Don't You Know That You're Toxic?

Allen has a bone to pick with Rocket League.

"Ur trash"

"Uninstall the game"

"Trash teamm8"

Within an hour of playing Rocket League last week, I had received at least a dozen messages like this in the team chat. At first, I shrugged it off, but by the third abusive teammate, my mood started to sour. This harassment reached its peak when I received three private messages from someone who called me a retard and blamed me for losing the match. At that point, I really did consider uninstalling the game. My encounters on Rocket League highlight one of the biggest problems within online gaming communities: the normalization of toxic behavior.

Toxic behavior spreads like a virus, affecting everyone that encounters it. In some cases, it goes beyond a video game, but I’d like to specifically focus on toxic behavior within video game communities. This can range from insulting a teammate to purposefully throwing a match by scoring against your own team.  To give a broad definition, toxic behavior is any behavior intended to belittle, harass, or disrespect other players. Put even more simply, it's video game bullying.

The effects of toxic behavior are widespread, and nearly every online video game community has felt them. First and foremost, toxic behavior intimidates new players thereby limiting the lifespan of a video game. If a game doesn’t have new blood entering its playerbase, it will eventually die. Secondly, toxic behavior limits player improvement. Using Rocket League as an example, I’ve had a difficult time learning how to make aerial goals (a technique that requires a lot of patience and practice) because I’m too afraid to miss a shot during a ranked match. While I could always practice in unranked matches or the training mode, I shouldn’t have to restrict myself simply because I’m afraid of being harassed. Lastly, toxic behavior decreases player enjoyment which leads to players abandoning certain video games in favor of more welcoming communities or single-player titles.

So we’ve identified the problem of toxic behavior and its effects, but how do we solve the problem?

One possible solution is to limit or monitor in-game communications. Ultra-competitive games like League of Legends try to limit the amount of toxic behavior by banning toxic players. While this is effective to a certain degree, the game’s reputation has been irreparably damaged, and the playerbase remains unwelcoming to new players by all accounts. On the other hand, Nintendo’s online philosophy has been to avoid voice chat altogether except for a few select titles. Of course, toxic behavior extends beyond just voice channels and chat logs. Griefing, as its known in the gaming community, is deliberate behavior intended to annoy or disrupt other players. Examples include team killing, scoring against your own team, and quitting a ranked match to leave your team down by a player. Additionally, limiting in-game communication punishes other players who might actually want to coordinate their actions with other players.

Perhaps a better solution is to simply adjust player expectations for multi-player video games. Most games offer a binary choice for online matchmaking, ranked or unranked. Generally speaking, ranked matches are where you find the majority of toxic behavior, especially in Rocket League. These players that insulted me weren’t simply upset that I wasn’t performing well; they were angry because their rank was tied to the outcome of the match. A bad match can cause a player to drop a rank so instead of taking a loss, people will often quit a match before it’s over. Compare this system to something like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 where rank isn’t only tied to performance. A player ranks up simply by earning experience points either from performing well or from playing numerous matches. If a single player isn’t performing well in a match it has very little effect on the progression of the other players. Comparing the two systems, you can see that Rocket League creates an environment that’s ripe for toxic behavior. Of course, blaming a video game for toxic behavior is just as stupid as blaming oxygen for fire. The real problem lies with the players themselves.

The only way to eradicate toxic behavior is if the video game community as a whole recognizes the problem and takes steps to solve it. The first step is the easiest: if you’re exhibiting toxic behavior, stop it. The second step is to call out toxic behavior when you see it in a video game. Confront someone when you see them treating others with disrespect, and if they insult you, consider reporting the player. It’s extremely easy to report an abusive player whether via a video game, a console, or a digital platform such as Steam. Finally, don’t support people who exhibit toxic behavior. If I’m being honest, there are plenty of content creators whom I admire that have crossed the line at one point or another. If I find the courage to say something to them, then others might as well.

Unfortunately, we live in age where toxic behavior is not only encouraged, it’s celebrated. With the advent of Youtube and Twitch, certain personalities have built a career out of bullying, disrespecting, and harassing other people. Their followers not only reward these personalities with views, shares and patronage; they often emulate them, thus spreading their toxic influence across the internet. Of course, toxic behavior existed long before Youtube or Twitch. I first encountered toxic behavior in games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare or Gears of War, and after repeated exposure to it, I accepted it without question and even started to exhibit that behavior myself. I’ve taken steps to ensure that I don’t exhibit that behavior any more, but many people don’t even see the problem.

“But Allen,” you say. “It’s just a video game. No one’s forcing you to play it.” You’re absolutely right. The problem is that I want to enjoy playing Rocket League, but I’m quickly reaching the point where that isn’t possible because of the community. Toxic behavior isn’t funny, entertaining, or acceptable; it’s corrosive, immature, and detrimental to the video game community as a whole, and it’s time we put an end to it.

Hailing from Baltimore, Maryland, Allen Brasch is an aspiring writer who loves good science fiction, fantasy, and horror. When Allen's not writing or gaming, he's talking about all things geeky on his podcast, Devil May Play.