“On the internet,” says the iconic New Yorker cartoon, “nobody knows you’re a dog.” It’s a joke, but it’s also a problem. More venom than ever before is flowing from behind the cloak of anonymity, where people remain entirely unaccountable for their words and deeds. Recently, random men used the anonymity of a huge city like New York to harass actor Shoshana Roberts while she walked the streets of Manhattan. At least one unnamed user of Ask.fm (and possibly more) bullied a British 18-year-old until she killed herself last year.* This is especially true inside the gaming community, where female developers like Zoë Quinn and Brianna Wu were forced from their homes by credible, anonymous threats. Feminist video game critic Anita Sarkeesian has canceled public speaking engagements thanks to anonymous threats of violence. And activists from #GamerGate are hiding behind user IDs to terrorize women like my friend Felicia Day.
Anonymity, in some cases a key civil liberty, also enables society’s worst actors. The loudest, most obnoxious, most toxic voices are able to drown out the rest of us—a spectacle that has nearly pushed me to quit the video-game world entirely in recent months. I don’t need to hear about the sexual conquest of my mother from a random 12-year-old on Xbox Live ever again.
But here’s the thing: that random 12-year-old I seem to encounter so often? He probably isn’t 12. According to the ERSB, the average age of a video gamer is 34. That 34-year-old is certainly old enough to know better, but he probably came of age in an era when trolling was not just acceptable but encouraged by a generation of players who rarely, if ever, had to see the actual people they were playing with. No wonder he feels enabled by digital anonymity. It means he never has to face the consequences of his actions, or acknowledge that there is a human being on the other side of the screen.
It’s time to break this cycle—and to teach gamers that they can compete without being competitive, that they can win and lose without spewing racist, misogynist, homophobic bile at their fellow gamers. But doing so requires casting off the cloak of anonymity.
When I started playing video games, we were in arcades, and we had to win and lose with grace, or we’d get our butts beaten (literally) by other players. Or, worse, we’d be kicked out! When we played games next to each other on the couch, we could trash talk and razz each other, but we were still in the same room together, and our behavior out of game was even more important than the way we behaved in the game. Playing games with real, live humans prevented any of the poisonous behavior proliferating online today.
That, ultimately, is the cure for what ails us. It’s nearly impossible to enforce actual consequences in video games at the moment, but at a table, sitting face-to-face across a tabletop game, or even playing at a LAN party, sportsmanship matters. We can challenge ourselves and our opponents in nearly every world in nearly every type of game, and because we’re literally inches from each other, the way we react to victory and defeat actually matters.
I’ve seen players fight for every point in tournaments, then graciously congratulate each other, regardless of who won. I’ve sat down with complete strangers — just like the random person I’d likely encounter online — and had an absolutely wonderful time being obliterated by them, because not only were they more skilled than I was, they were also nice and decent human beings. My TV show “Tabletop,” which debuts its third season this week, is full of warm interactions like those:
To be sure, anonymity online has it uses and is very important. Governments hoover up people’s telephone and e-mail records without oversight, and companies track astonishingly granular personal information. If we want dissent in places where it would otherwise be quashed, whistleblowers to come forward, investigative journalism, and people who can feel like their authentic selves, they need tools like the Tor browser and GnuPGP to let them speak their minds with impunity. In the age of total-information awareness, citizens need certain protections.
But in the gaming community, those protections aren’t necessary, and they aren’t helping. Anonymous trolls have made the gaming community toxic — especially for women — and upended the industry at a time when the games we play are finally being recognized as the incredible works of art that they can be. While I don’t believe bad actors represent gaming culture’s mainstream, I feel sure they wouldn’t issue rape and death threats, or harass other gamers, if they would be held accountable for their actions.
I love tabletop and video games, which should be open and inclusive to everyone. It’s time for the silent majority of gamers to stand up and protect the community we love. Don’t let it go to the dogs.
*CLARIFICATION: This sentence has been updated to reflect what is known about Hannah Smith’s bullies.