Hopefully, what I’m getting at here is that I screamed at the traffic light because it is in the nature of human beings to be assholes, and that the systems and interactions created by our technologies can stress the hell out of human beings on the way there, who will log into their favorite online videogames and then lash out at others because they lost a very important match inside of a very important children’s toy.
So contrary to what the shut-ins may believe about videogames and who seem to live inside of these digital worlds — instead of merely being obsessed with them — videogames do not exist in a bubble, and they have to be understood holistically. Which is to say that many of the interactions and outbursts that result from the videogames then proceed to play out in a larger one, a game that is mostly text-adventure, one known as the internet, a rapidly-changing format that has allowed individuals to channel their nastiness in ways that older channels of communication could not.
The platform is a natural extension of developments in the modern news cycle, where the person who once learned about the about the world from a daily newspaper and a thirty-minute news program — both bound to publishing platforms that would have kept crazy people such as myself in check — can now learn about the conspiracy. And the individuals who would have lectured their farm animals on this conspiracy can now, with a little bit of luck and a loud enough voice, broadcast to millions of individuals who will be stunned to learn that some animals are more equal than others.
So what we propose is that the media platforms have undergone substantial shifts that lead to fundamentally different ways that individuals interact with the information and what kind of information they get from this cycle, much in the way that the perception of “toxic behavior” has been egged on by new technologies within cyberspace. With every subsequent year, the platform driving most of today’s toxic interactions becomes faster and shinier, with more bandwidth, with more capacity for individuals to express the ground-breaking opinion that some human beings are not particularly good at operating a mouse and keyboard in order to dominate other human beings inside of a digital space.
What we are suggesting is that the behavior didn’t really change, the platforms did, and our ability to archive and categorize and act upon the behavior did.
But in order to understand the modern phenomena of young children screaming racist epithets into a microphone, we have to remember that videogaming was once a world where multiplayer gaming was mostly a novelty, a thing that the medium once left to the wayside when they become complex enough to do artificial intelligence of any kind, with Pong being firmly replaced by Space Invaders and Asteroids and Pac-Man. And from there, it would be another long decade before Street Fighter II would tap into a market for children who are only physically imposing enough to beat the crap out of other people inside of videogames.
In other words, modern videogaming is now fundamentally different than the more (and occasionally less) innocent days where salty children jawed at each other in front of the Street Fighter cabinet, and there was the very real chance that my fighting videogames would become real-life. But even in those earlier and more nascent days, multiplayer gaming of all kinds was a social activity that required some level of face-to-face interaction, most often involving groups of people that knew each other, and assuming that eight-year-old Joey Matheson thought fireballs were cheating, there were social and physical barriers that would prevent the jackass from acting out on his stupidity and ignorance.
That’s because most of this multiplayer gaming was done through split-screen formats, with co-operative arcade and home gaming being one of its biggest draws, and then in the computer formats through Local Area Networks. And while arcades have always had their reputation for deviant behavior,1 the scope and reach of these incidents went as far as locals thought it be interesting to talk about. If people came to blows or jawed at each other, there was a good chance you would have never seen or heard about these things, or experienced them.
Which is to once again demonstrate that as the games and the platforms and the means by which players interact with each other change, so do the type of interactions, and with it, the degree and intensity of the interactions. And things obviously change, they change very quickly in the modern world, so today, the “toxic” behaviors associated with videogames exist inside the scope and spectrum of a mostly-anonymous platform where you can say hateful things without repercussion, because if we were standing face-to-face right now, I would absolutely kick the crap out of you, and you wouldn’t stand a chance as I begin raining elbows down on your pathetic corpse.
But the online gaming of the early- and mid-nineties was very different than modern times, manifest around convoluted networking programs and expensive computer hardware, the days where online internet was still being billed by the hour. This meant that the format demanded a group of individuals that, if not thought to be from a well-off middle-class, were the kinds of individuals who had to be intelligent enough to work the job that would allow them to purchase the computer, and then figure out how to operate it.2 Social, economic, and intellectual barriers were still mostly in play during this time.
This was merely the beginning of the videogame culture that has now come to dominate most everything in the online spectrum, a version of the platform whose speed and reach and capacity would seem almost incomprehensible to the children who are now growing up on a platform where they can watch movies and television at incredible fidelity with real-time access, a platform where bandwidth was so limited that it was often easier to create the pornography out of walls of text that merely appeared to look like images.3
And while certain companies and individuals have always desired to become the internet, the glory years of America Online being a particular and notable example, the internet of the late 1990s and early 2000s was a place where most of those larger entities (Google, Yahoo!, Geocities) existed to direct individuals towards the particular topics that they were interested in, small and anonymous communities powered by asymmetrical infrastructures that acted as barriers for the migration of ideas and images across the platform, where entering a new community meant creating a new handle and developing a reputation to justify it.
So there was certainly nasty behavior in this version of the internet, but I like to think of those advertisements for Las Vegas, where the things I did on that cold morning in November of 2001 stayed in Las Vegas, and where terrible and abhorrent behaviors were mostly a self-contained series of outbursts inside of a nascent platform that simply lacked the technologies to become international incidents. This meant that when someone went ahead and gave choice opinions on your mother inside of a Counter-Strike or a Warcraft III, or we defer to John Gabriel’s infamous theory of internet anonymity, the course of events that would have to transpire were simply too difficult and impersonal for anything to get more than limited traction.
Think about this with a cool head. Who was going to host the offending pictures or text with their precious bandwidth? What consequences were there going to be for attacking anonymous individuals who could shapeshift with a new user handle? By what process was the offensive content going to get from one tiny messageboard to the next? Why would someone care if someone who wasn’t a member of their community said this offensive thing on the internet that you probably heard in half of the Age of Empires matches you heard, anyway?4 So when community figureheads said dumb shit — and dumb shit, they would say5 — it quickly came and went and would quickly be lost to history.
But we have seen how this has turned out, that in the decade or so after Quake and Unreal Tournament and a generation of online role-playing games mostly spearheaded the idea of videogames which were exclusively designed to be played through the internet, there was an incredible evolution in the format of the internet, not merely that individuals have more and greater access to bandwidth than they did at the time, soon leading to public websites that had the capacity to archive everything from text, to voice, and even video. If Warcraft III had come out in 2019, instead of 2003, the reach and volatility of its caustic userbase would have manifested in fundamentally different ways.
That’s because the transgressions now travel across “social media” websites, taking the horse-and-buggy days of information moving “slowly” from website to website and transforming it into super-connected highways that now bridge all of the various small and large websites together, websites which effectively contain most of the internet and bridge together billions of different users who can quickly and seamlessly connect on any range of issues without having to join a specialized messageboard to do it,6 formats where your grandparents can now be dragged into a debate they would have otherwise had no interest in.
These websites have also pushed the idea that the internet is a public place, encouraging individuals to use their real name and their real identities inside of the anonymous platform. So it is not merely that you can attach these behaviors to real-world individuals, finding out that “WhitePower77” is actually a real-world racist motherfucker, but you have torn down a very important break point, where it would be assumed in the previously anonymous platform that outing someone’s public identity would have been a breach of internet discourse.
In the space where so many people are already public, outing someone’s public persona becomes easy, because for a new crowd of individuals brought onto the internet by Facebook, “public” is the expectation. So while videogames may be mostly anonymous, they’re connected to gaming profiles and enough information all across the internet, most of which is essentially being archived by these massive and long-lasting websites that would have previously come and gone, that if someone isn’t using their real identity, the private persona can very quickly become a public one with a long paper trail.
So today, a public individual with a public persona and hundreds-of-thousands of followers on a video streaming platform uses a very stupid word that they should not be using, and the brown-nosers and moral regulators are very angry about this. The breakdown of anonymous personas mean that you can now direct genuine consequences against the individual, who exists inside this format where the internet is now considered a public space, inside of a platform where individuals can now make their online presence a salary and a profession, which provides even more incentive to the kind of individual who seeks to lash out at reality.
And within minutes, footage of this incident can be uploaded to massive file-sharing and social media websites that are designed to contain as much of the internet as possible, using integrated platforms that allow individuals to seamlessly use the Twitters and Reddits and Facebooks as superhighways that get the content from one part of the internet to the next, egged on by saboteurs and perhaps even nation-states who have a vested interest in pushing the kinds of racist and sexist drivel that fracture the digital communities which have been created through real-world interactions.
These incidents now create a multitude of “discussions” and “dialogues” that keep these behaviors in the forefront of online media and news, mostly archived into perpetuity and also perpetuated through an increasing number of various more advanced mechanisms — once confined to walls of text on a screen, or chat inside of a videogame, now capable of disseminating through videogames which standardize voice chat, or allow individuals to perpetuate their behaviors through the massive video-sharing websites and earn massive audiences in the process, and even exhaustively archived through websites cataloging individuals in their weaker moments.7
By its sheer intensity and volume, in ways that previous media models never could have, this allows for toxic incidents to become international ones. So it’s much in the same way that sports leagues self-sabotage themselves by moving forward with the strict drug-testing programs that catch more cheaters, and thus in the public’s eye, creates the perception that they are the “cheater” sports.8 The kinds of interactions that would have come and gone on an Unreal Tournament or a Warcraft III can now become the things that ruin the reputation of individuals and linger and persist like a pestilence.
And the point of this, hopefully now understood, is that it is critical to understand videogames within the context of this media platform, because in a way, I’m actually saying that videogame developers are not entirely at-fault here, because they’re not the ones designing the communications system that has become the backbone of their videogame communities. It’s more that nobody has “designed” anything, really, that the internet is a ramshackle bumfuck of a disaster designed by socially-awkward code monkeys who will be the first to go when we start murdering all of the robots. Videogame developers have been given the inglorious goal of trying to make the most of a bad situation.
So it’s more to say that videogame developers would ideally understand that their videogames are using this communications platform as the base, and that their games have to be designed in order to appropriately reflect this circumstance. Unfortunately, the people making these games ALSO tend to be the antisocial types, egged on by the corporate types who could not get the high score on the Pac-Man machine, so they try to get the high score for year-to-year operating revenues, instead. And it seems the goal in the 21st century is not to create the platforms that allow for harmony or community, but to automate as much of the racket as possible in order to maximize profit.9
The cabal is collectively shaping their tiny slice of this platform, and we shall now demonstrate that the rules and the systems inside of these videogames are the gasoline in a big and delicious dumpster fire.
Continue to Part 3 (Coming Soon)