Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

The sad (but fixable) state of gamer discourse…

To be honest, using a polite term like discourse to describe this is probably unfair, as the general level of communication online by pc gamers should more accurately be described as ‘sarcastic, aggressive, abusive unjustified screeching and yelling’. That feels more accurate.

I guess in-between major game launches I forget just how bad things are, but perhaps this is not the case and things are actually getting worse. I do know though, that now I am 52 years old, and having made over a dozen games, I am absolutely ready to give up on communicating online about games.

I have friends who are writers, and the difference between the discussion of novels and the discussion of games is like night and day. The discussion around writing seems to be more constructive, more reasonable, and approaches the tone of conversation you might have in a pub, or a restaurant, or when hanging out with friends. Some books are considered badly written, and described as ‘disappointing’ or even ‘boring’, but it rarely, if ever approaches the level of rabid antagonism that is associated with PC gaming.

To be clear, I am not just talking about my own interactions as a game developer. Reviews of my games are generally pretty good, and my sales are pretty good, and things are going fine. What I find depressing is how commonly you encounter people who are just professionally abusive, angry and aggressive. Believe it or not, you can actually click on steam reviewers and see other posts they have made about other games, and all too often you encounter these people who are frankly just professional assholes, about every game, and to everyone.

If 95% of your comments in a community (ha! the word community is so abused, when in gaming terms, its more often a rabble or a scrum) are negative, sarcastic or abusive, then really why the hell does that community need you as a member? I cannot imagine any business case for keeping the 1% of the most abusive, offensive members. It seems like a no-brainer to just take that 1% of steam ‘community’ members who have been warned or banned in the most forums and just close their accounts permanently. The only reason not to do so is probably that they spend some money.

This is the problem, sales income is associated with their accounts, but the destructive impact they have on the community as a whole is not being measured.

This is a major economic failure, and is a classic problem that economists refer to as an externality. (Cool fact: I actually studied at the London School Of Economics, unlike 99% of the abusive commenters telling me I am thick, stupid, clueless and don’t understand fuck-all about economics when they criticize my politics games…sigh…)

Externalities are major problems, and economists spend a lot of time trying to devise systems to solve them. A classic externality is pollution. If you have a paper mill, and the by-product of making paper is dumping thousands of gallons of pollution into a nearby stream… then this pollution can destroy the livelihood of a fishing business on the same river. This means economic activity is damaged, but unless the paper mill is fined, they have no economic incentive to act any other way. We see this globally with pollution, especially CO2 being a major problem. (Huge shoutout to the ‘special’ people who send me abuse for daring to represent climate change in a video game here…)

Abusive people in a gaming community cause an externality in two ways. Firstly, they drive away people who do not want to wade through trolling, abuse, fights, arguments and hatred, so that those people no longer contribute to the community, and thus reduce the economic value they get from it. (put another way, people just check out of the steam forums, considering them unusable, and thus find it easier to shift to rival stores like epic, as the lack of community is no big deal). Secondly, they drag other, normally quite civil people into abusive arguments, making the community more and more toxic, enraging the remaining posters until the ‘community’ becomes a place to be angry, providing no utility to anybody.

Social media is basically a big fat mistake, because it was designed around a broken mechanic: engagement. All social media seems to based on the checking of a single metric: how much time are people spending in the community. And how many posts or votes are there? This seems to be the only metric, whether this is because it enables more ads to be seen, or because there is a misguided view that this is all that matters.

The trouble is, deep down we are all pretty primitive animals. If we forget that, and tune our society purely towards engagement, then our society is going to resemble the Roman colosseums where gladiators were torn apart by lions before a cheering exuberant crowd. I suspect colosseum user-engagement metrics were excellent.

AT&T Switches Customers to More Expensive Plans Without Permission -  ExtremeTech

You might think this is hyperbole, but I urge you to consider it further. We already have numerous examples of people committing suicide due to abuse they received through social media. Squid game (a show I declined to watch) seems to prove that we have an appetite for watching horrific abuse as ‘entertainment’. Sure… squid game was just escapist drama right? but imagine if J K Rowling (a controversial figure in recent social media) were driven to suicide by social media. Do you really think there would not be hundreds, if not thousands of people cheering this on, and gloating on twitter? It is, at the same time, both true, and shocking to accept this to be our new reality. We are a mob rejoicing at the suffering of others.

We, as a society, MUST turn away from the mindless encouragement of ‘engagement at all costs’. Nothing makes people more curious than a car crash where people died. Just slowing down to enjoy viewing the carnage causes major traffic jams. This is our nature, and one that is clearly bad enough, without it being weaponized by social media in a competition to drive ever bigger profits for silicon valley companies.

It IS perfectly possible to improve the state of a community. Its pretty simple really. There is only one rule change needed. You just make it super clear that abusive posts, personal attacks, and trolling gets an immediate lifetime ban, without exceptions. You might think that’s crazy, but I’ve done it on my own forums for decades, and people still post there frequently. I’d say the level of discussion and debate is way, way, way better than reddit, facebook, the hellholes of youtube and twitter or anywhere else. Moderation is not evil, its not censorship, its just sensible. I’ve banned multiple users on steam from my steam forums for being abusive. The world did not end, it was not a slippery slope towards fascism after all.

Of course I know things will never change, nobody cares. Nobody has the slightest inclination to fix this problem. I’m in some private communities that are really nice, friendly places to be, and I’ve been in others where, due to a lack of any rules or moderation, people behave like they do on reddit or twitter and are abusive. I spend way less time there… In fact I spend no time now on facebook, and hardly any on twitter. I only use reddit for a handful of communities, and never read steam forums apart from my own games.

I feel that things have gotten so bad lately that when you read a friendly discussion where people are civil and thoughtful, it almost feels weird, or like a joke. When people are enthusiastic, helpful and appreciative, where they thank people for insightful posts, or for sharing their experiences… we can STILL do this, we can all be civil, friendly, understanding and appreciative. It just takes the tiniest bit of effort to do so.

So I offer you this challenge.

To make it clear, I want you to do this for OTHER developers. This is not self serving on my part.

Take the time today, it will be less time than it takes to play wordle… to find 3 games on your steam library that you enjoyed but did not review, and go leave a positive review for those games. Not a one-liner, but a paragraph or two, that is helpful, sincere and positive. YOU will feel better having done this. Think of it entirely as self-serving to boost your own mood.

Do it right now. I’m doing it too. (BTW have steam changed this? it seems there is no way to leave a review unless clicking the game prompts you, based on recent play time… seems…unhelpful?)

6 thoughts on The sad (but fixable) state of gamer discourse…

  1. Great post, thank you for sharing a well thought out argument. As asked, I’ll review three games on my Steam list and leave constructive criticism. Except GTAO, Rockstar don’t need me.

    Rather than lifetime bans, my favourite two methods are removing dopamine hooks and ghosting. If Twitter/YouTube/FB/etc were up to me, I’d hide likes/reactions/retweets/replies etc. I’d record them for algo discovery but never show anyone. Not even the poster. On old phpbb/vBulletin forums, I removed “post count”, “levels”, “ranks” and suddenly the discourse jumped up in quality. Humans seek dopamine hits so will optimise for that.

    I also like having people ghosted – they can post and view stuff but no-one else will ever see them and their votes/opinions don’t count. Don’t tell them, just let them carry on in their own hate filled little bubble.

    Neither a silver bullet but a mid-step before banning. Also, unlikely to ever happen on Steam.

    I hope this comment goes a little way to lift your spirits!

    1. Feedback is important though. Someone who is shadow banned regularly doesn’t get feedback that the community feels their behavior isn’t acceptable.

      Additionally, it’s hard to reason about. Very reasonable folks on twitter regularly wonder if they’ve gotten shadow banned. For complex setups, a simple bug in the system can make it feel like that.

      Not Always Right tends to communicate that even face to face there’s a sizable portion of people that simply will be completely terrible to others and get away with it.

      Lifetime bans are unfortunate. I certainly had enough points in my younger years of being a little shit. But effective discouragement is also important too. Regardless of how they’re raised, environmental indicators have a lot of side effects.

  2. We use Coral for the comments on our site, which has a few built-in features to reduce incentives for people yelling at each other – there’s no red popup notifications for likes or replies and it batches emails, other people can’t see who’ve liked posts, and it defaults to likes being called “Respect” rather than “Like”. All of which is helpful in terms of gentle nudges to sensible behaviour.

    But honestly, the main contributing factor to the community being pleasant to be around is the message at the top, which we do enforce, which says “Comment policy: Don’t be a dick or we’ll ban you.” Works wonders.

  3. Popular discourse around genre novels, at least, can be nearly as viciously bad as game discourse.

    In science fiction and fantasy, consider the Sad Puppy / Rapid Puppy / Hugo Award dramas of the mid twenty-teens, the ongoing arguments around authors of colour, de-colonialisation, etc.

    In Young Adult fiction, there’s a great deal of criticism around appropriation and representation and sensitivity that turns nasty, as well as apparently massive brigading and attempts to get publishing contracts canceled.

    * I originally wrote “every bit as viciously bad” but I’m not confident that the current state of YA publishing is comparable to GamerGate.
    * Surfing the net suggests the global video game industry is 1.5x larger than the publishing industry, but half the publishing industry is non-fiction, so we’re looking at 3x? I think there’s still more awareness of the negativity in gaming, maybe because we’re in that industry…

  4. The thought of turning steam into a “social” like platform, I always thought to be bad… I like a simple system with just stars with a few categories and that’s it.

    Your blog posts are really insightful, thanks!

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