The greatest threat to the video game industry may be some of its most impassioned fans. Increasingly, game developers are finding themselves under attack by some of the very people they devote their lives to entertaining. And this growing form of gamer-on-game-developer cyber harassment is starting to take its toll.
Developers, both named and those who wish to remain anonymous, tell Polygon that harassment by gamers is becoming an alarmingly regular expected element of game development. Some developers say the problem was among the reasons they left the industry, others tell Polygon that the problem is so ubiquitous that it distracts them from making games or that they're considering leaving the industry.
The problem has become so pronounced that International Game Developers Association executive director Kate Edwards tells Polygon that the organization is looking into starting support groups and that while the harassment isn't yet having a major impact on game development, "we're at the cusp of where it could."
Power and positioning
Fans are, by definition, fanatical.
That passion for the books they read, the movies and television they watch and the games they play can lead to amazing things from cosplay to tribute operas, from charities to art. But that fanaticism can also lead to a level of obsession that can trigger some very bad things like threats of death, kidnapping, torture, stalking and financial ruin.
Online harassment, no matter the reasoning, is always about power and positioning, about putting people in their place, said Nathan Fisk, lecturer at the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
"I think fans harass developers for a range of reasons, but again, it is always about power and position," said Fisk, who was featured in Bullying in the Age of Social Media. "Fans are invested in the stories and worlds that developers create, and certain design decisions can be seen by fans to threaten those stories and worlds. Harassment silences and repositions content creators in ways that protect the interests of certain fan groups, which again is no justification for the kinds of abusive behavior and language seen online today."
The internet and the anonymity it grants has made harassment easier. According to several studies, Fisk said, the lack of social cues and perceived lack of consequences afforded online communication also changes the way people treat one another.
"Harassment silences and repositions content creators in ways that protect the interests of certain fan groups."
"This is particularly true in the case of harassment in gaming communities, as most of the abusive behavior is not grounded in local, offline relationships and social networks," Fisk said. "There are groups of fans harassing developers and representatives, and it can be assumed that very few (if any) of those fans have actually met those developers in person. Further, game developers are in many ways becoming public figures as they openly interact with gaming communities, and social networking technologies have made making contact a simple process."
Fisk believes that online harassment is more of a problem for industries and professions which rely heavily on the creation and management of public image, than those that don't. And the video game industry's evolution to mainstream popularity may be playing some role in the problem.
"In particular, I think that the game developers — more recently independent developers — are struggling with becoming public figures," he said. "I also suspect that problems with online harassment have long been a problem for the gaming industry, but with the level of visibility provided by platforms such as Twitter and the growing public concern over various forms of harassment among gamers, that industry representatives are no longer willing to quietly ignore harassing or threatening comments."
The rise in harassment in gaming communities can be linked to a number of factors, Fisk believes.
"First, traditionally gaming communities have developed around big, triple-A games, coming from developers and publishers large enough to have employed moderators and PR staff," he said. "With the recent explosion of independent development, there are small teams or individual developers managing the work of managing fans and expectations on their own, resulting in increased tensions and the potential for more publicly visible reactions. Second, gaming communities are experiencing growing pains as they become more diverse and mature, challenging the status quo. The recent debates over the portrayal of women and minorities in games are bound to generate aggressive and hateful comments, which again do the work of silencing and repositioning those groups to maintain dominance. Finally, I think there has been a reaction by gaming communities towards industry trends which are genuinely manipulative and restrictive, and while that in no way justifies abusive behavior, it certainly plays a role in the increase of online harassment by fans and gamers."
Fisk said he and his colleagues were just discussing recent issues within the gaming community, including those surrounding Fez 2 and Call of Duty: Black Ops 2.
Late last month, Treyarch studio design director David Vonderhaar took to Twitter to announce a patch to popular first-person shooter Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. The seemingly innocuous changes included reducing the damage of one weapon and rate of fire on two others. The changes, which were fractions of a second, spurred threats of violence online and an editorial by Activision social media manager Dan Amrich.
In the piece, Amrich cautioned calmer heads and noted that a vocal minority were giving gamers everywhere a bad name.
"If you enjoy your games," he wrote, "have a little respect for the people who make them — and stop threatening them with bodily harm every time they do their job."
Four days later, game developer Phil Fish got into an online argument with writer Marcus Beer, tweeting "I fucking hate this industry" (for the negativity and criticism it's brought.) The back and forth ended with Fish tweeting, "I'm done. Fez 2 is canceled. Goodbye."
He later confirmed the game's cancellation, and hasn't responded to press requests for comment since.
Those two are just the most recent in a series of vitriolic responses to games and the people who make them this year.
Adam Orth, a Microsoft Studios creative director, provocatively tweeted about always-online consoles in April in the thick of growing trepidation about that possible requirement for the Xbox One. The tweets spurred death threats, an apology from Microsoft and international news coverage. Orth left Microsoft about a week later.
The botched launch of SimCity in March led to a flood of angry emails, tweets and the seemingly inevitable death threats focused at some of those involved with the always-online game.
And those are just some of the more public cases of harassment. Stephen Toulouse, who for six years headed up Xbox Live's policy and enforcement, says the problem is omnipresent in gaming.
"I'm going to kill you"
"I have approximately 70 messages on Xbox Live right now and half of them are, 'I'm going to kill you' and 'I'm going to find you and destroy you' and I haven't worked (at Microsoft) in two years. Even to this day people who don't know I left Microsoft still come after me."
But Toulouse seems more amused than annoyed by the messages. It comes with being the head banhammer at Xbox Live for so many years. It's to be expected, he says.
"The root cause of the problem isn't in what we do, making games, it's that there are so little consequences to this wildly violent approach of communication that we are simply one audience of many that are subject to this type of focus," he said. "There's no real penalty right now."
For Toulouse that consequence-free harassment even included swatting, essentially tricking a law enforcement agency to respond to a person's house for what they think is a violent confrontation.
"Even the swatting thing, only now that Justin Bieber gets swatted, do prosecutors go, 'Oh, we should probably do something about this'," he said. "I couldn't get the Seattle police interested to save their lives, in prosecuting the kids who were doing this. I'm like, 'Come on, guys, they're sending your SWAT team out. What if you shot somebody. Don't you have an interest in going after these kids?' And they're like, 'No, because they are kids and at the end of the day it will be a juvenile sentence in juvenile court and that doesn't give prosecutors headlines.'"
While adults certainly take part in online harassment, Toulouse believes that it is the younger harassers who are the worst.
"With the adults you get a lot of the bluster, but no follow through," he said. "Because they do have something to lose. They might realize on some level the difference between typing, 'I'm going to kill you,' and calling you and saying you're going to kill someone is a pretty big leap when you can be recorded."
"The vast majority of adult vitriol is bluster."
Toulouse says working as the head of enforcement for Xbox Live required him to have very thick skin, something not all developers have.
"You have to approach it from a very dispassionate point of view, and that's a really hard thing to do," he said. "Not everyone can do that. That's a tall thing to ask people to do. It's like, 'Yeah, I know they just said they're going to rape your wife, but you've got to let that bounce off you.' That's tough to ask people to do."
In his role at Xbox Live, Toulouse said he was often asked to step in and help developers deal with these sorts of issues.
"A lot of developers just sit and make their games," he said. "Not everyone is Jonathan Blow, who is willing to engage. The vast majority don't, so they're almost constantly surprised when something happens.
"Here you are trying to create and in what manner does creation entail, engender or otherwise justify horrifically violent communication. It's not like we're making political or religious inflammatory content, we're making games. At what level does making a game trigger that bizarre overreaction and hatred?"
"At what level does making a game trigger that bizarre overreaction and hatred?"
Toulouse said that when he started at Xbox he analyzed the problems Xbox Live was having with this issue and determined that one solution was to have a single person as the face of enforcement for Live, a "sheriff."
"Nobody knew who was actually processing those complaints," he said. "Customers needed to know that there is someone who is in charge of making sure this gets better. What came along with that, unfortunately, was SWAT teams and threats and abuse."
One of the reasons Toulouse left, he said, was because Microsoft didn't know how to deal with that from a corporate standpoint .
"Microsoft didn't know what to do," he said. "I would bring it up. I would say, 'Hey, I am putting my family at material risk, by you wanting me to be this public sheriff.'"
Toulouse said he asked for security because people would tell him they were going to kill him at events like PAX.
"They were like, 'We don't do that,'" he said.
Since Toulouse's departure, no one has stepped into those very public shoes. So while Xbox Live certainly still has a sheriff, it's not a person as approachable or harassable.
The Cyberbullying Research Center
Founded in 2005, the Cyberbullying Research Center is a clearinghouse of information on the misuses and abuses of technology. Co-directors Sameer Hinduja and Justin Patchin have been researching the topic since 2002 and includes data from about 14,000 children about their experiences as both cyberbully and victim.
One thing they've found is that there seems to exist a disconnect between a person and their conscience when they go online.
"When individuals are online they are sort of separated from their conscience and from social conventions and morals and norms and even the law, and they feel a little bit more free to say whatever they want to say," Hinduja said. "You can be spontaneous online and just listen to your emotions and just go off on someone without taking a moment to sort of assess the situation."
While the organization saw its formation in the wake of a number of cyberbullying-spurred teen suicides, and was formed to deal directly with the problem in schools, Hinduja said that adults routinely contact the group seeking advice. The center also occasionally works with companies on cyber harassment issues.
"We hear these stories (like the game industry harassment cases) and we know that they are taking their toll on adults," he said. "We're seeing more and more of these cases surface."
Hinduja sees the problem getting worse before it gets better. That's because he believes society is entering a new internet age, one that doesn't bring with it the decorum and manners formed over thousands of years of civilization.
It's as if the internet hit a reset button for some people in terms of how they treat one another.
"It's almost like we're reverting to our primitive tendencies where we didn't know rules of social decorum and so forth," he said, and in the short term it seems to be getting worse, as if people are socially devolving online.
"I feel like how we've progressed over the years and decades, I feel like it's more and more normative to be cruel and then be JK, LOL, not really a big deal, even though we know that words wound," he said. "I think we're seeing a desensitization when it comes to acceptability and conduct, whether it's online conduct or even offline conduct, whether it's verbal or textual or the things we post to embarrass other people. We can try to cover our tracks or say we were just messing around, but the damage is done. That's why we have kids killing themselves based on what's been posted and sent and shared."
Hinduja's hope is that at some point the social devolution will stop and people will start acting online how they do in real life.
"My hope is that, and hopefully this doesn't sound too idealistic, that over time people ostracize those who are jerks to other people, who are rude and cruel online and we just get to a point where we just don't do that anymore," he said. "Kind of like we don't really litter anymore. Or people don't use the N word anymore because we finally socially have gotten to a point where it is completely unacceptable. My hope is that we get to that point with this sort of stuff."
"Graphic threats to kill my children"
Jennifer Hepler left BioWare this week to begin work on a book about narrative design and do some freelance work. Her most recent job title was senior writer on Dragon Age: Inquisition. But it was Dragon Age 2 that led to the death threats, the threats against her family and children and the harassment.
When asked if the harassment led to her depature, Hepler told Polygon "No, leaving Bioware was for family reasons. I am going to be working on a text book on narrative design among other game-related freelance projects."
After Dragon Age 2 came out in 2011, Hepler told Polygon, many of the people involved in the game's development received angry emails, abusive forum posts and petitions calling for them to be fired. About that time, someone dug up an old interview Hepler participated in six years earlier. In the interview Hepler mentioned that her least favorite part of working in the game industry was playing through games and combat. Some of the interview was put in the official forums as evidence that Hepler was to blame for changes in the game's combat. The forum post was removed and Hepler went on maternity leave. But then the following February someone created a forum post resurfacing the interview and called Hepler the "cancer" that was destroying BioWare.
"I had opened a Twitter account a few weeks before that, and this poster or others quickly found me there and began sending threatening messages," she said. "I shut my account down without reading them, so I'm not certain what they said, but other people have told me they were quite vile."
The forum post and Hepler's initial response on Twitter, ignited a firestorm of hatred and harassment that included emailed death threats and threats against her children.
"I did my best to avoid actually reading any of it, so I'm not quite certain how bad it got," Hepler said. "I was shown a sample of the forum posts by EA security and it included graphic threats to kill my children on their way out of school to show them that they should have been aborted at birth rather than have to have me as a mother."
Hepler also received harassing phone calls and threats on the BioWare Social Network.
The impact though, she said, was mostly positive.
"The outpouring of support I received — large amounts from female and gay fans — was incredibly heartening," she said. "I got hundreds of messages from people who had been deeply moved by characters and scenes that I wrote and who had made positive changes in their real lives because of it. Without the negativity, I'm not sure that I would ever have heard from all of these people confirming that there is a need for characters that tackle touchy social issues, for characters who are untraditional or even unlikeable. It has definitely strengthened my desire to continue to make games that strive for inclusivity and that use fiction and fantasy to explore difficult, uncomfortable real-world issues."
The incident also spurred Hepler to think a lot about how to raise her children who "won't have that sense of entitlement where if they don't enjoy a particular entertainment product they think it's fair to attack the creators personally."
"I definitely try to make them understand that there are real people behind the shows they watch and the games they play," she said, "and even if they don't like the finished product, they should understand and respect the work that went into it."
As with other game makers who have been harassed, others who have been attacked reach out to Hepler to talk about their own incidents.
"That's the biggest risk, in my opinion: that we will lose out on the talents of people who would make fantastic games that we would all be the better for playing, because they legitimately don't want to make themselves into targets."
"It's something that comes up in almost every conversation with female developers," she said. "Overall, people seem to try to shrug it off publicly and fume privately, and younger women contemplating the field are reconsidering whether they have the stomach to handle what it currently asks of them. That's the biggest risk, in my opinion: that we will lose out on the talents of people who would make fantastic games that we would all be the better for playing, because they legitimately don't want to make themselves into targets. A lot of the best artists and storytellers (and quite a few great programmers too), tend to be sensitive people — we shouldn't lose out on their talents because we are requiring them to be tough, battle-scarred veterans just to walk in the door."
Hepler, like many of the people who talked to about this, believes that gamer-on-game maker harassment is one of the biggest threats to the video game industry.
"Games cost much too much money to focus on a niche market," she said. "To survive, they need to be such a broadly popular part of entertainment culture that you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn't play games. Women represent over 50 percent of the population, tend to be in charge of household finances, and are the majority purchasers of games (when factoring in games bought by women as gifts for husbands, children, friends, etc.). To indulge a community that is actively trying to alienate this powerful market segment (not to mention gay men, casual gamers of all types and anyone new to the hobby), is suicidal.
"It's important to listen to fans about what's important to them, but it's equally important to listen to people who are not currently gamers about why they aren't playing. Hardcore gamers want a product that is made specifically for them and is actively unfriendly to anyone new. They will beg and bully to get this product and then praise and wax nostalgic over any game that lives up to their standards even if the company that made it went bankrupt. They don't care about keeping companies in business or artists employed. Their only job as fans is to say what pleases them, and it would be foolish to expect them to think beyond that. But to cater to those desires without thinking about how to bring new audiences in and make them comfortable will ultimately result in a stagnant and money-losing industry.
"I could go on and on about this, but I'm just going to consider one example: the word 'noob.' If you decide to take up almost any other hobby in the world, you can find beginning classes teaching you how to do it. If you want to knit, you can go to a yarn store and meet fellow knitters who will help you get the basics. If you want to play basketball, you can join a rec center or community league at a beginner level. And generally, the people already involved in those hobbies are thrilled to have someone with whom they can share their passion. But if you want to get started as a gamer, you get told, 'go home noob,' because people in this hobby hate newcomers so much they turned the word itself into an insult. How are we supposed to thrive as an industry if we are actively hostile to growing our audience?"
A harassment support group
"At the end of the day, it seems the number of hot button issues you can 'step on' increases every day," one triple-A developer told Polygon. "Soon, I think a lot of game developers will spend as much time going about avoiding those issues, time they could have focused on better game design, performance, art direction and balance."
The topic of developer harassment has circled among special interest groups within the International Game Developers Association for awhile, but recently it seems to be coming to a head, said IGDA executive director Kate Edwards.
"It's gotten onto our radar," she said. "We're getting to a point where we're thinking, 'Yeah, it's becoming something we're going to need to talk about. It might be time to consider doing a more explicit support group or mechanism to help people who are dealing with this sort of thing."
What bothers Edwards, beyond the very real impact it has the individuals targeted, is the potential impact it could have on the industry as a whole.
"It adds a layer of discouragement," she said, "especially to people who are just starting out or maybe they had a career at a studio, a larger studio, and they're trying to start an indie effort and now they're getting squashed right out of the gate, before they even really finished something. I don't think it's having a major impact (on the game industry), but I think we're at the cusp of where it could and I think there are a couple of major reasons for it."
Edwards believes that some of the issues are tied to the rise in crowdfunding for game development.
When a developer goes directly to fans to ask for money they're, perhaps accidentally, creating the illusion that those fans will have a greater say in the end product. And sometimes that's not meant to be the case. Social media, and the sense of relationship it creates among fans, can also lead to problems, Edwards said.
"When we put ourselves out there on Twitter and other social media we are inviting more of a conversation and I think the fanbase sees that as more of a conversation about the creative direction and not just a conversation about the fandom of that particular IP," she said.
Finally, fans can be fanatical. And in some cases, that can become wearing.
Edwards points to George Lucas' very public semi-retirement last year as an example. In January, Lucas told the New York Times that he was retiring, blaming in part the negativity of fans.
"Why would I make any more," he said, "when everybody yells at you all of the time and says what a terrible person you are?"
"If someone as successful as George Lucas, someone who has been arguably both creatively and financially successful, is basically hanging it up because he's tired of hearing the negative feedback, that's a pretty serious thing," Edwards said. "He is such a prominent person and to have him so publicly talk about that particular issue, it kind of resonates with a lot of people."
And then there is Phil Fish, who so recently gave up the game development industry for similar reasons. Edwards worries that others will look at his example and decide to follow suit.
"Phil Fish and his declaration could get people thinking about, 'Maybe I should think about it as well. Is this something I really want to put up with?'," Edwards said. "I think it would be disappointing to see Phil and others like him not do what they're so passionate about on the basis of that kind of feedback.
"Harassment isn't new but we didn't use to see the kind of vitriolic harassment that we're seeing today. There needs to be a broader sense of how we're going to cope with this as an industry."
Death threats and game development
"It's definitely gotten worse," said Greg Zeschuk. "The threshold for a flip out or a major scandal has dropped. The smallest thing will set people off."
Zeschuk is happily talking about the game industry as an outsider these days. As much as he loved his career — his second career, building Bioware with fellow doctor Ray Muzyka and creating franchises like Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights and Mass Effect — he's happy he left it. And he's likely never to return.
Now he's onto his third career: writing about, creating videos about and maybe one day even brewing craft beer.
While he's no longer in the industry, he says he can't help but still watch it and he's noticed the flare ups of harassment. Perhaps that's because BioWare's Mass Effect 3 was the flashpoint for one of the most publicized recent gamer backlashes. At the time it seemed an unprecedented reaction by fans who were unhappy with the ending of the Mass Effect trilogy. While most fans displeased with how the game concluded simply expressed disappointment, a small, vocal group began threatening and harassing BioWare and its developers.
Zeschuk said the studio was "without a doubt" shocked by the reaction to the game's ending and in particular to how virulent that reaction was. But he stops short of discussing what impact it had on his and Muzyka's ultimate decision to leave both BioWare and the game industry half a year later. But it was, he told me in January, a factor.
Since the release of Mass Effect 3, and the over-the-top response to it by some gamers, Zeschuk believes that those sort of death-threat-laden reactions have become more common in the game industry.
"What amazes me is that all of the gloves are off on this stuff," he said. "It's just astonishing what people will do online now."
Death threats have become the routine, the sort of knee-jerk minimum among cyber harassers. And Zeschuk has a couple of theories why.
There is the ease at which someone can communicate their thoughts to a broad audience.
"Part of it is availability," he said. "It's this megaphone that's sitting on your desk and if you want to use it you can. And that moment when you're most angry and frustrated there's no reason why you can't send out an email or put a post up or do a video, and if you get more attention as a result all of the better.
There is the increasing access fans have to the caretakers of their passions.
"It's unprecedented the access that exists today," he said. "It's a double-edged sword. It's not always going to be accolades, there are also going to be complaints."
"It's not good. It's not going to lead to good stuff."
There is, as Zeschuk puts it, a new breed of opinion-makers who seem to deliberately inflame in order to grow their reach and popularity.
"A path to awareness on the internet is controversy and people drumming it up," he said. "I think it's almost like if more people throw fuel on the fire and there's more and more of that and some people think, 'Hey, I can do that. I don't need to work, I can be an internet personality and yell at people all day long. I win."
Zeschuk, like Edwards, like most of the developers we spoke with, has big concerns about the lasting impact this sort of behavior is going to have on the industry. But unlike many, he thinks it's here to stay.
Dealing with online abuse, Zeschuk said, is now an integral part of being a game developer.
"It's part of going out there and putting yourself out there," he said. "I just really wish it would get sorted out. I do think there are good, passionate people who get dragged into it and it makes their lives miserable. Making games is stressful enough, just making them, without having to worry about this.
"The impact of having all your brightest creators losing steam and going, 'Screw this,' it's not good. It's not going to lead to good stuff."
Update: We've added Hepler's full quote about why she left BioWare to add a bit more clarity surrounding that subject.
Make sure to check out our take on the secondary impact on this problem.