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Dealing with online bullying and public criticism

By on August 13, 2013
FlickrCC image by Jon McGovern

Following Phil Fish’s dramatic retreat from online communication, I’ve been reflecting on one particular point that came out of the discussion about his problems. Many people say that ‘trolls’ are an inevitable part of the digital landscape, and that you should tread carefully when you venture into that landscape by publishing your work on the internet.

To me, ‘trolling’ means something very specific and mostly harmless, and what’s really being discussed here is bullying. While bullying is a part of life, it’s not something that should be simply tolerated. Having said that, when you’re indie there are often very few structures in place protecting you from bullies. You’re the point of communication with fans, and any nastiness they want to throw at your company will reach you directly. On the internet, your mistakes quickly become a fault of you as a person, rather than of the work itself.

It’s interesting to me that for all the talk about Phil Fish having a thin skin, there doesn’t seem to be any advice about how exactly one should deal with public criticism, or how one could avoid being on the receiving end of a vitriolic twitterstorm. If unpleasant fandom is an inevitable part of life as an indie, why are so few people talking about how to manage it? I decided to ask some indies whether they have experienced abuse as a result of publishing their work online, and how they have learned to deal with it.

Deirdra Kiai


The brains behind musical claymation adventure game Dominique Pamplemousse, Vancouver-based developer Deirdra Kiai has a relatively close relationship with their players due to the crowdfund they ran late summer. I wanted to know whether there had been a negative side to that relationship.

‘I haven’t had a lot in the way of abuse lobbied at me directly’, said Deirdra. ‘I suspect it’s to do with the relative obscurity of my work. The worst I’ve seen has been during the Indiegogo campaign, rather than post-launch. When my game got mentioned on popular gaming news sites (Eurogamer was one of the worst offenders, but surprisingly, Kotaku was relatively tame) I did see a lot of “this sucks and they can’t sing” kinds of comments.’

Even though Deirdra hasn’t been on the receiving end of the extreme nastiness that other developers might get, the possibility of attracting negative responses has affected the way that Deirdra runs their business. ‘I have avoided launching on Steam Greenlight because I don’t like how negative the comments sections can get on the game pages. On Indiegogo, I feel that I can at least moderate the comments so that the campaign site itself is relatively upbeat and positive.’

Brian Kwek


Singapore-based writer Brian Kwek, co-founder of Witching Hour Studios, also believes that having a smaller audience has insulated him from the worst excesses of online discourse. When the studio released their first game, Ravenmark: Scourge of Estellion, in 2011, it was generally received well internationally. Back home, he found himself coming up against ingrained prejudices about what kind of person is capable of success.

I found myself caught off guard when, at an IGDA event right here in Singapore where I live, a stout white dude rolled up to us and said, “Yeah, I’ve heard of your game! The world and the writing’s pretty good, so tell me, where did you guys hire your writers from? The US? Britain?”

It was a thinly-veiled statement that Singapore-born developers weren’t capable of producing a polished game with quality writing on their own, because he assumed that we didn’t do it ourselves. That’s not blatant abuse on its own, but it’s evocative of a second or third-class mentality that “the West” projects upon Asian productions that don’t originate from Japan, and plainly ignores that we are educated and capable, with sufficient opportunities for practice and exposure, of producing worthy and original creative work.

This mentality, it trickles down into our own society, to the point that Singaporeans are the most like to heap abuse on local developers. When we shared news about a soft launch of our recent release Ravenmark: Mercenaries with a few local gaming forums, several responses went along the lines of “your game sucks / is a complete failure and you are too” without even trying the game.

Alex Austin

Is there anything that indies can do to avoid abuse online? Alex Austin works in Berkeley, California, making experimental multiplayer online games such as first-person e-sport Hockey? (pronounced ‘hockey question mark’). ‘I have had some moments that made me question whether I want to keep on making games’, he confessed. Luckily, he was able to learn from those moments, and adapt his practice to soften the impact of community management on his design work:

I had just released Sub Rosa version 0.07, after working for two weeks straight about 12-16 hours a day. On my forums there was a discussion about the new version — I had added a race mode that didn’t work out as well as I hoped, and people were complaining about it.  It was frustrating because I had no way of testing it myself, I was working alone at the time, so the only way to try something new is put it out there.

Then one person posted basically saying the race mode was a dumb idea, that they didn’t like the direction the game was going, and if I didn’t change it they were going to stop playing.  That really pissed me off. It was a free game that I had spent a lot of hours adding new features to, and all I get is people complaining and insulting me.

So I stopped going to my own forum, and haven’t been back since.  I think that was the best decision. I also realized I needed to be working around other people, so I got an office here in Berkeley.  So instead of arguing with people online I can talk to Justin, Ian and Randy at lunch or whatever.

Andrew Smith

Andrew Smith

Finally, I turned to Gamesbrief veteran and founder of Spilt Milk Studio Andrew Smith. Andrew has written on anti-bullying site Beyond the Final Boss about his experiences being bullied at school. While childhood abuse doesn’t make anybody’s life easier, he does feel that he was able to use the lessons learned from those experiences to better weather some of the nastiness he has faced online.

The most online abuse I’ve ever been on the end of was around the time I had a falling out with my Hard Lines co-creator, Nicoll Hunt. Sadly the story went public (even though I believe to this day it was a problem that should’ve stayed private) but some people made a point of digging up the past (from my days before an indie), using their experiences working with me before as a basis for attacking me both personally and professionally, while also one or two total strangers joined in for god only knows what reason.

It was sad for so many reasons, but the best way to deal with it – and this is the bonus of it happening on the internet – is ignoring it. That is so much harder to do in real life, and I think where a lot of people fall down. I was able to deal with it all perfectly well, and a lot of this is down to me having been extensively bullied at school and learning how to adapt through that experience – I was totally unable to ignore the bullies at my school, and as it was my first experience, I lashed out in many ways, making it all worse. I think (and this is pure speculation here) that the recent scenario surrounding Phil Fish is down to, perhaps, people not recognising how to deal with it, simply down to inexperience – on both sides of the situation. It has the hallmarks of the kinds of things I did when bullied, but luckily for me that was only ever in front of my 30 classmates, not the entire gaming population of the internet.

I am friends with loads of devs, indies, journalists… and loads of people who are not involved at all in games. I interact with a mix of these people on Facebook, twitter and whatnot, but I do make an effort to draw the line between work and personal life. It’s healthy for a number of reasons, but the biggest thing in relation to this subject is that it makes dealing with – ignoring – online bullying and other forms of abuse much simpler (if not necessarily any easier).

My heart goes out to anyone suffering along these lines, but know that while the internet gives people new tools to abuse you, it also empowers you to be able to prevent it in some really effective ways.

Building safer spaces

It is sad to hear that so many developers have retreated from at least some aspects of online life — sometimes at the cost of business opportunities like Steam Greenlight — because of the risk of attracting abuse. It’s probably true that bullying becomes a more serious problem the larger a game’s fanbase becomes, but even developers with a small audience are having to change their behaviour to protect themselves.

There is hope that this will improve with time. Samantha Allen’s campaign to make online gamer spaces safer has led to changes in policies at Kotaku and IGN among others, so that people tempted to sling mud won’t be heard quite as loudly. ‘It’s okay for us to disagree with each other, but we won’t tolerate abuse and threats disguised as disagreement,’ wrote IGN editor-in-chief Steve Butts.

Still, it seems that game developers have to learn to manage their digital relationships carefully in order to survive as indies. The main lesson seems to be to build a safe, private space, where unpleasant people can’t get to you. That might mean having a shared workspace with other developers, changing the way you manage your online relationships, as well as the more difficult task of learning to ignore hateful messages.

About Zoya Street

I’m responsible for all written content on the site. As a freelance journalist and historian, I write widely on how game design and development have changed in the past, how they will change in the future, and how that relates to society and culture as a whole. I’m working on a crowdfunded book about the Dreamcast, in which I treat three of the game-worlds it hosted as historical places. I also write at and The Borderhouse.