Game Developers: Harassment Alarms Industry, Fuels Exodus

A significant threat to the video game industry is harassment targeting game developers from gamers. Video game fan obsession has led to death threats among game developers, forcing them to leave their positions or the industry as a whole. Many fault the anonymous nature of the Internet, and others see the immediate availability to voice one’s complaints or gain notoriety. Groups look to support developers as threats become more commonplace.

Developers say that harassment by gamers is becoming a regularly concerning part of game development, according to Polygon. Some have left the industry due to threats and it is a major distraction to making games.

“I think fans harass developers for a range of reasons, but again, it is always about power and position,” said Nathan Fisk, lecturer at the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “Fans are invested in the stories and worlds that developers create, and certain design decisions can be seen by fans to threaten those stories and worlds. Harassment silences and repositions content creators in ways that protect the interests of certain fan groups.”

The increase in harassment in video game communities can be attributed to several factors, explains Fisk. Traditional video game companies have larger staff to filter gamer feedback and maintain exposure, but small and independent developers are more exposed to the public and public reactions.

Gaming communities are changing and becoming more diverse, with more women and minorities and some gamers are reacting against the change to the status quo, continues Fisk. Also, some gamers are countering, albeit negatively, against industry restrictions.

Two games reflect the recent negative responses by gamers. Feature changes to Activision’s “Call of Duty: Black Ops 2” sparked threats of violence, forcing the company’s social media manager, Dan Amrich to issue a statement calling for end of the threats. Another game, ”Fez 2” was cancelled altogether by Phil Fish, its developer, due to negativity and criticism.

The head of Xbox Live’s policy and enforcement, Stephen Toulouse, eventually left due to the harassment, death threats and “swatting” (police SWAT teams tricked into a response call). Microsoft did not know how to deal with the situation, adding to the reason to leave, explains Toulouse.

“When individuals are online they are sort of separated from their conscience and from social conventions and morals and norms and even the law, and they feel a little bit more free to say whatever they want to say,” said Sameer Hinduja, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center. “You can be spontaneous online and just listen to your emotions and just go off on someone without taking a moment to sort of assess the situation.”

Online threats have also targeted game developers’ families, such as Jennifer Helper who eventually left BioWare due to threats. Helper was a target as she was blamed for changes to “Dragon Age 2”, based upon an interview she gave years prior saying that her least favorite part of working in the game industry was playing through games and combat.

George Lucas has also partly blamed the negativity of fans for his retirement, according to The New York Times. “Why would I make any more,” he said, “when everybody yells at you all of the time and says what a terrible person you are?”

The topic of harassment is gaining further attention from the International Game Developers Association to offer support. “It might be time to consider doing a more explicit support group or mechanism to help people who are dealing with this sort of thing,” said Kate Edwards, IGDA executive director.