It seems I’ve been terrified for nearly three years.
Young brains are wired to mimic. This gets them up to speed as quickly as possible, meaning children often want to get involved in whatever their parents are doing. This includes cooking and the washing up at early ages (I hear this doesn’t extend into the teens) and also the playing of games. At the age of two, my son, K, wanted to play games with Daddy.
He certainly didn’t like Portal 2 (Valve, 2011) but if a game’s Spookiness Factor was low, he would be happy to watch. The only game that really worked for him was an early version of Proteus (Key & Kanaga, 2012) which satisfied him for a while.
K was fascinated with city infrastructure: recycling trucks, fire engines, trains, that sort of thing. I thought of GTA III (Rockstar Games, 2001) and, heartened by the tale of another parent who exposed their four-year old to GTA, I let K have a dabble.
His controller skills were poor as his fingers were too small to manipulate the thumbsticks, so I had to keep course correcting, but he enjoyed his excursion in Liberty City and rode the train over and over again. I felt comfortable because he didn’t have the maturity to comprehend what was happening in the game: he saw roads, trains, bodies of water. The muffled shouts of angry pedestrians and the occasional traffic accident were background detail.
But I left the room for a moment and when I came back, my son was carrying a rifle.
* * *
Part of the online experience has always been unpleasant. The terms “flame war” and “trolling” were well-known back in the USENET days and in 1993 Julian Dibbell wrote “A Rape in Cyberspace” to highlight how the two realms – online and offline – were not as inseparable as people liked to think:
Months later, the woman in Seattle would confide to me that as she wrote those words posttraumatic tears were streaming down her face — a real-life fact that should suffice to prove that the words’ emotional content was no mere fiction.
There’s another fantasy about the online realm that still persists. Even if we try to court a little attention, we delude ourselves that we live in a safe bubble of relative obscurity. We project our ideal “audience” onto each platform: a blog, a comment thread or a social medium. No one will be interested in me, they all say, I’m a nobody.
When I started up this site, 16 views in one day was a big win. The Electron Dance cabal was just a small group of like-minded friends who’d chew over some ideas – and I slept easy. Then one day I wrote an essay called The Second Game and saw hundreds of visitors coming through the doors from the RPS Sunday Papers.
It was like a panic attack. Of course, the wannabe author wants to be widely read – I’d forwarded the link to Kieron Gillen myself – but seeing all those boots running across the site meant those words took on new significance. I read and re-read the article, because every time I stepped away from the page, I imagined new flaws I was certain I’d left in the published piece. When the comments arrived, I was relieved they were all positive. God help me if anyone was negative. It’s like a stage actor reading reviews of their performance; for their own mental health, it might be better to pass on them. But running a blog means you are the PR department and need to find out what people think of your site. Of your words. Of you, the brand. Of you.
The antiquated idea of books being sold in stores to anonymous faces, disconnecting you from this kind of emotional rollercoaster, is history. Today, if you’re writing online, you expect a reaction, you need a reaction. And if you don’t get it, it’s as if the internet had a bad wank over your profile photo. Meh is just not good enough.
But I wasn’t properly terrified yet.
* * *
Nowadays, the six-year old K bores with Proteus quickly but his four-year old sister, L, still likes to hunt the occasional Proteus frog. I asked Twitter last year for non-violent open worlds suitable for children because I really wanted a modern town or city simulator to feed the urban exploration urge. We’d progressed onto Euro Truck Simulator 2 (SCS Software, 2012) but it wasn’t quite the full package. But any mention of children and games in the same sentence and the next suggestion is almost always “I hear Minecraft is good”.
GTA was suggested but I replied it was just too violent; K was now at an age where he would understand what was going on and start exploring its systems. I wanted a world he could explore without having to explain why people in the background were being shot dead or pummelled to the ground and stamped on, virtual bloodstains on a virtual sidewalk. Language was another worry. But the Twitter respondent who pushed GTA was insistent: I couldn’t mollycoddle them forever because the world is a violent place.
But GTA isn’t about the real world. It’s got nothing to do with being a grown-up, it’s a fantasy world sculpted to ape gangster movies. Yet it seemed there was no “GTA III without violence”. Players demand their urban worlds to have purpose and that typically manifests as reticules and death. So, thanks videogames, you let me down.
* * *
I have an alt Twitter account called @WeaponProgress which posts infrequently, tweeting links to articles related to the book I’m writing. I tweeted an article I called “interesting” that suggested cash was the nemesis of artist creativity. After a couple of retweets it ended up on the desk of Australian novelist Alison Croggon, who retweeted me to 8,000 followers with the addition “Can’t say how angry this makes me”.
Croggon’s refurbished version of my original tweet was retweeted and this led to a series of disapproving responses from various others. @WeaponProgress continued to be cited in many of the tweets and, although no one had explicitly called out my account as being the enemy, I felt like I was being associated with the negativity. This seemed utterly ridiculous considering the book I’m writing is pro-artist… but also oddly nerve-wracking. For the first time since the account’s creation, I stepped out from behind the @WeaponProgress curtain; I addressed Croggon directly.
Accidents happen. The hubbub eventually died down and Croggon and I ended up following each other after a short discussion.
But accidents don’t always end so quietly.
* * *
I like to call it dotfucking.
It’s when you draw attention to a Twitter opponent with a dot in front of your reply. Most of your followers won’t see you locked horns with a Twitter stranger until you insert that fateful dot where it suddenly becomes a numbers game. My followers versus yours. The dotfuck combo instructs your entourage to click the conversation and discover what’s going on. Some of them will get involved, maybe retweet the fight and spread the word.
Everyone wants to be famous, but it’s somewhat easier to become infamous. Over the decades, the press has been accused of hijacking the lives of individuals, both famous and unknown, to sell papers. Today, the public do it to themselves. They need no justification other than the target deserves it. Everyone is a journalist, everyone is a source, everyone is fair game – and there is no protection or accountability before a baying mob. Emily Bell, the founder director of the Tow Centre for digital journalism at New York’s Columbia university, touched on this in this year’s Hugh Cudlipp lecture:
We now have publishing systems which can amplify every act, alert the world to important events, but which also don’t yet afford these new forms of journalism the same protections as the old.
The dotfuck is quite egalitarian: anyone can be a bully for a day. Your parents would be so proud.
But let’s not omit that the dotfuck also acts as a protective measure. If you think you’re being bullied, the dotfuck becomes an SOS. The cavalry arrives – and the war begins.
* * *
I could easily have thrust some dopamine-rich junk in front of the children but keeping the hours spent on videogames down at an early age was important to me. I never let them play alone in the beginning and also wanted their short gaming time to be of some quality. (Videogames hit my life at home from the age of eight, so I’m not being hypocritical here. Not yet.)
I was trying to put L on the same path, but all she could see was the warp to the next level: she wanted what K was playing. Not only did she want to skip the tutorial, but she seemed unimpressed with the same titles that were resonating with her older brother. For example, she wanted to join in when K watched me play Full Bore (Whole Hog Games, 2013) but she’d often disappear before I’d even exited the title screen.
In a way I guess I was pleased as I didn’t have to dilute what K wanted to see and play. Still, he had probably spoilt me with his laser-like focus whereas L’s attention switched faster than the most advanced transistors. I have always suspected the difference in attitude was because K had few toys as he grew up and had to make the most of them, whereas L started out with a two-year toy backlog, an environment supersaturated with colours and shapes and excitement.
* * *
There is always something new to look at, something new to distract, to derail.
Twitter wasn’t so obnoxious in the beginning because I had just a handful of friends as followers. Although I was always wary of the kind of gamer gangs that would go on a rampage when someone called Geralt boring, that anxiety was ring-fenced. But in 2012, the weather changed. Even arguments between friends or peers seem to spiral out of control. When someone made a mistake or said something out of turn or controversial enough to get people upset, the individual concerned wouldn’t just get into a heated discussion – they would get destroyed.
I’m not going to cite any examples here because the very act of referencing can be enough to bring the hate down again, which is why I was wary about discussing Mike Maulbeck’s case in As Good As It Gets. Everyone reading this article who is on Twitter will have their own favourite example of someone who got what they deserved or, perhaps, got what they didn’t.
You might say it’s just a bunch of foul-minded cunts that messed the medium up for everyone else, which sounds suspiciously like the “AOLers ruined the internet” argument that was trotted out ad nauseum on 90s era USENET. But the truth is that established voices were often the origin of ragefests, or at least retweet relays for the anger of others. The social medium excels in dragging the worst out of the best people, the best of intentions degraded to the worst consequences.
Say sorry or we’ll cut you. Nice, now say it like you mean it. We like that you cried on camera but we’ll never forgive your shirt.
* * *
It was these tantrums that made me consider putting videogames on hold. When told his time was up, K would often turn aggressive, yelling and crying that he wanted to play more. His behaviour never seemed to improve and I was always the villain in his story.
The original marshmallow experiment suggested that children who do not have the willpower to resist a marshmallow put in front of them will have less successful lives than those who do. A more recent take on the experiment demonstrated this “reduced willpower” is a natural reaction to an unreliable environment. In other words, it suggests a stable home life is important.
The solution to our daily gaming drama was to formalise play not drive it underground because young children thrive in predictable, flexible systems. We promised K he would play at a fixed time for a fixed time every week. We used a timer so he could check how much time he had left and always made sure he was given notice if he was going to miss a session or have it moved around. The tantrums dried up.
The first rule of Parent Club is: fighting prolongs the fighting. When you become a parent, you realise fast that you have to develop an enormous capacity for tolerance. You may not always succeed, but you must always strive to be the bigger person when a bunch of kids who know no better seem hell-bent on ruining your life because you literally are the bigger person. #ParentGate
* * *
Some topics are more volatile than others. Discussing sexism, for example, is something I’d leave well alone these days whereas it featured occasionally in the early years. Here’s another: Total Biscuit, who has become such a polarising figure that to mention him on Twitter will define who you are. In an age of binary ethics if you’re not part of the anger, then you’re part of the problem, Charlie.
I remember the nauseous feeling when posting an awkward defence of Nicolau Chaud’s use of the word “tranny” in Polymorphous Perversity (Nicolau Chaud, 2012), even though it turned out later to be a bog standard language snafu (Chaud is Brazilian and misunderstood the term). I also mothballed a response to an early Tomb Raider kerfuffle for fear of unwittingly outing myself as sexist. This essay you are reading right now was drafted last year then filed away as I assumed I would never publish it, for similar reasons.
But it’s so remarkably easy to get involved in a pile-on that it almost doesn’t matter if you avoid those char-grilled hot topics. Association and, sometimes, tolerance is enough to earn disrepute.
Despite exercising some restraint over my writing, I still get the heebie-jeebies when I post something that’s mostly harmless. I’m a spineless coward, that much is clear. But I’m not the only one. The world is full of silent cowards who don’t want to be angry on the internet. If we all have to be this fierce to be part of the conversation then only the fierce will remain.
The old adage “don’t feed the trolls” is dead. Perhaps an appropriate replacement is “don’t feed the platform”.
* * *
It’s foolish to condemn a parent when you see them give a child an iPhone to keep them quiet in a restaurant, because you know nothing about context. It’s almost as ridiculous as judging a book by its cover, or a person by 140 characters. Every day, parents make mistakes. I thought K was not ready for Chess but while he stayed with his Japanese relatives last year, they had no such reservation and let him loose on the free Windows game Chess Titans. When K returned to the UK he had learnt all the rules, if not the strategy, of Chess. He was ready after all.
Gamification is a dirty word, but there’s a bigger system in force at home than just a star chart on the wall. Make it too punishing and you crush spirits yet make the system too forgiving and children consider any sort of resistance an affront. There is no such thing as total freedom. They don’t get the freedom to run across a road recklessly when they don’t understand it – frighteningly, I’ve seen a child do this. There is no such thing as total freedom even when you grow up.
But the mistakes keep coming and you don’t even realise you’re making them half the time. L didn’t like watching a languid game of chess and she went to leave the room. I said she could stay but she responded: “But TV games are for boys.”
A sick feeling bloomed in my chest. No. Oh my God, no.
She was three at the time so I can’t be sure if she gathered this opinion from friends or even her brother. But when I reviewed my attempts to force her through the tutorial phase I saw this: Daddy and K were playing together regularly and Mummy didn’t play games at all. The best of intentions, the unforeseen consequences. I didn’t want her thinking she had to role play a girl.
Going forward I made sure she got her own gaming time every week, two years earlier than K did. (This story is behind us since we became the Minecraft Family.)
Obviously I am not proud of this incident but it makes for a great punchline, great clickbait: TV Games Are For Boys. But this is a long essay and runs the risk of misinterpretation. Context is everything. I ignored the wider context while I was restricting my daughter’s gaming time, that she could see her brother “having more fun”. At least this mistake could be fixed; mistakes that damage online reputation are not so easy to resolve.
But the author is dead, I can’t tell you what to think, so we’ve reached the point where you will judge me on what you have read. Congratulations for tearing through 3,000 words, you’ve earned this unlock.
My children are going to join the online world soon enough. You might say, dude, this is the real world, they have to grow up some day. I should just throw them into Twitter because that’s how the world is. But, like GTA, I find it hard to believe that the average Twitter shaming has something to do with being a grown-up.
I guess you’d expect an article like this to end with “we should just try to be nicer to one another” but, frankly, I’m past any sort of vapid hope like that. Being terrified is my new normal just as casual, reflexive anger has become that of others. Maybe in years to come the term “Generation Facebook” will be phased out for “Generation Hate”. That would be some legacy.
“TV games are for boys,” she said. “TV games are for boys.”