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gdc 2014

Former Microsoft Creative Director Adam Orth Sounds Off About Overcoming Internet Abuse

by Kimberley Wallace on Mar 21, 2014 at 06:03 AM

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People often take to social media to vent and share their thoughts. Last year, Adam Orth, former creative director at Microsoft, did just that when speculation about the Xbox One having to be always-online surfaced in the media. Orth took to Twitter, making some harsh comments about how people should get with the times and deal with devices requiring an internet connection. This didn't go over well when the public saw it, and soon after Orth and Microsoft parted ways.

Orth,who now works for Three One Zero, a video game development studio, has kept quiet since the controversy on the matter. He shared some insight at GDC Next, but at his GDC panel entitled "Mob Rules: The Destructive Power of Opinion and Online Community," he spoke in more detail on the topic, sharing what he learned.

"...I published a single Tweet that changed my life forever," Orth said. "I exercised incredibly poor judgment expressing my personal opinion about such a volatile and divisive topic in the games industry in a public forum." He admitted how continuing to talk with a colleague via Twitter in a sarcastic tone only made it worse, and he wished he instead discussed it privately with colleagues. "I deeply, deeply regret that this happened," Orth said.

The unfortunate tweets heard around the video game sphere led to Orth resigning from Microsoft four days later. "I was the laughing stock of the gaming world," Orth recalled. "This was my lowest point. I had completely destroyed my career." The attention, abuse, and threats were overwhelming, and at times unbearable for Orth. Because his safety was threatened, Orth had to constantly wonder if the threats were credible, leading him to relocate this family and taking further protection against hackers. 

Orth showed the audience a string of vulgar tweets that were sent during the firestorm and discussed how this has become a customary for online conduct. "The reason internet threats are terrifying are not the possibility, but the realization that society has progressed to a point where this behavior and discourse is acceptable and an expected response to something someone doesn't like or agree with," he said. Harsh comments are something developers are forced to face; social media gives users the ability to express any blowback anonymously and instantly. Orth recalled just how crazy things progressed. "I became a meme," he said. "Not many people can say that. A meme is forever. " Unfortunately, it didn't stop at memes, a Hitler downfall video was created mocking his situation, "Orth" became a verb in the Urban Dictionary, and somebody created t-shirts without his consent, profiting off his misery.

And yet, through the dark times, Orth said, "This was the best thing that ever happened to me." He did what he calls, "a radical personal reset." Orth lost 15 pounds, moved closer to his family and friends, matured as a person, set new goals as a developer, re-channeling his creativity. He proudly stated, "I survived." Orth is much happier now, but notes that part of what got him through it were his peers in the game industry who supported him through his struggle, even if they didn't agree with his comments. 

Orth also provided his own advice for handling online negativity. "Life is too short to worry about anonymous internet negativity," he said. "What these people are saying and doing is a reflection on their life not yours. It only matters if you let it. Never forget that it's meaningless noise... fighting back on their level is pointless." 

That doesn't mean Orth thinks it's as simple as ignoring it. He realizes the issue isn't going away, referencing the recent abuse Flappy Bird creator Dong Nguyen faced that led to him pulling his game. Orth then brought up some ways people are trying to put a stop to the abuse. For instance, Popular Science made the decision to turn off comments, YouTube added Google+ accounts to require real names, and publications like Polygon moderate comments thoroughly, engaging with comment abusers in hopes to turn around the conversation. He also discussed Microsoft's new Xbox Live reputation system and how it exposes a player's negative rep, deprioritizes them, and groups them with other players with a similar reputation level. “I think I support this idea, but it can only succeed through thoughtful and careful execution," he said. 

Orth also tried to get developers to talk about their bad internet experiences and how it impacts them, but he couldn't get many to even anonymously talk about it. One unsigned comment, though, got him thinking and upset. It stated, "I just don't want to make games for these people anymore." Orth hears them loud and clear, discussing how developers got into this industry to make games, not to get ripped apart and have their families' lives threatened. He encourages more developers to tell these stories, because online toxicity isn't leaving soon. "Things are going to get worse, before it gets better," Orth said. Even later in the panel, someone was talking about the risk of suicide from internet bullies. Orth wasn't shy about quickly saying that if things continue down the path they're on now that it's only a matter of time before we see that happen more. 

Still, Orth is optimistic that the more it gets talked about, the more solutions will come about. "Change is in the air," he said. Either way, he wants developers to know that even when situations go bad, circumstances can always change. "I still have scars, but in the end I came out on the other side stronger," he said. "Embrace it, no matter how painful it feels, learn from it, use it to transform your life, your code, your pixels, our industry, our world..."