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What I Would Change In Gaming

Posted on July 11, 2018 by Monica Valentinelli

I’m not sure where to start this post, because it was inspired by an interview question. On the surface, the interviewer’s question sounds simple: What would I change in gaming? Well, after several minutes I realized the volume of what I’d want to change would not fit in a paragraph. Instead, I’m writing this post to share it with all of you, in part so I can condense these very complex feelings into a sound byte.

First and foremost, I feel it’s important for me to point out that your mileage may vary. I’m not looking to be the authority on what I’m posting; these comments are based on my observations and experiences over the past fifteen or so years of freelance work. Second, and perhaps more importantly, it is unrealistic to believe or think that there is “one” gaming community. As games of all stripes become more available and accessible to players worldwide, there’s a lot of micro-and-macro communities that form around game stores, designers, game systems, conventions, platforms, etc. Lastly, my views are my own. They are not a reflection of any person or company I’ve been involved with now or in the future.

Okay, so back to the original question: What would I change in gaming?

“Houston, we have a problem.” I feel it’s a big problem, because it’s one that’s hurting a lot of people in our industry including me. I feel we’ve stopped caring about the people we communicate with (and about) online, because we’ve forgot that a profile is attached to a complex human being with thoughts, feelings, and experiences of their own. Some read the words that are posted and react to that Tweet or post. Others seem to care more about what’s popular (or who) than what’s right, not understanding the effect that can have on someone’s mental health. I’m of the mind that people are very smart and understand intellectually that we can’t see the person on the other end, but because you are accessing “your” Internet from your screen, we internalize other people aren’t there. It’s “your” Facebook. It’s “your” Twitter. Only, that’s a recipe for toxic discourse because you can’t tell when someone is having a bad day or if they just want to vent. You can’t see if that person is emotionally worked up or if they’re trying to have a much-needed intellectual/critical discussion or what their body language or tone of voice is. All you have to go on, in most cases, are words.

I think most people are smart enough to understand why this lack of situational awareness happens: social media tools reward and get paid for engagement. The greatest lie the Internet ever told is that quality equals likes. Only, that’s a false equivalency. You could write a heartfelt post about what you’re grateful for and get two likes, or you could put a cat picture up in 10 seconds and get 100. Flip that around. Write a half-assed post or Tweet that eviserates a game, designer, or company. Sure, you’ll get a reaction and–here’s the kicker–it probably feels good when you do. The fact that you’re getting the engagement in the first place, the currency we’ve all been trained to think is more important than having nuanced conversations, means you’ve been rewarded. That feeling of “winning” is akin to gambling, where you keep feeding the slots (posting) to see if you hit the jackpot (shares). We’re all human beings, much as I like to think I’m a Cylon, and what we’re feeling is natural. It’s a chemical reaction, a dopamine high, that’s not only been proven to be addictive, the platforms we use also design with that potential rush in mind.

As a victim of harassment, I can tell you the people who exploit these tools (edgelords and trolls) are not regulated to “a” political view and they’ve always been around. Social media tools allow their content to be valued as much as a city mayor or an experienced game designer or an A-list celebrity; their profiles, depending upon the platform, can also be weighted equally if they have enough views and clicks. In other words: that person doesn’t have to “do” anything other than produce reactionary content to be deemed influential. These people have learned they can get a higher profile by suckering well-meaning folk into engaging with them–any way they can. It doesn’t matter if you agree or not; you favorite, reshare, RT out of anger… The nature of your reaction, the content of the post, the validity of the material aren’t as important as one simple fact: you’ve engaged.

It’s challenging to define the people who exploit these tools, because they don’t always share the same ideology nor are they always in one, clearly-defined group. Trolls and edgelords actively utilize tactics for engagement to push people offline or out of the industry altogether, but they’re not the only people who hurt others. There are plenty of people I’ve met who behave one way in person and another online; there’s others who dip into those tactics for the rush and then double-down when confronted. If you’re a creator, whose job is to be a cheerleader for what you’re doing, often online, it feels as if pushing creators off of social media or getting fired is a joke to everyone else. Trolls and edgelords don’t care about a creator’s feelings or livelihood, and they know how to tap into systemic issues (homophobia, racism, sexism, etc.) in order to illicit a reaction–because that’s how they get “paid”. For the rest? I honestly don’t know. I feel like some people are trying to have a nuanced discussion or be critical about important issues that do need to be heard and discussed, but I also feel that’s increasingly difficult online. In other cases, that likes-based rush is so physiologically compelling, it could be someone is addicted and doesn’t realize that’s why they’re posting what they do. Either way, it’s really hard to say why these tools get exploited outside of the obvious “outrage sells” reason. My fear, however, is that vulnerable people and minority groups are more prone to getting hurt because there’s no initiatives in place to protect against this type of behavior.

Remember how I said this is complicated? Last year, I was so fixated on my own coping mechanisms to deal with social media I made a mistake. I forgot that game designers make games for different reasons. Some people don’t care about the money they make; others are more emotionally vested in game design processes or the community. Toss in the fact that most of us do not own the games we work on, and our emotional investment in how/when/why we engage can change often. Most of us do not get paid to visit a game store, stream live play, do interviews, blog, etc. For others, that is hugely important and a necessary evil; outreach can be a great way to make contacts and new friends. Personally? I make games for the potential of story so people can have fun. I’ve dealt with my fair share of bullshit, mind you, but I’ve been able to mitigate my emotions for the most part because I do have some privilege as a white woman, I regulate what I do to “work”, and I’ve been around long enough that I’ve made a lot of friends and contacts in gaming. That said: I don’t get paid to perform emotional labor; I get paid to produce games. And, though what happens online can be a warped mirror of what’s happening in the day-to-day world, my solution has been to disengage from the toxicity rather than fight a losing battle. Instead, I have more in person discussions to address issues when they come up, and try to focus on what I can control and learn from. That does, yes, mean I’m less visible or top of mind in some ways, but not in others. And, to be clear: that is a conscious decision I made and have learned to live with.

So, why bother? With all this shit going on, with the potential to be attacked by your peers, freelancers you’ve hired, companies and veterans you once admired, communities of fans you make games for… With the knowledge that the tools have actively facilitated harmful behavior, and there’s plenty of assholes who use them to hurt other people… Why bother?

“Why bother?” is a question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately because, even though I try to err on the side of professionalism-by-choice, I am one of those complex human beings on the other end of your computer screen.

Just. Like. You.

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