When I was younger, I spent a lot of time feeling bad about myself. It wasn’t anything terribly traumatic, but a likely common story for the nerdier folks going through life. For me, I’ve always been a little bit on the smaller side, I wore glasses from a young age, I liked Japanese cartoons and videogames, I was in a unique education program where I spoke French for much of my school day, segregated from the other English classes… All of these things combined made me a kid that was easy to make fun of.
I never had much confidence to push back against my bullies, either. I still don’t. I let things wash over me because I’m stronger against the general tide than I would be against directed pressure. So, like many of the people I play games with side-by-side in arcades and online, I grew up finding solace and a degree of kindness in gaming communities and media. I found my space by rejecting the rest of the world, and turned to small groups of friends, gaming magazines, forums, and IRC channels to give me the kindness I couldn’t find elsewhere.
For me, games were an escape. Freedom from a crueler outside world.
In the years since my time at school, I’ve become more secure and confident in no small part thanks to time away from the worst of it, therapy, and new life experiences. In the same time, games too have grown from being this strange, time-waster for children into something people do. Not just kids, but lawyers, real estate agents, doctors. Although they’re not quite as common as going to see movies or reading books, games are a normal part of most everyone’s media landscape. No longer fringe, games and those who play them have grown into a world that’s more accepting, less judgemental, and less alien. But I would be lying if I felt like they always deserved it.
For as freeing as games have been for me, I recognize that they aren’t that way for everyone. When people, particularly the apparently non-male or non-white folks, play popular games online, the default lesson to learn is that being harassed for your perceived sex or race is the norm, it should be expected. Some have argued that sexual harassment is just a part of the community, and doesn’t need to change. Although not always in my immediate field of view, these are all things that I see happening around me. I believe it’s keeping games locked into a rigid shape, and keeps people who could breathe new life locked out. I think games would be better if it didn’t enforce this kind of normalcy so aggressively. I would love it in games in general weren’t so defensive about staying exactly as they are, warts and all.
When I recently tried to talk about it, those who seem most defensive about these sorts of criticisms turn very aggressively toward me. Some of the highlights include being told to “Quit. Games Journalism is not something you’re good at. Fuck off[.]” or told that I’m attacking the games community and that it never ends well. As of time of writing, the comments section on the article sits at 357, mostly populated by arguments about my lack of writing talent, suggestions that I’m bullying the games community by writing the article I did, or folks arguing amongst themselves about points tangentially related to what I had written about. Taken as a whole, the immediately community around me had become a very hostile space for a week, in part because I represented something the general community took as an invader in their hobby. As someone who’s been in the community a while, and even though I have decently thick skin for this kind of thing, this has been anything but a welcoming space.
The vitriol of the community I experienced that week was horrible, but I know it’s also what some experience as “normal.”
That concept leaves a pit in my stomach, and a sinking sense that this discussion and the issues that surround it are a lot bigger than just things I can address. It gives me the sensation that no matter what influence I can try to have on gaming at large, this space—a normally welcoming environment that I’ve turned to for years in order to escape the cold and cruel whimsy for ridicule and emotional abuse found elsewhere—is actually just another space for cold and cruel whimsy for ridicule and abuse. It’s just not usually aimed at me.
Because this is what the gaming community is. Publicly airing these kinds of opinions don’t changes those who play games, it just reveals the sides of them that are normally more smoothed over. The mere existence of this criticism doesn’t manifest this kind of rage, anger, and bullying from commenters out of the void. It’s there already, and always has been, waiting for any excuse to spiral out into the world like a rocket targeting the most recent person to speak out.
Likewise, the tactics employed by the various bullies don’t simply ooze out of ether to possess otherwise good-natured gaming enthusiasts. The personal attacks, the accusations of trying to take things away, the targeted and repeated bullying, and the research to find vulnerabilities are also part-and-parcel in gaming’s collective conscious. They come from somewhere. As much as I have a soft spot for games enthusiasts, who often have histories similar to mine, I’ll never forget that much of the bullying tactics in gaming as a whole were copied wholesale from the bullies the gaming community turned inward to avoid. There is no moral high ground to be taken. Gaming is full of bullies, even if they feel for whatever reason that they’re doing what’s best for gaming.
Although this isn’t what the gaming community is to me—at least not often—this is what the gaming community is. Full stop. Failing to acknowledge that this is an enormous feature of the community as a whole is being dishonest about just how inhospitable games can be. I love games and their communities most times, but we’re not good people. At best, we’re people who usually behave well. Realistically, we’re people who behave only when we have to.
I’d love for gaming to be a welcoming, inclusive, diverse space. As is now though, it isn’t. It’s full of hatred, scorn, and defensive aggression. And I don’t have a good solution for it. Talking about it seems to just summon more of it. Doing so on a big platform invites a lot of it. Perhaps the best I can do is to do my part to make it just a little bit nicer. Keep a pot of coffee on, and offer a warm mug to anyone else trying to hike up this dreadbeast of a frozen mountain. I may not be able to crest this challenge on my own, but I’m happy to welcome in the folks who find the little cabin I’ve built up here.
So please, come in, grab a mug. I can keep you out of the cold for a bit.
Taylor Hidalgo is a freelance writer and editor, who loves good company but is bad at hosting. You can find his other works elsewhere on the site, and treat him to your good company on Twitter.