No More Internet Until You Learn to Behave

Be warned – there’s a lot of unpleasant imagery in the above video.

John Oliver’s rants on Last Week Tonight are becoming destination television for me. Or at least destination YouTube-ery. For his new show, the former Daily Show correspondent has replaced that show’s hit-and-miss interview segment with an extended single-topic rant, delivered as only a pissed-off English gentleman can and filled with truth bombs. The World Cup/Fifa rant is a classic already, but the more recent diatribe on the Ferguson affair had a particularly perfect closing line.

“If (the police) can make it through a whole month without killing a single unarmed black man, then, and only then, can they get their f**king toys back.”

Infantilising your opponents is no way to engage in a debate. But it’s so bloody hard to resist when they’re insistent on acting like three-year-olds throwing a tantrum. Take the response to Anita Sarkeesian’s latest Tropes vs. Women video, in which she dissects the often extremely unpleasant treatment that video games have doled out to women over the years. I don’t agree with everything that Sarkeesian is saying, but I’d love to do is have the chance to talk to someone about it and debate the issues she raises. Unfortunately, the people who have responded by hurling abuse and issuing threats of murder and rape are not interested in anything other than silencing a voice that annoys them.

Let’s be clear: there is no excuse for this. Anyone who did this in person, in a newspaper, on television, or in any other media would be shunned, shut down and perhaps even arrested. So why does it happen so regularly on the Internet, and why does it seem to happen particularly often with regard to video games? As for the Internet, the obvious answer is the anonymity that being online provides. The less obvious answer is that this anonymity facilitates communities of like-minded souls, just as the white hoods of the Ku Klux Klan allowed their activities to proceed in the not-so-distant past.

Why video games though? That’s harder to unpick. The industry, both producers and consumers, has been predominantly male for most of its history. This has served to enable attitudes to women that are proving very hard to shake. Anita Sarkeesian’s videos may depict only some of the symptoms of this problem, but she has a huge amount of material to work with. To truly dig into the gender issues in video games (which are just an outcropping of the issues in society as a whole) will take a lot more than a series of videos on YouTube.

I wonder, though, if there isn’t something to video games themselves that encourages this mindset. When Valve’s Half-Life 2 debuted its physics engine, giving us the ability to play with physical objects, it was just a more sophisticated version of what games had been allowing players to do for years: play with every interactive object in their arsenal. And in games, there’s no real difference between people and things. Both can be shot, thrown, punched and manipulated if the game designer allows it.

As games moved into the multiplayer era, this mindset didn’t change. The ranting, foul-mouthed Halo player, often teenage or younger, is something of a cliché. I’ve yelled at single-player games when things have gone badly for me, in a way I wouldn’t dream of doing to another human being. But if you’ve been trained to see your opponents as no more than sophisticated versions of computer-generated enemies rather than human beings, what’s to stop you from screaming abuse at them too?

One article on this topic nailed it for me: “There’s a fundamental lack of empathy or understanding for other human beings at play here.” I consider myself lucky to have played (and preferred) games where face-to-face contact with other human beings was a necessary part of the experience—roleplaying games and board games. How many of those who hurl the vilest kind of abuse at Anita Sarkeesian and anyone who dares to stand up for her make it a habit to engage with people who might challenge their point of view?

It’s a pointless argument to say that not all men are like this, not all gamers are like this, not all game creators are like this. In any community, from the global to the local, there are always those who take the opportunity to disrupt and destroy where they can. Every community has to figure out how to deal with this element. On the Internet, the goal of freedom of expression is colliding painfully with the notion that everyone ought to be free to make use of this new medium. In the corner devoted to video games, the howling mob is doing its best to ensure that the common space is shaped according to its preferences. I can’t imagine that it will win in the long term, but how much pain is going to be inflicted before humanity prevails?

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