On Hostility in Gaming – How One Bad Apple Ruins the Bunch

On Hostility in Gaming – How One Bad Apple Ruins the Bunch

I’ve always been a bit of a ‘lone wolf’ gamer. Although I do love some cooperative experiences and games, I typically stick to a game’s story or only engage in co-op with a friend I actually know. On the rare occasions I do go out in the wide world of online multiplayer, it’s with a solo approach – I’ll do as much as I can on my own, and only reach out when necessary.

Recently I’ve picked up playing the fan-made revival of the 2003 LucasArts/SOE MMORPG, Star Wars: Galaxies (formally known as “SWGEmu“). Star Wars Galaxies (SWG) is one of my all-time favorite games – a total sandbox experience, it broke the mold with a revolutionary Profession and Skill system that allowed endless combinations and builds. Instead of relying on your Warrior for tanking and Mage for DPS, you had a huge variety to choose from that allowed you to play solo or in teams – I’ll almost certainly write about it later, so I’ll skip the details. It’s totally freeform, which is formula for success to the game’s major playerbase – adults.

This was always the draw of Galaxies and most of the online games I play – the maturity of your average player. Of course there were trolls and troublemakers, but recently I’ve come across a special kind of idiot – one of the worst types… Bad enough that I wanted to vent about the problem that I know plagues online gaming and what ultimately drove me away from games that rely on multiplayer in the first place.

A fair warning to readers: This is a long entry. I began intending to write about a very specific type of personality, but instead it grew to tackle a larger issue in gaming – unfiltered writing has a tendency to do that.

Cooperation in Star Wars Galaxies – Some Context

For some additional context, cooperation is essential in Star Wars: Galaxies. While most MMOs rely on high-end drops from difficult enemies, SWG did it entirely differently. Characters could avoid combat altogether and instead become crafters – using components like metal and polymers collected by other players or harvesters, they craft the best gear. Drops from enemies are usually sub-par at best, so it’s important to understand that while you can “solo” the game, there’s always an underlying player cooperation. Aside from simply buying and trading, the best way to advance is to find a group of like-minded players and join a guild.

Guilds are the primary form of player association in most MMOs, and inevitably, they have a set structure with typically a single figurehead, the guild leader. Some games are very restrictive – a guild leader can never be ‘impeached’, and some games are more freeform where it’s more of an oligarchy approach – Galaxies has three tiers in their setup, the Leader, Officers, and Members (with available titles and responsibilities for individuals, if desired). It was the best guilds that used this system – by giving officers control and shifting the weight off of a single person, the guild could more easily run and grow.

To run a successful guild, it required maturity and cooperation – there were so many moving parts, that a level of trust in your fellow guild members was not just encouraged, but required. You could vote on new leadership if the existing proved incompetent, and players had a say in keeping their leadership on track… But what happens when those checks and balances are removed?

A Case Study in Doing it Wrong

I had the misfortune to find out exactly what happens after joining “RvR” – a guild on the central Basilisk server. RvR at first appeared as a giant, prosperous guild with a major city positioned in a great location for character leveling and mission running. There was activity in their central hub, and you couldn’t help but see the guild tag on players across the game. There had to be something that they were doing right – I joined the first chance I got, and almost immediately, I saw the first sign that should have shot up warning flares.

Rough Recruitment

In the city there was a sign on who to contact to join the guild – two players named PlayerX and PlayerY (obviously not their actual player names, though the guild IS real). I reached out to both and found PlayerX online – he said he was preoccupied, but would email me information about the guild so I could see if it was a good fit. I went about my business, and approximately an hour later I see not one, but two messages in my character’s inbox. The first was the standard recruitment propaganda – services, information, you name it. The second was also from PlayerX, and was much less friendly.

In the 30 minutes since his first email, PlayerX had apparently gone on a rampage – I found a long rant about “lack of maturity” and “disrespect”, with threats that I wouldn’t be welcome in the guild. Knowing a troll when I see one (and also noting that PlayerX had gone offline), I instead reached out to PlayerY, the actual guild leader, to sign up. I logged off for the night, and the next day had a discovery – PlayerX and PlayerY were, in fact, the same person. Graciously, he had decided to let me in the guild – I remember thinking it couldn’t be all bad, and that there was likely some sort of language barrier that made him come off as abrasive. I joined, plopped down some houses, and again, went about my business.

“My Way or the Highway” – Opinions Not Allowed

Things seemed okay for the next day or so – while I noticed that the GuildChat channel was surprisingly quiet for the number of players online, it appeared that the setup was more complex than I knew – somehow, the guild ran three cities clumped closely together, creating a nice hub on a formerly remote world. There were regular services to reduce the time it took to prepare for an outing, and a decent mall nearby. While running around town, a player approached me, seeing the “RvR” tag, and asked for more information. I gave PlayerX a pass on our first encounter and relayed the good parts of the guild, simultaneously mentioning in GuildChat that there was someone in the city who wanted to join. The few responses I got said that there wasn’t anyone online who could sign him up, as we only had a handful of officers – way under the normal ratio. I mentioned it was too bad, asked why we didn’t have more officers, and told the new player he’d have to try again another time.

A few minutes later, the shit had hit the fan, and the angry PlayerX appeared online. Again ranting in (what I believed to be) a second-language English, he flipped a lid about my comment, mentioning how they do have officers, and that I was being disrespectful. Again that word came up, and it was clear that PlayerX had never heard that respect was earned, not assumed – someone had a complex, and that someone was on my case. In a bewildering conversation I wish I’d recorded, threats of ‘blacklisting’ my character came out, and any respect had been lost. The Guild Leader and mayor of the area was a joke – during the semi-public debate, several players messaged me assurances that it had happened to them, and that the rule of thumb was you were either a suck-up or you never spoke in chat.

The thought kept coming to mind until finally, I asked one of my ‘supporters’ – how was PlayerX still Guild Leader if this was typical behavior? I should have known before I got the answer – PlayerX, PlayerY, and all of the other guild officers were actually just characters ran by the same person. Abusing multiple accounts and character creation limits (which hey, if a SWGEmu CSR is reading this, take a look into RvR leadership!), PlayerX had established a 100% dominance of the guild. The current situation stood like so:

  1. The Guild Leader voting system was broken. While typically officers ran in opposition to a bad leader, there IS no opposition for this one – indefinite control. Clever, though no effort was made to hide the fact, so I’ll take a point away from intellect.
  2. The city mayoral voting system was broken. Housing within city limits was (and usually is) a requirement for joining, but again cities are typically allowed to vote out poor mayors – not so. Instead, instant eviction occurred should someone run opposition, eliminating you from the race.
  3. Lastly and most importantly, out of the thirty or so estimated characters online in the guild at the time, not a single one felt comfortable responding to the Guild Leader’s wild behavior, knowing to do so would be removal from the guild and potential loss of equipment and hard-earned gear (during the housing eviction). Entire savings were tied up in the city bank and storage – if your character was banned from the bank, you were, in short, screwed.
  4. If I’d spent more time in the guild before the discovery, merchants and valuables may have been placed in more vulnerable areas and money spent to establish a place there – luckily, I hadn’t, and my extraction was much smoother than long-term residents.

I held my temper, as adults tend to do. I realized it was NOT a language barrier that I’d experienced, but instead a kid doing his best not to leetspeak and sound important… So I slowly began the long transition of moving my equipment and savings out of RvR controlled areas. I mentioned to the new player I had almost condemned that he should keep looking (to which he wholeheartedly agreed), and let PlayerX/PlayerY blow off his steam, watching as he began to shut out my access to the guild services.

I pointed out that he’d thrown nothing short of a tantrum, and was being obnoxious. Knowing he couldn’t give me the boot without reinforcing the point (or maybe he actually believed he taught me a lesson), PlayerX reinstated the rights he had begun to take away. The storm had subsided for a time – long enough at least for me to secure my stuff and haul out in secret, though I stayed publicly thanks to the friendly folks who had reached out. I also had another reason: curiosity.

I wanted to see how far the rabbit hole went (which it turned out to be pretty far), but that’s a different story. To keep it simple, the “mature” guild had been taken over by a misogynist, angry, and very hostile teen with delusions of grandeur, and as a result, dozens of players were stuck with a reduced, unpleasant experience.

The Mentality That Destroys Gaming

One could point out that there are measures in-game to prevent this that have been abused, so it should be corrected. One could also say that the game mechanics are at fault for allowing such a monopoly, but that wouldn’t be entirely true – there are safeguards, but they were bypassed. Instead of talking about mechanics and the specific situation above, I wanted to write about the real core problem at the heart of online gaming – hostility.

You can search the web for countless cases of gaming gone wrong, and let me be clear – in no way do I believe gaming creates this behavior. The troublemakers and idiots as previously mentioned exist outside of the online world – video games merely give them a way to act anonymously. Let’s take a quick checklist of a few games where the multiplayer aspect ruins the experience:

  • Any shooter like Halo and of course the Call of Duty series are almost synonymous with hostility. Try it – boot up your Xbox, pop in a shooter, and turn on the headset. Start a timer from when you start playing to when you get your first racial slur – it won’t take more than a couple minutes. Extra points if you’re brave enough to do this as a woman.
  • EVE Online, a game that I do enjoy, actually thrives on this behavior. Although those players don’t typically make it too far, there are stories that hit major media outlets that cover those few assholes that do.
  • Diablo 3, and the Blizzard community, in general, is crippled by this. I know a couple that could probably tell you horror stories from customer support – things that would probably stop you from ever picking up a game again.
  • To save us both time, Cracked wrote a series of articles solely covering a wide range of video game douchebaggery (as they call it), which take a funny glance at times when, in reality, a lot of players were probably turned off from their hobby for good.

In the cases above and hundreds more, players are the reason that online gaming can be so unpleasant. For some reason, the innate competition that video games offer bring out the worst of us – and it’s a true shame because this behavior and stigma is what fuels the enormous amount of negative press on the industry.

I don’t really know if there’s a solution to this – I would have liked to propose the end-all fix that removes assholes from what should be an enjoyable pastime for everyone, but that probably doesn’t exist. Until the anonymity is removed, there really is no penalty for the bad apples – one day when all accounts are linked to a central DNA-based username or futuristic Bio-ID I’m sure people will have to answer for their actions, but to be honest, that’s an environment I wouldn’t want to play in.

The Start of the Discussion

I’ve said my piece, and some readers may think it’s whiny. Certainly, there are a lot of players that accept the above as fact and simply say “deal with it” – to a level, I agree. We do have to deal with it, but should we?

In today’s world, we only get limited time to do what we love or to unwind for a while. If gaming is your outlet, should you have to constantly deal with a barrage of abuse and harassment? Of course not. You can’t behave that way on the golf course or in yoga class, so why should a player who is actively involved in (and in some cases rewarded for) ruining other people’s experience online be accepted?

The short of it is that gaming today is a fragile creature. You can argue with the sheer number of sales and the growing digital age that surrounds us, but I counter that gaming is not what it was a few years ago, and won’t be what it is in the next few years. Mobile has taken over. MMOs are on a downward spiral. Even the yearly blockbusters have taken sales hits, and more often than not you’ll hear about the success of an indie, single-player game than the roaring support of an AAA multiplayer title.

How do we ensure that the multiplayer we grew to love sitting on a friend’s couch doesn’t cease to exist? How do we change the mentality of gamers, old and new, to embrace civility and the “live and let live” mantra? CAN it be fixed? Is this truly an issue, or is it simply being overblown? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments, so feel free to leave your thoughts below… I’ll try not to troll you too much. 🙂

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