The maddening psychology of gaming behavior

Gamers have had a stigma surrounding them for a long time that they’re completely anti-social people. This is far from the truth, as there are many games that aren’t even made to be played solo, but rather with other people. Especially in the huge market of massively multiplayer games. However, this has spawned a new branch of the gamer deemed, “The Rager”. This is someone who is so toxic in their gameplay that they’re more liable to call you names or quit the game out of anger than they are to actually play the game. This has become something to laugh at for some people, and the level of toxic behavior (especially in youth) has grown to a point that it has almost become another cliché of what a gamer is. But, why is this happening? Could it be the dreaded violent video games?

What got me thinking about this was a news article. A new study just came out from Texas Tech University detailing an examination of aggressive behavior of gamers between different modes of play. Subjects played games cooperatively, competitively, and by themselves, and the results were pretty much what I thought they’d be. People who played cooperatively presented pro-social behaviors not only with their teammates, but with the opposing team as well. Both violent and non-violent games were used in the studies, showing that it’s not so much the game that is played as much as it is who you play it with and they type of play it is.

Now, this study was done with up to two people. They could have watched me and my brother playing Nintendo on the couch, and they probably would have come up with about the same conclusion. The same is as true today as it was a couple of decades ago: we play nicer together than we do against each other. So it’s got to be the competitive aspect, right?

Well, the psychology of it gets more muddled when you add more players. And this is where we get the “trolls” and the “ragers”.

Riot Games has been looking into fixing toxic gaming for a while now. Nobody wants to play a game when it depends on teamwork and people won’t play as a team. In their game, League of Legends, they’ve instituted awards for people who play nice, and punishments for people who want to take their ball and go home. The point is to positively enforce good behavior, while admonishing bad behavior. Although it has alleviated some of the toxic activity for higher level players, it has not eliminated it by a long shot. In fact, you could say it has gotten worse for the lower level players, as people who get banned or put on a probationary period tend to just create new accounts and continue their behavior there.

Even with motivation to maintain good sportsmanship, people still continue their toxic behavior. So the question remains, why?

Well, it all drills down to how we feel when we play a game. In the virtual environment, the whole point is to win. Save the princess, save the planet, get the best weapons, rule the galaxy, be the hero. When we lose, we have failed. And failure is a very strong emotion, even if it’s not something tangible that we have failed at. Another article details how frustration and loss seem to be the backbone of aggression in gaming. This is only magnified when you put it on the stage in front of other people, and as games become less pixelated and more immersive. Your loss, your failure, your defeat, your fault. But, of course, you never really want to admit that something could have been your fault. It must have been Player C’s fault, because they’re not paying attention. Or Player B because he’s selfishly taking all the power-ups for himself.

This anger manifests itself within the player and is then projected onto the other people they’re playing with. Because most of these types of games are online, most of it is pretty anonymous as well, which breeds a whole new level of toxicity. Anonymity online lets people disassociate themselves from others. Even if they happen to know the other players in real life, they may not be seeing them as people when they’re online.

If you look at how children play with each other, there are several different types of child’s play. This article from Ayogo breaks it down perfectly:

Solitary play: Playing by yourself (ignoring others around you)

Onlooker play: Noticing others around you, but not playing with them

Parallel play: Implicitly recognizing the play of others around you, doing some of the same things and playing in the same cognitive space, without open social interaction. (Think of two kids building sand castles near each other that resemble each other, even though they never said a word or joined together at all.)

Associative play: Light social interaction with others nearby, but without involving play as a topic or structure

Cooperative play: socially interacting and organizing using games and play as a structure on which to build these interactions.  Note that this implicitly includes competitive play, as the social structures involved necessarily require in-group (our team) and out-group (the other team) interactions.

Now, the article I have referenced goes on to break down different games into these categories, but I think you can dig even deeper than that and actually associate these types of play with the gamers themselves.

  • Some people who play online games engage in Cooperative play. They engage their teammates, work on strategies, and help one another beat the opposing team.
  • Other players engage in Associative play, in that they might be playing the same game, or on an opposing team, or even on the same team, but they tend not to really interact in any meaningful way.
  • Then there are those that engage in Parallel play, who recognize that there are in fact other players, but treat them mostly as a byproduct of the game they’re already playing.
  • Players who engage in Onlooker and Solitary play are the ones who are most likely the most toxic. Onlookers notice the other players, but decide that they’re going to play the game however they want, which usually leads to a lot of tension in team games.  The Solitary players are playing their own game. They are the aforementioned “trolls” who have decided that they’re going to play with a completely different set of rules, and that usually means trying everything in their power to make everyone angry, and top it off with, “U mad, bro?”

So far, nobody really knows why people engage in this sort of behavior. It could be their frustration from losing prior games. My personal belief is that they don’t think of the other players as people at all. I had mentioned that anonymity lends itself to disassociation, and this may be the key. It’s called “Online disinhibition effect” and it’s defined by, “a loosening (or complete abandonment) of social restrictions and inhibitions that would otherwise be present in normal face-to-face interaction during interactions with others on the Internet”. So while little Timmy may be full of manners at the dinner table, online he’s wreaking havoc with no sense of consequence.

There are several studies still being done to understand why this is happening in our culture today, and specifically in the gaming culture. But, for now, we’ll just have to take the good with the bad, and hopefully take out our frustration on virtual constructs together, rather than on each other.

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