Toxic Gamers and the Problem of Anonymity

A quick preface:  Over the weekend I watched the above video and it got me thinking a lot about the toxic environment of online gaming.  Since World of Warcraft is the game that I’ve experienced the most toxic behavior in, that will be the game I use as the primary focus of my examples.  That said, I know that there are plenty of other toxic gaming environments out there.

What is a ”toxic gamer”.

This guy has surely had relations with your mom.

If you’re reading this blog then there is probably not a huge reason for me to explain the details of what a toxic gamer is, but for the sake of the few that might not be aware, here are the broad strokes.  Toxic gamers are players that suck the fun out of a game for the rest of the community.  The most striking example would be players who use profane language, racial and sexist slurs and other insults to put other players down.  There are many forms of toxic behavior beyond just insults, but that seems to be the most notable form of the behavior.

What’s the big deal?

Gaming is supposed to be fun, right?  Unhealthy gaming environments make entire games unplayable, not because the game itself is bad, but because the community is so rude, ruthless, or otherwise unwelcoming that it becomes impossible to enjoy playing.  If you joined a softball team and every time you missed a pop-fly or struck out your entire team screamed at you and berated you for being black or female or gay or stupid, would you want to continue to play on that team?  Would you even want to play softball at all?  This is exactly what happens in a toxic gaming environment.

In my personal experience, a bad gaming environment can ruin a great game.  At one point I was an avid World of Warcraft player.  I’ve since stopped playing the game entirely.  One of the chief reasons for this was that I got tired of dealing with the consistently bad environment that the game had created.  Because the game relies so heavily on player interaction, when that interaction becomes unhealthy, the game itself becomes unhealthy.  The sad part is that this has nothing to do with the actual game.  The graphics are still fine, the game runs fine, the mechanics are fun.  It’s only the other players that make the game un-fun.

Why is it such a problem?

Girl gamers rage too.

The problem is mainly anonymity.  If you think about it, the concept of communicating anonymously on such a large scale is completely in its infancy.  Social customs that governed face-to-face communication for thousands of years are suddenly not applicable.  As a global society, we’ve yet to create even the most basic tenants of decent online etiquette.  To a certain degree, what I just said is wrong.  People, in general, know right from wrong, and they know that calling each other names, regardless of anonymity, is a mean thing to do.  When you add that anonymity shield though, it’s easy to lose that humanity; to disregard that sense of right and wrong.  After all, you can’t see the person you’re affecting.  You can’t see the sadness on their face, or the fury in their eyes.  Perhaps more importantly, you’re shielded from their wrath.  Imagine that you’re a 5’1”, 12 year old boy walking down the street.  Would you walk up to Mike Tyson and start screaming insults in his face?  I’d think not.  But with the anonymity of the internet, Mike Tyson is as vulnerable as anyone else.

On some level maybe the anonymity is a good thing.  It’s not fair to pick on people anonymously, but it’s also not fair to be picked on in real life.  Using the Mike Tyson analogy again, if he walked up to me right now and started screaming obscenities in my face I probably wouldn’t do anything about it.  Its Mike Tyson after all, I’m not exactly ready to throw down with the badest man on the planet.  The thing is, the anonymity provided by the internet gives far too much power to the bullies, and far too little to the bullied.

It’s not the players’ fault.

“As individuals, people are inherently good.  I have a somewhat more pessimistic view of people in groups.” – Steve Jobs

That quote is extremely applicable here.  Have you ever met anyone who literally belittles and berates every stranger they meet on the street?  Have you ever met anyone so hostile, and so toxic that they live only to pick fights with absolutely anyone they can?  I doubt it.  Most individuals are flawed but decent people.  In a group though (and with that lovely anonymity shield), they can become total monsters.

This is not players’ faults though, believe it or not.  If everyone drove the speed limit all the time, always stayed 5 car lengths between each other, kept their hands at the 10 and 2 position, and observed all of the other common sense rules of the road there would be very little use for seat belts, air bags, or any other safety measure.  If everyone always observed the rules of the road safety would be an afterthought.  Yet, if you were to buy a car today and you were told that it did not come with seat belts or air bags you would be appalled.  A car like that would be considered a death trap.  Why?  Because people don’t always obey the rules of the road.  As a group, drivers have been deemed unsafe, and precautions have been taken.  Those in charge of ensuring that a car is safe are the car manufacturers though, not the individual drivers.  Cars come pre-installed with all the necessary safety measures to keep you, the driver, as safe as possible.

In the same sense, game developers should be in charge of recognizing that anonymous online gaming can be an extremely toxic environment and should be in charge of ensuring that safety measures are in place to keep the environment safe and fun for all.  That’s not to say that developers do nothing.  As evidenced by the above video, there are many measures in place to help make the environment better.  The trouble is that there simply aren’t enough, and the systems that are in place often seem like their pointless.

For example, there is a feature in World of Warcraft where a player can be reported for bad behavior.  Typically this occurs when a player types out a text message that contains inappropriate language or concepts (rape, etc…).  Reporting a player supposedly alerts a team at Blizzard that this player has engaged in some inappropriate behavior.  This can result in a player being temporarily suspended or even permanently banned.  Not once in my 6+ years of playing WoW did I ever personally witness a single player get suspended or banned.  So, what is the point of the system if it’s viewed as impotent?  Even if there are some players getting suspended and banned, it’s with such irregularity that the community in general doesn’t notice it.

So what’s the solution?


The solution is several fold; for one, game developers need to continue to develop and refine systems that help separate the nice people from the not-so-nice people.  Things like player recommendations, player score, etc… are all steps in that direction, and those things should be applauded.  Those systems still have a long way to go though.  Bigger rewards and harsher penalties would help with that.  In WoW for example, you should have a player score which determines how helpful you are to the community.  The higher the score, the more money is taken off of your monthly subscription.  Rude players in Call of Duty should have to endure longer match queues, have access to less weapons, etc…  There should be a system or real-world rewards and punishments associate with how you treat other real-world human beings.

There is a larger problem here though, which goes beyond the capabilities of any automated system.  Gaming society as a whole needs to begin to police itself, weeding out bad behavior wherever it occurs.  Automated systems like the ones above only work if players are using them.  To a certain degree, players simply will not use them, just like some people simply refuse to wear their seat belts.  In these cases, we as the gaming community need to do a better job of policing ourselves.

Once again referencing the video above, the bystander effect is incredibly important in this environment.  When it’s so easy to forget that another person is on the other end of that microphone or keyboard, we have to step up and stop the bullying ourselves.  In a very tangible way it does lead to change.  Simply witnessing someone stand up to an online bully makes all the other players feel more empowered to do the same.

Why this is all so important.

I’m going to be completely honest here…I’m not a man of causes.  I don’t go out of my way to advocate for the civil rights of other races, genders, sexual orientations, etc…  I’m not any kind of activist.  I’m simply a guy that wants to play video games.  The reason this is so important to me (and should be important to you) is because regardless of how you feel about any political or social issues, toxic environments ruin otherwise fun games.  We all plunk down our hard earned money to buy these games and we deserve the right to enjoy them, but when they become so infested with bullies that all of the decent, fun players leave what’s left is a toxic wasteland of mean-spirited jerks.  That’s not good for gamers a whole.