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.