The Radical Misanthropy Engine: Live Chat in Online Deathmatch Video Games

If you play online video games with live voice chat, you are familiar with the various forms of insult and abuse that are thrown around casually and anonymously. It’s not hard to realize how the cycle of abuse works. When you try your hardest to win and still lose because someone is better or just luckier, it’s easy to be angry. When you win, it’s tempting to assert your dominance and humiliate your opponent. Lose, and receive abuse from the winners. Win, and receive abuse from the losers. That abuse turns very easily to hate, and the hate generated by online abuse takes shape in the old ways that are readymade: racism, misogyny, antisemitism, homophobia.

Developers bear some responsibility for the abuse that their games enable. Leigh Alexander’s famous and insightful cri de coeur about gaming criticizes developers for creating a culture vacuum into which various ill-intentioned parties can project their worldview. She writes, “When you decline to create or to curate a culture in your spaces, you’re responsible for what spawns in the vacuum.” Alexander is right to hold developers responsible for their creations even if they are not directly at fault for whatever spawns in the vacuum, but I’m worried that developers may in fact be creating or cultivating a culture of abuse.

The fact that the ability to anonymously abuse strangers with impunity has continued to be built in to some video games suggests that developers want to keep that feature in their games. It would have been eliminated if the effect it produced were unintended or detrimental to sales. In fact, one of the main selling points of these games, the ability to interact with other users nearly instantaneously, makes it almost impossible to moderate voice chats within those games. Content that might be censored or earn its author a timeout or a ban on social media platforms, where the main medium of exchange is text, can pass without censure in video game voice chats. Sony has required users to agree to having their voice chats recorded so that players can “quickly and accurately report harassment and abuse.” Some games require players to opt in to voice chat. It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s going to be impossible to prevent abuse unless voice chat is completely abolished.

Gamergate

This issue does not just stop at the individual or in the home. It’s bad enough to think that an individual could be harmed or a family could be disrupted by video game abuse, but when the hate that was generated by all that abuse had spread far enough and had taken root deeply enough, the gamers who had been teaching each other how to be abusive in language that denigrated everybody else turned their hate outward. It exploded in 2014 with the Gamergate incident. What happened is that a young woman and video game creator, Zoë Quinn, broke up with a young man. The young man was so upset that he publicly published a poison pen blog post in which he accused her, among other things, of receiving favoritism based on her gender from a video game reviewer. Thousands of boys and young men across the world sprang to action as if it had been coordinated, and their response was extraordinarily malicious. Quinn was mercilessly harassed with threats of extreme violence, and contrary to their characterization as an “anonymous swarm,” her harassers attacked her openly without any fear of the consequences. Vocal defenders of Quinn and critics of misogyny in video games, including Anita Sarkeesian, were harassed, doxed, and threatened with murder and rape. Public appearances by Sarkeesian received bomb threats.

Although people don’t talk about it a lot anymore, Gamergate never really ended. The college students I teach still hand in essays attempting to sanitize its origins and legitimize its continued existence as a cultural and intellectual movement. Some claim that Gamergate is about ethics in gaming journalism. The fact that the movement seems to have been triggered by a false accusation of unethical journalism provides a preposterously thin smokescreen for radical misogynists to pursue a ridiculous grudge against women and particularly women in gaming. Right-wing haters and white supremacists were organizing Gamergate panels (featuring, among others, now-discredited “journalist” Milo Yiannopoulos, and “feminist” and men’s rights advocate Christina Hoff Sommers) at the 2015 Society of Professional Journalists convention, more than a year after the initial blowup involving Quinn, and there was the odd hullabaloo around SXSW 2016. I continue not to see any legitimate media critique coming from anyone claiming to represent Gamergate. A real crusade against unethical gaming journalism would raise legitimate questions about the cozy relationship between corporate game developers and industry publications. A real crusade against unethical gaming journalism would raise the alarm about inflated reviews for shitty, broken games like Cyberpunk 2077.

While we were in the worst of it, Gamergate seemed to me to be the activation of a plan that had been in the works for a long time. If you think that some gamers are just assholes, you’re missing the point. Video games, especially the ones that put players in an arena in the anonymous deathmatch format and allow players to speak to one another, appear to be destroying empathy in a very calculated way. The result is radical misanthropy. It may look like racism, misogyny, antisemitism, or homophobia, but it is larger than any of those, and it is extraordinarily dangerous.

I was interested to learn that Steven Bannon, notorious former advisor to President Donald Trump, once dealt in video games. And as Bannon admits to Joshua Green in the book Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency, he understands well the potential of all of the amorphous hate generated by video games. Many of us who remembered Gamergate recognized the mobilization of white supremacists in the 2016 presidential campaign.

PewDiePie

As a subsequent gaming controversy involving a prominent YouTube celebrity demonstrates, the abuse unleashed and mainstreamed during Gamergate continued to reverberate through the culture. To quote Emanuel Maiberg from Motherboard,

I have, of course, heard every possible racist slur from anonymous players while playing online. Hearing people yell the n-word over voice chat is easily one of the worst things about video games and internet culture in general, and this is the type of behavior Kjellberg participated in and promoted to his 57 million subscribers on YouTube, many of which discover new video games thanks to his videos and emulate his behavior in online games and on their own YouTube channels.

Maiberg is referring to Felix Kjellberg, otherwise known as the YouTube celebrity PewDiePie, who has been in trouble before for racist abuse in his videos. He ran into trouble for antisemitic humor in February of 2017. He proved that his lapse in February was not an accident in September when he insulted a video game opponent with the n-word while livestreaming a match in Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds.

Stop It Now

I believe that the conservative criticism of the media and culture is overblown. Much of it is a cover for racist assaults on black culture. I don’t worry much about violent films or violence on television. I don’t worry much about profanity in rap songs. But the older I get, the more worried I get about voice chat in online deathmatch video games, because culture keeps escalating the violence and abuse those games can depict, and that abuse must have an effect on abusers and abused alike. The important difference between online deathmatch video games and other forms of media is that they are interactive. Because they are interactive, they create communities, and communities begin to establish norms almost immediately. In the online gaming community, a race to the bottom started after the advent of live voice chat. Gamers competed with each other to devise the most cutting, shocking, and upsetting verbal abuse with which to torment fellow gamers, and it should scare the shit out of all of us. By giving their frustration and hatred a particular form, the damage they do to their opponent spills over into the culture, and that targeted hate reverberates around the culture to be magnified and normalized by others. This phenomenon makes the world a measurably worse place to inhabit.

The solution seems pretty clear. Stop it now before it gets any worse. If you play online deathmatch video games with live voice chat, you must stop immediately. If you make these games, you must stop making them immediately. If someone you know plays these games, have a serious talk with them about how they are harmful. Whatever you do, you must take these games out of the hands of children by any means necessary. They are turning your boys into monsters.

Postscript

I wrote this article in 2017, and I just recently decided to publish it here. This week I read a Bleeding Cool article about a 10-year study that found no link between aggression and video games. The author, Gavin Sheehan, asserts that “gamers know games don’t cause aggression.” I beg to differ. I know games cause aggression. I have been witnessing it since I was a boy. I have seen people hit other people, throw game controllers, and smash televisions and other property in rage while playing games.

Nobody could credibly deny that verbal abuse is common in live chat during online deathmatch play. I would be very surprised if Mr. Sheehan hasn’t witnessed it. Some people don’t want to think of the thing they like as being harmful. I know gun owners who deny that guns are dangerous. I know smokers who still deny that smoking is harmful. It’s probably optimistic to expect the Games Editor at Bleeding Cool to criticize the industry he covers. But I wish he and more like him would rise to the challenge and advocate for positive change in gaming instead of burying their heads in the sand and relying on tired old formulas like “games don’t harm people; people harm people.”

I wonder how deeply Mr. Sheehan looked into the study he references. It looks like he takes the publication of the study as sufficient evidence that its premise is universally valid. My guess is that he didn’t look much beyond the title and the abstract. A study such as the one he holds up as proof that there is no link between video games and aggression requires critical examination. Life is too short, and the article is behind a paywall, so I’m not going to be the one to do that. I would be surprised if the authors considered live chat, and I am particularly curious to see how aggression and violence are defined in the study, because the abstract gives me the impression that the definitions are narrow.

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Matthew Thiele

Matthew Thiele

Teacher. Satirist. Scholar. Published in Slackjaw, Points in Case, McSweeney’s, Ben Jonson Journal, and elsewhere. Definitely not a robot. Or an alien.