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Toxic Identity Performance and Problematic Behaviour and its Relationship with Online Gaming

Online gaming is where people, connected over the internet participate in a competitive or collaborative environment to achieve a task set by a game, often enhanced with verbal and/or visual communication (Maher, 2016). Although, the online gaming community is not restricted to the online collaboration of multi-player games, it also includes individuals who play single player games who interact over online platforms such as social media (Mohd Affendi, 2008). Online gaming can be considered a social life for many individuals, this has been facilitated by enhancements in gaming technology such as mass real time communication, virtual reality software and equipment and web 2.0 (Mohd Affendi, 2008). Virtual reality gaming is a technology that replaces the real world with a customised synthetic one that players can engage with through headsets and other biotech (Cruz-Neira, 2018). Virtual reality is more immersive and evolved than ever, now even players eye, mouth and hands/finger movements being represented in game (VR Chat, 2020). This evolution has allowed for the relationships built over the online world to become deeper and more complex (Mohd Affendi, 2008). Although there are many social benefits of being a member of the gaming community, the character building of the games and its associated communication channel can provoke and maintain aggressive identity performances within the community.

With contemporary games offering complex character-building methods such as customization of hair, eyes, gender, race, human or non-human form etc., the building of a or multiple digital identities is relatively easy (Ecenbarger, 2014). This paper will explore identity through the Goffman model of identity, which suggests that identities are altered to project a desirable image of one’s self when confronted with different social environments and situations (Bullingham & Vasconcelos, 2013). Goffman model of identity suggests people are capable of developing multiple identities that are essentially fluid in nature (Bullingham & Vasconcelos, 2013).The building of online identities is not fundamentally a negative thing as it allows many people to escape the real world into a safe space, which can have many benefits (Ecenbarger, 2014). For example, people with disabilities or poor living conditions can find respect and acceptance from others through their gaming abilities (Mohd Affendi, 2008). The other side is when the digital identity starts to become a more potent part of one’s whole identity, and this can lead to a deteriorating mental and physical state (Hoffswell, 2017). A gamer can have multiple personas and varying behavioral patterns due to the anonymity and, virtually consequence free environments, this leads to the digital disinhibition effect (Monjezizadeh, 2016). Online gaming identities and the levels of social involvement in a game can impact how an individual behaves within the wider gaming communities and sub-communities.

A virtual community can be defined as a virtual gathering of a group of people who share ideas, thoughts and experience to relate to one another through the mediation of contemporary communication technology (Mohd Affendi, 2008). The online gaming community is an example of this but with the theme of the ideas and experiences being gaming. Mohd Affendi (2008) describes 6 types of virtual communities including relationship, place, fantasy, mind, memory and transaction. The virtual community relationship refers to people bonding and providing each other support and relating to each other. Online gaming facilitates this heavily by connecting people from all over the world to build friendships (Mohd Affendi, 2008). Usually people’s social interactions are geographically limited to their school, work and sport or hobbies, for some individuals finding someone they relate to is extremely difficult, online gaming eliminates this barrier (Gong et.al., 2019).  Gamers gathering and engaging in a fantasy world allows for them to connect to people in a way never before possible, although a fantasy world can distract them from using appropriate social behaviour (Mohd Affendi, 2008).

The fantasy community is where people meet in a made-up digital world and interact through either a story guided or free roam environment, which is the genre of many games such as World of Warcraft and VR Chat (Mohd Affendi, 2008). The Mind and Interest community is people who gather together to share similar values and attitudes and reinforce commitment to one another (Mohd Affendi, 2008). This is expressed in the gaming world through the development of clans and guilds, where people with common goals and attitudes play together, often segregated between casual and more serious players. (Hoffswell, 2017). The memory community is people gathering who have shared experiences, whereas most games provide a consistent experience allowing for players to bond (Mohd Affendi, 2008). The transaction community is a virtual platform that facilitates the buying and selling of good and services, and this is present in many games nowadays (Mohd Affendi, 2008). A new revenue raising tactic implemented by the gaming industry is the microtransaction, which is an in-game purchase to help increase or speed a player’s progression (Svelch, 2017). This type of strategy is being used now in full-price games and is being widely condemned and has resulted in boycotts and backlashes from gamers (Svelch, 2017). This is an example of the how powerful the gaming community can be when they have a shared grievance.

Most online identities are a form of social identity, which can be defined as the part of an individuals perception of themselves that derives from his or hers acceptance within in a social groups(s), combined with the emotional value attached to the belonging of such a group (Howe et.al, 2015). Gaming is now widely accepted as a social experience and a contributer to social capital (Poecze et.al 2019). According to Poecze et.al (2019), social capital refers to the members of an individuals’ social group that are beneficial for acquiring new information (weak ties) and people who provide emotional and social support (strong ties). Goh et.al (2019) highlights the positive impacts of online gaming including the development of social skills, creation of support networks and a general improvement in well-being. Goh et.al (2019) explore the use of gaming to distinguish between excessive use and physiological benefits through examining gamers motivations. Goh et.al (2019) identified various types of players based on motivation, as socialisers (playing to social with friends); completionists (completing the entirety of the game); competitors (play for the glory of winning); escapists (playing to escape the real world); story driven (playing for the games story line).

Virtual reality gaming provides the ultimate escape from the real world and is the perfect platform for escapists to escape their world and form a new identity (Goh et.al, 2019). However, gamers who use gaming as a way of avoiding real life problems often experience more problematic issues such a poor mental health (Goh et.al, 2019). Players with low self-esteem and high levels of escapism are at the most risk for problematic outcomes including both mental and physical (Goh et.al, 2019). Competitors and escapists are often prone to violent verbal abuse of their fellow gamers within the social media and gaming environment (Maher, 2016). Maher (2016) describes that gamers are thought to be hostile towards one another in a mostly consequence-free environment populated primarily by competitive male youth. Gamers harass each other for a multitude of reasons including teammates who aren’t performing well, cheaters or simply being of a particular gender, race or religion (Maher 2016).

The online gaming world has a subcommunity of what the internet call ‘trolls’, who are people who indulge in repeated cyber harassment against victims who can not defend themselves (Zazulka & Seigfried-Spellar 2016). Trolling has a positive relationship with psychopathy and sadism; with sadism being the biggest predictor (Zazulka & Seigfried-Spellar 2016). Sadism refers to the individuals who exert pain on others for their own personal pleasure, and this is represented in the gaming community through harsh bullying and verbal abuse (Chester et.al, 2018). Online anonymity among online gaming gives players with sadistic and psychopathic tendencies a mostly consequence free place to prey on their victims (Untoro & Monjexi, 2016). It is largely up to the gaming community to hold its members accountable but it is not possible to monitor and control the behaviours of all its members, and if they did, they would likely have to ban a large portion of their player base (Maher, 2016). Gamers are a an extremely diverse group of people, with a wide involvement between race, gender, religion and age, although despite this, racism, sexism and discrimination are still very prominent (Chang et.al, 2015).

A reason for people who act so radically over online games can also be attributed something called the digital disinhibition effect. Disinhibition refers to when an individual act irrationally and illogically in social situations (Untoro & Monjexi, 2016). Untoro & Monjexi (2016) explain that the digital disinhibition effect consists of two types; benign disinhibition and toxic disinhibition. Benign disinhibition is when someone over the internet is more likely to open up about personal and emotional matters and seek help and / or show kindness and selflessness to others that they wouldn’t usually have the confidence to do in real life (Untoro & Monjexi, 2016). This is seen in online gaming, a lot of people are not happy with their lives; people who do not have anyone to talk to can often find someone they relate to in the gaming world (Eklund & Roman, 2017). Eklund & Roman (2017) describe that social identity theory explains that people prefer friends who are like themselves and share similar interests. Just by gaming people are sharing a common interest therefore the social awkwardness of making friends is severely diluted as there is foundational activity to build upon. People with social anxiety and/or low self-esteem are in a more controlled environment, as they can remove themselves from the situation at any time allowing for more comfortable communication (Eklund & Roman, 2017). Although the display of unrestricted emotion is also what fundamentally fuels the toxic disinhibition effect (Eklund & Roman, 2017).

Toxic online disinhibition effect refers to when people, over the internet, behave in a cruel, aggressive and harmful manner that would not parallel their real world behaviour (Eklund & Roman, 2017). This effect is exacerbated by the levels of anonymity, competitive gaming vs collaborative gaming, communication infrastructure and alter-ego capabilities (Eklund & Roman, 2017). Anonymity means players do not have to be held accountable in the real world, this often gives people a sense of power and freedom to unleash their hate (Eklund & Roman, 2017). Competitive gaming can often result in either solo aggression or group aggression depending on the game dynamics; a certain degree is accepted among the gaming community, as it is human nature to get frustrated (Eklund & Roman, 2017). Collaborative gaming, even within competitive gaming can do the opposite at it forces players to share loot or items and work together teaching good values, often a player’s desire to win trumps their tendency for violent outbursts towards teammates (Eklund & Roman, 2017). The communication structure can affect how people behave in online games as some vary from basic text and video communication to virtual characters that express real life physical expression and voice (Eklund & Roman, 2017). The less human elements within the communication style the more likely a person is to exhibit toxic behaviour. This is because when a “troll” creates a visual representation of their victim in their head they do not relate the same psychological value towards that person as someone in real life, this is called solipsistic introjection (Eklund & Roman, 2017).

Wachs and Wright (2018) describe that people who are constantly exposed to toxic behaviour within a specific environment start to become desensitized towards online hate. When communicating within VR Chat there is more than often group communication allowing for bystanders of this toxic behaviour (VR Chat, n.a). There is positive correlation between being a bystander of online hate and being the perpetrator due to regular toxic stimulus becoming a seemingly normative behaviour within the community (Wachs and Wright, 2018). This is further worsened by the theory of dissociative imagination within video games, which refers to player creating a new identity and personality through their video game character (Eklund & Roman, 2017). This is combined with minimizing authority, which is the lack of structural hierarchy within video games, which removes boundaries of socio-economic behaviour (Eklund & Roman, 2017). This creates loose cannon personalities and behaviours resulting in problematic behaviour within the gaming community that manages to spread like a disease to its witnesses (Wachs and Wright, 2018).

The gaming community is massive and diverse group and despite the entire community sharing a similar interest and often goal; respect is often thrown out the door. People play video games and participate in many different types of virtual communities ranging from relationship, place, fantasy, mind, memory and transaction and often participating in more than one aspect. The types of people playing the game also vary in their motivations and expected benefits; depending on whether they are socialisers, completionists, competitors, story driven players or escapists. Many of these motivations combined with digital disinhibition effect can lead to identity issues among players and often produce problematic behaviour. The toxic disinhibition effect describes how players act in a hateful way towards others due to online anonymity, solipsistic introjection, dissociative imagination and minimizing authority act in a hateful towards others online. The game dynamics and infrastructure also affect the level of problematic behaviours and identity issues with customizable characters, different communication technology, and the purpose of multiplayer collaboration or confrontation all having an impact. The gaming community is filled with confused youth who channel their anger towards others in video games. It is beyond the scope of this essay to take into account the external factors affecting the youth of today and does not fully represent the positives of gaming and whether it outweighs the negative impact.  Rather it is argued that gaming communities can exacerbate the development of a toxic identity.

References

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Chang, F., Chiu, C., Miao, N., Chen, P., Lee, C., Huang, T., & Pan, Y. (2015). Online gaming an risks predict cyberbullying perpetration and victimization in adolescents. International Journal of Public Health, 60(2), 257-266.             doi:http://dx.doi.org.dbgw.lis.curtin.edu.au/10.1007/s00038-014-0643-x

Chester, D. S., DeWall, C. N., & Enjaian, B. (2019). Sadism and aggressive behavior: Inflicting pain to feel pleasure. Personality and social psychology bulletin45(8), 1252-1268.                 https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0146167218816327

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19 replies on “Toxic Identity Performance and Problematic Behaviour and its Relationship with Online Gaming”

Do you think toxic gaming behaviour and the toxic online disinhibition effect as mentioned occurs less when individuals with similar motivations get grouped/matched together? For eg. casuals don’t get matched with competitive players, low-ranked players don’t get matched with high-ranked players, language-based matchmaking.

Hi Caleb

I really appreciate you taking the time to read my paper. That is an interesting question, I do believe by having a more efficient matchmaking algorithm, toxic interactions may be very slightly reduced. Although I think the fundamental fuel for toxic behaviour in online gaming is anonymity and the lack of accountability. For example, I could not go on your Facebook account and say disgusting and threatening things as I would be socially punished and exposed. Where gamer’s say horrible racist, sexist and disgusting things and receive no real backlash. Matching up different player types I believe would create a better gaming environment meaning less frustrated players but I don’t think this would make a significant impact on toxic behaviour. How do you think the gaming community could help reduce toxic behaviour?

Excellent read! I agree how its human nature to get frustrated when things go haywire but shouldn’t the anonymity aspect be taken away completely? Anonymous players get the license to say what they want whenever they want without being help responsible. What do you think?
Overall, well crafted!

Hi Talal

Online anonymity within gaming is in place for lots of reasons; the primary being the protection of players identity. Gaming is often a high conflict medium and you have no control over the type of people you would be exposed to such as stalkers and predators. I believe gaming platforms need to make more of an effort to monitor and encourage responsible behaviour. Lots of gaming platforms such as Call Of Duty offer quite weak reporting player systems in place. I think if they made the forms for player complaints more formal and requiring more detail this may help moderators take the complaints more seriously. I think the gaming community should get together to expose toxic players usernames and possibly expose them that way. Thanks for the taking the time to read my article man!

Great paper, Lochlan.
What are your thoughts on political beliefs and their interaction with this idea of “Toxic online disinhibition”. Within my paper (i’ll put the link at the bottom) i talk a little about how a certain political stance views aspects within a game and attacks them for being stereotypical and generalizing. Within my example (Azur Lane) i state that this ‘attack’ has strengthened the community.
However, do you think that this idea of disinhibiton has the ability to completely tear a community apart or at least fracture their fan-base? (especially if the motive is political)

If you’re interested, you can read and give your thoughts on my paper https://networkconference.netstudies.org/2020Curtin/2020/05/10/when-a-game-becomes-more-than-a-game-creation-of-a-digital-community/ it would greatly be appreciated!

Hi Reece, thank you for taking the time to read my paper. In response to your paper and Azur Lane, I have not personally played this game or have much knowledge around the feminist ideology about sexualisation of women in manga.This is a complex question because it completely depends on who’s point of view you are considering.

The group of people calling for the game to be more PC and censored may feel like they are making a righteous statement. Although I strongly disagree with cancel culture and too much political correctness, I do not posses enough knowledge about this issue to side either way. This example would be benign digital disinhibition from the POV of these people as they are standing up for their beliefs and in their eyes women.

From the point of view of the dedicated fan base such as yourself, it really depends on whether the censorship of your game would be considered harmful towards you. I do not think they had malicious intent against you or community but were using your game to make a political statement. Games have always portrayed men and women as the “ideal specimen ” with women being disproportionately more sexualised than men. My question is do you think the sexualisation of women in your game is making the community view women more as sexual objects than humans?

Check out this article and let me know your thoughts.

Lopez-Fernandez, O., Williams, A. J., Griffiths, M. D., & Kuss, D. J. (2019). Female Gaming, Gaming Addiction, and the Role of Women Within Gaming Culture: A Narrative Literature Review. Frontiers in psychiatry, 10, 454. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00454

Hey, nicely written piece!

Do you think that there is any possibility of the toxic online disinhibition effect displayed by some gamers manifesting itself in their real world behaviour? Do you see any reasonable means of policing these toxic behaviours in virtual environments?

Cheers!

Hey Harry

Thanks! For your first question, I believe it entirely depends on the amount of gaming someone is doing and what role it plays in their life. For players who do most their socialising through online gaming and game for an excessive amount, this could be the case. Although I think for the general gamer, they are able to quite effectively separate their online identities with their real world identities. Although, people who are unhappy with a situation of event in their real life are more likely to be toxic online.

Your second question is a difficult one, as you need to find a balance of punishment verse understanding that gaming is a high conflict environment. Game developers don’t want too tight or abrasive restrictions on player behaviour because they would most likely have to ban a large portion of their player base. I believe game developers need to work on creating environments that encourage and reward positive behaviour rather than punish bad behaviour. As a psychology student you would probably be aware B.F Skinners theory of operant conditioning and he makes a note that reward is more effective than punishment. I’ve attached an article on the subject if you’re interested.

https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/family-affair/200809/rewards-are-better-punishment-here-s-why

Very well written! It makes me wonder if online communities will start to lean more towards positive reinforcements and play a more supportive roll in peoples lives considering the isolation and quarantines people are under? Or if the toxicity will continue to rise?

Hi Kelly!

Thank you so much for your kind comments and donating your time to read my paper. I believe 100% gaming will have a positive effect on people who are in isolation as it allows a form of interactive socialising from the comfort of peoples homes safe from the virus. Although, I do believe a healthy balance of game time and productive time is imperative as gaming is often frustrating as much as it is fun.

When people are having issues in their real life they tend to be more toxic online to express their anger. Many people such as myself, have lost jobs and the ability to pursue other opportunities due to the corona virus, this is creating more stress within the community. This means that there could very well be a rise in toxic behaviour, but I think having gaming as an escape is beneficial for society as a whole.

Hi Lochlan

That was a good read, thanks for an interesting paper.

Whilst I agree to some extent that digital disinhibition caused by anonymity leads to antisocial behaviour, I’d argue that a greater cause of antisocial behaviour in online games is actually a lack of centralised authority. What are your thoughts?

Thanks

Hi India,

Thank you for your kind comments. The two major causes I believe are anonymity and lack of consequences; a centralised authority system would be a way to introduce consequences to toxic behaviour. Although it isn’t a feasible strategy, most online games have 100,000+ players and to have an individual or group try monitor and control this behaviour would be extremely difficult and costly. How many chances does someone get? What defines a ban-able offence? How to tell if someone is telling the truth? What is the social backlash if they get it wrong? This is only a small portion of the questions they would have to consider for every player that was reported, which could be in the hundreds of thousands. Even with a centralised authority system, the reality is, anonymity gives people power and even if they were banned another account could be created quite easily. Do you agree?

Hi Lochlan

Your reply definitely highlights just how ambiguous the measures of consequences can be. I’d tend to agree, it is simply too easy to create another account and continue the abuse, so it is just not policeable.

And then reporting systems can be flawed, as innocent players can be targeted. This reminds me of something I researched in my own paper. Transphobic Facebook users were choosing to report accounts of trans users, therefore getting these users blocked unreasonably.

Maybe AI is the only answer to policing conflict in games, and in social media too.

Hi India

I am very interested to see how AI will be used in online communities, I don’t think regulating behaviour could be done purely by an AI. A combination of a human element and an AI could work, where an AI could ask questions to gather more detail on the reason for someone getting reported. There could be automatic simple temp bans / warnings done by an AI and then for more complex cases a report developed for a human to review.

I can’t believe the audacity of some people, unfortunately there is no cure for stupidity. Transgender people suffer enough everyday and they don’t need some random idiots hassling them online.

Hi Lochlan

I just came from your comment on my paper. Although it is the opposite side of my paper it is a very interesting piece of work. There is definitely a lot of benefits from playing online but also I can’t deny the fact that the toxic behaviours are prevalent. I guess anything that is online such the online gaming world or even any social network platforms, trolls or cyberbullies will always have a platform to perform such actions.

You mentioned about the two categories of disinhibition which are benign and toxic disinhibition. My question is the term disinhibition itself refers to ‘when an individual act irrationally and illogically in social situations.’ And benign disinhibition is when someone talks about his personal and emotional matters, seek help, etc over the internet but it’s not something that they would have done in real life. So relating the two terms, is benign disinhibition irrational and illogical? Is it irrational when someone talks about his problems or show his selflessness to others online? If someone is suffering from social anxiety and has nobody to talk to in real life, is it illogical to find some help online? Or am I wrong on how I interpreted it hahaha?

Of course, it depends on the players. On one side, is the player comfortable to talk about his problems and on the other side, is the player willing to listen to the problems. I agree that people who are more vulnerable (benign disinhibition), predators are more likely to target these kinds of persons which is the toxic disinhibition.

I look forward to your response!

Hi Elisa

My definition of online disinhibition is definitely not totally accurate. I may have been thinking too much of toxic disinihibition at the time (I also rushed to put this essay together ) so thank you for pointing that out to me.

A more accurate definition would be when a person acts a certain way online that doesn’t align with their real life behaviour. So I’m hoping that clears things up for you.

Hi Lochlan,
I think this was a really interesting read and touches on some clear challenges that society faces as more and more of our interactions begin to exist online. I really enjoyed your acknowledgement of the current literature that is supporting the notion that online anonymity fuels disinhibition which can in turn manifest toxic behaviour.

That notion is shared by Dr Suler in his publication on “The Online Disinhibition Effect” linked here; https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/aps.42
I personally believe that we experience varying levels of disinhibition in the vast majority of interactions we engage in however in an anonymous online gaming setting; where competition is a centrepiece, this disinhibition is truely maximised.

Furthermore your reference to solipsistic introjection highlights the various degrees of separation that people place between their idea of the people they are communicating with online and the actual people themselves. I think that is why people can get so enraged in online arguments; they are not focusing on their interaction with the person instead they are channelling everything against the ideal that they are opposed to.

I’d be very interested in any further research you do on the topic.

All the best,

Hugh.

Hi Lochlan,
Your paper was such an interesting read. Online gaming really is another world. The fact that it brings such a toxic environment with it can really detract from the benefits it provides to players. Having an escape from the ‘real world’ is definitely a benefit and I see this the same as taking time out to listen to podcasts or watching videos and interacting on social media platforms.

Although toxic behaviour is present on all social media platforms, it is interesting as to why this is so high and prevalent in online gaming. Is this just where gamers let out built up anger because they don’t know another way to go about it? I agree with your response to Caleb, that it is most likely about the anonymity and the lack of accountability in online gaming, as this type of behaviour in an identifiable situation wouldn’t be tolerated and the consequences would be better enforced.

Overall great read and well written!

Hey Lochlan,

I enjoyed reading your paper, you made some good points exposing the toxicity in the gaming community.

I have had firsthand experience of how toxic the gaming community can be (especially CS-GO and League of Legends).

“On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog” is a perfect explanation for that type of toxicity.

I understand how the use of Anonymity in the gaming community can cause toxicity. But do you think anonymity should be removed from the gaming community as well as the web?

My paper focus on reasons for/against Anonymity and Psuedonymity on the web, i think you would be interested in my topic.

https://networkconference.netstudies.org/2020Curtin/2020/05/11/anonymity-and-identity-on-4chan/

Thanks!
-Kieran

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