Why I Stopped Writing on the Internet (for a while)

Three and a half years ago, I was still in college. At the time, my friend Kent and I ran a blog about videogames. We had an absolute blast, but we weren’t really interested in taking it any further. Sometime in 2010, however, I almost completely lost my will to put my writing on the internet. This contributed to the fact that I haven’t posted anything on that blog in almost 2 years.

Let’s start at the beginning: I started playing The Witcher. I was unimpressed with it. I’d heard that it was the Jesus of modern western RPGs, but it turns out that modern western RPGs do not have a Jesus, and although The Witcher is pretty good, its story is not super compelling to me. The parts that I played had a rather shallow and childish emotional range– and they reminded me very strongly of other Bioware/Bioware-esque games where I’d been disappointed by the story’s emotional range. I wrote a very haphazard article about all this in a few hours, ran it through the Kent Filter (it passed with flying colors, by the way), and posted it on the site. (You won’t find it. I’ve since deleted it.)

Shortly after the article came online, someone linked to it in a general-interest RPG fan forum. I don’t know who this person was, but if I ever meet them in public, I am kicking them in the nuts they probably have. This person posted that I was a “bitch” who had a “PhD” and suggested that I was performing an uninformed hit-job on RPGs in general. They also steered the discussion towards the fact that I’d offhandedly given FFVII the thumbs-up for showing its protagonist vulnerable and crying onscreen (something western RPGs rarely do). If you know anything about the way western RPG fans talk about JRPGs, you can guess what kind of effect that had.

The post was very obviously an attempt to set me up for trolling and online harassment. It was abundantly clear on our website that I do not have a PhD, that I don’t frequently play or discuss mainstream JRPGs, and that I don’t hate Bioware games. The person who said those things wasn’t interested in talking about my article with anyone; he was hoping to rile his readers into seeing me as a fair-game target for the community’s vitriol. And it worked! Our site was filled with people calling me a cunt. Even more people were calling me a cunt on that forum.

Kent did most of the damage control. I, meanwhile, slowly stopped writing. I stopped reading the comments. I even stopped playing The Witcher. (I still haven’t finished it. Every time I pick it up, I remember this whole thing and get so goddamn angry I can’t think.) And I started questioning the very reason I was putting my work on the internet at all.

When Kent and I started that site, we wanted to write thoughtful essays with vague academic overtones for a general audience. Shortly after the Witcher debacle, I had an email conversation with another games writer about whether it was possible to have real, meaningful conversations with ordinary people about games on the internet. I determined that it was not, and that it was not worth it, because that audience of “ordinary people” contained a substantial portion of assholes, and I didn’t feel like writing for assholes.

Complete openness is good for some things. It is good for shooting the shit with friends, maybe. It is not good for discussing complex or sensitive topics with strangers, or for talking about privilege and prejudice, or for starting conversations which kill sacred cows. This Witcher shit helped me realize that I did not want to write in an open environment anymore. I wanted civilizing rules! So I did a 180 and refocused entirely on my writing for school. In school– and in face-to-face conversation with my friends and people I respect– people are not allowed to call me a cunt just because they disagree with me.

The change was refreshing. It took me a good nine months to completely stop writing on the internet, but after I did, I got a ton of really valuable, edifying stuff done. Here is a total list of the things I accomplished in academia and the “real world” during the next two years after I stopped putting my writing on the internet:

  1. I wrote the story for and helped design two different week-long sessions of an ARG that had several hundred participants
  2. I wrote a 280-page novel for my senior thesis, which won the largest departmental prize in my entire Creative Writing department
  3. I wrote a thirty-page paper on English-language Catholic bibles and completed my History degree
  4. I graduated from college
  5. I got a full-time job writing computer game stories
  6. I moved all the way across the entire United States
  7. I participated in game jams and made projects that make me smile. I also once got to work on a team with IF writers I respect
  8. I learned four different interactive fiction authoring systems
  9. I learned how to live on my own like an adult
  10. I signed a lease???
  11. I and my friends made a website that randomly generates conspiracy theories
  12. I learned how to enjoy videogames again without feeling as though I must write about them

Kent has also achieved things in life since we stopped writing on the internet. We are each so busy achieving things that we do not have time to write all the time, for zero dollars, about games on the internet anymore.

Our perspectives have also changed. Whenever I look at my old articles, I feel as if I am watching a space alien try to communicate to me. Many of our ideas boiled down to, “Why can’t games be perfect?!?” I now know several answers to that question, and all of them are a bit disappointing. It’s hard for games to be perfect. It’s particularly hard for games to be my kind of “perfect” when they are aimed at a “general audience” and cost many millions of dollars to make.

Over time, I have gradually regained the desire to write on the internet, but not in the way I used to. I no longer go around ranching and slaughtering sacred cows. It’s not that I don’t have opinions anymore; it’s that I no longer feel the internet is the best place to share all of them. I admire and respect people who put up with the audience’s bullshit, but during my hiatus, I felt like the problem at hand was so big, cruel, sexist, and messed-up that breaking myself against it wasn’t productive. I could do better for myself in environments where people didn’t call me a cunt all the time. I only have so much time to live my life, and I’d rather spend it making cool things for kind and grateful people.

If the vocal audience served by the average games media outlet represented the IRL standard for humans to behave toward one another, society would be an unbelievably fucked-up mess. Luckily, there are better environments and people in the world, and if you’re at the end of your wits, seeking them out is definitely worth it. And, as I’ve come to learn, some of those people are actually hiding out on the internet, too.

The name of the town

There isn’t really such a thing as “Ivy League culture,” but there are a few mannerisms that many students at Ivy League colleges do share. Most of them (that I can think of) have to do with how these kids admit and talk about their class or privilege to other people.

For example, students at Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth will sometimes refuse to actually state that they went to those schools. When asked where they went to college, they’ll say the name of the state or town instead. Harvard students will say “Oh, in Boston,” or “in Cambridge.” Yale students say “New Haven” or “Connecticut.” Dartmouth students usually only way, “Oh, uh, in New Hampshire.” They rarely say “Hanover, New Hampshire,” because nobody knows that Hanover exists.

When I was at Dartmouth, I said “New Hampshire” a lot. (I still do, sometimes.) When you tell someone you went to an Ivy League school, weird shit can happen. It can make them behave differently and can make you feel like an asshole for admitting it, even if the other person brought it up. It can make people treat you like an outsider or a jerk even if you haven’t done any of your classic jerk things yet. In my case, I mostly used “New Hampshire” because I didn’t want to intimidate people or make them think I was waving my privilege in their faces.

But I’ve wondered for a while if it’s really just embarrassment or humility that drives most people to use these code words. It’s not really humility when a Harvard student gets specific enough to say “Cambridge,” or when a Yale student says “New Haven.” If you are familiar with either of those schools, you’ll know that there aren’t really many other schools in Cambridge or New Haven to get them confused with. No, when someone gets specific enough to say “Cambridge” or “New Haven” (or if a Dartmouth student gets the incredibly dumb urge to say “Hanover”, as I’ve seen happen a few times, in trainwreck-style slow motion), those people are probably going out of their way to wave their privilege in your face. They’re basically initiating a secret handshake with you. The way you respond to “Cambridge” or “New Haven” reveals an enormous amount about you and your background, and gives the speaker a lot of clues about how to behave toward you in the coming conversation.

  1. If you respond quickly and levelly or approvingly with the phrase, “Oh, Yale/Harvard?”, then the speaker knows that you are part of their millieu: regardless of whether or not you went to Yale/Harvard yourself, you are signalling that you “know about” east coast private schools, that you are comfortable talking about those places and comfortable working with the people who went there, and that you probably respect the fact that they went there. You’re probably upper middle or upper class (or grew up in one of those classes). The speaker now knows that they can talk about upper middle or upper class things with you. People from privileged places are frequently worried about letting their privilege show; if you know that “Cambridge” is a code word for “Harvard,” and if the way you say it shows that you’re also “part of that world,’ then the speaker knows they can let their privilege all hang out, so to speak.
  2. If you make a face, look panicked or nervous, or say “Wait, Harvard?!” or “You mean Yale?!?”, then the speaker knows that you’re aware of the world of east coast academic privilege, but it makes you anxious, and that you don’t feel like you’re “part of it.” Now they know to either a) say something self-deprecating, and try to make you feel like they’re on your “level,” or b) lord it over you somehow.
  3. If you have no idea what they’re talking about, and respond something like “Wait, where?” or just cross your eyes and look confused, now the person knows that you are from a class or geographic background that has afforded you zero familiarity with the world of east coast privilege. Anyone from a poor midwesterner to a Stanford or Berkeley undergrad to a wealthy Texan businessperson could give this kind of response. The speaker now knows that you and they are from very different backgrounds; they’ll have to rely on other clues you give to figure out more about you.
  4. If you laugh broadly and bring up the fact that your football team beat theirs back in ’05, or whatever, then you’re giving off the strongest clue response of all: you’re saying, “HA HA, GOOD FELLOW, I’M AN IVY LEAGUE STUDENT TOO!” At this point, you and the speaker should clap each other on the backs and talk about Dartmouth beer pong, or various libraries at Yale, or how much Brown sucks, or something like that. Break out the monocles; it’s party time, or something.

Basically, the more specificity in the question-dodge, the more the speaker is trying to figure out about you– and, let’s be honest, the more likely it is they’re actually some kind of asshole.

If someone says “Massachusetts” or “Connecticut,” though, you can be sure that they’re merely trying to avoid giving an answer. There are too many schools in those states, both public and private, for either of them to really give much away. There are so many tiny, tiny schools in those states that it’s not unreasonable for someone to avoid giving their college’s name just so they could avoid the long “Which one is that?” talk.

This leads me broadly back to Dartmouth, and to people (like me) who often choose to say “New Hampshire” instead. The dumb thing about New Hampshire is that compared to Connecticut or Massachusetts, there are basically only a handful of colleges there, and very few of them are widely known– if you’re saying “New Hampshire,” the people you’re talking to are going to be sifting through that short list in their heads, and there’s a good chance that they’re going to narrow it down to basically just Keene State, UNH, and Dartmouth. There’s no reason for anyone who went to UNH or Keene State to be anything other than open about their attendance there, so in the end, those of us who say “New Hampshire” are probably just as inefficient at hiding our school as the people who say “Cambridge” and “New Haven.”

I deal with it by telling myself: “Well, at least you didn’t say Hanover, you asshole.”