Another Day, Another Death Threat From Gamers To The People Who Make Video Games

"The very first death threat I got was when we decided not to support dedicated servers in Modern Warfare 2," Robert Bowling the former public face for the Call of Duty series recently told me.

That was in 2009. He's had many more since, including batches of them every month throughout last year.

"They were creative," he recalls, thinking of the many people who sent them to him. "There's a lot of just hoping for self-death: choking to death, burning in a fire — the typical ways you can die that don't require them to put any effort forth.

"But there were plenty of the ones that would require them to put effort forth."

Receiving death threats was just part of the day job for Robert Bowling, who served as the creative strategist for lead Call of Duty development studio Infinity Ward during the series' rise over the last few years. He left the company after a seven-year stint in late March and is now the president of Robotoki Studios.

Bowling says he didn't take most of the threats seriously. Developers from around the world who were interviewed for this story said the same thing: the vile messages hey receive calling for their death usually don't have the whiff of real, actionable intent to murder. They have nonetheless become common, lubricated by the ease of communicating online where he or she who is angry about a game finds release in threatening to kill their suddenly least-favourite game creators.

The death threats game developers receive are the expression of a small group of gamers who have taken their opinions to the extreme. They may not represent a gaming community's true feelings about a game. They have, however, ensured that as the people who create video games reach out to communicate with their fans, at least some of those fans will, rhetorically, try to draw blood. And if video game creators don't reach out? The angriest gamers will find them anyway.

People who make video games get threatened for the darnedest things, and not really for the kind of offences that merit fatal retaliation. Maybe, for example, you're a successful game creator who doesn't want people to steal your game? Death threat time...

"I've received several death threats after the site giving out Minecraft for free shut down," the creator of the hugely popular and not-very-expensive video game Minecraft Tweeted earlier this month. "That is seriously not cool."

For Minecraft's Markus "Notch" Persson the offence there might at least have been tied to a skewed sense of financial entitlement by some non-paying customers. But what did game developer Chris Condon do to compel an angry gamer to start a Twitter feed full of such un-constructive feedback as [sic] "i hope We never Met in Real life or i kill you"? As best as Condon could tell, "the core of it was the fact that I was making a Facebook game." There was a fan of his browser-based game series The Last Stand who didn't like that and complained, got banned from Condon's forums, then launched that Twitter screed.

Condon had had other threats, mostly triggered by that same offence of moving his games to Facebook. "I've had a bunch over the years," he said. "I've been doing browser based stuff for about five years.. and that crowd can be rough, real rough. Especially when you make the move to social games: Oh, the seething anger."

Bowling: "What I had to learn very early, is: ‘Alright, don't take this stuff personally." They're clearly someone who is passionate. They are just very poor at expressing that passion.

Some developers whom I contacted said they've never received a threat. Others in the industry said it was common. We even get some here at Kotaku. Reporter Tina Amini did when she wrote about Jennifer Hepler, a writer at Mass Effect studio BioWare who was besieged by angry gamers who felt she did not value the interactive parts of video games as much as she did the story.

"I think your articles are very good," the email to our reporter began in its subject line, before twisting in the body to "just kidding you are an enormous fagot, reddit is legion BITCH C**T WHORE XDDD.. I will kill u bitch with reddit army get ready bitch." That email arrived in February and like so many other of these threats just had to be met with an eye-roll.

"What I had to learn very early, is: ‘Alright, don't take this stuff personally," Bowling said. "They're clearly someone who is passionate. They are just very poor at expressing that passion. And if you look past that, you don't take it too seriously."

This is technically not a death threat, because the creator says he's kidding and, more importantly, doesn't name a time, location and method that authorities could act on. What it is, however, is a sign of how angry Robert Bowling's detractors could get.

What happened after Paradox Interactive released the game Hearts of Iron 3 with more bugs in it than a publisher should tolerate? They patched the game. But, also: death threats. "We received at least three death threats to producers saying things like ‘you don't deserve to live after this mess' and ‘we know your home address is XXX'," Paradox CDEO Fred Wester told me. "We chose not to report any of these to the police, but it sure is unpleasant."

And what was one of the results of Sony Online Entertainment releasing EverQuest, besides success? One former employer said threats of violence from some gamers led the studio to hiring guards. A company spokesperson declined to comment.

Here's another, from a game developer of a massively multiplayer game, who asked to not be named: "In order to push updates to the game (which happened every few days), we had to shut down the server for about two minutes, giving the players ample warning beforehand. During one of my first times pushing updates, when I announced to the players that the game would be going down for a few minutes so we could add some sweet new combat features, one player responded with, ‘If you shut down the game now, I'll fu**ing kill you.'" Figure of speech? "I asked what the company policy was for responding to death threats, explaining the situation, and was only told, ‘Yeah. This is why [the CTO] doesn't like having our company's street address public.'"

The many death threats game creators receive don't seem to have ever resulted in violence, but, in some upsetting instances, they've gone beyond being a nuisance. For Bowling, the worst threats weren't the ones he got. The worst were the ones that were sent to his family. "When they started posting photos and messages about my two year old daughter, that's when I would start losing sleep," he said.

Paradox CEO Fred Wester: "We chose not to report any of these to the police, but it sure is unpleasant."

Bowling's experiences appear to have been more extreme than most, a result of his high-profile position as the go-to person on Twitter for anything related to the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare games. He says he received more than a quarter-million mentions on twitter every two months of last year. He was also the subject of numerous YouTube videos, some praising him but many verbally beating him up. The worst of it came after a Call of Duty fan convention last September during which Bowling said that November 2011's Modern Warfare 3 would ditch the controversial Last Stand perk which was being abused by many players to derail multiplayer matches. He was cheered, but then branded a liar by vitriolic critics who discovered that MW3 would include a deathstreak called Final Stand, which functioned similarly to Last Stand but was obtainable under very different circumstances. "That was a large amount of fuel to the fire," he remembers. It enraged some fans so much that they started doxing Bowling, gathering up his personal information and posting it online.

"People were revealing my home address and my girlfriend's telephone number and doing things like that, and encouraging people to show up or send stuff or to call," he said. "People would actually follow up on that."

Bowling started receiving packages he didn't order. Wary of what they contained, he adopted a new policy: "anything that comes our way that is unsolicited basically just goes in the trash."

It doesn't appear that there is anything special about video games that compels its angriest fans to send threats. Bowling believes that any creative people in any medium would receive the same stuff, as long as they made themselves public the way he and others involved with gaming have. Age, however, may be a factor. He said that most of the most severe threats-the ones that Call of Duty publisher Activision's internal security team would take action on-came from underage gamers, fans technically too young to buy the M-rated Call of Duty on their own. "We would have an agent contact their family, he said, "and inform them of the type of communication they were sending, which was always very entertaining."

For all the aggravation, Bowling would take some of these complaints that were hidden within the threats back to the core team on the Call of Duty games. That was part of his job, he figured, to filter out the emotion in the feedback, isolate the core complaint and, if it was something that could and should be tweaked or patched, to let the designers know.

He remains convinced that some of his harshest critics, believe it or not, had good points to make. They just made them terribly.

Bowling: "I would say I've received over 100 apology letters — -especially after I resigned-from people acknowledging that they sent me hateful things or death threats or various things and apologized for it."

If you fancy yourself becoming a big-name online video game personality, you should at least brace yourself. Bowling indicates that you'll know when the ugly stuff is coming. For him, it was like this: "We make an internal decision. Internal decision goes live. YouTube personality disagrees with the decision, makes video rallying the troops against the decision, troops go forth and figure out ways to express that disagreement. That process of finding ways to express the disagreement would typically be a series of trying to one-up each other. It would start with nasty messages online. It would turn into trying to hack my accounts." The hacking would trigger a battery of e-mails to Bowling regarding attempts to recover "forgotten" passwords. "Once they failed at that, the phone calls and e-mails and the next step of threats would come."

There is a happy twist to all this. The avalanche of negativity that leads to ugly, empty death threats sometimes flows in reverse. This happened for Bowling when he announced he was leaving his Call of Duty job. People on YouTube praised him (well, some of them did… not all!). That YouTube praise would lead to kind messages. "I would say I've received over 100 apology letters — -especially after I resigned-from people acknowledging that they sent me hateful things or death threats or various things and apologised for it."

After Minecraft's creator Tweeted about his death threats, he received his own avalanche of support.

The happiest fans just tend to be quiet. The nastiest? They'd be ostracised if they said this kind of stuff in real life, Bowling pointed out. They take power in firing their potshots online. "It was never my place to say, ‘Everybody look at these arseholes,'" says Bowling, who simply never engaged most of the people who threatened him over the years. "Sometimes, it's just nice to hear other people agree that's not acceptable."


Comments

    Hey you should check out the Halo forums. Some players are thinking about sueing 343i if Halo4 doesn't have a 1-50 ranking system.

      This is why I stopped checking in there, as well as Biowares forum, Bethesdas forum....

      Even reading the comments on IGN has gone massively downhill with death threats, people suing and the biggest collection of spelling Nazi's.

        You don't use an apostrophe for pluralisation! I'm going to kill you, then sue the body!

      i always find it amazing that people think they can sue over things like this. I've always thought that the company can put out what ever they want and if its good i'll buy it if its shit ill skip it.

    The, literally in some cases, childish way that some fans of series behave online is disgusting and something should be done. How are developers supposed to sleep at night when some prepubescent douche bag who doesn't like that the game they have developed has something wrong with it, knows his address? Or his phone number? It really is, truly, pathetic.

    It is so embarrassing being apart of the gaming community as a whole when stuff like this happens...

      gamers arent the leeches developers and the media make them out to be, we are the investers, the stake holdes teh people who KEEP THEM IN A BLOODY JOB.
      Without us the industry fails, more gamers need to realise this.

        I think you need to research the meaning of Stakeholder, gamers are generally not the stakeholders of any company unless they're directly affected or indirectly affected by that companies actions. The only way you're affected by that company, is if you have an investment, otherwise you just don't get your game. If you're a paying consumer, like an MMO? That's completely different. You have an ongoing investment making you, yes, a stakeholder.

        Unfortunately a lot of gamers take on the attitude of self entitlement. You may keep them in a job but that doesn't give you the right to dictate what they should do. God knows devs put in a lot of effort and all we do is enjoy the final product. Appreciate what they do, enjoy the end product, but don't be a wanker about it, you'll give a bad name to all gamers out there otherwise.

          Dude. Actually you should maybe pick up a business basics textbook. Stakeholders is a fairly broad term, and at the very least includes customers, and in its broadest definition, the community in which the company operates.

            "Dude"

            Stakeholder (corporate), a person, group, organization, member or system who affects or can be affected by an organization's actions

            I'm well aware of what a stakeholder is. However that's quite a broad term as you said. When one is a consumer and has no actual investment in the company as such, one is not actually affected *by* the company and the company actually owes them nothing other than to do their best by them to output a decent product. The self entitled attitude coming from a lot of gamers these days is ****ing repulsive and is what is driving people to these conclusions, the self entitled gamer believes the company answers to them, that the company should damn well listen to them. No they really shouldn't. Ultimately the person behind the game should make the game they want and make it to the best of their ability, the only way the company should listen to you, is by you not purchasing the game if you think it sucks.

            Again, very well aware of what Stakeholders means, but when someone above me tries to make it sound like some sort of Shareholders? Not right at all.

    I don't get this stupid sense of entitlement gamers have, its THEIR product your just along for the ride.

      Ever hear the expression "the customer is always right" every other industry on the planet, the only exception is the gaming industry where it is commonly accepted that publishers and gaming media outlets can tell customers to go fuck themselves and call them entitled.

      Day one DLC is fine, if it's on the disc it's still ok. Nickel and diming the consumer has become an accepted practice, should they open their mouth in defense then they're attacked by their peers for being children. Never mind that the reason these people are so right is because gamers put the money in their pocket for THEY wanted. Do publishers owe gamers? no. Should publishers be listening? yes, because that's how you make money.

      You can't please everyone and you definitely shouldn't listen to every stupid complaint, but you don't call your consumer base homophobes, entitled or whatever the latest buzzword is.

      Also, death threats are hardly confined to the gaming industry and death threats in the gaming industry aren't a new occurrance. It's just topical at the moment because it can be used to further discredit the opinion of gamers as a whole.

        No, customers are NOT always right, particularly when they're selfish entitled assmonkeys.
        Customers who have that attitude at my workplace end up being body-surfed down the stairs and kurb-stomped by a massive bouncer.

        Calling attention to a problem within the gaming culture is the only way it can be tackled, direct all the attention to the perpetrators, name and shame them and maybe they'll learn to be gentlemen(because let's face it they're usually guys) the hard way.

      that right there is the reason game developers think the way they do, its got nothing to do with entitlement.
      its all about greed, gaming back inthe day was relient on the consumers perspective, if the game was missing componants that made the game i.e. dedicated severs for fps games you as a company failed as people would not buyyour subpar shit.

      These days people are to willing to just accept that a developer will leave out the extremly important componants in the hopes they can just make a quick buck.
      Name a single game that has stuck around for as long as counte strike or WC3, there isnt any cos developers make games for morons who keep paying for shit that is only half completed or that they canrelease a new version for ina matter of months, yes im talking cod obviously.

      If people stopped buying the shit that gets released instead of falling for the hype i.e. MW3 "most anticipated game in history" my arse, developers would have to start making quality products again.

    This is why you never list "video games" under your hobbies on a resume.

    I just cannot understand why the industry accepts as normal this kind of behaviour from a segment of the gaming community. I think they should refer these people to the police or pursue civil claims against them particularly if they are posting personal details about developers or their families.

    I think the tolerant and forgiving approach developers currently have to this behaviour will change when one of them is inevitably assaulted by an enraged fan.

      The sentence "we chose not to report these to the police," is singly the most atrocious part of this article.
      By failing to report crime, you perpetuate it. You have nothing to lose (these criminals will buy your games no matter what).
      Think for a moment: It only takes ONE of these FORTY THOUSAND unhinged individuals to murder your child if their insanity is left unchecked. Almost half of them can do so for no more than the cost of a single full tank of gas. Do you actually want that to happen? No?
      Then report the death threat crime when it occurs.

    I can't believe the comments, as if this type of thing is limited to just the gaming community.

    What about Sports Teams that consistently lose, or coaches that fail to get their team to preform, do you think they don't receive death threats?

    It's not an issue limited to just gamers, its a human thing regarding peoples passion. When you passionate about anything to the extreme and something goes wrong, you want the people you feel are responsible gone from the picture.

      Nobody said it was just limited to gaming. We're just discussing it within gaming right now.

      Despite the fact that this behaviour obviously exists in other areas, that doesn't mean it should just be accepted.

    Semantic complaint here: but saying "I hope you choke to death" is not a death threat. For starters, the latter requires intent to harm, and is a criminal matter.

    I personally think telling someone you don't like that you "hope they burn to death in a fire", is fairly normal, if OTT.

    If I have one major complaint about the gaming community in general, it's the childish, immature, and frankly embarassing attitude that so many of them continue to show in so many ways. We all argue that games are now aimed directly at adults and they have the potential to be an artistic medium, but then we rage and whine like spoilt brats when something smal doesn't go their way.

    I'm sure all the resonable, level headed gamers out there feel like the parent standing in the supermarket while their brat child kicks and screams because we won't buy them FruitLoops. And we all wonder why it's taking so long to secure an R18 rating for games in Australia.

      Well said. We say games are for adults then act like children.

    I like the part where they call underage gamers' families. Hope the little turds got the belt.

      That was also my favourite part of the article. Also that the developers/publishers find that amusing.

      I like to think that it happens 4pm on a Friday, they knock off work early, a few drinks in the board room while the agent calls on speaker phone. Well maybe to pipe the conversation into the board room so they don't hear the laughter

    Why the fuck am I always at odds with the people that like the same things I do?

    Philosoraptor: Why are Kotaku articles either very short, or very long?

    Also, facebook is cancer, commoner's cancer, and good-hearted people don't want to lose other good-hearted people to it, that's why there's a crateload of hate ready to ship to anyone who decides to associate with it.

    The videogames industry is extremely political, and everyone has their vision of who the bad guys and good guys are, but as anyone can see, the vast majority have the same interpretation on the same developers, brands or entities, and we don't want the good guys to form an alliance with the bad guys, ever. When this happens, they can expect hate, this it shows up, they should realize they've done the wrong thing.
    People like me who chose the Playstation instead of the N64 or Saturn, see the Xbox as an unwelcome invader in the industry who stole all our exclusives (threw money at everything until they owned it) and destroyed the competitive soul of the videogames industry. Now we have this communist game-sharing over multiple platforms regime, but on top of that, Sony have gradually got worse as a company (failed PS3 launch range as a start), and now the only real exclusive we have right now, is certainly the one we deserve, but not any of the ones we need. (GT5)

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