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Facing Down the Online Mob

Final Fantasy XV has been delayed for a few more months, and some people are furious about it. No Man's Sky has been released, and some people are really furious about that, too. Some people were utterly furious when No Man's Sky was delayed a while back, too. You don't have to do very much, in videogame circles, to make some people furious, and when that happens, you know about it quickly; social media of various flavours provides a superb conduit for fury-transmission, letting people you've never heard of from continents away tell you how mad they are at you, how dubious they are of your parentage and the nature of your relationship with your partner, and which painful diseases or unfortunate incidents they'd most like to bring about your untimely demise.

Most of us will probably never understand the impulse that drives people to seek out and hurl abuse at strangers across the internet, least of all given the extraordinary disconnect in severity between "this person made a decision regarding videogame development with which I disagree" and an expletive-laden, graphically described death threat. Yet that impulse is far more common than any reason or logic would suggest; many game creators and those associated with them have become wearily accustomed to aggressive screeds in their social media mentions and email inboxes.

When a developer becomes the target of a sustained attack for some reason, the volume and aggression of those threats can become overwhelming, forcing people who rely heavily upon the internet for their professional lives to go offline. When coupled with the malicious distribution of personal information, it can also leave people with no choice but to leave their homes or seek assistance from the police. Amongst a flood of distant keyboard jockeys trying very, very hard to persuade you that they are violent psychopaths who live in your neighbourhood and hold a deep grudge, how is anyone to confirm that none of them actually do fit that profile?

Where did this come from? Is this bile and aggression something that people have felt for years, but which remained hidden until they were given a direct channel to convey their twisted hatred to its targets? The temptation, after all, is to blame social media itself; there's no doubt that Twitter, in particular, is guilty of failing to take harassment seriously for many years. However, the truth is that ways to reach creators, journalists and so on have existed for years, and until recently, only a tiny and deranged minority took that as an invitation to spew death threats. Something else has changed. The origin of the hatred lies elsewhere.

Going back one step from social media, it's not hard to find the places where hate campaigns are spawned - Reddit, the "chan" imageboards, and so on. These are the places that were the birthing chamber for the wildly spasming hate movement, GamerGate, itself a precursor to the more scattershot mud-slinging of the wider alt-right movement. There's something about these online communities which seems to encourage and nurture the development of inane conspiracy theories and narratives of unlikely oppression. Lift the lid and peer into the origins of any hate campaign against a game creator, and you find a bizarre subculture in which the participants act as though they are playing some vast Alternate Reality Game, piecing together fragments of an imagined puzzle whose solution will prove that the games industry, and the world itself, is conspiring against game consumers.

This mechanism as it relates to GamerGate and its howling aggression against women, people of colour and LGBT people is well known and well understood. What's interesting, I think, is to see the same unhinged mechanism at work at the heart of established communities for games - like No Man's Sky, or Final Fantasy. Right in the midst of broad online communities ostensibly devoted to enjoying, anticipating and celebrating videogames, you find the same wheels turning; the same conspiracy theories, the same narratives of victimisation, and ultimately, the same torrents of abuse and the same death threats pouring out of the end of the funnel.

Before going any further, it's worth emphasising that we are still talking about a minority, and a small one at that. It's a noisy minority amplified all the more by sockpuppeting and astroturfing, techniques designed to use multiple accounts to signal-boost a message, but it's still a minority. The vast, vast majority of gamers are perfectly capable of being disappointed at a delay, or annoyed at a bug, or even somewhat pissed off at a feature being cut from a game in development, while still being genuinely horrified at people who take this as an invitation to harass, abuse or threaten developers. The calls which you can see on forums like Reddit for people to be civil and reasonable are genuine; most people's reaction to being disappointed by a game (or a movie, or a comic, or a TV show) is not to hurl abuse or to seek out personally identifying information in order to puff up their death threats.

The minority, though, are still capable of doing real damage - not just making nuisances of themselves, but creating genuine upset and fear, and severely impacting the lives of their targets. So, why has this become a thing? Where has it come from? Is it something about the nature of those online forums and communities that encourages this, or that gives it focus?

There's no one factor that explains this behaviour; it's a confluence of things, and no doubt there's a problem with the design of some online spaces in that they deliberately remove consequence from people's speech, a perversion of the notion of free speech which is then weaponised by a gang-like culture in which acts of viciousness are the currency of acceptance. Looking specifically at the fan spaces for popular games, though, there's another factor which deserves consideration; hype, and the extent to which expectation and anticipation for upcoming games is also focused and amplified by these spaces.

For games like No Man's Sky, that hype built up to levels that no game could ever fulfill. While the game has undoubtedly changed (and been pared down to a degree) over the course of its development, this is no different to any other game. The disappointment professed in fan forums for the game is directly proportional to the insane expectations built up in those self-same forums. The cataloguing and documenting of small changes to the game during its development as "proof" of Hello Games' supposed duplicity, though being undertaken earnestly by most participants, is exactly the same conspiracy theorist behaviour which spirals into a sharp peak of abuse and death threats every single time. (I mentioned Final Fantasy XV in the introduction since, as it's been in development for the best part of a decade, it also has devoted fans who are expecting it to deliver the moon on a stick - some of whom will undoubtedly go just as nuts as NMS' devotees when it fails to deliver upon their insane expectations.)

Part of the reason for this exaggerated and unrealistic level of hype is, again, down to the format of these online communities - participants fuel one another's imaginations and interpretations, and reiterate ideas to the point where they are assumed to be reality, regardless of what a developer may have actually said. Another element, though, is economic. Games are getting more expensive (No Man's Sky, notably, is essentially an indie game with a AAA price tag) at a time when the income levels of their main demographics are steadily falling. Buying a new game at launch is genuinely a bigger economic investment for a twenty-something today than it was for a twenty-something a decade ago, or two decades ago; it's expected, in turn, to deliver more, to fulfill more, to simply be more. Link that to the echo chambers created by online communities, and it's no surprise that towering expectations build up, with equally shattering disappointment if and when those expectations are not met. Sometimes - recently, all too often - that disappointment is going to turn poisonous.

There are a handful of measures that could be taken to alleviate this. Companies like Twitter and Reddit could start taking the use of their platforms as blunderbusses for vile abuse seriously, though I wouldn't hold my breath on that front. Companies could certainly re-evaluate their marketing to a degree, and communicate earlier and better when features are cut or deadlines missed - though honestly, I'm not sure how much that would help, since despite the strident claims of the angry minority, No Man's Sky (to take the most recent example) really wasn't marketed in a way any more "dishonest" or "misleading" than, say, a movie trailer might be. Honestly, at the end of the day, the only real move that game companies have in this regard is the one they should already have made; they need to put policies and systems in place to protect and support employees who become the targets of online abuse. It's terribly sad that we need this at all, but we do; becoming the focus of an online hate group has simply become one of the occupational hazards of being involved with the videogame industry on any level. Employers need to recognise and engage with that reality; they may not be able to shut off the abuse, but they can at least give people assistance, advice and the security of knowing that their company and their colleagues have got their back.

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