What is a toxic gaming community?

Updated
A headshot of Andruid, shaded blue.
By Andruid

Writer, roleplayer, storyteller, and nerd who tries to live by Bill and Ted wisdom, i.e. "Be excellent to each other." 

Table of Contents

    Although the term “toxic gaming community” is most often used in the context of competitive video games, there’s no denying that the tabletop and text-based gaming communities have experienced their share of toxicity, as well.

    In today’s post, I describe what makes a community or gamer toxic. I then describe 10 behaviors that can contribute to a toxic community. Finally, I wrap up with some personal advice on dealing with toxic behavior.

    But first…

    Why toxicity in gaming matters

    It should go without saying, but this stuff matters for a few important reasons:

    1. First and foremost, toxic behavior is harmful to human health and can lead to depression and suicidal thoughts. That’s why it’s called toxic behavior and not merely “unpleasant behavior.”
    2. Second, it drives players away. And not just from individual games but the whole dang hobby.

    If the dwindling text-based gaming community in particular wants to attract and retain players, it not only has to work against the perception that our games are obsolete and old-fashioned – it also needs to make sure that the games we play and create are safe for other human beings, regardless of their age, gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, or ability.

    Let’s take a look at what constitutes a toxic gaming community.

    What is a toxic gaming community?

    A toxic gaming community is a gaming community in which discrimination, harassment, or abuse are allowed to occur and may even become the “expected norm.”

    In these communities, unsporting behavior such as griefing, cheating, and metagaming may also be common.

    Note: while not everyone who plays games self-identifies as a gamer, I use the terms “gamer” and “player” interchangeably throughout this article, as the two groups are not mutually exclusive and can be found in the same communities.

    How do you know if you’re in a toxic gaming community?

    You may be a part of a toxic gaming community if you experience being harassed or discriminated against because of your actual or perceived age, gender, sexuality, race/ethnicity, religion, or ability – or if you witness these things happening to another player.

    You may also notice behavior such as griefing, cheating, and metagaming, as these often go unchecked in toxic communities.

    Another red flag: you or your fellow players privately talk about how you prefer to “keep your heads down” to avoid unwanted attention. This is typically a sign that you don’t feel comfortable expressing yourselves in that community.

    While inexperienced players (newbies) are frequently the victims of toxic behavior, even experienced players can find themselves being talked down to or harassed in a toxic community.

    What is a toxic gamer?

    A toxic gamer is someone who engages in harmful social behavior, such as discrimination, harassment, or abuse aimed at other players. They will often rationalize their behavior as normal and shift the blame onto their victims, using the anonymity of the internet or an unequal power structure in order to shield themselves against the consequences.

    Toxic gamers lift themselves up by bringing others down. When they go about it intentionally, they’re also known as “trolls.”

    Trolling occurs when someone engages in toxic behavior with the specific intent of causing distress or harm to others. Thus, while all trolls are toxic, not all toxic gamers are trolls.

    Varieties of toxic

    While it’s true that toxic gamers can have a nasty attitude, especially when things aren’t going their way, not all of them are hot-headed and impulsive (and therefore easier to identify).

    Sometimes, they’re calm and calculating.

    These bad faith actors may seem outwardly friendly and reasonable in public channels but turn out to be manipulative or predatory in private. The more they learn about their victims, the more they can exploit.

    For example, they may attempt to gaslight players who have less power or low self-esteem in order to get their way.

    This becomes especially problematic when the conversations occur outside the game (e.g. in Discord) where admins have no way of knowing about it in order to put a stop to it.

    An angry gamer shouting at their computer screen.
    Not all toxic gamers are rash and insulting; some are bad faith actors. Games need to protect their players from both sources of toxicity.

    How are toxic communities created?

    Toxic communities are usually the result of behavior from both game implementors and players: staff may themselves exhibit (and therefore lead with the example of) toxic behavior, or they may be too removed from the game to keep toxic players in check.

    Whether toxic behavior is perpetuated by staff or allowed to persist out of neglect (or both), it’s not great for the game or the well-being of its players.

    The point here isn’t to place blame, however – it’s to explain what kind of behaviors and activities contribute to a toxic atmosphere so that both staff and players can take steps to protect their games and communities from the effects of toxicity.

    How to create a toxic gaming community in 10 simple steps

    Below are some of the things staff and players do that contribute to a toxic gaming community. Essentially, it’s a handbook of things you should not do if you want to create a safer, healthier space for players.

    It’s also your checklist of things to watch out for in any game you play, create, or support.

    As a staffer / admin

    Here are 10 ways you can erode players’ trust and exemplify toxic behavior in your game:

    1. Engage – or allow other players to engage – in homophobia, transphobia, sexism, racism, anti-Semitism, ableism, and other forms of discrimination.
    2. Show favoritism toward your friends and the players you personally like.
    3. Belittle or target players you don’t agree with, or whose character concepts or roleplay you don’t like.
    4. Manipulate players into thinking they deserve or are responsible for the poor treatment they receive from you or others (gaslighting).
    5. Be extremely vague about your decisions in policy cases or why you’ve chosen to take one player’s word over another. (While it’s sometimes necessary to leave out details, e.g. when protecting a victim, a total lack of transparency can quickly erode players’ trust, especially in combination with other behaviors in this list.)
    6. Don’t stick to the rules you make everyone else follow (double standard).
    7. Use your knowledge of how the game works to create a min-maxed player character, then use that character to grief players, e.g. under the pretense of “creating RP.”
    8. Ignore poor behavior from players because they donate heavily to the game or pay a subscription fee.
    9. Answer players’ questions with “because that’s how we’ve always done it.”
    10. Plus everything listed below.

    As a player

    Here are 10 ways you can ruin the game for everyone else:

    1. Engage in homophobia, transphobia, sexism, racism, anti-Semitism, ableism, and other forms of discrimination.
    2. Talk down to fellow players and harass staff about decisions that aren’t in your favor.
    3. Harass or belittle players you don’t agree with, or whose character concepts or roleplay you don’t like.
    4. Go behind another player’s back to damage their reputation or try to convince others to exclude them from events or activities (blackballing).
    5. Take advantage of loopholes in the game’s mechanics to get ahead or make other players’ lives miserable (cheating, twinking, griefing).
    6. Reveal private information about a player in order to upset, intimidate, or embarrass them (doxxing).
    7. Pursue graphic roleplay (rape, torture, gruesome scenes, etc.) even though someone has asked you to stop or has indicated that they’re not interested (harassment, sexual harassment).
    8. Manipulate other players into thinking they deserve or are responsible for the poor treatment they receive so that they don’t go to staff with their complaints (gaslighting).
    9. Lie to the game’s admins or alter your logs in order to frame other players or shift blame away from yourself.
    10. Involve your friends in your griefing and metagaming activities.

    Nearly all of the behaviors listed here should be explicitly forbidden in your game’s rules, and these rules should be consistently enforced by staff.

    And don’t stop with this list.

    What I’ve laid out here is just a start. Think about other behaviors you’ve seen in your favorite games that can and do contribute to a culture of toxicity.

    Why you should address toxic behavior

    In the real world, toxic communities generally don’t happen overnight. They happen because toxic behavior is permitted and tolerated until it becomes the expected norm. For that reason, it’s important for players to recognize and stand up to toxic behavior.

    To borrow a phrase from DHS: if you see something, say something.

    Granted, it’s often easier said than done. By the time you realize you or your friends are in a toxic situation, you may have already given in to an emotional outburst and said something you regret. Or you may have told the toxic player something personal that you’d rather not have out in the open. You might also worry about getting in trouble, being the target of revenge, or flat-out being ignored.

    For these and other reasons, I highly recommend that you keep logs of your conversations, and always remember that others can do the same.

    Tips for standing up to toxic behavior

    Here are some tips for handling a toxic situation:

    • If you’re upset, take a deep breath and allow yourself a moment to focus. Keep your cool. Toxic players often get their jollies from seeing their victims get upset, so don’t give them the pleasure.
    • Calmly tell the player that they’re being toxic.
    • Block the toxic player if the game gives you the option to do so.
    • Report the player to the game’s admin team, along with logs, screenshots, or other evidence. Evidence isn’t always necessary (game admins often have their own tools for monitoring players), but it can really help expedite the process.
    • Remove yourself from the situation if it doesn’t improve. No, you shouldn’t have to be the one to leave, but you don’t have to stand there and take the abuse, either.

    Other things you can do include boycotting games with a reputation for being toxic and leaving honest reviews so that other players can make informed decisions about whether or not to play.

    A neon green beaker labeled as TOXIC.
    Toxic behavior isn’t just unpleasant or uncomfortable. It causes harm.

    When to say goodbye to a toxic game

    When a game is more frustrating than it is fun, it’s time to say goodbye.

    You might think that the toxic staff or players are the problem and not the game itself. After all, the game was once fun for you, and it could be fun again under the right conditions.

    However, the reality with any multiplayer game is that the game, its staff, and its players are a package deal. If your best efforts to address the toxicity don’t result in positive change, it’s not your fault. But it is time to take your business elsewhere.

    Andruid’s using the restaurant analogy again…

    Imagine going to a restaurant and getting berated by the other guests – or worse, the server or on-duty manager!

    Not only would you probably never go back there again, but you’d also likely tell all your friends about how terrible the experience was and warn them away from eating at that restaurant – maybe even that entire restaurant chain. Right?

    Yet I’ve seen players tolerate repeated abuse because it used to be their favorite restaurant, or they’ve invested a lot of time and energy into the place, or because the meals are free and all their friends still eat there.

    Take my advice: it’s not worth it.

    If you’re in a bad relationship with a toxic game, it’s time to cut ties and move on. Find a community that deserves, respects, and appreciates you, because no game is worth the price of your well-being.

    Additional reading