Gaming Stockholm Syndrome

Photo by Fábio Silva on Unsplash

While taking my senior seminar in Sociology I chose to go outside my comfort zone and investigate the video games industry. This was just a few months after the initial lawsuit was filed against Blizzard citing sex discrimination, sexual harassment, and retaliation. As a woman, I was unsurprised but also deeply enraged. For me, the lawsuit had lifted the veil and then the research showed it was everywhere.

I wouldn’t label myself as a hardcore gamer, but I do enjoy playing games on my phone (e.g., Genshin Impact and currently Pokémon Unite) as well as action, adventure, and role-playing games on the PC (e.g., Senua’s Sacrifice, Ori series, Diablo series, Borderlands series, and Haven with my husband). Finding out what goes on behind the scenes in the making of video games was disturbing. I haven’t been able to look at or play a game the same ever since.

Gaming Stockholm Syndrome can be defined as a social psychological response in which individuals will rationalize, defend, and show loyalty to a discriminative and abusive industry.

Issues of exploitation, discrimination, and abuse in the video game industry are widespread, but a lot of gamers don’t want to address them. They not only are exploiting and abusing workers but gamers as well. These issues are causing a major trickle-down effect that increases toxicity inside of the gamer subculture.

As I was investigating this dark side of the gaming industry I noticed patterns regarding the gaming workforce and gamers. They all were uniquely bound and tethered to this lucrative industry, even when there were clear disadvantages and harm to their physical, mental, and financial health.

Where was this undying loyalty coming from? What mysterious hold did the video games industry have on these individuals? My husband and I were joking about gamers (including himself) for having Stockholm syndrome-like behaviors but then I saw it went much further than that. I realize this is meme-worthy but humor me for a second.

They were all showcasing the same symptoms just in larger groups and in different environments/aspects (I.e., corporate and consumer). I tried looking the term up first but could barely find anything except for an urban dictionary posting and a few Reddit posts, so I just called it Gaming Stockholm Syndrome.

What is Gaming Stockholm Syndrome?

First, let’s look at Stockholm syndrome’s definition and see just how relatable yet different the experiences are. Stockholm syndrome is a psychological response that typically occurs when abuse or hostage victims form a bond with their abusers or captors. These victims develop a coping mechanism that leads them to be sympathetic toward their abuser or captor and feel positively toward them instead of fearful or angry.

It is a coping mechanism that is present in both game workers and gamers.

Stockholm syndrome has only been said to happen on rare occasions and to a small number of victims. I would say that Gaming Stockholm Syndrome can take place over days, weeks, months, or years much like the other. What’s fascinating to see is how many individuals are actually showcasing. Face-to-face contact also isn’t needed for the industry to grab onto, use, and abuse individuals with a relatively positive and lucrative outcome.

Gaming Stockholm Syndrome can be defined as a social psychological response in which individuals will rationalize, defend, and show loyalty to a discriminative and abusive industry. It is a coping mechanism that is present in both game workers and gamers. This is unlike any other corporate or consumer phenomenon our modern world has ever seen.

Applied to Game Workers

Watching game industry employees discuss how their games are made is cringe-worthy. It’s surreal and awkward to hear the promotion of a toxic hierarchy, poor working conditions, and reliance on crunch time. Numerous cases have proven the industry mistreats and exploits its workers meanwhile disregarding their emotional, physical, social, and financial health.

I found that researchers are highlighting meritocracy in both video games and the industry workforce. However, most of the work environments are actually not solely functioning on performance, skill, effort, or ability alone. Instead, it seemed the reality of the system to be gender-based, discriminative, and precarious (insecure or unstable). It is an industry-wide problem not just a problem for the big companies and franchises.

This is known by past, current, and potential game workers, still there are many who excuse it. A growing number of young, passionate, and eager individuals are competing for their place in the industry even still. Individuals are so displaced from reality that they look and sound like someone who has been held captive and abused over and over again. As if they only understand these kinds of behaviors and practices as normal.

Examples of Gaming Stockholm Syndrome in game workers:

  • “It’s my dream job. It was/is such a great opportunity and experience.”
  • “We eat and live in the office next to our keyboards and sleep on cots. It’s because we’re passionate about what we do.”
  • “Crunch isn’t a problem…Maybe we should be paid…But it’s necessary.”

Applied to Gamers

Gamers will go above to defend and rationalize game systems, marketing strategies, and even the monetization methods of the industry. It happens even when faced with the reality that they are being taken advantage of by unethical shoddy business practices. Countless times I’ve heard the excuse that there’s been too much of a time and financial investment to stop playing. They have literally fallen into the industry’s trap and let it tell them there’s no way out so the gamer goes further and further down the hole.

The hardest part about dealing with a gamer is breaking the immersion.

Then you also have the gamers who hear the argument, see the evidence, and then cling to their autonomy. No one wants to see just how much control the industry really has over their purchasing choices. When trying to have a serious talk about their situation you can be met with negative reactions, hidden buyer’s remorse, justification, or explanation. It’s sad because the industry is relying on blind loyalty from their fan base to bring in consumers and increase their profits.

Gaming as a culture has been a godsend to people. It allows you to escape real life and how messed up, cruel, stressful, and unfair it all can be. It helps you to feel in control, provides community, a sense of belonging, and social spaces to interact with others. The hardest part about dealing with a gamer is breaking the immersion. Video games are all about immersion, you lift that veil even the slightest and you’re in for a bad time.

Examples of Gaming Stockholm Syndrome in gamers:

  • “I don’t mind the microtransactions, loot boxes, passes, early access, etc…It’s a free-to-play game.”
  • “I’m just happy to support the developers and give something back to them.”
  • “Why do you have to be so negative/toxic. Maybe you’re the problem. I just want to enjoy my game.”

Final perspective on gaming stockholm syndrome

Culture also has a lot to do with this, especially in regard to the different work regions. The most pushback among game workers (i.e., organizing and unionizing) is typically found in Western countries and cultures. Western sectors also have higher rates of toxicity, sexual discrimination, and harassment. Japan overall seems to be one of the best gaming sectors in regards to the quality of games, products, and especially their respect and connection to their fanbases.

Due to this, they have much smaller problems when it comes to toxicity in their gaming communities. Recently, the community of WoW (World of Warcraft) made a massive transition over to FFXIV (Final Fantasy XIV). Gamers continue to rave about the relief and support they feel, how positive interactions are, and that the games system is maintained exceptionally better. However, Japanese workers are also subject to crunch culture. It is deeply woven into, not only their gaming companies but the entire culture’s work ethic and norms.

Photo by Cyrus Chong on Unsplash

While I can respect the fact that many companies are providing wonderful products, I hate to think of how many hours their employees slaved away to give it to us. Game workers need to demand respect and compensation for all of the work they do. As human beings, they deserve to work in safe and healthy environments. Working up to 100 hour work weeks causes extreme exhaustion, mental health issues, family/relationship strains, hospitalization, even the loss of life.

Gamers need to snap out of it, allow the veil to lift, and see just how big of a role we play in continuing these norms and harmful business practices, and vice versa for game industry workers. Both sides need to stop being the industry’s pawns excusing everything away and come together to take the necessary steps toward change.

Opinions like, “gamers are toxic” and “video games are bad/evil” are frustrating more than anything to see still. The workers, gamers, gaming communities, gamer culture, and video games aren’t the problem here, it’s the industry. It’s the big guys at the top, the ones in control, the ones who are stepping on the small and vulnerable, the ones who are thriving off of the abuse of workers and gamers alike. That’s where the true adversity lies, and for change to happen that must first be realized.

2 thoughts on “Gaming Stockholm Syndrome

  1. What an outstanding must read for all! This is a must even for those who don’t know anything about the gaming community. Those who don’t would receive insight into a community that by many might have been overlooked and might not have ever considered the demands that the gaming community consists of. For gamers this is an opportunity to take this into consideration

    1. Thank you. Gaming in general really has been misunderstood. I was hoping it could help others understand the core of the problems a little more deeply and in a different light.

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