Talking about Games: Dehumanization

Words: 1699 Approximate Reading Time: 10-15 minutes

I’m sure most people have heard the news of the social engineering hack that led to a bunch of videos of Grand Theft Auto VI being leaked, along with reportedly the source codes to GTA V and VI.

The hack itself is certainly troubling for Rockstar, but troubling for everyone else was the outcry at what people saw from the screenshots: an unfinished game. This includes graphics that were roughly on par with GTA V, assets which were clearly using placeholder designs, and a UI which was…a developer-only interface. Also plenty of complaints that the game isn’t out yet, since it’s been 9 years since the last release of a Grand Theft Auto game. Oh…and the game featured a female protagonist.

Now many people would surmise that if a game isn’t released yet, you wouldn’t expect a game to look finished. But a not insignificant portion of people took to various corners of the internet to wax angrily about what they saw. Or you find people celebrating the intrusion and leaked materials on the basis that gamers effectively deserve news when they want it.

I will note that, looking around, you can also find plenty of people who are sympathetic to Rockstar about the intrusion and understanding about what they were watching. Some people were even excited about what they saw. But the reason we fixate on this negativity is for two reasons. Firstly, because we as humans tend to fixate on negativity. When there is a mass of comments both good and bad, the bad comments stand out in our minds the most. Secondly, because when toxicity is left unchecked, it becomes worse. Identifying bad actors and removing them from the conversation is an important aspect of healthy discourse.

So I wanted to examine the vitriol leveled against Rockstar through the lens of a concept called “dehumanization.” As you might be able to figure out from the word itself, dehumanization is essentially a way of ignoring the fact that the person or people you are talking about are less than or not fully human: they lack agency, they have no wants or desires other than greed, they are just part of a faceless organization.

I bring this all up because dehumanization is a way to essentially “justify” things like harassment, death threats, and the like. We generally acknowledge that it’s not okay to harass someone, but if that harassment is leveled against someone that’s “not really human,” suddenly it becomes okay.

Dehumanization is an emotional rather than an intellectual process. If we say someone is dehumanizing others, they may well respond that they understand that they’re talking about human beings. But what matters here are actions. If we continually fall back to language that ignores that humanity of others and instead treats people as mindless drones or as cartoonishly evil, then we are engaging in dehumanization.

This process becomes difficult because we often want to engage in criticism. If something displeases us, we want to make that displeasure known. Sometimes people do bad things. Sometimes a developer really does release a game that is subpar, or engages in a monetization practice that is harmful or exploitative. We want to be able to express when there is some kind of wrong.

And yet at the same time, we have a tendency to mistake “dislikes” for “wrongs.” That is, we can often get mad at things that we shouldn’t get mad at. Not every monetization mechanic is evil. Not every bug is left in a game because of laziness. Sometimes decisions that help developers will not benefit players, and vice versa.

Dehumanizing Behavior

So what does all this mean?

To use the current outcry against Rockstar, we find two clear strains of dehumanization.

The first is by focusing on the product. It makes some intuitive sense that when we’re talking about GTA VI, we’re going to focus on the game itself. But any game is really more than just a game. It is a product created by humans. Sometimes a single person, sometimes a few people, and sometimes a huge team.

And those people have all sorts of different wants and desires. To make a game that’s fun. To make a game that’s successful. To make artistic or social or political statements. All sorts of goals get thrown into this gigantic pot, and the end product is a video game.

But in talking about a game as a product, we then just conceptualize it as a thing. And that thing gets separated from all those wants and desires and the work that goes into it. A game ceases to be what we might call a work of dedication or love, and becomes a mere commercial object. And it becomes much easier to denigrate that object when you don’t think about the person or people behind it. And in turn, it is much easier to then attack the creators because they are merely responsible for releasing the object into the world. It is almost as though a game pops into existence within a studio, and the studio simply chooses when to free it into the wild so that people may play it.

The second is by focusing on a company or corporation. When talking about Rockstar, one line of attack you will find is people accusing others of defending a “corporation.” That is, it’s okay for this leak to happen because Rockstar is a big company. And to express any sympathy for Rockstar – or its employees – is to be a “bootlicker.”

The problem here is that you will often see this line of attack leveled against people who are expressly talking about the hardship of employees. That is, Person A will say “oh no, all these GTA VI developers are getting so much hate, I feel bad for them.” Then Person B responds “wow, I can’t believe you’re defending a multi-million dollar corporation keeping secrets.”

Rendering the everyday employees of a game or publishing studio as faceless parts of a bigger corporation is an element of dehumanization. It exchanges a “thing” (the corporation) for the individual.

Both of these forms of dehumanization mean that we dismiss sympathy and justify overblown reactions, because that sympathy or those reactions are not being aimed at “people.” Either the people are ignored entirely, or they lose any sense of “realness” because they’re just part of some bigger entity.

And this dehumanization of development contributes to the willingness of gamers to send death threats, to harass developers, to attack sympathizers, and so on.

But what is to be done about it?

I’ve mentioned in previous essays the need for people to speak up. For calling out bad behavior.

But also useful here is a proliferation on resources about how games get made. About the development process and how artists and UI designers and programmers and QA members all work at their different tasks.

To provide an example, in the wake of all this criticism one random person on Twitter decided to suggest that the leaked GTA VI footage was as bad as everyone was fearing because graphics were one of the first things on a game that was completed. The result of this: a bunch of game designers released footage of early builds of various games, all showing buggy or placeholder graphics.

But this is the kind of information that I’m talking about. And this example shows two important things. Firstly, it shows a key aspect of ignorance about the development process – graphics aren’t “one of the first things finished.” Secondly, it has a bunch of information from actual game devs to dispel the myth and set the record straight.

So this kind of information – myth breaking, if you will – is necessary. Having resources that are easy to find that can talk about these subjects and increasing public awareness of how game development works is useful for two primary reasons. One, it decreases the likelihood of people being dumb on the internet, at least about that specific subject. Two, it makes it easier to correct misinformation.

So a major answer to the question of humanizing game developers is opening up the curtains so that people can more easily look in on the process, so to speak. Videos, social media, blogs, news, and all of that is incredibly useful for the purpose, and the more information there is, the better.

Concluding Remarks

As I mentioned in a post a few weeks back, while I have no industry experience, I’ve been trying to learn what I can about the game development process so I can talk about video games. Because games don’t just magically appear. They are the product of the blood, sweat, and tears of developers.

And it’s because of that information I’ve been collecting over the course of several years that I see the reaction to the Rockstar leak and become worried.

There are fundamental limits to what can be done about the problem. At some point, people are going to be jerks, no matter what. At some point, people won’t want to learn, no matter how many opportunities you give them. But being able to sift through good and bad faith conversations is important. And having the knowledge and resources to helpfully correct someone who is merely ignorant – as opposed to aggressively and willfully ignorant – is also important.

So I wanted to end with a list of at least some resources I was able to find that talk about the game development process. While not an exhaustive list by any stretch of the imagination, collecting knowledge is what will ultimately be key.

Resources

Here’s a thread on crunch through the lens of changes in the development process: sometimes stuff that had originally been settled gets scrapped and teams need to rework or restart

People Make Games is one of my favorite channels that does wonderful investigative reporting

Here are a couple of articles that provide basic rundowns of the process

Another article that describes how messy the process can be and how things can often not be fully settled until much closer to a game’s release. Admittedly, the focus here is still on visuals, and less attention is given to other components of the game.

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