When trolling needs to be punished with more than a slap on the wrist

This morning, I learned that Bioware’s senior writer, Jennifer Hepler, resigns following death threats against her family.

‘I was shown a sample of the forum posts by EA security,’ says Hepler ‘And it included graphic threats to kill my children on their way out of school to show them that they should have been aborted at birth rather than have to have me as a mother.’ [x]

Six years ago, Hepler was called a “cancer” and blamed for the less than great Dragon Age II game when she admitted to not enjoying combat in games. The threats and baseless accusations against her as the harbinger of all things horrible and evil at Bioware have continued, brought to light again with her work on Dragon Age: Inquisition, but perhaps it’s the mother in me that had me shaking in my shoes this morning when I learned that the threats were against her children. I was, and still am, livid.

Apparently, Hepler has stated that she did not specifically quit because of the harassment, though I certainly don’t blame her if it served as significant motivation. I don’t expect everyone to stand up and fight like others have in the face of such abuse, especially when the safety of her family has been called into question. But I do expect her company to support her and put down a very strong foot to ensure such poison does not get to fester on their forums, etc.

Harassment against industry representatives is growing in the spotlight as the gaming industry becomes more and more mainstream. Initially, I thought that the majority of such threats came from ignorant teens and young adults who think their trolling is funny, but then I remembered the utterly evil things grown women would say on the Parenting101 community I once was a member of. These mothers were a gang of hoodlums who prided themselves on swarming the new moms who dared to question anything that went against the apparent rules of parenting that these gang mom adhered to. I would fight them as much as I could, but did it really matter? When they were finished ripping apart their victim on Parenting101, they would move on to their snark communities to laugh about their conquests.

People all over the internet are speaking out about trolling, but at what point do we realize that the claim of freedom of speech has crossed the line into actual crime when death threats against a person and his or her family are posted publicly, or delivered privately?

“The root cause of the problem isn’t in what we do, making games, it’s that there are so little consequences to this wildly violent approach of communication that we are simply one audience of many that are subject to this type of focus,” he said. “There’s no real penalty right now.” [x]

Whether or not trolls intend to follow through with these threats, it’s about time we stop merely slapping them on the hand. They might be the minority and the internet might rebuke their actions in articles and blog posts like this very one, but it’s time legal action is taken to make it clear that their actions are not just morally wrong, but (bordering on) illegal. I don’t assume that every troll can be hunted down by the police. I understand that this adds administrative hours and dollars, which might be tough for a smaller company to handle. Still, I’d like to think it’s a price a company would be willing to pay to protect and support the emotional health of their staff members. Trolls who threaten lives should, at the very least, receive a politely worded correspondence from the police or legal representatives requesting a cease and desist, with a very clear or else. And if these trolls do cross the line with phone calls and personal letters, then legally crucify them for their crimes and make it loud and clear that trolling is not a game. It’s not shits and giggles when you threaten someone’s life.

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