How We Treat Each Other Is Important

I had the great good fortune to participate in a podcast about the link between video games and gun violence last weekend, and while I wasn’t terribly cogent when speaking, the discussion got me thinking about some stuff, so I turn to my blog.

Most (all, I think) of the folks participating seemed to agree that there isn’t much of a case for causation between video game violence and real-world violence. In trying to explore what things could be a factor, a point that I thought was very interesting came up – gamer “culture,” and the way we treat each other when we’re protected by a shield of anonymity.

This is where my lived experience and speculation starts, so take it all with a grain of salt, and please let me know where you think I might be wrong, or where your experience tells you differently.

I’ve always had issues with anger and frustration, and I would get very frustrated with games as a kid. Hell, I still get frustrated now. I get mad at myself for not being the best at games and I forget to enjoy the process of learning to accomplish what I need to accomplish. The frustration keeps me from improving, and then I’m mad that I’m not improving, and then… you get the idea, I imagine. Round and round until I throw a controller and break the first disc of Metal Gear Solid.

This kind of frustration is bad enough in a single-player game, but transposed upon a multi-player game, it becomes more damaging for everyone involved.

When we’re playing a game competitively, face-to-face, there’s a definite feeling in the air when a person or people are becoming frustrated. Competitive gameplay means that someone always has to lose, but some people are better equipped to handle losing. Sometimes a person is just having a bad day, or other frustrations in their lives make it harder to deal with the negative feelings associated with losing.

Many times, if we’re in a group and we can sense other parties beginning to have a difficult time with their frustration, we offer to change to a different game, or do something else. We don’t want our friends to become so frustrated that they will avoid playing games with us in the future, and we are usually invested in our friends’ well-being and want them to be happy.

Now we throw online gaming into the mix. Online, you are potentially grouping up with a person or people you don’t know. You’ve never met them before, and you may never meet them again. These people may not be real to you outside of one match, and if that match goes poorly, your opinion of these people is also poor.

In five-minute matches, there is no incentive to invest in the rest of your team – to take the time to get to know them, to help them learn, to learn from them. It’s win-or-lose, and when you lose you’re more likely to be frustrated, to blame everyone else, and to cut them loose. They’re disposable, and disposing of them is a sop to your damaged self-worth.

Ultimately what this teaches us is to dehumanize the other players to make it easier to win, or to feel good about ourselves when we don’t win.

Way too many years ago, I briefly played an online multiplayer game called The Odyssey Online. It was some kind of bizarre action RPG mashup with wonky sprite graphics that haunts my dreams. As a new player, you would run around trying to find things weak enough to kill to give you gear so you could kill slightly less weak things and so on and so forth. Certain areas of the game were marked as PK (Player Killer) areas, where players could kill each other.

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Oh My God, this game is still going.

As a new baby player, I was hunting for gear when I was invited to enter a guild house, where I was assured free equipment and gold would be waiting for me. Looking back, I have no idea why I entered that guild house. I can only assume that I was much more optimistic about human kindness twenty years ago. I went in and got immediately murdered, dropped all of the gear I had managed to acquire (not much), and respawned in the starting area.

It’s funny. It is. I think it’s hilarious and I understand why you’d do it. But that’s just an example of how trolling is incentivized online. Laughs, some (small) gain with regards to the game itself (my gear), no downside (as far as I can recall there was no system for reporting players back then. It was assumed that if you were in a PK area, you got what you got).

(As an aside, please don’t think I’m trying to paint a picture of myself as someone who would never troll anyone. I spent many hours in AOL chatrooms convincing kids that a hidden plaid materia existed in Final Fantasy VII, and it would bring Aerith back. I am in no way shape or form immune from the delights of schadenfreude.)

This idea that, if you were foolish enough to get got, it was your problem and not the problem of the person trolling you, was encouraged and rewarded by the interactions of the mid-90’s internet, where there were few reprisals for these interactions and they were easily stepped around if one was computer-savvy.

Where did this idea come from? Well, everywhere. Our parents, advertising, coaches, teachers… there is a pervasive concept in our society of the ends justifying the means. That cheating isn’t cheating as long as you don’t get caught (or only get caught long after getting caught means anything). Hey, if people are dumb enough to buy my dehydrated water, then I deserve their money! Right?

Competitive games tend to reward winning at any cost. If you win, you are the superior player. It doesn’t matter if you won and you’re a jerk – you still WON. The game provides positive feedback. If you were at an arcade, playing a fighting game, and you won because you bumped into your opponent and goofed up their combo – you still won. Some people don’t feel comfortable about winning that way. Some people can’t help savoring the feeling of winning, no matter what the means.

I want to highlight that point – this is not to say that anyone who feels good about winning is bad. Our brains are wired, chemically, to incentivize success. Perhaps for people who have a better cushion of ways to feel good about themselves, it’s easier to walk away from the jolt of endorphins that floods your brain when you win. For others, it might be the only way they can feel good.

So, in my opinion, we have a problem on multiple fronts:

  1. Dehumanization of fellow players
  2. Assignment of blame to victims (arguably easier after dehumanizing them)
  3. Narrow definition of success as ‘winning’
  4. Poor environmental support for those with neurochemical challenges

How do we deal with any of this? I think the biggest step is redefining success. Rewiring ourselves as people and as a society to celebrate things that aren’t just big wins. Reframing losses as learning experiences, and being able to examine and discuss losses without shame.

Support each other, and care about each other, and take care of one another. Think about how you treat each other. No one is going to be able to never upset or offend another human being. But we can still put the effort in. We can be open to feedback. We can give a shit.

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