Toxicity in the gaming community. It’s a huge problem. I have been wanting to write a piece on this subject for a long time as it’s been something that has bothered me for the better part of the last few years. You cannot write a piece like this without stepping on a few toes and kicking a few shins so I should apologize preemptively for the people that this will undoubtedly offend. Rather than seeing this as me calling people out, look at this as a wakeup call to become more helpful with other gamers in the online gaming setting and understand that we are all here to enjoy and partake of our favorite hobby together.
Words by Sean Gearhart
Please understand that this piece is not going to address cheating, glitching or ganking. Those things, while annoying are not considered technically toxic by the definition we use when we refer to gaming being toxic. That is another very long and arduous conversation for another time. This is by no means a comprehensive examination of this subject but just some of the issues that I think contribute to the general toxicity of online gaming these days.
Why are many gamers so angry or negative online? Toxic? I suppose we must step outside of the gaming community and into basic human psychology for an answer to this. The effects of online gaming trigger the sections of the brain associated with rewards and pleasure, fear and anger. With many encounters in online gaming hitting every single one of these emotions in a mere matter of seconds. And as gamers we must figure out every one of these emotions, on the fly, our brains must sort them out and then we must handle them appropriately.
In all honesty, I don’t know of many hobbies or professions besides being a soldier or a police officer where you will run into this many emotions in the short period as gamers do daily. It’s genuinely a lot to take in. In some instances, it is understandable why we often get angry so quickly and then think about it afterward and wonder why we reacted the way that we did. This is not to excuse vitriolic behavior, it is simply to say that handling all those emotions in such an instance is difficult and for some people we must understand that they are genuinely incapable of emotionally processing this huge influx of emotions so quickly. For some it is impossible and as gamers, we should be aware of this when we play. Not only for understanding our opponents but also understanding ourselves and how we respond to others online.
For the purposes of this column, it bears noting that the greatest percentage of online gamers in 2016 at 58 percent were under the age of 35 all the way down to some as young as 13 years old engaging in unsupervised online gaming. There is also a sharp drop off in online gaming after the age of 36 up until age 49, with only 18 percent engaging in online gaming. Per a self-reporting poll taken on GameFaqs.com back in 2013, the greatest age of Call of Duty players was between 13 and 27, making up a staggering 64.7 percent of those reporting. Shockingly, those ages 13-16 made up a higher percentage than those ages 17-20. While I had some trouble finding newer stats on this, I am sure that it has not changed much and it could even be a higher percentage of younger players now playing online.
This very key aspect to understanding online behavior is to understand that there is often a huge rift in age of those playing online together. The vast range in age of players online is a massive contributing factor to the toxicity that we experience in the gaming community overall. Sorry younger gamers, but you are straight in the crosshairs on this one. You are the greatest percentage online and as such bear the biggest weight of perception of our communities in general.
As I pointed out before, we have teenagers playing online games, that cause massive emotional swings from the extreme high to the extreme low and teenagers are simply not able to handle those kinds of massive emotional swings like those of us that are older gamers. Though I do know a few older gamers who don’t handle them well at all either.
We understand from basic psychology that the human brain does not fully develop its cognitive ability until an individual reaches their mid-20’s. The parts of the brain that control restraint and allow one to think about the consequences of their actions before acting or speaking are not fully formed yet. Therefore, we see a disproportionate amount of vitriolic comments, hateful rhetoric and downright simple insults coming from those who are younger in the gaming community than from those who are older and who are mature, fully cognitively developed adults.
Further compounding the swing in these emotions for younger gamers is that many are simply unable or unwilling to abide by the morality that many of us older gamers have had to develop in our professional life and everyday life in general. A huge proportion of younger gamers see the online interaction as one that allows them to do whatever they please with zero consequences for their negative actions. This leads to some of the worst online behavior in gaming that we see. It leads to online forum boards like Reddit being filled with some of the most racist, sexist, bigoted and vitriolic rhetoric imaginable and it is because of this that many online gaming communities have some of the worst reputations across the board.
In some extreme cases, it has led to some even taking their online revenge to the real world with physical harassment and some resorting the horrendous practice of “SWAT-ting” other players or online streamers. Fortunately, the law isn’t as forgiving or forgetful as some online players are and they don’t take kindly to this kind of behavior with real world punishment coming swiftly and decisively for these young online miscreants. Some of you may remember the DDoS attacks that were perpetrated by Lizard Squad and PoodleCorp. over the last few years that had knocked Xbox Live and the PlayStation network offline for periods of time. All the suspects that have been arrested and charged in those crimes were between 17 and 19 years old at the time of the attacks.
Let some of this sink in, from a psychological stand point we have players as young as 10 years old playing games like Call of Duty and Battlefield, to name the most popular. They have unfettered access to the online communities through their PC’s, messaging on Xbox Live or the PlayStation Network and do so largely unsupervised with almost no real-world consequence for messaging or posting things online that many of we older gamers would not consider saying online or posting online. Yet, somehow, we expect our communities to be free or largely free from this kind of toxicity. What do we really expect? If this is going to change then we must start understanding that online gaming is accessible to almost everyone at this point in our world and we must start policing it better on our own end. Report people who are verbally abusive in online gaming or online forums and stop playing a certain match when people get out of hand. Just like in the real world, if things get out of hand then respond the way you would if it were a face to face interaction. Be calm, report that abusive player and move on. Don’t perpetuate the cycle of toxicity or nothing will change. Sometimes, if the abuse is strong enough, it might require a phone call to Microsoft or to Sony to escalate the offense.
It might seem like I just piled on the younger gamers in this piece. In some aspect, yes, I did. Only because they make up the greatest percentage of online players currently playing online and therefore, as I mentioned before they bear the greatest burden in forming a good impression of our gaming communities. Let this be a lesson, younger gamers. Think before you respond online. People will have different opinions than you on games and that is perfectly acceptable. You do not have the right to speak, write or act anyway you like when playing online without being free from consequences. It is your responsibility to figure out how to play with class and win and lose with dignity and respect for your fellow gamer.
Older gamers, we have a responsibility as pioneers in the gaming world to teach these younger kids HOW to play with class and dignity, honor and respect for their fellow gamers. If we don’t model these things to them, then how will they learn it at all. I am a 36-year-old husband and father to two young boys and I look forward every day to the point in time where I can teach them how to be good, responsible gamers and how to interact with people online with honor and respect. Right now, the best way for them to see that is to see how I interact with people when I do play online. Remember, gaming is not free from consequence and if we all want the toxicity to end then we all must do our part to make our communities a better and safer place for gamers of all ages to come and have fun!