Slings and arrows, or: Why I’m engaging with a troll

“To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?”
– Hamlet

“The public doesn’t give a damn about integrity. A town that won’t defend itself deserves no help. Get out, Will. It’s all for nothing.” – Martin Howe, High Noon

“I’m tired of people telling me what to do.” – Will Kane, High Noon

**

“Don’t engage.”

That’s the advice, given by many, whenever something terrible is written online by someone hovering in the periphery of this place where we all interact and some of us make our living.

“Don’t engage.”

We drill it into our colleagues, our employees and ourselves.

“Don’t engage.”

Responding to negativity is wallowing in mud with pigs, we say. It’s giving your detractors exactly what they want: a fight. And so:

“Don’t engage.”

This is the modern equivalent of “turn the other cheek.” I’ve given the advice myself, and I’ve believed it. Just because someone is looking for a fight, doesn’t mean you have to give it to them, I would say. And I meant it.

But there’s a corollary that I think we often forget about: Sometimes, when someone is looking for a fight, you owe it to yourself to make sure that they get it.

We say to “Don’t engage,” because engaging leads to loss of control. Responding is giving bullies what they want, which is usually to humiliate you. But if the goal of not engaging is to retain some measure of control over when and how we respond to aggravation, then never responding at all — to anything — is just another form of ceding control. It’s allowing terrible things to go unchallenged. It’s replacing anger with complacence. Either way, the bullies win.

**

Something terrible was written about me recently. I discovered it by observing other people’s conversations about it online. It was mentioned on social media — a lot. And some of those conversations included my name, which triggered alerts and directed me to it.

In other words, the content had created what we in media call “engagement,” and that engagement attracted my attention. This is the system as it currently exists working as it is supposed to. And it is why websites that peddle spiteful articles about people or things are currently media juggernauts, encouraging reputable outlets (and aspiring journalists) to follow some of their slanderous practices. I won’t name examples, but you can yourself if you choose.

The success of spiteful media in attracting attention is what people who write spurious and hateful things depend upon. The attention is what they want, and they know that by writing terrible things they will get it. And they know that they will usually get away with doing so, because the rest of us “Don’t engage.”

And so, this thing. The vast majority of the piece of writing is not even about me, but an entire section of it is. And it’s not merely derogatory, but defamatory. The statements made about me are not true, but could potentially have a meaningful impact on my life and career. The person who wrote this (anonymously) not only doesn’t approve of my work and personality, but they are also suggesting that I am a sexual predator. And if you read it closely, they are also hinting that I am a pedophile. To say that I was upset by reading this would be an understatement. I mean, how would you feel if someone accused you of these things?

**

Let me walk you through what happens inside of a website like Polygon whenever something like this thing appears online, because I think its important for you to know that even when it doesn’t look like we’re talking about a thing, we’re talking about a thing. Usually just among ourselves, and usually preparatory to outwardly doing nothing. Because “Don’t engage” is the widely-accepted doctrine. We not only say it, we believe it.

The first thing that usually happens is someone will respond on social media, generally obliquely, but in such a way as to bring the matter to everyone else’s attention. Then an email chain follows in which the matter is evaluated and the pros and cons of responding to it are weighed. Occasionally there will be a Skype call, but usually the conversation peters out before that’s necessary, because “Don’t engage.”

And the above is exactly what happened in this instance. If I recall correctly, it was a weekend when “George’s” article appeared online, and I was on an airplane traveling from one end of the country to another in the course of doing my job as a journalist. And then the next thing I saw was colleagues and friends suggesting over email and private conversation services to “Don’t engage.”

“It will only attract more hate,” they said, and they were right. One or two even suggested that speaking out against this kind of hateful writing would reflect poorly on me professionally, and possibly create a backlash against my colleagues and the website as a whole. And as much as I would like to think this type of thinking is cowardice, it isn’t. It’s just common sense, earned the hard way from making a living by writing on the internet.

“Don’t engage.”

Because when you write for a large media entity you are seen as the “big man” and the people who throw slings and arrows, even if they are hateful and wrong, are “little men.” If you use your position of perceived power to attack them, even to defend yourself, you are excoriated. And this is not conjecture. It has happened over and over. There is no way to win, it is believed, except to “Don’t engage.” It’s enough to drive you insane.

And yet, in this instance, there’s more, and it goes back to why I was on that plane in the first place.

**

On that airplane, between one city and the next, I was preparing to conduct interviews in the course of reporting on a story. And the types of stories I generally write are deeply personal stories about what motivates the people who create video games. It’s, perhaps, a silly job, but I’m good at it. I sit for hours on end with people who have better things to do so that they can tell me things about their lives or themselves that I will then write about. This involves a great deal of patience, honesty and the ability to win trust from people who have no reason to trust me other than from my reputation. And that reputation is exactly what “George” attacked with his despicable screed.

Here’s what “George” wrote about me, in full:

Pitts, Russ: Polygon’s current features editor (and former editor-in-chief of The Escapist) can’t go very long without using the words “girls becoming women” in articles ostensibly about video games. And yes, he looks exactly like you’d expect after reading that sentence – you wouldn’t want to see him loitering outside a public restroom while your wife/girlfriend/daughter was occupying it.

There’s also a picture, probably lifted from my LinkedIn page. It’s an old photo of me wearing a brown blazer, with my arms folded. I’m not sure what it is about the picture that suggests “sexual predator,” but the rest of the evidence on which “George” is basing their vague suggestion that I’m a sexual predator is an essay I wrote recently about the video game Gone Home. The game is a narrative exploration of a young girl’s family life and focuses primarily on her younger sister’s sexual awakening. It explores themes of homosexuality, teenage angst, love, friendship, family and — in a section focusing on the girl’s parents — addresses the struggles one endures throughout all stages of life in attempting to reconcile one’s self with the world and the people in it. It is — however you feel about it as a game, or its subject matter — an experience that attempts to raise deep emotions and ask meaningful questions. And I found it to be incredibly powerful.

Writing about video game makers is not my first or even second career. Just before starting down this road, I was an educator. I worked for a number of educational institutions over the span of several years, including one college that was for women only. During my time as an educator at this institution, I met many young women like the one portrayed in the video game Gone Home. As one does as an educator, I not only taught them, but also listened to their fears and helped guide them through the exhausting process of becoming an adult. I hope I helped make them better people as well as better-educated people, and I consider it an honor and a privilege to have been given the opportunity to try.

If the institutions where I worked didn’t trust me to instruct those women, or their parents didn’t trust that they would be safe within the walls of those institutions, or the women themselves didn’t trust that I wouldn’t take advantage of them, then my experiences in education would have been dramatically different. I have never, in any way, shape or form betrayed the trust placed in me by my students, their families or my employers. Not one single time. Not in any conceivable way. Ever. So when I read this thing about me, on that plane, you can imagine my emotions.

Someone with no evidence or first-hand knowledge of me or my career simply chose — for reasons one can hardly imagine — to suggest I was somehow perverted for caring about young women (and for wearing a brown blazer). They then published this defamatory statement on the internet and left it there for anyone to see, link to or share. And they probably felt safe in doing so because we, those of us who write on the internet for money, “Don’t engage.” Just as my colleagues counseled I should do here.

This time, however, in spite of my colleagues’s suggestions, I decided to examine one more course of action before letting the matter lie. I spoke next with the legal folks at my place of employment, who are not only fantastic legal minds, but also good people. I consider them friends. They have routinely asked me to bring things like this to their attention, and I usually don’t, because engaging with online vitriol by filing a lawsuit is even more potentially disastrous than simply responding to it with words. Because, in the minds of many, if you can afford a lawyer, then you are most decidedly “the big man” squashing the “little man.” Hatred and vitriol follow, even if you are in the right and filing a lawsuit is the only reasonable course of action. Again, insanity.

In this instance, I believed the potential damage to my life and career from “George’s” defamatory statements warranted pursuing legal action in spite of the potential backlash of negative publicity. I discussed with the legal team at Vox the possibility that this thing written about me on the internet might have a broad effect on my career. And they took it seriously, not just from a legal perspective but as a thing that had caused me personal grief. Their support has been remarkable.

The problem with “George’s” accusations are that they could extend beyond my current work in games media to impact work I have done in the past and other, unrelated work I am currently doing outside of my day job at Polygon. In addition to my work history as an educator and my current employment as a journalist, I am also engaged in charitable work in the mental wellness field as founder and President of TakeThis.org. This is another area where trustworthiness is especially prized, and where despicable lies, however unbelievable to some, might nevertheless gain traction with others.

You may know me or know of me. You might therefore be able to suss that the words written about me by “George” are spurious. You may even know the video game community well enough to disregard such musings as the rantings of someone with a grudge and very little factual information. But not everyone is blessed with such perspective.

In the course of my charitable work and in the field where I was once employed (and might be again, who knows?) there are plenty of people with none of that perspective who might read this thing “George” wrote. If just one person who might have sought help from Take This decides to not trust me with their concerns, one potential donor decides to not give money or one mother of a potential student decides to not send her daughter to a school where I have been or might be employed, then I could not only find myself unable to work, but my charity could be forced to shut down and the many things I have worked for years to help build could all be gone — just like that — damaging not just me, but many other people besides. All because someone wrote a thing.

Yes, words have power.

In the words of the legal profession, this is what is called “irreparable harm.” And in the legal world those words are cause for war.

Yet … I will not be going to legal war.

I do believe that I can make a clear case for defamation. The statements by “George” are false and could have a real and meaningful impact on my career and livelihood. If I filed this case and won, “George’s” words would be forced offline and he might be forced to pay damages, which I would then donate to a charitable cause against cyberbullying, or women’s issues or something representing the opposite of his hateful views. This is a path I seriously contemplated and discussed with actual lawyers. For days.

But I’m not going to do it, and here’s why: People need to know this is a thing that can happen.

I need to tell you that this is a thing that can happen. Someone writing anonymously on the internet can literally make things up about your character and “print” them, and then those lies will be spread via social media to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people. And attempting to respond to those types of allegations will bring abuse directed at you and those you love. This happens. It happens all the time. More than you know. And no one tells you this happens because … “Don’t engage.”

If I filed a lawsuit against “George” over this matter, my ability to discuss what’s happening here would be severely impeded, perhaps forever. I’d never get a chance to tell you how deeply this has affected me, how common it actually is and why it should not be tolerated. And to me, being able to spread this message is more important that winning a court case.

Who knows? Maybe going to war in the court would be more profitable or even safe, but it’s more important to me to try and use whatever position or authority I have to attempt to change the environment of ignorance and the culture of fear that allows this sort of nuisance behavior to perpetuate. Because we are better than this. We are better than “George.” And I will not abide theirs being the only voice heard.

**

The truth is that this article taking aim at me is not really about me, it’s about “George.” And it’s not even, really, about them, but about the idea that words about video games that create feelings are somehow perverse. And, if we’re being absolutely honest with ourselves, it’s not really about that either. It’s about men who are nervous about “women.”

Look even more carefully at “George’s” accusation against me. He writes that I “can’t go very long without using the words ‘girls becoming women’ in articles ostensibly about video games.”

He writes this with no other context but my own words on the subject, citing two articles I’ve written in which I addressed the subject of girls becoming women. That’s two articles out of the thousands of other articles I’ve written on hundreds of other topics. Two out of thousands. Setting aside for the moment that two articles out of thousands is, in fact, very long without broaching the subject, what “George” is attempting to shame me for is addressing a topic of great interest to — at the very least —approximately one half of all of humanity. As if the topic of girls growing up and becoming adults is somehow in itself perverse and discussing it is objectionable. And this from a person who seems to feel no compunction about writing things like:

Deification of casual and smartphone gaming over the past several years entirely stems from the gaming journalist’s inability to hit on girls.

Going pro may seem like a fantasy come true, but like the high school cheer captain who became a porn starlet, you’ll be sick to death of the whole enterprise by your third gored anus.

Ending one’s own life is the most personal of decisions, and as such, I’m not saying you should do it… I’m just saying that carbon monoxide is effective and painless …

Will girls really touch my penis if I get indignant about boobplate armor and high heels on female characters in fighting games?

The language, tone and opinions belie a lack of maturity and emotional sophistication that, in person would be merely objectionable, but from someone writing words in a public space that others are reading and responding to is frankly dangerous. It is as if the writer of this thing is viewing the world through their own lens of perversion and painting everything they see with the resulting illusion. Accusations of perversion from this source are as preposterous as they are vile. The idea that they may accuse me of perversion by providing no other evidence but to link to the articles in which I raise the topic of female sexuality would be infinitely sad even to contemplate merely as a theoretical possibility. The fact that it actually happens is surpassingly horrible.

**

Here’s what’s really happening here, and why people like “George” respond to articles like mine with virility and venom: There is an epidemic of hatred against women on the internet, and not just in gaming communities. But that itself is but a symptom of a larger schizophrenia regarding sexuality of any kind on the internet, and here especially in games. In a medium that is often highly sexualized, frank discussions of the impact or cause of that sexualization are shouted down in anger by people like “George,” and those who attempt to discuss it are abused. Many women, in fact, merely for sake of being women, are treated to abuse when writing about anything at all. As if the mere act of having an opinion and female sexual organs is itself somehow offensive.

I’ve witnessed this first-hand. I’ve been a working editor for eight years, and in that time I’ve worked with over 400 writers and content creators. Of that number, less than 10% have been women. And those less-than-10% have been the recipients of more than 90% of the hateful emails and threats of violence I have witnessed in my career. And my experiences in this regard are not unique; those numbers are accurate according to everyone I’ve spoken to in similar positions across the field.

Think about those numbers.

A fraction of the people working in this field are receiving the vast majority of sexually-motivated abuse. The only thing they have in common is their gender. And when male writers receive similar abuse it is almost entirely due to having addressed the topic of female sexuality. This is obscene.

And it gets worse.

My wife is also an online journalist. She has also received hate mails, death threats and painstakingly crafted dissertations on how much some person she has never met (always male) might enjoy raping and/or killing her. Sometimes these people go on to try and find us where we live, causing us some concern over our personal safety. In our line of work it is not outlandish to contemplate someone attempting to find us in the real world in order to do us some harm over what we may have written in the digital world, and yet when we describe this situation to people who do not write about video games on the internet, the response is almost universally shock, alarm and/or disbelief. Yet this continual threat of abuse and violence is, in fact, relatively unremarkable in games media. We take it for granted, and that thought alone should give us all some pause.

And it gets still worse.

In addition to working in a community in which anonymous people generally feel it’s safe to write anything about anyone and regularly abuse women and those who would write about women, this is also a community with aggressive tendencies against those perceived to be perverts or pedophiles. People who are accused (rightly or wrongly) of being perverts are digitally hunted and abused by vigilante mobs.

**

The internet, this great and wonderful thing, has blossomed over the past decade into a haven of ignorance where not only are all voices not given equal weight, but those who speak the most belligerently are heard most distinctly. It has morphed from a utopian ideal of democratized creativity into a Nietzschean horror show governed by thugs. And the best defense we can imagine is “Don’t engage.”

No, I’m sorry, but fuck that, I’m engaging.

We — all of us — should be ashamed for saying nothing. “George” and those like them are ignorant bullies. They are degenerate creeps and we are letting them run the show. It’s time that came to an end. We are better than this. We are better than silence.

And so I say to people like “George”: No. Bad.

You do not get to anonymously write hateful things and have them stand alone.

You do not get to threaten my reputation and not be held accountable.

You do not get to abuse the people I care about and expect me to stand idly by.

You will be addressed when you do wrong, because I have had enough of this bullshit.

And if you can’t deal with that, then “Don’t engage” me.