While I think some of these guys revel in their nastiness, for others, I think it is totally unconscious. That is to say, while they are playing, they don't plan to treat other people poorly, it just flows out of their unconscious minds directly onto the keyboard. Something about the thrill and excitement of game play has anaesthetized their prefrontal cortex, and they aren't able to think through the meaning and consequences of their behavior. Unfortunately, interactive videogaming seems to have provided an in vivo laboratory for measuring the amount of bilious nastiness, racism, homophobia, and sexism lurking deep inside many players.
In my experience, most videogaming involves violent and aggressive activity. Some of it may be solving puzzles and unraveling quests, but you are often killing creatures, monsters, NPCs, and other players in graphic fashion, and you are often doing this with a high level of physiological arousal. I found in my WoW play that my heart was pumping away rapidly in some intense fights, and I even had a client suggest recently that gaming provided a "good cardiovascular workout" because of this. Not sure I agree with that, but I think this pumped-up arousal leads many young men to lose control of their tongues and actions and say and do things many wouldn't normally do in other situations.
The content of some videogames seems to encourage players to be nasty and even sociopathic. I recently read Tom Bissell's excellent book Extra Lives, in which he describes a whole world of videogames with which I am less familiar. In some of these games, the character you play is more a villain or criminal than a hero, and doing nasty things to other people, either casually or very intentionally, is the way to progress in the game - sort of like getting honor points for ganking people in WoW, but even more directly as the focus of the game. Some of these games seem to have a clear component of using females for prostitution-like sex whereas others, according to a thoughtful reader, "give rewards to players involving erotic material or actual 'sex scenes' with characters in the game" or encourage you "to 'build up' a relationship with a female NPC (via dialogue, and saying nice things to them) that will eventually lead to a sex scene as a pay off." He went on to say that he noticed a pattern whenever he encountered a female NPC: "I wondered what I had to do to sleep with her. It wasn't horribly fulfilling, and became almost as mindless of a goal as locating a hidden chest, or something."
If the content of a game encourages players to get into the role of sociopath, to kill others for sheer pleasure and in-game benefits, and if it encourages seeing females as potential treasure chests holding sexual rewards, can we be surprised that some players come to treat the real people they encounter in some of these gaming worlds the same way?
I have come to see videogaming as a powerfully psychoactive activity; by this I mean that it taps into very deep aspects of players' personalities and facilitates expression of many primitive and basic urges. It also activates and allows us to play out a whole range of other personality issues. Because this medium is so powerfully psychoactive, and because serious players spend so much time playing, it is also tremendously influential in the lives of players. Therefore, should we expect game designers to produce games that promote a better set of values and reward more prosocial and less impulsive tendencies? Would we want to play such games if they existed (and I imagine some do)? Or is the opportunity to be nasty, abusive, and murderous, both through the play, and in the way we treat others in-game, an important part of what draws us to videogames?
2. It has something to do with the players.
As I've said, most of the people I met in the course of my gaming journey were actually pretty decent folks. Acts of altruism, mentorship, caring, and support far outweighed nastiness. This doesn't mean that there weren't episodes of bad behavior, but even some of the worst offenders turned out to be fairly decent people if you got to know them.