With the continued rise in popularity of online gaming, it is relevant to ask how this new technological phenomenon affects social interaction. Online gaming interactions give a great deal of anonymity to those involved.
Seinkuehler and Williams (both associate professors and published authors in the Journal of Computer Mediated Communication) have researched the interactions of Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) gamers and made many valuable observations (Their research can be found here). They write that, “In online worlds, interaction is mediated by the virtual avatars of the individuals who inhabit them. These avatars bear no discernable relationship to one’s offline identity, unless one chooses to render one’s own character so identifiable, for example, by using one’s given name instead of a pseudonym (a rare practice) or sharing personal information about one’s offline personae with others within the game. This anonymity provides a safe haven beyond the reach of work and home that allows individuals to engage with others socially without entangling obligations and repercussions…” (2006).
Steinkuehler and Williams believe these attributes of MMOs make them a virtual “third place” or casual social forum where people ignore their differences of status and life circumstances to relax and socialize (another example of a “third place” would be a bar). However, this level of anonymity and lack of repercussions can also facilitate much more negative social behavior.
It has been my experience playing multiplayer online games that the vast majority of gamers that choose to communicate with other players with whom they are not acquainted will by default be hostile, vulgar, and offensive. Such negative social behavior is seldom warranted by any stretch of the imagination. I have observed players putting down their own teammates in games for reasons altogether trivial and immaterial. I have even observed some of my acquaintances “talking trash” (in other words insulting others with liberal usage of profanity) recreationally. Their decision to “trash talk” had nothing to do with the conduct of the other players, but stemmed solely from a desire to put others down.
Does this sort of behavior translate into offline interactions with strangers? Do these same gamers “talk trash” to the person waiting in line ahead of them at a fast food restaurant or the person filling up at the same gas station? While it would not be inconceivable, it would at least be highly implausible that they would carry the same arbitrary hostility with them in their day-to-day offline lives. What then makes their online interactions so categorically different? It is the anonymity that facilitates this kind of behavior. As Steinkuehler and Williams put it, online interactions are “without entangling obligations and repercussions” (2006).
I think the way in which anonymity encourages this kind of social behavior is two-fold. “The interaction is mediated by the virtual avatars of individuals” (Steinkuehler, Williams 2006). In other words the player is distanced from the interaction and thus protected from any reprisals or consequences beyond the same sort of verbal abuse they are inflicting. While that guy in the fast food line or at the pump could identify you to an authority figure or potentially threaten your physical well-being, there is no danger of such reprisals or repercussions with online gaming. Similarly, I believe another contributing factor is that the other player, or shall we say the victim of the verbal abuse, is distanced and perhaps even depersonalized by this communication medium. To the “trash talker” they’re just a voice and a screen name or gamer tag. The effect is similar to what happens in driving. People forget the mutual humanity of the other drivers and instead see them as cars (another sort of avatar) or at best acknowledge only their gender and/or age. Online video game communication is certainly not the only new form of interaction that allows for such anonymity. Similar patterns of behavior are to be found all over the internet. From forums to social networks to even YouTube, similar unwarranted verbal hostility is easy to find.
What then does all this mean? Do these social behaviors give us insight into human nature or is this a recent phenomenon brought about by technological innovation? If this same technology had been present at a different time or place in history would it have resulted in the same patterns of social behavior or are our modern cultural values to blame? Any answers to these questions would be largely speculation and conjecture, but I believe they are still worth pondering.
Steinkuehler, C. A. and Dmitri Williams. 2006. “Where Everybody Knows Your (Screen) Name: Online Games as ‘Third Places’.” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11: 885–909. Retrieved April 30, 2011 (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1083-6101.2006.00300.x/full).