Game developers talking about “culture” are often deeply frustrating. Either they are overly credulous about how design directly and symmetrically can create a particular set of cultural practices and outlook within a game, as my friend Thomas Malaby has observed about Second Life, or they see gamer culture as a hard-wired or predetermined result of cognitive structures and/or the wider culture of the “real world”. Only rarely both in a somewhat more nuanced but contradictory way: Raph Koster, for example, has at times argued that particular design features in games (say, the implementation of dancing and music in Star Wars: Galaxies) can create or transform cultural predispositions among players but also has argued in his Theory of Fun that gameplay and “fun” are driven by fixed cognitive structures and tendencies.
Developers tend to favor one of these two viewpoints because they either make the culture of play in a particular game something that they can design towards or they make it a fixed property that they have no power over, something they can imagine either completely controlling or being completely helpless to control, and in any event, something easy to summarize in a reductive, mechanical way. They’d rather either than what the culture of play in a particular game really is, an emergent and contingent result of interactions between particular design features, the general cultural history of digital games and their genres, the particular sociological habitus of the players, and the interpretation of visual and textual elements within the game by different players (individually and in groups).
When Aris Bakhtanians said that sexual harassment was “part of the fighting-game community” he was, in a way, perfectly correct in an empirical sense. This is not to say that all or even most players of fighting games, even in competitive gaming, practice harassment of the kind Bakhtanians infamously displayed, but that sexual harassment and harassing attitudes are commonly witnessed or overheard in a great deal of online gaming, as are the harsh and infantile abusive responses flung at people who complain about such behavior or expression. The one truth sometimes spoken in such responses is that outsiders don’t really understand how such things get said or what they mean. Outside critics and designers alike would often prefer for “culture” of this kind to be easily traced to the nature of the game itself, either its semantic content or the structure of play, or for the culture of the game to be nothing more than a microcosm of some larger, generalized culture or cognitive orientation, an eyedrop of sexism or racism or masculine misbehavior in an ocean of the same. If that’s the case, either there’s something quite simple to do (ban, suppress or avoid the offending game or game genre) or the game is only one more evidentiary exhibit in a vastly larger sociopolitical struggle and not an issue in its own right.
Understanding any given game or even a singular instance of a game as “culture” in the same sense that we understand any other bounded instance of practice and meaning-making by a particular group of people, with all the unpredictable, slippery and indeterminate questions that approach entails, means that if you care about the game as an issue, you have to spend time reading and understanding the history and action of play around a particular game. The stakes are very much not just academic (are they ever?): certainly the viability of a particular game as a product in the marketplace hangs in the balance, sometimes an entire genre of game or an entire domain of convergent culture is at financial risk. But also at stake are the real human feelings and subjectivities of the players themselves, both within the game culture and in the ways that those identities and attitudes unpack or express in everyday life as a whole. If we’re going to argue that game cultures teach all sorts of interesting and useful social lessons, or lessons about systems and procedures (as we should) then we have to accept that some of the social lessons can be destructive or corrosive. Not in the simple-minded, witless way that the typical public complaint about violent or sexist media insists on arguing, sure, but we still have to ask what the consequences might be.
I sometimes identify myself as a “game culture native” who happens to express his views about games within scholarly discourse rather than a scholar drawn from outside to look at games. So in native parlance, one of the things that strikes me again and again when I play multiplayer games is that I find it extraordinarily painful to recognize that what I romantically imagine as a refuge for geeks is in fact horribly infested with the kinds of bullies that we were all trying to get away from back in the 1970s. When I first started playing computer and console games in early 1980s, they enraptured me more than stand-up arcade games in part because you could play them privately in the home or in quiet computer labs on a device that you controlled, and communicate with others in-game largely at your own discretion or preference. They also tended to be more complex and slower than coin-op games and to derive much more of their themes and narratives from existing science-fiction and fantasy. The games themselves were a refuge, and their enabling technology was a refuge. Much of the same was true, at least for me, with pen-and-paper role-playing games. They were so derided and marginalized in the mainstream culture of my peers that I never felt any particular risk that some popular kid or hulking bully was going to show up in the middle of a gaming session and take my lunch money.
By the time that game culture spread more widely in the 1990s and 2000s, neither of these feelings held particularly well, and nowhere did I feel that more acutely than in commercial virtual-world games from Ultima Online onward. Suddenly here I was, exploring a dungeon and fighting monsters with a group of strangers, at least some of whom seemed pretty much like the kids who had shoved me into fences or kicked me in elementary and junior-high school. It wasn’t as personally threatening to me as a confident, secure adult but it was at the least depressing and repellant. The general Hobbsean malaise that these players brought to gameplay was seasoned by extraordinary forms of malevolent play that came to be calling “griefing” and by an accelerating willingness to give uninhibited voice to crude sexual boasting, misogyny, racial hatred and gay-bashing. Sometimes, I ended up feeling that there wasn’t any real sentiment or deliberate feeling behind the braggadacio–at a certain cultural moment, calling something “gay” in gamer parlance really did feel to me as if it was a non-referential way to simply say something was dumb or annoying–but a lot of the time there was in fact real force and venom behind the words.
Over time, many of us learned to ignore much of this behavior as background noise or to use the increasingly responsive tools provided by developers to control exposure to obnoxious or harassing individuals. We played only with friends or trusted networks of people, we used /ignore tags in general chat to make it impossible to ‘hear’ offensive players, we didn’t play in games known to have particularly ugly or unpleasant internal cultures. We realized that some of the most offensive behavior and attitudes are basically adolescent transgressions against mainstream consensus. A griefer or troll doesn’t care what the semantic content of their griefing is, only that it bothers or angers someone, so the easiest way to deflate them is to ignore them. We learned that sometimes being offensive is also a competitive tactic, as it is in many sports or other games: being deliberately obnoxious can unbalance or obsess a competitor.
But it still gets to me sometimes personally. It’s just that doing anything about this cultural history is no easier than it is do something about anything else “cultural”.
To give an example of the complexity, let me turn to World of Warcraft. I hadn’t played World of Warcraft in months: I’m bored by the game itself and I feel as if I’ve learned everything in a scholarly or intellectual sense that I can from its player culture. In the last week, I played a bit at my daughter’s urging. It was interesting up to the point that I went off to do some “daily quests” in an area called Tol Barad where players fight each other every two hours or so. The quests are standard WoW design: boring, repetitive, Zynga-like exercises whose completion gives the player a bit of money and a small gain in reputation with an in-game faction. At a certain point, the player will have enough reputation with that faction to purchase improved gear that will make the character more powerful. The repetition is somewhat soothing, a kind of gentle mindlessness, but to really progress through doing the quests, players have to do them every day for a substantial period of time. In this particular area, the daily quests are leavened by a battle between the players themselves. If your side wins, it gains access to another set of daily quests within the zone and to several areas of content for larger groups to complete together. If your side loses, you have no access to these quests until the next battle several hours later.
The battles are at least potentially fun and interesting, and a relief from collecting crocodile hides. So I hung around Tol Barad until the battle. World of Warcraft has over the years refined its formula for these kinds of battles. It now caps the total participants (to keep one side from being ridiculously dominant in numerical terms), it forces everyone to join a single large “raid group” (to make it easier for everyone to communicate and monitor their own side), and it offers mechanics that try to balance strategic choices, short-term tactical coordination and a reasonably even chance for both sides to win. My side in this case lost, partly because it was less coordinated. Ok, fine, it was still sort of fun. But as the loss became imminent, a torrent of abuse began to spill out through the raid group. A small number of players started shrieking about how bad everyone else was, what failures we all were, how we should be embarrassed to play the game, how we were a bunch of useless faggots and so on. Over a basically trivial part of the game that will be repeated again and again all day long. That’s pretty typical in WoW: the more you play and the more that your play associates you with strangers, the more you will see both extraordinarily poor behavior by individuals (that is often condemned by the consensus of a group) and generically poor behavior that is ignored or accepted as inevitable even though most people do not themselves participate in that behavior.
This surely limits both the numbers of people who might play WoW or any game like it and the comfort level of players within the game to participate in all the activities it offers. But consider how complicated both the genesis and consequences of this aspect of the game’s culture really is.
First, consider the evolution of “chat” as an expressive practice within virtual-world games. A game like WoW is shaped by a very long design history that goes back to non-commercial MUDs and MUSHs in which chat channels were the major way in which the game supported a sense of community or sociality within the game, and thus the expectation that such a game should be social. The sociality of WoW and other games like it is still a defining attribute, and is notoriously credited with keeping players as participants long after they’ve grown bored with the content. So you have to have chat. Whenever the designers of WoW have attempted to curtail “global” or large-scale chat that tends to expose the totality of the game’s culture to the worst expressive practices of its ugliest margins, players have typically managed to subvert their intentions and recreated a global or large-scale chat channel. Early commercial virtual-worlds spent much more time and money trying to police the semantic content of player expression, or tried to use filters to prevent offensive expression. Both efforts were easy to defeat, the first simply through volume and persistence, the second through linguistic and typographic invention. Attempts by players themselves to discourage or sanction offensive expression only have had force inside small social groups. A competitive guild can often impose restrictions on what its members do, booting a griefer or harasser. But such a player is simply expelled into the “general population”, and there’s always another guild around the corner that needs a member, or in WoW’s later evolution, a random pick-up group that will endure such a player for the short time that it must bear his or her company.
It’s not just the mechanics by which you say things, but what you’re doing that matters. Almost all of WoW’s gameplay involves the incremental accumulation of resources that will help players in the incremental accumulation of better resources. This is competitive in two ways: first, that a resource you gain is often a resource denied to someone else. Second, that your total accumulation of resources is read off into the game’s public culture as a status effect, sorting players into hazy hierarchies. These hierarchies are temporally unstable: no matter how powerful you are, each expansion of the game will render your previous power over the environment and your previous superiority to other players null and void. They are structurally unstable: Blizzard frequently tinkers with the game mechanics and may at some point put a given type of character at a substantial in-built disadvantage or advantage to others, regardless of how much they have accumulated or how skilled the player is in controlling a character’s actions. These hierarchies do not have an even symbolic meaning across the whole of the game’s culture. Some players never engage in competitive accumulation: a dedicated “casual” who plays with a small group of friends and a serious “hardcore” who plays with a large group of equally dedicated and intense players rarely intersect, rivalrously or otherwise. But the large “middle class” of the game are often competitive with both poles: needing casuals in order to carry out competitive acquisition, wanting parity with the hardcores. When a game is built around the rivalrous but incremental accumulation of resources, its very structure encourages certain forms of aggression, status-laden disdain, and attempts to suppress rivalrous action by any means necessary.
If you want a contrast, look at something like the sharing of creature designs in Spore. Spore wasn’t a terribly successful game, but it did create a fantastically successful player ecosystem in terms of people being highly motivated to create interesting designs and share them with as many people as possible. The fundamental structure of a game’s design influences the kind of sociality that appears within its culture, and it invites or fosters imagined alignments between a game culture and the wider culture. Incremental accumulation, social hierarchy and the strong desire of people at the “top” to have permanent structural separations between themselves and the plebeians who have to collect boar livers or file TPS reports? That’s a bridge for a lot of ugly sentiment and frustration to cross regularly between WoW and the world.
But then consider also the history of gamer sociology, or the movement between games, neither which Blizzard is particularly responsible for or able to control. Even within virtual worlds, there are really bad neighborhoods and relatively anodyne ones. Sometimes by design. I actually accept and admire the ugliness of the internal culture of EVE Online: it has the same authorial intentionality (by both designers and players) that any other work of art set in an ugly or unpleasant aesthetic might. Toontown is light-hearted because of content, because of mechanics, and because it disables the sociality of players on purpose. Sometimes as an emergent, accidental evolution. I don’t think there’s any simple reason exactly why multiplayer game culture on X-Box Live should be as baroquely unpleasant and misanthropist as it is, but I simply won’t do anything multiplayer on that platform unless I absolutely have to for research. The worst I’ve experienced on WoW is nothing like what you’d hear in a really ugly session of a bunch of random strangers in a multiplayer shooter on XBLA. Gamer culture is and has been for a very long time leavened by young men who at their worst spew a lethal cocktail of nerdrage, bullying and slacker entitlement into conversational spaces, forcing other players to retreat, ignore or leave.
There is no simple instrumental pathway into that kind of “culture”: any attempt to change it by command is going to be useless at best, actively backfire at worst. Here game designers sometimes have good ideas: giving players tools to shape their socialities helps a lot. If being an “anonymous fuckwad” leads to increasing exclusion or marginality within a game culture, enforced by mechanics that players themselves control, then it takes much more deliberate agency to be a fuckwad. But if developers are going to consider giving players more agency over their own social practices and institutions, they also have to think about where their designs have become the equivalent of chutes herding cattle towards slaughter. The kind of operant conditioning that Blizzard has made the defining feature of MMO design, and which has been Zynga’s stock in trade, doesn’t encourage the growth of rich social worlds that can evolve and complicate. If you’re a farmer growing a monoculture, you don’t expect a forest–and you’re far more vulnerable to parasites and disease wiping out your crops.