Bringing Your Whole Self to Patch Notes

On March 8th the developer of Domina (bignic) decided to moonlight as a health authority/life coach and suffered backlash as a result. The opinion expressed is stupid and uninteresting, but for reference, the note that sparked the response was:

TAKE OFF THE FCKN MASKS – Next time you’re at the grocery store, try showing a woman your face. Be confident, unafraid of the LIES — you might get a girlfriend. Women like confidence. Women don’t like dudes who cover their faces in fear. What are you afraid of? Getting laid? Grow up.

This note has nothing to do with an update to a game. To a certain extent I’m surprised it blew up because it’s juvenile but completely in character with the developer. A few years ago when I discovered bignic was Canadian I was encouraged and followed him on Twitter. After reading a handful of tweets expressing pretty repellent views, thought “that’s a shame” and unfollowed straight after. Since I believe that one factor in a fulfilling life is minimizing the amount of time spent thinking about mouthy game developers, I did not know bignic’s opinions on masking, but I can hardly say they come as a surprise. Given that his views have been public and available for years (and they have occasionally been commented on, just not at this level), it seems the fact that they made their way into a patch note specifically was the catalyst for more intense backlash. What makes the presence in a patch note such a big deal?

If the heart of the objection is “don’t buy a game from a developer who doesn’t believe in mask mandates” then this is simply a continuation of a really dumb trend in gaming that we could do without. A vocal subset of gamers are obsessed with dragging culture wars into just about anything and want everyone, especially developers, to know they’re really mad. For example, Battletech included gender neutral pronouns in the game, a perfectly reasonable choice given the player’s ability to customize their commander and the fact that the character is frequently addressed directly in the story. To this vocal subset, the choice was beyond the pale and simply another example of how the “awokening” in gaming is ruining everything and directing resources away from what really matters (presumably more scowling pale dudes with brown hair). This complaint takes a few different forms (“forced diversity”, “bend the knee” etc.) but generally it has very little to do with the merits of a game, and much more to do with how this audience has been trained to see these choices as part of an agenda and so must be angered by them, regardless of what the actual intent is.

When the complaint is gender neutral pronouns, women in Battlefield V, or not airbrushing the features of a female protagonist back to a level that makes them look like they were rendered two console generations ago, it’s easy to just assume the people complaining are morons and move on. The danger for this type of thinking isn’t that it’s necessarily wrong (they probably really are morons) but that it can create a blind spot when the objection is closer to your own beliefs. While complaining about pronouns likely indicates deeper problems, the issue with it as a criticism for a game is that it mistakes alignment with a given player’s beliefs as a valid criteria. I would not want to see a game to be criticized for failing to be sufficiently deferential to a given political party, even if it was one that I vote for. To move beyond the hypothetical, I think this kind of thinking was at least partly at play when Boyfriend Dungeon received unfair criticism regarding its antagonist. If I were forced, I could make an educated guess as to the political beliefs of about half of a percent of the developers whose games I have in my Steam library. It’s not just undesirable for them to be subjected to some kind of values test, it’s simply impossible that every single one is going to align with my beliefs. As such, I don’t think the heart of the criticism here is really about the masking. A pile on for not ‘thinking the right thing’ about masks is unpersuasive, although bignic has certainly positioned himself as someone who is not open to being persuaded. I think there is something else going on here, and it’s better to focus on that because it does not provide fuel for the inevitable “see what they do to people who don’t conform” narrative that will come out of this.

Some business books talk about bringing your whole self to work. This is a terrible idea. It sounds great when you’re in an office protected by a focus on getting work done, because it is common to assume everyone else thinks the way you do (that is, correctly). This illusion vanishes if people actually do bring their whole selves to work and we are confronted with the horror show known as the political beliefs of half of the office, find out the social values of our colleagues are despicable, and then we all need to read a memo from the software engineer who decided we should hear what he really thinks about gender equality in the workplace. Leaving part of ourselves at home is what lets me buy groceries that the owners or employees of the grocery store wouldn’t consider, and lets me buy tickets at the box office without fearing a sophisticated eye roll from the attendant. Generally we’ve structured society in such a way as to minimize the friction in buying goods and services, and we leave people free to make secondary considerations regarding the origin of the product or the conditions of the people working on it without adopting it as a broader policy. It’s great. It’s what lets me tolerate my coworkers and my neighbours.

It seems like the heart of the matter is that bignic brought his whole self to work when he wrote that patch note and it completely disrupts the relationship between the provider of the good (the game) and the end user. Before proceeding, let’s get one thing out of the way: bignic is a talented creator. It’s easy to want to try and deny any positive traits to someone you dislike or disagree with, but I played Domina to the end and the game is good at creating a certain energy through its soundtrack for which he is the composer. His political beliefs were familiar to me through at least part of the playthrough, but we’d attained this nice equilibrium where he’d bring the things he was good at (gladiator management sim design and music) to the thing I would buy, and I would leave him to his beliefs. By bringing his whole self to work, bignic upset that equilibrium by bringing in the things he isn’t good at: political commentary, medical and dating advice, evaluation of arguments, and life coaching. Buying Domina now apparently means buying into a bunch of other nonsense I’d rather not get, and as someone who already owned the game, I’m not exactly crazy about patch notes doubling up as a microblog (it’s fair to note though that in this regard, this patch was not the the first. Earlier patch notes included comments on John McAfee and generic complaints about the Canadian government).

The problem runs a bit deeper than being annoyed that owning a game on Steam now means subscribing to the worst substack ever. Somewhere between me finishing the game and the current update, a new agreement is mandatory before being able to start a new game. The terms of service are:

  • I am an adult
  • I am allowed to read offensive jokes if I want to.
  • I can read jokes.
  • I can read offensive words without being radicalized.
  • It’s ok to joke.
  • I agree with the terms of the EULA

The EULA is not displayed in the checklist, but is included in the directory for the game and its location is revealed if you mouse over. Now, none of these would be false statements for me, but given that I am playing a game from a developer who includes the kind of patch notes we’re discussing, I am absolutely not going to assent to anything that involves his definitions of what constitutes a joke, let alone a full EULA (though the contents seem tame). Apparently an earlier version of the TOS had some variation on ‘I believe conservative politics are correct’ but I haven’t seen this myself (though the patch notes do indicate different TOS/EULA updates). All in all, to me, I am shut out of Domina. From a pragmatic standpoint, there’s nothing meaningful preventing me from checking those boxes and playing the game as it is now. However, these checkboxes are the developer inserting themselves into my experience saying “you want my game soooo bad you’re going to have to play it on my terms.” And I’m perfectly happy for my actions to reflect my beliefs: “Your game is fun, but it wasn’t fun enough to tick your little boxes, and you’re directly responsible for that.” I expect I won’t play Domina again unless the developer removes the TOS component. There’s no option to revert to an old patch and so for all intents and purposes Domina died for me as soon as the TOS screen was added.

There is a more significant reason for me to avoid playing Domina as well. When I last played it the game had rather good Twitch integration and so it would be a natural choice to stream. Having discussed political matters on stream and having now written a blog critical of this developer, I simply do not trust them enough to risk a bad faith copyright claim. This incident has shown that bignic does not respond well to criticism, and his behaviour in patch notes has shown that he does not have much in the way of boundaries between developer matters and life matters. Why would I sign up for this kind of hassle? Let’s imagine there was some kind of agreement in place. bignic’s been pretty clear he sees this as great publicity. Why would I then sign up to be some kind of apologist for his nonsense when the conversation inevitably turns to the patch notes? None of this has to do with the developer’s views on masks which, despite his claims to the contrary, he is free to hold (in fact, for context, I believe the province he lives in will be hastily removing all mask mandates in time for an upcoming election). Everything I have discussed here is how his overall lack of maturity and inability to distinguish between personal and professional life has made the game far more trouble than it’s worth to play.

If I’m resigned to treating Domina as a dead game in my library, why spend so much time talking about it? First, I think it is useful to draw a distinction between a more dominant response of criticizing the anti-masking position (which is a legitimate target for criticism as a position, but maybe isn’t a great reason to stop playing Domina any more than pronouns were a reason to stop playing Battletech), and the breach of the social contract between the developer and the audience. The breach is why I think this is unique and attention getting. Second, I do genuinely think it’s a shame what’s happened to the developer and an otherwise enjoyable game.

I don’t know a lot about bignic beyond what he has posted online, and what I’ve seen online gives me every reason not to want to know more about him. This is fine because I’m sure he wouldn’t like me very much either. Steam lets us exchange the things we find useful (money and games) without having to directly interact with each other so we can continue on with our mutual contempt for each other’s worldviews. When I first encountered bignic’s posts the response really was “that’s a shame” because I like following Canadian developers, and everything he posted was, well, not game dev. I do not require an ideological purity test of the people I follow, but I had absolutely no interest in following his feed based on the content provided and so I limited my engagement to the thing I did think he did well: Domina. If I had a guess, bignic maybe likes the “I’m a dev with an audience” role a little too much (though, for context, on Twitter it’s around 1k for the game, 2k for the personal account and YouTube), and feels that translates into a platform from which to proclaim on matters other than game dev. The relatively small following on other platforms could explain why patch notes become blogs because it is clear far more people own Domina than follow his channels. What it means though is that the one area in which he has demonstrated talent and has contributed something has now been dragged down by the things people are clearly avoiding for a reason.

The other thing that I think is a shame is the content of the patch note. Opposition to masks is fairly self-explanatory and exists in a context of 2 years of a pandemic with various public health measures. The women and confidence material is a non-sequitur. bignic is on the heavier side, or at least was at some point in his life and odds are this was not met with kindness. If you’ve spent enough time around certain parts of the internet you’ll know that there’s an overlap between pickup artists, men’s rights activists, conspiracy theory, and hard right politics. It’s entirely possible all of this has its origins with a lonely guy googling for tips on how to meet women and winding up at precisely the wrong websites for that moment in his life. It’s also possible he always followed this stuff and it’s a matter of repeating the same talking points from the bubble. My own suspicion comes from the fact that while the anti-mask is a common right wing talking point (and not even a particularly extreme right view), the jump to dating is so jarring as to signal something deeper and likely long standing.

Whatever its origins, its clear that the insecurity is still there. In response to the controversy bignic’s gone Twitter, assuring people he has a girlfriend and sexually bragging. Whether any of this is true or not is beside the point. (Again, just because you dislike someone doesn’t mean they are completely without any abilities, and the world is under no obligation to dislike them as much as you. Bad people have relationships too.) Nothing screams a lack of confidence like reminding strangers on the internet how confident you are and holding your girlfriend as a prop. The misogyny is also repellent, but almost certainly a symptom, not the underlying cause.

Whether bignic started out as a lonely guy getting into some bad stuff, or there’s some other origin, the destination is the same. This is not a particularly enviable way to go about life, and it seems like he’s gone from someone who has substituted the sympathetic ear he could have used with an echo chamber of people who are always ready to reward the right shibboleths (confidence, masks, etc.). I don’t know if he’ll resolve whatever has led him to this place, but I do know it is a tremendous waste. The cost is measured in the games and music we never got a chance to experience because so much time was spent worrying about Justin Trudeau, or getting girls, or talking about how masks are tyranny.

This is why I take the time to write these things out. bignic is absolutely a “there but for the grace of god go I” case. Understanding where the heart of fault lies, in this case breaking the social contract between developer and audience (as opposed to focusing on the masking/misogyny, which are also topics for annoyance, but not unique to this developer), helps me be wary of my own missteps. This is not just simply an exercise in empathy, but an effort to try and avoid my own gifts from being squandered.

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