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.”)

Gamergate

…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 Battle.net 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.

Echodit

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

  8 Responses to “On Gamergate, echo chambers, and toxic discourse”

  1. The problem now is definitely that acceptance vibe. I am both in the military and around a lot of guys that have grown up with the internet as their mentor. They are complete assholes, enjoy one-upping everyone about everything, and mindlessly repeat their own jokes like the GIFs they pulled them from. It’s like I’m living the front page of reddit, right now, except without the cute cat pics to soothe me :(

    Any tips on dealing with soldiers other than… just not engaging? I’m living in barracks until December and the only way to fit in right now is with “that’s what she said” comments. It’s getting kinda old.

    • Leslie,

      I’ve seen that barracks vibe and it’s no fun for females. Barracks are tough because you have to share a space (so you can’t just leave or kick them out when they start acting up) and some of them are going to say the most obscene things they can say to try to get a rise out of you.

      I’m definitely not an expert, but of the successful female soldiers I’ve seen, there were two dominant types:

      1) The Tomboy. One of the guys, matches them joke for joke. Can work, but that doesn’t seem like it fits you.

      2) The Professional. Quietly does her thing. Refuses to be baited into conversations. Wears headphones/earbuds a lot. Often gets called a bitch behind her back but gets respected anyway.

      Admittedly, 2’s not going to get you to fit in well…but if they’re typical privates, fitting in with them may be a bad idea. (That’s to say nothing of the typical drama that tends to enfold female enlisted; try to avoid getting dragged into any situations like that.)

      Wish I could give better advice, but I got married very young and skipped most of the communal living thing. :) Best of luck.

  2. What I noticed in the Zoe Quinn story is the career-victim angle. It seems to me that she uses that a lot to gain support and attention, both professionally and privately.

    I think most of us have felt, at some point, like we’ve got a raw deal at some point in our life. We might also sometime feel like we’ve been singled out by other groups or maybe just by being at the wrong place, at the wrong time. However, this can also be a powerful tool to garner support and sympathy, because our empathy and compassion are triggered by a wish to help others in need.

    I see this technique being used quite often. It’s often successful, since you get help and can dodge own responsibility at the same time. I see it used by both men and women, but often with different angles.

    Why I bother arguing this? Because these professional career-victims often pulls attention from the people who actually need it. The career-victim (and the constant complainer) seeks and draws attention from other issues – sometimes even damaging the cause they seem to be championing (like Somaly Mam, who is now recognised as a career-victim).

    But there is no doubt that the bullying of Zoe Quinn is also damaging to people with a just cause. One of them was my friend in high school, who was raped at a high school party in our final year. She told me 7 years later. Why? She feared the whole turmoil if she went to the police. So, she just suffered – and I think she still does, 22 years later.

    So when people like Zoe Quinn and Somaly Mam are exposed for taking short cuts to a career (well, Somaly Mam might even have committed fraud), I want to call them out on it – but this has to be done intelligently, because the real victims should never have to silence themselves.

    NB: I still don’t get the motivation behind bullying Zoe Quinn – it’s playing her game. But then again, internet trolls aren’t clever.

    • Zoe is definitely no angel. I’d never heard of Somaly Mam before now – thanks for that, that’s an interesting story.

  3. What makes it so hard to stay quiet and ignore the idiots is that through their behaviour, they seem to “normalise” discriminating language. If nobody says anything, they think it’s ok and standard (which in some circles it has become). For example, I still think “bitch” is an abusive word and “fag” homophobic in the negative sense in which it’s being used, but how many people still bother to point that out?

    I like your differentiation between such “abuse” being used in a circle of friends or comrades who are close and know how to take it, and on a (semi-)public internet platform. Here in Ireland, the sports teams tend to be like that and that’s in context and understood, unlike the anonymity of the internet where in many cases, well, everyone is your audience.

    it makes me deeply uncomfortable and I tend to just avoid internet discussions. I use Facebook minimally, have only selected people on Twitter, and pretty much stay away from everything else. I’m not sure whether this makes me a clever woman or stuck in the 20th century ;-)

    • Oh, you’re fine, Sib. Everybody has to find their level of comfort somewhere. I just like to fight a battle for the forces of order and decency once in a while! :)

  4. It is ironic that you work in a place of misogyny that has only been, in recent decades, exposed for what it is while the gaming industry is just now experiencing the same type of recognition, though nearly identical in terms described. How long will it take before “gamers” amendment “rights” are not what they thought they were.

    Good read and well written though.

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