Gaming is a significant part of my life, and being honest my identity. This has been my life since we first got an Amiga500 when I was in my first decade of life. I have lived, breathed and thought about gaming in near every waking moment at times. The rush and thrill of gaming is something that the ADHD brain loves – as gaming creates near perfect feedback loops for engaging our brains.
I used to love games, but as I’ve grown older, played more, developed games on my own, and in a studio setting, I’ve started wondering when games are going to grow up.
Things are not good atm, at near every level from developers, to their communities, popular gaming has become a toxic haven for the worst possible people. There are notable exceptions to this, with recent attempts from about 2010 onwards to push for diversity in games, but I’ll cover why this has helped games to reach a wider audience, while also feeding more people into a misogynistic bullying culture, that is doing serious mental health damage.
The toxic part of gaming culture has always existed. When I was a teenager playing the Counterstrike mod on the original Halflife engine, shit talking and edge-lord behaviour has always been part of the landscape, along with bots, cheaters and hackers.
That malignant part of gaming has existed since it’s birth, and it’s not that hard to see why it has, gaming was largely only ever been available to and catered to a specific type of gamer. A reasonably well off white heterosexual male. Even the skin tones in most early games range from white to slightly off-white. The main character in all the games I started playing young were white macho guys.
I’m going to include some egregious early examples of marketing of games. Ask yourself who here is the target audience:
During my teens I was fairly competitive at gaming, and also a toxic shit stain. My user handle at one point was “Rape&Pillage”. I used racial slurs, homophobic slurs, anything I could to get under the skin of my opponents. Context for these words I now know are horrific. To me it was harmless fun, but every one of those words was intended to hurt and marginalise certain groups from ever participating.
It would be easy to write this off as “boys being boys”, or “ADHD made me develop slower cognitively”. The truth is I knew these were wrong and said them anyway. Being an edgelord isn’t cool. It just shows a lack of maturity and empathy.
There was a strong multiplayer gaming scene around the birth of high speed internet (and by that I mean Telecom’s 16KB/sec unlimited ADSL plan). The division between haves and have nots was always a massive thing in these early days Of 3D graphics.
Lanning was common, I went to lans of various sizes and shapes, it was always male dominated, homophobic, and like maybe like five women who decided that they could sustain the absolute torrential amount of abuse that women gamers face even today.
The main thing that happened at most of these lans was large scale illegal file sharing, and a lot of it was porn. I remember working as a network admin for one of the bigger lans and we had to block file sharing ports and apps just so our players could have lan speed connections during competition time.
This was in the very late 90’s/early 00’s. Gaming was still an emerging subculture relatively, esports was a tiny portion of gaming culture, no one here except maybe Fatal1ty from Quake and a few Korean Starcraft players could actually do this full time. I dropped out of the multiplayer scene. I still played games but just for fun, and never competitively again. I have always had the latest consoles, latest PC gear every 4-5 years.
In my lifetime I’ve seen gaming change from this:
The graphics have changed considerably in the last 30 years, and these technical marvels are something to celebrate, but I can’t help but notice that nearly everything else in popular gaming culture and what titles sell best have not changed significantly, surface level signs are positive we’re starting to shift, but not fast enough.
Growth without maturity
The Games industry has stagnated in many ways, but it’s grown rapidly in other ways. The commercialisation of a once niche hobby has now grown into the single largest entertainment industry. The graphic below showing that games industry revenue now is larger than: Film, Music, NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL combined, generating an eye watering 139 Billion dollars in the US in 2018, and it’s still growing.
Violence is still the key gameplay mechanic in the majority of top selling titles. Competitive play in games allows you to kill your virtual opponents. The graphics to do this is getting more real and visceral each year, and while in the past I would have argued that the concept of violence in games being directly transferable to real life violence as absolutely absurd… I think with modern fidelity we’re starting to blur the lines between real and fake.
In a book I’ve been reading recently Shouting Zeros and Ones – Andrew Chen the editor reflects on his inadvertent potential to do harm through writing algorithms to “enhance” consumer shopping behaviour. What spoke to me in his introduction, is that for so long we as an tech or games industry have made products simply because we could, without ever really asking why or what the consequences are of the games we make.
We need to start thinking about how the worst imaginable player or person might use what we create for their own nefarious purposes.
Minor Spoilers for The Last Of Us 2: In TLOU2, violence is explored as a thematic element, and it’s meant to shock the viewer. But during my playthrough I started wondering; are there people who find NPC’s calling out for their dead friends fun and laughable, could the effect the developer wanted to achieve by showing such gratuity and personable effects of violence have the opposite of the (I suspect) intended effect of portraying violence as a terrible solution.
I remember talking to a friend of mine who told me he stopped playing Grand Theft Auto 3 when he shot an old woman in the leg, and she pleaded for her life, this was his empathy exit point. The idea of perpetuating harm in this way was not conducive to a “fun” experience.
This sort of interaction is commonplace in games. Fictional settings to live out violent fantasies appear from all recent studies not to translate to real life violence. Indeed a recent meta-analysis found no long-term link between video games and aggressive behaviour in youth.
That seems good on the surface, but it’s a surface deep analysis in my view of the systemic nature of the damage these environments do. Violence is but one avenue to critically assess and it’s easy to say that the link is not established in a scientific setting.
In reality we know the situation is much different and I’m going to demonstrate why toxic gaming culture is much more perverse and damaging than simply trying to measure violent behaviour. Not only is gaming culture toxic, it’s toxic behaviour has begun bleeding out into other domains. In my view the problem might be getting worse, not better.
So let’s have a look at some modern gamer culture, starting with the most significant demonstration of toxic gamer culture – The Gamergate Controversy.
If you’re not even interested in Games or gaming culture you may have heard this term before. In 2013, as developers at conferences like our main global conference (with the super original name of Game Developers Conference) were beginning to talk about making games a more inclusive space; a sinister misogynistic quite well organised sub-culture was growing on 4chan, reddit, and other alt platforms pushing back against “progressivism” in games.
The games industry was getting some awareness that their audience demographics had been changing as the industry grew at a near exponential rate with mobile games ushering in a new audience that had largely been ignored, namely women. A lot of talks start talking about making this space more inclusive not just for women, but for all underrepresented groups, LGBTQIA+, Black, Hispanic, Asian, African, Indigenous people etc…
This became a threat to a small but significant section of the gaming community. With the release of a fairly simple but effective text based game made by Zoë Quinn, they found their first target. Depression Quest was released to positive reviews, but triggered an online response and growth of an incredibly toxic community.
The small subculture of some edge lords, along with a core of actual misogynistic red-pill bad faith actors were frustrated and angry that their hegemonic male games culture with its focus on skills based violent gameplay was being threatened by “political” unwanted intrusions.
The response to this was vile. Quinn was subject to rape and death threats for months. Quinn documented and spoke with media about her harassment over this issue, which only served to a greater intensity of abuse, including doxxing (releasing her personal home address online). As a result Quinn was forced to flee her home for their own safety.
The main instigator of the start of it all of this with the infamous “Zoë Post” was an ex-boyfriend Eron Gjoni whom detailed a lengthy account of their relationship and breakup, posting a large amount of personal info in a vendetta and claiming that she had a relationship with a games journalist in return for positive press.
The effects of this started a troll army response, and similar tactics were used to help Trump into the White House, these effects of persistent aggressive trolling are now common place on the internet, but they grew out of an already toxic environment in gaming. More detail on how that worked here.
The multiplayer gaming scene is still toxic, perhaps more so than ever before.
Multiplayer gaming is still riddled with edgelords, racists, and people either bullied or embracing the toxic environment.
As an example I used to play a lot of DOTA2 I have ~900 hours in the game, which is basically an anxiety simulator. Most of the times I played with a consistent group of friends, but I wasn’t great at the game.
It’s incredibly complex, the meta (core playstyle and hero viability) of the game changes frequently and you need to play a lot in order to understand and counter the some 100+ hero characters in the game.
The times where I played alone, well, I don’t play DOTA2 anymore. Simple errors or mistakes that any human learning a game could make were constantly met with responses of extreme hostility, some of the worst examples of this are the statement to “kys” literally meaning Kill Yourself.
The toxicity takes a toll… I am a straight passing white guy, when you are a female, or easily identifiable minority this virtrolic behaviour gets cranked up to 11. An example of this was my wife playing casual Counter-Strike GO, she had her full name in her steam profile (something I’d really recommend not doing and making your Steam profile private). An aggrieved opponent googled her name, found her LinkedIn with it’s CV and called her mobile number to start abusing her and said he would rape her. She hasn’t played an online multiplayer game since, and I can’t blame her for doing so.
This sort of doxxing has become rife, and given rise to a far more insidious behaviour in the United States of swatting. Where users will report opponent gamers as doing something illegal, this behaviour resulted in the death of a man not even connected, as the address the guy gave the cops was incorrect, and he was shot dead by police. The shitlord in question who had been doing this repeatedly is now serving 20 years in prison.
Gaming culture has never fixed it’s rampant misogyny problem, and these environments are sending a steady stream of these toxic people into the shit funnel (my term for the toxic alt-right slide that occurs thanks to YouTube and Facebook algorithms). There have been numerous studies into gaming misogyny. Examples of how this toxicity manifests and occurs can be shown in this study – Insights into Sexism: Male Status and Performance Moderates Female-Directed Hostile and Amicable Behaviour.
If you ever want to see how bad and toxic the culture is, all you need to do is spend 10-15 minutes on any popular female Twitch streamers channel to see the torrential amount of objectification, sexism and misogyny that happens.
The problem starts in-house.
Having worked in the games industry, it’s sad to say that quite often that this environment is actually endemic to the games industry as a whole. There have been some positive signs recently at critically looking at and exposing both toxic abusers and employers, but the progress is slow, and the fear of speaking out against abuse is still high – Gamergate made it infinitely worse.
When I first started in the industry there was push back against some of the most obvious misogynistic practices such as booth babes at large video games conferences. This surface level change appeared to be showing signs that things were improving, but given everything that I’ve seen, and seen reported – the problem is still very much widespread and occurs on a daily basis.
The effect of Gamergate and the persistent harassment of those coming forward has created a culture where it’s hard to speak out.
Riot Games (Developer of the MOBA – League of Legends) have had large scale strikes against the culture within the company where persistent toxic behaviour and misogyny have been occurring since the companies foundation. In December 2019, they settled a gender discrimination lawsuit for $10 million dollars.
In June of this year 2020 – a number of popular streamers, and video game personalities were outed as toxic abusers, and sexual predators. Our industry has need of a reckoning that is leaking out slowly in stages. There were so many cases of abuse outed at this time you are best reading more about it in a more detailed article here.
Why does this keep happening?
Games, like film and TV are a passion industry. Employers know this, worker protections in our sector are few and far between. Efforts to unionise the games industry often face large industry push back. In New Zealand, it’s currently illegal for us to form a games union, thanks to the classification of games being under film when the Hobbit Law was introduced.
I’m not sure unionising would fix everything that’s currently wrong in games, but having at least some way to push back against and raise issues within our industry would serve us well. The situation will continue indefinitely in my mind because there’s a supposed endless supply of workers. The statistics for our industry are horrific really, the average length of a game developer career is five years. If you are a woman, it’s three.
I know of several extremely talented and capable people who can no longer even entertain the idea of working on even their own passion projects, because the mental damage done is often so deep and hard to overcome that continuing anything in this field is an exercise in reliving trauma received as a result of working in these environments.
I’d love to see more women working in games, the best job I had in this industry was at a female led studio, and I’d love to recommend that more women work in this space. But currently, I can’t. When I saw an article recently that said women need to be braver about applying to male dominated industries, that’s definitely not the issue here, it’s that the environment is so toxic and hostile that they feel unwelcome and leave due to this hostility.
Gaming is not all bad though
Honestly, if you read this far you would assume that I think everything is terrible, it’s not. There are stories (although somewhat rare) of game studios and communities doing things right.
Gaming has lots of positive benefits. This article lists 10 pretty good reasons to play games.
I’ve developed lifelong friendships with some of the people I play games with. I’ve met numerous people over the years who are good decent people just from playing video games with them, and gaming will always be a part of my life.
What’s the point of this rant?
To let people know that this industry is currently defenceless against predators.
That parents should probably keep an eye on their kids multiplayer games play. The environments can be extremely detrimental to mental health, at the same time they could be great and engaging.
I’m pretty sure at some stage soon, things will come to a head. Workers are getting frustrated, angry and tired of being treated this way. The joy that you experience from games often come from places of extreme bad practice, and that toxicity can spread throughout communities and ruin what should be a fun experience.
Everyday I wonder how many great titles we’ve missed out on as an industry as the machine chews people up and spits them out, what great ideas or concepts might have come if we had better workplaces, that embraced diversity as a central pillar of development rather than meaningless words on a companies website.
I’d recommend you support indie developers, and developers who foster good communities and practices. This can be difficult with the cone of silence around abuse from legal measures.
Play video games with your kids, if you haven’t before – it’s an amazing way to bond with them over an activity that you’ll both enjoy.
Possibly the best book I can recommend about the games industry, how it operates, and how it hurts is called Blood, Sweat and Pixels by Jason Schreier, a games industry journalist who has covered some of the biggest cases of games industry abuse. It’s a mixed tale of success, failures, and the general crunch environment that keeps this industry moving at a high human cost.