Swimming in a sea of shit: Phil Fish and the Internet’s war against creatives
I was somewhere outside the United States having a conversation with another critic about our respective jobs. The subject of whether we had ever thought of quitting came up, and he told me a story about sharing the death of a family member on social media, a loss that had affected him greatly.
Someone sent him the following message: “Good.” He told me that was the first time he had seriously thought about quitting, that the job just wasn’t worth the nearly constant stream of abuse you’re forced to endure online.
These are stories we rarely tell.
What I know of Phil Fish I learned through Indie Game: The Movie, interactions on social media, and a few e-mails we’ve exchanged. I respect him creatively and as a person, although it seemed like he never met a hornet’s nest he couldn’t improve by giving it a good kick. He seemed to quit the game industry over the weekend, after having an altercation with yet another person in the press, the latest in a string of encounters he seemed to find frustrating.
He posted the following message on Polytron’s official web page:
“FEZ II is cancelled. i am done. i take the money and i run. this is as much as i can stomach. this is isn’t the result of any one thing, but the end of a long, bloody campaign. you win.”
Some people rolled their eyes. Some people repeated that same word that so bothered my friend: “Good.” A few people called him crazy. Others in the game development world nodded their heads slowly, aware of just how bad it can get online.
The horde picks up the torches
Listening to other people talk about Fish, in both good and bad terms, and what all this meant, and often brutally personally attacking him, an interview kept popping back into my head. No one who is crazy, weak-willed, or thin-skinned makes a game like Fez.
I'm going to let Dave Chappelle sum it up:
That interview sums up the entire situation. The issue isn't with the press interactions that may have pushed Fish over this edge, or even Fish in particular. This is the sort of world we live in now. You open yourself up to constant abuse, hate speech, and hounding if you dare to release any creative work.
This goes for game developers, this goes for critics and reporters, and this goes for artists, photographers, or people making Youtube videos. It's universal. The ability to soak in, digest, and live with abuse is a prerequisite for being in the public eye, or existing online in some form next to your creations.
David Vonderhaar is the Studio Design Director on Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. Recently it was announced that a gun in the game was being balanced. “The DSR fire time was 0.2 seconds. It's now 0.4 seconds,” Vonderhaar said on Twitter. “The rechamber time was 1.0 seconds. It's now 1.1 seconds.” He also said that he didn't know if these fractions of a second are worth threats of violence.
That's not hyperbole, and in fact he was being very calm about the sort of messages he was receiving, some of which you can see in this tumblr. I want to quote a few, and I'm not going to edit any of the words or spelling. This is what we ask the people to make our games to wake up to every morning. This is their diet of fan interaction.
why do i get probation when even when the game kicks me u fucking retarded faggot piece of shit paki cunt
im going to tie you up and rape your family if you dont fix the dsr
i hope you die in the gas chambers like your parents did
It goes on and on. I'm not going to repeat the names or Twitter tags of the people who said these things, and don't comfort yourself by stating that they're obviously troll accounts or aren't indicative of what a normal day can be like for the people who make the games you play. The people who send these messages often make multiple accounts, and they understand that when you block one of their accounts it only means you're seeing their message.
This is the situation we're in: You can make yourself a bigger, more attractive target by using the safety options on social media.
I've heard these stories from so many creative people that it's hard to believe. Many, if not most, of them are afraid to talk about it, because it can often sound like someone is complaining about success. That's not what's going on, and it's important to say that money, notoriety, or other creature comforts don't excuse or make up for systemic, often focused harassment.
Abuse isn't localized, rare, or limited to one gender
This isn't something that happens to some people online, it's something that happens to everyone who has ever put any of themselves out there for public consumption. Someone on Twitter told Jonathan Blow that you can just ignore these messages.
“This is false,” he replied. “We can't choose to ignore it. As soon as the words are read, they have already hit emotionally.”
You can't give up on Twitter, because it's too good of a tool for interaction with your fans and players. You can't filter e-mail, because people send threats of violence with subject lines that sound innocuous. You just have to grit your teeth and slog through it, day after day.
“I'd like to say that none of this bothered me – to be one of those women who are strong enough to brush off the abuse, which is always the advice given by people who don't believe bullies and bigots can be fought,” writer Laurie Penny wrote in 2011. “Sometimes I feel that speaking about the strength it takes just to turn on the computer, or how I've been afraid to leave my house, is an admission of weakness. Fear that it's somehow your fault for not being strong enough is, of course, what allows abusers to continue to abuse.”
How bad did it get? “Efforts, too, were made to track down and harass my family, including my two school-age sisters. After one particular round of rape threats, including the suggestion that, for criticising neoliberal economic policymaking, I should be made to fellate a row of bankers at knifepoint, I was informed that people were searching for my home address. I could go on,” she explained.
That's the cost of the attitude that this is just something that you have to endure if you hope to be a creative mind today. I was once at a lecture with Kevin Smith, and someone asked what it was like when Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez were breaking up. Smith asked the audience what it would be like to deal with the tabloid press making up lies about your friends when they went through what may have been the lowest point of their lives.
We're judged on our anguish, our pain, and our worst moments, and then we're judged on how we deal with that constant judgment and pressure. We make fun of celebrities who hire people to run their Twitter accounts, but what sane person wants to spend time and brainpower dealing with the toxicity that comes from having a presence online?
This has nothing to do with politics, or gender. I know women who have been threated physically because of their thoughts on real-time strategy games. I knew men who had their spouses and children threatened, or had racial or sexual harassment thrown their way, because of review scores. This isn't new. This isn't rare. And it's not something anyone can easily ignore, or something they should expected to endure silently and gracefully.
Is it crazy for someone to walk away from this environment? Absolutely not. Asking the people who make our games to hold their breath, submerge themselves in this environment, only to judge them for gasping when they come back up for air is too much for anyone. We do it anyway, and then we continue when they walk away.
It's not about forgetting or forgiving bad behavior, or saying it's okay to lash out at writers or fans, it's about finding a shred of empathy for what so many online are asked to deal with on a daily, if not hourly, basis. We call it all part of the job, as if you're not allowed human emotions due to your success or prickly nature.
“Maybe Vahn is super patient. Maybe Vahn is super human. Maybe Vahn is heavily sedated,” Activision's Dan Amrich blogged about Treyarch's designer described above, who is forced to deal with that abuse due to a small tweak in the game. “But the fact that he focuses on the useful feedback, puts that intel to good use fixing the problem, and doesn’t irrationally lash out at the immature, whiny assholes is amazing.” Grace under that sort of fire isn't professional, it's superhuman.
Phil Fish cancelling a game isn't a win for anyone. It's another symptom of this disease. It's also unlikely to teach anyone anything. The next time someone comes up gasping for air, or finds a self-destructive way to deal with the perpetual personal war the Internet wages against creative people, we'll line up once again, ready to shove their heads back under the water.