2017 was a year of grim milestones, and its tail end offered one more to add to the painfully long list: the first confirmed death from a gamer-initiated swatting. Swatting, the practice of calling a SWAT team to the house of a target by fraudulently reporting a serious crime at their address, has finally done exactly what critics of toxic video game culture have long feared, and claimed a life.
The recent death of Andrew Finch, slain when a feud between two Call of Duty players ended in a SWAT team being summoned to his home in Wichita, Kansas, leads us into a thorny thicket of questions that demand introspection from policymakers, technology and gaming studio executives, and fan communities. Reflecting on change and self-improvement is all the rage at the dawn of a new year, and it’s long past time to assess the problem of toxic fandom with the greater urgency and seriousness it deserves, as well as the terrible costs of using lethal force as a first resort in law enforcement.
First, we have to take stock of what led us to this moment, including technology and gaming industries too willing to indulge the “passion” of their most ardent fans — even when that “passion” is nothing more than frothing rage and unchecked entitlement. We also have to reckon with why swatting is so potentially deadly: militarized American police forces trained to shoot first and ask questions later.
Just a few months ago, we witnessed another case of fandom gone horribly awry, which — in its own absurd way — prefigured the same entitlement and callousness on display in the instigators of the Wichita shooting. The incident is infamous now precisely for its penny-ante stupidity: fans of Rick and Morty running wild at McDonald’s restaurants that ran out of szechuan sauce packets for a promotional tie-in with the show. Several McDonald’s employees were screamed at by fans who did not receive their sauce, and treated the people behind the counter as uniformed vending machines obligated to dispense the edible fandom kitsch they desired. “Some [fans] became physical,” reported Eater, and in one Los Angeles location, police were summoned to the scene.
The restaurant giant responded to the debacle by plucking a page from the PR handbook of the gaming industry, which routinely reacts to even the most vile attacks by rhapsodizing about the enthusiasm of their fans. Take Beamdog CEO Trent Oster, who responded to a furious transphobic backlash against Baldur’s Gate: Siege of Dragonspear by saying: “The last few days have showed us how passionately many of our fans care for our games.” McDonald’s, similarly, issued one ingratiating tweet after another, calling the unruly Rick and Morty fans “the best fans in the multiverse,” and saying that the company was “humbled by the amazing curiosity, passion, and energy” of the enraged sauce-seekers.
The gaming industry routinely reacts to even the most vile attacks by rhapsodizing about the enthusiasm of their fans
There’s nothing quite so emblematic of commodified fan culture as corporate representatives euphemistically describing this sort of toxicity as “passion.” This C-suite impulse — to never draw a line in the sand and to let the ugliest and loudest voices dictate what fandom should look like — inevitably privileges the bottom line over the more vulnerable people who are harmed by the colliding forces of technology and toxic fandom.
A Slate op-ed on the McDonald’s debacle put it thusly: "It’s beginning to seem like building a culture, an economy, and a society based on tolerating and amplifying the worst impulses of a bunch of jerks for profit can have undesirable secondary effects." But sadly, this phenomenon isn’t “beginning” at all; it’s merely entering a new phase. In 2015, a man in Maryland was shot by rubber bullets after being swatted. The gaming industry has seen this sort of behavior for years, from disgruntled fans summoning helicopters to the homes of game developers to calling in bomb threats on planes carrying studio CEOs.
Ironically, it’s at the corporate level of studios and tech firms where this toxicity is often cultivated and indulged — rabid fans are devoted fans, after all — but there’s also the continued, paradoxical indulgence of the idea that the online domain is somehow real when it’s convenient to fans’ whims, and unreal when it is not.
Journalists Katelyn Alanis and Nichole Manna, whose excellent on-the-ground reporting of the swatting death is a reminder of why local newspapers remain vital, captured this hypocrisy vividly. According to one of Manna’s reports, a man who claimed responsibility for placing the swatting call posted on Twitter, “I DIDNT GET ANYONE KILLED BECAUSE I DIDNT DISCHARGE A WEAPON AND BEING A SWAT MEMBER ISNT MY PROFESSION.” When a YouTube channel reached out to the Twitter account for an interview, the man they spoke to added that “it’s my personal belief that I didn’t cause someone to die.”
For anyone familiar with the excesses of fan culture, this self-justification sounds like more than just panicked denial. It stems from the dissociation encouraged by gaming communities that regard their online beefs and entitlements as real enough to merit horrific online abuse — and in the case of swatting, very tangible abuse — but unreal enough that they can delude themselves into thinking that no one really gets hurt. And if no one is harmed, no one has to be responsible. It’s the same way “trash talk” in games, however abusive, threatening, or prejudiced, is often described by fans and industry executives alike as a “heated gaming moment,” as “just words on a screen,” or “just a game.” (But heaven help you if say that after playing less than expertly in a multiplayer game.)
The age of thinking “words on the internet” were unreal passed us by long ago — if it ever existed at all. People have already been hurt, their lives ruined or forever altered, by cavalcades of online harassment. They have beenforced from their homes, only for law enforcement to not take it seriously; others saw their livelihoods impacted by trolls and even colleagues who fed stories to Breitbart. More saw their families and loved ones targeted because they spoke out about the abuse. Many more still, those whose names weren’t “important” enough to make it into a news article, suffered in silence.
President Trump has demonstrated with painful clarity how even manifestly untrue tweets can move financial markets and embolden harassment of the worst kind. And now, for the gaming community, there’s a bodycount for its “passion.” Now more than ever, we need to acknowledge what the tech industry and its associated fandoms have been egregiously remiss in addressing: that what we say and do in our fan spaces, in games, or on social media, has consequences and we are responsible for it.
As we reflect on this rising wave of internet-facilitated abuse, we should conclude by reflecting on why swatting happens in the first place. Part of its appeal is theatrical: you swat a streamer and then reap “lulz” from seeing a SWAT team burst into their living room or bedroom live on their webcam. But especially for the more vicious harassers that stew in fan communities, it’s a SWAT team’s capacity for violence that really appeals. The police are an extension of their will, a physical manifestation of all the power they think they’re owed. They can hurt people they dislike, or at the very least damage their property — not to mention their sense of safety — with a publicly funded battering ram. With one phone call, they can wield the lethal weaponry of law enforcement like a cudgel in their personal, petty disputes. And as is so often the case with American police, those guns might just go off.
What we say and do in our fan spaces, in games, or on social media, has consequences
Swatting is not a “prank,” as it’s so often characterized by the press. Two years ago, I was interviewed about it as part of a themed April Fools’ segment on public radio. It must now be recognized as the potentially lethal practice it is, one with dangers that are amplified exponentially by the ruthless training of American police forces. Among many examples, a West Virginian policeman was fired for not killing someone when he could have. In Wichita, the local police force defended the killing of the unarmed Finch by saying that he didn’t hold his hands the right way when he answered the door and appeared to be reaching for something.
These sorts of familiar excuses for police violence are often buttressed by stern lectures from officers and random tweeters alike to always act thus-and-so around cops. But why must American citizens be drilled in reacting with military stoicism to having guns pointed in their faces — especially African-Americans, who bear the brunt of unwarranted police violence?
Emanuel Kapelsohn, a policing consultant who has trained thousands of officers in the use of force, went so far as to criticize a case where a police officer safely subdued a suspect who had been “running toward him while holding his hand in his pocket” without using deadly force. “From a professional point of view, the officer made an extremely poor tactical decision and needs to be retrained, not commended,” Kapelsohn told Slate after watching the body cam footage of the incident. “This was someone who needed to be shot, should have been shot.”
This institutional belief that the overriding priority of a police officer is self-preservation rather than serving and protecting, often leads to shooting first and asking questions later — an especially pernicious approach given that implicit biases can affect people of color. Taken together, it’s all made this country a world leader in fatal police shootings.
The people who swatted Finch’s home in a dispute over $1.50 worth of Call of Duty content may try to deny their responsibility for what happened, but they played an undeniable part in putting that armed officer at Finch’s house. A militarized police force did the rest, despite their attempts to foist the blame on those who called them. Both are responsible.
We must do more to rein in the many violent excesses of fan culture and stop sanctioning and coddling their worst offenders as “passionate.” It’ll mean finally listening to what their victims have said for years. And if we truly want to neuter swatting as a tool of abuse, we also have to address police brutality urgently, and finally heed the Black Lives Matter movement instead of consigning it to propagandistic stereotypes. No one should have to die like this. No one had to. We were warned.