I was in the process of writing an article about the awesome way Westworld uses its own story to teach people about good storytelling, when this line from last night’s episode reminded me of something I wanted to talk about for a long time.
“Why is it every time you come to this place you turn into such an evil prick?” William to his friend, HBO’s Westworld.
That’s the same question I’ve had about video game culture for quite some time, and I think it’s time I talk about it.
I used to play multiplayer games, specifically a game called Mechwarrior 4: Mercenaries. I was a young teenager suffering from crippling depression, I had no friends at school or at home, I was tormented by both depression and the hormonal rollercoaster of puberty, and I felt like I had no future. To make a long story short, Mechwarrior and the friends I made playing it, made my life somewhat bearable. I’m still friends with many of the people I met playing Mechwarrior, even as we come to a mind-boggling 20 years since I’ve played it.
It’s those friends I want to talk about, because over the years I’ve watched them become evil pricks in video games. It didn’t start that way. Back when I first began playing, it was just good fun. Oh we made fun of each other, called each other gay, and joked about sex, typical young teenager stuff. But over the years my friends began to change.
The jokes became crueler, more personal. Those who lost competitive games against our team were mercilessly ridiculed, and then called cowards when they didn’t want to play us again, when it was more likely they simply didn’t want to play a bunch of rude petty people. The changes were subtle and at first I didn’t notice them.
Eventually Mechwarrior’s multiplayer died out, it wasn’t exactly the most popular game even in its heyday, and while we tried to play other games together, I lost interest. About ten years later though, a new Mechwarrior title arrived: Mechwarrior Online. Suddenly we were all back together again, and for the first few months it was like old times. And then I began to notice things.
My friends began openly trash talking, calling people faggots, ridiculing new people who asked questions, and following people they didn’t like from game to game specifically to “grief” them. Still, this had become such a normal part of online games that I was able to shrug it off. What I couldn’t shrug off, is what they would say to each other in private.
Several of my old friends were now referring to each other as n***ers, and I grimaced every time they said it. Mechwarrior Online was also a free-to-play game featuring microtransactions, where you paid to unlock certain mechs and equipment.
When my cash-strapped friends couldn’t afford these microtransactions or bought only the cheapest available, they called it “Jew.”
“I’m too Jewish to spend that much money.”
“I got the Jew option.”
I was shocked, and I told them: “Oh I’m sorry, apparently I stumbled into Nazi Germany by accident.” The joke was an icebreaker for me to voice my discomfort with using old antisemitic insults.
“You’re being too sensitive, they’re just words.”
They’re just words.
That’s the excuse I heard over and over again for all manner of utterly inexcusable behavior.
Words are powerful. The right words can help someone find hope in a hopeless situation, humor in a tragedy, and joy in a moment of despair. The wrong words can make someone cry, make them feel alone, and even drive them to suicide. My friends didn’t seem to understand that.
They began insulting me, and not the friendly jibes and insults that people exchange. They told me how bad I was in the past, to stop being bad during games, and stop being so emotional about the toxic conversations they’d have. This poisoned not only my relationship with them, but also in how I perceived our previous relationship. Did they ever actually like me? Was I really that bad in the past?
My friends used to have a nickname for me when I was young “tightpants”, and I never understood the reference. I thought perhaps it was a reference to my weight, which would have been fine because I was constantly joking about that myself. After we began playing Mechwarrior Online they began to refer to me as “tightpants” again, and this time I asked what that meant.
Turns out whenever I spoke on comms, I had a high pitched voice, and apparently I still did. Except now they weren’t so kind about it.
“Jesus, didn’t your balls ever drop?” They once asked me.
That, unfortunately, got to me. I asked my best friend if I had an unnaturally high voice, and she hedged saying she didn’t really notice. Which only convinced me it was true. For a few weeks there I actually tried lowering my tone of voice while talking to people, until I noticed it was just getting me strange looks from people. I’m also not as insecure as I was when I was young, and after a couple weeks I figured that even if I did have a high voice, it wasn’t like there was anything I could do about it. So why worry?
I continued playing with my friends, because between their occasional bouts of cruelty, we still had a good time together. Then one day we were playing, and having a grand old time. I remember I was laughing so hard my ribs were actually aching. I was trying to talk over my laughing to convey some information about the enemy team when:
“Shut the fuck up!” Someone yelled over the comms.
This person wasn’t one of my friends, but he was a talented gamer, he outranked us all when it came to talent. That alone was enough to let him play with us. It wasn’t a friend yelling at me, but they also did nothing to discourage it.
I disconnected and didn’t talk to them for about six months, until one of them decided to contact me on Skype and ask how I was doing. They asked me what had happened, and I simply joked around with them saying that I’d been asked to shut up and was just following the order to the letter. The reality was even simpler: I play games to have fun and relax. The moment that stops happening, the game is over. Yet I kept coming back to these people, because I’d known them for nearly fifteen years! These were the friends that kept me alive in the darkest period in my life, and I couldn’t simply write them off.
One of my friends, whom I’ll refer to as DV, I counted as among my closest friends.
When I was thirteen/fourteen, I was absolutely infatuated with a girl I knew. Being a moronic teenager I lost all perspective and restraint, pronouncing my undying love for a girl I barely knew, which of course scared her into never talking to me again. That sent me into probably the darkest depression I’ve ever experienced. At the same time DV, who was slightly older in his late teens, was having problems with his girlfriend constantly dumping him and taking him back. We were both hurting and we helped each other through it by talking about our mutual girl problems.
“Oh back from your emo trip? Show me on the doll where [the guy who yelled at me] touched you.” That was how DV greeted me, the man who I once would have done anything for. If I was rich and he needed money, I would have written him a blank check, that’s how deeply I trusted and respected this man. He was one of my closest friends.
And I no longer recognized him.
The boy who had once been my friend would never have been so casually cruel to me, so indifferent to my feelings. A few weeks later GamerGate happened, and I’ll spare those of you who don’t know about it the indignity of hearing about this stupid event. The cliff notes is that a girl made a video game and one of the reviews may not have been entirely without bias. The dumbest and cruelest elements of the gaming world took this as an invitation to threaten her life, threaten her with rape, post her address, phone number, and work location to everyone on the internet. They made her life a living hell for years. I haven’t looked into it, but I’m sure she probably still gets harassed.
And my friends supported it.
I have no explanation as to how this happened. Some of my friends were now married, DV even had children, and they were either cheering on the harassers (perhaps even taking part) or tacitly approving of it by offering excuses for turning a woman’s life into a living hell over a video game. When, and how, did my friends turn into these people?
It can’t just be an effect of video games. I ran over crowds of people in Grand Theft Auto; mowed down innocent civilians in Postal; tortured and murdered people in the cruelest ways imaginable in Manhunt. I’ve committed every war crime and atrocity imaginable across twenty years of gaming, but I never turned into the evil pricks my friends became.
It can’t be their social and economic situation. One of my friends was working at a fortune 500 company and would show us pictures of his fancy new cars. Others were working a variety of jobs with varying levels of success. Some were married or had girlfriends. Hell, DV was working as a cop in London with three kids and a wife. If anything, I was the one who fit the stereotype: a fat, single guy who hadn’t had a girlfriend in years, no job and no prospects.
Maybe it was because I had depression, and I knew the kind of damage words could inflict. I know what it’s like to feel like the world is against you, to feel like your fate is suffer constant pain. Did that give me an empathy my friends lacked?
I don’t play multiplayer games anymore, because the unfortunate truth is that my friends are the rule. I’m the exception. Go into a multiplayer game and you’ll find a cesspool of insults, negativity, and downright cruelty.
That’s not to say I think all gamers are horrible. In fact I think the vast majority are just like me. The problem is that, like me, they can’t be bothered to deal with assholes when they’re trying to relax. So people leave, like I did. They stick to single-player games, or maybe they find a new hobby all together. Hell maybe that’s why games like Candy Crush are so popular, you don’t have to put up with racist misogynists to play Candy Crush.
So the decent people leave, and that just leaves the assholes in an echochamber of assholes. All they hear is the same toxic drivel they spout, and it becomes normal to them. It becomes a cycle of constant abuse, and it becomes so normal that they don’t even realize their language is abusive. Last time I was in a multiplayer game, someone threatened to rape my sister (I’m an only child).
And the eerie thing about it was that he didn’t say it with hate or anger in his voice, it was a reflex. I killed him in a video game, and his immediate instinct was to launch into threats of sexual violence. He said it in such a way that I’m pretty sure if I could have been bothered to confront him about it, he wouldn’t have even comprehended the problem. Just like William’s friend in Westworld, who couldn’t understand why William calls him evil.
I still talk with my friends occasionally on Skype, because when they’re not talking about video games we still have great conversations about politics and life. One of them discovered they had kidney cancer, the same disease that killed my father, and we commiserated over how shitty cancer is. If I ever met them in real life, I’m sure I’d see the great friends that I once knew. But I don’t play with them anymore, because like the man said in Westworld:
“Why does coming here turn you into such an evil prick?”
I wish I knew the answer to that, and I’m hoping that maybe through Westworld‘s exploration of this frightening transformation people undergo, that maybe I will find the answer.