Sep 082014

George_McGovern2About 40 years ago, there was a presidential election. It wasn’t much of a contest; on one side was a popular incumbent who had just signed peace agreements with two other major world powers, while the other had a candidate who barely scraped through his primary. Following the primary, the upstart challenger continued to make several political missteps, dumped his VP candidate for health reasons three days after stating that “he backed him 1000 percent,” and was widely perceived as a lock to lose heavily.

There was no Cinderella story; the challenger did indeed lose the vote by 23 percentage points. That’s not the interesting part. Here’s what is: after the election results were announced, a prominent journalist who supported the challenger was quoted as saying “How could he lose? Everyone I know voted for him!”

The year was 1972; the incumbent was President Richard Nixon, the challenger (pictured here) was George McGovern, and the quote, though more of a paraphrase, is completely real.

(“Alaron, what does an old white guy have to do with an Internet scandal in 2014?” “Shh, I’m expositing.”)


…it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. -Macbeth, Act V, Scene V

In case you’ve (wisely) been ignoring the whole thing, the entire gaming world has been rocked by controversy over…dudes behaving badly. Okay, it’s more than that, but that’s basically what’s been going on. Dudes sexually harassing a female game developer after her ex-boyfriend accuses her of sleeping with game journalists for favorable press. Other dudes sexually harassing a female media critic after she posted a video on Youtube criticizing how women are portrayed in games. Another group of dudes calling in bomb threats to ground a plane because the president of SOE was onboard, and temporarily shutting down PSN, Xbox Live, and just because. Someone else, probably a dude, calling in SWAT to raid the house of a popular Youtube streamer.

This has led to counter-dude. Numerous online sites have written tons of editorials criticizing the vicious misogyny and general boorish behavior being shown my those self-identifying as gamers. Several sites took it a step further, however, declaring an “end to gamers,” such as with these editorials on Gamasutra and Ars Technica.

Naturally, the dudes didn’t take this calmly, declaring this wasn’t about misogyny, this was an issue of journalistic ethics and corruption! A guy by the name of InternetArchitect made a few youtube videos making this point, actor Adam Baldwin tweeted out the videos along with the hashtag #Gamergate, and that’s when the Internet exploded.

Dueling Narratives

Here’s the thing. In a lot of these cases, the Gamergate folk have somewhat of a point. (Not the hackers and the SWATters, though, those guys are just assholes.) There’s a legitimate discussion that could be had over whether games journalists are too close to game developers to report ohjectively. Lord knows there’s plenty of examples of game developers crossing the line; from cutting back advertising after receiving a poor review, to a writer being fired for giving a poor review to a title that had prime advertising space; to the 2012 Games Media Awards, where journalists were given free PS3’s, among other things (and subsequent firing of the person who wrote that critical article).

Unfortunately, though, the argument never gets made like that. Gamergate supporters like to complain about a giant “conspiracy.”

The reason many websites have turned off comments, deleted/blocked threads, etc. is not to be gleefully conspiratorial; it’s because the discourse is 80% toxic misogyny. It’s like that Tide commercial; if you have a big stain on your shirt when you get up to speak at the big company presentation, nobody’s going to listen to you, they’re going to sit there and think “Man, if this dude can’t even dress professionally, why should I take his words seriously?”

I’d like to dig a little deeper, though. I think there’s an indictment of our culture to be made here. When insults are your normal discourse, you don’t know what’s professional speech and what’s not, and you don’t know how to have a civilized debate.

Modern Tribalism

Look. I’m in the Army. The attitude, language, and threats that you see people spew online is nothing compared to your average military barracks bay. We (gently) abuse people during basic training deliberately in order to build up a sense of brotherhood. (Or, alternatively, to gauge their level of bullshit tolerance prior to giving them things that go bang bang.) I’m not too far removed from going through a version of that myself, and I see it in my soldiers every day.

What these guys do know, however, is their audience. They give each other shit all the time, but when an officer comes by? “Good evening, sir. What are we talking about? Um, some strategies for doing better at Call of Duty, sir. Roger, sir, we’ll keep it down. Have a good night, sir.” …officer walks away… “Dammit Jones you fu*king faggot you TK’ed me again!” “Haha, pwned you bitch just like I did your mom last week.”

This is not a new thing. I’m sure Roman soldiers pretended their hasta were dicks and poked each other with them too when their superiors weren’t around. They grew up, became those superiors, and similarly got frustrated at their new soldiers who were now pretending their new pila were dicks.

What has changed, however, is the Internet, and how it has connected and divided us at the same time.


That journalist I cited in the introduction lived in an early “echo chamber.” Everyone she interacted with had similar opinions and beliefs, so the opinions and beliefs that diverged from the group consensus were automatically rejected.

What the Internet has done, however, is to narrowly cleave groups into thousands or millions of these chambers. Reddit is the perfect example of this. Fan of something? There’s a discussion group dedicated to it! Others exist that have the same tastes you do! There’s never any reason to go anywhere else!

Unfortunately, living in an echo chamber gives you no skills to respond effectively when something challenges those views. Instead, you respond as the group does; harassing the outsider until they go away, and coming up with crazy stories to justify why those outsiders’ views are wrong. Combine that learned behavior with the assumed anonymity of the Internet and you have the perfect recipe for jackassery.

Is there an easy solution? I don’t think so. We’re conditioned to think in terms of fast, instinctive decisions, which games only accentuate. Friend! Enemy! Fight! Run! Somehow, “well, both sides have valid points, let’s talk this through and find consensus” doesn’t enter the gamer consciousness very often.

Kill ’em with Kindness

I’m not going to propose some bullshit Synthesis ending here that wraps everything up neatly; if there was an easy solution, it would’ve been done already. (Seriously, ME3, come on.)

Most of you are familiar with John Gabriel (Penny Arcade) and his Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory. According to the GIFT, it takes 3 A’s: average person + anonymity + audience = fuckwad.

He’s right, but there’s one term missing: acceptance. Fuckwads act like fuckwads because they get away with it. Want to curb the behavior? Start checking it at every turn.

Now, this doesn’t mean stooping to their level and throwing insults; that’s what they’re used to, and that just confirms that this kind of discourse is effective. (That’s partly why this thing is such a ugly mess, because some of the people criticizing the misogynists for their language are condemning them with their own language. Pot, meet kettle?) Instead, find the lever. It might take some work to do, but it’s always there.

Let me share a quick story. I was putting together a public 25-man raid for Onyxia, back in 2009, when she had just been re-designed and was current content. As was my luck, I got one of those; a decked-out raider who insisted on repeatedly wiping the group by feigning death in the egg piles. Other members of the group started berating him, and he laughed at us, calling us “noobs and casuals.” Did I rage at him? No. I found a lever.

I tabbed out to wow-progress, looked up his guild, and found his guild master’s name. Tabbed back and whispered him “Hey, I know XXX, the leader of <Your Guild>. I’ve been logging your actions and chat, and I’ve got it all typed up to send his way. Want me to send it?” Instantly, he shut up, apologized in /raid, apologized privately to me in a reply, begged me not to tell his guild, and dropped group.

Is that going to work every time? Of course not. Sadly, sometimes you can’t reach the lever, or it’s broken. Sometimes it’s a lot of work to find it. Sometimes the only thing you can do is leave and come back another day, because the griefers own the whole map. Do it. Remember, games are supposed to be fun. Stand up to the boors if you can do so lovingly; otherwise withdraw peacefully. Either way, make the point that you won’t tolerate that kind of behavior around you.

And with that, I’m done with ranting about social issues. Anyone up for a game?

 Posted by at 11:54 am