Alaric comments on the eternal battle between free speech and good taste.
Let’s say you build a house in Minecraft.
It’s not the prettiest house, granted; after all there’s only so much one can do when the prime building materials are dirt and wooden planks. So, imagine that you decide to make a video diary for a YouTube channel and that this video inexplicably garners a few thousand views. A couple of days pass and suddenly you’re up to your eyeballs in comments telling you how shitty your house looks, how poor its design is, how someone else has made a far better house before, and how unbelievable it is that people would even bother to come and look at your [expletive] house. Let’s be honest, there’s going to be at least a couple of homophobic and/or racial slurs in the comments section, along with some curt suggestions that you should commit suicide.
Congratulations! The power of the internet has granted you a sliver of insight into how it feels to be a games developer or publisher.
I say, ‘sliver’, because on the whole people won’t persistently attack a YouTuber’s video. Games developers and publishers have it much, much worse, because there’s a nasty ingredient mixed into the pathologically hostile online communities, and that ingredient is expectation.
Because people pay money for games and we live in an age where instant feedback on almost anything is possible, not to mention the fact that we gamers are a passionate crowd at the best of times (and an overzealous one at the worst), the game development process is followed with the kind of scrutiny I’ve only ever directly witnessed from relatives of patients under my care. There’s an overwhelming sense of investment, both emotional and financial, and when key decisions are made about a game – particularly longer running franchises – there is guaranteed to be trouble from somewhere.
For the purposes of this blog, I’m not counting forum comments or posts that express misinformed or idiotic opinions. This is about pure, unmitigated abuse or ‘trolling’, ‘flaming’, and ‘raging’. Pick whatever internet jargon seems best.
People always have the right to express an opinion, regardless of how cretinous or ignorant that opinion might be, and developers are usually keen to hear as much constructive feedback as they can. However, the aforementioned factors of entitlement and investment seem to give internet forum users the idea that they can say anything they like about a game in development – or post-release – and be entirely justified in their position.
Take the recently released Devil May Cry reboot.
The torrent of abuse faced by developers at Ninja Theory and publisher Capcom is well documented; I don’t think repeating any of it would do us much good at all, suffice to say that anonymous forum users took great delight in the casual hurling of insults, death threats and baseless criticisms, at the involved parties. And the abuse, while it has died down somewhat, has by no means subsided altogether. At best these individuals outright panned the game and its content without any attached context or reasoning. At one point DmC: Devil May Cry held a user review score of around 3; it currently stands at about 4.5, which tells us something about how ‘useful’ fan feedback can be.
Again I point out that this wasn’t constructive feedback, it was senseless mob hatred. Ninja Theory, to their credit, continued to listen to the actual criticisms on their redesigns of Dante and the Devil May Cry world at large whilst ignoring the idiots as best they could. Certainly it’s true that long time fans supplied a lot of negative feedback and Ninja Theory didn’t address all of it – but then again some of these fans wanted a complete U-turn on all of the changes made to the story, the settings, and the characters. That entitlement factor at work again, no doubt.
“We paid to play the last four games, so we get to decide how the fifth one should not turn out,” is an accurate summation of fan sentiment. Sorry, chaps, it doesn’t quite work that way and it’s definitely not an excuse for people to be able to insult and abuse the hardworking adults who are often equally, if not more, passionate about the project in question.
Other grey areas of the internet where feedback and abuse were mistaken for one another arrived earlier in 2012 when the Mass Effect trilogy finished.
I was one of those gamers who supported a campaign to alter the end of Mass Effect 3. I wrote lengthy comments in a few forums explaining my reactions to the three endings as they stood, what I thought was wrong with them, and why I believed it would benefit the integrity of the story to have an expansion pack of some sort. At no point did I directly insult BioWare’s developers, writers, or (the popular target for derision) Electronic Arts.
I wrote my opinions and then left it alone to see what would happen. As much as I believe that fan entitlement exists, I can’t honestly say that I felt BioWare owed me anything. I respect them as a developer and that reason alone is why I gave the kind of feedback about Mass Effect 3 that I did. While I and many others were trying to be as constructive as we were being critical, there were more than a few obnoxious voices being raised, clamouring for a weird kind of geek war against BioWare and EA. Boycotts were called for on all future products, games, and services, until BioWare “did what was right” and changed the ending to their game.
Others were simply antagonistic, verbally attacking the companies and the people who worked for them – on EA’s and BioWare’s own forums, no less. When I talked to other games industry workers and the topic of Mass Effect 3‘s ending came up, I’d tell them I was part of the gaming crowd who wanted BioWare to change something about it.
“Oh, right…You were one of those, were you?” a fellow journalist asked me once, his tone of voice inferring that I somehow deserved an Anti-social Behaviour Order.
I couldn’t really blame him. The loudest voices on the internet are often the ones shouting the kind of nonsense you’d never hear in a press room, chiefly because they love their anonymity when they vent all that reckless hatred. At the same time I resent the idea that those gamers who dislike the direction a loved franchise takes and speak their minds about it in a clear, insightful manner, are associated in any way with the trolls.
There is clearly a long way to go yet before we clear up this mess, and there are still far too many idiots in the online realm for me to suggest that this will happen at any point in the near future. However, I like to think that the more we openly discuss games and gaming culture the more likely it is that the aforementioned idiots will be drowned out. The sad fact is that they probably won’t be.
Speak your minds, fellow gamers… but please do it politely.