Artist’s rendition of some random Internet user reacting to a two-month game delay.Flickr / Thoth, God of Knowledge
As someone who has been immersed in gaming and Internet culture for decades, I’m no stranger to how fans with enflamed passions can spew some heated and at times hateful rhetoric about their favorite properties online. Random Internet users can and do generate huge volumes of uncivil discussion, harassment, and sometimes even threats over everything from Mass Effect 3‘s ending to arguments over review scores.
Still, a portion of the reaction to news of the No Man’s Sky delay in recent days seems fundamentally different in a way that has been troubling me.
The basic news being discussed here is pretty boring by game industry standards. No Man’s Sky, which developer Hello Games has been targeting for a June 2016 release since last October, was first rumored and then confirmed to be delayed to early August over the past week.
This kind of short-term delay happens all the time in the game industry, but you wouldn’t know it from the way some people apparently reacted online. “I have received loads of death threats this week,” Hello Games’ founder Sean Murray tweeted on Saturday. “But don’t worry, Hello Games now looks like the house from Home Alone” (subsequent tweets suggested Murray was handling the threats with good humor, at least).
The extreme response extended to the mere reporting of the delay. Kotaku’s Jason Schreier, who first wrote about the delay as a rumor, shared a message he received from a Twitter user threatening to “come by, say hi to you, and fuck you up… sounds like you have a death wish. We will find you. Be afraid human, we are coming for you.” Elsewhere on the No Man’s Sky subreddit, users did some questionable sleuthing to cast doubt on the report and whipped each other into a frothing ire over what turned out to be a reporter accurately reporting the news.
There’s some risk in over-analyzing and inflating the importance of these kinds of random Internet responses. Nutpicking the proportionally small number of No Man’s Sky fans that reacted to the delay with irrational levels of hatred risks making the entire community around the game look bad for no good reason. These threats are from a small subset of the small subset of people commenting on the game online, who are a small subset of those reading about the game online, who are a small subset of those who will eventually play the game.
Simply writing about these responses at all risks giving attention to many people who are likely trolls just looking to provoke a response. The people apologizing to and defending Kotaku and Hello Games certainly don’t receive nearly as much attention.
And, as Bithell Games’ Alexander Sliwinski points out on Twitter, this sort of thing isn’t entirely new to the industry. “Why is getting death threats in games suddenly news?” he asks. “Are we just openly talking about it now? This has been going on for over a decade.” Then again, if this is a common problem in game development circles, it’s one that developers have largely been silent about publicly, likely for a variety of understandable reasons. That all suggests it’s a problem we should be doing more to bring to light in the rare instances it does become public.
Enlarge / The fact that a game this tranquil can inspire such rabid fan overreaction is a bit troubling.
In any case, there’s something about this specific overreaction from certain fans that has been unsettling me all weekend. Part of it is that No Man’s Sky isn’t the type of game you’d usually expect to attract this kind of frenzied reaction. Not to over generalize, but there tends to be a correlation between a game’s level of macho, adrenaline-fueled violence and the amount of… let’s politely say “heated debate” that it attracts online.
No Man’s Sky has some shooty bits, but it’s overwhelmingly a game about the wonder of exploring a near-infinite cosmos and the joy of discovering new flora and fauna generated by a wondrous generative algorithm. The fact that even this game can inspire this level of blind Internet rage is surprising to say the least. (The fact that No Man’s Sky is launching on PS4 and PC but not Xbox One—and is thus invariably wrapped up in the Internet anger machine that is the never-ending console wars—could have something to do with the situation).
There’s also something a bit troubling about what generated this response in the first place. As I said earlier, I’m used to Internet commenters getting worked up about various aspects of their favorite piece of entertainment. Even when I don’t support the level of unreasonable bile that seeps into the discourse (bile that Devin Faraci analyzed quite well over at Birth Movies Death), I can at least identify somewhat with fans getting so wrapped up in a story that they develop a feeling of ownership over the narrative.
These reactions to the No Man’s Sky delay, though, go well past feeling aggrieved over narrative decisions and get into a sense of aggrievement over minor business decisions about release timing. I’ve seen similar overheated reactions to announcements of a game’s pricing or platform exclusivity in the past, but not over a six-week difference in release date.
One Reddit user tried to explain, if not defend, the level of personal outrage the delay has generated in some fans. “A lot of us have been looking forward to this game for years,” he writes. “When we got less than a month away from the release date and we get a delay, it was pretty crushing news to a lot of us. Those of us that took time off work have to HOPE that we can reschedule. Those of us that have kids that were also excited for this game have to explain to them that they must wait until school starts.”
Yes, sure, that does sound inconvenient. It does not sound like the kind of thing that should reasonably be expected to generate death threats. The fact that this needs to be said at all and that the state of Internet discourse has coarsened to this point is a problem worth noting, even if there are no easy answers.
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