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Dear Dr Mark:

I’ve played a number of videogames with my friends including WoW with my wife. In the course of my play, I’ve seen male gamers who act like total dickheads. Many MMO players seem to go out of their way to harass and demean other players. As my wife experienced, its even worse if you are a female gamer because there is endless hassling, constantly being hit on, people who won’t take no for an answer, requests for pictures, and some stuff that seems like downright stalking. But there is also racist and homophobic stuff as well as just nasty inconsiderate behavior and unnecessary foul language and talk. A truly upsetting thing about all this is that it goes on in games where there are teenagers and even pre-teens hanging around. Are MMOs just the modern way to expose kids to what assholes some people are? Why do people act like this?

This feels like such an important question that it merits a whole column. When I first started playing WoW, I was actually quite surprised by how nice so many people were. I fell into a group that was connected to a colleague, and they were charitable enough to look after a bumbling old guy and show me the ropes.

That doesn’t mean there wasn’t lots of hassling and teasing, but to me much of it seemed good natured. I’ve always felt this stuff was inherent to guy culture, and needed to be responded to in kind. For example, when one of the very advanced warlocks in my guild started calling me a pedophile (because I was old relative to other players), I simply suggested he liked to have sex with animals, and worried about the safety of the various farm creatures grazing about the WoW landscape. This both antagonized and amused him – he didn’t stop teasing me, but he knew it wouldn’t hurt my feelings and he knew what he could expect in return.

Teasing among a group of friends can be good natured or can feel like harassment. I knew others in the guild who felt genuinely offended by the foul language, homophobia, and constant sexual references from our guildies. But nasty behavior from people I had no relationship with was pronounced and most irritating.

Why did some players feel the need to gank me and then camp me for repeated “honor kills” of someone who clearly didn’t want to fight? Why were people yelling out different terms for anal sex relentlessly? I heard many racist slurs especially directed to Blacks, Hispanics, Jews, and Asians – even though I knew many players from all these categories. And as you detail, the unrelenting, coarse, and explicit pursuit of anyone female went well beyond sexual harassment and approached persecution, in my view. Though I will say, many of my female friends seemed to handle it well, and others told me it was just a more intense version of the predatorial behavior they faced in real life.

So why does this stuff go on?

I don’t have the answer, but I do have some thoughts and I will be very eager to hear what other Escapist readers think.

1. It has something to do with the effects of playing.

Videogaming, like many internet activities, provides a relatively anonymous way to interact with others. I think this anonymity, combined with the absence of important, behavior-regulating non-verbal cues, creates a powerful disinhibiting effect. By “disinhibiting,” I mean the normal social cues and conventions that discourage people from giving free rein to their impulses are absent, or weakened, and what comes out is a full, unfiltered discharge of players’ aggressive and sexual urges. With young men who have a rich supply of testosterone coursing through their veins, these urges are quite strong, and often barely contained in real life. I don’t mean to suggest that all young men are cauldrons of impulse ready to overflow, but some certainly are.

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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.

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That said, I have known some chronic videogamers who are very depressed, withdrawn, unhappy people. In spite of their psychological problems, many of these folks are very nice in real life, but I can’t predict what they might be capable of in a virtual world with few constraints or consequences. Harassing, intimidating and abusing others can unfortunately be an effective way to feel powerful and dominant in response to a frustrating, dissatisfying life.

I have also noticed many gamers who play at various levels of intoxication, from moderately buzzed, to downright shit-faced drunk or stoned out of their gourds. My sense is that people who are intoxicated are even more likely to be disinhibited and become abusive. In most public places, there are laws against drunk and disorderly conduct, or if you go into a bar, at least you know what you are probably getting into. Maybe we need separate servers for the wasted?

Are some male gamers just angry, anti-social people who may have character disorders that include a tendency to be sadistic and abusive? I’d guess that games that offer the opportunity to indulge these tendencies might well draw in many of these folks. There are clearly a certain percentage of these people walking around in society, and it would only make sense if at least some of them found their way into videogaming.

Another group often drawn to gaming are people with significant social cuing and processing disorders. Psychologists today refer to these folks as being “on the spectrum,” which is to say that their impairment in interpersonal connectivity may range from mild to moderate autism (sometimes called Asperger’s disorder or even Pervasive Developmental Disorder) to Non-Verbal Learning Disability. For these players, online videogaming can become a place to establish what they have great difficulty creating in real life: reliable, stable, and meaningful interpersonal connections. For some, this can become a source of tremendous solace and satisfaction – they really do achieve online what they can’t in real life. Others have as much difficulty picking up social cues and understanding the interpersonal conventions of an online community as they do in real life. If you think about it, the norms, rules, and expectations of a social game like WoW can be quite complicated. Some of these players may act strangely online because they have a kind of social disorder, and when frustrated or disappointed, they may become even more inappropriate.

While this questioner wonders about the impact of all this nastiness on impressionable teenagers, I think another category of potentially nasty players are the teens themselves. Immature young males are notorious for acting like assholes to impress each other (I seem to recall a few episodes like this in my own past), and again, in a world with few constraints and little adult oversight, this tendency could easily run rampant.

In addressing this question about the nastiness of male gamers, I don’t want to imply that there aren’t some nasty, unpleasant female gamers as well. I definitely ran across a few of them, and they might fall prey to the influences of games described above or they might be in any of the personality categories I’ve outlined. I’m guessing most of us would agree they are rarer than males.

I have also not really addressed another important issue: what to do about all this. This is really a topic for another column, but I’d be very interested in what Escapist readers think would help, in addition to their reactions to this column and their own thoughts about why this is a problem.

Dr. Mark Kline spends most weekends traipsing around remote suburban Boston as a marginally attentive youth soccer spectator. Since recovering from a year-long intensive WoW habit, he sticks to computer Risk and casual word games, but is still trying to figure out why his children like The Sims.

Have a question for Dr. Mark? Send it to [email protected]. Your identity will remain confidential.

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