Has the gaming community become too accepting of hostility?

I recently wrote an article detailing the two-pronged Microsoft initiative to improve community interaction and player behaviour on Xbox Live. Immediately afterward, I reflected on my research and all of my own experiences with the modern online gaming community. It struck me that, even though I’d been playing video games since I was three years old, over two decades now, I’ve never had to ask myself a question like this before the current generation; Has the gaming community as a whole become too festered with jerks, cheats and bullies?

What an odd question, my child self would probably ask. After all, I wasn’t always the handsome, popular and confident journalist that I am today. I was bullied and teased and excluded all the time as a kid, and even as a teenager, sometimes for my video game hobby and nothing else! Between the struggle of that and coping with my diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome, gaming became my safe place in so many instances. It was also the way I often bonded with other misfit kids, and teens, and even now, misfit adults!

Call of Duty- Black Ops II - Promo ArtExcept gaming is not really a safe place anymore, is it? Not in that respect. Whenever you go into a popular online multiplayer arena or MMORPG, you’re often bound to run into unpleasant people. I’ve been insulted, berated, threatened, maligned and tormented during online games by complete strangers more often than I care to admit! Honestly, it’s a big part of the reason why I prefer single-player gaming over online multiplayer sessions, considerably!

As sad as it sounds, I have it easy in one big respect too; I’m a man. If I was a woman, the problem would be even worse! It may surprise no one, given my mutual love of video games and women, but I’ve met, befriended and/or dated quite a few gamer girls throughout my years. Almost all of them have admitted to me at some point or another that they refuse to play online too.

This is largely because some of the treatment they’ve received on the online servers of Call of Duty, Halo, Killzone, World of Warcraft and *insert popular online-enabled game here* is nothing short of sickening. I don’t even want to recount it; It’s horrifying! It also happened simply because they were women. My girlfriend now is happy to play Call of Duty in a local play session with her little brother all night for example, but even when I so much as joke about playing online with her, she recoils and says to perish the thought, for fear of being harassed and bullied.

Fez II LogoWhen someone is afraid to step into an online session simply because they’re female, that’s a serious problem. It’s also a serious problem when people just treat the Code of Conduct/EULA/whatever that they have to sign before playing online like a passing nuisance that they carelessly check off and immediately forget about. They feel like the cloak of anonymity atop their avatars and profiles allows them to do whatever they want without consequence, even if it’s sociopathic or downright psychotic behaviour!

And then comes the worst of it; The response that this is just a part of what gaming is. Some people have equated it to driving. Most people learn to drive at some point or another in their lives, and when they do, most are told that they just have to learn to put up with assholes on the road. Asshole drivers are a fact of life, they say.

Yes, you can’t stop every last jerk driver, just like you can’t stop every last jerk gamer, but the problem isn’t that these people exist in either case; It’s that far too little is done about them because they’re just accepted as a reality nowadays. In driving’s case, it’s all the more an issue when these morons routinely get people (or themselves) seriously hurt or killed. This is why a rising amount of people are afraid of driving. This is why a rising amount of people are afraid of gaming in a social/online setting as well.

In my opinion, this is the worst element of so many online gaming communities and the perception of gaming as a whole; The assertion that we gamers are all just nasty people, so who cares because that’s gaming. You can’t take the heat, get out of the oven, people say. You know what I think? I think that’s total B.S. That attitude is how this problem became so bad in the first place! Not the inciting malice, but the laziness and apathy with the whole issue.

Halo 4 - Promo ArtI suppose the next question I would ask myself then is, “Why?” Why did gaming come to this? What gives some people any kind of satisfaction from trolling or bullying online, or perhaps from cheating or hacking a multiplayer game? What makes people feel good about attacking other gamers, and the play experience as a whole? Disney’s titular character in last year’s animated movie hit, Wreck-It Ralph put it best to me; “When did video games become so violent and scary?” Not just in narrative or tone either, but in community personality!

You know what, I’m a socially smart guy (ASD be damned!), and I’m good with sizing people up, so I think I can offer a few opinions here.

First, yes, some people are just born sociopaths. Some people just love to make other people’s lives miserable. Some people are just messed up that way. It’s sad, but it’s true. The sole reason for some people’s existence is to get off on ruining someone else’s day. Video games can sadly be very attractive to these people, since it gives them so many easy excuses to cause misery for others.

Sometimes however, the reasoning may be a little more sophisticated. Some people use video games as a stress reliever after all, and now that the most frequent video game consumer is a thirtysomething adult, there’s a lot more stress to relieve compared to when video games were almost exclusively marketed to children in the 80’s and early 90’s. These people may find ‘trash talk’ and the innate aggression of online play sessions to be part of that stress relief ritual. I suppose it makes sense on paper.

Killzone 3 - Promo ArtBut what some of these people need to be reminded of, those that aren’t socially maladjusted basement-dwellers and head cases anyway, is that they’re not dealing with NPC’s in this case; They’re dealing with living, breathing human beings on the other side of those avatars. If you’re a jerk or a bully to some in-game character, then you’re just venting at a collection of 0’s and 1’s. Who cares? It’s not alive. It can’t get its feelings hurt. That’s part of the appeal of gaming in the first place, isn’t it? Consequence-free stress relief and vicarious living through an extraordinary, hyper-capable character?

Basically, those bullying and trolling for stress relief are people who lead actual lives. They’re adults with real issues and real obligations. The real shocking thing is, many of them have spouses and children as well! Put simply, if you’re a jerk for this reason, you really should know better. You wouldn’t want to stand for some idiot being a jerk to your kid on the playground, right? Well, isn’t that what Xbox Live and PlayStation Network are supposed to be? Online playgrounds?

In another case, maybe life hasn’t been good to some of these people. I know that feeling, because I have health issues and obviously my share of mental struggles at times, and yes, that’s caused a bit of disappointment here and there in my own existence. Maybe, people who have been screwed over by fate get a sense of satisfaction from picking on other players or taking apart the coding of some online server. Maybe it makes them feel big in a virtual world, when the real world has made them feel small.

I can’t hate those people, personally. I can only pity them. After all, like I said, I haven’t always rolled a double-six in life because of my own health problems. That doesn’t mean I’ve ever, ever had the urge to make someone else miserable just because life hasn’t always been good to me though! If that’s an urge you have, then clearly you are missing an integral part of your soul that you should have gotten at some point in your existence. You need help.

Miiverse LogoThat’s why I can’t hate people like that; They’re trolls and cheats bred by some other circumstance, and didn’t necessarily want the situation they have. Maybe lashing out and ruining experiences for others is all they know how to do. It’s easy to joke about these types of people not being hugged enough as a child, but you know what, there’s probably some truth to that.

No matter what the case though, the gaming industry and gaming community should never, EVER take a stance of apathy! They should never throw up their hands and claim that these people are just beyond rehabilitation and you have to learn to tolerate them.

Moderation efforts are necessary in all gaming communities, and should be enforced with due diligence! We, the good gamers, the ones who want a safe, fun and healthy playing experience for allies and opponents alike, shouldn’t have to suffer and resent our hobby because nothing is being done about the bad apples who would rather ruin it for us when we take our gaming experience into an online community setting!

I was thrilled to write my article about Microsoft’s two-pronged Xbox Live Enforcement effort for both Xbox 360 and Xbox One. I extensively applaud them for not only recognizing that something must be done about the excessive bad behaviour on Xbox Live, but demanding that the community start improving itself through leading by example, not just dumping every issue on a publisher’s or developer’s doorstep.

PlayStation Network LogoIf there’s one very bad habit that people on all sides of the gaming industry have picked up throughout this hardware generation, it’s creating problems and then expecting others to solve them, community issues or otherwise. Gamers are certainly not blameless in that trend, even if developers and publishers have been guilty of it too.

This again brings me back to my point in my article that creating a positive, healthy and productive gaming community is clearly not impossible! One need only look at Nintendo’s Miiverse community on the Wii U to see this. Unlike all too many places on Xbox Live and PlayStation Network, not to mention most PC gaming servers, the community members of Miiverse are good-natured, supportive and most importantly, consistently friendly! Nintendo should be very proud of the community they’ve built with Miiverse, which is very well-moderated, and has become a shining example of what an online social gaming network should look and act like.

Allow me to recount an anecdote to this effect. I remember posting on Nintendo Land’s Miiverse community that I was frustrated with continually failing at Takamaru’s Ninja Castle. I received responses the next day urging me to keep at it, and that it gets easier with practice. Sure enough, these people were right too. They didn’t have to encourage me, but they chose to, because chances are, they’ve been there.

That was such a small, but powerful handful of replies I got from complete strangers. Sadly, that kind of encouragement and community collaboration on improving a gameplay experience for someone is almost entirely unheard of on Xbox Live and PlayStation Network! In those two places especially, gamers spend almost all of their time attacking each other, regardless of who struck first, ultimately gaining nothing but a putrid, hostile community that keeps sinking ever deeper into the muck of negativity as a result!

Xbox Live LogoSo, as far as the question of the gaming community becoming too hostile goes, I have to say that the real problem is the community response to said hostility. Even a disappointing amount of publishers and developers have either thrown up their hands at it, or just baited it with their own hostility, ultimately making things even worse. Online gaming in general is being severely held back from its potential as a social medium, despite technological advancements left and right, simply because people just seem to associate it with bullying, trolling and other such poor treatment.

This stuff needs to stop, but a positive change starts with you, as Microsoft has beautifully laid out in their Xbox Live Community Enforcement program. Rather than stoking the violence and shrugging at so many issues like online bullying, female gamer harassment, and trolling, be the positive change yourself. Lead by example!

Yes, you’re allowed to be angry or disappointed or otherwise displeased with some game or some player. When you use that as an excuse to be an internet asshole or a cheat, nobody wins however, least of all you. Yes, you’re allowed to take pride in your game or platform of choice, but not to the point where you start belittling and insulting the platform or game choices of others. Discussion and co-existence of many gaming outlets, genres and platforms is key to a successful and healthy industry!

World of Warcraft - Dark Elf ArtSad as it is, considering that Fez was such a great indie game, its head developer, Phil Fish has become the poster child to this effect after ‘rage quitting’ the industry recently. Yes, the amount of community abuse and threats that Fish received throughout his years developing Fez is completely unacceptable; BUT, if you take a look at Fish’s Twitter feed, you’ll see that he didn’t exactly do a good job of making himself look sympathetic in that situation. It’s full of insults, tirades, curses, slurs and other such unpleasant language and behaviour. Even if Fish’s unfortunate industry departure could be looked at as justified (which I do hope is temporary, as I was looking forward to Fez II), the fact of the matter is, it’s difficult to feel sorry for him when he’s responding to jerks by being a jerk himself.

So, let’s not settle for an angry, hostile and immature gaming community. Let’s lead by example and at least try to do our part. Maybe we won’t succeed all the time, but we’ll certainly do a lot more good by attempting a change instead of just giving up.

Also, to the trolls and the bullies and the jerks, remember that nobody wins when you take your anger and social impotence online, and that includes you. If we expect publishers and developers to be responsible for providing us a happy and healthy gaming experience, then we need to show them that we deserve that kind of care and dedication. It’s not a one-way street.

The gaming industry has come a long way since the inception of online gaming and social gaming communities, that’s for sure. Until we put more effort into expecting better of our online conduct and our interaction with one another however, then we are indeed holding the gaming industry back from the potential it deserves to achieve, as a social medium and a hobby. Things won’t get better until we make them better, one player at a time.

Like I said, it starts with you.