"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 they 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-favorite 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 offenses 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 offense 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 offense 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."
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 e-mail 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 CUNT WHORE XDDD.. I will kill u bitch with reddit army get ready bitch." That e-mail 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."
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 fucking 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.
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.
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 apologized 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 ostracized 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 assholes,'" 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."