A strange form of aggression infests Gaming culture whereby you can’t just hate someone because of the games they play. Gaming Aggression is far more personal. If a persons has a conflicting opinion then it’s common to go straight for the throat.
Rarely is there an attempt to reconcile differences of opinions. Arguments are twisted into moral crusades that need to be ‘won’, even for the most petty of issues.
Intensity quickly hits a boiling point and the worst of gaming culture is on full display. Racism, sexism, intolerance to sexual/gender orientation, derision to the inexperienced, bullying and all-round horribleness ensues.
Such aggression seems bewildering when considering video games as a pastime. The world would not end if video games suddenly disappeared.
Except that’s not true – not on an individual basis. Speaking from my own experiences; if life around you isn’t pleasant or safe, then any threat to the escapism of video games can be frightening.
Aggressive behavior is perpetrated by those who perceive a threat to one of the few positive aspects in their lives.
Something as simple as a tiny mechanical change or the introduction of a non-caucasian protagonist can trigger this defensive (and often aggressive) response. A response mirroring the fallacy of jealousy, where a person believes that attention and love is a limited resource, that if given to others, means there is less for them.
In some cases they may act out in harmful ways.
Aggressors appear to want all video games to cater for their insecurities and comfort – seemingly oblivious to how unreasonable their demands appear.
In hindsight none of this is surprizing. Almost everyone and everything in gaming culture plays a part in conditioning this behaviour.
‘Cultivation theory’ claims that the more a person exposes themselves to a world created on television, the more their belief system will align with the beliefs of that world.
Though this theory relates to television and has issues with causality and correlation, I find the base idea to make sense and worth applying to video games as a framework for questions.
It might to help explain why seemingly ‘unreasonable’ expectations and entitlements, as well as hostility, emerge from gaming culture. After all, a person can spend dozens, sometimes hundreds of hours in a video game being told they are special.
Harry Potter and the Mary Sue
Let’s go back to TV for a moment, specifically movies. I recently watched the Harry Potter films and couldn’t help notice how socially capable, skilled and lucky Harry is in the first movie.
Harry is instantly popular on his arrival to Hogwarts, he is ‘the boy who survived’. Special by birth and attracting the attention and admiration of his surrounding peers and teachers.
He immediately stands up to the bully Malfoy during his first flying lesson, then breaks the teacher’s command by flying without permission.
Instead of being expelled as threatened, Harry is offered the position on the quidditch team as a seeker. He then excels as a seeker and is the sole reason his team wins the big quidditch match. He couldn’t even fly a broom the week prior and is now lauded for his skill.
Keep in mind that Harry spent most of his life in a closet.
There is precedent for that by the way. In (then) Czechoslovakia, a pair of 18 month old twins were locked in a confined space and mistreated for the following 7-8 years of their life. On rescue, doctors determined that they possessed the maturity of 3 year olds and an intelligence level that was classified as ‘mental retardation’.
With the care, love and support of a foster home the ‘Koluchova’s Twins’ managed to develop into intelligent functioning adults – a process that took years.
Though Harry’s situation wasn’t nearly as extreme, he would unlikely be knee deep in friends or stand up to bullies on arrival at Hogwarts. He would probably scream anytime he saw stairs.
Image from: joeyandmegan.wordpress.com
Obviously, Harry is the person onto which we project the fantasy of being a skilled, brave and popular person. A person that escaped a hard/disappointing life. We are meant to want to be Harry.
This unearned skill and privilege is a storytelling trope. Luke Skywalker is no different: Here is a laser sword and some magic.
Neo never actually trained in martial arts – he was blessed with Kung-fu via a 5 second download – Bam, he’s living the power fantasy and can beat up ‘the man’.
Take any superhero movie where a ‘thing’ happens and the protagonist gains a superpower that elevates them above all other humans.
Swimming In affection
Now let’s view this concept/trope from the position of video games.
It isn’t even necessary to project onto a character when playing a video game. NPCs will comment on how amazing ‘You’ are. Addressing the player directly.
During E3 I lost count of how many times speakers claimed that you could play the game ‘the way YOU want’. You are the hero. You are the greatest.
Similar to movies, the player character will usually begin either incredibly powerful, or experience an event to make them so. The HEV suit in Half life, Plasmids in Bioshock. An already grizzled soldier in Gears of War and Call Of Duty. Heavy weaponry and pinpoint accuracy with every pull of the trigger from the beginning. The ability to absorb dragon souls or mastery of bullet time. There are many more cases but the general situation is that the player is capable where most others are not.
Sometimes it is an intellectual power fantasy. Nathan Drake is the only person in hundreds of years who worked out how to rotate statues to unlock a door, or the dragonborn was the first to figure out a Fisher Price- like door puzzle. The jaws of the NPCS will hit the floor in amazement, regardless of the simplicity of the task.
You could spend an entire day bingeing on a TV series, but you can spend weeks or even months within the same video game world. (Last I checked I had 363 hours clocked up on Skyrim. That’s over 15 days).
That is no small amount of time for a person to immerse themselves in an environment where they are the hero. The player emerges saturated in flattery, success and glory. If cultivation theory has an effect then the player may leave this message unconsciously internalized after exiting the game. The message being that they are special because they are superior (as opposed to how we are all special because we are unique).
The negative aspects of gaming culture make a lot more sense in this context. Many video games continually reinforce the special-ness of the player. A constant affirmation that they are powerful, skilled, always achieving and only disliked by the immoral, stupid or unreasonable.
A person conditioned with this opinion may respond to real world challenges in the same way they respond to videogame challenges: things that must be utterly defeated. Debates are seen as a zero-sum game. Any compromise would challenge their belief of being physically, intellectually and morally superior.
The other kind of fantasy
Not every game is a narcissistic fantasy, but games that sway on the side of power fantasy tend to be as subtle as the average porno.
In fact, I would compare the fantasy offered by many games to that of pornography – which boils fantasy down to it’s purest form.
If the audience is a straight male then all aspects of pornography are designed with that in mind. Women will be amazed at male biology, perform most, if not all of the pleasing and generally operate under the commands of the man. Even camera angles are positioned in dominating ways, from top down or point of view.
Males in these videos are rewarded with unconditional physical pleasure, compliments and obedience.
Pornography addiction is fueled a lot by this.
The addict projects themselves into this world and the ‘Love’ and ‘Affection’ and pleasure they vicariously receive is substituting the lack of love, affection and pleasure they receive in the real world – but to unrealistic proportions.
I believe a similar effect occurs with certain types of video games, but providing a more social fantasy as opposed to an intimate one.
It’s my party
There have been some public controversies lately which I believe are examples of people lashing out against a perceived threat to their worth and value:
No Man’s Sky was delayed recently and the head developer began receiving death threats.
No Man’s Sky promises to allow you explore the galaxy and go anywhere you want, and though not yet released, is being hyped as a breakthrough in exploration gaming for which many players are eager.
This infamous video shows a Capcom tournament in which a male participant near physically harasses a female player (an uncomfortable watch).
The harasser may have believed that women could not compete on par with men and seeing a woman succeed could have been a threat to his self worth.
Creative decisions are made and developers are accused of being creatively bankrupt, cowardly and so on. R-Mika’s butt slap in Street Fighter V is one such example
R- Mika’s butt slap may have been perceived as taking away the player’s right to titillation and pleasure, which some players may have felt they ‘deserved’.
A female or a person in a minority has an opinion and the backlash is suspiciously more aggressive and hostile than those made against a person that is a white male. I found some figures, which suggest that the majority of players are male (and I imagine that the prevailing opinion is that the majority are also white).
However, this being the case for so long might have conditioned that very audience to feel special and lauded for just making the purchase.
The recurring message I see is that power, attention and validation is being threatened. People get angry because they have been conditioned to feel deserving of all they are offered, molded to have an unrealistic sense of ability and entitlement. Making games more accessible to other demographics may be seen as making games less accessible to them.
No one has the right to throw stones. Gaming culture is toxic because we’re all pissing into the well. Everyone has an effect, and whether or not that effect is positive depends on that person’s awareness.
Starting with the loudest:
If the impulse to scream or lash out emerges after an adverse outcome in a game, then a person has invested to the point of aggression. The same with the urge to jump to the defense of a game that is being criticized, or pounce on those that have conflicting opinions.
This knee jerk aggression is the first alarm that video games are probably fulfilling some emotional/mental need absent from a person’s life. Such hostility is a desperate attempt to protect a source of consistent, unconditional validation.
I can’t point fingers here. I once got into a literal fist fight over Street Fighter.
The knuckles of my right hand are permanently misaligned due to my younger self blaming a wall for my video game loss. I’ve also put my fist through the screen of a newly purchased laptop. (Thanks Metal Gear Solid).
I completely internalized video-game failures as representative of my worth as a human. My failure wasn’t due to needing more practice to nail the timing, nor due to poor level design – or that the game was simply shit. No, I believed that as a person, I was not ‘good’ enough to succeed.
More importantly – the opposite was also true. My gaming victories represented my only perceived personal successes/accomplishments.
And it was no wonder, I hadn’t much in the way of friends or a social life. Video games were a place where my efforts equaled a consistent reward. Unlike real life where I would be socially bulldozed even if acting exactly how people wanted.
Any criticism of the games I played would result in intense defensive feelings. The notion that my pastime (to which I invested so much time and validation) could be anything but perfect was horrifying and not something I would leave undefended. The raw aggressive energy would have been amazing had it not been so destructive.
As I got older, became independent and met mature friends I realized that my way of thinking was grossly misguided. It was an alien feeling at the time, how plainly content I was to be in their company. There was validation with no intensity. No need to defend their presence, or my own.
We played games together, but winning and losing was irrelevant, that wasn’t why we were friends.
I eventually understood that there are people in the world that will genuinely like a person without demanding large amounts of their money or time. I understood the importance of being genuine, avoiding judgement and establishing a common ground and interest. The rest sorts itself out. Seriously, it’s how the human race is designed.
Meanwhile, on the other side…
This is going to sound slightly unfair (especially to victims), but avoid judging those that act out. To be clear: ‘non-judgement’ is not the same as ‘tolerance’. If you feel threatened or unsafe then you have every right to defend and protect yourself in whatever way is appropriate. Make your report, call the police and keep playing or making your games.
There are many stereotypical views related to the appearance and personality of a perpetrators ( AKA Keyboard Warriors) that pertain to their health, their relationship status and their social ability. A lack of sympathy to their situation is understandable given their aggressive behavior, but avoid attacking the dignity of those who already have little self worth.
Insults will result in further (potentially vicious) protective acts, as perpetrators attempt to defend the little self worth they possess – escalating their desperation.
Believe me, they are cripplingly aware of their inadequacies and spend much of their time convincing the world (and themselves) that they are perfectly fine.
Protect yourself, keep playing through and tell these people they need help. Any further engagement is a waste of your time.
I’m certain that no corporate cabal or conspiracy orchestrates players into become raging loyal spenders; but I believe that practices encouraging such loyal and intense fandom are the most profitable and simply rise to the top. Practices such as doting the player with disingenuous affection.
The makers, publishers, and marketers of many computer games fuel the fire of aggression by conditioning players to feel like the most special deserving people in the world. Either through marketing or by saturating them with the fantasy.
It would help for games makers to break away from the standard more often, not just by having more diversity, but by having games that challenge the player’s expectations of being the sole heroic entity. Movies manage this with complex anti-heroes or protagonists that fail regardless of their skill – and still reach a satisfactory conclusion. Figure it out game writers.
I find it interesting to compare video games to other media. Take novels for example – an author will create and portray a world to best tell their story – they aren’t selling their books as ‘everything the readers want’. A competent writer would resist compromising their vision due to the insecurities of certain readers. There is a certain respect communicated to the audience when the author feels no need to treat the reader gingerly.
I always question the video game marketing line of ‘play your way’. It sounds as if all creative vision was stripped away to cater to the audience. If I’m getting everything I want, then there can’t be much room left for what the creators wanted.
I wish to avoid sounding like I want all power fantasy/hero games to cease; I enjoy these types of games myself. But I would certainly like to spread awareness of moderation on part of those that both play and make games.
I mirror video game escapism to that of eating and drinking. Food and alcohol aren’t problematic things by default, but depending on a person’s social situation, insecurities and vulnerabilities, can be very problematic for the individual.
Companies profit greatly from such personal issues and evolving video games (consciously or not) to cater to such a susceptible audience will increase the volatility of an already troubled and defensive group.
As a player, I understand that video games are mainly used as escapism, but escapism implies the existence of a real life threat from which a person must escape. The intensity at which a person feels about video games could be directly proportionate to the intensity of danger they feel about real life.