There’s been a lot of talk in the news about the relationship between gaming and bullying. Where does smack talk end and harassment begin? What can be done to make sure that vulnerable people aren’t being exposed to cyber bullying while partaking in an activity that is supposed to be recreational? These are essential conversations. Yet experts seem to devote little attention to something that is obvious to anybody who is a gamer. The kind of bullying that happens in game space is not the same as that which unfolds in schools and other non-gaming online spaces.
I don’t want to suggest that game spaces are somehow exempt from lowest common denominator bullying and hate speak. That happens, and it’s quite sad. Instead, I would offer that there is a fundamentally different state of mind to the gaming bully, and said state is likely immune to conventional anti-bullying strategies.
Allow me to explain through narrative. Once upon a time there was a bully named Brandon. He had a shitty home life, a learning disability, and at age twelve stood nearly six feet tall. For various and sundry reasons, he decided that he would torment yours truly through a combination of punches to my knee and subsequent public ridicule as I limped around the playground. My parents’ advice was pointless in this situation; they told me to ignore him. That made things worse. Teachers were worse than useless in their attempts facilitate some sort of peace treaty between myself and my bully. If the half-illiterate lummox had any respect for the rule of law and civil discourse, then he wouldn’t have taken to bullying.
The only solution was one that Admiral Adama espoused in Battlestar: meet force with force. It took one glorious act of resistance, wherein I visited upon Brandon the pain and embarrassment he had heaped upon me for months, to break the cycle. For the remainder of that year, and the year that followed, Brandon never so much as made eye contact with me. But oh how I waited for the day when he would give me even the thinnest excuse to lay another beating on him. I had proven myself his superior; he knew it and I knew it. More than anything in the world, I wanted an opportunity to settle accounts for all the times he had laid his hands upon me.
Why this story, you might ask. Because gaming bullies, are not the Brandons of the world. They are not the sort who pick on smart kids because of their own short comings. They’re not sociopaths in the making who feel a giddy pleasure in hurting others. Gaming bullies are me, or rather what people like Brandon could have made me. Gaming bullies are people who have proven themselves superior to others, within their given game, and then search for opportunities to demonstrate that superiority. This is the keystone reason why combating gaming bullying is going to be a particularly challenging thing.
Consider current strategies for fighting childhood/teenage bullying. A pillar of that effort is reminding people that we are all, by and large, equal. Gaming bullies won’t respond to that principle as the game space itself is a pure meritocracy. If a person practices long enough, they will get good at their chosen game. In the mind of the gaming bully, they have earned the right to stomp on the skulls of their lessers – possibly because they were stomped on as a newbie (a behaviour pattern that gaming bullies share with those in the real world) or possibly because they feel that by virtue of their skill alone they can act however they like. Let me be clear, I don’t condone this false sense of privilege and entitlement. Nor do I mean to suggest that every elite player is prone to such retrograde behavior. Simply that those who undertake bullying actions in game spaces do so with an institutional righteousness that is absent in more conventional bullying. Therefore telling the gaming bully that their actions are unacceptable on the grounds of equanimity, and every act that stems from said core principle, will not be well met.
Another variable to consider is that gaming spaces are not public spaces. They’re owned by private corporations who are in the business of facilitating competition. While most responsible developers include, at the very least, boilerplate terms of service that name hate speak as grounds for termination of service, the effectiveness those policies depend heavily upon the willingness of gamers to self police.
Consider this example. Some months ago I was in Starcraft 2’s in-game chat. Therein one gentleman was going on at length about his inability to find a job. He aired all sorts of dirty laundry, including a story about his inability to land a gig at a fast food restaurant. Some people in the chat decided to give this fellow a hard time. He was told that if he sounded as desperate and pathetic in his cover letters as he did in chat, nobody would ever give him a job – perhaps a fair point if it wasn’t wrapped in a bow of dickishnes and snark. Another person said something along the lines of “just kill yourself already”. Others called him out for moaning about his life in Starcraft, rather than devoting his energy to job hunting. I doubt any of the people in this scenario would win a congeniality award, but who among them crossed the line? By what means do we measure that line? And before you say common sense, let’s remember this is a person venting about their career in an in-game Starcraft chat. Common sense would dictate a person talk to their therapist about those issues, not a room full of strangers.
This example also begs the question, what do gamers owe to each other as members of a community? How far does that community extend outside of the game space? Should everybody who was in that chat room have flagged the “kill yourself” guy for abuse? Or in his own trollish and ill-bred way, was he saying what we were all thinking, “Stop hijacking the conversation when we’re trying to talk about build orders.” Thus do we come to the next big problem in game space bullying: gaming is an intensely personal activity. The idea that a gamer would have to take on responsibility for other gamers’ welfare runs counter intuitive to the whole process. Why should a person pay for a game only to be told that part of enjoying that experience requires them to be on guard for potential bullies and other deviant behavior? Is that even a realistic expectation? NB: I’m excluding MMOs from this particular line of thought as they have their own unique social mores and hierarchies that would be worthy of a post on its own.
While I whole heartedly believe that conversations on gaming and bullying need to happen, these talks need to framed within an appropriate context. In the real world, people are trained to believe that we are all equal and valid. In the gaming world, this is hardly the case. The elite are elite not through inheritance or circumstance of birth, but through performance. Dealing with bullying that emerges out of that head space will require a strategy that 1) addresses the fact that these bullies have earned a station that puts them above others in a particular game space 2) doesn’t depend the expectation that gamers will be a self policing community and 3) is not so invasive that it prompts gamers, who can be very libertarian, into acts of Anonymous-esque rebellion against the measures that are meant to ensure a safe experience for all.