What is a good man but a bad man's teacher?
What is a bad man but a good man's job?
If you don't understand this, you will get lost, however intelligent you are.
--Tao Te Ching, ch. 27
We hear it said that games need to grow up, but when I look at the fractious, often hateful community surrounding them, I wonder if that's likely. I've written about this before, dating back to '08, and have always seen reasons for hope. Now I'm not so sure. I think we're getting worse, not better.
When we pillory critics for saying hard but true things; when our leaders who've championed inclusiveness issue (and defend) bigoted remarks; when we plod from one spiteful spat to the next, played out (performed, really) in online forums and social media with all the requisite snark and ad hominem attacks, it's worth asking what kind of audience are we? When we're persistently, thoughtlessly cruel to each other, aren't we getting the thoughtlessly brutal games we deserve?
I'm purposefully using "we" and "us" here because that's the unavoidable reality of our circumstances. Like it or not, the world is always we. It can never be otherwise. In our case, we all care about games. We all want a healthy thriving industry, indie to AAA. We all want to feel respected and free to be ourselves. We all want to have fun. Why is that so hard?
We have many new ways to communicate, but our powerful tools have outpaced our abilities to harness them responsibly. It's just so easy to be mean. Compassion and empathy are much harder, and their results are often inconclusive. When you launch a missile that hits its target, you get a big conspicuous result, and it feels good. Then it escalates, destruction ensues, and nothing remotely positive emerges from the rubble. Rinse and repeat.
We've got to stop it. Forget about altruism. If politeness and respectful behavior don't float your boat, then do it for the games. If you want the game industry to treat us like discerning adults with wide-ranging tastes, then stop acting like a bunch of selfish entitled brats. If you want games to grow up, then learn how responsible grownups behave.
What does that mean? Here's a set of tools drawn from my experience as a teacher, informed by conflict resolution principles that work. I offer them humbly, not as cure-all prescriptions or to censor ideas or points of view. They're merely tools to help build and preserve an environment for productive, respectful communication. Try them. Modify them. Whatever works.
- The initial goal is increased understanding. Resolving conflict requires a genuine awareness of points of view. We may decide to disagree (even vehemently), but we must first seek to clearly understand each other.
- Avoid the temptation to make another person look foolish, even when he clearly "steps in it" or "deserves it." Nothing degrades communication faster than an attack designed to humiliate.
- Talk to each other, not to the crowd. I realize this requires a constructed approach that ignores the public nature of Twitter, forums, etc., but if you can avoid "performing" a conversation for onlookers, you're more likely to build honest, personal communication. Taking it offline is always an option too.
- Focus on needs, not positions. When we say "don't take it personally," we ignore how identity is inextricably tied to beliefs and needs. Find out what the other person needs; let her explain why that matters; then honor that.
- Be hard on the problem, soft on the person. We can attack an issue vigorously, but attacking each other (even when we feel provoked) seldom produces anything positive. Kindness is disarming. It can open doors that appear sealed shut. At worst, kindness allows one to walk away from a failed exchange without feeling that you made it worse.
- Improve your self-knowledge. Every difficult exchange is an opportunity to examine your own beliefs and goals carefully. You may decide to adjust your thinking based on information received, or you may simply learn to better articulate your views to others. Be open and be willing to learn. Humility doesn't imply weakness or capitulation.
- If you can manage it, let some accusations, threats, or attacks pass. I'm not suggesting you become somebody's punching bag. But if you accept the notion that most ugly behavior comes from a place of darkness or suffering, maybe you can overlook an attack and reach out to your attacker.
- Persuasion isn't a win/lose state. Focus on being partners, not opponents. If you want to prove the legitimacy of your position, persuasion works better and lasts longer than rhetorically crushing your opponent. In our community, we might rally around the question, "Is this idea, statement, attitude, etc. likely to produce better games or a healthier community?" If the answer is no, jettison it. Everything we do and say models behaviors others will adopt.
I suppose everything I've written here boils down to "be good to each other," and I realize how simple-minded that sounds. Some people want to foster belligerent discord, and maybe there's little we can do to stop them. But most of the online hostility that I see occurs among people who might otherwise find much to love in each other. Maybe the simple tools I'm offering can help us live more peacefully in that place.
Addendum: Shortly after I posted, Gabe at Penny Arcade (referenced in the second paragraph above) issued an apology. You can read his remarks here.