Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Eating Our Young

(Image courtesy of Natalie Dee)

While enjoying my delicious Store-Brand Honey Cluster Cereal this morning, I happened upon a website full of critical essays by an author who was billed, by a poster to another site, as one of the few people out there writing worthwhile pieces about videogames.

What I found was a collection of some of the most vitriolic, pseudo-intellectual, downright hateful ranting I've ever seen. I'm not linking or naming names here for obvious reasons.

Might be because it was only 7:30 AM, but this stuff - which degenerated disturbingly quickly into misogyny and homophobia so thick they bordered on the legal definition of hate speech, and which was so obsessed with attacking other people that it almost parodied itself - really shook me. I'm not new to the Internet, but a level of trolling that pathological, that articulate, that thorough, was something I hadn't encountered before.

Lots of nuts couch their nuttery in a species of pseudo-philosophical justification, explaining away their meanness with a half-assed devotion to "living by principle," or some equally nebulous concept that only means something to people who think ideas will ever be more important than food or a warm bed or being loved. As if to say, the reason I'm an asshole is because I'm the only one out there who gets it, who's woken up, who's puzzled out the proper way to understand and interact with the world.

I don't want to engage with these people. At some point they've crossed a psychological threshold, lapsing into a persona that's incapable of being reasoned with and thrives on its own dysfunction.

There will always be wackjobs in the world - that's genetic, immutable. It's their followers we have to worry about.

These are the people, in politics as well as gaming, who are systematically devolving the level of discourse to the silliest playground ad hominem crap. And whether they realize or admit it, it's all in service of either attacking an enemy of their chosen champions or flattering the champions themselves. It doesn't matter whether these champions are human beings or ideas or "texts" like games; the intent is the same. There is a war to be fought, and I am a soldier in that war.

Thing about soldiers is, and with all respect to our actual armed forces: they're trained to not ask questions. They're trained to follow orders. Military discipline is not meant to inspire thoughtful debate, to make a soldier question his beliefs. It's meant to win wars. It's meant to keep our soldiers alive. And it works for this purpose.

But applying this doctrine to civilian life and particularly to any kind of discourse, especially around a topic as relatively trivial to human life as videogames, is not just silly. It's dangerous. Remember: without their armies of sycophants, the wackjobs are relegated to sandwich-board-street-corner status. No reasonable person bothers to engage with crazy people's ideas because, well, they're crazy. Give the nutballs a legion of followers, though, and pretty soon everyone has to engage with those crazy ideas, if only from sheer force of numbers.

Look: there are lots of passionate people in the gaming space, and I won't agree with a lot of them. I get that. I like that. But the level of casual incivility, exemplified particularly by the outright refusal to admit you might be wrong or reconsider your ideas, speaks to a larger problem. Some of us are so obsessed with tearing each other down, with proving incontrovertibly how vapid game journalism is or how the "games are art" debate is relevant/irrelevant or whatever the cause of the moment happens to be, that we are - at a time when gaming really is emerging into mainstream culture on an unprecedented scale - eating our own young. It's so ironic and sad. You can't be a soldier in the war for better game discourse if all you do is carpet-bomb anyone who might disagree with your dogma.

Since I started writing about games just six months ago, I've been lucky to receive encouragement, support, and the occasional friendly kick in the ass from a number of writers I admire and respect. I've met academics and developers and journalists at events, and corresponded with other industry folks - and without exception, they've all been really nice people. I may not always agree with their viewpoints, but they have interesting things to say, and they've never once retreated into rude, juvenile, or spiteful attacks - on games or on people.

And what characterizes this community more than anything else, I think, is an eagerness to listen, an almost childlike excitement to engage with differing viewpoints and invite doubt into their own beliefs. And accordingly, these folks often produce work that isn't interested in being "right" on some objective or philosophical level, but rather in exploring issues in gaming with nuance and precision and good humor.

So instead of feeding the troll, I'd like to end with some shout-outs to Chris Dahlen, Michael Abbott, Matt Weise, Rob Zacny, Leigh Alexander, Troy Goodfellow, Ryan Kuo, Gus Mastrapa, Kirk Hamilton, Dan Bruno, Ian Miles Cheong, Darius Kazemi, Chris Lepine, Justin McElroy, and of course, the whole Gamers With Jobs crew. Thanks, all, for the inspiration.


  1. Jeez, it's an honor and a shock to be included among such great writers! But thank you very much.

  2. Me too. :) Also... I feel I may have an idea who you're referring to.