Yes, Your Game has Problems, Too: Dehumanization

She’s just a life support system for a great pair of tits. Those guys really need their heads caved in. I really hate it when some guy tries to pretend to be a girl. Who cares if they doxxed him? His book was shit.

“Them”. “That bunch”. “Those people”.

While we’ll discuss a lot of other issues during this series, dehumanization is the root of all of them. We have all heard phrases like that at a game, whether demonizing organizers, tearing apart clubs, or turning on fellow players. At some point, everyone, even the best player or the most patient GM, does the same.

Dehumanization is a natural part of othering someone, the initial step that acts as justification for additional actions. While Merriam-Webster defines dehumanization as “depriving someone or something of human qualities, personality, or dignity,” it’s also more than that in many ways– attributing maliciousness instead of any number of other possible explanations in a negatively charged situation, applying bias across entire groups based on a personal belief or experience, or attacking someone based on rumors or other unverified information. Before any Facebook flamewar, before any disparaging meme, before any Twitter doxxing thread, someone in the process decides the target is other and stops attributing traits of humanity to them, either to other them into a group unassociated with the attacker or make themselves feel better about what they are doing in the process. 

As noted before, there isn’t a lot of study into games that aren’t part of the video game group (something, perhaps, we should correct), so much of our data has to come from studies of dehumanization in general or dehumanization in video games. Based on that information, researchers found that dehumanization starts with words, proceeds to images, and ends in actions, a process almost anyone who has been on victimized end of things recognizes. A topic long in debate is whether violent video games make their players participants in violence, and while most find the answer is emphatically no, they do find that those games encourage the dehumanization of those within the events. For example, someone who plays violent war games based on real events loses sight of the very real people involved in the conflict. 

For other games, especially those with character/player versus character/player, this is also true: we lose sight of the people on the other side of the conflict. We enjoy the “violence” against them, and stop ascribing to them the very same traits we value in ourselves. We get that hit of dopamine from an accomplishment, failing to recognize that it comes at the cost of another person. That process fuels antagonistic relationships, painful interactions, and has fallout that extends far beyond some “butthurt feelings”, including perpetuating the cycle.

Dehumanization effects both the perpetrator and the victim. Most studies focus on the psychology of the perpetrator. After all, they possess the mindset that most obviously needs to be addressed. Other than the obvious traits of aggressiveness and bias that come from this behavior, more subtle effects also occur. Perpetrators of dehumanization both morally and ethically disengage from their environments, justifying additional steps that are outside of the accepted Code of Conduct or acceptable gaming etiquette. Furthermore, they lose their ability to critically analyze and interpret the events around them as the perpetrator is abstracting a person rather than addressing specific problems. After all, if you’re assured of your own intelligence, why would you believe anyone else might have a point? For example, it’s difficult to critically evaluate a situation and determine what is going on and what is the root cause if you’re blaming it on Bob being a jerk. Maybe Bob is a jerk, but maybe he has a point somewhere in all of that or there is something in the rules, person, or group that fuels the behavior or lets it go unaddressed. For the victims, studies from Bastian and Haslem in 2011 reflect that victims feel sadness and anger. Not only are these feelings related to poor group interactions in games, but they also lead to further victimization as the target becomes the perpetrator. We create a culture where no one is a person, just an idea of one.

How do we address it? This isn’t as easy as taking a class, as it requires addressing a basic human instinct to other people. That means we have to think about things in a way where we might not necessarily feel great about some of our most fundamental ways of dealing with one another. 

  • Social Intelligence: This doesn’t come easily to most people, especially gamers who often exist on the fringes of society, as it is a learned behavior. However, if you find yourself continually on the receiving or perpetrating end of dehumanization, practicing this skill can teach you how to communicate in a socially intelligent way. Even if you create a script for these types of interactions at the beginning, you’re one step further than you were. Research different methods to improve social intelligence, and find one that works for you.
  • Communicate: Once you feel comfortable with social intelligence, communicate with the person in question. If you are on the receiving end, this can feel intimidating, especially after the person has treated you in a way that has devalued your humanity. However, some people don’t even realize their actions are harmful. Even if they are aware of it, they’re convinced they are in the right. You aren’t going to get through to some people. That’s okay and it’s not on you. If you realize you’re the one causing the problem, analyze what happened and led you there while empathetically communicating with the person you harmed. It’s okay to be in the wrong– we’re all imperfect and everyone else in the world has been in your shoes.
  • Break Obedience. While we’ll get into this much more in the next article, you are not your group. You are a person capable of making your own moral and ethical choices when dealing with another person. Most of us might be a bit eclectic in our favorite philosophies, but reference those if you want to check yourself against something.
  • Be empathetic. If someone brings something up to you or is hurt by something you did, don’t immediately fire back. It’s easy to think you’d be okay in the same situation, but put yourself in that person’s shoes and think about how you would genuinely feel if someone did to you what you are doing to them. No one is okay with being doxxed, called names, or put down. No one. They might tank the abusive, dehumanizing behavior and not provide you a response, but they aren’t okay with it. You aren’t either.

By reducing others to something less than human it makes it easy to hate on their preferred play style, the way they built their character, or even the player directly. The worst part, though, is that we’ve all done it. It’s an instinct, and a primal fear buried in our hind brains. “Other” is scary. “Other” is bad. In gaming, this is toxic and contributes to environments no one wants to be in.

We’re not saying everyone has to get along. Expecting people to “respect one another” is also a fallacy– no one is going to accomplish it and nor should they. We don’t have to stay in games with people we don’t like. No one has to enjoy a game as it is presented, and there are certainly problematic issues and people in gaming we all need to call out and stomp down before they mutate into a hellish landscape for everyone. Some people are just assholes, but by feeding them and their problems, we ensure they never go away. What we do need to do is ask ourselves, “Is this moral or ethical? Would I appreciate this if someone did it to me?” and if the answer to either question is no, full stop. Be the person in gaming you want to game with.

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