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.
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