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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?

Article by Pete Davison, .

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.

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Comments 16

  • Avatar for Andy1975 #1 Andy1975 3 years ago
    What's always struck me about Fish's case is that he's a guy who's at worst an asshole (mostly likely suffering from some degree of mental illness, not that it makes his comments less obnoxious), but "gamers" mobilize against him with the kind of hostility that people in the real world generally reserve for murderers or sex offenders. It's not that I like the guy, but my feelings on his personality don't matter since I don't have to live with him. I just played his game and thought it was interesting and fun. There are books, music, and movies that I've enjoyed that were made by people who said, and more importantly did things much worse than Fish ever has.
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  • Avatar for BitBrushStudios #2 BitBrushStudios 3 years 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.
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  • Avatar for weevilo #3 weevilo 3 years 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 :)
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  • Avatar for docexe #4 docexe 3 years 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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  • Avatar for dr134 #5 dr134 3 years ago
    I have found that I have a lot more success in meeting nice online players by playing co-op, instead of competitive games online.

    Most of my friends list that are not people I know in real life are from playing Rock Band 1-3, N+, or other co-op games online.

    Once I have some friends to play with, then I am willing to venture into the competitive online games, with my new friends for backup.
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  • Avatar for dr134 #6 dr134 3 years ago
    Now that both next gen systems record game play automatically, I wonder if they could also record the audio chat.

    It should be easy to report people who are cheating/glitching online, since there will be a video record that you could submit. If something like that could be done for voice chat as well, maybe we would see a decrease in the vitriol that is spewed by anonymous online gamers.

    Then again, I'm not sure I would want my chat being recorded, even for a good purpose.
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  • Avatar for Godots17thCup #7 Godots17thCup 3 years ago
    I'm almost exclusively a solo-player gamer and have been for a long time now, but while there are many more important reasons why I prefer those kinds of games, I'd be lying if I said "the worst fucking people" haven't been a factor in that.

    I'm not proud to admit that my own crippling social anxieties, in tandem with the attitudes & behavior of a few loud jackasses and my general dislike of being berated, have prevented me from trying (or sticking with) games I might otherwise like, but I feel as if there are still enough fun games and quality gaming communities out there that can let me enjoy myself without having to put up with so much unnecessary, juvenile bullcrap.
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  • Avatar for docexe #8 docexe 3 years ago
    @Andy1975 I get your point. Honestly, I’m of the personal opinion that you have to judge the artist separated from the art piece, and that an artist being a jerk, asshole or whatever should not detract from the quality of their work.

    Unfortunately, many people are incapable of separating the two, and some people just take their passion about whatever thing they like to such unhealthy levels that they can be quite vicious against the author if they perceive an offense of some kind, no matter if real or imagined. The word “fan” comes from “fanatic” after all, with both the positive and negative elements that come with it.

    In the case of Phil Fish… well, I don’t think is so much mental illness as just a lack of the people skills that would have allowed him to conduct himself in a more appropriate manner. He does make a point about the abuse he has received, and Marcus Beer did act in an equally disgusting manner, but ultimately I think that the way he is leaving the industry will just paint an ever more negative opinion about him. Hopefully, some people won’t take that against Fez, neither let such things color their view on the quality of the game.
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  • Avatar for AxiomVerge #9 AxiomVerge 3 years ago
    Right there with you on the voice chat. Heck, even the things people say in text chat makes me want to hide in a corner and weep.
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  • Avatar for Kuni-Nino #10 Kuni-Nino 3 years ago
    I like Marcus Beer, but he sometimes he takes his annoyed gamer schtick a bit too far. So I'm guessing that he's the one responsible for leading the charge against Phil? How unfortunate.
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  • Avatar for benjaminlu86 #11 benjaminlu86 3 years ago
    While it's true that the most obscene, obnoxious people in the gaming community or any community are generally the minority, it's imperative that the leaders in the community take steps to curtail it. It's really, really easy to throw your hands in the air and give up (aka, the IGN method prior to Butts' piece). It's also really, really easy for the majority of non-assholes to just try to ignore the problem, as if it say "I'm not the one doing it, so it's not my fault". But in reality, we're all culpable for allowing to happen in our backyards, our favorite online communities. When we allow assholes to persist and have a voice, we're just letting them poison the well for everyone.
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  • Avatar for Funny_Colour_Blue #12 Funny_Colour_Blue 3 years ago
    Deleted July 2013 by Funny_Colour_Blue
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  • Avatar for pjedavison #13 pjedavison 3 years ago
    Some fantastic discussion on this piece, everyone; thank you for your contributions.

    I'm glad that the vast majority of people do seem to accept and acknowledge that this sort of thing is a problem. Now the challenge, as with anything that is a problem in society, comes in determining how to tackle it.

    We've heard from@dr134 that a potential solution is to only play with an established group of friends, or concentrate on co-op games to establish that group in the first place. That's an approach I endorse and actually follow myself -- I try and avoid playing with strangers whenever possible, particularly in competitive games, but this often leads to not feeling able to play certain things if the rest of your group isn't around.

    Does anyone else have any alternative suggestions on how the community as a whole might be able to go about tackling these issues?
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  • Avatar for Stealth20k #14 Stealth20k 3 years ago
    @pjedavison Respect, Patience, fun goes a long way
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  • Avatar for Thusian #15 Thusian 3 years ago
    Lots of jobs make you take shit, game devs, movie makers etc. are not alone in this. If you find it too much to handle by all means back out. I have seen people leave the public service in my circle of friends because despite working their asses off they get to hear about how they are lazy in efficient and even get threatened. So I can see why Fish might want to back out if he is feeling the burn. I loose a little bit of sympathy because he did seem to love dishing it out when he wasn't taking it.

    Beers represents my biggest problem with a lot of game sites. A problem that makes me consider just checking meta-critic to find out what is new and upcoming. The cult of personality built on an opinionated Asshole. The whole annoyed gamer premise is that he is going to shoot his mouth off. Problem is then the audience builds up around a set of behaviors and first they start imitating then trying to go one step up and the next thing you know gaming enthusiast sites and social media are running amok with Annoyed Gamer Jr.s everywhere. What kills me even more is that then sites like Game Trailers get on tangents about how shitty their community has gotten. Well, "I learned it from watching you dad!"

    Bottom line if anyone wants to back out of anything for their own reasons that's their business even if I am not a big personal fan of them. If you want to have a bigger discussion about how some of the most negative vocal members of the gaming community got in there, well then it might be time to look in the mirror and think about what kind of attitude we've been selling. Not being a dick starts with the editorial voice of the site, if you ask me. Sure some awful people will still come in, but I suspect the number would be lower, and people socialized with the more respectful tone would just drown them out anyway.
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  • Avatar for fullyillustrated #16 fullyillustrated 3 years ago
    It all boils down to playground mentality at the end of the day. If there is one kid that looks weak, even for a moment, then the bullies step in and start to work on them. If they see that they are getting to the kid its game over, as the floodgates open and every nasty little blighter in the playground with personal issues dives in to take out their frustrations.

    The web just takes this localised playground scenario and plays it out on a global scale.

    What can we do about it? Very little I suspect as there isn't a head teacher to run to.
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  • Avatar for kampret #17 kampret 2 days ago

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