Sam Killermann is a name I didn’t know a week ago. My introduction to him came totally at random, when I saw a re-tweet from a friend which linked to a website called “Gamers Against Bigotry” (gamersagainstbigotry.org). The tweet was about how the site had been defaced by hackers—and not knowing the site nor the story, I was curious.
The Gamers Against Bigotry website contains this pledge:
As a gamer, I realize I contribute to an incredibly diverse social network of gamers around the world, and that my actions have the ability to impact others. In effort to make a positive impact, and to create a community that is welcoming to all, I pledge to not use bigoted language while gaming, online and otherwise.
Bigoted language includes, but is not limited to, slurs based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and disability.
A seemingly innocent little website that encourages people to be nice to each other—and a site that was made by just some guy that could easily have come and gone in the history of the internet. Unfortunately, numerous recent examples have shown that a small minority of people in the gaming community don’t even want these topics being brought up—and are willing to prove that. So, I contacted Killermann, and had a lengthy discussion with him about what Gamers Against Bigotry was, how it had come to exist, and why it had been attacked.
EGM: So, before we really get into things, I’ll start with a tough question: Who is Sam Killermann?
Sam Killermann: Ha—something I’m still trying to figure out. I’ve recently taken to calling myself a social justice comedian, for lack of a better descriptor.
EGM: So are you an active comedian?
SK: Yep, it’s my main job. I perform at college campuses during the school year.
EGM: Are you one of those “nerd comic” types, is video games just a hobby for you, or did you somehow stumble into our strange subculture in some other fashion?
SK: Three questions in one—I’m impressed. I am one of those “nerd person” types, absolutely. My comedy style could be best described as “let me tell you real things that I’ve done slash have happened to me, and allow you to laugh at me for an hour.” Video games have always been a hobby for me. Growing up, they were about the only thing my brother and I could agree on—brother fight, if you haven’t heard—and we played gratuitously. Now I stick mostly to RPGs and go on the occasional binge session taking down monsters like Skyrim in an extended weekend.
EGM: So—in what we’ll be getting into in a moment—you aren’t coming at it as an outsider; you’re coming at conversations about the gaming community as somebody who has been a part of it for a long time.
SK: Yeah, it’s in my blood. In college and grad school I had to scale it back a bit—you know, to, uh, graduate—but I don’t think I’ll ever stop playing games. It’s one of the best releases around.
EGM: As somebody who has grown up with gaming, I’ve watch it go from almost this obscure hobby that kids would have, to an industry that is huge and out there and talked about and constantly forced into the public eye. I think, in a way, that shift has been what’s brought up the various controversies that the community has. Gaming is growing, and evolving, and bringing in people who were never here before, and because of that, we’re being forced to—if you will—clean out our closets and deal with what we’ve been stuffing into them to keep out of sight and out of mind.
SK: That’s a great point. Beyond that, I think things really starting shifting when multiplayer went online to begin with. Before that, you only understood “gaming” as it existed within your little social circle. When we all merged our circles, things got interesting.
EGM: Online multiplayer was like going around the country, picking up gamers at random, forcing them all into the same room, and saying, “Alright, now get along”—without really preparing them for that new challenge.
SK: Absolutely. And it was awesome! But it was also a time where we had to create/define a culture. Who are we, what do we stand for, what type of people are we going to be, and how are we going to treat one another. All those questions were answered without people even knowing they were being asked. They just… happened.
EGM: Whose failing was that? Was it the companies suddenly giving us access to other players without telling us how to handle that new freedom, or was it our fault for not giving more thought to what those new options really meant in terms of how we communicate with one another?
SK: I think that’s an unfair question, because is it really fair to say someone “failed” at something they didn’t even know they were doing? It was all a huge experiment, right? Don’t get me wrong: We (gamers) could have done a better job, pioneering game developers/community managers could have done a better job, for sure, but it’s tough to say how.
EGM: Well, I think that really hits home at one of the core arguments when we’re talking about the acceptance of diversity: How much should we be expected to understand coming in, and how much of it is a learning process. And, actually, I agree with you—online gaming has absolutely been a learning process. It can be rough, but it’s something we have to go through because otherwise we won’t always know what’s right and what’s wrong.
SK: Yeah, I don’t blame developers early on for not curbing the things that are so prevalent now, because you have to give it time to see what it will become before you start shaping it. And I think the acceptance of diversity should be on-par with the way society-at-large is growing. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case. What’s widely accepted as unfathomable IRL, barely makes the average gamer blush in game chat. I’m not talking about swearing, here, either. I’m talking about the casual use of words like “n*gger.”
EGM: It’s a topic that’s been brought up many times—that when we aren’t face to face, and when we have no threat of repercussion, that filter that keeps us from being jerks to one another seems to go away. Some have proposed solutions, such as people on the internet using their real names—but, if Facebook is any indication, real names don’t suddenly make people not be rude to one another.
SK: Hahaha—very true. And I don’t like the real name option much, either. I love that gaming can be an escape, a place where you can take on a new identity. Also, it’s not really my goal or the mission of Gamers Against Bigotry to make people stop being rude to one another. As someone said, “you want everything to be roses and flowers? Real life isn’t roses and flowers.” That’s not the idea, and not just because roses AND flowers is redundant.
EGM: Is part of the importance of this whole argument that escape? When you think about it, things like online gaming should—in theory—allow anybody anywhere to have an equal place among their peers, even if in real life they wouldn’t. So, when that potential for equality breaks down, it could almost be even more devastating than when it happens in real life.
SK: Absolutely. That’s a fantastic point. I’m going to be copy/pasting that in the future, I’m sure of it. I think we owe it to one another to create a space that is, at the very least, equally rude to everyone, regardless of their specific identities. It really bothers me how many people have said, “You don’t like it? Don’t play.”
EGM: In chatting with you a bit about all of this, I know trying to fight against that kind of stuff is something we’re both interested in. But when you get to the point of starting your site—Gamers Against Bigotry—I have to imagine that there was something—some catalyst—that set plans in motion to launch the site. What was the beginning of the site coming into existence?
SK: Hm… this is a question I’ve had to answer a lot, but it’s still a tough one. For as long as I’ve played online multiplayer, I’ve been bothered by the bigotry. In the past year or so, I’ve seen a lot of articles in popular media (outside of just gaming media) about the misogyny and bigotry of gamers. Then this spring/summer there were a few huge blowouts. All of those things, I think, created a mentality in me that wanted change.
Unrelated, last month I made this comic about an article I was writing called “How to respond to bigoted language.” Someone commented and said something like “Great, but how do you have any advice for how I can deal with bigoted language in-game?” I said something like, “Unfortunately, that’s a lost cause. Someone would have to create something that existed outside of the game that united people against that type of behavior, because any resistance in-game only makes it worse.” Then I thought, “Hey! That’s pretty lazy. Maybe I should try to be that someone.”
EGM: It’s been an interesting topic over the course of the year, because we were having these conversations about homosexuality in gaming (in part thanks to Mass Effect 3), and then all of a sudden, it was almost this string of events that caused the conversation to change to women in the community. So, when that spark to do something did get lit, was it fueled by any specific segment of the the issue, or was it a case of you wanted to do something in regards to the cause overall?
SK: No segment in particular. I consider myself a social justice advocate because I want to see everyone get the same opportunities, regardless of their identities, but I certainly have a closer connection to some sub-communities than others.
EGM: So, you’re there, and you decide to do something—but did you know right away what that something would be? How did you end up at the GAB site?
SK: After making that decision, I spent roughly the next 30 straight hours working on what became the foundation of GAB. I had a lot of ideas, but the idea of a pledge resonated the strongest as an effective starting point.
EGM: And why was that?
SK: Because we don’t really know where the community stands on this stuff. We’ve gotten to hear the opinions of a few journalists, and a few thousand angry commenters in response to those journalists, but that’s about it. I wanted to see how many people already had the same belief and stance that I did: That gaming would be a better place if it were welcoming to everyone. Once we have an idea where we are, I thought, it’d be easier to know where we need to go.
EGM: Giving people a way to stand up for the idea for equality in the gaming community, without telling them that they have to go find their own solution and outlet for making that statement.
SK: Absolutely. A unified front, if you will.
EGM: What was your expectation for the kind of exposure the GAB site would get when you launched it?
SK: I was expecting that it would be exponential. A few people would find us, sign up, tell their friends, some of whom would sign the pledge, who would tell their friends, and so on. Slow at first, but increasing momentum with time.
EGM: And before certain events happened, the site got to around 1500 or so pledges, correct?
SK: That is correct.
EGM: At that point, how were you feeling about GAB?
SK: Great, honestly. I had received dozens of messages from people who were excited to see a movement like this happening, the Mary Sue [a website dedicated to “girl geek culture”] published a great story about GAB, a couple of people had volunteered to help, and we were starting to get a sense of the organization taking shape. There were annoying hacks/exploits/spam all along, but it was more encouraging than it was detracting—sure, it was annoying having to go into the database each night to clean that stuff out, but it was also a great reminder of why we’re doing what we’re doing.
EGM: So then, what happened with the site?
Kidding, sorry, it’s not that bad, but if you google “Gamers Against Bigotry” some of the headlines make it appear that way. I decided that I wanted to put an end to the little hacks/exploits that were happening, because as we increased in numbers so did they (and that was not an exponential growth I was excited for). I spent Sunday learning how to write a patch that would prevent the exploits that were allowing all the little hacks, and within the hour the database of all the signatures was gone.
EGM: Not from your patch, but due to an outside source, right?
SK: Not related to the code I wrote, no, but I think taking away the exploit made them step up their attack to something more permanent.
EGM: So when you say “them”—at this point, do you have any idea who was directing these attacks at the site?
SK: Nope. Believe it or not (you’ll believe it) none of the people who are so angry about GAB happening have actually said anything about it directly to me.
EGM: For you personally, would it change anything if you knew who was responsible for the attacks?
SK: I would love to hear why they did it, and have a little chat about it. I’m all ears to ways to improve GAB. Why, you know ’em?
EGM: No, no, but it’s an interesting question for me. Knowing or not knowing doesn’t change what happened. On one side, I can see why you would want to know, but on the other, maybe not knowing makes it easier to deal with, because you don’t have that direct feeling of “this is the person or persons who did it, and now I want to go and try to make them tell me why”.
SK: Haha, yeah, I was kidding, I didn’t think you knew who it was. You don’t, right? Kidding. Just kidding. But if you know, tell me.
I see where you’re coming from, but to be honest, I haven’t had much time to give it any further thought than “I wish they would have just sent me an email instead.”
EGM: The deletion of the database wasn’t all that happened, though. What occurred next?
SK: I tried to restore things and get the pledge back online, but everything I tried to do was met with further attacks. We’ve lost tons of new signatures due to repeated deletion—which is why I was asking folks to hold off on signing for now, even though it pumps me up that people are like, “Screw that, I’ll sign it again if it gets deleted.” And then Monday, as the press coverage started to blow the lid off of things, all of my other websites (other projects, portfolio, etc.) got taken down.
EGM: And at some point, people were even inserting text or graphics into their pledges to deface the GAB site, right?
SK: Ah, yes. That’s one of the things that’s been widely reported out of chronological order. That actually preceded the database deletion. Things like that were happening all along, but just started getting worse last week.
EGM: As we’re having this conversation, I was just looking over the list of pledges, and I see one that looks like somebody trying to get the database to empty. So, obviously, the attacks are still going on.
SK: Hahaha—yep. Hadn’t even seen that. Must’ve happened earlier this morning. Those slashes were added in by my patch that I released Sunday, preventing any of the code from clearing. The same thing would happen if someone tried to insert an image or the like—it’d just present dummy code that I can go in and delete.
EGM: So—and obviously, this is a question better answered by the people doing all of this—why? Why the attacks on your site?
SK: It’s like watching an episode of Lost—there are so many crazy theories being thrown around. I’m not really sure, obviously, but my guess is (a) for fun, advanced/illegal trolling; (b) someone wanted to obstruct our progress; or (c) some men just want to watch the world burn. C is the Joker, who is one of my top suspects so far.
EGM: When I first learned about all of this, my mind instantly went to Anita Sarkeesian and what she’s gone through because of her Tropes vs. Women project. Here she is, wanting to look at the stereotyping video games often do for female characters, and she’s been called every name in the book, publicly trashed, and I believe she’s even received a death threat or two. It seems like such an extreme reaction to someone wanting to bring up the discussion of misogyny in gaming.
SK: Yeah, that was a harrowing and troubling story for me to follow. And a lot of people have made the connection between that and what’s happening to GAB, but I sincerely hope it doesn’t get that bad. However, it certainly provides an example of the type and scale of action people will take to prevent a conversation from taking place.
EGM: I can’t say that I’ve been in the place of either of you, but in the conversations I’ve had, it can be amazing just how much some people not only don’t get the fight for diversity in the gaming community, but who are then so adamant against that conversation even happening. If it doesn’t directly affect them, then they see it as being pointless to talk about.
SK: You know, it’s not that much different from any instance of an equality movement. The arguments are all the same. There was one forum thread I was reading, and, for fun, I went through all the arguments and replaced “use bigoted language in games” with “own slaves”. It played out remarkably, and shockingly well.
“If they stop letting me own slaves, what will they take away next?”
“If you think owning slaves is wrong, don’t own them.”
“I’ve always owned slaves — if you take them away everything else will crumble.”
“Owning slaves is a product of racism. Making it illegal to own slaves won’t end racism.”
Whoops, that last one is actually true. Obviously, that’s an extreme example, but it was entertaining to point out nonetheless, because it really shifted the nature of the conversation.
EGM: Has what has happened been disheartening for you at all? Do you regret starting up GAB, or do these events just serve as proof to you that we need to be having this discussion more, not less?
SK: I had hopes, we could call them pipe dreams, that there wasn’t going to be any terrible backlash. But I was prepared and expecting them. So while it’s slightly disheartening that I was proved right, it’s been even more heartening to see the positive reactions. I just wish GAB’s introduction to the world didn’t have to come with such a negative undertone.
EGM: I think, with anything, that the positive aspects do need to be remembered more than the negative. It’s ridiculous what’s gone on with the site, but at the same time, it’s helped to underscore that this is an important topic that we have to keep pushing, as obviously there’s still some segments of the community that will give the rest of us a bad name if left to their own devices.
SK: My thoughts exactly.
EGM: One other things I wanted to ask you about: The “Support Gamers Against Bigotry” page that’s up on indiegogo. Can you clarify what that is for?
SK: Absolutely. We launched that when the GAB site went public. The original goals of the $700 were to incorporate GAB as a 501(c)3 non-profit ($300-$500) and get the word out with ads. Our stretch goals were all ways we could really enhance the org and the movement. On Sunday, it shifted gears a bit. Now our number one goal is rebuilding the site to be more secure (and working with a team of security specialists to do so), and moving it to fancier, stronger servers. That’ll take a few thousand dollars to keep us running for a year, and we’ll also still need to pay for and file the legal stuff for the non-profit.
EGM: So, in terms of trying to set up the non-profit, what would love to see Gamers Against Bigotry become?
SK: I want to unite the voice of gamers who are done putting up with this stuff and want it to stop, and take that voice to game developers so we can work together on concrete ways to make it happen. I also think we can do a lot to educate our community on why this “diversity” stuff is so important, as well as letting society-at-large know that most gamers are awesome people—we’re not cretins hiding in shadows wondering what little person we can victimize next. And in the meantime, we want to provide as many opportunities as we can for gamers who want to play in a bigotry-free environment to do so, by creating GAB-centric communities (e.g., steam groups) and giving GAB pledgees the ability to play with one another, because gaming is awesome, and bigotry-free gaming is awesomer.
EGM: This may initially sound like a strange question, but it’s come up a few times in discussions I’ve had with others, and I think it’s an interesting one. Would we—as a community—be better if we all saw each other as “gamers”, and that was that, or is in important to bring our different aspects of diversity to the community, and acknowledge those differences while also trying to come together?
SK: I think we should see each other, the people playing the games, as people. And in game chat, or lobbies, treat each other the same way we would treat each other in any other similar situation. If you were in an intense sport game (I play soccer), you get heated, you get passionate, and often times people get personal, but nobody ever takes it half as far as people take it in a regular basis in games. And when they try, they get head-butted by Zinidine Zidane.
EGM: On the subject of interesting names, I come to my last question: You know you have the perfect action game hero name, right? Sam Killermann—just reading your name, I can already picture the character there on the cover art.
SK: Hahahaha—well thanks. I can say that GAB is the first thing I’ve done where my name has been a good thing. I used to work in college orientation, and I’m not sure parents were excited to see an email from firstname.lastname@example.org as they were handing their child off for the first time.
EGM: I could never have done that job, because I wouldn’t have been able to stop myself from having fun with that very situation.
SK: I think the best game was just not even mentioning it. “Oh, yes, we’re just dying to meet your daughter next week. She’s going to have the time of her life.”