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The Devil's Advocate: About the Teardown Mentality

Column By Victor Barreiro Jr. on December 07, 2012

As I mentioned in last week's Devil's Advocate piece (yes, Devil's Advocate is officially a weekly thing now), I promised to discuss what I had originally called the “teardown generation” of MMO gaming. The teardown generation concerns people who tend to focus on the negative aspects of games online and say hurtful things about a game, warranted or not. I was planning on writing this later on, but the discussion of a negative mentality is more nuanced than you would expect, and I thought to tackle it now so people can at least think about it and move forward with the ideas I've presented.

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For the most part, there is very little research here I can cite regarding how many Negative Nancies exist as opposed to Positive Paulas in the gaming sphere. If you have academic citations, I'd welcome your input.

What I can do, however, is explain my personal thoughts behind why a teardown mentality appears more likely to come out on a socially oriented website. Trust me, today's Devil's Advocate will be messy, and may end up causing you to hate me, but I'd appreciate it if you kept an open mind and accepted the possibility of what I have to say.

The Tipping Point Premise

One of the reasons I think a teardown mentality comes into being in a particular space (virtual or physical) is that the mentality presents itself through an the action of one person, and because others share that same sentiment, they become emboldened to share the feeling as well, making the feeling more common.

In movies, sometimes you see that scene where a war breaks out because someone with an itchy trigger finger or stupidly horrible reflexes fires off a shot and kills someone, and then all hell breaks loose. Well, that's the idea of a tipping point, and that tipping point online can sometimes occur on a hot topic where no one wants actually wants to speak... until someone says something that reinforces the idea that it's okay to be negative or hostile or whatnot.

The Social Reinforcement Premise

Related to having a tipping point, the social reinforcement premise would argue that if a certain space has been designated a zone for hostility, then it becomes socially acceptable to be hostile in that space.

This idea takes its cue from research on psychological reinforcement, such as that done by Bandura and McDonald in the 1960s. Easier reading can be found on About.com, but a search for social reinforcement should give scholarly articles.

For instance, there is a general implied premise that MMORPG.com is filled with hardcore players who enjoy a certain game style. I have no idea if it's true, but the point is that a premise exists where X type of person generally visits this space.

Social reinforcement would thus tend to fulfill that idea, even if it wasn't true to begin with, because people began to perceive the area as filled with hardcore players. Eventually, it does get to be filled with the hardcore, because the socially reinforced idea is that they are welcome here.

If you extend social reinforcement to the perception of how a hardcore gamer should act, then we get into a mess of trouble, as some people unknowingly fulfill the socially okay premise (that of having a certain personality because you're a hardcore gamer) without meaning to.

The Online Disinhibition Premise

The Penny Arcade Strip on Greater Internet F**kwads is actually based off long-standing ideas on disinhibition, with the idea of online disinhibition being that because you are neither known nor seen (among other things), you are free to be a horrible person online even if you're nicer in person.

The Guardian also has an excellent piece from 2011 on the idea of trolling. While the “teardown generation” can sometimes be misunderstood as trolling, the ideas in the write-up lend themselves well to the idea that our anonymity online allows us to be more free in criticizing.

The Customer Satisfaction Premise

Here's something I picked up from Keen at Keen and Graev's Gaming Blog: the idea of dissatisfaction being caused by previous exposure. Basically, the idea as it relates to the tearing down premise is that we set ourselves up to hate things based on our expectations, as determined by past experiences. As Keen explains,

"If a developer aims for 100% enjoyment or innovation, then players will come to expect that level of enjoyment and innovation.  That means next time you’re going to have to meet that same level of enjoyment and innovation or else you will fail to meet expectations, and a high level of disconfirmation will result and players will be unhappy."

The Crab Mentality Premise

One thing I remember well is an idea in Filipino culture called “Crab Mentality.” In a pot of crabs, the idea is that an individual crab can escape the pot, but other crabs will drag it back down in an attempt to escape as well.

If you couple that with the idea of disconfirmation, the possibility exists that some people might be so annoyed at the possibility of someone having fun in a game they're not having fun in, that the attempt to tear down a game is their way of dealing with someone else's enjoyment.

It's Okay to Not Like Things

Tearing down or discussing what frustrates us is actually healthy in a certain context: one of worthwhile criticism. If you have a smart, well-prepared premise explaining why something doesn't work for you, that's fine. In fact, I'd assume that tearing down in this case refers to a deconstruction of the aspects of a game in order to find its weak points.

A problem occurs when we invest too heavily in our disappointment, like I feel I did with my SWTOR piece published on November 23. As I mentioned before, regardless of how warranted I felt expressing my disappointment, I forgot about the other related stories to the issue (such as whether SWTOR had good measures in place for monetization or someone to work on the F2P transition).

I don't want to lose myself to the feelings I get when I want to properly criticize or be criticized. As that YouTube song goes, “It's okay to not like things, just don't be a dick about it.” The problem is, reversing the tide of negativity and replacing it with thoughtful criticism, on MMORPG.com or any other social site is difficult because the social mechanisms are already in place to reward a good trolling remark as opposed to a thoughtful comment.

That's probably where a paradigm shift needs to come into play to change the prevailing social landscape. It won't be easy, but it's certainly worth it. At the very least, treating everyone, including the things we criticize, with respect makes us better people and brings dignity to everyone's online bearing.


Read more of Victor's other Devil's Advocate columns:

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