“It’s only a game!” : Exploring Toxicity in Multiplayer Games

Toxicity in Multiplayer Games

Back in 2004, John Gabriel in a Penny Arcade web comic, created, “The Greater Internet F*ckward Theory”. This drawing declared that a normal person, plus anonymity, plus an audience would equal, a total f*ckwad. It’s refers to a problem that almost everyone who has ventured into the world of online gaming has faced at one stage or another, toxicity. It’s strange to think that an illustration from back in 2004, is just as poignant now (if not even more so), as it was back then. So, what is the cause of toxicity in multiplayer games? And is there anything we can do about it? This essay aims to explore three factors that causes toxicity: lack of repercussions, anonymity and player investment.

(if not even more so)
source: John Gabriel

Lack of Repercussions

Let’s go back in time, to the MMO, World of Warcraft. Back when this game was new, players often met the same players again and again. The only way to avoid this was to leave the server entirely and find another one. This led to some people unable to find new people to play with in their current server, due to their reputation for being toxic. A system like this, meant people had to get along with one another. If they did not, they wouldn’t really be able to play. Just like in reality. If you are rude to your colleagues at work for example, you’ll quickly find yourself working alone.

The problem is, this doesn’t really happen anymore in multiplayer.

With the introduction of automatic matchmaking, games began to isolate the player more. This meant that repercussions were harder to enforce for bad behavior. When you cue up for a game of Overwatch or League of Legends, there is a chance that you will never see the players you are playing with again. So there is no one to hold you accountable for your actions anymore. You can’t really get a bad reputation, when there is a pool of millions you could be alternatively playing against. Some games do invest in a reporting system for toxic or cheating players, however these don’t fully combat the issue. A study on Cyberbullying and other Toxic Behavior in online Team competitions also found that, “Players are surprisingly not engaged in actively reporting toxic behaviour.”[1]

toxicity in multiplayer games
source: memedroid


This point works in line with the first, in that anonymity helps further the lack of repercussions. The research study earlier also pointed out, “With the amount of time and energy players invest into games, victims of toxic behavior are likely to feel emotional effects that persist to the real-world”.[1] Not only are we putting lots of time and effort into these games, but the toxic behaviour that players are exposed to, may have lasting effects.

This is also poignant with the amount of children getting into online competitive games. The sorts of toxic behaviour exhibited by older people, as well as the language used, is surely desensitizing younger people and illustrating to them that this behaviour is OK. The main issue with a lot of toxicity in gaming, comes from the anonymity of it all. “Because players are anonymous, they cannot necessarily be held accountable for their behaviour”[2], and this furthers the link between the anonymity of online games and the lack of repercussions as, “people do not feel accountable for their toxic behavior when anonymous and can actually increase their aggressive behaviour”[1].

When gaming online, most people use a pseudonym. Therefore, there is very little attributing them to the actions and words they use online. This can lead to increased aggression and feelings of hostility towards other players. When you direct your aggression towards a username, not a human being, it’s easy to forget that there is a person behind it.

Not to mention there is somewhat of a mentality that this is OK and a normal part of gaming, “that dishing it out is an integral part of enjoying a game – and that anyone bothered by it needs to grow thicker skin or stop playing all together.”[3] This mentality only furthers the idea that this is healthy outlet for one’s rage or personal issues, which just isn’t the case.


The last aspect to discuss in why people get so toxic online, deviates slightly from the previous two sections. A study conducted in 2014, aimed to see the effect of rage in video games in relation to violence. The co-author of the study stated that, “When people feel they have no control over the outcome of a game, that leads to aggression”[4], going on to point out that, “When the experience involves threats to our ego, it can cause us to be hostile and mean to others”[4]. In single player games, we are only playing against AI. So when playing multiplayer, our innate desire to be competitive and seek out attention kicks in. This is due to the knowledge that our opponents are now other people. The stakes are higher.

Often, online multiplayer games require lots of hours invested in it improve. As mentioned earlier, feeling a lack of control can increase the likeliness of growing toxic. As a player, you rarely have full control over your team mates with matchmaking. This in turn, causes some people to lash out, because THESE people are ruining YOUR game, after all. Heightened emotions tend to also impair judgment. This often leads to calling out other players for being the issue. The player them-self is then often unable to see their own flaws due to their heightened emotions. Therefore, they feel a need to shift the blame to someone else.

From the first study discussed, they concluded that, “The result of a match is significantly linked to the appearance of toxic behavior”[1], which furthers this point. People will be more toxic if they lose or for far that they will loose. For many, the toxicity comes from a feeling of a lack of control. Whether it’s a teammate that they think isn’t doing their job, or wanting to shift the blame from their own under performance, it seems a large portion of gaming toxicity comes from feelings of investment in the game itself, and the frustration that comes from not being in full control of the outcome.

toxicity in multiplayer games
source: Fanboy Gaming


The reasons for toxicity online all ties back to the fact that online, people don’t have to take responsibility for their words or actions. This is due to the popular isolating nature of most multiplayer games now. The anonymity online games give, can provide people with an outlet for their frustration at the game or other players (and even themselves) in a completely unfiltered way, with little to no repercussions, both socially and online, for their toxicity. Bans are frequently not permanent, or people find ways around them to return to the game.

A better solution isn’t exactly easy sadly, without drastically changing the way multiplayer games operate. But hopefully, we can one day find a balance between delivering an enjoyable multiplayer experience, and offering a toxicity free environment.








Appreciator of fantasy novels, RPG games, cats and good tea.

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