Theme Party, Culture Edition: Level of Discourse

           One of the earliest mantras that anyone who creates content on the internet comes to adopt is the most hallowed: Never read the comments. Just don’t do it. Ever.  It’ll only make you want to stop what you’re doing and go over to a corner somewhere to cry the day away.

This is perhaps no more true in any other sphere than that of gaming content. We live in a world where David Vonderhaar received death threats for a slight balance adjustment to Call of Duty.  Reviewers are constantly beset on Twitter and in comments by people who are not only in disagreement, but are vehemently angry at the decisions a reviewer made in giving a game a certain score.

There are two central questions here, then.  Firstly, why do we in the gaming community have such a proclivity towards this kind of social diarrhea, and secondly, what can we do to stop it?


            Part of the problem stems from the general culture that we’re cultivating for ourselves in game environments themselves. Take a five minute jaunt onto Xbox Live and see how long you can make it without hearing some kind of racist, homophobic, or sexist epitaph thrown someone’s way.  Jenny Haniver’s excellent blog Not In The Kitchen Anymore is a haunting gallery of the kind of treatment a woman can expect to receive for the audacity of daring to play a video game on the internet. Those of us who aren’t female have it easier, which nonetheless means constant threats, spewed hatred, and unrelenting hostility.

It’s been this way for as long as I can remember.  Penny Arcade wrote a comic regarding the unusually civil online community of Links 2001 in relation to what they were used to.  That comic was written over a decade ago. It’s a shock whenever you wind up in a civil, positive community in a game on the internet. This kind of culture grew up in the Petrie dishes of Counter-Strike, Starcraft, and Quake, but in that primordial soup of many young people bashing their heads into each other competitively, we lost sight of what it meant to try not to make the experience about ruining someone else’s fun.

This carried over into message boards. We imported our behavior from all over the internet, creating toxic forum threads, toxic chatrooms, toxic screennames. It was who we were.  Even now, a response to objections to this kind of behavior will often be “It happens to everyone, grow thicker skin.”  Thicker skin is what got us here in the first place. Our skin got so thick we lost sight of what feeling anything meant. So let’s all take a nice moment to breathe deep and look at ourselves in the mirror.

What the hell is wrong with us?

I’m being very purposeful in my pronoun use here.  It’s “we,” “us,” “our” that I’m talking about because I’m as much a part of this community and hobby as anyone else. I’m proud of that, but Christ, it’s harder and harder to be proud of that every day. Journalist Leigh Alexander often writes and speaks about how she doesn’t feel any inclination to consider herself part of “gaming culture” or a “nerd community,” and I find it pretty difficult to blame her. Our culture is more than a walled garden, it’s a garden with barbed wire fences that’s manned by armed guards.

We’ve created a weird opinion Thunderdome wherein discourse isn’t a dialogue, it’s a fistfight, and whoever punches hardest and drives the other person away crying is the winner. Those that attempt to make measured assessments of matters in the gaming industry are met with verbal punches in response to their thoughts. It’d be like if we all got a chance to kick the President after every State of the Union. Did Roger Ebert get this much hate mail when he didn’t like a movie? I somehow doubt it.

Giant Bomb’s Patrick Klepek recently gave a TEDx talk on this subject and made it very clear the kind of situation we’re dealing with here. The biggest part of the problem, as Patrick makes very clear, is the difference in volume. Trolls, jerks, haters are all often much louder and more relentless than those with positive voices in the community.


            So what the hell do we do about all of this?  We’re stuck at the bottom of a very deep hole, and anyone with a shovel is generally encouraged to use it to dig deeper rather than trying to dig up.  There are a few satisfying ways to deal with trolls on a personal level; Joysitq’s Jess Conditt runs a stingingly effective Tumblr entiled “Dear Trolls” that acts as a fun conduit for hilarious dismissal of these kinds of attitudes. Patrick himself often uses similarly troll-marginalizing .gifs on his own Tumblr as well.

But these are coping mechanisms, individually hilarious and satisfying ways of highlighting the insanity of so many commenters, but not designed as ways to improve the general level of discourse. Journalists and writers need things like Dear Trolls to keep some semblance of sanity, but that’s as a result of the fact that their jobs by definition involve improving the level of discussion already. What can the rest of us do?

Well, for starters, we can try to make it clear that the kind of unrelenting verbal diarrhea that sprays all over any kind of internet gaming community isn’t acceptable. It needs to stop being a matter of having “thicker skin.” If someone starts throwing balls of poop around, our response needs to be to make them knock it off, not to get a better poop shield.  People need to learn that they’re allowed to have an opinion without it being a personal matter, and that reviewers can differ on that opinion without making it into some kind of blood feud.

Secondly, we need to start being more willing to give glowing feedback. Comment sections are oftentimes a wholly negative affair because negative feelings prompt a response more often than positive ones. So from now on, when I read something online that I like, I’m going to make an effort to say so.  Most comments are civil, and the negative ones are but a loud minority, but nonetheless, creators need to know they have fans. In a perfect world, there’d be some kind of internet task force dedicated to fostering intelligent positivity in comments sections to offset the rampant hatred.

So that’s my two-pronged approach. Eliminate the tolerance of this kind of thing, and foster the opposite.  Is it doable?  I have no idea. I think, by nature, some level of insane vitriol is likely to exist and it’s always going to be more difficult to feel good about something you’ve made than it is to doubt it. But I’m going to try to make it better. We need to try to make it better. It’s the only way we’re going to be able to evolve and move forward.


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