CW: Discussion of abuse, harassment, and mention of intimate partner violence
I read two sides to the backlash against the announcement (and resulting interactions) of Ooblets being exclusive to the Epic Store.
Side 1: Wow gamers are super toxic and entitled.
Side 2: Wow the Ooblets developers were really antagonistic and deserve to be called out.
After reading through multiple twitter threads, blog posts, Discord chat, and seeing screenshots (some allegedly doctored) my take away has six points I want to explore at length.
Before that exploration, however, I want to make one thing clear: racist, violent threats are never justified. Harassment is not justified. Literally everything I write here must rest on that foundation or it’s pointless.
While I am going to use Ooblets as an example, these dynamics are not unique to their case. Much of what I want to explore occurs frequently, which is why it seems worth taking a closer look.
Point 1: We Need to Talk About Valid vs. Justified Reactions
Let’s start by establishing a foundation of how emotions work. As the diagram (below) shows, an event occurs, we interpret an event, we have a physiological reaction, we express the emotion, we experience after effects. Except this isn’t linear, it’s a cycle.
Three important points about this process.
1) Interpretations do not happen in a vacuum. While we are interpreting a current event, the way we process the event is affected by past experiences, current emotional/mental state, and expectations we had about the future.
2) It is easier to access memories that match our current emotional state. If I am sad, it is literally easier to remember other times I was sad. Same for angry. Or worried. This is the definition of emotional vulnerability: our current emotional state affects our interpretations. (This becomes super relevant later in the discussion).
3) Interpretations and emotional vulnerability are why it’s crucial to distinguish between valid emotional reactions and justified emotional reactions.
A valid reaction means that the response makes sense.
A justified reaction means the response fits the current situation.
Example: I am driving to work and my heart is racing. I interpret this as anxiety and start thinking about what could make me anxious. Oh wow, is my mind happy to tell me things I should be anxious about. It starts to make a list. Valid? 100%. It makes sense I was feeling physically anxious, interpreted that as anxiety, and began trying to solve that problem by thinking about my worries.
Okay, but let’s look at some emotional vulnerabilities: I didn’t sleep well, I didn’t eat any breakfast, and I drank a 20 oz coffee. All of these caused my body to switch into its stress reaction…which physically feels like anxiety. So justified? No. While it makes sense I thought I was anxious, the explanation that fits the current situation is my body is stressed out. I should eat some food and/or cut down on the caffeine.
Example 2: Someone at work gives me a compliment and tells me they want to bring up my good performance at the next staff meeting. I start to feel panicked and plan for how I can skip that meeting.
Why? In the past, I had a boss who reacted to anyone complimenting me by insulting and undermining me. In public. Based on my past experiences, public praise makes me feel sick. However, that boss no longer works with me, hasn’t for years, and all of my current co-workers appreciate it when people receive group acknowledgment for hard work.
Is my panic valid, i.e. understandable? Sure. Is it justified, i.e. does it fit the facts of the current situation? No.
For a reaction to be justified, it would fit two important criteria: fits the facts of the current situation and the intensity is proportional to the current situation.
Valid: looking at the situation in a person’s context, this reaction makes sense.
Justified: looking at the facts of the current situation, this reaction fits the facts.
Apply this to Ooblets: The developer’s announcement about the game becoming an Epic exclusive insults and minimizes people’s dislike of Epic exclusives. When people are insulted, they are hardwired to react with anger.
So…does feeling angry fit the facts? (Completely separate from “should developers take exclusive deals for money”, and looking at the announcement post).
Now the second question: does acting on this anger by bombarding them with messages, making threats, invoking racist and sexist terms, and hoping they die seem like a proportional response to the situation?
Anger is justified, but that doesn’t mean every volume or expression of anger is justified.
Okay….but how can any of this anger be valid?
Because the emotion of anger, as shared above, is a hardwired response to being insulted. Saying an emotion is valid (makes sense) is NOT saying all parts of the response make sense. Sometimes what’s valid is a speck of gold surrounded by ten layers of hardened mud. Looking for validity is looking for that speck of gold, and understanding the part that makes sense.
Point 2: Not Every Reaction is the Same
Reading the backlash I saw a few different groups.
One group is made up of people who felt angry about the tone of the announcement and expressed their displeasure in a proportional way.
One group is made up of people who felt angry and responded in a disproportionate way because of stress/trauma vulnerabilities.
One group is made up of people who want a sense of power and control. I want to start with this group.
Point 3: Power, Control, Entitlement, and Violence
As I read through scores of responses to the controversy I started to get a very, very familiar feeling. It was the same feeling I would get working some domestic violence cases. This clicked into place when numerous people asked, “How can gamers feel this entitled?”
Welcome to the violence of entitlement. This is not a new phenomenon. This is not a product of the internet. This is not a sign of our society slipping to new levels of depravity.
What do I mean?
There are countless people who feel justified in beating the shit out of their partner for “disrespecting them.”
Who will kill their partner for disrespecting them…or leaving them…or defying them.
In the United States almost 20 people are physically abused by an intimate partner every minute. 25% of women and 14% of men will experience severe physical violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime.
This is not a small, isolated, “mentally ill” population; this attitude and the resulting violence is an epidemic.
The causes for this abuse can vary, but one of the most common is an attitude of entitlement: I acted this way because it got me what I want.
In many ways, when I read the avalanche of toxicity being targeted at game developers I see the violence that previously stayed behind closed doors or was usually targeted at marginalized or disempowered groups turned onto a wider audience.
The comments we see leveled at game developers—even white, male, educated game developers—is to see a flavor of the abuse targeted at marginalized people (women, people of color, disabled, mentally ill, poor, LGBT+) for generations. When a woman says they are scared of saying “No” to a man who asks her on a date, and instead is somehow “busy” every time they propose, this is part of why: in some cases, to say no is to be insulted, threatened, assaulted, or even killed.
Entitlement. Power. Control.
This dynamic is bewildering until you recognize it for what it is: a power struggle. For this group of responders, it is not about the tone of the blog or the responses or anything about the facts of the situation. It is about wanting to establish a sense of power and control.
Point 4: Trauma & Loss of Control
There is a group of people with a disproportionate emotional response grounded in vulnerability factors: their body was already in stress-response state or the situation triggered past trauma.
Wait…how could a condescending post trigger trauma?
Sometimes it’s helpful to think about trauma responses like food poisoning. Our bodies are built to help us survive. When something threatens that survival, our bodies learn fast and intensely to help avoid that threat in the future.
If you’ve ever have food poisoning, you know how sick it makes you feel. You probably didn’t want to eat that type of food or at that restaurant or maybe any similar restaurants for a long time. Think about that: this one meal made me sick, so I never want to eat chicken again in my life. That’s a pretty strong reaction…and common. Sometimes the associations don’t even make sense…but our body becomes fixed on avoiding it anyway.
Trauma is similar. A lot of trauma is feeling powerless or out of control or helpless or objectified or attacked (or all of the above). So when similar feelings are triggered, our body can go into full survival mode. It will treat the current situation as threatening as the original trauma.
A blog post that is insulting might not be about that blog post or game…it might be about the person who would yell insults while assaulting, raping, bullying, or otherwise threatening someone. Studies in the U.S. show that adverse childhood events are the norm, not the exception.
Looking at the topic of game exclusives specifically, this represents a loss of control. A loss of control can be one of the most common triggers for trauma. So loss of control + insulting tone is a prime mix of triggering factors.
Does this make the response justified? No. Does it make it valid? Sure.
Point 5: Stress & the Internet as Vulnerability Factors
When we look at vulnerability factors for disproportionate responses, it makes sense video games would frequently be at the center.
Our body roughly has two physiological states: baseline and stress-response.
At our baseline, we are fully using our brain (including the part in charge of impulse control, evaluation, priority setting, etc.). From our heart rate to our hormones, we are able to work and respond to events, but nothing signals “danger” or “threat”. This means we are more likely to interpret events with nuance and based on current information/current facts.
When the stress-response is engaged everything changes. Our thoughts need to react faster so we are more likely to have tunnel vision, think in all-or-nothing terms, and we pay more attention to potential threats. Additionally, we have reflexes based on past experiences of threats (so we can respond faster), which means we are more vulnerable to interpreting events based on past memories.
What does this have to do with the internet and modern life?
Research has shown a dramatic shift in how people cope with stress since the 1990s. In the past, when someone felt stressed they would generally try to relax, i.e. slow down their thoughts and body. They would seek out a decrease in stimulation. In modern coping, people are more likely to cope with stress by trying to maintain a similar energy level, usually through seeking out stimulation. Coping is about feeling the same way, not about slowing down.
The internet (and video games) are really popular sources of stimulation. Ever had a stressful day, went online, and lost a few hours? That’s coping with stimulation.
This means people are (often unintentionally) keeping their body in the stress-response state. When this becomes the norm, switching back to baseline actually feels threatening. If you’ve ever been having things go well, feeling happy, and have that sense of “when is the other foot going to drop?” It’s sort of like that.
This means many people (not all, but many) who are interacting online are in a stress-response mode. This makes them especially vulnerable to reactions that don’t fit the facts of a current situation or an intensity that doesn’t fit the facts.
Point 6: What Can We Do?
I wrote this long post for two reasons.
One, understanding a situation can help us cope with it more effectively. When a response makes no sense, that confusion can add to our stress because the reaction is so unexpected, disorienting, and overwhelming.
Two, coping with this kind of response effectively requires understanding the problem.
Here are just a few tips:
1) Take care of your own emotional health.
This is important because a) your health matters, and b) it will help you interpret and cope with the response more effectively. We all have emotional vulnerability. If we are super stressed, we are more likely to interpret any comment with a hint of negativity as an attack. This can lead to escalating the situation (by attacking back even when it’s maybe not warranted) but can also lead to us amplifying the impact of the attack because suddenly it’s not just the people making heinous threats we process as attacking us, but anyone who says something negative-ish.
Describing the different coping skills that help with relaxation is beyond the scope of this (already long) post, but this step is crucial. And watch out for the instinct to turn to more stimulation rather than relaxation.
2) Check the facts of the responses
It’s important to recognize in the mass of negative reactions that not all replies are equal. It can be helpful to process replies by intensity; this is shorthand for sorting out the most justified responses from the unjustified responses. Those justified responses can turn into helpful feedback…and help us realize not everyone responding is a terrible threat.
Then it can be helpful to sort unjustified responses through the filter of “is this about a disproportionate emotional reaction, or about them wanting power/control?”
3) Validate the valid
If someone’s emotional reaction is disproportionate, one of the fastest ways to de-escalate the situation is to validate the valid. What in this response makes sense? How can you communicate that makes sense?
This is not agreeing with everything, but communicating, “I understand where you’re coming from.” If people feel understood, they are less likely to escalate or repeat themselves over and over.
Saying “I can see how our tone was insulting or condescending” is not the same as “I agree that I am the worst person to ever live.” And that’s the key: finding the speck of gold, the piece that makes sense, in the layers of mud that don’t.
4) Avoid the power struggle (and insure safety)
Okay…but that group that cares about power and control? What about them?
There are two strategies: win the power struggle or avoid the power struggle.
In the cases this post focuses on, an overwhelming internet backlash of toxicity, winning the power struggle is rarely an option. (In life with a single bully, sometimes punching the bully is 100% an effective option…but this is different. It’s important not to confuse winnable and unwinnable power struggles).
The key becomes not to engage with the power
struggle. This is another topic that goes beyond one blog post but luckily there are many resources out there that address it. I’ve included two here, but if you Google “work power struggles” you will find many more.
Straightforward and practical video presentation with transcript: https://www.crisisprevention.com/Blog/April-2016/How-to-Avoid-Power-Struggles
Presentation which covers some of the psychology of power struggles: http://blog.qbscompanies.com/power-struggles/
It is also important to take steps to insure safety. As discussed above, sometimes a desire for power mixed with entitlement escalates into violence. It’s important not to dismiss all of our body’s warning signs when it comes to survival. Some threats are real; some threats need to be addressed as such.
A word about responsibility. This post is aimed mostly at people coping with the negative backlash. That means I focused on the parts they can control.
This does not mean all responsibility for these situations rests with the developers. We all have a responsibility to ask: how is my reaction valid? Is my reaction justified? If it is justified, how can I act effectively?
A lot of times, the first effective decision we can make is stepping away, decreasing stimulation, and trying to get our body back to baseline so we can problem solve appropriately.
This blog is a mix of game design analysis, commentary on issues affecting indie dev spaces, and some personal reflections.