Assholes and Game Spaces

By | February 16, 2019

Everyone has met, and has had to deal with, assholes. They’re everywhere: in our workplaces, in our families, in our neighborhoods, in our online spaces. They are, unfortunately, also in our game spaces.

Game spaces are supposed to be places where friends gather to enjoy going on adventures together, to tell stories to each other, to enjoy each others’ company in realms of imagination. They’re places where people should feel safe, places that should ideally be free from assholery.

But, thanks in part to human nature and in part due to the famous Geek Social Fallacies, this is not the case. These social fallacies developed because of the difficulties many geeks experienced growing up and being into “weird shit.” They boil down to this:

I am who I am, you should like me for who I am, your friends should like me too, we should do everything together, and you can’t turn me away if you start disliking how I behave because that’s just who I am.

By subscribing to one or more of these fallacies, we make it difficult to identify the assholes among us and deal with them appropriately. We start to think that we should accept toxic behavior because if we don’t we’re the bad guy.

But the “weird shit” we were into as kids is now mainstream culture (Comic-book movies making billions, D&D articles in Forbes, fake dwarven beards sold in well-trafficked novelty shops). And just like that has been a sea change, so too should we begin thinking about how we should change ourselves and our acceptance of toxic behavior among geek circles.

Why is this important?

Assholes make you feel emotionally exhausted, demeaned, or disrespected. When you are around an asshole, you feel inadequate and off-balance, as if you suddenly don’t know up from down . You have to dodge a thousand and one landmines in their presence, draining you and making you dread being around them. When you’re around an asshole, you might even find yourself being an asshole when otherwise you don’t behave that way.

All of these things kill our ability to effectively socialize with each other, enjoy each others’ company, and have fun gaming. Assholes are the bad apple that spoil the bunch.

And your gaming group will be influenced by any assholes within it. Social groups are influenced by what they accept, and make implicit statements to others based on the behaviors and people they accept. Four out of five players in your group may be great people, but from the outside, that fifth makes you all seem like assholes.

Identifying Assholes

We must be able to accurately identify the behavior of assholes among us before we can feel confident in taking action about them. Here’s a list of some common asshole behaviors.

  • They identify themselves as an asshole. These are the proud assholes, the ones who wear their bad behavior as a badge of honor.
  • They are rude. They talk over others while they are speaking, they shout when there’s no need to shout, they don’t clean up after the messes they make, they’re ungrateful for kindnesses offered by others, they treat others condescendingly, they’re passive aggressive, or any other of a variety of obnoxious behaviors.
  • They antagonize others whether it is for their own amusement, to prove their superiority, or simply because they don’t care. Even if this is unintentional, it speaks to a lack of empathy common among all assholes.
  • They can’t tell if their behavior is acceptable unless you tell them
    it isn’t. They will often claim ignorance to toxic behavior or make excuses for it, saying that they didn’t know you would find their behavior objectionable. This either demonstrates a lack of empathy and awareness of socially acceptable behavior in general, or it is a fallback position and excuse for when their boundary-crossing is called out. Either way, this serves to put the onus of identifying their behavior and correcting it on you, which can have the (intentional or not) effect of wearing you down and becoming more accepting of toxic actions and attitudes.
  • They excuse their behavior as roleplay. “My character would do it” as an excuse for horrible actions in a game is the sign of someone who is testing the group’s tolerance limits. And they will keep doing it, pushing the line farther and farther. Being okay with “my character would do it” as an excuse for crossing boundaries is also the sign of an asshole.
    • Make sure, though, to separate roleplaying a character who is an asshole from a player who is being an asshole. If the objectionable behavior is confined to the character’s in-game attitudes, and the player is willing and accepting of other players’ boundaries even over their character’s behavior, this is not the sign of an asshole player. It is the sign of a player-of-assholes 🙂
  • They are self-centered. Everything is about them, and they play constant games of one-upmanship. Whenever you tell a story, they tell a bigger, wilder story. And if you don’t do what they want? They consider that a personal attack.
  • They think others are out to get them. Because they see others as trying to ruin their day specifically, trying to make them personally unhappy, they react to everything as an attack because psychologically, to them it is. And this poisons their ability to react with kindness and moderation – they instead treat everyone else as an enemy in disguise.
  • Their reactions are outsized. When something negative happens, you’d think it’s the end of the world. And sometimes, when something really positive that benefits them happens, you’d think it’s the second coming.
  • They find fault with others incessantly. Assholes like to correct the people around them, even if it’s meaningless to do so. They will often refer to things they don’t like or understand as stupid, and say the people who engage with such things are dumb.
  • They must voice their disapproval. If you indicate something you like, they will find something about it to dislike. Even in things that require no consensus, such as your favorite movie, they will chip in their disagreement unbidden with phrases like “we’ll have to agree to disagree.” Because…
  • They do not have conversations. A conversation requires a good-faith effort to talk to, listen to, and understand each other. It requires active listening. Assholes tend to listen only for information they can cherry-pick later to reinforce themselves or erode you. They are interested not in what you’re saying, but in what they choose to think you’re saying, because…
  • They argue and nitpick at the drop of a hat. Assholes can’t generally admit they’re wrong, making it impossible to win an argument with them or compromise with them. They will misrepresent opposing claims, and attack straw men to try and prove they are correct. They will try to invalidate any opposition with first-year logic and rhetoric terminology, or try to devolve the argument into semantics. They will exhaust an entire evening of gaming fighting over an obscure rule rather than admit defeat. Because…
  • They think they’re better than other people. Racism and sexism are obvious indicators of assholery, but classism is often less obvious. Part of their need to criticize others comes from a place of elevating themselves and demonstrating their superiority. They might even try to use this to jockey for a higher position of relative “status” in the gaming group.
  • They “tell it like it is.” Richard Needham said, “The man who is brutally honest enjoys the brutality as much as the honesty. Possibly more.” Honesty from a non-asshole isn’t brutal: it is kind, it is compassionate, it is hopeful.
  • They make fun of you as a joke. This might come in the form of light mocking or outright belittling, but make no mistake: this is another form of knocking you down a peg or two, and expressing their own feeling of superiority. Which leads to
  • “Just a joke,” “Just kidding,” and “You need to lighten up” are frequent parts of their vocabulary. These are deflective statements, intended to move the eye of criticism away from them when they’re called on their bad behavior. In an extreme form, they become gaslighting: making you question your own ability to critically judge the behaviors of those around you and your feelings about those behaviors.
  • They are hypocritical. While they might be able to mock you as a joke, if you do the same to them they will reveal one-ply skin and act as shocked and wounded as if you’d physically assaulted them.
  • They see boundary-setting and assertiveness as assholery. The reason for this, of course, is that those boundaries are usually to rein them in, and they know it. And they read any form of assertiveness as a personal attack on themselves because they want you to dance to their tune, they don’t want to dance to yours.
  • They excuse or even defend the toxic behaviors of others. They might do this as a form of gaslighting, saying that obviously toxic behaviors aren’t really and it’s your fault for seeing them that way. Or it could be a form of ganging up, trying to shift the position of the group as a whole by trying to out-vote (or out-shout) the opposition. This is done often because they, too, would like to behave in a similarly toxic fashion as the behavior being called out.
  • They do not acknowledge their behaviors are hurtful. Either they complain about “political correctness,” or they say their “right to free speech” is under attack. They say they are who they are, and that that can’t (or shouldn’t have to) change. They’re just passionate, not hurtful. And there are so many other people in the world who are so much worse than them, they can’t be that bad. Which leads to
  • They ignore requests to stop hurtful behaviors. If their behaviors, to them, aren’t hurtful then they shouldn’t be hurtful to you, either. In fact,
  • They ridicule requests to stop hurtful behaviors. They may even tell you that you need to grow up, man up, stop being a such a woman (there’s some sexism creeping in there), or stop being a baby.
  • And even if they do apologize, they do so insincerely. Assholes will make it absolutely clear they think the fault is yours, avoiding all responsibility for themselves: “I’m sorry you were offended” rather than “I’m sorry I offended you” or “I’m sorry my behavior was offensive.”

Everyone’s a little bit of an asshole from time to time. No one or two of these, in isolation, is an indicator that someone is a full-bore asshole. But if several of these apply a lot of the time, then you’re probably dealing with an asshole.

Asshole or Abuser?

There is a razor-thin line between an asshole and an abuser, and a lot more mixture between the two than many people care to admit. Every abuser is an asshole, but not every asshole is an abuser.

Someone can be an asshole within a certain context or to a specific person without being an asshole to everyone and in all cases. This might just be a sign of people who dislike each other. But if the behavior is one-sided, this is often a sign of mental or emotional abusiveness.

Try to notice behavioral differences toward different people in the gaming group. Abusers and assholes alike tend to groom their situations and character witnesses as energetically as they do their victims. Do not allow an asshole to turn you against your friends by getting you to offer unaware testimony on their behalf.

Dealing with Assholes

Assholery can be a result of anxiety and stress, medical condition, poor upbringing and socialization, trauma, or it can be a deliberate choice. The asshole may be working on changing their behavior, or they may not. It is up to you to decide whether its origins mitigate it or whether you want to stick around while they try to sort themselves into a kinder person.

Because gaming is fundamentally about escapism. Real life can be difficult, even traumatic, and we escape into fantasy in order to live out our dreams of a better world, a world where we can have meaningful impact on a grand scale. Gaming, unless you’re a licensed therapist, should not be about fixing your damage or the damage of others.

That’s why tools like the Same-Page Tool, the X Card, the Game Charter and other forms of social contracts are so important. They may not be such a big deal among friends who’ve known each other for years, but they are tremendously important when bringing a new person into an established gaming group or when gaming at a table with strangers. The point of them is to help folks discover the missing stair.

If these tools aren’t enough to prevent assholery from entering your game space, you’ll have to deal with an asshole. Here are some tips to keep in mind:

  • Divorce your emotions from them. Many assholes get a thrill from seeing the upset they have caused. Locking down your emotions and keeping in mind that this isn’t personal, they would do this to anyone if given the chance, can help keep you in control of your emotions and robs the asshole of their key manipulation tool.
    • This is not to say that your emotions are wrong or that you are wrong to have them. It’s always okay to have emotions, and when dealing with an asshole you’re going to have a lot! But it’s not always helpful to your goals to express them in particular ways or given a particular context. In this context, it won’t be helpful to give the asshole their satisfaction. (Special thanks to Trey Causey for helping clarify this point.)
  • Draw a Line. This is your boundary, beyond which behavior is unacceptable. You do not have to explain why this is your boundary; everyone has traumas in their past they do not wish to be reminded of, and you do not need to explain yours in order to receive basic respect.
    • You may explain why the behavior is unacceptable, if you wish. And you may have to do this more than once, for specific and individual behaviors, because many assholes see the world in terms of disconnected elements and try to “game the system” by following the letter of the rules rather than their spirit. You must decide whether it’s worth your effort to keep correcting them, or whether doing so will turn you into an asshole while you deal with them.
    • Sometimes it’s wiser to just say “We don’t do that here.” This is not an explanation, and cannot be rationalized or argued away because it is a statement of fact.
  • Be aware of DARVO. This is an acronym for Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender. This is a common tactic among assholes and abusers alike, first to deny their assholery, then to twist the facts to try and make it seem like they are the victims. This may even lead you to comfort them in the midst of confronting them about their own bad behavior.
  • Check in with the other members of your group. This should be done privately, to see how everyone is feeling and to offer comfort and support where necessary. Remember that your gaming group is a group of your friends, and if someone is being an asshole to your group, then they are no friend of yours.
  • Remember you’re not a court of law. Assholes will often try to fall back on the idea that you can’t think badly of them, or give them negative consequences for their actions (“punish them”), because you don’t have enough evidence based on some cursory understanding of the law. They will remind you that it is a free country, that they have freedom of speech. This is a fallacy they use to prevent you from cutting yourself off from them.

Whether or not your evidence rises to a level that could convict someone in a court of law, the court of your opinion is yours. You don’t have the power to incarcerate someone, remove their ability to vote, or garnish their wages: that’s why there’s a higher standard for conviction in the courts.

It is a free country. And that means you, too, have freedom. Even if the rest of the gaming group decides they are more interested in their relationship with an asshole than they are in their relationship with you, you still have power over yourself.

You can think critically. You can make your own judgments. And you can extract yourself from the situation if you must. Because it’s a free country, and you have freedom of association, and you do not have to associate with someone you do not want to associate with.

We wish you the best of luck enduring all the assholes in your life, and hope you find the advice in this column helpful.