Loving Our Neighbors: Tribalism in Gaming

By Michael Mendis

Brand loyalty is a widespread phenomenon across Western consumer culture.  Folks debate over which soda tastes best (Coke vs. Pepsi), which model of car is the best (Ford vs. Chevy vs. Toyota vs. Honda, etc.), and which phone to purchase (iPhone vs. Android).  Gaming is no exception, as console manufacturers and game makers compete for customers.  It’s practically a time-honored tradition in gaming at this point, one that has had a profound, and too often negative, effect on gaming culture.

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Let’s start with some history.  The first major rivalry in gaming took place between SEGA and Nintendo in the early 1990s.  Nintendo was riding high on the astronomical sales of their first console, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), and competitor SEGA needed to find a way to break Nintendo’s stranglehold on the market as technology advanced into the 16-bit era.  SEGA decided that the best way to take on an opponent that big and well-known was to do so directly, with brash confidence and smack talk.  Their new console, the SEGA Genesis, and it’s mascot, Sonic the Hedgehog, were fast and edgy, while rival Mario was slow and boring.  Thus began the what would come to be known as the Console Wars.

Decades have passed since then; many companies in the gaming industry have come and gone, or changed their business strategies.  Today, the big dogs in the console business are Microsoft (Xbox), Sony (PlayStation), and Nintendo, and while PC gaming doesn’t technically have an official company to provide marketing, PC gamers are just as quick as their console gaming counterparts to declare the superiority of their preferred gaming machine.

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Game companies aren’t as direct as they used to be in criticizing the competition (most of the time), but they don’t need to be; every day gamers engage in discussions on internet forums and message boards, often serving as unofficial spokespeople (or perhaps evangelists) for their favorite games or console makers.  The spirit of rivalry and competition amongst gamers is just as alive today is it was twenty years ago.

To some extent, this attitude amongst gamers is understandable, even inevitable.  Game consoles and gaming PCs are expensive (consoles cost a few hundred dollars each, and PCs with equivalent specs are usually more), and many people can only afford to buy one.  Additionally, gamers want to be able to play with their friends, and in most cases you need to be using the same platform as your friends in order to be able to play together (gamers on Xbox can’t play with gamers on PlayStation, for example).  On top of all that, each platform has its own exclusive games and features that distinguish it from its competitors and attract gamers.  It’s only natural, then, that people would encourage others to purchase the system that they themselves prefer.

Unfortunately, discussion sometimes changes from healthy debate or good-natured ribbing into toxicity and name-calling.  People wrap their identities around gaming and their gaming preferences, berating those who play on other platforms, and even spilling countless amounts of digital ink attacking the executives who run companies that makes rival systems.  And of course, online trolls who find their amusement in the anger of others are all too quick to push people’s buttons with inflammatory statements.

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So, the question for Christians in gaming becomes: how do we shine the light of Christ in the midst of the petty tribalism that often brings out the worst in people, especially in anonymous online communities?  Here are a few takeaways:

  1. Give thanks to God for the things he gives us.  If you have enough money for you to be able to enjoy video games, you are blessed indeed!  All of us have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23); none of us deserve to be showered with good gifts.  Yet every day, by God’s grace, many millions of gamers have the opportunity to benefit from the creativity and hard work of game developers, and share these experiences with people all over the planet.  Do not take these things for granted; give thanks to God for them, for every good and perfect gift is from above (James 1:17).
  2. Celebrate with others and build them up.  Don’t only be thankful for the gaming experiences that God gives to you, specifically; give thanks for all the wide variety of games that are created and that people get to enjoy.  If a game is coming out on a console that you don’t have, and gamers who do have that console are excited for it, be excited with them!  Don’t tear down others or try to gain pleasure by making them feel worse; the world doesn’t revolve around whether you get to play every game that catches your eye.
  3. Be careful and deliberate about your use of social media.  Social media (and Twitter in particular) is designed to encourage people to give quick, off-the-cuff reactions to the things going on around them.  While that strategy yields plenty of clicks, it often isn’t good for creating healthy, constructive dialogue.  Rather than spewing the first thought that pops into your head to your Twitter account or Facebook wall, take the time to think through what you want to say and how it will impact others.  And remember the limitations of the method you are using to communicate; text-based communications, for example, don’t allow the writer to communicate something like sarcasm very easily, and I’ve seen plenty of confusion and unnecessary toxicity stem from careless use of words online.
  4. Don’t let online toxicity get under your skin.  In our current day and age, we find it very easy to become defensive when someone expresses an opinion we don’t agree with.  Be patient with people, and assume the best about them, even when it is hard.  When you see a toxic post online, either follow it up with something positive and constructive, or simply ignore it and move on.  Don’t feed the trolls.

In the end, you have to ask yourself: in what do you place your sense of self-worth?  If your identity is bound up in your family, you’ll feel threatened when they let you down.  If it’s in your job, you’ll crash when you fail to earn the promotion you want or get let go.  If it’s in your hobby, you’ll lash out when someone tells you that you chose poorly or lack good taste.  But if your identity is bound up in Christ, it will never be threatened, and as a result, you are free to love others, to break through the toxicity that surrounds you, and to make a positive impact on culture.

Loving Our Neighbors: Fangames and IP Protection

By Michael Mendis

In my years of playing games with others and browsing gaming forums online, I’ve found that gaming communities are made up of incredibly passionate people, coming together over a shared enjoyment of specific games, franchises, or genres.  Some of these ardent fans are talented programmers, aspiring to create their own games and inspired by the games they love.  As a result, it is not uncommon to see what are popularly known as “fangames” (unofficial, fan-made games using characters/assets/etc. from pre-existing game franchises) popping up around the internet and creating buzz amongst fellow fans.

This can create a problem, however.  Since fangames use intellectual property (IP) that belongs to other companies, those companies are legally allowed to halt the distribution of fangames at any time, regardless of whether or not the fangame is being sold or simply being made available to the public for free.  And Nintendo has recently made headlines by doing just that.  In September of this year, Nintendo issued a DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) takedown notice for over 500 fangames.  This caused quite a stir among Nintendo fans looking to play or create their own Nintendo-themed fangames.

Looking at the situation from the perspective of the company, it isn’t too hard to grasp the reasoning behind the decision to shut down some fangames.  For example, a company like Nintendo may worry that unofficial games which stray too close to the real thing can cause brand confusion, and disincentivize people from buying official Nintendo products.  Take a look at this screenshot:

That looks remarkably like a real Pokémon game, does it not?  But this is actually a fangame called Pokémon Uranium, which mixes official characters with unofficial, fanmade characters to create a new experience.  I can understand why Nintendo would want to shut this kind of thing down; if someone has an itch to play Pokémon, why spend hundreds of dollars on a Nintendo device, and then dozens more on an official game, when you can download a comparable experience for free off the internet and play it on a computer you’ve already paid for?

Other types of fangames can be a more direct threat to the brand that a company has established.  As this article by Ars Technica notes, some of the games shut down by Nintendo include Mario on Drugs and Pokémon: Death Version, games with themes that very much clash with the kid-friendly atmosphere that Nintendo tries to cultivate with many of its most popular franchises.

Nonetheless, issuing a DMCA notice or sending a creator a cease and desist letter inevitably leads to frustration amongst fangame makers and their audience, people who are typically already fans and owners of official products.  They feel that the creativity of the community is being stifled, and that the companies who own the IP will benefit in the end through the increased exposure that fangames bring to different franchises.  Gamers feel especially burned when the fangames in question have been in the public eye for a long time, or when the IP owner hasn’t made many new games with that particular franchise in recent years.  One of the games taken down in this recent DMCA notice was a remake of Metroid 2 that had been announced eight years prior and in development ever since.  The game’s creator described his surprise in an interview found in the aforementioned Ars Technica article:

“Doctor M64 [the game’s creator] said that while he ‘knew that any form of legal action was a possibility’ during his years working on the game, he was still surprised when his hosts got hit with DMCA requests so soon after the long-awaited initial release.  ‘The game became very popular in 2008, and I expected a similar amount of attention upon release.  I also expected the same amount of legal issues as in 2008: none.’”

Seeing the controversy surrounding Nintendo’s legal action, game publisher SEGA has attempted to capitalize on this by encouraging fans of their Sonic the Hedgehog franchise to continue making Sonic fangames and other creations.  When a popular YouTube channel published a Let’s Play of a Sonic fangame (strong language warning), the official Sonic the Hedgehog YouTube account posted the following comment to the video and received the subsequent response from the game’s creator:

So what do we make of all this?  How do we approach such a contentious issue in the gaming community?

One thing I am NOT going to do here is make any sort of philosophical or legal statement regarding the nature of intellectual property rights.  While that is a perfectly legitimate discussion to be had, it is quite simply outside the scope of my expertise.  Rather, I’d like to focus on how, in the current legal climate, gamers and game creators can show Christian love to one another even in the midst of disagreement.

First, as gamers, we need to be respectful to those who are recognized by law as owners of a particular gaming franchise.  These big companies aren’t simply faceless corporations; they are made up of real people, image-bearers of God, and the franchises we love wouldn’t exist without the time and effort they put into making them in the first place.   It’s OK to feel disappointed or frustrated when a promising fangame is taken down, but don’t let those feelings lead to sin.  Furthermore, taking an adversarial approach to game companies is just as likely to make their executives mad at its fans as it is to make them want to change their policies.

Second, IP owners should encourage the creativity of its fans, communicate its expectations clearly, and make decisions as soon as possible when it comes to taking down a fangame.  Protecting your brand and maintaining positive relations with the community don’t have to be mutually exclusive.  Fangames by their nature tend to be smaller scale than the official products they are inspired by, and thus can be more experimental, introducing new ideas that can keep fans engaged with the brand and perhaps spark creativity among official game development teams as well.  A company may even discover talented fangame creators that can be hired to work on official games.

On the occasions when a company feels it is necessary to take down a fangame, it is in the best interest of everyone involved for them to do so sooner rather than later.  Admittedly, no company can be expected to keep track of every fangame that the community creates, but in a situation like the one involving the Metroid remake, where a game is publically announced well ahead of its release and is making waves amongst fans, the IP owners should try to make a decision quickly as to whether or not they will take action against it.  That spares the game creators and the fan community from the heartache of seeing a highly anticipated title disappear just as it is being made available to the public.

At the end of the day, questions surrounding fangames and property rights remain; it’s a sticky issue, and one that isn’t likely to go away anytime soon.  But in the meantime we can all learn to treat one another with respect and love as we play games and engage with community.

Loving Our Neighbors: Email, Forums, and Comment Sections

By Michael Mendis

This is the third article in a three-part series discussing our interactions with people online, which is a huge part of our modern culture and a critical aspect of our ministry to gamers.  Our goal in this series is for you, our readers, to be better equipped to interact with others online in a Christ-like manner.

In the first article, Jacob (G&G Lead Missionary) and Michael (G&G Content Director) each tackled several questions relating to social media sites, specifically Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

The second article, written by Jacob, focuses on gaming-centric interactions (over programs like Teamspeak, Xbox Live, or PlayStation Network).

This third article, written by Michael, focuses on email, as well as on the wider marketplace of ideas, namely forums and comment sections.

 

In wrapping up our discussion on how we interact with people online, we wanted to hit on a couple different types of interaction; email, which is one of the most personal forms of written communication online, and forums and comment sections, which are some of the least personal, most anonymous methods of communication.

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Let’s start with email, which is one of the most widely used forms of communication in today’s world.  Like with social media, individuals use email for personal correspondence with friends and family, and businesses use it to communicate with customers and other businesses everyday.  Unlike social media, however, emails are private messages that are only received by those the sender specifies (private messages can be sent on social media as well, but most people use social media to share their lives with the public, or at least a wide group of friends and acquaintances).  This allows people the freedom to discuss more sensitive information than they normally do on sites like Facebook or Twitter.  Email also offers more flexibility than social media, in that you can attach a wide variety of documents and other types of media to an email, whereas on social media you can only link to videos or articles from other websites.

Emails are essentially the electronic version of a common letter; the sender and receiver are well aware of who each other are, and the correspondence between them is private and confidential (rather than open for the whole public to see).  As such, using email doesn’t entail  much more in the way of moral challenges that we as Christians need to be aware of than when we write a handwritten letter to a loved one, or prepare letters for our company to be sent out to a large number of people. There are a couple of takeaways for us to keep in mind, though.  It is important that we choose our words carefully, as they are the only means of conveying our message; things like tone of voice and body language are not present.  This may seem like just common sense (which it is), but the care with which we craft our emails reflects the care we put into the relationships we have with the people to whom we send them.  When we send a sloppy or poorly written message to a friend or to a customer, we are also sending the message that that person is not worth the time and effort to create a proper email.

We also need to practice common courtesy, such as not spamming and cluttering people’s inboxes with heaps of emails about trivial matters, or attempts to pressure a person to do something for us; it’s not very respectful of the people you are corresponding with, and it’s a quick way to get them to ignore you, or otherwise become upset with you.  Remember, social media sites like Facebook are a great place where you can post about your passions, no matter how big or small, to your heart’s content.

Now, let’s shift gears and talk about forums (including sites like Reddit and NeoGaf) and comment sections (particularly on YouTube).  First, let’s start with the positives.  On forums, the users who sign up to participate in discussion are often quite passionate and knowledgeable about the material covered in the forum.  In my time spent on forums (either directly participating as I did for a time on VGChartz, or simply browsing discussions on NeoGaf and Reddit), I’ve witnessed many interesting discussions about a wide range of gaming topics, discussions that have greatly expanded my understanding of games and the game industry.  People talk about everything from sales numbers to storytelling, from the intricacies of a game’s mechanics to the social and cultural themes it touches.

Comment sections are a great place for people to provide feedback to articles or videos.  In the gaming world, people love to comment on gaming-related YouTube videos, such as Let’s Plays (videos were the person who created the video, often referred to as a YouTuber, will record his/her commentary and reactions as they play a newly released game).  YouTubers can get great feedback from their fans through their comment sections, such as praise for something that people like, constructive criticism on how to make their videos more engaging, and suggestions for future games to be played on the channel.

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Having talked about all the positives, it’s time to hit the big negative of forums and comment sections, namely that these places are often host to some of the most toxic interactions online.  Anonymity is common on these sites, as people create their own usernames, just as they do when they sign up for something like Xbox Live.  Unlike Xbox Live (or the other gaming-centric communication programs that Jacob discussed in an earlier article), communication in forums and comment sections does not usually occur quickly in real time; people will often post to the site, and then wait until later to come back and see how others responded.  Because of these two factors (anonymity and slow response time), it is sadly common for people to “troll” the forum thread or comments page (writing a negative post intended to aggravate other people and stir the pot), and take delight in the ensuing arguments and angry responses from the rest of the community.  Even when one sits down to write a genuine criticism, it can be hard to exercise restraint, knowing that the personal consequences of writing a long, vicious diatribe are low.

For a YouTuber trying to get productive feedback from his/her video’s comments, or for those on a forum who want to have a genuine discussion, this unproductive negativity really hampers what could be a lively or even enlightening discussion.  Forums often have moderators who monitor the various threads and try to keep discussion in line (even banning users if necessary), but they can’t catch everything.  YouTubers don’t have moderators to police the comment sections on their videos, and it can be a challenge for a YouTuber to sift through the mass of negative comments and spam on his/her page to find the posts that are constructive.  Some YouTubers have even shut down comments on their videos entirely, because the negativity they find completely drowns out everything else.

So how then do we as Christians approach these communities, which are so full of potential but also so full of toxicity?  In the first part of this three-part series, I connected a Christian’s use of social media to Jesus’ call in Matthew 5 to be light, and a city on a hill.  For the much more anonymous world of forums and comment sections, I believe Jesus’ analogy of salt in that same passage is very helpful.  When salt is put into meat, it doesn’t stand out on its own, but it preserves the meat and enhances the meat’s natural flavors.  In the same way, we as Christians may not stand out in the anonymous environment of a forum, but the way we conduct ourselves in these settings - speaking with grace and kindness, building others up rather than tearing them down, encouraging productive discussion and criticism - goes a long way in making these virtual spaces welcoming, places where people can share their passions and grow in their understanding of the things they enjoy.