Toxicity in gaming: why can’t we agree to disagree?

We might like and want different things from games, but that doesn't make us enemies

This is not the column I sat down to write today. Friends, I am tired. I am that special kind of teeth-aching, marrow-shaking exhausted that I don’t think I’ve ever experienced before.

You can blame the hellscape that is 2020 and everything that came with it, but it’s more than that, I think. I’m tired of the arguments. The backbiting. The shitty comments. The tribalism and binary Us vs. Them mentality. I’m tired of thinking about this stuff, for Christ’s sake.

READ MORE: Cyberpunk 2077’s best side quests are hidden in its lonely end game

Unless your name is Jeff Bezos, I’d wager you probably haven’t had a great year, either. I suspect we’ll be talking about 2020 for generations to come – not just the incalculable grief of the things and people we lost this year, but also how shockingly bad we are at sacrificing our own immediate pleasures for the greater long-term good – because even before the pandemic, things were pretty shit.

The climate crisis hasn’t abated. George Floyd was murdered by a police officer who knew he was being recorded. We’ve yet to recover from devastating wildfires and so on and it’s kind of amazing we all still bother getting up every morning, isn’t it?

And then came the video game discourse.

I’ve written extensively this year about how gaming hasn’t just been a means of escape for me, but a lifeline. I’ve talked about great innovations that have come out of now-gen, and how the transition from now-gen to next-gen has been more consumer-friendly this time around than it ever has before. And I’ve had to talk about these things, really, because otherwise I’d be talking about the rest of it, and the rest of it has been pretty shit, to be honest.

While I’ve touched on less pleasant topics – crunch culture and industry-wide predatory behaviours and discrimination to name but two – after this week’s exhausting exchanges about Cyberpunk 2077, GOG, and The Last Of Us Part II winning TGA’s Game of the Year – heated discussions of which are still going on – I’m just left with one, single, startled thought: we’re better than this, aren’t we? It doesn’t matter which side of the divide you fall on; we have to change our behaviour. We have to be kinder to each other than this.

Cyberpunk 2077
Cyberpunk 2077. Credit: CD Projekt RED

I’ve told you before about how I grew up without real-life gaming pals, how I used to hide my PS1 beneath my TV stand at Uni so my fledgeling friendships and the guys I was trying to bang didn’t think I was a complete weirdo. Even now, I’m an outlier in my circle of “real life” friends. I don’t mind it so much anymore because I have a wonderful network of gaming pals outside of them, too, but growing up… look, I was lonely. I was miserable. I had big hair and big teeth and an astonishingly unfashionable taste in music but when I found online gaming communities that accepted me, I felt like I’d found my people for the very first time. I felt safe. I felt valued. I felt secure. And yet right here, right now? I don’t feel safe or valued anymore, and that’s what’s making me so bloody tired.

If you’re playing Cyberpunk 2077 and loving it, then good for you! If you’re playing it and think it’s hot garbage and are desperately trying to arrange a refund, then good for you, too! Pissed off that Cyberpunk developer CDPR is adjusting the number of dildos in the game? Weird, but okay – I hear you. And if you think GOG is making a huge mistake by u-turning on its decision to give Devotion a home, it’s hard to disagree with you, but I’m not going to smash your face in if you do happen to think otherwise.

Why? Because despite what corporations have been shoving down our collective throats for generations, “gamers” – and maybe there’s a whole other conversation we need to have about that term, too – are not a single homogenous mass. What you love I may hate, and vice-versa. It used to be the one thing that made gaming so incredibly exciting and inclusive, and yet somewhere along the line, the wondrous diversity of games we’re offered – platformers, shooters, sports sims, puzzlers, RPGs and more – this wondrous choice stopped being something to celebrate and became demarcations of difference instead – demarcations of Them vs Us. As death from a million paper cuts, it’s happened so slowly but suddenly it’s not good enough just to live and let live. Now it’s live if you agree with me and everyone else can fuck off and die.

Cyberpunk 2077
Cyberpunk 2077. Credit: CD Projekt RED

There’s a whole strange new lexicon to learn, and fresh battle lines to draw. Each side screaming at the other about faux-outrage and cancel culture and intolerance and bending the knee and SJWs and hate clicks. Can we stop this? Please? Because if you haven’t quite noticed, it’s astonishingly out of control. I’d like to think it’s a recent thing, that things have been magnified by the shitbag of a year we’ve had, but that’s not true, is it?

It’s been like this for a while now and for most of us – and by us, I mean all of us; players, journalists, streamers, PR, community managers, developers – we’re just trying to keep our heads down, trying not to attract too much attention lest we’re the next ones to be in the firing line, doxxed or swatted or sent sly messages with the explicit purpose of inducing a seizure.

Yes, we might be different and yes, that might mean what we’re looking for in games might be wildly different, too. But this is a gigantic, diverse, innovative industry, which means there’s room for all of us here – on all sides, whether we’re playing or making games.

You and I might be different, but that doesn’t make us enemies… It just makes us different.

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