content warning: online harassment
Four years ago, I was still in college. At the time, my friend Kent and I ran a blog about videogames. We had an absolute blast writing the thing, but we weren't really interested in taking it any further. Sometime in 2010, however, I almost completely lost my will to put my writing on the internet. This contributed to the fact that I haven't posted anything on that blog in almost 3 years.
Let’s start at the beginning: I started playing The Witcher. I was unimpressed with it. I’d heard that it was the Jesus of modern western RPGs, but it turns out that modern western RPGs do not have a Jesus, and although The Witcher is pretty good, its story is not super compelling to me. The parts that I played had a rather shallow and childish emotional range-- and they reminded me very strongly of other Bioware/Bioware-esque games where I’d been disappointed by the story’s emotional range. I wrote a very haphazard article about all this in a few hours, ran it through the Kent Filter (it passed with flying colors, by the way), and posted it on the site. (I've since deleted it.)
Shortly after the article came online, someone linked to it in a general-interest RPG fan forum. I don’t know who this person was, but if I ever meet them in public, I am kicking them in the nuts they possibly have. This person posted that I was a “bitch” who had a “PhD” and suggested that I was performing an uninformed hit-job on RPGs in general. They also steered the discussion towards the fact that I’d offhandedly given FFVII the thumbs-up for showing its protagonist vulnerable and crying onscreen (something western RPGs rarely do). If you know anything about the way western RPG fans talk about JRPGs, you can guess what kind of effect that had.
The post was very obviously an attempt to set me up for trolling and online harassment. It was abundantly clear on our website that I do not have a PhD, that I don’t frequently play or discuss mainstream JRPGs, and that I don’t hate Bioware games. The person who said those things wasn’t interested in talking about my article with anyone; he was hoping to rile his readers into seeing me as a fair-game target for the community’s vitriol. And it worked! Our site was filled with people calling me a cunt. Even more people were calling me a cunt on that forum.
Kent did most of the damage control. I, meanwhile, slowly stopped writing. I stopped reading the comments. I even stopped playing The Witcher. (I still haven’t finished it. Every time I pick it up, I remember this whole thing and get so goddamn angry I can’t think.) And I started questioning the very reason I was putting my work on the internet at all.
When Kent and I started that site, we wanted to write thoughtful essays with vague academic overtones for a general audience. Shortly after the Witcher debacle, I had an email conversation with another games writer about whether it was possible to have real, meaningful conversations with ordinary people about games on the internet. I determined that it was not, and that it was not worth it, because that audience of "ordinary people" contained a substantial portion of sexist, abusive assholes, and I didn't feel like writing for assholes.
Complete openness is good for some things. It is good for shooting the shit with friends, maybe. It is not always good for discussing complex or sensitive topics with strangers, or for talking about privilege and prejudice, or for starting conversations which kill sacred cows. This Witcher shit helped me realize that I did not want to write in an open environment anymore. I wanted civilizing rules! So I did a 180 and refocused entirely on my writing for school. In school-- and in face-to-face conversation with my friends and people I respect-- people are not allowed to call me a cunt just because they disagree with me.
The change was refreshing. It took me a good nine months to completely stop writing on the internet, but after I did, I got a ton of really valuable, edifying stuff done. Here is a list of the legitimately cool and productive things I accomplished in academia and the "real world" during the next two years after I stopped putting my writing on the internet:
Kent has also achieved things in life since we stopped writing on the internet. We are each so busy achieving things that we do not have time to write all the time, for zero dollars, to assholes, about games on the internet anymore.
My perspective has also changed. Whenever I look at my old articles, I feel as if I am watching a space alien try to communicate to me. Many of our ideas boiled down to "Why can't games be perfect?!?" I now know several answers to that question, and all of them are a extremely disappointing. It's hard for games to be perfect. It's particularly hard for games to be my kind of "perfect" when they are aimed at a "general audience" (in which most developers do not include me or people like me) and cost many millions of dollars to make.
Over time, I have gradually regained the desire to write on the internet, but not in the way I used to. I no longer go around ranching and slaughtering sacred cows. It's not that I don't have opinions anymore; it's that I no longer feel the internet is the best place to share all of them. I admire and respect people who put up with the audience's bullshit, but during my hiatus, I felt like the problem at hand was so big, cruel, sexist, and messed-up that breaking myself against it wasn't productive. I could do better for myself in environments where people didn't call me a cunt all the time. I only have so much time to live my life, and I'd rather spend it making cool things for kind and grateful people.
If the vocal audience served by the average games media outlet represented the IRL standard for humans to behave toward one another, society would be an unbelievably fucked-up mess. Luckily, there are better environments and people in the world, and if you're at the end of your wits, seeking them out is definitely worth it. And, as I've come to learn, some of those people are actually hiding out on the internet, too.