There’s Nothing Good About Toxic Players

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“There’s probably something good about the toxic players showing up and sticking with your game,” said Jerome K. Jones, designer of Orcs Must Die: Unchained. “The good thing is probably that it’s a good game. It’s holding their interest, it’s keeping them around. It’s making them passionate enough to give a damn.”

Jones said this in the context of an interview with Polygon. And to be fair, developer Robot entertainment quickly issued a statement afterwards that made it clear they weren’t actually welcoming the trolls with open arms, “[…] toxic players that worsen the experience for the Orcs Must Die! Unchained community absolutely will not be tolerated.” You can read the full text here. It’s a firm and definitive statement against abusive players and I’m glad the company jumped in quickly to clear this up.

I don’t want to heap more shame on Jones. I’m pretty sure his statements were made in the context of a spoken interview and in any case they were quickly reversed by his employer. Lots of other people have already taken their jabs at him and I’m reluctant to be harsh when we’re talking about off-the-cuff comments. (This is in stark contrast to the Ubisoft stuff from a couple of weeks ago, where a developer said something that angered people and the company said nothing and changed nothing. If Robot Entertainment had a history of encouraging abusive players and they didn’t contradict Jones in public, then I’d be happy to give them the same treatment I gave Ubisoft.)

But regardless of what Jones was trying to say, I think this is worth talking about because this isn’t the only time I’ve heard this sentiment. A lot of people really do think that toxic players are just a fact of life, and even go so far as to give them credit for “supporting” a community. You can see it at work when people offer up the “That’s just the internet” excuse for why people are so ghastly to each other online. As if this was just something we should expect.

This attitude is just as harmful and toxic as the players it attempts to defend. It presents cruelty and ugliness as if they were something we need. It suggests we should tolerate a problem rather than look for ways to fix it. This makes games less fun to play, gives the hobby a bad reputation, and may even increase the total number of toxic people out there.

What’s happening here is that people are confusing “unavoidable” with “indispensable”. In a free society, you can buy booze. In a free society, you can drive a car. And if people can do those things then sooner or later some jackass will drive drunk and kill somebody. So yeah, having drunk drivers is an unavoidable cost of living in a free society. But this doesn’t mean we need drunk drivers. This abuse is a side-effect. A cost. Something we need to work to mitigate.

There is this idea that vile, abusive, or mean players are a mixed blessing. That their problem is that they just love the game “too much”, and that’s why they’re so mean. But this isn’t how it works at all. There are a lot of reasons people are abusive in games: Bad home life, pain in their lives, lack of discipline, defective personality, and immaturity. None of it has anything to do with their skill or how they feel about the game and everything to do with their inability to play nice with others.

Bobby Fischer was an American chess prodigy, grandmaster, and the eleventh World Chess Champion. He’s considered by some to be the greatest player to have ever lived. He was also difficult, temperamental, a bad loser, taken to accusing others of cheating, and a rampaging anti-semite. He spouted hate, quit matches, and placed unreasonable demands on others as to when he would play and how the games would be decided. He was reclusive later in life, and when he did make public appearances it was usually to say shocking and hateful things about jews.

Garry Kasparov is a former World Chess Champion. He is also considered to be the greatest chess player of all time. (Presumably by a different group of people.) He’s widely regarded as a gentleman, with an eager smile and a polite demeanor. He regularly travels the world, visiting schools and chess clubs, encouraging young people and passing on his intense love for the game.

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Note that the skill of these men has nothing to do with their public behavior. Both are legendary players. Fischer’s troubled personality was a hindrance to his play, not an asset. There’s no denying that in the world of chess, Kasparov has been a force for good, and Fischer has been mostly an embarrassment. If chess were run the way we run some videogame communities, we’d be encouraging the Fischers of the world at the expense of the Kasparovs. Being a dick doesn’t mean you love the game more. It just means you’re a dick.

Toxic behavior has nothing to do with being “competitive” or “passionate”. It’s just a personality flaw. We call it “toxic” because toxins have a tendency to spread. When one player is foul and abusive, other well-behaved players will become foul and abusive, and other players will leave. This is why YouTube comments are so famously terrible. YouTube is much too large to police, so it falls into anarchy. A few freaks lash out in hate or ignorance, and other people respond in kind. And what intelligent person is going to waste their time formulating a calm, informed response to either of them? YouTube isn’t some strange world inhabited only by trolls and morons. It’s just the natural conclusion of a system that does nothing to weed out troublemakers. It’s the inevitable state of a community with no care or oversight. It’s what happens when the nice people stop participating. (Yes, I’m aware that YouTube is less awful now than it used to be, but the point still stands.)

If you’re running that community, the duty falls to you to prevent it from becoming another YouTube. It’s up to you to set the tone of the game. If you’re careful and firm you can create a healthy culture where good nature and sportsmanship are celebrated, even when it’s skill and dedication that wins prizes. And if you don’t, then your game will became a sewer of hate, misery, accusations of cheating, misogyny, homophobia, racism, death threats, harassment, and trolling. Is that the reputation you want for your game?

This isn’t just the right thing to do morally, it’s also just good business sense. If you’re building a community, you need to be thinking long-term. Player turnover is part of any game, and you need a healthy supply of newcomers to take the place of those who get bored and leave. But most newcomers won’t want to join a game where abuse is just considered a normal part of the learning process. You’ll be driving away your newcomers just so you can protect your precious bullies, and one bully can drive away a lot of newcomers. Bullies are the minority of the population. Are you seriously going to make them your target demographic?

The usual excuse is, “Hey, they’re just trolls. Just ignore them and they’ll go away.” Except, that’s not true. In real life, going limp doesn’t make an abusive person less willing to hit you, and remaining silent doesn’t make a toxic player any less likely to atavistically howl into their microphone when they’re unhappy. More importantly, this is supposed to be entertainment, and having awful things said to you isn’t very entertaining. It’s human nature. It bothers people. If I stood up in a restaurant and began screaming at everyone, the management wouldn’t smile and say, “Don’t worry about him. He’s not hurting you. Just ignore him and enjoy your food.” No, they would bounce me out of there as fast as they could, and they wouldn’t for a second regret losing out on my business.

Contrary to popular opinion, unrelenting rage isn’t a natural part of a competitive game. Lots of people enjoy games online without spewing invective at their fellow players. Tolerating toxic players – either in-game or on the forums – is bad for business, bad for the hobby, and bad for people in general.

Police your community. Never feel bad for unloading troublemakers. It’s not just your job, it’s your chance to make a little corner of the internet a nicer place. Revel in it.

As the guy behind Twenty Sided, Shamus Young knows a thing or two about running a civilized community.

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