written by Alastrom
Let’s face it, there are a ton of assholes on the internet. Yes, assholes. That’s the word I’m choosing to use here but we could just as easily say scumbags, slime-buckets, dirtballs, deviants, dicks or downright degenerates. There’s plenty of words to categorize the individual that we’re all thinking of and so many of those words would likely be a compliment to said individual. Today I’m going to focus on a specific breed of asshole, as it’s known by its scientific name, the common but elusive Gamerus Assholis Familiaris. We know they exist, we’ve experienced playing along side them. The question is not who are the assholes but instead, why are they assholes? I believe we find our answer in the works of Plato. Something I’m calling “The Modern Gyges.”
Gyges (guy-gees, if you’re having trouble with it) was a King of Lydia, founder of the Mermnad Dynasty and ruler of a vast military empire. By all accounts, he was also a bit of an asshole. In Glaucon’s retelling of the story he attributes the actions of Gyges to an unnamed ancestor but for the sake of simplicity we’ll focus on the man himself. So once upon a time a massive earthquake occurred in Lydia (the location, not the over willing housecarl from Skyrim.) After the earthquake, Gyges discovered that a crack had opened in the earth that contained the tomb of a giant. The giant possessed a ring that shrank down to the size of Gyges’ finger. When he put the ring on and turned it inward, his wonder twin powers activated and he became invisible to those around him. So naturally, Gyges did what all newly found invisible people did. He murdered the king and seduced the queen. Order not important.
So now Gyges is king and our tale ends. If you’ve noticed a serious lack of character arc, it’s because the story is used to illustrate another point. Simply summarized, the story suggests that when no one is enforcing the rules on us, we experience no desire to follow them. Without this confine of societal construct weighing down on us, we are free to be whatever sort of asshole we want. Socrates does argue against this point saying that someone who used such a ring would become a slave to their desires and unable to be truly free. The best comparison here is getting access to admin mode in a game like Minecraft or Conan Exiles. You may find that it’s difficult to resist using it once you’ve started. In fact, it’s very likely that once you have it you have little desire to play legitimately as those around you do. That being said, most of us don’t have access to a magical ring that turns us invisible at a moments notice. I gave mine to my nephew and he chucked it into a volcano, the ingrate. What we do have readily available is the internet and a keyboard. This is the modern Gyges in full effect.
The internet gives us a mask of concealment. You can be whomever you want to anyone you want. In online gaming, this often manifests in foul language and general bad behavior. It’s great if you enjoy being called ethnic slurs by a thirteen year old but doesn’t offer a whole lot of enjoyment for the rest of us. There’s a brilliant scene in the Sword Art Online anime when everyone is “revealed” as their actual self and two characters have a realization that the other isn’t who they claimed to be. This would have no doubt caused the two to behave differently towards one another and has the same effect on us. As an example, with the ring on you might be speaking with Emma, the twenty two year old gaming enthusiast who loves to heal and will always do her best. Take the ring off and you realize you were speaking with Earl, the forty seven year old man with male pattern baldness. Like the Gray Fox from The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, the Modern Gyges masks who we really are and with that mask, you are free to impose a non-existing person upon the world. Their crimes are not your own.
So if you can be anything you want, why be an asshole? I suspect it’s because that’s our true nature deep down inside. Games are the ultimate escape in our difficult society. Murder, theft and verbal assault are the least creative ways to express that anger and offer an instant gratification to those that perform them. Certainly, if those are the objectives of the game you should be encouraged to do them but I’m referring to the places where they happen outside of the confines of the game. You probably haven’t blown the lock off your neighbors door and run naked through their house while collecting random nick nacks but that’s just an average Tuesday for most Rust players. The game encourages that but there’s nothing that says you have to play that way. You’ll find when you play with friends, this same behavior (probably) becomes increasingly difficult. Your friends know you after all. They can hold you accountable.
Just last night, I was exploring the Sea of Thieves new content update with the crew. We decided to kill the Megaladon and rallied about 80% of the server to do so. At the end of our journey we all got together for a picture and swapped stories for a short time. The night grew late but the crew wanted to carry on with our adventures. We ended up changing servers because we knew we’d made friends here that we’d never see again. We knew that if it came to, we’d have to kill those friends and take their loot the second we left the island. To us, that idea was simply unbearable. I’d heard their stories and attached names to faces. These were no longer random pirates in an endless ocean, these were people I knew. Had I killed them and taken their loot, they’d have judged me harshly and the previous good times together would be ruined.
The Modern Gyges has a modern solution. Our names and avatars need to be an extension of who we are as players. My name, for example, is Alastrom. If you encounter that name in any online game there’s an overwhelming chance that you’ve found me. That name comes with it a number of obligations to my community. By using that name everywhere I go, I’ve said that I want my actions to belong to none other than myself. It doesn’t mean that I’m any less likely to enjoy a game to it’s fullest, instead it’s a promise that when you interact with me you’re not interacting with an invented mask. I believe everyone is entitled to their privacy but I would also caution against relying on it to behave differently online. Just as Glaucon suggested that the Ring of Gyges gave us the power to be free of social constructs, Plato suggested that it made you a slave to the whims of our darker desires. I fear for younger gamers who discover the Modern Gyges and grow up never knowing another way.