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The Importance of Wheaton's Law

After a somewhat tumultuous weekend in the games industry, can't we do better in the ways we interact with one another?

By Pete Davison. Published 8 months ago

Whether or not you're a fan of King Geek Wil Wheaton, you're probably familiar with Wheaton's Law: the simple, straight and to-the-point suggestion to "don't be a dick."

And yet it's a law so frequently forgotten; a rule so easily broken in the heat of the moment. Not by everyone, and not all the time, but by enough people often enough to make it a big problem every now and then.

This weekend just gone was one such occasion, though it's far from an isolated incident. GameTrailers' "Annoyed Gamer" Marcus Beer and notoriously outspoken indie dev Phil Fish had a spat in which neither of them came out looking particularly good, culminating in Fish cancelling his upcoming Fez sequel and seemingly departing the games industry altogether.

The threats of violence and abuse against Treyarch's David Vonderhaar, chronicled on a fairly horrifying Tumblr page here, make up another of these occasions. (Vonderhaar's offense, if you didn't know, was that he rebalanced the stats on some of Black Ops II's guns in multiplayer, which apparently is worthy of some horrendous threats in the eyes of some players who liked them the way they were.)

Treyarch's David Vonderhaar received numerous threats of violence against both himself and his family after the recent Black Ops II patch.

These incidents, coupled with many others like them, don't make the community of "gamers" as a whole look good. And while some of you may be quick to point out that there is really no such thing as a "gamer" because everyone likes all sorts of different things -- a viewpoint I agree with, as it happens -- we have to consider the fact that these high-profile incidents are the things that people from outside our hobby of choice tend to notice and pick up on, rather than the many, many more good stories that come out of the medium on a daily basis.

Cultural attitudes towards video games have shifted significantly over the years. When I was a child, playing computer and video games was somewhat ostracized -- it wasn't something that was particularly "cool" to do. As the years passed and games became more culturally acceptable thanks to the high profile of systems such as the original PlayStation, it looked like things were finally improving for the geeks of the world; games were becoming accepted and even celebrated at last. Today, we find ourselves in a position where a new game release will easily match or even outstrip a big movie, and games such as Call of Duty, Madden and Nintendo Land appeal to an audience of people who wouldn't even have considered picking up a controller before.

And yet we're at risk of the gaming medium becoming ostracized and socially unacceptable once again. This time, though, it's not at risk from the school bullies or the jocks; it's at risk from Fox News, the Daily Mail and the people who visit those outlets -- the people who only see the negativity and abuse in the industry because that's all they want to see, and because that negativity is the stuff that bubbles to the surface. We're at risk of being branded, as Fish once said, as "the worst fucking people."

Which is unfair, really, isn't it? Because we're not a homogenous group, nor should we be. There are people out there who prefer Japanese games; people who prefer Western games. There's people who enjoy spending their time shooting their friends in Call of Duty multiplayer; there's those who would rather play solo in Skyrim. There's those who think League of Legends is better than Dota and vice-versa. Many of these groups, while opposed in their opinions, can carry on their lives either respecting one another or happily remaining oblivious to each other. Many of these groups simply want to get on with playing games and enjoying the experience rather than yelling, hurling abuse and threatening one another. Very few of us, in fact, are "the worst fucking people."

Fish certainly isn't blameless in this whole affair; he's said his share of unpleasant things over the years, though often in response to unprovoked abuse he's received.

Let me get personal for a minute, if you'll indulge me. I have, for as long as I can remember, struggled with issues relating to social anxiety. This manifests itself in many forms, but one of the many means through which social situations make me anxious is real-time communication on the Internet -- particularly voice chat with strangers. The reason for this is that I'm afraid of doing or saying something wrong, and these people I don't know getting angry or upset at me.

It's an irrational fear, of course, but one which I've had "confirmed" to me on enough occasions in the past to make me feel like it's still "worth" being scared about. On an occasion when I was trying out Dungeons & Dragons Online for the first time, for example, I got yelled at because it was my first time playing and I had trouble with a (terrible) platforming section in one of the dungeons I was running with a group of random strangers. (I logged out immediately afterwards and never played that game again.) On another occasion, I was playing Rainbow Six Vegas online on Xbox Live, and was laughed and jeered at for not being very good in one round; yelled at for being a "hacker" when I somehow, against all odds, managed to win the next. (I didn't play that game online again after that.)

These memories may sound laughable to the more confident among you -- not to mention the fact that they both relate to quite old games -- but they're enough to make someone like me never want to play, say, Dota 2 or League of Legends, as those games' communities already have a reputation for not being welcoming -- something backed up by Jaz's first experiences with the former from a couple of weeks ago. They're enough to make me want to mute my headset when I'm playing against strangers on Xbox Live; enough to make me almost want to swear off online gaming altogether.

What an awful situation to be in, no? To feel unable and unwelcome to enjoy specific experiences because of the attitudes and negativity of others. I'm sure I'm not the only one out there who feels like this, either; how sad that there are likely other people out there like me who feel like they're being actively excluded from parts of a medium that we all, supposedly mutually love.

And it's not just in online games that this is a problem on occasion, either; negativity, irrational anger and personal attacks are also a part of the culture surrounding gaming on the Web.

The unwelcoming reptuation of some games' communities -- deserved or not -- makes some people feel unable to engage in experiences they might otherwise enjoy.

Take the recent piece from IGN's Steve Butts in which he promised that his team would be changing the comments culture on the site; within an hour, there were several thousand responses, many of which were either personally abusive towards Steve, or reflective of an attitude where unpleasantness in its myriad forms had become the norm, rather than the exception.

We haven't even been immune here on USgamer, even though we're a new site; a review we posted a while back enjoyed a comment from someone who hurled abuse at the reviewer because her opinion disagreed with theirs. That said, I hasten to add that the commenter in question was swiftly dealt with, both by the editorial team and the community at large, so thank you to everyone who helped prevent that situation escalating unnecessarily. And thank you to those of you who do leave helpful, productive and thought-provoking comments on our work -- it's always a pleasure to discuss things with people who are actually interested in talking.

While it may look bleak, as I've noted above, it's a relatively small subset of people who are abusive, negative and unpleasant in gamer culture, whether it's in an online game or in a comments section. But those voices tend to be the loudest ones; the ones that get noticed by people outside the gaming medium as a whole.

It doesn't have to be that way, though. Judging from the high quality of comments and community engagement we've had around here since launch, I'm pretty sure I'm preaching to the choir here, but I'll say it anyway: a little positivity, enthusiasm and even lively debate never hurt anyone, whereas cynicism, anger and abuse all hurt lots of people.

I find it a little sad that situations such as those which we saw over the weekend crop up in the first place, because the gaming community as a whole -- regardless of what your individual tastes are -- should be better than that. We're a medium that still struggles for a sense of legitimacy in the eyes of many people, and if we ever want to shake that stigma off, we need to pull together and show the world that we're better than the people shouting swear words and threats of violence at a Call of Duty developer and his family because he changed the stats on an imaginary gun; that we're better than the people hurling abuse at Phil Fish; and that we're better than Phil Fish and Marcus Beer for saying unpleasant things to each other and letting an argument get seriously, seriously out of control.

In short: you're an active participant on the Internet, and you can make your little bit of it better for everyone by thinking about the way you act and the things you say.

In shorter: Don't be a dick.

The best community comments so far 16 comments

  • BitBrushStudios 8 months ago

    Another spot on piece Pete. It's reassuring to read about your personal struggle with social anxiety, as your experiences mirror my own. I was a fighting game enthusiast for most of my young life. When online gaming finally became the norm with the XB360, and PS3, I was so excited to enter a world of infinite play and endless opponents for Street Fighter, DOA, etc. Then reality struck hard. The constant mockery and garbage language made me feel so unwelcome that I could never have any fun, and still can't to this day . . . unless it's local multiplayer. It can be tough out there for those of us who go online expecting fun and basic human decency.

  • weevilo 8 months ago

    I think once the older generation that grew up without video games looses their grip on the majority of national media outlets, we'll finally stop seeing gaming being singled out for stuff like this. Go look at any random online community forum, be it for gardening or model train enthusiasts, and you're going to find lots of ignorant and hateful people spewing their opinions at other people. I just came from reading a CNN article's comments and it's worse than your average Youtube pewdiepie gaming video comments, yet no one is pointing out a problem with mainstream cable news outlets and their communities.

    The real problem isn't with how we're perceived by non-gamers, but as you mentioned, how harmful interactions in online games can turn potential players away from a game altogether. The only solution there I think is to slowly build up a network of online friends, or to find a good community you can latch on to. As well intentioned as developers like Riot are in trying to come up with gamified solutions to build a healthier community around their game, that approach will never work in my opinion. People need the accountability that comes with being part of a smallish community where reputations matter. You're seeing that here with the birth of this website. It's still small enough that it's mostly respectful and helpful, but if it gets to the size of Eurogamer for example, you'll see a lot more lazy and stupid posts, along with a smaller but steady helping of hate and bile. Selfishly, I hope you never get that big :)

  • docexe 8 months ago

    @weevilo These two links relate to what you mention:
    http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TheLawOfFanJackassery
    http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/GIFT

    Certainly this is a problem that has pervaded pretty much all of the internet, no matter the subject matter. The dark side of some of the inherent things that make internet alluring in the first place: Immediacy, anonymity and lack of real life consequences. It certainly can get depressing, and sadly, the most you can do in many cases is to not participate or distance yourself from the toxic communities.

    That being said, even if in the big picture it might seem futile, that shouldn’t stop journalists, moderators, community managers and the like from combating this kind of behavior, let alone remembering people the importance of having some human basic decency, like Pete is doing here. It might not have any positive effect on the most vicious trolls, “haters” and general abuse dispensers, but sometimes a few people do get to reflect on their behavior and moderate it. Making small steps is better than not doing anything at all.

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