Game developers get abusive, threatening messages from players all the time, and some high-profile games have even become notorious for “toxic” communities. Recently, one studio responded to a death threat in a unique way. Instead of ignoring the comment or harshly punishing the player, the development team decided to prank him instead.
Battalion 1944 is a competitive first-person shooter game released in April by Bulkhead Interactive that pits five players against five opponents in a WWII-era battle. While relatively new and small in scale, Battalion already has a competitive scene with pro players. The game’s first big tournament took place back in April, and Endpoint, the team that took first place, won €5,000 as well as five special skins that will change the appearance of in-game objects, such as guns. Bulkhead Interactive moved slowly on delivering the skins; the winning players still don’t have them. And so one of the team members, who goes by SUSPC7, went on Discord to complain about the situation by threatening to shoot up the studio, even referencing the April shooting at YouTube where multiple people were injured.
“I asked the dev team about our skins and when we would receive them, [and] they just pushed my question to the side and didn’t answer it,” SUSPC7 told The Verge. He says that after someone posted about the threatening comment on Twitter, the developers became aware of what he said. “Obviously I was just trying to be funny and shouldn’t have used the YouTube shooting as an example of that, basically saying they might answer my question if I did the same, but it was all just a joke that got blown out of proportion.”
On the internet, where irony and detachment reign supreme, toxic behavior is often hand-waved away with excuses like “it wasn’t serious” or “I was only joking.” While that may often be true, intentions aren’t the same as impact. This is especially true within the video game community, where even small changes to big games can beget death threats. Bulkhead Interactive and SUSPC7 are based in the UK, but in America, mass shootings have become regular occurrences, and threats of gun violence are more plausible and frightening than ever.
After the incident, studio lead Joe Brammer decided to pen a heartfelt message to SUSPC7 that the player recently shared on Twitter.
“So a few months ago, I think you remember, you threatened that if we didn’t get your skins to you soon you’d ‘shoot up the studio,’” Brammer began. “It was really disappointing to see one of the best players in our foundation of the community, one of the winners of the first tournament take this attitude toward the developers. We are not a faceless Valve-esq studio who can choose to remain silent for reasons like this, we chose to expose our personal lives and show players that we’re people who care about FPS games.”
Brammer went on to say that he knew SUSPC7 wasn’t being serious, but that the studio wouldn’t tolerate that kind of behavior. “You claimed, ‘It was just a joke.’ I fail to see anything funny about threatening to ‘shoot up a studio’. So I thought I’d teach you a lesson about comedy.”
Instead of giving SUSPC7 a golden skin, as originally promised, or rescinding his prize because of his behavior, Brammer and Bulkhead Interactive decided it would be more instructive to substitute a different award for him: a gun with a giant penis on it. The dick won’t be visible to other players, only to SUSPC7 himself.
“I thought you were kind of being a dick?” Brammer said. “Wouldn’t you agree?”
While many game development studios deal with toxic and extreme behavior, teams tend to deal with the problem in different ways. For example, Riot Games, the makers of League of Legends, have built a complex feedback system for players that identify negative behavior in an attempt to reform it. Similarly, Brammer explained that the development studio thought reprimanding dedicated players like SUSPC7 too harshly would be counterproductive to building a good community around the game.
”You’re young and I personally want you to have a great career in esports,” Brammer told SUSPC7. “Bulkhead needs dedicated players like yourself to be an ambassador for Battalion 1944 and those people will be taken care of by our studio… I hope you find this funny and practice hard over the next few months to take first place in the Blitzkrieg Major in Amsterdam, where if you qualify, I’d happily buy you a drink,” Brammer said.
SUSPC7 says he doesn’t have the skin yet. The image was only a preview sent by Brammer, who personally drew the wang. But, SUSPC7 says, the relationship between him and Bulkhead Interactive has since improved. Brammer did not respond to a request for comment by press time, but he did personally retweet SUSPC7’s message on Twitter.
Bulkhead Interactive’s approach here is a curious one when considered in the wider gaming landscape. Some developers choose to shame their players for things like cheating, while other companies pair up fans who break the rules, so they only play with each other. More often than not, though, many games opt for short- and long-term bans for players, depending on what they say or do. It all depends on the game, the people and types of toxicity involved, and the culture and size of the community.
Katherine Lo, an online harassment researcher at the University of California Irvine, says it’s important to remember that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to threats and harassment — and that in many cases, this may not be the right one. “I worry that the message being projected here is that this is the ideal way to handle threats, or that no threat should be interpreted as genuine. In many cases that’s not a viable option,” says Lo.
Nor is it always the most effective approach. Although there are some instances where responding individually with empathy or levity can help change behavior for the better, that isn’t scalable to large volumes of abuse — and it can also reinforce negative behavior, particularly if the person making the threat is looking for attention or a reaction. “The norm we see again and again online is that the way to be seen is to be inflammatory,” says Lo. “When people who are playing a game don’t like it, they harass the developers in the forums as a form of exercising power or to get them to do what they want… You don’t want to validate threats of violence as an option for being heard.”
While this may have taken place in a smaller Discord channel where everyone understood the threat as a joke, that’s not something most people can safely presume. “Even if 99 percent of [threats] are not serious, if one person is being serious, the consequences can literally be fatal. And you’re putting the burden on the recipient to determine if it’s credible or not. That’s a dangerous precedent to set for internet social norms,” says Lo. So is encouraging people “to engage with stalkers or harassers or respond with levity to people threatening to kill them,” which can place a terrible burden on those being targeted.
Combining a serious response with a lighthearted joke may have worked for Bulkhead Interactive in this situation, says Lo, but context is crucial. “We can acknowledge that this [approach] can be effective but also have to acknowledge all the risks and complications in taking that kind of approach — all the circumstances in which it isn’t feasible and could be dangerous.”
In this specific instance, all parties involved seem happy with the resolution. “Thinking about it, I wouldn’t do it again, just have to be more professional in [the] future,” SUSPC7 said.
Additional reporting by Laura Hudson.
Correction 6/7/2018 12:15 PM ET: Three people were shot in the April shooting at YouTube, not killed.