Understanding the Psychology of Targeted Cancellations and Boycotts in Gaming

In early January, the hype and discussion around the impending release of Hogwarts Legacy was reaching its peak. Thousands of articles had been written from both viewpoints on the issue. A huge effort to have potential purchasers boycott the game was showing stress fractures as pre-orders for the game accumulated across digital storefronts. Then an incident occurred that served to further polarize both sides and bring the heated discussion around the game even further into the mainstream.

Internet personality Purple Tinker took to Twitter to attack a community manager for physical games publisher Limited Run Games (LRG), Kara Lynne, in the wake of her tweeting out her excitement for Hogwarts Legacy. Tinker accused Lynne of being a “transphobe”, pointing out tweets from Lynne’s past that referenced the trans bathroom issue, and also said she followed many right-wing Twitter accounts. Tinker threatened that they would never spend another dime with them if LRG didn’t fire Lynne immediately. 

Later that same day, LRG announced on Twitter that they had fired an employee after an investigation into an issue. Kara Lynne was not explicitly named, but it didn’t take long for her to tweet out confirmation that she had indeed been fired. Purple Tinker again took to Twitter and was apparently unsatisfied, stating that they would be requesting a refund for their entire set of pre-orders with LRG. 

This whole saga had me thinking about the seemingly growing trend toward targeted cancellations and attempted boycotts of people, companies, and games in the video game industry. And just as I did with toxicity in gaming, I turned to my friend, licensed family therapist Shawn Riker, to understand the psychological underpinnings of this trend. His answers, as always, are illuminating.

What do you think is going on in the mind of someone who would target another individual with the intent of removing them from their job, denying them an opportunity to make a living, and effectively doing things that could ruin their life? Why does the idea that they could make themselves a target not seem to be a deterrent?

I’ll address the deterrent part first. The current momentum of the culture clearly favors One side. Think of it in the same way as momentum shifting in a football game. If a team feels like they just got a turnover and the tide is turning in their favor. They would probably be more likely to take chances on offense. Our society has not yet reached a point where backlash has made a target out of people targeting others for their lack of social justice, involvement or “Wokeness.”

Regarding why someone would target somebody and cause them to lose their job, I believe a large number of people think that by doing this they are taking part in some kind of greater good. Psychologically, it’s how they find purpose in life. As people, we all long to be part of something bigger than ourselves. Unfortunately, this targeting of other people is how some people are choosing to find a larger purpose. Problematically, this mindset also precludes the person from achieving any real personal growth or introspection. This could be used to explain a number of problems our society is facing, including the anxiety and loneliness pandemic.

Some companies cave to the pressure from various parties when situations like these arise, removing employees or changing things in their games, etc. Some stand firm in the face of that pressure and defend their people. What do you think is behind the different responses and the tipping point between them? 

I think different people have different tolerance levels for confrontation. I’m not sure it’s much more complicated than that. I’m sure fear also plays a factor. How easily intimidated somebody is and how scared of losing money they are. One thing seems certain, there is no appeasing everybody.

In the Limited Run Games scenario, even after the firing of their employee, the company was still attacked online, from people on both sides of the issue instead of just the original attacker, seemingly making the situation worse instead of better. Why do we not see more companies standing with their people when they know this is potentially the outcome? Why is the fear of the outrage on social media so strong that they would fire someone they presumably vetted and approved of when they were hired? 

I’ll preface this by saying I can’t say for sure, but here is my take. I think the vast majority of evidence points to the reality that online opinions and pressure can create a hell storm for individuals and companies. No one wants to be accused of being a racist, bigot, or transphobic. I think I mentioned this before, but perception is reality and a lie makes it halfway around the world before the truth gets out of bed. Most companies and individuals would simply like to practice their craft and pour energy into their passions. Many of them probably do not have the money or resources to push back against mis-truths or false perceptions, so they give into the demands hoping it will just go away. As time goes on, we could see a change here. At some point, outrage loses its effectiveness.

When it is a game is targeted, that game often does better and sees more sales and more attention than it would have otherwise. This happens so often, industry people joke that some developers court controversy on purpose to help their games be more successful. Why do you think boycotts are still practiced if this is a possible or even likely outcome? And as a follow-on, what drives people to want to buy, play or even just support a game that goes through this kind of attack?

Really good question. I definitely do not think the individuals targeting these people or companies expect or want this outcome. The fact that games that have controversy have higher sales indicates a cultural backlash. I think it’s just an us/them game being played out in a different arena. For example, remember a few years ago when Chick-Fil-A was getting all that negative press about their moral stances on cultural issues? This drove people sympathetic to Chick-Fil-A’s position to frequent Chick-Fil-A far more than they ever have, or maybe even for the first time. The same thing happened on the opposite side with the Target bathroom controversy a few years ago. I’m really not sure that increased business for these places translates into support; people simply see it as a battlefield, and show up. Does that make sense? Why people haven’t realized that boycotts have the opposite of their intention is probably due to the fact that culturally and societally we are like impetuous teenagers.

These targeted cancellations and attacks are really nothing more than cyber-bullying. With the huge amount of effort, money, and time that goes into the fight against these tactics when it comes to kids and school, why does there seem to be no outrage or speaking out about these attacks?

Can I answer this in two words… I think so: politics and money

I did not pursue a follow-up on this point, but I can expound a bit on what Mr. Riker is getting at here. In America, it is often true that things only happen when there is the political will to act upon them, and when large sums of money stand to be either gained or lost. With a subject like cyber-bullying, it is politically advantageous for politicians to be seen as supportive of protecting children, so it is an issue that gets airtime and action in the halls of Congress. Adults attacking each other are likely seen as not needing protection, and thus there is no advantage to be gained from making an issue of it. As for money, while the gaming industry is now worth hundreds of billions annually, individual people or games being targeted and canceled don’t move the needle on a national or global scale, so the impetus to act is simply not there. 

One recurring theme in these attacks is that the views that lead to these people being attacked are often from the past, several years prior in some cases. Why does the idea that people can grow, that their ideas can change from their learning and experiences, that their beliefs can evolve, not seem to enter the picture? 

This is a fantastic point. It’s an absolute tragedy that we are not allowing this possibility as a society. People evolving and changing is a historical fact and an absolute necessity. Societally and politically we seem to be caught in this death spiral where controversy, tribalism, and differences drive popularity and money. It doesn’t gain power or money to allow people this grace. This is not something that is going to change from the top down. This starts with individual conversations; how each of us conducts our lives. Here are some practical ways this can happen.

* If you are aggravated by your partner, don’t have a bitch fest with your friends, try to learn from your partner’s perspective.
* Be flexible with your children, help empower their processes.
* Intentionally dedicate some time out of every week to interact with people, even people you don’t know yet. If we are going to make any progress on this, we have to SEE people outside of the lens of Zoom, FaceTime, or social media. The unspoken energy between two people, and how that plays into understanding, is not only underrated, but unacknowledged.

I’d like to express my gratitude to our expert, Mr. Shawn Riker, for answering the myriad questions I posed to him and being our source for our attempts to gain an understanding of what underlies the trend of targeted attacks and attempted boycotts in the games industry.

By Bryan Finck

I've been gaming since my Dad handed me an Atari 2600 controller in the early 80's. I've been a PC Gamer since CGA graphics were a thing (ask your parents), and a PlayStation lifer since 1997. Currently addicted to No Man's Sky on PS5, Dead Cells on PC, and working my way through Xbox classics on PC Game Pass!

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