Understanding the Psychology of Toxicity in Gaming

Why does toxicity in gaming remain such a problem?

Death threats against developers. Vows of violence against game actors and their families. Vile slurs against minorities, women, and LGBTQ groups in online game lobbies. These are just some examples of the toxicity that plagues the gaming industry, and it seems to get worse every year. Some developers have accepted this as the price of working in the career they love. Many gamers just tune out the abuse, pretending it doesn’t happen. Worse yet, the targets of that abuse must learn to ignore it if they are to participate in the hobby at all.

I’ve often wondered what drives people to make these kinds of threats and act the way they do on social media platforms, game lobbies, and in-game chat. The juxtaposition of these horrendous threats with a Twitter bio that often reads something like “father of 2, husband, believer” is jarring and disturbing, to say the least. In an effort to understand what lies beneath all of this toxicity, I reached out to an expert source on human psychology, licensed Family Therapist Shawn Riker, who was gracious enough to give me his take on the psychological underpinnings of these behaviors. His answers were both illuminating and disturbing.

One of the most upsetting and incomprehensible trends in gaming over the last several years is online harassment of game developers by people who are angry about game delays, plot decisions, or other things. Even actors who play the parts of characters in these games aren’t safe from harassment, as was made clear during the lead-up to the release of 2020’s mega-sequel The Last of Us Part 2.

Not only did Naughty Dog Vice President Neil Druckmann (also the game’s director) receive threats and harassing messages, but so did Laura Bailey, the actress who played Abby, one of the game’s “villains.” Bailey stated that she had received threats to herself and her children from people who were upset over the direction of the game’s story and the actions taken by Abby. Some of the threats she mentioned even seemed unable to separate the actress from the role she played in the game, referring to her by the character’s name in the threat.

Threatening tweets related to The Last of Us Part 2

The highly anticipated God of War: Ragnarok saw a similar spate of unsavory messages on social media when a rumored release date announcement didn’t come to fruition. This prompted Sony Santa Monica studio head Carey Barlog to tweet out a plea for fans to stop harassing the game’s creators and show “human decency.”

So it was with these incidents in mind that I began the questions for our expert. I asked why he thought people felt they could make these kinds of threats on a platform where they were clearly not anonymous and could easily be tracked and brought to account for their actions. Riker agreed, saying, “Our entire society is set up for immediate gratification rather than delayed gratification,” Riker said. “When you mix immediate gratification with entitlement, you get this type of behavior.”

The idea of entitlement was one I hadn’t considered in this context, and it lead me down a related path for my follow-up question. For decades now, people have been encouraged to speak out when they see an injustice, to affect change by talking about the change and manifesting it through their actions. While this has proven to be a good thing, by and large, I’ve long wondered if the threats and toxicity that result when a plot doesn’t go the way fans want or an anticipated game is hit with delays are extreme outgrowths of the idea of vocalized empowerment. I strongly affirm your statement that people have been empowered to speak up,” said Riker, “to the extreme. Speaking up, coupled with entitlement, has taken us to bad places.”

Anecdotal evidence seems to point largely in the direction that threats of violence and intimidation are largely ineffective when directed up from the bottom of the power matrix. So I inquired why people would go to such horrific lengths when the logical outcome is that such efforts would likely backfire.

“Unfortunately, logic doesn’t play a role in people’s reactions. As you say, when people resort to “horrific lengths,” they are failing to use the most advanced part of their brain to interact with people. They are using the limbic system, which controls the fight/flight response. The same part of your brain that is responsible for kicking into action when you see a shark fin in the water. The more advanced part of their brain, the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for thoughtful interactions with people is physiologically off-line… People with a higher emotional quotient would be less likely to react in this way.” 

I wanted to circle back with our expert on the idea of anonymity being a cause or at least an enabler of toxic behavior in online games. As has already been covered, having your real name and image out there doesn’t seem to stop some people from bad behavior, so the superficial veil of a random avatar and made-up name would seem to make things worse. According to Riker, “I think a lot of people feel the freedom to say what they really think in an online environment because of the anonymity. It is really creepy what people think in the deep corners of their minds.”

upset person looking at laptop

Expounding on the idea of online toxicity resulting from a difference between a person’s public persona and the online version of themselves, Riker offered this assessment:

“There is definitely less fear of reprisal online from talking to people in a nasty way. People genuinely believe that they can do anything they want online. They do not connect a chat room to an actual person psychologically. Worse, people have started to confuse these online relationships with the standard for connection in life. This generally leads to overwhelming depression and anxiety because the relationships are so incredibly insufficient.”

I didn’t want to leave out an exploration of group dynamics and the role it plays in toxicity, so I pivoted to the idea of tribalism in the gaming space. That word is thrown around a lot these days, and anyone who spends even a bit of time on Twitter or watching the news can see it in action. Oxford Languages defines tribalism (under the ‘derogatory’ tag) as “the behavior and attitudes that stem from strong loyalty to one’s own tribe or social group.”

One can often see this at work in the gaming space where there seems to be an almost complete denial of nuanced opinions or middle-of-the-road takes. If a particular group takes issue with your stance, they will do anything to change your mind or, failing that, attempt to take away your ability to have a take at all. I asked our expert about the psychological background of the idea, and he had this to say:

“I think the psychological underpinnings have a lot to do with the fact that people believe in an ideology, or a singular politician, or person, being their “savior.” They think if they give their loyalty and allegiance over to a viewpoint or a person, all of the problems in the world will be solved. We see this in virtually every area of discourse today. This whole belief assumes a top-down change model, which I think is grossly incorrect. Real change takes place in relationships between people from the bottom up.”

As I wrapped up my discussion with Mr. Riker, I wanted to find out what he thought about the future. With all the world has gone through, from divisive politics in the U.S. to the global pandemic, does he think there is a way back to more civil discourse?

“I really hate to be a glass-half-empty guy, but I do not see any quick way back from this. There are too many stakeholders that stand to benefit through power and money with the existing system in place. I think it would take a drastic national or world event to create a different path. Something like 9/11 or Pearl Harbor”; Riker continued, “of course, and this is probably pie in the sky, we could get a truly benevolent individual who is willing to put individual beliefs aside and empower this person-to-person bottom-up dynamic. I think past examples of this include people like Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, maybe a handful of others. These are people who were willing to forsake money and their safety to demonstrate a broader principle.”

Angry man hitting desk and yelling

With an eye toward ending on a hopeful note, I asked what solutions he thought might be possible to help those who are victims of toxicity. “To some extent, I think that people need to learn to care less about what other people think of them and say about them. I always tell my clients, ‘Don’t ever allow somebody else to climb in your driver’s seat. Your character and integrity as a person are much more valuable than your reaction to a bully or a toxic person.’”

While I appreciate the thin line between suggesting people just care less and the idea of victim blaming, I found Mr. Riker’s answer to offer some personal empowerment with his advice to put yourself and your positive attributes ahead of what others may think. I also believe that platforms and game publishers need to work harder at all levels to make their spaces safe for everyone, but I also understand the thorny problems delineating free speech from abusive speech.

As a post-script, I wanted to include what Mr. Riker said to me in his opening comments about gaming-related issues he sees in his practice. While the hobby we all love has clearly and obviously moved past the trope of “anti-social white male playing games in his basement” to now include positive effects for people of all genders, races, and nationalities, there seems to be very little first-hand accounting of how video games affect people in the real world. Mr. Riker shared the following with me:

“The overwhelming way in which I see video games being a problem in my clinical work is the fact that they draw people’s time and attention away from more important obligations. Of course, I see overuse of gaming and teenagers, but these problems are primarily about young adult males that choose to come home from work and play video games rather than spend time with their families.”

I’d like to express my gratitude to our expert, Mr. Shawn Riker, for answering the myriad questions I posed to him and being our source for what I hope is a helpful look behind the curtain of the problem of toxicity in the gaming sphere.

I’ll close by offering just a few pieces of time-honored advice to anyone who may read this: please enjoy gaming, as with all things, in moderation and in a responsible way. And above all else, please try to treat people decently, the way you would want to be treated, on social media, in-game, and in real life. We could all truly, measurably change the world if we could do just those few things.

By Bryan Finck

I've been gaming since my Dad handed me an Atari 2600 controller in the early 80's. I've been a PC Gamer since CGA graphics were a thing (ask your parents), and a PlayStation lifer since 1997. Currently addicted to No Man's Sky on PS5, Dead Cells on PC, and working my way through Xbox classics on PC Game Pass!


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