The Toxic World of Online Gaming

It’s a weekend afternoon, and you finally have free time to indulge in some video games. You boot up your preferred platform, throw on a headset, and log into a lobby. It all seems normal until you hear it: a team member is telling someone to “just leave if they’re not going to play seriously.” It’s annoying, you think, but you can understand a little frustration. However, as the rounds drag on, the abuse stacks and spreads; they criticize character choice, berate your team’s ability, and every death is someone else’s fault for not following their impeccable lead. Finally, they leave halfway through the match, and all you can hope for is not getting an abusive private chat from them in the next five minutes. More often than not, that’s just wishful thinking.

Most online gamers have encountered a toxic player at one point or another. Multiplayer games have skyrocketed in popularity over the past few years, with WePC’s statistics showing about 40% of all gamers from 18 to 40 years playing online multiplayer games. As the communities around these games grow, so too have instances of bullying. The BBC reports that over half of young gamers have experienced some kind of bullying while playing online, with 22% of them saying they stop playing the game completely when it occurs. The targets have also spread beyond the games themselves, with online reviewers and personalities within the gaming world receiving threats of violence and even sexual assault for their work.

In response, game developers are finding unique ways to deal with toxic gamers. Some of them are funny, such as in Blizzard’s popular multiplayer game, Overwatch, where typing in the chat “gg ez” (mocking the other team for being easily beaten) changes the message into such lines as “It’s past my bedtime. Please don’t tell mommy.” In other games, the punishment is more severe, with special algorithms detecting abusive chat and banning players from online play. Players have also been given the ability to report abusive or cheating behavior

Gamers themselves have various ways of dealing with toxic gaming communities. The most common tactics are simply ignoring them, muting their chat, or turning off the game. However, many have taken to more creative methods of dispensing justice. Alanah Pearce, a game journalist from Australia, received rape threats from viewers of her YouTube channel. In response, she found several of the commenter’s mothers and sent screenshots of the threats.

Beyond reporting and standing up to toxic behavior in games, it’s important to recognize when your own behavior in games is becoming harmful to other people. Insulting your teammates, blaming everyone else for losses, and falsely reporting players who beat you are major signs of being toxic in the face of loss. On the other side of the spectrum, feeling a sense of enjoyment from purposely targeting other players, excessive bragging, and trolling people to the point of quitting also show a lack of graciousness when winning.

Bullying in video games hurts players on multiple levels. Firstly, it harms people who view video games as a fun, engaging way to relax and interact with a larger community. Targeting from toxic players can ruin the experience, cutting them off from a medium and group that otherwise is very accepting. Secondly, it harms the video game community as a whole in the wider world. Video games are often the target of media stigma for such themes as violent content or promoting antisocial personalities. As news of harassing behavior becomes more common, it will create more of a negative stigma around the medium, even as gamers, developers, and journalists try to make it more mainstream and popular.