Psychological Study and Discussion of Gamer / Developer Verbal Abuse

Gabby Taylor is the creator and lead design for budding indie studio GreyBox. She’s long had an interest in what makes people tick, primarily brought on by her life-long experience with the darker side of humanity. Neither pessimist nor optimist, Gabby tends to believe the human mind is both the key to and cause of most all of mankind’s issues, best explored through video games and writing.

From Randy Pitchford’s comparison of criticism from a devout fan to domestic abuse [See Reference 1] to wide-spread gamer’s verbal abuse of game developers [See Reference 2], to the even wider spread gamers’ verbal abuse of each other [See Reference 3], many questions crop up. There’s the usual “cyber bullying” questions, and of course the ever-famous “who do we blame, since everyone seems to be at fault here?”, but here we will cover a slightly more important question: Why is this happening?

Any student of human nature will tell you no one acts without reason, however illogical; even madness of all sorts has some sort of neurological trigger, whether developed over time or there from birth. Let’s first define verbal abuse, as placing it in the same category as madness is quite wrong.

Verbal abuse, otherwise known as reviling, is commonly defined as “a negative defining statement told to the victim or about the victim, or by withholding any response, thereby defining the target as non-existent” [See Reference 4]. Common examples in online games are calling a poor performer “homo” or other derogatory terms, description of sexual acts (“I’m gonna rape you” or “I f#&%d your [insert family member here]”), and just general insults with no follow-up apology. Typical causes are a need for control over the person or situation, outright anger issues, or low self-esteem. Starting to sound a little familiar? No? Maybe it does seem a little extreme to be saying verbal abuse is so wide spread? You’re right, with just this, it is. We are, however, missing pieces of the puzzle.

When one person sees someone not performing with absolute precision, their first move isn’t going to be to start hurling insults at them as if it were a grand time, yet this is exactly what happens between players in online matches. Why? Anonymity is key here. Walking up to someone in person, they see your face, how you dress, can assume you live nearby– nearly everything about you.

Online, however, you have only your screen name, what you use as your (usually modulated) voice, and your performance in that particular game. If one wanted, they could go back and look up how often you earn trophies or achievements in various games, but very little else. As in, nothing they could use to get back at you once you start hurling insults. They’ve no choice but to sit there and take it, thus giving the control you sought and encouraging this behavior further.

Once you shed your identity and enter a lobby or forums, that place essentially becomes a BDSM dungeon, where there is no safety except to leave. Interesting fact: most players tend to learn and refine their social skills in this sort of environment [See Reference 5].

So now we’ve covered why players are cruel to each other (essentially big, digital dominance fights that most are happy to sweep under the rug), let’s touch on why they can be mean to the developers behind their favorite games (and why developers return the favor). It’s in the same vein as player-to-player verbal abuse, really: control is key here. Maybe the developers made a change to a game that doesn’t sit well with players. Player response is to attempt to intimidate or otherwise manipulate the developers into changing it back to the more favored version. Or the flip side: player offers constructive criticism for developers, and developers seek to control the situation by manipulating players into not offering up said criticism in the future. In essence, at the heart of all this abuse we fling at each other without question is the desire for domination over others.

Control over others has long been a theme the human race has struggled with, both in real life and in fantasy. From Hitler to William the Conqueror, and Sauron to Saruman, men and tales alike have sought domination of the known world and the subjugation of all in it. Even in religion, humans have dominion over animals, men control women, and all the world must submit to various deities. But what makes us so fascinated with control that we’d seek it since in the inception of mankind’s existence? According to Bob Hughes, control over others gives us the life we want– or so we think [See Reference 6]. On the surface, this seems reasonable. Of course we want our lives to be happy and our endeavors to go well, and if we let go, all sorts of scary unknowns enter the equation. But, there is a downside; the more we control, the more we desire to control. It’s sort of a “give a mouse a cookie” sediment.

Look at a classic example: Adolf Hitler. He ruled Germany, an entire country. Then he insisted on terminating people with certain characteristics, essentially controlling the genes of his subjects. He also sought to control the lands and people of other countries, and continuing like this until either he controlled everything on the planet, or was stopped. Most people would say that he was a special case, and that not everyone would make this mistake, but this is very far from true. Nearly every time one player insults another, or developer insulting a fan, or fan insulting player– every time one abuses another in any way, they seek to subjugate them. An example of this in a game (and slightly closer to our time) is Stronghold Kingdoms.

Stronghold Kingdoms is an MMO by Firefly Studios in which players group themselves into Houses and fight for world domination. The studio themselves takes a laissez-faire approach; only interfering when a round of gameplay ends and its time to eliminate a House from the running. Otherwise, its just the players and the freedom to do and say whatever they feel is in the best interests of themselves and their Houses. As you can well imagine, the higher up on the totem pole a player gets, the more authority and control they acquire.

This has led to several disasters, especially towards the end of an era (when one House finally topples their sole remaining rival). House leaders, or Marshalls, have frequently gone rogue if they felt they could gain control another way than they were previously going, and control over the map and people was the only way by which one’s success was measured. It was in this game that every player’s true nature came into the open (much the same as an unbridled developer on social media).

Now, it very nearly sounds like this behavior is excusable on the basis of understandable fear, so allow it to be said; it is not. Verbal abuse, as with any other sort of giving in to fear, is a coward’s tool, and should not be condoned under any circumstances, no matter who it’s from, or who it’s directed at. What ought to be happening is people accepting the unknowns as they come, especially when it comes to video games, and just “roll with the punches”. Who knows what could be accomplished in a world where developers can create without the need to appease vast groups of people, where people’s esteems aren’t attacked solely because they’re new to a game, and everyone is mentally and emotionally nimble enough to take life as it happens?


Interview w/ RGN Editor-In-Chief Jon Ireson:

Jon: First off I just want to say thank you for revealing to us the answer to the question of “Why does this happen?” in regards to the communicative disorder seen across both online multiplayer gaming and developer to consumer feedback channels including social networks like Twitter. Unfortunately, there’s also a darker side to that communication stream which never sees the light of day and that is pertaining to mainly email communications which often include anonymous death threats. I’d like to first speak about this issue and then address the widespread developer outcry that has been bubbling to the surface and growing immensely in the past seven years especially.

From the writer of Dragon Age II to the guy in charge of telling gamers “COD balance patches are incoming” and beyond, developers are trying to tell us a story. The story of receiving death threats for changes in the games they are working on, not only to themselves but even their own family members. Immediately off the bat we see a serious breach of the law and basic human respect which in my opinion is not being handled correctly by the large gaming companies involved with these cases.

While it seems little to no action has been taken to identify and apprehend the individuals responsible for these threats (many of which may bear no merit, but that is completely irrelevant as all threats to prominent individuals at risk should be met with consequences) instead we are seeing game companies and the gaming public put the blame and burden of security largely on the developer who suffered the threat. A few people walk you to your car at night and then “Large Publisher A” is satisfied that they’ve done their duty. This is deplorable and I expect a lot more out of the industry which has endless amounts of capital and electronic expertise at their disposal meaning they could easily prosecute many of these threats and make an example of the perpetrator therefore reducing the likelihood of this occurring as often.

Moving on from that, the need felt by developers to address things like political belief, religious opinion, social and philosophical bias, and even brand preferences across the public spectrum seems to have skyrocketed with the advent of social media. I love my free speech, believe strongly in it, and wouldn’t dream of taking it away from someone. However, I think what many of these developers are quick to reject is the responsibility that is inherently placed upon them to represent their company, their publishing authority, and their games.

I believe developers have crossed the line in preaching about how they feel on sensitive issues and expecting their vastly varying demographic of fans to embrace these beliefs or not feel compelled to reply when they disagree. Using their prominence as game developers to promote their psychological belief system to potentially millions of people just seems irresponsible and beyond the scope of their intended influence. If they want to tell the world what to believe or what they think about life, why not do it through their art (games) in the way that they do best rather than string together repulsive sentences that the world is only going to skew and take out of context?

And finally, in regard to how developers deal with criticism in the public spectrum, this is a mixed bag for me. On the one hand, I firmly believe the disrespect many developers are handing down to the gaming public in response to some of these criticisms is inappropriate and should be filtered through a Public Relations voice either literally via vetted staffers running Twitter pages rather than the individual, or at the least figuratively through a more considerate thought process.

We all have our bad days but that doesn’t make it okay for massively well known developers to come out name-calling to their own fan-base with often explicit and hurtful lines of communication. Two wrongs don’t make a right, and the one on the receiving end of billions of dollars are the party I believe has the largest responsibility to present a respectable face by putting their best foot forward at all times. That being said, I once again refer to my earlier statements that all threats of violence should be followed up on and prosecuted as to make an example of those who go too far with their statements to developers.

At this time I’d like to welcome back the author of this article to respond to some of the connections I’ve made between her research and the issues they stir up.

Gabby: Thanks for having me; this was quite fun to write. You do bring up a ton of heavy concerns, and I’ll do my best to answer them from the developer side. First off, death threats via email are a huge and prevalent issue (as you mentioned). This is mostly due to company policy (be it studio level or publisher level) typically demands a developer’s email to follow the same simple format, thus making it purposefully easy to find. In fact, when looking for a development job, we’re typically instructed to email potential bosses out of the blue like this. This, as mentioned, does not always have such benign consequences, and there is little developers can do about them.

You mentioned publishers having such electronic expertise as to easily be able to hunt down perpetrators, but this is simply not true for most studios/publishers. They’re not quite the NSA *laughs*. Most of their network security only protects the data, not the people. You also bring up the few measly steps taken by studios to protect their employees, and I agree– it’s not a whole lot. Something to bear in mind, though, is most will not act on this. As much as people might push for control, most will not do much beyond hide behind their anonymity and send out messages, and as such, there is no real reason for fear. Granted, after working for 72 hours straight on a crunch, it might seem a little real, but most things tend to get mildly surreal then anyway.

As a developer who regularly receives threats of death among other things, I know that it can really get to you. Most developers come from fairly okay walks of life, as far as American standards go, just like their audiences, so repeated threats can really wear you down. Most people, be they players or developers, don’t know the difference between real, life-threatening circumstances and just trolling, so they have the same response to both. As such, I believe it’s only right for publishers to dedicate some of their vast resources to aid in keeping the psyche of their developers intact, however possible.

I did have to laugh a little at the concern of developers expressing psychological beliefs to fans, having written this article and also being a developer, but I definitely see what you’re saying. With video games being such a popular medium, successful developers are becoming super stars and celebrities in their own right, and there are some that maybe take this a bit far. However, I don’t see this as much of an issue. I already hear it, “Well, you’re a developer, of course you don’t have an issue with it!” Well, yeah, but I wasn’t quite talking from a developer standpoint, but rather the players.

For instance, I am a huge fan of the Metal Gear Solid series, and thus used to think of Hideo Kojima as some sort of god among men (I know this is rather common to feel between players and the developers behind their favorites). Once I saw his Twitter, though, he became merely a talented family man who loves movies. It’s this point of view from which I say developers ought to be able to post how they please, where they please. Yes, the system is abused, but this gives players an insight into their favorite games.

Developers always pour a little of themselves into what shows up on a gamer’s screen, and seeing a face put to that, seeing where this or that particular mechanic or monster came from, is absolutely priceless. Should it be censored through various PR reps or interns running their accounts? No, not at all. That would only sully the experience. If the developer proves to be worthy of Xbox 360 lobby-dom, so be it. Don’t buy their games. Speak with your wallet, not so much your screen name. Money is what will make a difference to the publishers in charge of whether they have a job.

I agree that developers’ ability (or lack of) to take criticism from fans presents an interesting problem. As developers of such a public medium, I believe they– we– ought to be able to take criticism, however there’s a difference between taking complaints from thousands of fans, and getting a sort of “complaint data sheet” to work from. Again, there are some who will insist on tanking it, and they will snap and make horrible remarks most of the time. This is just another insight to who they are. It’s like how it was explained to me when I was first getting into developing: Starting from the time you say to yourself you want this career, you have a public record where *everything* you do is open for analysis by thousands of people.

Listening to criticism, accepting it graciously, snapping and insulting, or passively ignoring it; these all go into this growing “file” of yours, and you must live with it. We have to be our own PR. Now, I know that sounds callous, and I didn’t mention anyone who is possibly hurt in this exchange. They, I believe, have an equal share of responsibility: if you’re going to offer criticism, no matter how polite and helpful, always prepare for the worst response possible. As you said, Jon, everyone has bad days. The more players expect and prepare for a bad day, and the more developers take more responsibility for their own public image, the happier we’ll all get along.


References Used:

  1. Randy Pitchford Compares Bad Review To Domestic Abuse
  2. Plague of Game Dev Harassment Erodes Industry, Spurs Support Groups
  3. Xbox Live And Verbal Abuse
  4. Wikipedia Entry For Verbal Abuse
  5. More Than Just XP; Learning Social Skills In Massively Multiplayer Online Games
  6. Why Do We Try To Control

Editor’s Note: RealGamerNewZ has moved web servers, some older posts can no longer be commented on and have been preserved without their images. Thank you for your understanding in this matter. This article was written by Gabby Taylor on 20131207 and was last modified on 20131207 .