For as long as I can remember, over the course of fifteen years of online gaming one thing has been certain – encountering gamers online has always involved having to wear your thick skin and endure a potential barrage of misery. I can remember as far back as Counter-Strike 1.6 where it wasn’t uncommon to hear racial epithets screamed at the top of someone’s lungs, or to see a degree of abuse that in the real world would be borderline abusive and violent. For better or for worse, the internet is a Pandora’s box for the digital age. In bringing us closer together it’s also given us a glimpse into the psyche of humanity, and sometimes what we see is too ugly to bare.
Live on stream, Felix, also known as pewdiepie proved the above to be true by screaming the n-word at an opponent he was facing in twitch favourite Player Unknowns Battlegrounds. The incident immediately blew up, with Felix foolishly stating “I didn’t mean that in a bad way.” The circumstances around using that word are clear – Felix deemed the n-word offensive enough to yell it at an opponent online. Regardless of whether he intended it as a racial slur, not that it matters, the word itself was deployed carelessly and without any thought. Perhaps it was a flash of anger that caused him to slip up, or maybe he just said it for shock value. Either way, he went too far. As uncomfortable as it is to watch the footage put yourself in the shoes of black gamers who watch wearily, understanding that this is yet another nail in the coffin of their favourite hobby.
And yet for those of us who grew up with online games, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’ve heard all this before. It is, of course, the sad reality of online gaming that abuse and slurs are part of the package. The introduction of chat and voice comms into our virtual playgrounds opens up a new realm of faceless abuse that gamers have both put up with and partaken in since they could remember. Somewhat exhaustively we put up and shut up. Even as recently as PUBG are reminders of humanity’s twisted obsession with anonymous abuse, with the pre-game lobbies often filled with the kind of language (and then some) employed by Felix on his stream. It’s hard to understate this: abusive and toxic online gaming communities have an atmosphere of omnipotent anger and bile – if you’re outraged at first, the cacophony will quickly relax into the background noise of your game. Trying to quell a problem that is so pervasive is nihilistically impossible. It’s easy to settle in and forget about it all until eventually even you become toxic, or angry. You probably wouldn’t scream the n-word at someone, but if you tolerate the caustic nastiness of your gaming communities then you’ll be surprised at the sheer misery of language you’ll put up with.
And once you accept how insidiously easy it is to let the abuse become part of the natural ambience of your online games it’s easy to see how widespread it can become and leaving this laissez-faire abuse to fester for so long creates the culture you see today – where Felix can scream racial epithets at people and a crowd of casual observers will defend it because “it’s just a word” and “everyone does it” when gaming online. The message from the gamer culture is as follows, then: Bring your thick skin with you when you play with us because we don’t even want to be nice.
The reality is that gamer culture has an image problem. If it wasn’t the nasty, exclusionary environment of our online world’s that created this problem then trust on 2014’s gamergate debacle to truly seal the deal. Operating as the political arm of online abusers, Gamergate consistently and labouriously reassured us it was about ethics in journalism as they sent death threats to feminists. If you were an outsider before, what on earth would possess you to get involved in our rotten culture after all that?
But the abusers are, sadly, half correct. Isn’t this a problem with the internet in general? The interconnected, open sewer of social media has slowly, over time, conditioned us to connect our sub-conscious to the internet like an ominous river. With the barrier between people lower than ever our social media platforms often act like a seamless link to the consciousness of planet earth. There’s no middleman here, no toll gate or entrance fee. Your brain can have a thought and you can send it out into the ether without anyone ever stopping you. And with the people your words might affect not necessarily right in front of you, you’ll also never see the damage it creates. This has created a kind of instant-access on-demand consciousness where everyone will say what they’re thinking without ever having to think about it because they are rarely if ever, confronted with the reality of what they say and actually viewing the damage you cause is such a key component in human self-regulation. You can pick an identity and stick with it and wave it like a flag in a battleground. So it’s unsurprising to see disparate groups that would have been discounted as wild kooks in the early 2000’s suddenly found a persona and identity online through a shared connection to each other, meaning that small, incendiary minority groups with damaging beliefs can soon seem like a bigger deal than they are – it’s a double-edged sword. Great that lonely and somewhat disenfranchised people can come together in shared struggle, but the shared sense of suffering can create a horribly toxic environment that is made even worst by perceiving them as a much larger majority than they actually are. And so through social media, people have begun to learn to weaponize their online persona’s in a way that can only ever be damaging. With controversy around every corner in social media, it’s easy for groups of people and online communities to mistake the world as a festering pool of decay, regardless of your political or philosophical points of view or of concepts like truth or reality. Because the disenfranchised and the disparate can find a home in the virtual world, all that matters is subjective, individual solipsism. That is a dangerous thing.
Gamergate is a prime example of this. Trying to mask its criticism of games journalism as ethics when nakedly it was more about being angry that feminists make games, Gamergate is the ideal example of these lonely, minority voices that suddenly found a community in being angry at the same stuff. But of course, how could they not be? The early 2000’s was a paranoid hotbed of terrorist fear. The foundation shattering horror of 9/11 changed our world for the worst. We all got a little more scared, Americans bought a whole lot more guns, and TV news anchors rode the fear wagon into the dirt with pundits like Glen Beck and Bill O’Reilly banging the America drum much to the chagrin and embarrassment of the rest of the planet. With the politics of fear exploited by George Bush Jr is it any wonder that groups of lonely, disenfranchised young white boys found solace in the toxic, fast-paced and braggadocious killing fields of Call of Duty’s multiplayer community?
That’s not to say Call of Duty made a generation of 20-year-old white men racist, but if you were a teenager that grew up in an environment of fear and paranoia and under the constant vigil of invisible terrorism during the 2000’s, all it would take is some terrible parenting and a stunted social development to later find comfort in virtual worlds where it was ok to vilify and abuse your opponents much like you were. It was just unfortunate that the only virtual worlds making money back then were also the very worst generation of first-person shooters ever. The Call of Duty games weren’t games of great depth or of fantastic insight into the nature of war and death. What they were instead was the summer blockbuster action movie that you always wanted to take part in – it gave you cool guns, super loud explosions, fast-paced energetic pacing, invincible American allies and it was all employed at break-neck speed to defeat a simplistic, two-dimensional comic book army of villains that were often made up of people that were either suspiciously Muslim looking or simply not white. Not only that but the games were easy to play with simple gameplay loops that amounted to the cinematic equivalent of a shooting gallery and level design so streamlined you could just as easily be shooting at wooden targets in a hallway. With a frenetically paced multiplayer component that drip-fed unlocks and skills to the player over time in an addictive loop of kill-and-reward, a frat-boy culture of crushing your opponents and flexing your gaming muscles quickly fertilized and grew around the eponymous shooter online and earning a reputation as being particularly toxic. The point is, as fun as the Call of Duty games were, you were never supposed to think for too long. Thinking was death. Moving and shooting were the one and only motivation. There’s no point arguing that the simplistic gameplay loops weren’t really teaching you anything, or that the game didn’t really involve any real problem-solving skills. All that mattered was that you got to the end of the thrill ride thinking you’re a hero. Critics in the late 90’s often decried FPS originators like Doom and Quake as too simplistic. They hadn’t seen anything yet.
But of course, Call of Duty’s brand of warfare was a very neutered battle experience. Afterall, the homogenous USA were painted as the Vikings fighting off the Mongol hordes, so the reality of war was never going to make any money after Call of Duty hit big. No one would buy the game where your ambush goes horribly wrong and all your friends die, with their arms ripped off in IED attacks or the horrific head injuries from dead friends haunting their dreams. It would never simulate the misery of a dimly lit veterans hospital back home. They would never have to deal with the PTSD, the dreams of nihilistic death and carnage, the feeling of powerlessness that came to veterans after Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps the worst offence of the culture of FPS games in the 2000’s was the insidiously hurtful caricature of non-white villains – more often than not treated like convenient scarecrows and sock puppets. Displayed as hilariously one-sided bad guys you wouldn’t bat an eye-lid at in Thunderbirds. The reality is, of course, a totally different story. What about the Iraqi families destroyed by war during the early 2000’s? What about the dead children, the bombed-out school buildings and hospitals? the totally devastated infrastructure? What about all the stories of unjust killings of civilians, of cars full of families laid to waste by American machine guns? Where are the stories of war tearing apart the entire foundation of a country for nearly a decade? Call of Duty was constantly guilty of all of this, and not just Call of Duty – the entire industry was doing it.
A generation of gamers who had to grow up in a paranoid world of illusions during the Bush era would make for easy targets for the Alt-Right in the age of dear old Trump. Combine that with the stream of consciousness of social media, with the increasing pressure to have a flag to wave around online, it was only a matter of time before some disenfranchised white guy with a terrible upbringing got his hands dirty in a toxic online culture. Video games are all to quick to serve in that respect. Without ever meeting the people he disagreed with he could treat the people he disagreed with like people he fought against in Call of Duty and the internet would act as an entrenching tool for his beliefs – allowing him to get away with never, ever being challenged.