research. Rather than promote a thoughtful discussion on the merits of various game engines as I had intended or to provide a starting point for further research, the resulting comments were almost all attacks against myself personally and my attempt to inform other indie developers.
The comments included people calling me a liar, posters comparing my blog to vulgar activities, writers incensed that I didn’t whole heartedly endorse their particular favorite engine. I even read claims that I was intentionally trying to harm product reputations despite the fact I noted these opinions were sometimes not even mine but were simply being passed along when I lacked particular knowledge of the product being discussed. I was frankly shocked by the lack of decorum I witnessed in response to a personal blog intended to simply inform and facilitate further research, and if other developers hadn’t contacted me directly to offer their support (with one commenting he would have done it publicly if not afraid of being “flamed” himself) I most likely would have never written another blog regarding my game development experiences. This general lack of professionalism in a workplace environment would never be tolerated. Indeed, when gamers and developers are afraid to share ideas due to fear of reprisal it’s time to take a hard look at the current situation and what repercussions this could have to our industry as a whole. As a community, this type of behaviour should not be allowed to propagate. I’ve been subjected to all manner of hate mail and threats from casual gamers and stalking fanboys alike over the years writing opinion pieces regarding the games industry, however the lack of professionalism I’ve witnessed since becoming a developer myself truly surprised me.
Gaming culture is suffering due to experiences like this, due to experiences like those Bioware recently endured and due to the ongoing profane, racist and homophobic behaviour tolerated every day in online gaming matches and in internet gaming forums. The anonymity of the internet mixed with complacency among gamers and developers has led to this situation and the associated cyberbullying that goes along with it but as the genie is out of the bottle with regards to the internet, there is little that we can do to curb its impact. The removal of anonymity in online gaming by the companies that operate these networks could potentially result in fewer incidents as people are less inclined to act in socially unacceptable manners when their real names and locations are attached to their actions, however this system would still rely on reporting tools that already exist are underutilized by the majority of gamers. Most prefer to simply ignore the problem, and this does nothing to stem the rise of anti-social behaviour in the gaming community.
As more teens are turning towards social gaming where they can exercise more direct control over their social interactions through use of things like Facebook friend lists, as more potential gamers are turned off by what they see of gamers in the news and more core gamers turn away from online gaming and game forums based on the sliding social environment, today’s gaming culture must change or it will face decline. We’re already seeing traditional game sales slide as gamers look elsewhere and a shift towards mobile games is evident. Partial blame falls on gamers themselves for creating and tolerating an increasingly toxic game culture that runs contrary to the social spirit that videogames created for many of us while gaming in the 80’s and 90’s, and even some developers themselves are letting professionalism standards slump in their online communications which itself is the start of a slippery slope. We can never go back to the way gaming was, but we can shape the future of gaming culture for the better by being conscious of where it went wrong and why.