Cyberbullying and the boys’ club

A perspective on the rampant verbal aggression that poisons gamer culture, prompted by the GamerFury tumblr and the FEZ2 cancellation.

Crossposted from on July 29th, 2013.


(Authors note: I am a Game Designer for Sharkbomb Studios, not a psycho- or sociologist. I have neither conducted nor read any scientific studies on this topic. The following solely represents my perspective and opinion.)

Some days I despair. I feel that the culture surrounding games is so badly broken that there just is no way to salvage it. Today is one of those days.

You might have heard of the cancellation of FEZ 2 by developer Phil Fish. And you might have also seen the GamerFury tumblr that chronicles the verbal abuse aimed at a Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 developer for changing the stats of a gun. 

The comments on the Polytronic website (FEZ) and the tumblr are filled with raw aggression. Calls for the rape, death and murder of the respective developers are plentiful. I can only find the word hatemail to describe this. These two peoples virtual identities are flooded with vile hate. And for what? For tinkering with digital make-believe worlds.


(Photo by Aphexlee)

Why is that? What causes this and why does this kind of Cyberbullying seem so common in games? It seems to me that it rarely happens in other media. You rarely see outbursts of a similar nature when a movie is released or a book hits the shelves. So I went looking for answers, and this is what I ended up with:

### Tech-Savvy
Compared to other media video games are primarily digital. This means that their audience needs to be able to navigate in the digital world. Especially when it comes to the more world of AAA video games, the home of what’s stereotpyically considered gamer culture. The internet also gives them access to tools like twitter or anonymous commenting that make bullying tremendously easy. 

### Average Age
Video games are also a comparatively young medium. This skews the audience towards younger ages. Granted, by now the average age has moved up considerably, but they still are firmly embedded in youth culture. And that just means a lot more irresponsibility. At age 16 most of us were still testing the limits of their surroundings, trying to fit in.

### Entrenched AAA Machismo
And that is kind of where the real trouble begins. If “Gamer" is the core of your identity and your sense of self, then anything that might threaten that concept also threatens you. So keeping the status quo intact becomes important. And that leads to gamers trying to keep their games a boys’ club.

Artsy fartsy games? Bad!
Women criticizing games? Bad!
Women playing games? Bad!


(GTA V artwork)

This stronghold of male power is also evident in the abundance of verbal sexual aggression. Threats of rape, sexual violence and diseases is frequent as are slurs such as fag. Anything that doesn’t conform to the group is fair game.

### Cyber-Mob
But why does it cluster so heavily around some events? I guess that within the different groups inside the scene, the victims become designated targets. First by only insulting and badmouthing them inside the group. It becomes a sort of group activity over which to bond - shared enemies provide an easy focus to rally around.

That also creates an easy opportunity for some to gain status within the community. By doing something to the hated offender that others might not dare, they become “cool". Especially if the victim reacts to this abuse, preferably in a manner which is perceived negative by the community. Because as we know: Bullies like that.


(Photo by Anton Bader)

Couple this with the reach of the internet and things can easily escalate. As soon as the shit-slinging starts, the victim is fair game for all others. This isn’t unlike the "broken window" theory. It also requires the aggressors to escalate, to step up to be “cool". And that leads to death threats and other nastiness.

So that’s a big bummer. But what can we do about it?

In general it is a fact that those who complain or hate are much more vocal that those who do not. So they do not represent the whole gamerdom but they are very loud. They create and fortify a culture resistant to and vile towards change. 

There are many ways to go about that. We could imagine better media education for people, to create awareness. We could also come up with harsher laws for cyberbullying. I propose a different approach:

The positive and civilized Gamers ones among us will just have to be a little bit louder. So from now on I will, whenever I find myself enjoying a game (or a part of it), try to let the devs of the game know. And maybe you’ll join me. I wish I had a snazzy hashtag for this… If you come up with one, let me know ;)


(FEZ screenshot)

Anyway, let’s start this thing right here:

### An open letter to Phil Fish
Hi Phil,

I don’t have a means to contact you so I’ll go with this open letter. Hope that’s alright. Thanks for FEZ. I’m a kinda nerd for games with complicated spaces (see here) and when I first saw FEZ, I was  intrigued. Then I forgot all about it and was pleasantly surprised by it’s sudden release. I bought the game for my Xbox 360 and rushed through it. I loved the twist mechanic, the levels, the style. Most of all I enjoyed what I didn’t expect: the wondrous sense of exploration and all the little details and secrets. 

Thank you for the joy and inspiration. It is a pity to see that there will not be a sequel, but I understand and respect your decision. I know how draining it can be to slog through some phases of game development. And I don’t presume to know how it feels to be on the receiving end of all that hatemail.

I wish you all the best,



(Second authors note: Thanks for everyone who participated in the facebook discussion that got my brain fired up and sparked this blog post. You know who you are.)

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