This week the gaming world blew up with the news that Pewdiepie had uttered racial profanities while playing PUBG. While all the attention turned to the world’s most popular YouTuber, he is far from alone in his behavior. Toxicity has always been present in online gaming. Where there are enough people, vile behavior eventually forms. I suspect a large number of us have been guilty of it in some shape or form, ranging from your standard ‘gg ez’ up to the more, shall we say, ‘heavyweight’ comments.

It all came to a head this week with Pewdiepie, while Overwatch game director Jeff Kaplan also posted a video explaining that the onslaught of toxic players to its FPS is actually slowing development of new maps and characters down.

“We’ve been put in this weird position where we’re spending a tremendous amount of time and resources punishing people and trying to make people behave better,” said Kaplan earlier this week. “The bad behavior is making the game progress in terms of development at a much slower rate.”

Very matter of factly, Kaplan also said Blizzard flat out “don’t want those people in Overwatch.” They’re bad people saying toxic things, and it’s not conducive to a fun gaming environment for the majority.

I do think we’re eventually running down towards a path of much tighter controls. Football, long a cesspit of racism, now has a firm stance against it. Get caught behaving badly here in the UK and you can be banned for life. We could be heading toward a system where it isn’t just a slap on the wrist for saying you hope someone gets cancer. Authoritarian moves like age-gated servers tied to user ID are a very real probability further down the lane.  While hateful rhetoric isn’t entirely age-based, most people tend to grow out of racist and homophobic slurs by the time they grow their first pube.

Toxicity’s a near-unavoidable part of online gaming, but it doesn’t need to be like that. It can be great to play a game of Rocket League and not get a barrage of abuse hurled my way. Actually encouraging teammates who’ve made a mistake can be a thoroughly enjoyable thing to do. But conflict sadly seems to be a part of human nature, even while we’re supposed to be relaxing and having fun. Toxicity has become so firmly ingrained in gaming culture that it seems a near impossible task to shift it. Blizzard’s trying, and bravo to them, but they’ve got an absolutely monumental task ahead of them if they want to make a perceivable difference.

The first task is going to be in distinguishing run of the mill trash talk from the genuinely hateful language. Jeffrey Lin, the lead designer of social systems at League of Legends developer Riot, was hired to do exactly that. His studies found that 1% of players were consistently toxic, existing purely to troll and abuse. That’s a fairly small figure, and it turns out they’re responsible for just 5% of the toxicity in League of Legends, albeit still five times the game’s average. The vast majority of abuse comes from normal players who are just frustrated or are having a bad time. Most of the time they’re fine, but eventually, something tips the scales and they let fly. This makes it a harder problem to tackle than just eradicating the trolls if we consider that it’s actually the majority that has normalised trash talk. Being so widespread makes it even more difficult to tame.

There’s an entire school of thought dedicated to trying to make gamers be kinder to one another, leading to fabulous titles such as Journey that manage to negate trolling altogether. The more tools you provide for communication you provide a player though, the greater the opportunity for trolling. Journey worked so well because it stripped the player of everything bar emotes, it was a very pure social experience.

Toxicity is clearly an issue which game developers are interested in tackling, but whether it’s possible is a different matter entirely. Do you think toxicity is a serious issue, or should gamers just grow thicker skin? What can developers do to help limit abuse? Let us know your thoughts below!

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