Video gaming has evolved at a drastic pace over the past decade. Every aspect of gaming has come a long way to cement video games as a significant and loved medium with graphics practically indistinguishable from real life, beautifully complex narratives and characters, and entertainingly demanding game mechanics. Indeed, video games are a true icon of the modern world and continue to step up their game with every passing year.
If only we could say the same for the players behind the controllers.
One of the most prominent genres of games that arose in the last decade is the competitive multiplayer. Gaming and the internet have joined forces around the start of the 21st century and online multiplayer gaming is one of the mainstays of the gaming culture. Anyone can load up their consoles and be matched with and against players around the world to fight in a variety of games, from simple soccer in FIFA, magical brawls in League of Legends, to an all-out arms war in Battlefield. There are hundreds of games out there that require skill, experience, and teamwork to achieve victory but this is where we get to the core of our human problem. Because many online games require teamwork and teams are mostly randomized, weak links will appear. If one player can’t catch up with the others and lead the team to defeat, they’ll be blamed and ridiculed for letting the team down. To add fuel to the fire, the online aspect of gaming shields every player behind a wall of anonymity and the globalization of the player bases means it’s very hard for gamers to feel the same amount of human care and concern as they would in the real world. Gamers will throw out blazen profanity, discriminatory remarks, and even death threats to their struggling teammate because they know there won’t be any serious repercussions. This offensive behavior is known as “toxicity”. In addition, the growing hostility in online gaming communities makes this toxic behavior commonplace, and it wears down the patience of other players. Soon even the most innocent of players can be prone to outbursts of rage. This sort of quick agitation is known as “salt”.
This behavior has been a thorn in the side of game companies and many ideas have been proposed and implemented to address it. Riot Games, the creator of League of Legends, added pop-up messages written in soothing green text in its game to soothe salty behavior. Blizzard, the creator of StarCraft and Overwatch, have added filters to its player chats to replace swears with positive messages. Many games have implemented reporting systems with punishments ranging from chat silences to outright bans for toxic behavior to weed out any offenders. In theory, the idea sounds good as the community works together to eliminate these groups, but what many fail to realize is that the toxic and salty behavior isn’t concentrated. The torrent of racism and death threats don’t come from one bad Grinch lurking in some dark corner; it comes from the average Joe playing a game during the weekend to let off some steam. Almost every average player condemns toxicity and saltiness, yet are unconsciously and ironically their greatest champions.
The underlying causes of all these behaviors stack together to make an abomination of a cake, yet trying to remove any of them creates a whole new can of worms. Removing anonymity can make some watch their words, but it just exposes everyone open to more targeted attacks. Matchmaking algorithms can be improved, but weak links will always show and players will still be frustrated. As icing on the cake, the ones who want to be rid of this nightmare are the ones feeding it everyday. I fear that the complexity and rigidity of the issue will forever bind the gaming community to the toxic sea and despite my best hopes, I still have to plunge in for my gaming fix and be deaf to all the swears that I pour out as my teammate dies for the twentieth time this game.