Did you hear they cheated in that killbox? Pathfinder players are just discount D&D wannabes. Oh, something terrible happened? That’s why I play this game instead. Someone make you mad? Who do I have to kill?
We communicate through the internet and social media. Gaming, in general, is a geographically diverse group spanning across countries, continents, and cultures. It brings people together under the banner of a common love of bring completely joyous dorks. The social media we use connects us to the rest of that world, but it’s also a newsletter that’s cultivated to our interests and concerns, showing us what we want to see. As a result, it becomes an echo chamber supporting the worst of clique politics in games.
In our Dehumanization article, we talked about how humans naturally “Other” people who do not fit into neat categories closely associated with their own cultural views, values, and beliefs. It’s an instinct older than our love of dice, RPS, or gaming pads—something we consciously must think about and dissect if we want to prevent it. As a part of this process, especially with the use of Social Media, we also participate in something called Ingroup Bias or Favoritism; these biases divide us into “Us vs Them” and facilitate our agreement with those in our immediate groups.
We cultivate our communication with social media. We choose who to communicate with, who to follow, and who to watch. While some of these relationships develop in the meat world, more of them occur when we connect with someone over a similar opinion in a conversation, or when we find something they say so intriguing we want to know more about them. We determine what we want to see and hear by choosing to include people who interest us in our social media feeds.
In gaming, this means we surround ourselves with people who agree with us on any number of our geeky passions. A situation might be complex; composed of people acting out based on any number of emotions; and difficult to break down into 140 characters or a FB message, yet people do it every day to a crowd of followers. The reason is simple—we feel good when people validate us, especially in a hobby filled with conflicts between individuals. However, while we do that, we also encourage dysfunction between our ingroup and their outgroup, building walls with the words of our supporters.
There are several problems with the current incarnation of Social Media in gaming:
Almost universally, our Social Media is a brand and the personas we present are avatars. That’s not to say that real information and feelings don’t leak into social media—they do—but we can and do put on a different face when interacting through it. We only let people see what we want to. Sometimes, we do that to get approval or validation. Sometimes, we do it because we want them to see us as Edgelord McGillacuddy. In every case, we do it to obtain a form of attention, and we have to think and plan what we say and present prior to posting. This is a luxury most face-to-face interactions don’t have. Even if we believe we act in a genuine, heartfelt manner, we are always someone else on Social Media.
Advertising has long capitalized on brands, because humans love identifiers which help us catalog our thoughts and experiences. Brand loyalty is a thing for a reason, and we do the exact same thing for people. We see the image they built, thus it’s easier for us to throw out or never consider information which conflicts with that brand. A person might be a hard-nosed Storyteller who always does the right thing—at least as far as you are concerned—so it’s easier to disbelieve any piece of information that indicates maybe they did something shady. People build cults of personality on social media, and we are often the worshipers, striking down anyone who dares to contradict those images.
When we find out pieces of information that conflict with our ideas of someone, it causes cognitive dissonance. We usually have three options when that happens: throwing the information out and disregarding it, fighting it, or accepting it. Most people, on social media, get caught in the first two.
People throw information out because it doesn’t agree with their vision of a person. Bob might be a complete gentleman, but Susan claims he grabbed her ass without consent. However, you throw that information out because Bob is your friend, you’ve never witnessed him grab an ass, and he most certainly hasn’t done it to you. So, you invalidate the experiences of Susan and her in-group. She feels invalidated over a serious issue, and this is the source of most people complaining about their groups “ignoring” important information. They don’t find it vital or credible enough, based on their knowledge, to take action. It’s forgotten.
If they don’t throw the information out, they fight against it. We’ve all seen, or been part of, a flame war. We all went through Gamergate, where people rapidly revealed information information and readers fell on either side. People feel like it is their responsibility to “save” the person targeted within their in-group, trying to preserve their reputation or mitigate hurt feelings. Fighting often continues because both sides feel righteous in their arguments. A person feels good when they get to take on the mantle of a cause or another person. We feel good about it, and this feeling helps us associate hurting the outgroup with a pleasurable experience. So, we keep doing it. No one can fight the dopamine.
Nobody likes to be wrong. We don’t like to have our information wrong, to think we’ve done something wrong, or to have our opinions about someone invalidated. Avoiding the feeling of being wrong motivates us to do some heinous shit to one another, and it’s easy to believe information that proves us right. If someone complains about the harassment issues in the local boffer larp or at a particular game store, but it’s a game or company we invested our time, emotion, and finances in, it stokes a need to disbelieve that information. Furthermore, if someone says a thing we agree with, it hits all of those happy pleasure centers of our brain; we are likely to believe it without ever analyzing it. How many times do we fact check a meme we disagree with? How many times do we skip that step when sharing something inline with our beliefs? We do the same thing with information about our games and our environments, among friends, because our hindbrain considers social media as relatively low stakes. Misinformation spreads as a result, and since we neither care to independently confirm or deny these actions, we become part of the problem.
Most of this seems insanely hard to combat. Not only is ingroup bias supported by cognitive function, but it’s also an outlet our brain doesn’t immediately interpret as high threat? It can get dopamine and not have to risk life and limb, while already doing something easy? How do we fight our basic urges and interact responsibly with one another when we’re designed to be lean, mean, social media asshole machines?
Recognize it: The first step is to recognize you already created your in-group and you personally receive affirmation by using social media. Everyone wants to be validated. Being upset and ranting to our friends is an age-old tradition. Places like FB and Twitter not only provide us friends though—they provide an audience that already feels connection with us and doesn’t often criticize our experiences. Sometimes, just realizing what you do before you commit to being a keyboard warrior means you can sit down and examine your experience prior to submitting it to others.
As a reader, you can also recognize moments that need sympathy, empathy, or more active support. Sometimes, people just need to bitch about something and feel like someone is listening—they don’t need that information to go any further or be acted upon in anyway. Sometimes, they need someone to tank something for them, but rarely do they need you to jump someone. Every raid boss has a strategy, even if that strategy is simply not to fucking engage it. If the issue needs to make its way out of social media because of its severity, social media attacks won’t resolve it anyway.
Evaluate: Evaluate your in-group the same way you review the actions of the outgroup. Hold everyone to the same standards and values. If someone says one of your friends stepped out-of-line and harassed someone, don’t come back with “they’re a really good person to me.” A person can be a member of your group and a close friend, but still be an asshole to others. You’re not responsible for cheerleading them when they screw up. You’re not responsible for defending their reputation. Holding your friends accountable for their actions and asking them if they need help doesn’t make you a lesser person or unloyal, bad friend. Even if you don’t consider open and honest accountability as a part of your friendship, remember that as part of your in-group, what they do directly reflects on you and your values. Bob might be a perfect gentleman and honorable friend in your presence, but his willingness to be downright nasty to people on the internet reflects your compliance with acting as an accomplice or silent bystander. If you think someone is an asshole when they do it to you, don’t be the one to shrug it off when you do it or see your friend do it.
In that moment that cognitive dissonance sets in, don’t simply disregard or fight the information that competes against your worldview. A technique from Dialectal Behavioral Therapy (DBT) asks you to list all the facts. While all emotions are valid, not all actions are justified. At first, you’ll include opinions, because we naturally have a hard time separating our emotions from the incident. However, this method puts distance between the moment the dissonance sets in and you react on social media. Once you get all of the facts together and remove your feelings from them, you find out whether or not your response is justified. Then you get a better idea of when and how to offer sympathy, empathy, or action. There’s no need to threaten someone with an internet bat or attack someone you perceive as the perpetrator when someone really only needs a “This sucks and I am here for you.”
Integrate: For serious issues, this is less likely. Don’t try to befriend rapists or neo-nazis to get their point of view. We don’t let trash have the podium or any of our emotional resources. Refer to some of the techniques in the Harassment post to help you out with this.
However, for disagreements over hundreds of other issues, sometimes fact checking involves asking the people involved, even if they’re people you consider “Other”. Keep in mind, most of the time you don’t know anything about them in a personal sense—just their personas, avatars, and brands—and your formed all of those things by interacting with others. For example, more people are incompetent rather than malicious. They just want to live their lives. If they do something shitty to you, it isn’t because they made it their life’s mission to personally hurt *you*. Maybe they want to make themselves feel better about a choice they made, defend their friend, or justify a cause. Most times, people just do things which immediately make them feel better and you get to be an unfortunate bystander. While you are perfectly within your rights to be angry and make actions based on that, analyze the factors involved so you can jump of the wheel and find a resolution that makes you less angry in the long-term.
And, maybe, they are just a jerk. Of all the things that social media can be, it’s never a good form of conflict resolution, no matter how good it feels to get immediate affirmation from it or righteous fury out in the open.
Be Wrong: Being wrong is not a sin. We’re often wrong about the people we think we know and those we don’t. Your friends can cheat and the outgroup can be upset about it. You can recently realize that Bob, your best friend in the world, has always been a serial harasser. You could have a history of saying things you now regret– I’ve said some super cringey things in the past that now me would just flip their shit about. While some people want to show you just how wrong you were, a lot can be said for admitting your faults, the terribleness of past choices, or the flaws in previously held opinions. Almost everyone you wronged just wants to know you are genuinely trying to be better.
Social media isn’t bad. It’s a communication tool, like any other. However, it creates these intangible societies of Us vs Them which we fortify with instincts and misdirected social needs, turning it into a method not only to build up misconceptions, but to fuel conflict. If there is one thing we’ve never quite done, it’s adequately and satisfyingly solve a conflict through social media.