-[The Aberrant Gamer is a weekly, somewhat NSFW column by Leigh Alexander, dedicated to the kinks and quirks we gamers tend to keep under our hats – those predilections and peccadilloes less commonly discussed in conventional media.]

Combine the veil of anonymity with the community elements the internet supports and you’ve often got a vocal mob. Far from being an exception, gamers are perhaps a case-in-point – off the top of your head, can you think of any other discussion topic, aside perhaps from American politics, that incites such a firestorm? An earlier Aberrant Gamer column took a look at the “hot-button issues” in the gaming community, examining those topics most likely to bunch gamer panties, and theorized that lingering social misconceptions and the fact that we still feel mostly alone in our world despite advances in networked gaming and an increasingly broader audience contributed largely to our defensive attitude and quick rise to anger.

One of the “hot-button issues” Aberrant Gamer highlighted in the past was our often unjust scrutiny at the hands of mainstream media, complete with accusations of violence, maladjustment, addiction and anti-social behavior. We’ve had to defend our favorite hobby from this kind of malign almost since its inception. We’re innocent.

Or, we were. Lately, many have found themselves asking whether, as our own society with its own set of norms and behavioral standards, gamers are approaching – if not already crossed – a line from the justifiably passionate into the alarmingly vitriolic. As certain kinds of gamer behavior, mainly online, reaches a fever pitch, many of us have found it increasingly difficult to take a defensive stance. It’s becoming harder not to ask certain questions about ourselves.

Are we crueler than we were years ago? And have we, as a society, become unhealthy?

This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things

-To find evidence that ought to encourage the gaming community to think twice, one need look back less than a month in recent history. Many of us have fought stereotypes of sexism and a fixation on sex for years. In other words, the old chestnut is that gamers – and games themselves – alternately exclude and objectify females. Such things cannot be entirely disproven, and both attitudes about sex and those regarding gender relations will probably be the topic of debate for quite some time in the game community, as they will likely be for human society as a whole for generations to come. That we have begun to have these dialogues is a sign, perhaps, that we are a sustainable audience, our own healthy community. And you’d think, with all these discussions, that perhaps some progress would have been made – after all, the fact that it remains an issue indicates that a good portion of gamers, if not the majority, have progressive, inclusive and constructive views on the subject.

And then, a certain webcomic crops up in response to a certain game and its producer, and somehow it sets us back to an era when games didn’t even exist. The issue doesn’t warrant any more attention than it’s already gotten, and many have expressed outrage eloquently enough, so I won’t add to it. But that particular Jade Raymond Incident was, to many, the culmination of some very subversive, very virulent attitudes into an overt act of hostility. It wasn’t simply an insult to Ms. Raymond, or to women in games; it was an insult to us all by association.

You could say that the incident was an anomalous act by a single rogue perpetrator, but couldn’t a community of the just and dignified have silenced the offender if we all shared unanimous solidarity against such behavior? Moreover, would the perpetrator have created such a thing if he or she didn’t feel there was an audience who would embrace his message? More shameful than the fact that such an image was created and propagated was the fact that an unfortunately significant percentage of our population, while condemning the image itself, said that Ms. Raymond deserved the attacks. Despite being completely unfamiliar with the capacity to which she was involved in the game and reducing her, essentially, to a spokesmodel, the opinion that she had manipulated people with her looks and deserved, along with the game developers who had made Assassin’s Creed, such harsh retribution was astoundingly prevalent.

-Men will fixate on pretty women, and probably sexualize them, privately if not publicly. It’s a basic fact of human relations, and it probably will never change, and that fact in itself is no source of shame. But the potency of the hatred that showed itself like a wound on the face of our community was stunning, and I challenge anyone to argue that this incident can be overlooked without begging serious examination of our community and the messages we share amongst ourselves.

And sadly, the Jade Raymond debacle – of which, I remind, the offending webcomic was a culmination and not a beginning, as she’d already been receiving inappropriate and unfair judgment – is not the only incident that begs us to examine our culture.

Just about as nauseating is a video, only a few days old, created by a young gay man to demonstrate the way that fellow Halo 3 players spoke to and treated him because he indicated his sexual orientation in his gamertag. Obviously, in a game like Halo, players can couple verbal attacks with actual ones; the individual who was victimized in this particular situation told GayGamer.net that not only was he verbally abused, but his teammates turned on him and shot him. “You know Jesus hates you,” one attacker said. “I hope you die and burn in hell,” said another. The rest of the comments are so vulgar as to be unprintable.

One doesn’t need to watch the video to know that there are still issues of homophobia and hatred in society as a whole, but that people would use a video game as a vehicle to attack someone – and that they would do so in such a virulently hateful way – is saddening. It’s normal to feel competitive, to trash-talk, even to feel determined to take out your fellow opponent. But this is just sick.

Where Did You Learn That?

The one thread that ties all of us together in this is the fact that we love video games. Did games teach us to be so combative? Did they teach us to be violent, to attack without warning? Is the advent of networked gaming blurring the line between real people and video game characters? Can we be sure that, over time, games are not making of us reactionaries, reflexive, desensitized to human consequences? Have we killed one too many realistic CGI humans?

You positive?

Independent game designer Jonathan Blow (Braid), speaking recently at the Montreal Games Summit (covered by GameSetWatch’s big sister Gamasutra with contribution from this column’s author) asserted that we do learn, on an emotional level, from games, and suggested that perhaps gamers are not learning the right things. “My concern is that games designers of today lack discernment when we think about whether games are good or bad,” he said. “If players play it and report they’re having fun, we say, 'hey that’s a good game.' If not, we say, 'they don’t understand it.'”

-He continued that the normal modus operandi in game design is to foster player engagement through the use of “scheduled rewards.” For example, the mechanics of playing World of Warcraft are repetitive and not in and of themselves complex, but players loyally repeat the same behaviors because the rewards – the better sword, the better mount, the higher level – keep players engaged on a basic level. While this factor alone is not necessarily a bad thing, Blow noted that these sort of rewards, which may very well gratify the brain on a neurological level, can be divided into two categories: “Some are like foods that are naturally beneficial and can increase your life, but some are like drugs," he said.

Continued Blow, "As game designers, we don’t know how to make food, so we resort to drugs all the time.” His conclusion, then, is that the cultural backlash from gamers toward games – the difficulty of pleasing the audience, their strong reaction when a game disappoints them – might be due to the fact that they’re undernourished, so to speak, forced to engage through rewards rather than sustainable, gratifying emotional experiences. And since, as Blow stressed, all games teach, the result just might be some incorrect learning on our part.

This column does not assert that games themselves are – or are not – the cause of this apparent escalation in hostile, unstable behavior in our community. And it is an overall behavioral trend; two extreme incidents are are demonstrated here as examples, but take a glance at review archives alone and there’s almost guaranteed to be, in the comment threads, a reaction to a reviewer’s opinion that seems unnecessarily venomous, excessively upset. And nor does this column levy accusations against all of us as a whole; it’s most likely that this encroaching trend of apparent hardening, of an increase in cruelty in our audience, is attributable to a vocal minority even as the majority numbers of healthy individuals who simply enjoy gaming continues to grow. It’s also important to note the positives that have come out of gaming communities online – friends supporting each other through difficult times, game-inspired charity organizations and events.

And yet. I once made the rather unpopular assertion that we must examine game violence and resolve our relationship with it in order to be justified in defending ourselves against the knee-jerk, sensationalized accusations of the mainstream media, politicians and TV psychologists using us to get attention. Unpopular though it may be, I offer that perhaps we ought to examine ourselves some more. What are we learning from games, from our anonymous online communities, and from our relationships with one another?

[All images are William Hogarth's "Four Stages of Cruelty" and were nicked from Tate.org.uk.]

[Leigh Alexander is the editor of Worlds in Motion and writes for Gamasutra, Destructoid, Paste, and her blog, Sexy Videogameland. She can be reached at leigh_alexander1 AT yahoo DOT com.]