Game Developer Harassment: Can You Sue? Is It Worth It?

faceless figure in front of a target to represent game developer harassment
Online harassment of developers is at an all-time high. Can they sue their detractors? Is it worth it?

This summer, Polygon published an article by Brian Crecente about the escalation of game developer harassment.

In the piece, Adam Orth, Stephen Toulouse, and David Vanderhaar shared their stories. Orth had the unpleasant task of tweeting about Microsoft Studios’ “always-online” consoles; unhappy players pelted him with death threats. Toulouse, who left his position as Xbox Live’s head of policy and enforcement, said he still gets messages like, “I am going to kill you and I’m going to find you and destroy you;” he was swatted. And like his colleagues, Vanderhaar, drew the short straw and had to announce a few minor changes on Call of Duty: Black Ops 2; upset players flooded him with violent threats.

Why Is Developer Harassment On The Rise?

Co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, Sameer Hinduja, explained, “when individuals are online they are sort of separated from their conscience and from social conventions and morals and norms and even the law, and they feel a little bit more free to say what they want to say. It’s almost like we’re reverting to our primitive tendencies where we didn’t know rules of social decorum and so forth.”

Or to put it another way: Back in the day, when Atari ruled, you could complain to neighbor Bobby about level three of Adventure, but Bobby and the other block kids were probably your entire sphere of influence. The chances of you connecting with the developer were between slim and none.

But these days, an overwrought diatribe is a finger click away. And in some regards, development teams aren’t seen as people, but as the game itself. The phenomenon is akin to cursing out a lawn mower when it’s not cooperating.

When asked about the rise of developer harassment, Nathan Fisk, a lecturer at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, opined, “I think fans harass developers for a range of reasons, but again, it is always about power and position. Game developers are in many ways becoming public figures as they openly interact with gaming communities and social networking technologies have made making contact a simple process.” Fisk also believes gamers are dealing with some legitimate “industry trends which are genuinely manipulative and restrictive,” but he cautions it’s not an excuse.

The phenomenon is akin to cursing out your lawn mower when it’s not cooperating.

Can A Game or Software Developer Sue A Fan or Critic?

video-game-lawyerAll this talk about developer harassment got us thinking: Should game staffers take legal action against trash-talking fans? Does the reward outweigh the risk? Can software developers win lawsuits against overzealous, threatening fans? What charges could the victimized developer claim if he or she sued?

Threats of Death or Bodily Harm – It’s never legally acceptable to threaten bodily harm. Stalking and threatening a developer is against the law. If you’re a victim, simply walk into a police station and start talking.

Defamation – If someone makes a false statement of fact about a developer, said developer could sue for libel. To win, however, he or she would have to prove that the statement caused material harm, that the defendant acted with (at least) reckless disregard for the truth, and that more than one person saw the statement in question. In other words, the lie must be published on a public forum, like Twitter, and it must cause material harm for the developer.

Infliction of Emotional Distress – If you’re hounding developers they could go after you for either intentional infliction of emotional distress or negligent infliction of emotional distress. Commonly known as the tort of outrage, emotional distress actions can be hard to win, but blatant threats of bodily harm or death do prevail.

Criminal Stalking Charges – Another available legal option is criminal stalking charges, but only if the perpetrator is constantly on the hunt.

Is Suing Over Developer Harassment Worth It?

Should I sue for defamation?
Should developers sue for defamation?

We’ve established that developers can take legal action against detractors. Next question: Is it wise to sue?

In the Polygon article, Jennifer Helper, a former BioWare narrative designer admitted that harassment can be tough, especially when users lobbed death threats at her kids over the storyline of Dragon Age II. However, Helper was quick to point out the positive flip side: the copious amounts of support she gets from fans.

Ask yourself: Will the lawsuit be a waste of money, or will it help? Only you can answer that question. Sometimes, some people just need to be shut down with a lawsuit. Other times, they just need to be ignored.

A Game Developer Harassment Support Group May Be On The Way

The emotional impact harassment is tough to handle alone. Therefore, the International Game Developers Association is looking to establish a support group for victimized parties. Kate Edwards, a spokesperson, explained, “It’s gotten onto our radar. We’re getting to a point where we’re thinking, ‘Yeah, it’s becoming something we’re going to need to talk about.’ It might be a more explicit support group or mechanism to help people who are dealing with this sort of thing.”

Do you have legal questions about developer harassment? Set up a confidential consultation with Kelly Warner Law today.

Yes, I Want to Speak with Someone about an Internet Law Issue »