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Q&A: Wrestling with the unsolvable problem of internet toxicity

The man who left Microsoft and subsequently became a notorious victim of internet toxicity speaks out about how game developers can help make the internet a better place.

Alex Wawro, Contributor

February 21, 2014

7 Min Read

Adam Orth is a man who knows a thing or two about dealing with toxic behavior on the internet. Orth resigned from his post as creative director at Microsoft last April, shortly after publishing a series of Xbox-related remarks on Twitter that incited large swathes of the game-playing internet to pepper Orth with derogatory messages, angry phone calls and death threats. "It was a feeding frenzy. Everything I'd ever done, good or bad, my public and private life, was now fair game for ridicule and abuse," said Orth during a revealing GDC Next talk on the subject. "I felt like an outcast, complete human garbage. I had completely destroyed my career, and endangered my family's life." Orth's GDC Next talk offers a brief taste of the internet bile developers like Flappy Bird's Dong Nguyen and Depression Quest's Zoe Quinn have to deal with when they do or create something contentious. Too brief, in fact -- Orth had an hour's worth of material to cover, but ended up having to truncate his presentation to fit within the proscribed half-hour time limit. So he's coming to GDC 2014 to revisit the topic with an hour-long talk about how destructive toxic online behavior can be, and how some game developers are working to address the problem in a positive way. Orth himself has already partnered with industry veteran Omar Aziz to work on a game called >Adr1ft, which challenges the player to deal with the aftermath of a destructive calamity in a non-violent way. Gamasutra recently spoke with Orth to find out what he'd learned from dealing with a campaign of online harassment, how he planned to apply those lessons to his work going forward and what other developers can do to stop toxic behavior in their own communities. How do you solve a problem as nebulous as online toxicity? For those of us who spend the lion’s share of our day on the internet, toxic behavior seem unstoppable. Orth: Well that’s what I say in my talk -- I personally don’t think it’s solvable, I don’t think that genie can ever be put back in the bottle. But my counter was that, while it’s not solvable as a whole, there are little micro-universes where you can go -- the companies and games that I mention -- where they’re actually trying to do something about it. One of the companies I highlight is Riot -- I don’t know of any other company in the game industry that is doing as much hard work to make a safe, fun place for people to play their games. The thing about Riot's approach is, it's not really about punishing people -- it's about reforming them. It’s about teaching players that maybe negative actions aren’t the greatest thing, and showing them how they can be better. It doesn’t seem punitive on their part, so much as transitive. Yeah, I can’t think of any other game where I get rewarded by my fellow players for good conduct after a match. Right, yeah! So what I found when I was making the talk the first time around was that I had a hard time coming up with companies that were being really progressive to try and do something like that, you know? There’s not a lot of them. So what I’m hoping to do is find at least one more outstanding example to round out that section of the talk. My talk is such a weird hybrid of information and narrative, and the purpose was...I had never spoken publicly about anything that happened to me; that was the first time. And I haven’t really since. So it was important to get my side of the story out, but I didn’t want to be like "Oh, everything sucks." I wanted to show that if you take [negative experiences] and try to turn them into positive things, you can actually change things in your life a lot. It’s very important for me to show that, and then also show examples of how the game industry is trying to change this. But like I said, there aren’t a ton of high-profile companies trying to do this. The three examples I chose in my original talk were Riot, thatgamecompany, and Valve -- Counter-Strike has this awesome feature called Overwatch. So I dunno, I’m planning on digging more deeply into those three so I can actually show some better examples, because I didn’t have time during GDC Next to dig deeper into that part of the talk. Are you nervous at all about getting back up on that stage? I am nervous about it. There was an announcement that I would speak and when Polygon wrote a story about it, I got a brand-new batch of internet hate. It’s tough, you know? It’s impossible to be impervious to those kinds of things, because when people say terrible things about you, it hurts. Even if they’re total strangers, it hurts. It makes you feel terrible, and when someone says that stuff it brings me back to that whole dark place again and I hate that, by my own hand, I’m scarred for life when it comes to these kinds of things. It’s a very hard feeling to explain -- I’m not sure if I even understand it. It’s a very scary thing, and so yeah I’m pretty scared to get up and talk about it. But I’ve received a lot of positive support from when I talked about it at GDC Next, and I think developers need to hear this stuff. If they don’t want to hear it, they don’t have to attend the talk. I want to share my experience with people and show them that hey, if this happens to you it’s not the end of the world -- it’s survivable. I chose to turn it into a positive thing, and it was hard, but I want other developers to see that and understand that I’m not the last person this will happen to. It’s going to keep happening, and it’s going to get worse. I think that’s unavoidable, but I think if I can put myself out there and let people see how bad it got -- and how it didn’t destroy me -- then I guess it’s worth it. If it gets even one person through a tough day, or just to not be a dick on the internet, it’s worth it. I don’t think I’ll serve as an advocate full-time or anything -- I prefer to let the software do the talking. I can’t imagine what it must be like to speak out and ask people “Hey, don’t be a dick” on the internet. Especially when I’m perceived to have been a dick on the internet! And that’s totally fair. What I said wasn’t meant to be that way, but people took it that way and, with time, I can understand that. It’s totally fair. But I don’t think the punishment fits the crime. But it happens, right? I guess I have to take my own advice and deal with it. When this is all over, would you ever pitch another GDC talk? Oh yeah, absolutely. I’m making a game right now, and I hope to talk about that -- what I learned making it, how I went about making it, why it succeeded or failed, that kind of thing. I don’t want to be “That Guy” forever, you know? Everything I did in my career, up until “The Event,” has been wiped out. I have to get back to being a creative game designer who makes things. That’s what I want to be known for, not for making some pretty unfortunate mistakes on the internet. Do you think an extra half hour in your talk about online toxicity will significantly change what developers take away from attending it? I think so! I think if I’m able to show more positive examples of how game companies are doing things well, maybe that will rub off on other developers who are thinking about how to solve this problem. I know indie developers who are making games and saying "I’m never going to have a comments section on my website or anything attached to my game." It’s a real problem. It’s a strange position to be in because I never wanted to be an advocate for this kind of stuff, but I find myself forced into it. Are you going to do more of this work going forward, or is this it for the foreseeable future? Yeah, of course I’m going to try to practice what I preach. The experience I had changed me profoundly, in ways that have completely bled into the way I make video games. It would be impossible to not address that in my games.

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