Game On or Game Over: Dealing with trolls

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Microsoft versus Sony, Battlefield versus Call of Duty and Forza versus Gran Turismo. These are some of the rivalries that can get people talking about console wars. “Game On or Game Over” is your place to get inside the minds of Nicholas and Andy as they seek to find the true meaning of gaming and tackle some of gaming’s most controversial subjects. Both are award winning authors – although the awards haven’t been mailed or created yet — but trust them. Would they lie to you?

Nicholas: You know Andy, we’ve reached some fairly impressive milestones as we’ve been doing these weekly articles. I’ll always remember the first one we ever wrote, and hitting 50 earlier this year was amazing. That all said though, it doesn’t really compare to the significance of this week’s column – our 69th instalment of Game On or Game Over. Given it’s such as important article I wanted to discuss a topic that’s a little chunky and on the minds of so many gamers as of late – dicks. Well, to be more appropriate, trolls.

It doesn’t seem like there’s a week that goes by where articles aren’t circling the internet about the problem of sexism and misogyny online. Time and time again there are constant reference to dangerous comments section and how YouTube is nothing but a cesspool of vile and vitriol. Now I’m not suggesting people aren’t offensive online, but this week I wanted to discuss the issue at hand, and as a matter of fact, ask if there even is an issue.

So to kick things off this week I wanted to get your opinion on the current state of the internet. From what you experience to what you see as you scroll to the bottom of each video or article, what is your view on the current state of trolls and nastiness in the online (gaming) community? Do you think there’s enough to be concerned that we should be taking action against it?

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Andy: I wish I could pinpoint the exact moment, but I’d have no way of knowing where to start – the moment that civility was lost on the internet. It does seem like the majority of comments on videos or posts (not even just video game related) are filled with bigotry, hate speech and people just being ass hats for no reason. When I was growing up my mom always said “If you can’t say anything nice, than don’t say anything at all.” I am one of the few that still say please and thank you for pretty much everything. Even when I go through a drive-through and place an order I say please. Just because it’s the nice thing to do, and if I was on the other end of that I’d appreciate the gesture. The internet is a faceless pool of anonymity where you can be whoever you want to be and no-one will be the wiser. It’s easy to cock off to someone in a comment section because you will never see that person face to face so there are very little, if any, repercussions you will face.

Another thing I learned when I was growing up is if you want a fire to go out, don’t add any fuel to it. Internet assholes are like moths to a flame, the brighter the flame the more moths and bugs you’ll get. If you extinguish the fire, the bugs mostly go away. All too often you can read a comment and know the person who wrote it did it specifically to get a reaction from someone, anyone. Even with the obvious intent some people still flock to the post and get upset about how wrong the initial post is. Often times the original poster never responds back, they just sit back and watch the world burn. Maybe I have extraordinary think skin, but I can’t think of a time a random post on the internet got me frothing at the mouth. I just click ignore, block, or what have you and move on. I have much more important things to do with my time than feed fires that don’t matter.

With that said, the threats that are happening more and more and something that those receiving the threats shouldn’t have to deal with on a daily basis. Asking them to just ignore them and move on is not something I would be comfortable saying. So, the question then becomes who’s at fault to fix the issue or at least stem the tide of the threats. First, the sites that host these articles/videos need to do more to police the people that use them. I’ve seen replies from sites that basically absolve themselves of the issue because they can’t possibly see every post for everything. Well, if that’s the case maybe you need to dial your site back some. Without a solid community a website is nothing. I also think authorities need to start acting on the most serious offenders. It’s not a case of free speech when you are directly threatening someone or their family. I would imagine making an example of a few worst offenders would make some of the other ones reconsider what they are doing.

In order to really fix a problem though, you have to think about the ‘why’ behind it. What do you think the reason is that internet trolls are so numerous? Did someone feed them after midnight and then get them wet? I don’t understand the appeal of watching the world burn so to speak. What gain are those trolls looking for? Is it something that you see ever being completely fixed?

Nicholas: There are a number of reasons, but I think you mentioned the main one just then – people on the internet are mostly anonymous. Despite some sites like Facebook and YouTube wanting people to use their real names, most sites don’t require you to for your alias, and even when you have to there’s nothing stopping people from using a fake name (hell, a lot of cosplayers use fake surnames just to avoid running into issues with stalkers and trolls in the real-world). This then flows onto the second point, which you also mentioned, in that there are essentially little to no consequences for their actions. Make a rape threat online? Death threat perhaps? Maybe a racial slur or two? The most that’ll happen is you’ll get blocked by the person on the other end, but apart from that, nothing else happens. Some might lose their jobs if their employer happens to catch wind, but that’s typically rare unless you work for a large organisation or you’re a high-profile individual (e.g. celebrities).

Apart from that, I think some people simply like to get a rise out of others or at least see the reaction they’ll get. Consider a Facebook page that you don’t follow, but which appears on your news feed because your friend commented or liked their post. You owe the page nothing and nor do you it’s ‘fans’. So you see that they’ve posted a link to an article on a topic you don’t agree with. What can you do? Either ignore it (which is the sensible idea), make a well-written comment on the article as to why you disagree or write a one-line comment that’s a bit ‘trolly’ (yeah, let’s make that a new word) and see if anyone bites. I’m not suggesting rape and death threats, but just something inappropriate that will probably piss a few people if they saw it. You don’t necessarily stand by your comment, you’re just having a laugh and seeing what’ll happen.

Moving on, we often use the term ‘troll’ to describe anyone who is inappropriate or offensive online, but I’m wondering if we may be grouping too many people together under one label, and if that’s doing this topic of dealing with dicks online any justice. For example, a ‘troll’ can be as simple as someone posting a picture of a piston-engine on a rotary-engine enthusiast page. At the same time, a ‘troll’ can also be someone who threatens another person with rape on a forum. Both are examples of ‘trolls’, but what they’re saying are on complete ends of the spectrum. If we’re talking about dealing with trolls this week, should we be talking about dealing with people who like to shit-stir in the same breath as those talking about (potentially) assaulting someone else? Do you think we (as in, people online as a whole) need to redefine our focus when having these talks?

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Andy: I have never thought about it in those terms before, but I’ll have to admit that I see a lot of truth there. When the term troll was first used, it described a pretty specific type of behaviour – those looking to get a reaction from other people. Over time it seems that the term ‘troll’ has become more and more broad and clearly used to describe actions and behaviours that other words could more easily describe. When I hear the word used in the context of comments on message boards/videos etc. I automatically associate it with harmless comments that are just seeking to take a piss and get people riled up. Yet the term ‘troll’ is also being used for people who threated to rape or kill someone, for people who DOX others by posting their personal information online and for people that SWAT others. Clearly those actions do not fall within harmless random comments.

We have long passed the time where these actions are no longer harmless. Many of those behaviours are flat out illegal. The people that are doing this are becoming increasingly more and more brazen as well. I don’t want to sound like it’s all doom and gloom, but I honestly think that sooner rather than later there is going to be an event where someone is seriously hurt by someone and the industry is going to be shaken to its core. I hope with every fibre of my being that it doesn’t happen, but I think the odds are pretty good that something will happen.

So, what do we do about it? For starters, I’d hope that the authorities are taking things more seriously than they seem to be. They are really the final barrier into preventing things from happening. ISP can also get involved, either by shuttering a particular IP address, user or handing over information to the authorities to assist in any investigation. Websites can block those users and their IP addresses as well. Sure, that user could always make a new account and jump through those hoops, but my hope would be if you make them create enough new accounts they will get sick of doing it and just stop sooner or later. No one – not a game journalist, game developer or the average person, should have to live in fear or uncertainty based on the actions of some random people on the internet. I think more can be done, and should be done to make things like the extreme cases the exception and not the rule. So, two questions for you. Do you have the same feeling of dread as I do that something is going to happen sooner or later? And, what can be done to curb this type of behaviour, and who is responsible for fixing it?

Nicholas: I don’t think so, no. There’s always the risk someone can be assaulted by a stranger on the internet, but I don’t believe the risk is any higher now than what it was five years or so ago. Much like when I first started posting online, I would be hesitant to meet someone in-person who I had only chatted with online before. I would either go with a friend (someone I already knew) or would do so in a public place. I understand that as a male the risk is lower, but taking a few safety precautions still apply.

That said, I won’t deny – it does seem like the number of threats happening online are increasing, but I wonder how wary people should be of them? This in-part explains my response above. Of course, someone making a rape or death threat is no laughing matter, but (and I hope I can explain this sufficiently with words), should we dismiss them as just pathetic comments from pathetic people? Whenever I think of trolls (once again, I know I’m using a blanket term here) I think of fat losers who like to mask their insecurities by pretending to be strong and intimidating online. If you were to confront those people in-person I bet they’d stutter in embarrassment and would probably run away. I’ve met a lot of people who appear tough and confident online at gaming events only to see they are socially awkward and are nothing like their online personas. If this is true, should we dismiss the threats and comments of these idiots? Am I just not understanding it enough though? Should every threat be treated as a serious threat against someone’s life/health?

To answer your second question, in extreme cases I think the police or people’s ISPs should be involved, but for the greater part, am I wrong for suggesting that the responsibility should just be on the individual? If someone harasses you online and then you find out they are approaching you in-person, yes, absolutely call the police. But are we expecting the police to respond to every single person who’s a little bit mean or deciding to be a dick online? How many cases go unsolved or which progress slowly because the police just don’t have the resources? Can we reasonably expect the authorities to spend their time investigating each time xxxQuickScopeKillaxxx makes a threat or offensive comment on YouTube?

I don’t sound to be negative here, but as much as we’d all like for the internet to be a place of happiness and inclusion, it’s not. As much as we’d like to feel safe in the real world, there are scumbags who ruin it for others – so what are our options? If you want to connect with people online, then you might need to expect to deal with trolls as your popularity rises. Once again, I’m not saying it’s fair, it’s just a reality. If you find it getting excessive and you don’t want to block each person, then disable comments and interactions on your posts. Yes it means those with constructive things to say can’t contribute, but you don’t need to worry about dealing with horrible ones either. Is this too unrealistic an expectation? Am I wrong for suggesting that people need to take responsibility for the people they may come across, and that they should (unfortunately) expect some negativity when exposing themselves to the world and its people?

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Andy: I don’t usually say this – in fact I’m not sure I have ever said this in one of our articles – but I think you are 100% wrong on this one. I understand your point, and get where you are coming from, but I just can’t agree with it. I don’t want to focus on people making dick-ish comments just to be an asshat, I want to focus of those who make very explicit threats such as, “I’m going to kill you” or “I’m going to rape your daughter while you watch.” Things like that. The people who make those comments obviously cannot control themselves – or they wouldn’t have made those comments in the first place – so someone needs to step in. People should be held accountable for things they say that go above and beyond “trash talk”.

Your response that people who are getting those comments are the ones that should alter their behaviour really doesn’t sit well with me at all. I’m actually going to use one of the things I tell people when training dogs, I hope it makes as much sense to you as it does in my head. Never accept good enough. The moment we accept good enough, either by being satisfied with a dog’s behaviour – even though we want more from them – or we adjust our behaviours to alleviate things others are doing – we have essentially given up on every achieving our end goal. If we (those being threatened) block comments from everyone, change email addresses and modify our behaviours then we are only hiding from the problem and there-by making it worse because that person who is slinging those threats is empowered because they “won”.

The gaming community is huge, and filled with mostly pretty cool people, yet we – for the most part – let a few assholes control how some people conduct things (disabling comments, et. al). That just doesn’t make sense to me, why do we seem to imply that “that’s just how it is”? It should never be OK for anyone to threaten someone, their family or their way of life. There are a lot of people who seem to share your feeling of “that’s just how it is” and that’s almost as scary to me as the people making the threats. Because that means people are becoming desensitized to it, and the bar will be raised by someone to get the attention they are looking for. That bar can be raised only so high before something serious happens. My fear is when that ‘something’ happens it is going to shake the industry to its core and the fallout from it will be immense and troubling. I don’t know, maybe I am over reacting, I hope so to be honest. Do you think accepting it as “that’s just how it is” is the right answer? Is it really OK for people to receive threats like this and be fearful of what could happen?

Nicholas: Don’t get me wrong, it’s certainly not acceptable that there are people out there on the receiving end of such horrible comments, but I’m not exactly sure what the most effective way to deal with it is. I do agree with you, accepting “that’s just how it is” isn’t ideal, but realistically, what options do we have? Perhaps this might an extreme analogy, but thinking that we can fix the issues of trolls (or even comments like the ones you mentioned above) might be as optimistic a goal as solving world hunger. It’s certainly a noble goal, but is it one we can really (and I mean really) achieve? Yes, ISPs and sites can force filters that will detect and prohibit such language, but someone will come up with a way of getting around it. Those same companies can also swing the ban hammer at people who post that kind of rubbish, but they’ll come right back with a new account. As a former Xbox Moderator, I know too well the endless amount of work that goes into purging a community of scumbags, but it’s a never-ending task. For each person you remove there’s another one to take their place.

Once again, I don’t want to sound negative, but we need to think realistically here. I won’t imagine the fear someone would be under if they were on the receiving end of a threat against someone in their family (and to answer your question before, it’s certainly OK for someone to be fearful of what might happen should they receive one),  but do we really expect the police to get involved? If we’re talking serious repercussions beyond merely an account ban, who else need to get involved if not the police? If it is the police, then who are tasked with it? If I’m an Australia blogger and I get a threat from an American troll – do the American police step in or do the Australian ones investigate? Is it the local, state or federal police at that? I don’t want to suggest it isn’t a problem, but I can’t think of a logical solution beyond people just blocking people like this.

To end this week’s article I wanted to get your opinion on a story which seemed to get not just local attention, but international publicity last week. An Australian vlogger received a rape threat from someone on Facebook/YouTube. The vlogger proceeded to check out the Facebook profile of this commenter and found someone with the same surname, and assumed it was their mother. She then sent screenshots to the mother and asked if she could have a word with her son regarding behaviour online. What’s your opinions on this? Is it an example of a troll getting their just desserts? Is it nothing more than ‘dobbing’? Do you think this focus on dealing with each individual troll (who mind you, happened to be a teenager being a dick online) is actually going to achieve anything in the long term?

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Andy: I did read about the vlogger you are talking about, and thought it was an appropriate response once she found out the persona making the comments was a teenage boy. I never did see any follow up on it pertaining to what the mom’s response was, or the end outcome – but in that situation I thought it was a great way to turn the tables on him. What happens though when it’s discovered that the person making those threats isn’t a teenage boy living in their parent’s basement? Then the response has to be different to keep people safe and hold those accountable.

The point you raise in your second paragraph is the reason I think more isn’t done about this type of behaviour. No-one really knows who is responsible for what’s becoming more and more prominent. Your example is perfect, you’re in Australia and are threatened by someone in America – who steps in? Like many others, I don’t know the right answer. So, we hit the block/report button and move on hoping we were a momentary distraction to the person making the threats and that they will forget about us as they move on to the next person. I think if you did a poll on people in the industry, including gamers, most (if not all) would say there is no place for those types of threats. Everyone is against it, yet our “best” solution is to block the person, disable comments and move on. That does nothing to fix the problem at all. That’s what’s frustrating about it to me. There has been a lot of article written, blogs done and videos made about people receiving these types of threat, being SWAT-ed and the like, yet no-one is really doing anything about it, because we’re not sure what exactly to do.

Here’s the thing; gamers want to have access to game developers, publishers and media people so they can talk to them about games and the industry. Some developers are better than others engaging their fans, but it’s something I’ve always looked at as a bonus not a requirement. Being that it is not a requirement, and rightly so, I can easily see the day fast approaching when the majority of those people are just fed up with everything and cut contact off with everyone. They go back to just making games, writing their opinions and calling it a day. It all comes back to respect. Respect seems to be a lost art with the entitled society we have today and only more pervasive with the complete anonymity the internet affords people. If I was a developer, I’m not sure I’d want to open myself up to what can only be classified as abuse. If something bad does happen as the result of a threat, then I think the gaming community as we know it will be shattered and the access we have to those on the inside will be stripped away. Then, we will sit back and lament that we should have done something sooner. Yet all we did was talk about it. I hope I’m wrong and I hope no one ever gets hurt.

Tune in next time for the next instalment of Game On or Game Over. If you have any ideas for our next article, feel free to contact Andy or Nicholas on Twitter.