Gaming's Cruelty Epidemic

We've got a problem with cruelty.

The Symptoms

The antisocial behavior emerging from modern gamer culture has always been around, lurking and sharpening its teeth on the rocks. But it's always stayed hidden, or at least lightly submerged. Like the ocean floor beneath the waves, all we see is the surface unless we go diving.

The primary problem with gaming cruelty is that the cruel simply do not care about others. This cruelty can manifest itself as malevolently as a blog that spreads debunked slander, as misguided as a prominent celebrity spouting veiled transphobic slurs without thinking, or as casually as bigoted slurs in a MOBA. While the severity of these acts of cruelty are on different scales - the first actively attempts to hurt people, the second is misguided backlash, and the third is casual bullying - the end result is the same: the "other" is targeted for destruction by the mob.

In gaming cruelty, "others" are targeted for intense harassment and hazing that attacks their race, gender, or sexuality. Gaming is tribal, and pushes back against a perceived invasion of the false and unwanted. For example, feminist critics like Anita Sarkeesian are targeted for harassment and death threats, often due to their outspoken criticism of misogynistic undertones in gaming. Gaming culture is predominantly made up of white men, and if you don't abide to that dominance, you are unwelcome.

Once you have survived the hazing, you are introduced to a world where that same cruelty turns inward on itself. You see it everywhere; trolls, hackers, smacktalkers that go above and beyond the bounds of sportsmanlike ribbing, and so on. Homophobic and racial slurs, misogynistic comments, and even death threats are all par for the course. It's especially bad if you happen to belong to any of those minorities, as you will be a target for constant hazing. You either "toughen up" and turn into one of them, or leave.

The Cause

Unfortunately, gaming cruelty is, as Rami Ismail points out, inevitable.

Violent games are not directly linked to violent behavior or crimes. However, games - and any violent media accepted without question or critical dissection - do encourage aggressive attitudes even as they decrease violent crime. Videogames create a world of "harmless violence" where aggressive attitudes are the norm while physical violence is not. These aggressive attitudes are then expressed through the medium of writing and games.

Why do games influence us like this?

The most obvious reason is that games are built around the protagonist defeating the antagonist. This protagonist then conquers their enemy or obstacle and emerges, victorious, at the end of the game. This focus on the protagonist naturally creates an "us and them" attitude while linking it to a black and white concept of success and failure (or good and bad). When you think in terms of battles and victories, it's easy to dehumanize people, despite the fact that they have similar aspirations and emotions as you.

These power fantasies are also usually made to be consumed. They do not generally breed a sense of community, especially in today's world of peer-to-peer matchmaking and no dedicated servers. There are very few modern games, especially shooters, that are made to be replayed and enjoyed endlessly. This creates games as a commodity, rather than games as art.

This consumer culture is accepted at face value, rather than being questioned or criticized by its main participants. This leads to "cultural inbreeding" where the worst traits of a community are magnified. For example, gaming culture is heavily insular and self-referential, which leads to a disconnection from the human reality of conversation. This is a culture where comparing life to Dark Souls, a not particularly difficult game, is used to justify harassment. After all, if such a person could sit through Dark Souls, they must naturally have a superior sense of patience and problem-solving.

The end result is a culture of antagonistic people obsessed with fleeting entertainment and their own superiority. Self-described "gamers" are not disconnected from reality in the normal sense. They understand what is reality and what isn't. Instead, they want reality to be more like their entertainment: easy to digest, clearly delineated between good and evil, and focused on victory.

The Cure

The great thing about gaming culture's cruelty is that it can be unlearned. All it requires is a shift in attitudes.

Real life is not a game. Harassing others and attempting to destroy their lives is not a game. People are not merely allies or enemies; every person has personal agency on the same scale that you do. You aren't the protagonist. Afford others the same benefit of the doubt you give yourself, and don't treat people like obstacles in a videogame.

Winning isn't everything, either. We focus so much on external concepts of victory, such as doing better than somebody else or making a lot of money, that we lose track of the feelings of others. Your goals and expectations can (and do) differ greatly from the person just down the hall, and even if they don't, there's no reason to treat somebody you share goals with so callously. Rather than focusing on winning the "game of life," collaborate with others to improve both your life and theirs.

To avoid slipping back into such a negative and game-like mentality, constantly question the culture you associate with, and ask if that's the sort of person you want to be known as. Cultivate critical thinking and theory to avoid falling into unquestioning acceptance. Don't define yourself according to the media you consume.

We've treated each other like NPCs and cannon fodder for far too long. It's time to step beyond the confines of gaming and begin treating others as real people deserving of compassion.

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