I made the mistake of checking in recently. Found out that y’all had gotten into some shit over the last year. Found it through a blog post that left me feeling guilty. And in those rare moments where I’m capable of feeling guilt, I tend to do stupid things. So here we go.
The primary reason I originally stopped writing is that Valve broke my scrying pool. See, I wrote from a statistical perspective, and the tool I used to gather data on my end broke one patch and never came back. I didn’t have the resources to replace it, so my access was cut. Which was a shame. I really enjoyed that project. I’m recognizing now that it was only possible for me to write because I enjoyed the statistical analysis aspect so much. It provided me an internal motivation to share what I was doing, which was necessary because I’ve always been terrible at feeling external motivation.
Hypothetically, I could have kept writing for its own sake, just to see if it would lead anywhere. Maybe eventually I would have connected to someone and found a way to recapture the thing I was missing. Problem was, without that internal motivation I was left with writing for the external. In anything remotely approaching the “talent scene” you’re essentially selling your personality on some level or another. And I didn’t have one. I originally left my blog posts uncredited out of a craving for a sort of anonymity, and I remember being mildly distressed that when they were first being shared on reddit that some of the commenters identified me from a completely different forum. It really was in no way surprising, but it still felt frustrating. And given this, how in the hell is someone who needs to stay invisible supposed to thrive in a position that hinges on attracting attention?
But while I was still struggling with the decision to keep writing, a second complication emerged. I started looking into gender transition. It’s not an especially elaborate part of the story. I had reasons to believe it would help my mental functioning, I engaged in an experiment to test if that belief would hold up, and the experiment exceeded expectations. The fact that the mere idea of writing this has gone from “unthinkably terrifying breach of security” to “unbelievably stupid, but fuck it, we all gonna die” is a huge testament to its success.
Given all this, it hit close to home when I learned about LlamaDownUnder being run out of the scene by GranDGranT. Specifically the part of the broader harassment Llama had been dealing with that involved dragging her partner into it, including an infamous screenshot referring to said partner as “it” and asking if she was “trans or normal.”
It hit home because it confirmed that leaving had been the right thing to do. That kind of attention was not the kind of thing I needed during what was already a volatile time of my life, and trying to fight through it would have been a waste of time. In a product-oriented setting, your participation is only desirable if you’re a value-add, and typically that means not being hated by a substantial portion of the target audience. Controversial personalities occasionally function as draws, but I know fully well that I’m now the wrong type of controversial.
I don’t bring up all of this out of any bitterness. I weirdly never feel any bitterness about all of this, even though I maybe should. When I found out about last years events, I happened to watch SirActionSlacks’ "Lets talk" video. In it he says,
I dreamed of being able to do something like this in my life and I knew it never would happen. I knew I’d never leave, fucking, my state. I knew I would always be dreaming of being an entertainer, hanging out with people and its...this game made everything for me. And to think that there’s people out there that wanted the exact same thing but just because they’re women or they’re gay or they’re a different race, and they don’t get to have it, um, because people are fucking assholes because that’s how they were brought up it...it’s horrible.
It feels like this ought to hurt, but it doesn’t. Truthfully, I probably forgot how to dream long before I ever stumbled upon Dota. I was never any good at imagining a future of my own. For better or for worse, this makes it hard to feel regret.
Maybe at this point you anticipate that I’m writing this to say “Shame on you, toxic Dota community,” but that’s not where I’m going with this. For one, I know you’re collectively incapable of feeling shame, so it’s a pretty low tier play in this emotional meta.
To be less flippant, I’ve been playing video games since before a non-zero number of you were born. I was playing online team games on a shitty 56k connection years before Warcraft 3 came out, let alone Dota. Looking back, I realize that those games were my only home at the time, but they never actually felt like home.
Whenever I worked up the nerve to contribute something to the community it would feel like a network of harassers would spring up out of nowhere. To the best of my terrible recollection, I felt more bullied in online gaming spaces than I ever felt in real life. I learned real quick how to be invisible at school, but I occasionally made the mistake of aspiring to be something other than invisible online. It never turned out well.
I’ve told my therapist that trying to participate in online communities was like that stupid trope about how on your first day of prison you have to shiv someone to demonstrate that you’re not to be fucked with. But then that day just stretches on forever. For some reason I can distinctly remember this one guy who harassed me for months, and I never knew why. Maybe we had an “argument” during a match that I forgot about that he never let go off. But whatever the cause, he attacked me relentlessly for over a year, telling me that everything I tried to make for the community was terrible.
And I didn’t really hurt, so much as it left me feeling threatened. As much as my life revolved around playing that game at the time, I never felt like I belonged there. And so I did what any deeply insecure but socially resourceful teenager would do when being bullied by someone twice their age: I found out that this person had a divorce recently, took steps to reassure him that it was probably because he was a terrible person, and he should probably take steps to address that problem by discontinuing his existence.
I guess it was toxic, but like I said, I’m not very good at feeling regret. The way I saw it, he had power and I did not. He was threatening me, and anything was justified to make that stop. The bigger problem was that I never really succeeded in getting him to back off. And to make matters worse, new iterations of this cycle of abuse kept starting with other people.
Through it all, I never felt a shred of guilt for trying to hit these people back. I did however start to feel guilty that my attempts at revenge were hurting the third party of the audience forced to watch this never-ending flame war. And for my own part, this cycle was leaving me emotionally exhausted. So I resorted to the social maneuver I was best at: I ghosted.
It’s not like I gave up on gaming. Playing games was too essential to my existence for me to ever consider that. Instead, I just fell back into anonymity. If people get too close, you just make a new account. I needed to keep playing, but it was safer to change the games into single player titles with advanced AI. Safer to maintain emotional distance. Because while I learned how to stay safe by killing off my emotions in real life interactions, I could never pull that trick off in online spaces.
So it’s not surprising that it was so easy to just abandon everything I had done regarding Dota. It was just another iteration of a cycle that I had gotten used to at this point. Identities were made to be disposable, so what’s the big deal?
It’s probably a sign of growth that I’m starting to be able to recognize that this adaptation was deleterious. There was a time when one of my pseudonyms was actually interacting on a forum somewhere and the topic of women in gaming came up. One of the women in the thread was talking about how she was sick of getting harassed every time she tried to communicate with her team. A man chimed in with the idea that to enjoy the game she should just put everyone on mute and stop talking. That didn’t go over well.
I remember that my initial emotional response was that he was getting dragged a little too hard for what was a reasonable suggestion. But of course I found it reasonable. I was a brokebrain who had just a couple years earlier somehow stumbled into becoming the leader of a World of Warcraft raiding guild, but who had dumbfounded (and probably frustrated) the whole guild by refusing to use voice chat the entire expansion. Putting up social walls preemptively to protect myself was simply axiomatic.
But because of how automatic it was, I never considered how much you miss out on because of those walls. That there are potential friendships that never get a chance to form because people understandably interpret distance as disinterest.
Of course, we’re heartless esports gamers, so let’s frame this in terms of borderline sociopathic self-interest instead. Not participating in chat hinders your ability to win matches, it prevents you from growing as a leader, and it sabotages your ability to enter into organized communities that for most players are the key to growing into something more than a slightly above average pubstomper. Staying invisible and silent is a strategy with a huge list of practical downsides, and I can now understand the outrage at it being offered as some kind of obvious solution.
All of this leaves me with a peculiar perspective where I can see both sides of the fence, and neither of them are remotely close to green. Studies suggest that women get harassed far more often than men when playing online competitive games. While I can’t draw from first hand experience here due to that whole invisibility adaptation, the experiences of people I care about make it incredibly hard for me to doubt the disparity. A moment that stands out was a friend playing League of Legends for the first time. Within 10 minutes of her first match ever she was on the receiving end of gendered insults about how terrible of a player she was. In an easy bot game. The sheer absurdity of even mustering the effort to get mad at someone in a mode that’s trivial to 1vs5 makes that event stand out in my mind. And no, she didn’t keep playing League for much longer after that.
At the same time, we often forget that men do receive harassment while playing these games as well. And while it statistically happens to men at a lesser frequency on an individual basis, gaming is also the only social outlet that many of these men have. As a result, it gets easy for them to internalize being attacked and insulted as simply being the price of admission to the space. Given this, it starts to feel unfair that someone could just waltz in and expect immunity from the harassment that everyone else deals with simply because they happen to be a woman.
It’s not good logic, no, but I can understand the source of the resentment. When these harassment studies get reported on the press uses headlines like “Video game study finds losers more likely to harass women,” which further feeds the stigma that all of these men spending all of their time playing these games must be losers. "So if that’s the world we’re going to live in, then if you’re a woman who gets harassed out of this space it’s really no big deal. You couldn’t cut it, and you just get to go back to the space where you’re not considered a loser. So do that and stop trying to change our space because we do not have that same luxury. We have nowhere else to go back to."
This puts me in the immensely awkward position of being able to empathize with this mindset while also considering it to be an existential threat. Because I’ve been that gaming loser with a deeply internalized sense of societal abandonment, albeit one who ended on a very different trajectory. So understand that I am in no way trying to justify this line of thinking. It’s more that when we talk about toxicity in gaming there’s a tendency to frame it as “making online gaming safer for women,” when really the scope ought to be “making online gaming a lesser circle of hell for everyone.”
Too often we treat necessary social change like something that needs to be triaged, but if the changes are sold as being in everyone’s benefit, it’s way easier to get people on board. Perhaps more importantly, if the changes don’t fundamentally address the root causes, they’ll never really stick. I do believe that it’s absolutely the case that women in competitive games get targeted with abuse at a far greater rate than men, but I’ve also spent enough time as male-passing in these spaces to know that being hurt by a culture of harassment is in no way an experience exclusive to women. Given that, I think it’s a huge mistake to say that gaming needs to change solely so minority participants can feel safe because disrupting the cycle of abuse would help everyone. Why bother selling it as less?
Granted, this cycle is something that’s bigger than gaming, and bigger than any clever matchmaking algorithm or ban feature. Most of this abuse gets brought in from the outside world, and fixing that is beyond the scope of anything we could talk about here. But people willing to sit through four pages of whatever this is tend to want some kind of hope they can make a difference, and there’s few things I hate more than offering empty platitudes, so here’s an attempt to thread that needle.
Since we all know that getting better at Dota involves watching replays of your failures and examining what you could have done instead, let’s try that here. In that story of an internet fight earlier, I don’t have a strong sense of regret over the wording. What I recognize as being a much better play would have been just privately messaging the guy to ask him what his problem was. Maybe there’s the potential for some act of genuine kindness arising out of this, but more importantly it would have stood a chance of achieving what I really wanted: getting him to leave me alone indefinitely. Growing up, I can’t remember any examples of authority figures stepping in and just de-escalating a conflict, so it’s not particularly surprising when a bunch of idiot teens don’t even consider it as an option.
Failing that, remember that if you’re arguing with someone in a public space chances are that your goal is not to convince or intimidate them. Neither of these things are likely outcomes. The most important thing is to appeal to the audience. This doesn’t mean “taking the high road,” but it can mean moderating your tone so that you don’t hurt a third party.
That said, some arguments are actually important to hash out. If you see someone engaged in one, give them a sign of support. Even if it’s just a private message, it helps to know that other people are on your side. And if the argument involves a minority group, ask them why they’re upset before you step in. It’s incredibly easy for a troll to use ‘dog whistle’ language to attack a specific group of people while coming off as innocent to the majority of readers who do not understand the context of the words they are using.
Furthering this line of thought, if you’re in an institution, whether professional or not, there will be people who will be less socially accepted than average. Maybe this is because of their gender, race, sexuality, or just their mental temperament. Because it’s not like soft ostracism isn’t experienced by straight cis guys who happen to be socially awkward. Don’t worry so much about showing that you’re an ally because sooner or later that just comes across as a performance. Find a way to show them that you’ll be a friend (particularly in an exclusively professional context if the individual is of the opposite gender). Most of the time, people don’t need to know that you consider them a delicate flower that requires protection; they need to know that you consider them equals and that you’ll stand up for them when the institution as a whole fails them.
I’m not here to address the issue of sexual harassment as it pertains to gaming as a career, because that’s never been my world. The issues women face in those types of professional spaces go well beyond the dynamics of internet harassment. Making it in a career like that is dependent on having allies you can trust and get help from, and it gets really hard to develop the necessary social links when you have to be suspicious that any offer of help might just be grooming behavior. And that doesn’t even touch upon the stress involved in accounting for the potential of physical assault. Mentors are incredibly valuable, and it’s hard to find one in a space where you cannot trust anyone.
Distantly related to the theme of mentoring, the reason I was interested in Dota in the first place is that it is a deeply beautiful evolutionary monstrosity. Every new patch disrupts the ecosystem, and subsequently a communal effort materializes to share findings and collectively learn how to adapt to the new conditions.
It’s not unlike the soapstone messages of Dark Souls where players leave little notes in the world that other players then stumble upon during their own adventures. Often these messages are trolling or comedic or lewd, but a number of them are genuinely helpful advice on how to navigate a complex and unfriendly world. It’s sort of heartwarming to see single-player gaming become this space where we all sit around a bonfire, share stories, and learn from each other’s experiences.
But it’s worth keeping in mind that participation in this rite is predicated on being allowed at the bonfire in the first place. It’s a deeply unfortunate fact about the world we live in that whether it’s an internship, an in-house league, or just a discussion forum, there are a lot of people out there who don’t even attempt to show up at the bonfires because they rightly do not feel welcome. And it makes me sad to think about all the interesting stories we missed out on because their storytellers were exiled to the dark.
So if you’re an active participant in a gaming community, please do what you can to mediate conflicts and shut down bullying behavior. The flames are gonna guide us one way or the other, so we might as well work together to try and unlock the less bad ending.