If you want to make games for a living, you need skill, practice, and perseverance —
and lately, you also need an extremely thick skin. Fielding threats and vitriol is increasingly a major part of the job.
Earlier this week, Morgan Jaffit, founder of Defiant Development, took to Medium to share the scope of that problem. It affects developers and professionals at all levels of the video game industry.
It’s part of the way people talk about videogames. You don’t ask a developer if they can implement a feature you’d like to see, you scream at them for being too lazy to put it in in the first place. You don’t explain how the game balance doesn’t work for you, you tell the developer they’re a brain-addled idiot for getting it wrong. You don’t vote with your wallet and buy games that include the features you like, you make death threats and hurl abuse against the people who make the games you dislike.
Jaffit recognizes that abuse has been targeted at the faces of studios for a long time, but points out that things have shifted in recent years. Where once it was uncommon for people to hurl insults and exceptionally rare to field serious, credible threats, that’s happening much more often. And where ten years ago, a studio’s public face might be its marketing team or an executive, now anyone publicly associated with a company at any level might be a target. Victims might not even work for the company in question.
Jaffit also highlights an even more disheartening shift in the discourse around games. While most people would agree that death threats are uncalled for, a worryingly large number of players feel that abuse is warranted — or even necessary — in some situations.
The big issue here is that when you speak to players (and I have, a lot), a large number of them would agree with this statement “There are times when it’s reasonable to send personal abuse to a developer,” although they differ on when those times are. Maybe it’s if their game has lootboxes. Maybe it’s when an update takes too long. Maybe it’s when a game has gender options that offend you. Maybe it’s when a game doesn’t. Regardless of the circumstances, players have been conditioned to believe that vehement personal attacks are the right way to communicate with developers. We see this every day.
But constant personal attacks will eventually take their toll on anyone, no matter how thick their skin. Developers are opting out when they decide they need to protect their own mental health, or they aren’t up for a constant stream of abuse, or they simply don’t want to deal with this behavior. Jaffit ends with a dire warning: If we don’t find a way to change this situation, more and more talented developers will decide that making games isn’t worth the cost.
Every time that happens, we all lose.