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Jan. 22, 2021

Faculty voice: Gaming and toxicity

Rabindra (Robby) Ratan is an associate professor and AT&T Scholar in the Department of Media and Information in the College of Communication Arts and Sciences as well as Social and Psychological Approaches to Research on Technology-Interaction Effects (SPARTIE) Lab. Last month, Ratan co-authored an op-ed in Wired titled “Toxicity in Gaming Is Dangerous. Here's How to Stand Up to It.” The following content is repurposed with permission.

Even if you aren’t one yourself, you probably know someone who is a gamer, whether it’s your own kids, nieces and nephews, students or friends. You might not realize this, but they have probably been exposed to — or have even already been the target of — severe gaming toxicity, such as sexual harassment, threats of violence, privacy violations and aggressive spamming. The perpetrators, often younger male players who are high in emotional reactivity and impulsivity, are fueled by anonymity of these environments, while other players often act as bystanders, rationalizing toxicity as a cultural norm of gaming. 

According to a study of gaming toxicity from the Anti-Defamation League, over 80% of multiplayer gamers recently experienced some form of toxicity, with a majority of it related to gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion or ability. Most players felt impacted by such toxicity, with over a tenth saying it resulted in depressive or suicidal thoughts and over 20% said it caused them to quit playing. These negative effects are especially harmful for women, who are more likely than men to be victims of gaming toxicity. In addition to the psychological harm, studies suggest that such toxicity decreases women’s motivation to play video games in the future as well as to pursue technical career fields. 

Despite the prevalence and harmful outcomes of gaming toxicity, only a minority of players report other players’ toxic behaviors. Although the games industry is pursuing initiatives to address this problem (e.g., better moderation tools, more transparency in reporting systems), real change needs to happen from the bottom-up — from gamers themselves as well as the parents, teachers and friends of gamers. 

Instead of silently normalizing the current bystander culture by trying to ignore toxicity, we must encourage an upstander culture of combating it. Toxicity in gaming is more rampant and psychologically harmful than most people might expect, so when you see it happening, say something to stop it. Saying something as simple as, “Don’t be toxic,” can be quite effective.

Gaming toxicity is a worthy foe, a boss-level challenge for us all. Like a virus, the more people are exposed to it, the more it spreads. But this cultural contagiousness might also be cause for optimism. Even small, incremental reductions in such toxicity — which will happen when you and the gamers you know act as upstanders — can counteract the virality, reducing toxicity and allowing players to enjoy the multiple psychological, social and cognitive benefits that video games provide. 

If you are interested in learning more, check out this podcast episode in which Ratan speaks with Rachel Kowert, another media scholar who has published extensively in this field. 

By: Rabindra Ratan

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