David Vonderhaar, Phil Fish And A Culture Of Blind Hate

david_vonderhaarI will admit upfront that I don’t play Call of Duty, and in fact, haven’t played one since Modern Warfare 1 blew up and made a decent franchise the biggest one in gaming. There are a few reasons for this – they’re not my type of shooter, and single-player is more and more becoming a side attraction to the online play – but a significant reason is just simply that I don’t feel like dealing with the “bros”. Everyone has either dealt with or been a “bro”. If you’ve been teabagged in Halo, had someone call you fifteen variations of “fag” after sniping you, or generally felt frustrated by the idiocy of people you deal with in these games, you’ve dealt with a bro. As a gamer in my 30s, I don’t have time for bros, which affects my online game playing.

But these are just annoyances. What happens when these people go above and beyond their normal annoyance and get into potentially dangerous territory? They embarrass everyone around them, then revel in their atrocity.

By now, Andy Kelly’s Gamer Fury Tumblr page has gotten mainstream attention from the likes of the Guardian. It’s a cautionary tale for people who think that by entering the industry they’re going to become the next Miyamoto, a universally beloved caricature who brings love and joy to the world. It’s a list of @ replies to Treyarch Design Director David Vonderhaar, over a change to the statistics of a sniper rifle within Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. The early hatred was profiled earlier in the week. I won’t bother linking them here because the page itself is easy enough to follow, but they’re predictably horrific, with many people threatening threatening to rape and kill David’s family, specifically mentioning a daughter that I can find no reference to actually existing1. It’s sad to say that this kind of thing is par for the course, I don’t work for Treyarch on the world’s largest video game franchise and even I’ve had to take mitigating steps to protect my own family just in case one of the people threatening physical violence against me and mine over something I said or did. I don’t have the qualifications to try to psycho-analyze this kind of mindset – the Guardian did a good job of that – but it would seem like the people behind this don’t understand that their “virtual” selves are seeping into real life with real consequences. These people don’t have the social skills to respectfully dissent about something; all they know is that change bad, bad is bad, and to attack bad in the most visceral way possible. In most cases, I don’t think these people know what they’re doing, though there’s always the case of those who not only know, but bask in their hatred.

This is similar to telling a rape victim that they wouldn't have been raped if they weren't wearing that dress.

This is similar to telling a rape victim that they wouldn’t have been raped if they weren’t wearing that dress.

This comes on the heels of Phil Fish of Polytron finally giving up after the constant questions, abuse and other indignities suffered at the hands of the internet and, ironically, reporters. This particular incident was spiked by Gametrailers’ Marcus Beer, who goes by the handle @AnnoyedGamer, who called indies including Fish and Jonathan Blow, among other things, “fucking hipsters”, which came about when they both reacted negatively to journalists asking them about unspecified rumours relating to Microsoft being friendlier to indies, something they have been critical about in the past2. Despite the fact that Marcus Beer is a “journalist” in the same way Hip Hop Gamer is a “journalist – let’s just say they have their audiences and leave it at that – it struck a nerve with Fish, who proceeded to tell Marcus to kill himself, then stated that he’s leaving the industry.3

In short, it was two twitter users having a drunken slap fight, with the only difference being that they have a following.

The issue of note is that despite Fish bringing a lot of troubles onto himself, this is the straw that broke his camel’s back. Ben Kuchera – who, it should be noted, once called for the career of Forbes’ Erik Kain to be hurt over an article relating to emulation – notes quite well that the price for putting something out there that’s creatively stimulated is to be called the worst things on earth… on a good day. Every day, people who make things that people are supposed to enjoy are subjected to threats of violence, threats of rape, threats of murder, and other assorted threats from people exploiting the anonymity that the internet provides, and so far, we’ve been talking about just men; God help you if you’re a woman.

My primary job is that of IT, and my secondary job is that of a writer; therefore, it is my job to be creative, a job that, as my activity shows, is not one I’ve been very good at lately. I wane on creativity due to innocuous reasons; a hard day at work, fatigue, my own perfectionism biting me in the ass and scuttling a decent piece, these are all things that have kept me from exhibiting the number one requirement I have for this job. These people are able to push through that and make exemplary games – say what you want about Call of Duty, but they work their asses off to make and keep those games and keep them balanced – despite the fact that they’re being threatened with the statutory rape of their children for making calibrations to a pretend gun. How many people have we either burned out of this industry, or scared off of it entirely, by screaming at them like sirens every time they do something that we personally don’t like? It’s easy to say “oh, it’s just a few, that comes with the territory”, but how many brilliant people are we going to scare off because they looked at the territory and decided that they didn’t want to have their family be the subject of a psychopath’s rape fantasy?

What’s sad is that this isn’t exclusive to the video game industry. We can talk about games and gamers all we want, and let’s face it, when someone like Marcus Beer has the influence to cancel a game, we have a serious problem. But this is a problem in all aspects of entertainment. Look back at some of the reaction when it came out that the new Wonder Woman was wearing pants. Fans screamed and made threats over PANTS!4 People still talk about wanting to physically hurt Michael Bay for all of his transgressions. And don’t even get me started on how we, as a society, build up, and then break down our celebrities. The graveyards are filled with Marilyn Monroe, Michael Jackson, Princess Diana and other people who eventually died from the side effects of people taking out their own personal failings as people on celebrities and then brushing it off with “hey, if they don’t like it, don’t be famous”. The thought of people coming after me doesn’t scare me because I know 99% of them are simpletons blowing off steam; the thought of my family being petrified because of the other 1%, that does.

I’ve had a few incidents in my career, both as a writer and as a community site administrator, that were spooky to those around me. One time, someone mailed me a box filled with boxes, which would normally be funny, but this was right after a bomb threat. I’ve had numerous phone calls at 3AM by people angry about something I said, wrote or did. Numerous people telling me to go kill myself, a few saying that they would do it for me, even more people implying that they would hurt my family, you name it, I’ve heard it, and compared to the people in question, I’m small potatoes, at best being a big name in a niche video game fandom. Personally, I have a “come at me, bro” type of attitude to anyone who would try to bring pain upon me because I said something on the internet they didn’t like, but my family has always been far more ambivalent. How do I have a conversation with the people who live in my house, and who also hear that 3AM phone call, to say “well, we might have to lie low for awhile because I said a thing that made people mad, so look over your shoulder”?

If I had a way to fix this, I’d be putting it forth before Congress and not on a video game website. Mandating “real-name” communications is not the answer; people will lie at best, and hack others at worst. Making it socially unacceptable to act like this online isn’t the answer because it already *is* socially unacceptable to wish death and violence upon someone over a video game, and people do it anyway, sometimes to appeal to the minority who get off on that, and partly to rail against normalicy in a bored teenager’s revolt. And finding out the real identities of those talking like this on Tumblr and acting against them only creates bigger monsters than they are. In short, the question of what to do only leaves us with more questions.

It’s easy to say that no one – gamers, developers, controversial feminists, or whoever – deserve to be told that they’re going to be raped and murdered because of an inconsequential change to something that wounds the aggressor’s pathetically short world view, but we already know that. We know that it’s absurd to say “I’m going to rape your child” is just part of the territory if you want to create things, but we accept it as an indisputable truth regardless. Notwithstanding the very obvious things that Phil Fish has done to bring trouble upon his own head, the fact is that he, and Jonathan Blow, David Vonderhaar, Anita Sarkeesian and others take on comments in day to day life that we would go apocalyptic over if someone dared say them to our face. That’s part of the frustration, to be honest; knowing that if someone like this met the person they deride in a dark alley, their bravery – and likely anything in their bladder – would leave them, but online, there’s precious little anyone can do.

If my girlfriend made me a steak, and it was slightly overcooked, I could react in a number of ways. If one of those ways was to yell at her at the top of my lungs while threatening to kill and rape her, the very least of my concerns would be her leaving me and never speaking to her again; the same would hold true for anyone in my inner circle or my family. Why people insist on this as a valid means of communication, and an expectation that things will get done because of it, is beyond me. Ultimately, it’s irrelevant; much like how my girlfriend would feel, we are going to burn out creative mediums if we make the brilliant people behind them afraid of making a mistake knowing that the price of being wrong is having to constantly wonder about their safety.

1 – I’ve asked David if he has some time for a few questions, mainly about what it’s like to know that you will endure threats to rape and kill your family over the balancing changes to a pretend gun in a video game. He has not returned my message.

2 – This turned out to be Microsoft’s allowing self-publishing. It should be noted that Fish’s actual comments – that this is reactionary and Microsoft still can’t be trusted – are salient.

3 – All images courtesy of Destructoid

4 – Personally, I liked the new look. Loved it, in fact; it was a nice way to modernize the iconic character. #dealwithit

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Christopher Bowen

About Christopher Bowen

Christopher Bowen is the Editor in Chief of Gaming Bus. Before opening Gaming Bus in May of 2011, he was the News Editor at Diehard GameFAN, a lead reporter for DailyGamesNews, and a reviewer at Not A True Ending, also contributing to VIMM, SNESZone and Scotsmanality. Outside of the industry, he is a network engineer in Norwalk, CT and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.