Why do people hate us? or How we got here: Thoughts from a 30 year old gamer

If you’re in any way tangentially related to videogame culture, and have been paying attention, you will see that the world of video games is rapidly falling into a civil war of sorts. A lot of mud is being slung on all sides and many parties have resorted to some pretty deplorable actions that have severely disrupted the personal lives of many talented and respected members of the gaming community.

Before I start, I would like to say that these are my personal feelings and interpretations on what's happening and how we got here according to my own personal near 30 year history with gaming culture. First, the real question that got me to writing these thoughts is why now, and that’s the easiest thing to answer. If there is one thing that I’ve come to realize while trying to wrap my head around this hashtag-fueled war of attrition, it’s that this has been a long time coming, and it’s absolutely our (and by our I mean us who love video games and have been part of this culture for quite some time now) doing.

Ever since the day my dad came home with a Tandy 1000 and a book on how to make games with Basic, I knew that something special was happening. I obviously didn’t know what vidogames would become or how impactful they would eventually be, I knew what I felt when I played them, the fun and enjoyment I could get out of mastering the mechanics and the rush of beating a boss. Games were unlike any other art form I had ever experienced and that day I fell in love and never looked back. But for a long time, I was in an often ridiculed minority. Called nerds, shut-ins, geeks, or any number of now ridiculous things that cut to the core as a child, because they were said with the intent to cause harm and it worked.

Much like any disenfranchised groups of humans, we banded together and relied on each other for support. As more people would get into gaming we would have lan parties and friendships bloomed through solidarity and a really fun hobby. Then came the best thing that could ever happen to our culture, the internet. Gamers, being by default at least at the time already entrenched in the tech world, took to the internet immediately and suddenly your local community of five or six gamer friends became thousands, or hundreds of thousands of people all with the same interests and passions who were able to form these massive communities on message boards. Suddenly we were many, and we had a voice. We had a place where we were free to discuss our favorite games and “geek out” as much as we wanted without fear of insult. We could finally feel “normal”, and accepted. But we also had one more thing that we never expected, we had power.

Now power may be the wrong word, but it sure kind of felt like it. See, as I mentioned before, not many people had the internet at this time and of the ones who did even fewer actually used it for much. Most people either hadn’t had any computer courses in school and if they did they were too busy thinking about homecoming to care. The gamers on the other hand, they cared, they knew immediately exactly how important this was and jumped in head first. Because of this we had this sort of exclusive club where we were safe from the outside world even knowing about us, because we knew that no one cared about what we were saying. We had the freedom to say whatever we wanted about whatever we wanted and, thanks to the beauty of anonymity, whoever we wanted. It was here in these forums, inhabited by mostly outcasts who were fed up with being excluded, created in my opinion the foundations for what is now culturally referred to as a “gamer”.

As I said, things were great in the beginning. Early video game message boards were a bastion of knowledge and people were always willing to help each other out. Sure you get an asshole here and there but it was pretty rare and people hadn’t quite gotten into “trolling” quite yet. The hardest part, as is to be expected in a community around a medium that was and still is largely targeted to children, was that there was some immaturity and even sometimes hate and threat speech because, well, that’s likely to happen when you allow a child to say something without any fear of consequence. Children say mean things, it’s a fact of life, it takes time to develop a moral compass. But again it wasn’t so bad in the early days since an internet connection was still fairly rare, especially for kids. On top of that we had a pretty good selection of monthly gaming rags that gave us reviews, previews, interviews, and opinions on the videogame industry.

Everything continued along this trajectory for a while. As we watched the passing of the 16-bit era and moved into 3D, gaming culture had definitely grown in both size and acceptance, but it still wasn’t the “cool guy” thing to do, and therefore was still fairly culturally irrelevant. Shortly after a lot of things happened that, combined, changed gaming culture and its relevance. FIrst of all, the internet was suddenly everywhere, was getting faster, and had porn. Well, it always had porn but people were realizing it and now a lot more people found reasons to use it. I know, I know, there are a billion other amazingly useful things on the internet and were even then but thats not going to convince the average person who at the time still hadn’t bought into the idea to pay a monthly fee every month, but free boobs at the click of a button whenever you want just might. I know I’m making generalizations, but this has been the case for a number of medium formats. I’m not saying it was porn, but it was porn. Also during this time were a number of initiatives to get internet into schools and increase the quality of computer education programs to teach children just how powerful and useful a Google search can be.

While the internet was becoming faster, more available, more useful, and therefore “cooler”, Videogames were going through a bit of an image adjustment as well. Those of us that bought in early on were now older and had more developed and adult tastes that we were looking for and the games of our childhood, while still fun, didn’t quite satisfy. Some were even breaking into the industry themselves and bringing new ideas and more complex and refined mechanics to the table. Out of all of this came games that weren’t for kids anymore. In the heydays of the PS1 era, we started seeing games that dealt with themes and had special effects on par with some of the best R rated action movies. As games became more adult they suddenly became “cooler” and thus the road to our medium being culturally accepted was paved. I know it may seem silly to think that something as ridiculous as a “jock” seeing Metal Gear Solid running on a display while at the mall with his “bros” and changing his mind on games being cool having any sort of impact, but that’s exactly how popular culture works or at least in this case.

To prevent this from being even longer than it already will be, I’ll bullet point some of the big stuff that happened after that:

-As cultural acceptance grows, more people get into the gaming community and the already existing online community rapidly grows.

-AAA devs, excited by this new world where games aren’t just for kids experiment with new themes, however due to the overwhelming success of the big budget action titles games that deal with more violent, intense concepts are given the highest priority and are primarily targeted at young, white males as they are the largest consumer traditionally of that type of content.

-The media focuses attention on videogame violence, often times misguided, and as a result draw even more attention to that style of game and attracting even more people to whom it appeals.

-ESRB rating system established, which again brings attention to those rated M

-Gaming publications, like all print journalism outlets, struggles to find its footing in the internet generation and most of the time resorts to standard review/preview content that mirrors their print publications plus a heavy dose of screenshots and extremely low res Quicktime videos shot off screen.

-Few attempts are ever made by big publishers to make or promote games that are targeted to other demographics and when they do are often more insulting than anything else.

Flash forward to the end of 2005, the beginning of the modern era of videogame culture. Since the inception of 3D gaming, the world had seen the Playstation, Playstation 2, Nintendo 64, Nintendo Gamecube, Dreamcast, Sega Saturn, and Microsoft Xbox come and go. With them they saw massive AAA blockbusters Like the aforementioned Metal Gear Solid series, the Halo series, the Call of Duty series, the EA Sports annual lineup, and the Tomb Raider series. These are just a few of the massive blockbusters that served to provide us with hours of entertainment while proving to more and more people that video games were not only cool, they were something new and amazing that was capable of blowing your mind at every turn and you don’t want to miss out.

This was explosive and amazing for gaming culture. As more and more people got into gaming, the culture went from a group of resourceful, outcast, generally “nerdy white dudes” to as much an accepted normal part of life as watching a movie or reading a book. We had finally gained acceptance and people from all walks of life, even women were starting to talk to me about videogames, things were really looking up. New consoles released with always online connectivity and we were given the power to actually say whatever we wanted to people, and hear their replies in real time and again with little to no fear of punishment. And thus the elusive “dudebros” were born.

Unfortunately during all of this, something dark was happening to the very heart of our culture and we were all either too blind to see it, or too ignorant to think it mattered. As with any group of individuals that grows beyond its initial niche, the popularity of videogames and the widespread availability of the internet meant that our online communities were getting more and more people, who brought new opinions and new conversations to the table. This was amazing. But in any group there will be some bad apples, and when they are given a voice and anonymity things can go dark very quickly.

Most gamers are not even remotely what our stereotype portrays us to be. Out of the gaming community I have seen some of the most brilliant and beautiful acts of humanity emerge. Gamers, from my personal experience, tend to be very kind, caring, emotional people who understand and empathize with others. This isn’t that surprising either, the very nature of our medium is that of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and for many of us that’s one of the primary drivers of why we love videogames. But there are those few that prefer to taint the well with vitriol and hate and bullying and are completely ruining our name.

Our culture really defined itself on the internet, and more specifically on message boards. Thats where we first gathered together and as we pulled more people into our hobby, that was the first place we took them. Because of that, gamers as a culture have defined these message boards as our backbone and the heart of our community and it’s the first place anyone looking to join our community or research it is going to go.

Alongside this rapid growth and assertion of video gaming, internet journalism had also started taking new forms and went through a period of defining and redefining itself. Out of this came those that stuck with more of a twist on traditional journalism (Gamespot, IGN), those that went a little more nuanced and were more entertainment and personality focused (Giantbomb and to an extent the Escapist) and the more cultural and opinion driven blogs (kotaku, joystiq, polygon). All of these set a new landscape for journalism and allowed writers to broaden their horizons beyond the more reviews driven focus of the past to newer more culturally focused avenues. Videogames were finally culturally relevant and as a result, people were now interested in hearing peoples thoughts on the subject.

So here we are. It’s 2014 and we got what we wanted. Videogames are relevant and accepted, they are normal. Being part of pop culture means being in the spotlight all the time. It means being held up on a pedestal for public criticism and how we represent ourselves as a culture is more important then ever. Every day more and more people are going to take interest in videogames and start poking around at our culture and right now it doesn't look pretty; and that’s why this whole mess is happening right now in gaming. People have started pointing out the things they don’t like about our culture and they are letting the world know about it, and people who have been part of our culture for some time are starting to write introspective opinion pieces and don’t like what they see, and that scares us because we as a culture are very defensive. This isn’t a bad thing, we’ve had to struggle to get here, but now more than ever it is important that we rise above the hate and instead recognize our core problems and fix them. Is it really all that surprising that people are generalizing gamers as virgin trolls spewing hate on the internet from our parents basement behind the shield that is our gamertag? Let’s pretend for a moment that I’m a reporter tasked with writing about this hot GamerGate thing or someone who’s never played a game before but saw an ad on TV and wants to do a little digging to see if it’s a thing he/she should get in to. Let’s use Destiny as an example since it’s nice and popular and in all the news right now.

I want to go to the source for some real videogame culture, not some news site because media journalism in all forms needs to be taken with a grain of salt, you’re going to head straight to the forums. For this experiment I went to one of the biggest, longest lasting gaming forums. A staple of our culture and the same one I was on way back in the early days, gamefaqs.com. Upon visiting Destiny’s gamefaqs page I clicked on one of the firsts topics I saw titled “I just don't understand why people can't handle killing Atheon.” and the first post was as follows:

“The fight is truly rather simple. I just do not understand how someone manages to die EVERY F***ING TIME and screw up everything.

I swear to god, I had to kick about 10 people today just at the last boss because they couldn't stay alive.

I DON'T UNDERSTAND WHAT THE F*** IS SO HARD ABOUT STAYING ALIVE.

God damn.

/rant”

Whew, that’s a rough first impression, but no logical person would jump to any conclusion based on just that, so I moved on to the replies. The first was a solid, logical retort that perhaps these players were unfamiliar with the enemy and had not been informed on the nuances of the fight. The remainder of the conversation goes on to be a constant barrage of insults and vitriol spewed either at the TC for ignorance, or at the “noobs” he played with. Every now and then a bit of actual information about the encounter would appear but gets completely lost in all the hate coming from all angles. The points each side is trying to make no longer matters as, much like the majority of topics that make it to the first page, any sense of debate that may have had potential immediately dissolves into ad hominem attacks and bullying. I then moved on to more topics and they all fell into one of the following two categories.

Topics that answered objective questions about the game. These are generally short topics as they have an answer which is generally given right away but sometimes has a few “learn to search” posts.

Topics that are in any way related to objective opinion, or ask a question that should be “totally obvious”. These almost always quickly turn bad if they don’t start that way and even when a few users have a rational argument, it tends to be surrounded by the aforementioned hate and vitriol.

1 was definitely in the minority, at least on the first few pages.

I stopped there because I didn’t have to go any farther, I don’t have to research gaming culture because I exist in it. I visit gamefaqs every day of my life and like most of the other good-intentioned gamers I have let myself become complacent in it and learned to avoid it. This may be good enough for us, to simply ignore the jerks and let them be, but this complacency to someone on the outside is viewed as acceptance, which may as well be participation. We are guilty by association because we have given this vocal minority the keys to our kingdom.

There is an argument to be made that this isn't specific to gaming culture but is representative of an issue with the internet as a whole, that any message board you visit on the internet, regardless of the culture it belongs to, is filled with extremists and extremists are always the most vocal. This is absolutely true, however I feel with our culture there is one key difference. Wheres every group or subculture that exists has a message board or a subreddit and chances are its filled with all kinds of nastiness, ours was defined there. Where for other groups these are just looked at as often overlooked, fringe outlets to spread the reach of their community, for us its home. It’s where we first banded together and staked our claim. It’s the kingdom we built while everyone ignored us and even though many of us now pass it off as a gutter that represents the very small minority of us, it’s still where we came from and whether we like it or not, it’s what defines us.

Looking at what has happened to some of the most vocal, public representations of our culture I am immediately able to wrap my head around what’s happened. Of course someone on the outside will jump to the conclusion, based on the history of AAA titles and the current hate and defensive, reactionary behavior coming from our most vocal members and see us as misogynists, racists, or hate mongers because from the outside looking in it’s hard to see anything else.

I don’t know how we fix this, and I don’t think anyone does. In my opinion both sides of GamerGate are making huge mistakes left and right that distorts the important facts. On top of that the cause has come to represent so many different ideals across so many different subjects that its like a political bill at this point, where lobbyists are using one easy to back main argument as a way to hide a bunch nefarious intentions. It’s not helping and is very likely making things a lot worse. We need to work with each other, not fight each other. We need to realize that at the end of the day, every person with a dog in this fight wants the exact same thing, they want to play videogames. They want enjoyment, entertainment, escapism. They want to live out their deepest fantasies that could never happen in reality, and they don’t want to be tied down by what others think a game “should” be. The world has plenty of room for first person shooters, assassin games, sports games, retro-inspired indies, “walking simulators”, survival horror, digital novels, emotional narrative driven experiences, and even MOBAs.

We need to stop hating and just accept that games are fun and everyone has a different opinion on what defines fun. We need to stop putting reviews on a pedestal and stop letting ourselves resort to name calling and bullying just because someone doesn’t agree with our favorite game. And I think more than anything, those of us who care about how our image is being tarnished need to take a stand and be vocal. We need to stop blaming the journalists for calling out our bullshit and do something to fix it. We need to fill the message boards and comment sections with positivity and reasonable discourse. We cannot resort to vitriol, even against the worst of offenders. We need to support each other and lift each other up rather than bring each other down.

I know that a lot of us just want it to go back to the old days, where no one paid any attention to us and we went on with our lives but it’s too late for that and im glad for it. We thought that everything was great but we never realized how exclusionary by circumstance we had been being. I have always taken for granted just how easily I have been able to relate to just about every character I have played as because I had never realized that I was part of a target demo. Games relate to me because they are targeted at people who like the things I like, and anyone else who likes games and wants to be part of the culture, but doesn't like sports or action movies was pretty much left to deal with the scraps and it’s time that changed. Noone is saying that games as they always have been need to go anywhere, just that its time we throw in some more options. Would it really be all that terrible if Activision skipped just one Call of Duty game and put that money into an emotional, narrative driven experience with unique, maybe even financially risky gameplay mechanics? Or a game written and designed by a team of women? The games we know and love aren’t going anywhere, what’s wrong with a focus on some newer game concepts from a perspective that hasn’t been done a million times before?

I love videogames, I owe so much to this hobby that has brought me joy in times of sadness and depression and gives me a magical place to escape to, whenever I want unlike anything else in existence. My hope is that everyone gets to feel and understand for themselves just why I think this medium is so amazing without feeling excluded or unwanted. We should all be able to celebrate the games that we love and strive to make our culture better and stronger rather than bickering ourselves to death. While I know that the representation of gamers in recent publications can be seen as insulting and does not represent that vast majority of people who play videogames, I think it’s a pretty spot on description of the public face of our culture and that makes me pretty sad.

1 Comments