Saturday, April 16, 2016

How I Deal With Harassment, Abuse, and Crazies In General.

Whenever I write about a topic that upsets me, I calm myself by illustrating it with royalty-free, reassuring stock photos.
"People are a problem." - Douglas Adams
I get a lot of requests for advice from young developers. Some of these questions regard advice on how to deal with being harassed online. Sometimes, these requests come from people actually experiencing harassment. This is a topic I've been afraid of writing about for some time. It tends to draw firestorms.

Also, it is an issue that affects other individuals WAYYYYY more than it affects me, and I don't want to be a callous buttinski around other peoples' troubles.

But I do get asked. And I do want to respond. I don't think young developers should value my feedback, yet they do. They certainly deserve to get fair warning about what awaits them. So.

This is how I, me personally, handle the threat of online harassment. Your mileage may vary. No, it WILL vary.

I Am a Public Figure

When I release a game or write something visible to the whole world, even a tiny something (Warning: Twitter counts!), I am acting as a public figure. A teeny tiny one, but a public figure nonetheless. Public figures have always received hate mail, abuse, threats, and messages from the unhinged, and they always will. Alas, the internet makes them much easier to deliver.

If you are a public figure, you will be abused eventually. Maybe mild insults. Maybe much worse. This abuse can spread to those around you. (Employers. Loved ones.) You should start thinking about this (and your tolerance for it) now.

This means that, unless something changes very drastically, from Day 1 of your life as a public figure, you should be thinking about your public image and how you will manage it. What is your mental resilience? How much abuse can you take?

Yeah, these chocolates are really reassuring, until some rando finds your street address and gets 100 boxes of them shipped to your house.
1. Harassment is real, and it has a real effect.

Being harassed is harmful. It's easy to say, "Just toughen up. Walk away from the screen." until you've actually experienced it.

Humans are tribal creatures, and tons of insults are upsetting to us on a deep lizard-brain level. Anonymous threats are terrifying, even if they aren't credible. Organized swarms of bad Steam/iTunes reviews can sink a vulnerable business. Organized swarms of angry people can cost you your job. And getting swatted (someone giving an anonymous call to your local emergency services to get a SWAT team sent to your house) might kill you.

By the way, these days, they don’t just come after you. Your family and loved ones will be considered targets as well. You may be capable of ignoring being called every dirty word in the book. But is your mom?

So complaining about harassment isn't just whining by sheltered nerds. The more visible and outspoken you are online, the higher the chance that a whirlwind will land on the heads of you and those you love. There is no chance of this changing in the foreseeable future. This is serious business. I am scared. Everything I do online is weighed against the risk of harassment.

Actually, that's another good reason why I haven't written about it. I don't want to be yet another sheep, bleating loudly in the middle of wolf-infested woods.

Actually, these macaroons look sort of gross. Also, who ever thought it'd be ok to charge two bucks for one small cookie?
2. I filter my input. Mercilessly.

I know a lot of creators of nerd culture. Game designers, writers, comic artists. Old, gnarled, crabby, battle-hardened pros with decades of experience. You'd have heard of a bunch of them.

They all have something in common. It never fails to amaze me, but a single mean email or bad review can send them into a spiral. Like, they'll still be obsessing over it days later. I think, "Wow. After all these years, they still won't let this stuff roll off of them?" And then it happens to me.

So we filter our inputs.

Consider this. Suppose you are, like all right-thinking people, a big fan of Taylor Swift.  So you want to write her a piece of kind fan mail, telling her how awesome she is.

She might read it. It's entirely possible. However, before it hits her iPhone, I bet it will have been filtered by at least one handler. (All of this is just my guess, of course. I would NEVER presume to speak for T-Swizzle.)

There is a super-good reason for these handlers. I've never met Taylor Swift, and I likely never will, but I do know one thing about her: She is a human being, so she is heir to all human vulnerabilities. If hit with the wrong email at the wrong time, she will be thrown off her game for a day, or three. If Taylor Swift is thrown off her game, major corporations lose millions of dollars. So they filter.

I do the same thing. Your messages to me are checked before I get them. I almost never read forums. I'll bet most public figures with any kind of profile do the same thing.

Some people are mean. Some people are crazy. Some people are both. I do not let people in these categories pour poison directly into my ear.
That's odd. I don't find this picture reassuring at all.
3. I remember that life is not fair.

Suppose someone gets angry at me for what I write. He gets a bunch of friends together and they give my games bad reviews on Steam and iTunes.

This is really mean and genuinely harmful, and there is not a damn thing I can do about it. They will cost me earnings, and I have no recourse. They walked up, punched me in the nose, and strolled away, and I could do nothing.

Meanwhile, anonymous hordes gather and attempt to cause real suffering to their targets (and their targets’ loved ones). Targets often chosen for silly, trivial, or even factually incorrect reasons and given punishment utterly out of proportion with what they might possibly have done (or not). There is no logic to it, no justice. Just mad lashing out. I have tried to understand it, and I have failed. It is simply maddening.

Life is not fair.

If there was a solution, I would be suggesting it. If I had ever heard or read an answer which would really work and not be a bandaid and would actually make things better, I’d be shouting it at the top of my lungs. But I got nothing. What can’t be changed must be endured.

So, when I get scared or angry (which is often), all I am able to do is attempt a measure of Zen acceptance. I mean, sure, I could rail about how mean the Internet is. But the Internet is what makes my business and awesome life possible in the first place, so it seems a little churlish to hate the Internet.

I will never be totally safe. There will always be fights. Afterward, I get up, dust myself off, get back to work, and try to make enough money to endure the occasional asshole assault.

Well, this is kind of reassuring, I guess. Bones are good. We need them to live.
4. I am very careful about poking the beast.

Over the last year, my writing output has dropped to almost zero. I'm still writing. I have a folder full of completed articles. I just don't post them, because of fear.

The main way to draw abuse is by saying things that anger people. Saying true things still makes people angry. In fact, true things often make people more angry.

When I chose to make a living as a creator, I picked a very difficult job. Very hard, long hours, with a minimal chance of success.

Suppose I also decide to try to change the world in some way. In this case, I picked another very difficult job. Very hard, long hours, with a minimal chance of success.

But there's a key difference between these two jobs. When I try to make stuff to make people happy, most people like me. Only mean, nasty people are out to genuinely hurt someone who only wants to share neat things with the world.

When I am trying to change the world, it's different. Human beings naturally hate and fear change. If you try to change the world, no matter how noble your cause, you will make some people angry.

Remember what I have egotistically termed Vogel's Iron Law of Anger: If you try to make people angry, intentionally or not, you will succeed.

Now what I am not (NOT NOT NOT) saying is that you should be quiet and never state your opinions. I am NOT saying that. In fact, as a citizen of a republic, I believe it is my sacred responsibility to occasionally speak up and try to nudge opinions.

However, a republic is not a suicide pact. What I AM saying is that I weigh my opinions very carefully. When I decide to speak up and try to change minds, I must ask: Am I currently ready to be shouted at? How much? Is the piece I am about to write a ticking time-bomb that will explode and destroy my career in five years? Then I pick fights that will not overly distract me from my first work: creating.

OK, my reassurance-evaluation algorithm is definitely on the fritz. Give me a second.
5. Beware Twitter. 

Twitter was designed, from Day 1, to enable any random person to send messages directly to any public figure. In other words, from Day 1, it was designed to be an abuse and harassment engine. It's not a bug. It's a feature. All that abuse and controversy is how it gets clicks and money.

They are a publicly traded, for-profit corporation, so they will never change in a way that brings them less money. In fact, being a publicly traded corporation, they receive overwhelming pressure to not do so. Do not trust corporations to make the world a better place. They are not your pal. They do not love you. Beware.

6. I have obtained a weapon for self-defense, and I have become proficient in its use.

Ha. Ha. I'm just kidding.

Or am I?

I'm certainly not going to tell you here.

Online harassment has been around for a long time. Every year, it increases in prevalence, ingenuity, and raw damage. I see no reason why this trend will change. I suspect, five years from now, things will be even worse. I don't know what will happen or how I will deal with it when it does.

I've been lucky. I've never gotten to the point where I seriously considered calling the cops. Not yet. Not because I didn't want to, but because I knew it wouldn't help.

Because who are we kidding? They won't do anything. The Law's ability to deal with crimes that haven't happened yet is pretty much zero. (As so many who have gotten restraining orders against an abuser can sadly testify.)

However, the police might make a note in some database saying that SWAT teams heading to my house should be a little extra-careful. That's more than zero.

Look, I've gotten legit scary messages. I've had nights where I sat up on the couch, scared to death, listening for someone trying to break in. I have explored my gunpowder-based self-defense options.

(If you think I am being over the top here, please bear in mind that I am very intentionally leaving out the details of problems I have personally encountered, as I will NOT say anything publicly that might reawaken those problems.)

Writing about this topic, all I can do is shake my head slowly and take deep breaths and try to calm the anxiety. I tell myself that the person who actually comes to kill me probably won't bother to send a polite warning first. Weirdly, this doesn't make me feel better.

I don't know. I just do what I do and hope for the best. Does this count as advice?

GAH. OK. Time to wrap this up.
Scared Yet?

If you're thinking of being a public figure, you need to be ready for it. I guess I do have advice. If you are nervous now, you have taken it: Be nervous. It's OK. It's the rational path.

And that's all I have to say about it. This is a very unsatisfying way to end the article, but the online environment now is very rough, angry, and in a state of flux. I think things will get worse before they get better. (Spoiler warning: They will never get better.)

I respect the damage harassment can do. I don't blame the victim. I don't back down from every fight, but I am prepared for others to fight back. I am nice and respectful whenever possible. I remember some humans are mean, some are crazy, some are both, and there's nothing anyone can do about it. I also remember that the vast majority of people are quietly decent. Finally, I remember that being a public creator is a tough, noble path, and I am proud of it.

I hope you can pick something worthwhile from this heap of scraps. Good luck.


I also say things on Twitter.

Edit (4/17/16) - Replaced the sentence "In fact, being a publicly traded corporation, they are legally prohibited from doing so." with something more accurate.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Gaming Needs To Have More Arguments. Here Are Some Topic Suggestions!!!

Today, I argue for more argument on the Internet. I freely admit that this is a Hardcore-difficulty rhetorical maneuver.

I just got back from the Game Developer's Conference, where I met a ton of cool people who write indie games and attended many panels. Everyone I met was perfectly lovely. Indie developers are a bunch of friendly, outgoing, huggy folks, and they could not have been kinder to me. I appreciated it.

Yet, there is one thing I find fascinating (and maybe even slightly worrying): In several days around my peer group, talking and drinking with them, I did not hear one argument.


Indie gaming is changing very fast. Our art is expanding in every way and getting tons more press. Our business is booming, to the point where it is actually significant. (The figure I heard at GDC was that indies are grossing over a billion USD a year, which is a real business by any measure.) Indie devs are artists, and our work is now a Big Deal.

But here's the thing. Artists are a proud, passionate, opinionated lot. Look anywhere in the history of art, and you will find passionate (even furious) debate. People used to riot at concerts and the theatre, for God's sake.

Indies have a lot of things to argue about. Our art form is very, very new, and there are countless unanswered questions. Hell, there are more questions than answers at this point. Nobody seems to know anything about anything. We should be figuring some stuff out. We should be having debates. Noisy, vigorous debates.

Therefore, I am going to, in my humble and retiring style, suggest a number of Open Questions In the Field of Indie Development and Marketing. I think they are all issues intelligent people could disagree on and have a heated debate about. If you are hungry for a good topic for a panel or article, help yourself. You’re welcome.

I freely argue with gamers and developers, because I am respectful and thoughtful and know that we are all bound by the Magic of Friendship.
A Selection of Topics For Argument

We know it's possible for your game to be a hit or to fail. What about in-between? Is it still possible for new indie devs to chip out a sustainable, middle-class career, building a fan base and serving an underserved niche? If so, how?

So how DO you figure out what price will maximize earnings for your game? Does it depend on genre? Production value? How much media attention you get?

Should indie games be cheap? Indie games have long been cheaper than AAA games. This is an advantage. Is it a good idea to give it up?

I have long believed that one of the great advantages of indie gaming is that people like us and think we are cool. Thus, people want to keep us in business. Buying our games makes them feel good. Is this true? Do indie developers have an ethical responsibility to maintain the reputation of our industry? (This is a tough question. If an indie dev wants to do something unpopular, but it will provide the money he or she absolutely needs to stay in business, I'm not sure I could in good conscience tell them not to.)

Have indies let their quality control slip? If an indie is selling a strictly non-functional game, should we be pressuring them to remove it from sale? (I am a long-suffering Mac gamer. So many indie Mac ports are seriously broken or just plain non-functional.)

Are free to play games ethical? If so, are some sales practices for them ethical and some not? If so, how do you tell where to draw the line?

Computer games are a 100 BILLION dollar a year global industry that employs multitudes and entertains countless people. Given that, does our industry deserve a serious, professional media that adheres to reasonable journalistic standards? If so, do we have it?

Have I gotten myself into trouble even asking those questions? Also, am I being unfair? Is it even possible to make money doing rigorous old-fashioned journalism anymore? In any field?

Customers expect new games to eventually go on sale. Is this a bad thing? If so, how should indies act in order to extract more money from customers? If there was a way for us all to collude to keep prices high, should we do it?

Most agree that Steam Early Access is, overall, a good idea. That said, how developed should a game be before it's allowed into Early Access? How long is too long to wait for a game you bought early (or on Kickstarter) to be actually released?

If you're making an episodic game, how long is too long to wait to release the final chapter? (Bear in mind that if you take, say, five years, a percentage of your purchasers will be DEAD before the final part is out. As the gaming audience ages, this percentage will only increase.) How many years have to pass before you cross the line from eccentric, unpredictable, lovable creator to something far less respectable?

When playing a competitive game, should trash talking be allowed? How do you tell when trash talking becomes abuse? If all trash talking is bad, should it be removed from every competition, including in real life?

While I love many Walking Simulators and have recommended many of them in my blog and on Twitter, I also like to use the term Walking Simulator because I think it's funny. Am I a bad person? I play casual games on my PS4 all the time, but I still joke about Filthy Casuals and Console Peasants. Is this abuse or harmless japery? How do we find the line between the two?

Most agree that game refunds are, overall, a good idea. Should we push every platform to offer them? If so, when should a customer be allowed to get a refund?

Most agree that user reviews are, overall, a good idea. However, user reviews enable a few disgruntled cranks to brigade your game's page and directly attack your sales. This really sucks, but it seems impossible to prevent it. Can it be prevented? If so, how do you do this without enabling developers to simply remove bad reviews they don't like?

The most common story I've heard from indies lately is: "We did a ton of PR work. We got a lot of positive attention. Our game still didn't sell well." Does this actually happen or is it just my imagination? Is the universal advice of, "Indies need to do tons of PR or die," actually correct? What sorts of games is it true for?

I have read many articles saying that developers should have high self-esteem and confidence and avoid Imposter Syndrome.  Yet, my self-hatred is what drives me to improve, and my terror is what drives me to work hard. Is there really one optimal developer emotional state?

I was hugely disappointed when Steam's program for paid mods and add-ons failed. I think this is a good potential route for indies to make a name and a living. Is a working for-pay mod system possible? If so, how would you make it?

One of the best ways to make a living as an indie is to find a much loved but underserved genre and start to serve it. Are there any underserved genres left?

Do Let’s Plays of your game always increase sales? Suppose you don’t want long Let’s Plays of your games. Do you have the right to prevent them? Is a long duration Let's Play a copyright violation? How long until a big lawsuit forces to only allow streaming of your game if you give them explicit permission?

Are schools that teach game design and programming a good deal? How useful are the degrees they offer if the recipient leaves the industry? Is anyone doing long-term studies of this issue? When a young dev asks me whether he or she should blow $80K of after tax money to study game design, what the hell should I say?

Finally, video games are a TOUGH business. Many indies go into it with the strategy of, "Newer give up. Never surrender." But not all of them can make a living. Isn't there a point where you SHOULD give up and/or surrender? How do you tell when you've reached it?

I am going to transition from My Little Pony to Naruto header images, as my daughters are forcing me to watch Naruto. All 80000 episodes of it.
“Great. More arguments on the Internet.”

I can picture you now, sighing and shaking your head. "The last thing we need is more discord, more shouting," you may well be thinking. It seems like the whole Internet is good for nothing but shouting. There is a small number of assholes out there now, doing enormous damage. I don't deny it. To deny it would be willful blindness.

Yet, we can't let those assholes keep us from doing the work we need to do and figuring out the things we need to figure out. We should provide the assholes a good example by showing them that respectful criticism and debate still exists.

I really enjoyed GDC, but the talks there left me with more questions than answers. Tough questions, that could use some real debate. When I wrote about the Indie Bubble, a lot of indie devs called me out on this point or that, and it was awesome.

Indies are decent people, and we like each other. This means that we can afford to have a few arguments. It is possible to debate someone, even passionately, even with shouting, and still love them and go out for drinks with them at the end of the day. I do it with my family and friends all the time.

This nightmare is what comes up when you do a Google Image Search for "Naruto fights." So. Um. Don't do that.
In Conclusion

When I was young, I loved a good argument. I don't really enjoy debates anymore. I'm a lot more chill in general now.

But I will still argue, not because I enjoy it but because it is my duty. Frequent, vigorous, respectful debate is good for a community, an industry, and an art form. Debate is the Darwinian crucible in which bad ideas are burned away and good ideas emerge, purified in fire.

(The key is to make sure that only bad ideas get burned away, not people.)

I’m going to try to defeat my cowardice and start blogging again and chipping away at this pile of open questions. I hope, when I’m dumb, people point it out. If you think I wrote something wrong and can provide actual reasons to prove your case without resorting to cheap ad hominem attacks, I hope you’ll take your shot at me.

Then, if you manage to score a point on me and we meet at a convention someday, I will happily buy you a drink. Something reasonable. Jack Daniels quality. None of this top shelf crap. I'm not made of money.


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