If the most recent U.S. presidential election proved anything, it’s that some of our worst impulses lie just below the surface, merely waiting for the right moment to burst out. Behavior like this has always been innate in humans, but often minor occurrences are disregarded. While this behavior is widespread and affects nearly every aspect of our modern culture, its impact is not always recognized.
Videogames were invented as a source of pleasurable entertainment; they create digital landscapes — entire worlds even — where people can explore and enjoy themselves. When videogames were first introduced, the Internet was barely a seedling of its current form. No one knew how enormous and pervasive it would eventually become, or how greatly it would change so many things in our culture — videogames included. But here we are in 2016, and the online gaming community is the strongest it has ever been. Millions of players are connected all across the world via their computers or home gaming consoles and can interact with one another at any given time. This creation leads to an enormous amount of fun and happiness, but there is a dark side to gaming, and it is one that has the potential to damage the existing community, and even those indirectly connected to it.
Just like other platforms imbued with social connectivity, toxic behavior is inevitable in the gaming world. Toxicity does not have a strict definition, but it generally involves any harmful activity by an individual in an online game or on the Internet, through voice chat or in text form, that targets a specific person or group.
Nathaniel Turner is one individual who has been part of the gaming community for many years. Nathaniel is 25 years old and has been playing videogames online since he was 11. He is a tall, somewhat burly individual with a neatly trimmed beard stretching across his face. His demeanor is calm and collected and he speaks quickly, but his words feel careful and precise. He is currently studying art at San Francisco State University with the hopes of one day becoming a videogame designer. He says it is because videogames have been such an important part of his past, and most likely his future, that he is so concerned with the harmful behavior some people exhibit while playing them.
“You’re interacting with these people on their off time; they’re not at work, they’re not at school, and often times they are in the comfort of their own home,” he says after spending a few moments pondering his encounters with toxic gamers. “I feel like you are actually getting more of a normal sense of who they are.”
Nathaniel’s perspective suggests that for the people who choose to behave in a toxic way, it is a reflection of their most accurate self. When they are out in the real world, the rules of society, where people must always act pleasant and respectful around one another, must be upheld. If those rules are broken, the consequences are not only likely more severe, but more direct as well. But when players act this way in the privacy of their own home, completely separated from the people they are interacting with, it becomes an entirely different story.
“Sadly there are stereotypes surrounding gamers that as a result of the toxicity we are simply immature basement dwellers, and that’s just absolutely not the case,” he declares.
Nathaniel says he has been fortunate enough to not be the target of aggressive behavior in online games in the past, and believes one of the main reasons for this is because he is a white male.
“White males are just not the primary targets,” he shrugs, his voice growing increasingly sullen. “I have numerous female friends that I play with and I have witnessed and heard sexual harassment, death threats, and all of these types of things. I’m literally right there seeing it, and I have to step up and help to make sure it stops.”
He notes that although you can take measures to avoid encountering toxic players, it’s impossible to avoid them entirely. When he asked his female gamer friends what they do to avoid toxicity and sexual harassment in the gaming world, their response was that they provide as little information about themselves as possible — even down to their gender.
“ [In gaming] you have a public profile, kind of like Facebook, and often times they will make sure not to mention their gender or any distinguishing factors about themselves that might attract harassment,” he recalls. “It’s almost like a defense mechanism.”
Kristin Perez, a 22-year-old computer science major at SF State has experienced this type of gender discrimination in gaming first hand. She remembers growing up playing Sonic and Mario with her father, which fostered a love for videogames that is still with her. But even when she was young, she would get bullied at school if she brought her Gameboy or anything that showed her love for gaming. When she entered the online gaming world, things only got worse.
“My first online gaming experience was Call of Duty,” Kristin recalls. “I got to a point where they would know I was a girl, where I would actually have to change my avatar to make it like a boy because I’d be more accepted.”
She says that in gaming, there has always been an assumption that games are meant for men, so female players are often ridiculed or harassed by male players for simply wanting to share in these experiences.
In her years playing games, Kristin has been a target for many toxic players, who often focus their insults on the fact that she is a woman.
“I remember one time when I was playing Call of Duty and they noticed I was a girl and that I was doing well,” she notes, then shifting her voice to mimic the crude tone of the players she encountered. “I got everything from ‘go back to the kitchen!’ to ‘you’re a stupid bitch!’”
Kristin knows that this type of behavior happens between males as well, and sometimes it can be harmless, but she believes it is often taken too far, especially when it comes the treatment women. She says she has even received messages from people threatening to rape her.
Though she affirms these incidents have not had a significant mental impact on her, she worries for those who aren’t able to brush off such verbal abuse so easily.
“Can you imagine for someone who isn’t like me? Someone who has such a difficult time valuing themselves and their self worth and then hearing these things online?” she remarks. “Can you imagine what kind of impact that would have? It would be horrendous.”
Though women are a frequent prey for toxic players, anyone can become a target. In games like Overwatch, a first-person shooter released this year by highly popular game developer Blizzard Entertainment, this poisonous verbal spew often stems from a player disliking or disagreeing with the actions of their teammates. Overwatch is highly competitive by nature, and the desire to win can be so strong that any average player can turn toxic if they believe their potential loss is a result of the actions of other team members. In this very male dominated world, most often the easiest target is a female player, but any player who is perceived as weak may be attacked.
Nathaniel is convinced that this type of behavior in any scenario makes the experience more negative for everyone, so why do people act in this way at all? Some believe there could be more of a benefit than merely the satisfaction of declaring disapproval of their team — and it’s rooted in the concept of negative reinforcement.
Kevin Eschleman, a psychology professor at SF State, has spent a portion of his career researching the motivations behind why some managers in work environments behave abusively toward their workers. Though his research has not specifically studied gamers, it does provide insight into how the aggressors in online gaming might view themselves, and why they feel their actions are justified.
Kevin says that in one study he was involved with, researchers specifically looked at intentionality and found two possible motivations: malicious intent and the “tough love” approach. Research on the latter suggests that the toxic actions are carried out with an intention beyond simply expressing anger, and the perpetrator actually believes their behavior will be beneficial to the opposite party.
“You can think of a coach or drill sergeant or even maybe a teacher who will try to insult you or criticize you harshly, and the real goal is to light a fire under you — to get you to work harder or perform better,” he explains as the afternoon sun peaks through his office window onto his face.
He believes that for some recipients, this type of negative reinforcement is exactly what they need to boost their performance, but it can come with some side effects.
“What we find in our research is that when people are abusive in a powerful role, the subordinates or workers will work harder. They will respond and say ‘okay you’ve treated me poorly, I have to do my job better, I have to put in more effort,’” he says. “But what also happens, is that not only do they have that uptick of performance, they start to do these deviant things behind the scenes themselves.”
This could certainly apply to the gaming community leading to the increasing pervasiveness of toxic behavior. Like a virus, negativity can spread from person to person. Merely being targeted or exposed to someone who is toxic is enough to incite the very same conduct from the original recipient.
“Although on the surface it looks like this person is working harder and you are getting them to do what you want them to do, you are almost facilitating that type of behavior to happen somewhere else,” Kevin notes.
In his experiences, Nathaniel has encountered similar results where entire environments can become corrupted by toxicity.
“Hate begets hate,” he says with an ironic chuckle. “Sometimes when the tone is so aggressive and accusatory, that just breeds more and causes more people to pile on.”
One of the biggest concerns with the spread of this conduct is the lack of consequences in places for the abusers. In a real-life scenario, the immediacy of being face to face with someone makes the aggressive behavior more difficult.. But in a videogame, that deterrent no longer exists. There are no faces. No one can see the emotional impact of the abusive words. And therefore, no one is accountable.
“When you look at gaming, it’s still real life; it’s just talking when we feel there are no consequences,” Nathaniel adds.
Though there are procedures in place for players to report perpetrators to game companies in the hopes that they will be banned, Nathaniel believes the systems in their current form are a joke.
“I’ve rarely heard stories of anyone actually getting banned,” he says.
He also added that these processes can be refined to minimize the possibility of encountering a toxic player, such as letting players send detailed voice messages to companies regarding harassers they encounter. But he admits that in the end, game developers can implement all the counter measures in the world, but it really comes down to players learning to be more supportive of one another.
Despite the negative impact of toxic players, Nathaniel’s views still reflect the majority of gamers who seek a healthy environment to explore these digital worlds.
“We have a very unfortunate trend as humans where we enjoy the misfortune of others,” he says, his voice as serious as ever, but carrying a hint of optimism. “Nothing is going to get more positive until someone takes that first step to be positive.”