I’ve been on the Internet for a while—not as long as some, mind you, but I think you’d number me among the early adopters. I started my obsession with all things online in 1995. I’d broken my ankle, and I was house-bound and bored. My husband had ordered a disk for Prodigy, so I got online, hopped into a chat room for artists and writers, and I had my first experience with Internet communities.
It was a great community, and overall a positive experience. I’m still online friends with some of the folks—an intelligent and witty lot. My closest friend is one I met and chatted with often on Prodigy before we met each other in real life. Although she lives thousands of miles away (and spends most of her time in another country), we talk often and see each other in person every year. But finding a group of peers on the Internet, even one as great as the Prodigy Arts & Writing community generally was, also led me to my first experience with Internet-fueled scandals and what I consider to be one of the most hellish of Internet phenomena—shaming and blaming. I’m not talking about the kind of shaming where people hang signs around a cute, guilty-looking dog’s neck describing some heinous act of treachery the canine perpetrated; I’m talking about the kind of shaming that leaves its victims feeling at the very least hurt and at worst violated and threatened.
This... is not what I'm talking about. And this is also the last lighthearted thing you'll see in this week's column.
A Culture of Shame
Okay, fair warning—once again, this is a huge topic that exceeds the scope of this column. I’m only going to scratch the surface . But a Google search on Internet shaming will yield a ton of results and articles like this one in the New York Times. If you’re like me, and just about everything outside of things like hentai and furry culture makes you curious (or maybe you like hentai and furries—not judging), then do some further reading—I guarantee it’ll be eye-opening.
Due to the anonymity afforded by the Internet, we seem to have developed a troubled relationship with human emotion. We latch onto those we see as victims, and lash out at those who offend us. We don't see the shades of gray. What's worse, in our lashing out, we've lost our ability to empathize, or to see those we're lashing out at as humans with emotions just like our own. When you’re throwing stones at the weird kid on the playground for the unforgivable offense of being, well, weird... you might know that you’ve gone too far when one of those stones opens a gash above his eye. You might stop when you see him crying and defeated. Empathy just might kick in, despite the fact that you’re at the very least a thoughtless follower and at worst a stone-throwing, name-calling douchebag. But on the Internet, we don’t see the blood and tears. We don’t see the trauma inflicted. All we see is an opportunity to make someone feel small or threatened in a futile attempt to make ourselves feel big.
Some shaming seems to stem from a sort of anonymous vigilantism fueled by outrage. In the case of the 1995 incident on Prodigy, one member of the small online community decided to take it upon herself to prove that another member was being a bit of a skank (at least in the shamer’s opinion) by sharing nude photos of her she’d managed to acquire. This taught me an early and invaluable lesson—absolutely nothing you do on the Internet is private, so behave accordingly. And if what you’re doing (or what they perceive you as doing; big distinction there) for whatever reason sparks their outrage, moral or otherwise, you’re likely to become a target.
Sometimes the shamed seem to deserve the scorn the Internet heaps upon them. (Wikipedia has its own page on Internet vigilantism if you want some examples.) If you’re going to videotape yourself, say, abusing a person or an animal and then put that video on YouTube, expect to be hunted down mercilessly when that shit goes viral. (And it will go viral; it always does.) Also, everybody has the ability to capture video now. Get caught in an act of heinous fuckery? Be prepared for retaliation.
But sometimes the shamed are threatened and ridiculed simply for having the balls to say or do things we don’t happen to like very much. And sometimes we take it to extremes. Scary extremes.
Shaming in Gaming
We all know the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory meme. Take a seemingly normal person, give him anonymity and an audience, et voila—complete asshat. Or at least it works that way in some people. My guess is that there’s another catalyst involved, like bottomed-out self-esteem or rampant narcissism. Not all of us become dickheads under such circumstances. In fact, I like to think the majority of us don’t, even though some days it seems like a slim majority.
But there’s really nowhere I know of where the anonymity + audience equation results in douchebaggery more often than in gaming. Maybe it’s our competitive natures. Maybe it’s the age and/or maturity level of the average gamer. Note that I’m talking in averages, not absolutes. I know a great many mature, awesome gamers regardless of age. A lot of them are part of the Landmark community, where I spend a great deal of my time.
Shaming comes in all forms. On one end of the spectrum, there’s the kid who calls you a noob (or a more derogatory name) and teabags your prone body in Halo. Those people are an annoyance at the least, and a poor reflection on gamers at the worst. But on the far opposite end of the spectrum it gets a lot scarier.
My son and I have both suffered from depression. When I heard about an indie game called Depression Quest this summer, I asked him if he’d taken a look at it. He downloaded it on Steam, played through it, and reported that it was a solid if simple mostly text-based game that really does make you think. The game, he said, would be a great tool to help a person without depression empathize with the afflicted.
It was only later that I learned about GamerGate.
Zoe Quinn is the developer of Depression Quest, a single-player interactive game where you play as someone suffering from depression. You can download it for free at DepressionQuest.com. It’s also available on Steam. And now that I, a member of the gaming media, have shared a link and my son’s recommendation, I suppose any minute the Internet will come knocking to accuse me of sleeping with Zoe Quinn and colluding to get her game noticed.
I’ll simplify a very long, convoluted tale. Zoe Quinn made a game. She gave it away for free (or for a donation of your own choosing, if you’re so inclined.) Quinn’s ex-boyfriend took a tour around the Internet and wrote a blog post ranting and accusing Quinn of infidelity. What followed had outraged “gamers” (I’m hesitant to apply that term to people like these) engaging in shaming, harassment, and outright threatening behavior. They accused Quinn of things like sleeping with journalists in exchange for positive reviews of her (free—did I mention it’s free?) game and of being an abject slut and a... well, I won’t say it here and perpetuate the ugliness, but you can read more. In the guise of righteous outrage over Quinn’s alleged indiscretions, and gaming media’s corruption, gamers exposed private information about Quinn online, made phone calls to her family (including her father, just in case he didn’t realize his daughter was a whore), and threatened her with rape and death.
Nerd and gaming culture celebs like Wil Wheaton came to Quinn’s defense, but that’s hardly compensation for the sleepless nights and terror caused a woman who had the unmitigated gall to develop a video game with a social message. (Those accusations of collusion with gaming media? They don’t look very credible, by the way.)
[Edit - GamerGate has many, many layers of depth, and I'll let you draw your own conclusions. This article deals with the harassment that resulted.]
Anita Sarkeesian is the voice of Feminist Frequency. Her blog, and Tropes vs. Women in Video Games video series, takes a critical look at how women are portrayed in games and pop culture. Here’s an example:
When Sarkeesian began a Kickstarter to fund the Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series, the harassment began. There were plenty of people on YouTube willing to refute Sarkeesian’s points and call her out. (Check some examples here, here and here.) And some of that criticism seems perfectly legitimate, although I’m not going to get into the merits either way. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg...
In March, 25 organizers of the Game Developer’s Choice Awards received emails threatening that a bomb would be detonated at the ceremony unless Anita Sarkeesian’s Ambassador Award was revoked. (A sweep of the premises found nothing, and the ceremony went off without issue.) More recently, Sarkeesian was forced to evacuate her home due to some “very scary threats” against her and her family that led to the FBI’s involvement in her ongoing harassment.
This goes beyond calling a woman names that begin with a C and rhyme with punt. This stuff is terrifying. It’s dangerous to have opinions online, especially if you’re making an effort to get those opinions noticed. People will not only shame you for having them, it seems, but they’ll become obsessed enough to threaten your life. They'll find out personal information about you. They'll learn where you live, and who you love. And this stuff isn't isolated to one whacko individual causing problems; it brews into lynch mob mentality.
David Vonderhaar and John Smedley
Misogyny is rampant in video game culture—Quinn and Sarkeesian are but two prime examples of women in tech and gaming who've been attacked for engaging in anything controversial. But men are affected by this culture of shaming and blaming, too. Be involved in unpopular decisions and suddenly there’s a bullseye on your back or, more precisely, a laser sight pointed right between your eyes.
Call of Duty: Black Ops design director David Vonderhaar took to Twitter to explain some changes to the game and immediately became a target. According to Eurogamer:
Activision community manager Dan Amrich spoke out against the backlash in a post on his One of Swords blog.
"Vahn [aka Vonderhaar] often gets told he should die in a fire or kill himself or is a horrible person. If anybody thinks for a second that this is okay, it is not. But if the loudest voices in the Call of Duty 'community' act like an angry mob instead, guess how the entire world views Call of Duty?”
Sony Online Entertainment president John Smedley became the target of Lizard Squad, a hacker group that grounded his flight from Dallas to San Diego last month with a tweeted bomb threat. Why? Because he’s John Smedley. Because he’s president of a company that some people don’t particularly like. Because... well, who knows why? The mentality of hackers and those who threaten others, anonymously or otherwise, is hard to comprehend. And the threat seems to be ongoing. Smedley tweeted this just yesterday:
some idiot/wanna be hacker decided to send me a picture of my Dad's grave out here in San Diego. You will be found.
— John Smedley (@j_smedley) September 16, 2014
A Cold Hard Look
I’ve written more than I intended to here—this is a blog, not a full-blown feature piece, and I write for Ten Ton Hammer, not Slate or The New York Times. But how much I had to say here, even in a truncated format, speaks to how big an issue online shaming, blaming and vigilantism really is. It’s the court of public opinion gone horribly wrong. This culture of harassment says, “I don’t like what you’ve done, and therefore I don’t like you. Because I don’t like you, it’s my sworn duty to take you down.” That attitude may be appropriate when dealing with things like brutal dictators and genocidal maniacs, but is it really okay to threaten violence to someone who made an unpopular decision about a video game mechanic, or who fronts a blog and video series with a feminist angle, or who created a free game and had a relationship with a gaming journalist who never actually wrote about that game?
It’s not okay. We are not okay. It would be easy to dismiss the people who took shaming and blaming too far as nutters, but... they’re everywhere. They’re on 4chan and Reddit and Twitter. When they can get away with it, they’re on YouTube. They could be our guild mates hiding behind alt account names. They could even be our friends. They’re people you know. People like us. And we can't just fetch popcorn and watch the show anymore when they go off the rails. It's time to take a cold hard look at ourselves and decide that we're not going to perpetuate the problem by tolerating it.