Gaming's Toxicity Problem Can't Be Solved With DMCAs or Valve Charts

"It's hard for a developer not to feel under siege in this climate"

Campo Santo's co-founder and 'Firewatch' developer Sean Vanaman was met with backlash for threatening PewDiePie (Felix Kjellberg) with a now successful DMCA takedown. Credit: 'Firewatch'

That gaming continues to be wracked by online harassment should surprise no one at this point. But recent events around PewDiePie and his use of the n-word have been painfully instructive in this regard. Most dispiritingly, the backlash against Campo Santo's co-founder and Firewatch developer Sean Vanaman for threatening PewDiePie (Felix Kjellberg) with a now successful DMCA takedown swamped much of the discussion around why our hobby's culture was producing people who thought the n-word was essential to self-expression as a gamer. That DMCA strike is now an elephant in the room, looming over every conversation about this farrago.

Let's dispose of that elephant first, then.

I personally believe that Vanaman's tweeted DMCA threat was poorly considered. Right or wrong (and there's a lot of reasons it's right), the Digital Millennium Copyright Act is a third rail in gaming communities; the capricious way wealthy studios and publishers have often applied it is, without doubt, greedily obnoxious. Associating one's self with that scene was a bad PR move from the word go, and it's had the effect of injecting eminently avoidable poison into a debate that was already quite toxic. A more considered approach – reaching out to secure a personal agreement from Kjellberg, perhaps, only reaching for the DMCA when that failed – would have been prudent.

And yet, for all this, was Vanaman truly wrong? Why did he feel like he had to do this? I'm hardly moved by all the handwringing about the DMCA when confronted with a far larger problem. In all probability, Vanaman felt he had to do this because the options available to developers in this situation are actually very narrow, especially if they're solo devs or from small studios. There are, at present, few ways for them to make this kind of statement or impose consequences on fans who are out of line.

While Campo Santo certainly associated itself with the depredations of Nintendo or WB Interactive, they remain a small company, none of whose devs are as rich or well-connected as Kjellberg – who has more money than God at this point. Though Kjellberg casts himself as the defender of the little guy with a personal Let's Play stream, he's got more in common with Activision than Campo Santo does. In that light, a legal tool like a DMCA takedown seems less like a capricious abuse of corporate power than a small studio trying to level the playing field with a hyper-rich man who happens to be the world’s most popular video game streamer.

How do you stop someone from monetizing your IP when they’re using it in a way you deem morally repugnant? 

But it's also one of the very few levers available to such a developer; how do you stop someone from monetizing your IP when they're using it in a way you deem morally repugnant? More than this, the vicious backlash to Campo Santo revealed all too much about what’s at stake here, and what people like Kjellberg encourage by their very example:

"PewDiePie did nothin wrong. Hashtag #nigergate" [sic]

"Get rekt you stupid ******sjw ****ing dev bawhahaah"

"'Campo Santo' sounds mexican"

And, of course a litany of threads titled with the n-word itself, with posts that were literally the n-word repeated dozens of times, in threads laden with obnoxious, anti-black racial stereotypes. All in perverse solidarity with Kjellberg, for his choice of words during his "heated gaming moment."

This is the larger reality missed by those "reasonable" people who queued up to tut tut Campo Santo for Vanaman's DMCA threat. However imperfect that decision may have been, it pales against the ugly reality these comments reveal. Even if Vanaman had done as I suggested in this essay, Campo Santo would have likely reaped this whirlwind just for having the temerity to say Kjellberg was wrong.

It's hard for a developer not to feel under siege in this climate, especially a dev outside of the relative (and I do mean relative) safety of a big AAA studio. The backlash (there's always a backlash, isn't there?) to recent revelations about hidden game design tricks embedded in many popular titles makes that point plainly. As Charles Randall, a developer, recently pointed out on his Twitter, he and his colleagues can't be as transparent about the job they love, nor the games they're working on, because "gamer culture is so toxic that being candid in public is dangerous."

Two weeks ago, indie developer Zoe Quinn revealed on Twitter that, at the start of GamerGate, she tried to enlist the help of Valve in "bagging and tagging death threats," but instead, "they cited the Streisand effect and stopped answering emails." Given more recent events where Steam was a significant vector of abuse, such as the transphobic cavalcade that blew up around a trans woman character in Baldur's Gate: Siege of Dragonspear, it's clear not much has changed in three years.

What is equally clear is that if you're a developer, despite profiting from your work, Valve will not protect you when their platform is used to organize abuse against you or your colleagues. This abstentionism, of course, only nurtures the worst of gaming culture, poisoning it for the rest of us who love games but don’t feel the need to make their developers’ lives a waking hell because we didn’t like something.

We remain faced with a terrible paradox wherein a vocal subsection of gaming culture passionately hates, and even seeks to destroy, the very people who make their games.

When this group loves a game, it can be equally destructive; certain developers and their games are treated with a dehumanizing sanctification such that no criticism of the product can be brooked (which leads to gaming journalists and critics receiving abuse). Of course, if the dev becomes persona non grata they're pummeled with all the vileness that can be brought to bear by the social phenomenon that gave us YouTube comments.

Until this recent debacle, Firewatch had been received by both critical and fan acclaim. Most user reviews of the game were positive, and those for whom it wasn’t their cup of ludic tea just stayed away. After Vanaman's tweet, hordes set about trying to tank the game’s ratings and tarnish its reputation with abusive and disingenuous reviews, which for a game that’s over a year and a half old now suggests something else is at work.

For all the tactical criticisms I could make of Vanaman's decision, I cannot fault his ethics. Fundamentally, he did the right thing; toxic fan culture is aided and abetted by the silence and fear of developers and studios who euphemize abuse as "passion." By speaking out and trying to apply consequences to Kjellberg's actions, he did what so many more, with far more power than him, ought to have been doing long ago. Drawing lines in the sand that are backed by action.

It's to Kjellberg's advantage to make this entirely about the ongoing DMCA crisis as opposed to his own loathsome behavior.

In the end, the Valve employee who threw their hands up at Zoe Quinn was wrong.

You cannot hide behind the fortune cookie wisdom of the Streisand Effect forever. Indeed, while shining light on toxic behavior can sometimes redouble it, ignoring it doesn't make it go away. Steam refused to close off a significant vector of abuse for Quinn and those harassers congealed into a larger force that went on to terrorize other developers, journalists, and writers.

Their latest attempt at a fix, giving developer storefronts more data to spot review-bombing spikes, is a context-free nightmare of useless graphs that suggest, yet again, that this large corporation thinks outsourcing moderation to the people it profits from is a solution. Valve needs to ask the bigger question here: Why is their platform so vulnerable to this kind of abuse?

 As one person replying to Quinn on Twitter, composer Isaac Schankler put it:

"Don't kick the hornet's nest."

"Um, why is there a hornet's nest in your living room?"

"We find it's best not to kick the hornet's nest."

Instead of clamoring to prove our neutral and fair-minded bonafides by admonishing Campo Santo, we should be asking why there was a hornet's nest to be kicked in the first place.

Katherine Cross is a weekly columnist at Gamasutra and a widely published gaming critic.