Opinion: Rethinking 'the cost of doing business' for game devs

Gamasutra contributor Katherine Cross challenges the notion that abuse & vitriol are now part of "the cost of doing business" for game devs, asking: what can we do to reach beyond that toxic minority?

When I’ve made the mistake of arguing with concern trolls about online harassment directed at women and minorities, I usually hear some version of this whataboutery: “yeah, but white guys get harassed too!”

Leaving aside any questions of prevalence or the qualitative distinctions of, say, misogynist harassment, the strongest response was always: “why is any abuse acceptable? Why should anyone have to deal with it?”

It’s certainly true that harassment/abuse/trolling/”trash-talk” has long prevailed in gaming, but as it’s ballooned in scale it’s become almost a norm in the industry--not just among players, but as the “cost of doing business” as a game developer.

Many, many people have taken up this argument--myself included--and shouted from the hills about its evils. In the last few days, Morgan Jaffit of Defiant Development, took up the charge:

“The tone of those angry videos and comment sections has slid in everywhere around games discourse now. It’s part of the way people talk about videogames. You don’t ask a developer if they can implement a feature you’d like to see, you scream at them for being too lazy to put it in in the first place. You don’t explain how the game balance doesn’t work for you, you tell the developer they’re a brain-addled idiot for getting it wrong. You don’t vote with your wallet and buy games that include the features you like, you make death threats and hurl abuse against the people who make the games you dislike.”

This threads into a lot of issues, of course, and no one party is uniquely to blame. Part of it is a toxic, mostly male-dominated nerd culture that’s privileged outrage as the ideal form of expression, of course. Part of it is a strain of very ugly reactionary politics that chokes art and explicitly targets developers who aren’t straight white men. But there are nominally progressive forms of it as well, as we saw this past year when discourse around Ladykiller in a Bind turned into a furious pushback because of controversy around a horrifying rape scene.

In their Polygon editorial on the subject, Merritt K and Simone de Rochefort quote queer developers who fear “[people] not just tearing down my art, but my worth as a human,” and worrying “am I just going to get death threats or harassment for [my game]?” after watching what befell Christine Love--notably, they fear backlash from their own communities.

Love Conquers All Games' Ladykiller in a Bind

“We keep demanding an impossible level of precision when dealing with messy topics especially from queer developers,” wrote K and de Rochefort, “the backlash to this sex scene shows that the pressure is still on queer creators to write perfect queer experiences.” I can’t disagree.

This leads to them pointing out an obvious but oft overlooked truth--one which Jaffit echoed this week. Our culture of abuse hurts indie devs the most:

“All developers are beholden to their fans on a certain level. But that pressure is magnified for indie developers: Not only are they working with less budget and less publicity, but individual developers are far more accessible to their fans. No, you shouldn’t tweet angry tirades at Blizzard — but Blizzard can also pay someone to mute your tweets.”

But that also touches on the fact that even in those cases where someone can be paid to mute the tweets, there are significant issues around their labour rights, mental health, and whether they actually have enough power to curb abuse directed at developers. Is it ethical for community moderators to simply be, as so many have described themselves to me in private, “meatshields for the higher ups”? Cannonfodder?

And what happens when developers still manage to get hit with the flack? I’ve been told, too many times, about devs targeted for abuse--particularly women--who return to an office that’s abandoned them, where their own colleagues treat them as personae non grata for ‘bringing it on themselves.’ They’re blamed for bringing disrepute to the company, for angering the “fans.” Jaffit pointed out that “every time you [speak out against harassment] there’s an audience who loudly proclaims that you receive abuse because you deserve it.” And that’s true enough. What happens when it’s your own co-workers, however?

A few paragraphs into this column and we’re still just left with a musty thicket of questions.

Stopping this sort of thing isn’t easy, and it’s not as simple as banning bad actors either; the worst are rather zombie-like in their determination. Though it would be a lovely first step--yet to be taken, in all too many cases. Another part of the problem is that too many of the gaming industry’s fandoms and fiefdoms reward “passion,” even when that passion is closer to that of the religious zealot than an enthused hobbyist.

At the end of the day, even the most vitriolic, abusive fan longs to be favored by the attention of the devs; from a player perspective, there’s a bit of a rockstar aura around the dev who wanders into the forums to chat with the players, or who appears resplendently in-game. That attention is, and always has been, a limited commodity: it must always be reserved for those who treat you like a person, not like a vending machine that dispenses bug-fixes, buffs, and DLC. Treat your colleagues like people, too. If they’re getting barraged with abuse, they need constructive support, not being made into the office scapegoat. They’re not cursed; they’re still the same people you pop into Slack with, and they’ll need the camaraderie more than ever.

This all feels like a series of band-aids, of course. But, at least at the level of individual behavior, it’s a starting point. Structural solutions will have to come from platform holders like Steam, and from the C-Suites of the big studios and publishers who remain in thrall to a vision of the toxic fan as ideal consumer.

It matters because right now, the sense of siege among developers is deepening.

"We're all better off when developers can talk freely about their games and their passions without being beholden to every casual remark."

I desperately want to believe it’s getting better, but it’s not. The gallows humor about angry fans grows ever more bitter, more nervous with each passing year. A climate of secrecy, even above and beyond the already stringent demands of PR, has taken hold. Being open with players is not only scary, it corners you into appearing to make promises. You can’t “spitball” with your fans; every word is gospel, every idea a commitment. When reality inevitably intervenes, suddenly you’re evil for overpromising and under-delivering. The ruthlessness with which No Man’s Sky’s devs were punished is testament enough to that.

We in the press are responsible for that as much as anything else; we’re the alchemists who turn a stray comment into a headline that becomes a sworn oath. We do our part in this wretched waltz, I freely admit. But it has to stop; we’re all better off when developers can talk freely about their games and their passions without being beholden to every casual remark.

Something vital has been bled from this hobby when every question about a game is met with either stony silence or links to press releases and prepared statements; when the only medium for substantive communication is a splashy cinematic trailer or dry-ice soaked E3 debut.

One of the most important events in fan-dev dialogue this past year was Earthlight dev Jennifer Scheurle’s curation of countless examples of ways developers used various sleights of hand to improve the experience of gameplay. The response of many fans was to furiously complain about being lied to or duped, but there were others who were fascinated with the psychological magic inherent to the games they loved.

I was especially charmed when, sitting in a Seattle cafe one evening, I overheard a group of nerdy young men and women at the next table eagerly talking about Scheurle’s Extra Credits episode. For once, I heard the games discourse, and it was good. A little bit more of the art of game design was revealed and demystified. We need more of that, louder and more often.

We’ve spent a long time trying to figure out what to do with the vitriolic players: how to cater to them, make them happy, make them go away. It’s past time to see what we can do to reach out to the majority of players who are mature, decent people who want to learn about the enchanting fantasy that unites us all.

What else do we have to lose? 

Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student in sociology who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.

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