Grand Theft Discourse: Comment Culture and Petty Hatred

GameSpot's logo; each letter of the word "GameSpot" is circumscribed by a circle with a red border, while the 'O" is surrounded by a starburst.

“Still harping on the same subject, you will exclaim—How can I avoid it, when most of the struggle of an eventful life has been occasioned by the oppressed state of my sex: we reason deeply, when we forcibly feel.

— Mary Wollstonecraft, emphasis mine.

When contemplating the locks behind which lay the internet id’s sewage, it always helps to remember what often causes them to swing open and let slip the furious, malodorous torrent of utterly degraded commentary: women who speak their minds.

Adding to the litany of women caught by the deluge of threats and bigotry, GameSpot editor and critic Carolyn Petit has been attacked by online commenters because she gave Grand Theft Auto V a near perfect review. A 9/10 was her verdict; however, some particularly and lamentably vocal fans wanted her to bless the game with a 10/10. Yes: for want of a lone point she has been called everything from a “bitch” to a “tranny” to “a shitty trap” to demanding that GameSpot “never, ever, let a woman review games like this!” to a “mentally ill freak”—the term “self-mutilating” came up far too many times to count.

Some of the more “reasonable” commentary bemoaned such extremes but, of course, sought to reassure us that not all gamers are like this and that, after all, these people are mere individuals (hovering somewhere between the ages of twelve and fifteen) who are solely responsible for their own vulgarity.

To this, I ask what I have always asked: How many individuals does it take before it becomes a social problem?

Time and again we see these cresting tidal waves of hateful spew, in which we can only see the screaming oblivion to which these people would consign democratic discourse. The comments Ms. Petit received display a singular lack of humanity that we must take upon ourselves to heal. To look at the hatred directed at women who speak their minds is to see the wracking death of discourse and, indeed, the source-code of patriarchy itself. Ms. Petit’s crime was to mention— offhandedly, no less, in an eight minute review that was mostly focused on non-political issues—the fact that GTA V relegates its women characters to outmoded and dehumanising archetypes. For this, she was put in the YouTube stocks.

For giving the game a 9/10 instead of a 10/10, it bears repeating.

There is much to be said here—I could go on a lengthy jeremiad about why reviewing games through scores is a terrible idea, but that is rather orthogonal to our present problem; the men, and minority of women, who complained would’ve done so simply because Petit broached sexism as an issue, score or no. The number merely provides a convenient and readily intelligible standard for the belligerents to bear. The problem remains what it always has been, and it is neatly captured by the implications of this lone comment: “no one gave a shit about how women were portrayed in video games 2 years ago but now because more women play its suddenly a problem. Terrible review and not objective at all, this person should not be in th position to state ‘her’ opinions as facts,” says a young man passing off his opinions as facts (poor grammar in the original).

A still of Carolyn Petit doing a video review for Gamespot, with a chyron featuring her name as she stands in front of two screens featuring clips from L.A. Noire; she is a light skinned woman wearing a lavender blouse over a purple top, wearing her long brown hair loose over one shoulder.

Carolyn Petit at work.

Time and again comments like this emerge, revealing a deep dis-ease with the presence of women (and to varying extents, LGBT people) in the gaming community. Note how the transmisogyny all but forces an incredible cognitive dissonance here: for what is a game review but a professional opinion? An opinion can be well-argued and empirically supported (problems that none of these commenters appear to be suffering from, I might well add), but it is still an opinion; reviews are solicited, consumed, and sought-after precisely because they consist of pointed opinions. Yet when, suddenly, an opinion about misogyny is offered, there enters an off-key chorus of people suddenly whinging about “facts.” To be clear, that women are often relegated to the clichéd archetypes they inhabit in GTA V is indeed a fact and Ms. Petit was right to broach the matter as she critiqued the game. But the fact that casting it as an “opinion” should be seen as damning, in a medium whose very essence is opinion, says everything one needs to know about the effect of prejudice upon one’s rational faculties. If the term “double standard” means anything, it must mean this.

The dismissal of Ms. Petit’s review as “feelings” further betrays the ill esteem in which women’s words are often held. Shocking in a community that prizes and venerates men whose careers consist entirely of angrily venting their spleens about this or that issue in gaming—the Angry Video Game Nerd is not just an archetype, after all; he’s a real person beloved by his fans and well remunerated for his work. Emotion is deeply dyed in the wool of gaming; yet a woman’s opinion, however delicately expressed, however professional and measured her tone, becomes unforgivably “emotional” in its content and relegated to the level of “feelings,” despite how indispensable emotions are to our reasoning.

This does not just apply to women as such, but anyone outside the putative white cis malestream of gaming. Take one commenter who argued “You just dont put an african american to review a game about KKK, he will get his feelings involved”—once again emotions are illegitimate if their content is oriented against prejudice, and once again white men are the putatively “neutral” and sobreminded critics who can see “objectively.” Meanwhile, Yahtzee is cheered on for his sweary, stentorian insults, leaving fans breathless about what creative testicular metaphor he’ll use for lambasting next week’s game. For whom, then, is emotion reserved?

An image of a light skinned, dark haired woman with two fingers pressed to her temple and eyes closed as she is surrounded by arcing holograms of data and images.

Woman’s place is on the internet. (Artwork from Eclipse Phase by Tariq Hassan used under Creative Commons).

For all the pretensions about neutrality and objectivity, these would-be-critics ignore the ways that the exclusion of women or any intelligent opinions by or about women is not, in any way, a neutral act. It expresses a value, which merits a curiously absent moral defence. Most hide behind simple misogyny (‘women don’t belong here’) or inconsistent reasoning (‘talking about gender is subjective, talking about graphics isn’t’). But our aim is to repair the intellectual and analytic chasm left by this omission. To quote Catharine MacKinnon, we are “suggesting that not only must women be included in an analysis from which they have been omitted, not only that any analysis that leaves women out is distorted and partial, but also that it is necessary to recast the vision of the totality to be explained.”

I should end this with an immodest suggestion: it is long past time that we seriously re-evaluate ‘comment culture’ on the Internet and review a full range of options, up to, and including the severe moderation, abrogation, or even elimination of comments on most online properties. This is neither a unique idea, nor is it untested. Popular Science has just announced, to both fanfare and consternation, that (with only a few exceptions) comments will disappear from their online articles.

This is a courageous move by Popular Science, going firmly against the grain by asseverating that no, not all opinions are equally valid merely because they can be expressed. For far too long, we’ve indulged this malformed, pseudo-democratic impulse; far from emancipating anyone or granting voice to the voiceless, it has merely encouraged bullying, prejudice, and anti-intellectual vandalism on a hitherto unknown scale. Popular Science also grasps the serious harm that can be perpetrated by the proliferation of wrongheaded opinion and prejudice. It is as if the spectre of 19th Century yellow journalism has been reanimated– sans even the briefest glimmerings of wit– in the online world of commentary today, and with equally damaging consequences in the world of ideas.

In the words of Pop Sci online content editor Suzanne LeBarr:

“A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics. Everything, from evolution to the origins of climate change, is mistakenly up for grabs again. Scientific certainty is just another thing for two people to “debate” on television. And because comments sections tend to be a grotesque reflection of the media culture surrounding them, the cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories, within a website devoted to championing science.”

This profaning of intellectual discourse has profoundly deleterious consequences for us; it degrades us and this culture of hateful, uninspired commentary merely serves to police the boundaries of discourse in such a way as to stifle the blossoming of new ideas, or the reinforcement of long-understood truths (like the existence of sexism). The problem that LeBarr bravely pointed to is no less true of the ill-informed pseudo-debates that transpire beneath any article about the humanities or social sciences, and it is equally true of reviews such as Ms. Petit’s that suffer from a war on expertise wielded by women.

Our comment culture needs to be made more productive; the ability to talk back online can be a cornerstone of democratic dialogue, and it has often served that purpose. But it works best when we usher away those whose vulgarity and prejudice works to scatter away reason into the night and to silence oft unheard voices. Moderation must become a civic imperative, not an afterthought that overburdens a lone underpaid staffer or volunteer. This odious culture in the world of gaming is part of the reason that more women, more people of colour, more LGBT folks, more people who are open about their disabilities, do not speak in its primary forums.

Whither their free speech? Whither free speech and democratic discourse when such large sections of the population are prohibited from speech unless they submit themselves to bigoted auto-da-fes? Why should we permit this? “The personal abuse, verging on persecution, is actually prohibited in GameSpot’s Terms of Use document, and yet it runs rampant across the site,” admits the site’s Johnny Chiodini in this amusing, and refreshingly frank mockery and analysis of the commentary Ms. Petit received, “And I don’t want to contribute to it anymore. …I don’t like the way our community currently treats the concept of the comment box.”

That GameSpot is standing by its editor is surely an encouraging sign, but clearly more must be done, and it must be proactive.

Online commenting is here to stay, and that, in the long run, is more than likely a good thing. But civic participation requires a modicum of responsibility, something woefully lacking in the spirit of people who would flag a woman’s considered opinion as “terrorism” on YouTube. Such a gesture is also more than a little ironic, considering this monster with a thousand faces—as transfeminist Autumn Nicole Bradley perspicaciously names it—is often behind actual threats and online attacks.

We can and must do better than this.

About Quinnae

Quinnae Moongazer, (or Katherine Cross, as she is known in Muggle-speak) is a pizza loving feminist sociologist, trans Latina, and amateur slug herder, working on her PhD at the CUNY Graduate Centre. When she's not studying or gaming she can be found at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project. Her blog can be found at quinnae.com and her writing has also appeared in Women's Studies Quarterly, Bitch Magazine, Questioning Transphobia, and Kotaku. She is a co-editor of the Border House.
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17 Responses to Grand Theft Discourse: Comment Culture and Petty Hatred

  1. Liz Quilty says:

    I find it mildly disturbing and ironic that if a women says it ‘relegates its women characters to outmoded and dehumanising archetypes’, a bunch of people start treating her exactly that way, using threats, insults, etc .
    Do they not realize how they are just proving how true it is?

    • Joseph says:

      Unfortunately that is precisely the case and this isn’t even the first actual example of this happening. Another game with a very questionable depiction of women , Dragon’s Crown was reviewed at Polygon by Danielle Riendeau with another very similar reaction. Danielle, like Carolyn, dared to suggest that the way women were depicted in the game may not be reasonable to be met with comments like “This is why women shouldn’t be allowed to review games for men”, among other similar stupid, misogynistic and outright awful opinions in the comments.

      Frankly, as a male who has been playing game for nearly 25 years of my life, I have become increasingly ashamed of many of the people I (supposedly) share my hobby with. I am also equally ashamed of the fact that these individuals are so prevalent and that so many others just dismiss them as a vocal “minority”. A vocal minority that seems to widely infest every games comment section and shout down anyone they disagree with – which makes me think they are more than a vocal minority.

      But so few of the “reasonable” side of gaming want to or even acknowledge these things are problems that should be actively countered. Comments sections are thus becoming echo chambers for the most disgusting, awful views among that section of the gaming community and it’s reflecting badly on everyone who plays games. Turning comments off would be a solution, but let’s be frank: What you’re doing there is telling them that they’ve won and that they can dominate any discussion platform they choose.

      What needs to happen is sites like Gamespot, as they sort of did in the GTA V Feedbacula response, need to take ownership of the fact they allow comments. They should then make an effort to moderate and actually say “Hey, these hideous opinions ARE NOT okay and they ARE NOT welcome”. If they continue? Boot them out and no longer permit them to comment. That’s much more of a start and is the beginning – however small – of saying there are consequences for saying hideously awful things on the internet.

      • Korva says:

        Complete agreement with the notion of “taking ownership” of what happens on one’s website. Hatespeech, stalking and other abusive behavior does not “just happen” like the weather, it is deliberately perpetrated and just as deliberately allowed to be perpetrated. Silence and hands-off lack of moderation are not neutrality, they are support for the abusive status quo.

        I also completely agree with Quinnae that “comment culture” is in serious need re-evaluation … at the very least. It’s not just hatespeech that makes so many comment threads completely pointless to even glance at, but also the prevalence of mindless verbal diarrhea. (Which also bloats sites needlessly and wastes bandwith, I imagine.) Going “lol” does not contribute to a discussion in any way, shape or form. Neither does posting inane “meme”-jpgs. Not every message needs to be a big wall of deep-thought text, of course, sometimes a short note of support can mean a lot as well. But seriously — I wish more people would only post if they truly had something to say AND were willing to say it in their own words instead of spamming meme-pictures and catchphrases.

        Also, very good point about how this “comment culture” undermines scientific discourse.

  2. Simone says:

    The amount of times I screamed “PREACH” as I read this article is really astounding.

  3. I’ve actually got a design for a system which would allow everyone to express their views, but for people to not see that which makes their life unpleasant. A reputation system that, rather than working on individuals’ relationships to individuals, works on individuals’ relationships to groups (i.e. to women, to LGBT, to XBox-fans, etc.), so a sexist would not be heard by women, a racist by blacks, and so on. Theoretically, it should work well in comment systems and online games.

    I need to flesh it out some time soon.

    • CrisFuria says:

      That doesnt solve the problem, just hides it…

      • I’m not trying to solve major cultural problems with this – I’m just trying to make life a bit more pleasant for people who would otherwise be harassed on the internet. I would suggest, though, that making online communities more welcoming (whether they like it or not) could do wonders to improve participation by a broader selection of society, naturally marginising the unpleasant few.

        • Doone W. says:

          I’m afraid to say it, but everyone’s opinions should not be dignified or expressed. I’d like to see a system which takes that into account and which can make the player aware that they are not welcome when they are uncivil.

          • I’m happy for anyone to express what their opinions, I’m far less happy for other people to be forced to hear them. It’s a bit of a philosophical point of difference, but in the end I fail to see the harm in people shouting into an empty room.

            I aim to improve peoples’ experiences on the internet, not take away peoples’ ability to express themselves. Just because we don’t like what they’re saying, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have the right to say it.

    • Rakaziel says:

      I like your idea, but there is one big problem with this system – unless the group -block process is tightly monitored, it will also lead to sexists blocking all comments by women, racists blocking all commets by blacks and so on, contributing to the echo chamber effect that leads to the interpersonal “validation” of sexist, racist, and fundamentalist views online in the first place. It would stop the attacks, but would not solve the underlying problem. It could partially be fixed by an algorithm that monitors for keywords.

      That being said, I really like your idea. If it also keeps track of who replies to whom it would also make the reading of, and contributing to, lengthy discussions in the comments more comfortable as you can filter them by discussion.

      • This is true, but I think that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing long term. People who belong to neither group would still be able to engage with both, and in my experience those are the type most likely to change opinions. Arguing with someone who has set opinions in a diametrically opposed fashion has very little chance of changing minds, in my experience of the internet.

        This would allow minorities to express their views with much less fear of being assaulted for those views, allowing for a much more open and constructive discussions.

    • Do we really *want* to make it easier for racists and misogynists to find each other?

  4. Devin White says:

    Hey, thanks for posting this. I don’t know how far I would go with comment moderation, but I think that something definitely needs to change in regards to how discourse happens online. I think people need to come to the general consensus that sexism is not okay to promote at all, which sounds weird when I type that but still not true yet, and one of the ways we do that is by telling people these kinds of things are not okay.

    I’m hopeful that that time is not too far away, even after seeing the reactions to Carolyn Petit’s review, as hopefully the widespread knowledge that this happens will make people go, “Oh, that’s a problem that needs to be fixed.”

  5. Doug S. says:

    There seems to be a threshold of website popularity beyond which comment sections become much more trouble than they’re worth, because you end up overwhelmed by a huge number of drive-by postings by people who don’t come back to read replies. When you see like 1000 comments on an Associated Press story hosted by Yahoo!, there’s really no point in going through them in the first place.

  6. Deb says:

    Unfortunately I’m seeing this poisonous attitude creeping in to otherwise nice places. For example, the person whose blog I found this article on was having a conversation about trans issues and one of the commenters said something to the effect of “cis people are terrible.” When someone pointed out that this was not a nice thing to say, the response was that this “wasn’t about cis people’s feelings.”

    Well, I’m trans and *I* don’t like this. It’s not cute or funny or turning the tables, it’s hateful. As you can imagine, most of the people I know are cis. My partner, my family, and the vast bulk of my friends are cis. I no longer feel comfortable in trans spaces because it’s only a matter of time before I hear “die cis scum” or something to that effect, and I am really uncomfortable with hate speech. Yes, even hate speech that’s directed against a largely uncaring and terrible majority. Being hateful, malicious, and threatening obliterates any claim our community can make to moral legitimacy, plus it gives more ammo to our enemies. “You see? They’re all crazy!” I’ve already seen this happening.

    With every year, I find myself spending less time in both gaming and trans communities, for the exact same reason. If we want to improve online culture maybe we should start in our own house. And I do mean “we,” because I’ve become caught up in this negative comment culture myself over the years. That’s probably why I threw an essay at your comments page (sorry about that!).

    • Quinnae says:

      Sorry I didn’t post your comment sooner, Deb, but thank you for speaking up. I’m not sure I agree with you entirely– I would not draw an equivalence between spiteful things said by trans people and overtly deleterious hate speech against trans folk by cis individuals, for instance; to put it very briefly in terms of relative power it’s comparing a scratch to a punch. However, that being said, I think there’s a lot of validity to your concern about “cleaning our own house” and that’s something I’d like to talk about more in my future work. There are times when activists contribute to online toxicity in ways that are difficult to defend (“Die cis scum” being paradigmatic of that tendency).

      It is not reasonable to compare the angry speech of a powerless minority to the “hate speech” (in the legal and sociological sense of that term) of a privileged group, but there is an ethical argument to be made. We may not materially disadvantage cis people when we speak in such overtly aggressive ways, but we do something equally bad– and you exemplify this– we isolate our community members and corrode the very community that is meant to be a shelter for us against an often uncaring world. I do not wish to be in a community where spite and anger are the prevailing emotions, however justified they may be in some cosmic sense. More than cis people, we owe it to *each other* to make our community more productive. The simple and ineluctable truth about our corrosive call-out culture is that it’s part of this larger problem I addressed, where we use the unique nature of the internet to do harm. People saying that others should commit suicide, die in a fire, or making death threats are *not acceptable*– whoever says them. And as feminists and social justice activists, we must make that clearer without indulging in the overused and disingenuous argument that oppression makes that sort of expression valid.

      We ought not be nice to cis people just because they’re privileged (fear of that obeisance is what drives much of the resistance to diplomatic speech), we ought to be respectful and diplomatic for its own sake, and for the sake of our own community. Because whether we wish to admit or not, we *do* drive away vulnerable people who understandably do not wish to be around, or be associated with a group that constantly vents in “hateful” ways. That’s a problem, yes.

      Anyway, thank you for commenting– and don’t worry about your “essay”! It merited one in reply. :P

  7. salvodaze says:

    Great read, thank you.

    I find the suppression/punishment approach against foul users to be potentially the most effective in large communities. It’s much easier to create and maintain a non-hostile environment in a smaller community because there is actually a stronger sense of community in smaller groups, as that of a gang, which creates a thicker wall that an intruder would have a harder time breaking. Also, smaller communities are likely to be more focused and therefore more likely to attract outsiders who share a similar trait. Take me, for example, I’m here because I’m a gay female gamer, meaning there were one general, two specific reasons I was drawn to the Border House; therefore I’m less likely to offend people. But at websites like Gamespot, the numbers are so vast and demographics so versatile that they become a community akin to a nation, where people often have (hopefully) a single trait in common: in this case, an interest in video games. And as we know from nations, you can’t really make sure people get along and abide the rules using hugs and puppies (though I wish we could). Larger communities also allow for a stronger chance of anonymity; while these websites have profile pages with unique URLs for each user, it is much easier to hide and be forgotten when the numbers are so high. I believe most people comment to provoke, in general, to say “Guess what, not only do I exist but also I will prove you wrong.” That’s why we seldom see one party agreeing with the other in the end. That’s why unbiased moderation is necessary and should be tailored specifically for a community’s needs.

    Speaking of larger communities and foul behavior, I found the results obtained among Leauge of Legends players in this project very interesting: http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/191262/Video_Fixing_toxic_online_behavior_in_League_of_Legends.php

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