The Bittersweetest Thing

Lead Writer of BioWare's Dragon Age game series, lover of fan tears. This is where I blog about game development, fandom, and narrative design. Anything I say here is my opinion alone.

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On Fandom and Toxic Environments

are you guys aware of how many people avoid the Bioware Social Network like the plague? I rather hope you don’t take that place as representative of the players in general considering how (IMO) utterly gross the people there tend to be. — rubyvroom

Sure, we’re aware that the BSN doesn’t constitute the be-all and end-all of BioWare’s fans (or simply people who play our games or are otherwise aware of them, if one sees “fans” in a purely positive context). They are certainly a group of passionate folks, and while I wouldn’t say they were all “utterly gross” as you put it I do agree that the overall tone of the forums has become increasingly toxic.

I tend to largely avoid them these days, myself. Why? Because spending too much time there starts to make me feel negative— not just about the games we make, but about myself and life in general. That’s not a good feeling to have. I’m sure there are folks there who would bristle at that comment, suggesting that all negative feedback is justifiable and that ignoring it is the equivalent of us sticking our heads in the sand. How will we ever improve unless we listen to their scolding and take our lumps like good little developers? That is, of course, ignoring the idea that we haven’t already digested a mountain of feedback— both positive and negative— and there’s really only so much of it you can take. Eventually you make decisions (informed by that feedback, though only in part— it can only ever be in part) and move on.

And I’m sure there are also people there who would say that there’s plenty of useful, thoughtful feedback. Not all of it consists of angry ranting. You can, in fact, meet and talk to some very keen and intelligent posters. And that’s very true. If it weren’t true, I wouldn’t go there at all. Yet the signal-to-noise ratio does seem to be worsening, and eventually you get the feeling like you’re at one of those parties where all anyone is doing is bitching. It doesn’t matter what they’re bitching about so much as, sooner or later, that’s all you can really hear. Engaging starts to mean partaking in the bitching until you feel like that’s all you’re doing. Even when I try to rise above, those who are most negative will seek me out in order to get a rise out of me— and not unsuccessfully. I am only human, and I’ll end up responding to score points just as they do, and end up feeling shitty for having done so.

I imagine that can happen to any online community. Eventually the polite, reasonable folks stop feeling like it’s a group of people they want to hang around. So they leave, and those who remain start to see only those who agree with them— and, because that’s all they see, they think that’s all there is. Everyone feels as they do, according to them. Once the tipping point is passed, you’re left with the extremes… those who hate, and those who dislike the haters enough to endure the toxic atmosphere to try and combat them. Each clash between those groups drives more of the others away.

Why that is, I have no doubt there are many theories. And no shortage of people who would like to point them out, and make sure that under no circumstances do we get the impression that theirs is not the proper point of view.

There’s no need to vilify them, however. There are people like that all over the Internet— they are right about something. So right that it justifies behavior which would never be acceptable in real life conversation. On the Internet, that’s supposed to just be background noise. We should hear how right they are and listen to their point, not react to how they’re flinging it in your face. We can point fingers at gamers, but there are people who do this for all sorts of reasons. Someone might have a social justice cause, for instance, and honestly believe the thing they’re right about makes them better than someone arguing about a game mechanic, but they’re no different. They could have an excellent point, same as the gamer, but that point will still be equally lost and their behavior still be just as unacceptable and toxic.

Which is too bad. I think there’s something to be said there about the level of rhetoric and entitlement among online gamer communities in general. Perhaps there is also something to be said about whether the games BioWare makes still satisfy our core fans. Though one need only attend a con to see there are plenty of positive, enthusiastic fans out there… and while a cynic might suggest liking “those people” means we want only praise and nothing else that’s simply not true. It’s possible to like something overall and yet dislike parts of it intensely, or to be disappointed overall in something you were hoping to like, and in either case to have a positive discussion regarding what you’ve disliked. I’ve had several such discussions with fans at cons, and indeed walked away from those discussions with a far better attitude about them simply because the tone of that interaction was not adversarial.

At any rate, rest assured that the BSN is not the only place we go to see what “our fans” think about something. I suspect you’d get a skewed opinion of almost any game if you went solely by its dedicated online community. They certainly serve their place, and if you want to gauge the temperature of the hardest of the hardcore’s opinions about core matters there’s probably no better place to go… but representative of all fans? Not in the slightest.

Personally I’d really like to seek out positive interactions and not engage with those who are out to attack me… but that’s really hard, isn’t it? It’s especially hard when someone takes something you’ve said and twists it, and then misrepresents it to others as what you actually said.. and how would they know otherwise? Reference that misrepresentation and, as far as anyone’s concerned, I may as well have said it. The urge to go in and correct them is almost overwhelming. But what would be the point, other than to offer them new ammunition and ultimately end up being an asshole myself? I’ve done it often enough. Best to take a breath, smile and remember there are a lot of really genuine, positive people to talk to. People who challenge you in a way that doesn’t make you feel worse about yourself. You should surround yourself with them the same way you’d surround yourself with such people in real life.

Words to live by? I hope so. The only other option is to simply avoid all online interaction with fans at all or make any such completely benign and PR-oriented, which would be unfortunate— and not, I suspect, what even the angry fan would want.

Notes

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    This applies to a lot of things, folks. Give it a read
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