A few nights ago I talked over the internet with a close friend about our concerns regarding the tool we used to communicate. We debated at length over how the internet changes human behavior, but struggled with our fundamental question:
Why do so many people on the internet choose to torment others?
He sent me this Bill Maher video, we talked about the Miss America incident, and pondered Louis C.K.'s take on smartphones. Most importantly, we wondered what it is inside of us that finds justification in such deplorable behavior.
During his Conan interview, Louis C.K. profoundly identifies the problem with the absence of facial feedback when communicating online. Louis points out that most kids experiment with being mean to others, but they always see their victim's expression after damaging their emotions. Most of the time, this is enough negative feedback to discourage repeating the mean action.
One of the fundamental roles of a game designer is to influence player behavior through positive and negative reinforcement, and people's behavior on the internet is not too dissimilar from their behavior in games. Video games present a wholly safe space separate from reality, thus risky or even evil actions in the game space have no consequences aside from those enforced by the rules.
While playing Grand Theft Auto, I enjoy driving off the road and running over pedestrians. I know this is a despicable action that I would not emulate in real life, but it is a devilish thrill in the game. Grand Theft Auto is a power fantasy like most of its peers (an eerily understandable one for anyone who has experienced LA traffic), and its lack of major consequences enable and encourage normally unacceptable behavior.
Without consequence, it is natural to search for a quick means to empowerment. Early in Journey's development cycle, thatgamecompany allowed players to collide with one another. Naturally, players took great pleasure in pushing each other off cliffs, which went against the spirit of the game. Needless to say, the feature was cut.
I faced a similar dilemma during my sophomore year at USC while making a game with the intent to discourage violent actions. Players were given a gun but were placed in a room full of unarmed people who begged for their lives. I hypothesized that players would search for a nonviolent option (which I provided) because of the tonal and narrative implications, but I was proven wrong.
The players shot everybody. Why? Because they could.
Like video games, the internet is also a safe space with little real world consequence. You can say whatever you want to anyone without giving so much as your name, and you certainly will not have to deal with their emotional reaction.
The cowards who sent Anita Sarkeesian death threats never looked her in the eye. The imbeciles who chased Phil Fish out of the industry did not break a sweat over the threat of a potential response. After all, who was going to come after D3m0nL0rd17 anyway?
As a reflection of America, the internet often paints a disturbing picture. Its surface is flooded with bigotry and hate, but a deeper look reveals rampant insecurity. Perhaps the insecurity stems from our hyper-competitive culture. Perhaps it is a product of our economic instability. Perhaps it is but a sickness that lies deep within us all. The internet's faceless tormenters do not know how to pick themselves up, so they knock others down. What a sad and fleeting method of empowerment.
Is there a solution? Well, we can start by encouraging conversation on healthier ways to raise self esteem. Just imagine how different each tormenter's life would be if they spent half the time they dedicated to tormenting others on solving their own issues.
However, merely telling people to behave in an environment that does not enforce respectable behavior is far from a sound core strategy. The environment must adapt as well, and slowly but surely, the internet is adapting every day. Blogs are disabling comments, sites are calling out no-name bigots, YouTube and Reddit allow users to moderate comments, and Twitter is providing verified users with new conversation filters. None of these approaches are immune to criticism or representative of a holistic solution, but they are signs of the internet's much needed adaptation to our own human flaws.
Thus, I remain optimistic that the internet will find a way to discourage people from tormenting others. I use Twitter as a resource for community, intellect, and laughter, and spend the vast majority of my day somewhere in the depths of the internet. When used properly, it is a beautiful creation that gives us the power to learn from one another, but serves as a torment weapon when placed in the wrong hands.
We can solve this problem. No sword stays sharp forever.