You know, there has been a lot going on – sort of a building consensus – in my corner of the internet about geek girl discrimination, harassment, etc. (if you follow John Scalzi you’ve probably heard all the same stories and rebuttals that I have) and especially in the wake of ComicCon, there’s been a lot of talk about how tough ladies have it in the geek world, where it seems that the patriarchal bullshit and sexism seems to be a more concentrated version than in the real world (or at least it pisses us off more, because you’d think that guys who grew up getting picked on would have some sympathy for girls getting picked on).
This post has nothing to do with any of that.
Not to minimize any of the above, but I think enough pixels have been spilled on that issue to talk it to death. There isn’t anything that anyone can say that hasn’t already been said, usually better, by someone with an order of magnitude more followers. No, I want to focus on something that Jeff Green brought up today: Griefing. I really think griefing experiences is one of the single biggest problems in gaming culture, and is probably what turns most people away from multiplayer games after a certain amount of experience.
Jeff, if you don’t know him, is a video game journalist who now works for PopCap. I first became aware of him through the epic World of Warcraft podcast “Legendary Thread.” (Seriously, if you’re a gaming fan and you want a trip down memory lane, listen to some of the old Legendary Thread or GFW Radio podcasts. They are incredibly entertaining and will make you want to play the games they discuss. If you want the current version, check out Geekbox.) He is older than the average gamer, which I point out only because he is neither (1) a thoughtless young jerk, (2) in college, and therefore blessed with loads of time in which to play video games, nor (3) unemployed (and therefore blessed with loads of time…). He’s a dude with a family and a job and obligations, in other words, who likes to play video games. Casually. And has a whole lot of know-how and experience playing games.
And he wants to play League of Legends, but he’s put off by the gaming community. Jeff, who wrote about not being good at team sports when he was a kid, related a sour incident he experienced during the last Warcraft expansion:
In [MMOs], I could hold my own much better. I could also either play by myself or with friends, where the pressure was minor at best. Even if I played on [player vs. player] servers, in the end it boiled down to one-on-one situations, where, again, I didn’t feel beholden to other players, and thus did far better. Late in my [World of Warcraft] career, however, I had one experience with random players that has stuck with me ever since. I was playing my level 80 dwarf warlock, Eggbertt, a character I was quite proficient at. I was level 80. I’d invested hundreds of hours into the guy. I’d sacrificed a good deal of my life, ambition, and self-respect to build this guy up. Blizzard had rolled out the dungeon finder, which grouped random folks together looking to complete the same dungeon. Most of the time, this was awesome, and eliminated the need for begging.
One night, however, I found myself randomly grouped with Serious Players. Equipment checks were being carried out before we began…And within 2 minutes, the “leader” was yelling at me. “WTF EGGBERTT MORE DPS!” “DO U FUCKIN NO HOW TO PLAY?” And so on. I assured him that I did in fact know how to play and that he could calm down because honestly it was just a videogame and not worth the aneurism and, plus, we were just starting. I’d get my game on in due time. Except my time was already up. By the time we’d hit the next group of trash mobs, I suddenly, without warning, found myself warped back outside of the dungeon. I’d been kicked. He’d taken a quick vote with the rest of the team, and they agreed that I was out. And I honestly was infuriated. It was an outrage. I felt wrongly accused. I knew how to play this game! But, that was that, and due to the anonymity of the thing and the millions of players, I knew I’d never find them again to plead my case. But what stuck with me was how serious these players were. How there was no tolerance for error. How the slightest perception of weakness was enough to get booted.
(Emphasis mine.) I have experienced the same thing, many times. It’s irritating to experience it in a group of people you don’t know, but at least it’s a little more expected when you’re randomly grouping. It’s really almost shocking to experience it in your own group. I used to lead WoW raids back in Wrath of the Lich King, and (if I may say) we had some pretty good 25-man raids, but we only had about 18-20 good reliable players. So every week we filled in with random people. One week we were on the second-to-last boss of the current dungeon, doing fairly well but we were still having to go two or three times to defeat this guy (and so was everyone else at this point in the game, except the very top groups). And a guy we had invited into our raid just blew up and started saying terrible things to and about me over our audio channel. It was disturbing. Everyone immediately stood up for me, told him to not be a jerk, etc. which was nice, but this guy was so vicious I was really shaken. We kicked him out of the group, but we couldn’t kick him off the audio server because the admin wasn’t online with us at the moment. So we all had to log off and wait for him to go away, because he kept coming back in and saying mean things about me. I hadn’t done anything terrible, just made one little mistake but I wasn’t the only one – and one mistake, even if you’re a healer, in a group of 25 isn’t usually going to doom the group. But for whatever reason it set this guy off and he was going to make me sorry. And he immediately went from game skills to gender-based insults, so there was that misogyny component to make him even more repulsive.
Now I play League of Legends once a week with a group of twenty-something guys I met when we all played WoW. We gather via Skype on Thursday nights and play for a few hours, and it’s fun. These guys all play better than me because they’ve been playing a lot longer; they have two accounts – one for their “real” characters and one “smurf” account that they use to play with me, lower-level characters so we don’t get stuck in games against high-level players that I can’t handle yet. They are patient and kind and are teaching me the overall game strategy and also how to play the different champions you can choose from. But there’s only five of them total, and most weeks only two or three show up so we can’t make a full five-man team. Inevitably there is at least one game per session where we are matched up with a random player; and inevitably this player will start belittling or berating me during the game if I make a stupid mistake. No amount of amazing skills before or after make up for it; as Jeff wrote, there is no tolerance for error from these (inevitably) guys. And they have no understanding that all of their nasty comments just serve to make me angry, and self-conscious, and if anything affect my play negatively. In other words, all the bitching and trolling doesn’t help. It is the opposite of helpful. Yet it’s as sure as the sunrise.
As I commented over on Greenspeak, I don’t think it has anything to do with my gender. My account name is a female name, but in gaming that doesn’t mean anything – men play female characters all the time. (Though, if I could go back and do it over again, I would have picked a gender-neutral name because why borrow trouble?) The comments aren’t gender-based, they’re not even specific enough to be considered constructive criticism. They’re just things like “Ashe, you suck, why are you even playing?” “Ashe is feeding.” etc. (Ashe is a champion’s name, not my account name.)
Here’s Jeff again:
And while I blew it off and jumped right back in, because, really, who gives a shit, this is the stuff I try to avoid online. Playing with players who are more intent on winning than anything else – like being civil or tolerant of others – is of no appeal to me. None. Because once you’re yelling at people online and getting a busted vein in your forehead because someone isn’t tanking correctly, you are beginning to miss the whole point of this entire pastime. (Unless you are a pro, which is another story entirely.)
It is a real shame that “the gaming community” has earned this reputation, because it keeps people from trying games they would like, and it keeps people who try from liking games they could (eventually) become really good at. I know that there are nights that I am so pissed off by the time we finish playing that I don’t want to play anymore, EVER. Pissed not just at the other players for being mean, but also truly mad at myself for not being better – yes, I’m internalizing the abuse. As Jeff says, who really gives a shit? But being in a toxic environment can be, well, toxic. And it’s something to watch for and minimize, but I just don’t see how I can totally avoid it unless I give up multiplayer gaming altogether.
That ain’t gonna happen any time soon.
Maybe the answer is to create a “geezer mode” in games, where you have to prove that you’re over a certain age and employed in order to play (maybe the game imposes a time limit – five hours per week per IP address – to ensure that even people with full-time jobs can compete). But I’m sure the assholes will find a way to infiltrate anyway because there are truly a lot of bored people out there who just want to fuck things up for the rest of us. The answer is to find a group of friends who liked to game together, and try new games as a group. Befriend the people who play well with you and invite them back. And ignore the shitheads.