Disturbing Behavior – The “Online Disinhibition Effect”

Jumping into a random online match of Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 is an exercise in masochistic futility. The limitless stream of rage and racial slurs that flows through almost every lobby of play in Black Ops 2 is an instant turn off to those who are looking for a casual fun shooter experience.


Back before console gaming allowed online play, gamers were mostly restricted to playing with others, either by inviting friends over to the house to enjoy a game on the couch or by venturing out to an arcade or the occasional LAN party. While those instances of competitive gaming carried the potential to devolve into shouting matches of foul language, they almost never did because the people playing the game were compelled by proximity and the potential of consequences to respect each other. Your friend was sitting right there next to you, and if something was said that you didn’t like you could always talk about it, kick the person out, or punch him in the face. The point is that repercussions were always there to counteract the verbal diarrhea that always seems to come out whenever competitive gaming takes place.

Unfortunately, as times have changed, that accountability no longer exists within this era of online gameplay. People are now able to hide behind fake identities, handles, gamer tags, and PlayStation network usernames. Through these monikers the average gamer is unleashing the beast and acting out in a dark room where no one can be identified – not by face, not by voice, not by action.

Since no one is there in a physical capacity to judge or reprimand the behavior a person displays online, interactions in competitive multiplayer games have become a mixture of toilet humor and temper tantrums, with the occasional friendly conversation to break the monotony. While this issue is not new by any means, as the culture of trolling and griefing has existed for a good long time, only now is it starting become a huge and uncontrollable problem. With the rapid expansion of gaming into mainstream popularity this behavior is now considered “normal” on the Internet.

Just one of many.

The anonymity afforded by the Internet has given a false sense of confidence to those who feel they do not have a voice. As a result, things that would never be said in normal circles of society are now said on Internet forums, in comment sections of websites, and over headsets on video games with online multiplayer components. Recent evidence of this type of behavior (example above) can be found on the Twitter account of David Vonderhaar, the design director for Call of Duty: Black Ops 2.

In tweaking a part of the game’s multiplayer mechanics in an effort to balance the game, Vonderhaar was met with an overwhelming amount of hate expressed in the form of heinous death threats – and worse. Now while most internet posters will say that these threats should be taken with a grain of salt, the mere act of taking the time to write something so vile to another person over a miniscule change in a video game speaks volumes for the level of immaturity and lack of respect that human beings have for each other. The buck doesn’t stop there either.

Continuing to use Call of Duty as my primary example – as it has, regrettably, become the poster child for this issue – the culture of competitive multiplayer games has trended towards this need to dominate and control the opposing team of players. This is not only done through gameplay, but often with harsh language consisting of racial slurs or even threats of bodily harm and sexual violence. From this point of view, no one is playing the game for fun or enjoyment anymore. Instead, the game is being played out of some sadistic need to exercise dominance over another human being, to humiliate and destroy that person. This is the evolution of the Internet bully who does not have to be physically impressive to have power over another; they just need an Internet connection, a gaming console, and the aim to misbehave.

I’ve seen, firsthand, people who I once thought I knew personally as calm and rational beings lose all form of self-control and turn into hateful, spiteful, and degenerative cretins while playing online games. Currently, what causes or triggers these outbursts is unknown, though some researchers have investigated it, even giving it a proper scientific term: the ‪”Online Disinhibition Effect.” In looking further at the Online Disinhibition Effect, essentially a study on how the anonymity provided by the Internet can lead to a change in personality and, in some cases, the creation of an alter ego, it seems that playing online games enhances and promotes this strange phenomenon.

It is disconcerting that video games, a hobby meant to invoke fun and provide escape, can turn a person into something ugly. I can only hazard a guess that online games of a competitive nature, like Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, so often bring out the worst in people because our desire to win and frustration with our own inadequacies seem to drive us toward rage. The lack of accountability makes it easier for individuals to release their pent-up aggression in an anonymous void where repercussions for foul language and obnoxious behavior essentially do not exist.

As console gaming has evolved to meet the demands of a more connected audience, online gameplay is evolving to adapt to the conditions of a growing, increasingly volatile environment. As an example, Microsoft has created and implemented a Code of Conduct and reputation system that addresses the type of rotten behavior displayed on Xbox Live, but the code is rarely enforced and the reputation system is constantly abused. The reason for this is that there are just too many instances of incredulous behavior and not enough people working at Microsoft to catch it all.

I do applaud Microsoft, Sony, and other developers out there for providing the mute function, which relieves and quells the problem for the most part. However, muting does not solve the problem of why certain people behave the way they do when playing online any more than ignoring a random inappropriate Internet post. Why should we have to mute each other? What excuse is there to resort to such callous words in order to interact with each other?

The progression from physical interaction (being physically present) to the invisible walls of the Internet has led to a disconnect of social respect between human beings. Our disturbing behavior on the Internet may not be our true selves coming to light as some may think, but it is nonetheless a part of who we are, and that is truly the scary part. The amount of hate and violence that exists within so many of us comes to light through our anonymity, and, because there is no one there to engage and challenge our ignorance, we are less enlightened as a result. It’s a shame that something meant to inspire connectedness and friendly community does the opposite. For me there is no fun in playing with strangers anymore; all I do now is play in silence because everyone is muted.


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  • Tom T

    I have also been frustrated by the state of online gaming. Frustrated by the behaviours of others, and frustrated by my own frustration. I’ve pretty much left online gaming behind, for the time being.

    Generally speaking (even playing single player), I find that having people present can genuinely makes you a more composed, happier gamer. I can only assume it is a case of feeling monitored, and better regulating as result. Without people around there is a tendency to get angry at how a game is treating you, when you would otherwise let it slide. In the iconic words of Zelda, “it’s dangerous to go alone”.

    More specifically related to online, I also think it is easier to question the integrity of the experience, by rationalising losses by blaming factors beyond your perception and control e.g. hacking or a poor networking connection.

    What interests me is the potential shift towards collaborative and cooperative online gaming, as people become increasingly fed up with how people act in a competitive setting. For example, I can’t really see people trash talking on Minecraft. Then there are upcoming games like Destiny, which suggest an increased emphasis on coop, over competitive. If people have to work together to succeed, perhaps the Online Disinhibition Effect could be combated, and online could become a more fun, social place again?

    Food for thought, anyway.

    • Skylar Hunter

      While games like Destiny and even Borderlands promote a cooperative experience where players have to work together and help each other.

      I’ve often found that still playing with randoms provides a 50% chance of being awful. The amount of trolling and griefing that goes on is just asinine. Not to mention the high school-like atmosphere that MMORPG’s provide.

      I honestly think that if things are to change it has to be at a fundamental level where accountability comes back into the equation somehow. Repercussions for what we say and do seem to be the only way of keeping us from losing ourselves.

      However, I could be wrong, I would love to be proved wrong.

      • spaboolly

        Personally (and feel free to call me a cynic) I think this is a symptom of a much, much larger sociological trend. If people held THEMSELVES accountable for how they behaved, it would solve a lot of problems in the world. But that takes things like discipline and self-respect, which are not qualities that seem to be found in ample supply these days.

        You shouldn’t need someone else around to tell you it’s wrong to threaten harm on another person for losing a game.

        And in this comment I realize that I have a funny way of being a cynic and an idealist at the same time.

        • Tom T

          “Scratch any cynic and you will find a disappointed idealist.” ― George Carlin