01.17.13

Beyond the Final Boss is "It Gets Better" for the bullied gamer generation

Over the past two years or so, bullying has become a national news, Last summer, 16-year-old Brandon Elizares committed suicide after a string of threatening text messages. In a highly publicized 2010 case, 18-year-old Tyler Clementi lept off the George Washington Bridge after a roommate secretly captured a sexual encounter of his on a webcam and publicly shamed Clementi. (The New Yorker's "Story of a Suicide" is heart-breaking in detail.) In 2011, the White House held its first ever bullying summit. President Obama noted that bullying is not "a harmless rite of passage," but can have "destructive consequences for our young people."

That was the back drop for a conversation held last month by Shahid Kamal AhmadMike Bithell and Byron Atkinson-Jones. All three are veterans of the game industry. Ahmad is a senior business development manager at Sony Computer Entertainment Europe; Bithell is lead designer at Bossa Studios and created adorable indie puzzler Thomas Was Alone; Atkinson-Jones is a consultant who started Xiotex Studios. They came to the realization that many of the folks who they'd worked with in games had been the victim of bullying.

Here's what they did about it.

- - -

"The creations of the future will come from the young of today and often, rather sadly, the most visionary are the most bullied."

Out of that emerged a new site called Beyond the Final Boss, an uplifting portrayal of game developers' stories about bullying and ultimately success. Stephen McGreal's story is heartbreaking:

The really pervasive bit was the sense of social ostracism from the other kids as a whole. I was a computer nerd, and as such was unworthy of friends (except the three other computer nerds, none of whom I particularly liked but we stuck together because we had nobody else). Once, when the school ran a mock election, I stood as a candidate and spoke in front of a room full of kids who thought I was a twat (which was tough, but, I thought at the time, character building). 

The candidate who came onstage after me eschewed his talk of his policies in favour of calling my sexuality into question. Four or five hundred kids laughed. It was only when it transpired that one of the “cool kids” was also kind of into computers that I had the beginnings of a social circle open up for me. By the time I got to college I was popular, and accepted, although crippled with paranoia and self-harm issues that took a few more years to get out of my system.

But the trio's purpose is to show how these experiences have a silver lining. These terrible incidents don't need to be the end of the road, but can be the start of a successful, lively career in games. Ahmad, who once served as a phone counselor for UK support service Childline, writes: "The creations of the future will come from the young of today and often, rather sadly, the most visionary are the most bullied." True that. This, of course, echoes Steve Job's famous quip: "The ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do."

A couple years ago, writer Heather Chaplin delivered a rousing rant at the Game Developers Conference about the need for new experiences in the world of games. Too many reflected a hyper-masculine power fantasy, she argued: "It is you guys as game designers who are mired deeply in ‘guy culture'. You aren’t men. You are stunted adolescents." Chaplin's point is well-taken, of course. Games do often put players in positions of power and dominance and like any medium, diversity of content is a must.

But reading through the testimonials at Beyond the Final Boss gives an alternate explanation for Chaplin's rationale. For those who've been teased all of their life, games present an escape and a chance to rewrite history. The hope is that an end to bullying for those talented game designers in training will mean that real life offers the same promise as a virtual one.