This one has been on my heart for a long time. To about half of you, the title of this article probably sounds like trolling. But after watching the same argument get stuck in the same rut for the same reasons for the 1,000th time, I thought I’d try to help un-stick the debate.
One of the reasons this sort of thing always turns into a white-hot flame war is because people aren’t clear about what they mean when they call gamers or gaming culture “toxic”. Everyone assumes the meaning is obvious, and then they wind up in long arguments where both sides are using the same words to mean very different things, and each side concludes the other is crazy.
I realize that fussing over definitions is really tedious, but if we lay this groundwork now we can save ourselves a lot of headaches later, okay?
So what does someone mean when they say…
“Gamers are Toxic”
They probably don’t mean ALL gamers are toxic. That’s an absurd position and nobody inside the hobby would make that claim.
They also probably don’t mean MOST gamers are toxic. Again, people outside the hobby might think this if they just follow sensationalist headlines, but nobody who plays games can make the argument that most of us are horrible people.
They probably don’t mean that SOME gamers are toxic, because that’s a meaningless thing to say. Like, some portion of ANY group is going to be toxic. Some gamers are toxic. Some police officers, some businessmen, some chefs, some school teachers. Some portion of any group is bad, so saying “some gamers are toxic” is like saying “some people are tall”.
So I think the most common thing that people mean is “Gamers are more toxic than the general population”.
And… okay. That’s not an unreasonable conclusion to draw based on headlines. I get why people say this. My concern is that:
- I don’t think it’s really true.
and more importantly…
- I think repeating this is bad for the hobby.
I want to stress that I’m not ignoring the horrible abuse we see out there. I had a friend and colleague – someone that I really respect – leave games journalism due to harassment. She put up with a lot of hate mail over the years, but when someone tracked down her home address and SWATted her, she decided that she wasn’t willing to risk her personal safety for the hobby. She’s talented, compassionate, and insightful. She did good work, and now she no longer writes about games for a living. I want to stress that she wasn’t some controversial firebrand that picked fights and posted politically charged screeds. One of the reasons I enjoyed her work was that she didn’t engage in that sort of thing. She was just, you know, writing about games.
“Shamus, you just admitted that your friend was harassed out of the industry. How can you turn around and claim that gamers aren’t toxic?”
And here is where the misunderstandings come from.
Person A says, “Gamers are toxic.”
What they MEAN is, “We have a harassment problem.”
What the other side HEARS is, “People who play video games are evil and abusive.”
Person B responds with, “No, gamers aren’t toxic.”
What whey MEAN is, “This hobby is filled with good people and you shouldn’t paint us all with the same brush.”
What the other person HEARS is, “Abuse doesn’t happen.”
This is a disaster of a conversation, even if we ignore the whole political bent to the exchange and how these arguments often intersect with the wider culture wars.
The other thing that causes confusion is that when some people say “toxic” they’re talking about grotesque and illegal stuff like doxxing, harassment, and SWATting. When other people use the word “toxic” they mean “people being kinda rude on the internet”. For the record, I’m going to be talking about the first kind of toxic. If you’ve read comments on YouTube or discussed politics online, then you know that being rude is NOT unique to games.
To get back to the main point: Yes, I’ll agree that abuse happens, and that real people are hurt in the real world. My objection is that I don’t think gamers deserve the reputation that society is giving them.
In the aughts, the Lakers fans had three different riots that led to widespread vandalism like flipping police cars and bonfires in the streets.
In 2000, there were the UEFA Cup Final Riots, where multiple people were stabbed to death. These killings were seen as retaliation for the murder of two Leeds United fans a month earlier.
In 2012, 79 people were killed in a football riot. 79 peopleI had 79 people in my script, but now I see that Wikipedia claims it was 74. I’m not sure where this numeric discrepancy came from. Also 500 people were injured.!
I know we’ve had our controversies in gaming, but it’s not like the Mass Effect 3 ending caused riots that killed a dozen people. The botched launch of Fallout 76 didn’t lead to Todd Howard burning police cars.
I’m not saying that we should ignore the harassment in gaming just because sports riots exist. I’m trying to make the case that – in a large enough group of people – there will always be a few bad apples, and that we shouldn’t blame the hobby itself.
People act like gamers are this terrible subculture filled with abusers and criminals, but I think it’s far more likely that gamers are just another group of ordinary human beings and no more deserving of shame than any other. The vast majority are good people, and a vanishingly small minority are really, really horrible. We should be careful to not blame the entire community for the actions of that minority.
I mean, there are over two billion people in the world who play video games. It would be weird if some of them WEREN’T psychopaths. You can’t blame a group for the behavior of its worst members. This is true whether you’re talking about religionsHashtag NotAllJedi kill younglings., ethnicities, nationalities, or just hobbies. When you attribute the misbehavior to the larger group, you’re taking the blame off the guilty and smearing it all over the broad populace, many of whom are victims of the harassment in question. That’s not how guilt works.
It’s not just that this characterization is unfair, it’s that engaging in this sort of rhetoric is bad for the hobby.
When you claim that “Gamers are Toxic”, you’re reinforcing a narrative that politicians have been trying to sell for decades. The older generation is always throwing a moral panic about the new generation. In the old days it was reefer madness. Then rock and roll was corrupting our kids. Then Dungeons & Dragons was turning our kids into Satanists. Now the narrative is that video games are turning our kids into amoral antisocial killbots. This is a vile narrative, and there are always a handful of politiciansI’ve avoided singling any specific politicians out, but in the USA you can find examples of the two major parties taking turns riding on this bandwagon. and demagogues looking to make a name for themselves by blaming and censoring games. We should not be giving those people ammunition.
Also, this idea that gamers are toxic and entitled is used as a shield by the publishers to hide from legitimate consumer advocacy. Electronic Arts regularly tops the list of most hated companies in America, and their typical defense is to claim that the polls are the result of ballot-stuffing by fringe groups. The only reason this excuse appeases shareholders is because it’s supported by the narrative that we’re toxic, unreasonable people. If the Ford Motor Company put out a terrible car that nobody wanted, they couldn’t claim that the critics were just toxic weirdos, because there isn’t a pre-existing narrative that Ford owners are crazy people.
The media is also part of the problem. If two guys get in a knife fight over a bet they made on a Broncos game, the headline will be “Deadly Stabbing a Local Sports Bar”. If those same guys get in a fight over weapon skins in Counter Strike, the headline will be “Gamers Killing Each Other Over Virtual Guns”. This isn’t because the media is some evil cabal of anti-gaming jerks. They’re just people trying to sell newspapers. Stories about the underbelly of sports don’t get as many clicks as scary stories about the fringes of gamer culture. When we repeat the idea that the hobby is filled with awful people, we’re helping reinforce this feedback loop. We’re reinforcing the narrative that creates the panic that drives the clicks that encourages news outlets to showcase more sensationalist stories. Then the older generation starts to think of us as an alien subculture that needs to be controlled and defended against.
“Hey Shamus, who cares what’s going on in sports? I’m talking about harassment in gaming, and saying that Gamers Are Toxic is a good shorthand for that. I don’t care if it hurts your feelings. I know what I mean when I say those words, and if other people can’t figure it out then that’s their problem!”
Okay. Fair enough. I’m not your dad and you’re free to use whatever words you want. I know how upsetting this stuff is and I know the usual response to injustice is strong rhetoric. If you want to call gamers toxic, then I can’t stop you.
But be aware of what you’re doing. When you say those words, you’re helping to build a narrative that protects the predatory corporations at the top, you give more fuel to a media machine that profits from reinforcing negative gamer stereotypes, you give ammunition to demagogues who want to strip games of their status as an art form, and you give the harassers the attention and feeling of relevance that they crave. And after all of that, you’re just going to end up in this argument again:
You end up trying to explain over and over that you don’t mean ALL gamers are bad. And worst of all, none of this does anything to stop harassment. It’s just another shouting match where nobody changes their mind.
Note how when sports fans leave the stadium and begin wrecking the city, the media usually stops calling them “fans”. They become “rioters” or “hooligans”. That creates a nice line between the guilty and everyone else. I think it would be smart if we started doing the same. Someone calling a SWAT team on you because they didn’t like your review of Call of Duty doesn’t represent “gamers” any more than the idiot setting fire to police cars represents football fandom. Either kind of footballHand Egg.
So now you’re wondering what word we should use to describe the toxic harassers? I don’t think it’s my place to say. Pick your own word. Whatever fits. One of them is bound to catch on sooner or later. If we can come up with terms for Goldfarmers, Griefers, Laners, Loot Ninjas, Noobs, and Smurfs, then we can certainly come up with a handy word to describe criminals that isn’t “gamer”.
Yes, there are bad people in this hobby. But there are orders of magnitude more good people. Every year tens of thousands of people get together online and in the real world to raise millions of dollars with charitable causes like Child’s Play, Extra Life, Desert Bus, Humble Bundle, and the twin speedrunning marathon fundraisers Awesome Games Done Quick and Summer Games Done Quick. We have entire organizations dedicated to inclusivity, mental health, and accessibility. This hobby covers the world and includes people of all ages, all walks of life, and all lifestyles. Anyone can enjoy this hobby. Everyone is welcome.
By all means, let’s stand together against harassment. But while we’re doing that, let’s not perpetuate the toxic gamer narrative and make the harassers the face of the hobby. The term “gamer” should not be a pejorative. When the stakes are this high and tempers run this hot, let’s be precise in the words we use to describe the problem.
I know this article was pretty serious. Hopefully we’re not enemies now. No matter where you fall in this debate or how you feel about the term “gamer”, try to be patient with the opposition. Be good to each other out there. Thanks for reading.
EDIT: Well, this was a pretty good discussion. It didn’t melt down the way I thought it would. However, I can see things are getting personal in the comments below, and all of the interesting discussions have concluded or burned out. I need to step away from the computer for a bit, so I guess this is a good time to close the comments.
Thanks so much to everyone who kept this friendly. This really was a useful discussion.
 I had 79 people in my script, but now I see that Wikipedia claims it was 74. I’m not sure where this numeric discrepancy came from. Also 500 people were injured.
 Hashtag NotAllJedi kill younglings.
 I’ve avoided singling any specific politicians out, but in the USA you can find examples of the two major parties taking turns riding on this bandwagon.
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