Talk Shit, Throw a Fit, Or Take the Hit: Toxic Behaviours in DoTA 2
Virtual spaces craft a social “no man’s land” in where the typical societal norms of person to person interaction are thrown out. The concepts of “play” and “fun” are being debated with “labour” and “work” as Jeffrey Snodgrass’s eustress and distress, and other works show a link between negative player interactions and gaming experiences. However, these works have not adequately addressed the issue of how the offender may personally benefit from toxic behaviour, especially the reasons why they choose to engage others in this manner. My paper addresses the idea of toxic players and their harassment as ways of invalidating their losses by shifting or accentuating blame onto teammates, with attention to the concept of glory as winning utils that cement expertise. Specifically, in my project, I will be looking at scenarios where toxicity occurs to show that negative outbursts result from having one’s ego challenged, in order to bring a different perspective to the notion that aggressive behaviour occurs from one’s frustrations with their team or the gameplay. I argue that toxicity in Defence of the Ancients 2 (DoTA 2) is rooted in pre-conceived notions of one’s own abilities and the abilities of their teammates to perform, and the failure to uphold expectations is the catalyst that ignites hostilities. In conclusion, examining the intent behind a toxic player’s need to be hostile exposes the less discussed issues of self-worth.
Flame/Flaming: relaying harsh criticism or abusive commination, either verbally or nonverbally
Griefing: self and/or team sabotage done with malicious intent
Throwing: purposely losing the game, an obvious type of throwing is griefing
Trolling: a deliberate act to incite a strong emotional reaction, typically negative
Utils: a payout from playing a match, either socially via interactions between players or as an in-game reward e.g., ranked points
Eustress: positive feelings resulting from obtaining positive utils
Distress: negative feelings resulting from obtaining negative utils
Expectations play a large role in crafting the basis of the type of relationship one has with their teammates as they enter a co-operative game. Pressure is another component as players feel the need to do well, and face either social repercussions or a devaluing of their self-worth if they fail to do so. In Massive Online Battle Arena (MOBA) type games, namely Defence of the Ancients 2 (DotA 2), or League of Legends (LoL), toxic behaviour is a hair-trigger switch that can be flipped on almost instantly, for any reason. For one player, Peter, patience runs thin when people seem to destroy his chances at winning his matches. When Peter has a plan, or strategy in mind, and is in the process of initiating it, he is forced to rely on the competence of his teammates to maintain the equilibrium of the game status until his plan comes to fruition, which then leads them to victory. However, Peter stated that optimistically, these plans only work out 1 in 5 times. Most of the time, he felt his teammates were feeding the enemy team to the point where they were too powerful, and his build wouldn’t work, then coming to the conclusion that either the enemy was either just too good, or his team was just “too garbage”. Drawing from Przybylski’s concept of autonomy as fundamental to the intrinsic motivations for playing video games, people gain satisfaction from collaboration and competition (Przybylski, Deci, Rigby and Ryan, 2014). Therefore, when players like Peter feel helpless, not only is it a distressful situation, but losing autonomy leads to hostilities as the disassociation from the game’s outcome also results in an easier channel to project blame. In the scenario above, toxicity would occur due to Peter feeling as if his team let him down, and they would further escalate if he was to be blamed for the loss. Because he felt he had no control over the situation, such a challenge to his skill and ego made no sense to him since he never got a chance to act in lieu of his teammates’ failures.
This paper is based on 3 months of participant-observation in DotA 2, with approximately 90 games of ranked, casual and low priority modes played. These three different modes gave the players that queued for them a different preconceived idea on how the game was expected to play out. Casual games were expected to be less competitive, and therefore taken less seriously and in theory, should be less toxic. Ranked games called for a higher level of play, and mistakes were more heavily scrutinized. Low priority games are a game mode forced upon a player who had too many disconnections from games or had conduct reports against them. Players in these modes were typically flamers or griefers had that one too many reports against them and were placed in low-priority as punishment. Interviews were done with players who had between 740 to 9000 hours logged in DotA 2 exclusively, as well as played other games including League of Legends, and Maplestory 2. They were described and categorized as: “just for fun” players, previously toxic players, and toxic players. Interview questions were based on the context that players had been the victim and the perpetrator of toxic behaviour, how they handled being the victim of toxicity, how they rationalized their own behaviours toward others, good experiences versus bad experiences, and work versus fun. Furthermore, games with interviewees were played and recorded, as well as spectated while listening in on the in communication/call outs between players. Chat logs from matches were reviewed and analyzed to find the catalyst, experiencing of and conclusion of toxic chat, including logs that extended to the post-game. These were also compared to the result of the match, and cross referenced with graphical data regarding a player’s EXP (experience) gain, total net worth, and kill score ratio to determine player efficiency and contribution. Lastly, getting flamed myself countless times throughout this research project allowed for self-reflection and enabled a better understanding of a player’s mental state.
Understanding the Reward System:
Snodgrass links the physiological arousals of eustress and distress with the risk of losing something in the game (Snodgrass et al. 2016). Where eustress is the sense of pleasure a player experiences when they are successful in game, distress comes from a feeling of loss or failure. With achievement in mind, these two concepts are the result of either losing or gaining social and mechanical renown in video games, to which I will prescribe as utils. Utils, as the measurement of happiness or glory in this context, will be represented by online ranks that lead to a fulfillment of one’s self worth, as well as other factors of arousals such as “social capital, friendship development, and social support” (Fox, Gilbert and Tang, 2018). While winning is the most obvious reward, the process of playing the game triggers feelings of eustress and distress depending on the type of player interactions. Using economic game theory, while DotA 2 is the platform where players engage with each other, utils also exist on a meta level as player interactions act as another state where one can win or lose. Expectations different from reality then brings vulnerability to those who have their perceived skill challenged, by either directly being accused of playing poorly, or simply by being associated with the losing team and incorrect plays. Winning the match and being rewarded ranked points is the simplest form of reinforcement of a player’s self-worth in the game. Using the case of a toxic player, during the game, when instances of distress from poor plays arise, the options taken are then to ensure that even if ranked utils are not obtainable, their self-worth does not decrease. This results in the toxic player reprimanding or flaming their teammates, and what this does is shift fault from the player to the rest of their team, thereby protecting their ego. Moreover, while a defence mechanism, it also adds a type of tainted social util to gain from the situation. By flaming a teammate and aggressively telling them to play better, the toxic player not only has a scapegoat, but if by chance the victim does start playing noticeably better, the toxic player can now take credit for this surge in performance, especially if its more likely to lead to a win. Despite being in a team, the actions of the toxic player are often self-centred in their strategies to maintain social status by either “self-promotion, or preventing social failure through self-defense” (Stopfer, Braun, Müller, Egloff, 2015). Thus, toxic players are looking for their reward and theirs alone, maximizing payouts and silencing the accusations of poor performance by either winning the game, or destroying the self-esteem of another to preserve their own.
Regarding the idea that toxicity is a reaction to threats against the ego and pre-conceived notion of skill level, a way of rationalizing flaming is often under the pretense of “teaching” someone what to do. One player, Brian, self described as a “past flamer” is in the 99th percentile of all players in DotA 2 at the rank of “Divine 5”. Objectively good at the game, he stated that while he was once someone who was toxic and flamed his teammates if they did not perform at an acceptable level, he no longer found it was worth his energy to do so.Speaking from his past experiences, he flamed because he felt he was arrogant, that he knew what the best play was for every situation that arose. At a higher rank now than he was in the past, he no longer flames, and he looks down on those who do so, even if they could be considered skillful. When asked why, he responded that “Youcan’t think about flamers like that because if they’re good, there’s no reason they couldn’t explain what you’re doing wrong.” For Brian, wasting time flaming meant not using said time to be improving, and by lacking the critical thinking to understand what was going wrong, flaming was toxic behaviour for the sake of toxicity rather than to teach. For a brief stint, Brian took up coaching players who were looking for someone to help them improve, and gained satisfaction from helping them learn the game, but felt frustration at those who didn’t take his advice. Moreover, he felt he was unable to properly offer advice and constructive criticism without coming off as “flamey” due to the negative connotations that has been ingrained in the community when the slightest bit of criticism is perceived. Despite this, when receiving flame himself, Brian can often tune it out, or he accepts that perhaps after not playing for a week or two, he is no longer at peak performance and thus accepts the criticism. Because of his own acknowledgement and expectation that he won’t be at his best after a few days off, there is no direct challenge to any notion of superiority. What he cannot handle, and states “destroys” him is when an obviously worse player has no self-awareness and is attacking his playmaking while failing to carry their own weight, as well as griefing, also known as sabotage, as something that harms his mental capacity to play the game.
Furthermore, there are meta expectations regarding flaming. For Brian, he assumed everyone coming into the game was mentally unstable, thus he had a bit of a buffer and more patience for some abhorrent behaviour against him; he expected as such to occur. What’s more is that his received flame is often based on his higher than average rank, resulting in others expecting him to do very well. As a result, when he loses, the insults target his lack of ability, the implication he is undeserving of his rank, and that the players harassing him are clearly better. Brian and Peter both adamantly stated that if you get flamed, you are almost obligated to flame back, or your silence may be misconstrued as you are admitting fault. Seth and Justin are players on the more casual level, yet still deal with pressures of ranked games, and while rarely the instigators, fall into retaliatory flaming easily. Matthew’s retaliatory flame often emerged in the form of stating what happened and why it led to a disastrous situation, inferring incompetence, while highlighting his own expertise.
For Justin, regardless of how well the flamer is doing, if being flamed, he will purposely search for something to nitpick in order to cast doubt and challenge the toxic player’s authority to make himself feel better. In DotA 2, Justin’s expectations of himself lead to pressures that create an uncomfortable environment, along side the ever-present toxic players he encounters in games. He had an experience a few years ago that he remembered quite vividly, because he described it as a mental breakdown mid game. While playing a high impact hero that “hooks” enemy heroes by throwing a meat hook and dragging them out of position, he had to mute everyone on his team to concentrate. Whenever he missed a hook, he had his head in his hands in frustration as he put this pressure on himself to do well. As his friends took winning very seriously, he felt as if their happiness was on his shoulders to perform. When entering a game where he has the highest rank displayed, he feels a disproportionate amount of pressure placed on him. If he is supposedly the most skilled player in the lobby, he is expected to do well, and fears the insults that will come after a loss.
While Murnion and company suggest that trash talk is innocuous and separate from toxic chat, as well as cyber bullying in World of Tanks being learned behaviour that new players adopt from experienced players (Murinion, Buchanan, Smales, Russell, 2018), I would argue that trash talk is flaming and toxic. Additionally, while newer players do integrate into the toxic environment of online video games, it might just be that with more experienced gained over time, comes a willingness to express their acquired knowledge in an abrasive manner. Flaming and toxic communication do not have to be verbal, manifesting in griefing by sabotaging their team’s efforts and chances to win. Therefore if it does take the form of verbal dialogue in the chat box, it is worthy to note it with the intention of being abusive because the sensitivity for toxic language is so high and players’ tolerance for it is so low. For example, in League of Legends and DotA 2, there are “pings”, so one could click anywhere on the map, creating a pinging noise, as well as making a question mark/exclamation icon appear on the ground. This was done to passive aggressively flame a teammate, or aggressively if repeated done so, as it can only be seen by teammates, non-verbally “questioning” the play that just occurred. (See Figure 3 uploaded separately. I get flamed after a teammate dies, then “ping-spammed” and briefly consider flaming back.)
In addition, because the tolerance level for toxicity is so low, players often overreact. As Peter stated, “It [flaming] makes them angry at you, so they don’t want to try to win, they want to try to make you miserable.” For some players, the goal is to make their teammate feel so bad about themselves to the point where they quit the game, and what that does for them is ensure they will never play with them as teammates again. If ranked utils are off the board, then social utils cement a different kind of expertise, whereby if one is doing the flaming, the implication is that they know better than the receiver. In the cases with Brian getting flamed after he loses a game, the toxic players have won ranked utils, and can choose to boost their ego by opting for obtaining social utils when they attack Brian. It is an additional victory to not only win, but win against a Divine 5. To let him know that “he’s trash” reinforces the idea that they are better than him, when statistically speaking, despite winning a game against him, they are not. Furthermore, to flame or grief someone with the intention of getting them to quit the game has a level of gatekeeping that suggests one shouldn’t play the game unless they are at a certain skill level determined by that player. It is a self-serving mindset that acts with an authority the player does not actually possess. They are very much repulsed by the idea of failure and so griefing is also a reaction to counter blame when one can hide behind the fact they were throwing the match, so an accurate reading of their skill level cannot be taken. Because of this, the loss cannot be used to invalidate their notions of superiority, but because it is a loss, serves as a justification to flame teammates. Some players go as far as to say, even once the team starts winning, that a teammate performed so poorly that they don’t deserve to win and would rather lose themselves than to have their teammate win along side them. This brings back the concept of autonomy, where this is what this player has decided, and is okay with, especially if it forces the other player to lose, robbing them of the ability counter accusations of poor performance. A pyrrhic victory, the toxic player gets the satisfaction about being right about his “trash” teammate. Although this strategy does not maximize payoffs translated into utils, it does however give the toxic player more than if he was to lose and stay quiet. The dominant social strategy for toxic players when losing is to flame, rather than lose graciously, because that nets them recompense through emotional release.
The toxic mindset is one that also occurs when the player views the game as work, rather than fun, possibly coupled with an arrogant attitude. People like Seth prefer to play casual DotA 2 to have fun. Justin prefers to play the support characters as that is a role that does not traditionally get the glory, or have the pressure, of being responsible to win the game. However, all players can enter a “serious” mode where tensions are high and communications between players are precarious. In this mode, Brian typically mutes flamers to focus on winning the game. Seth and Justin are more on edge, where while they don’t regularly instigate the flaming, it is easier for them to criticize the plays of others when they feel invested, because its less about trying something fun and innovative, but sticking with a build that is tried and true to win. Peter defaults in this zone, as he sees gaming as a grind, with the off-chance that he has fun. For him if they aren’t preforming to his expectations it’s one of two problems: either they’re not good enough and need to improve, or they’re griefing and need to leave the game, justifying his flame to get them to disconnect. “Like I think that’s only fair so its one of those two, either you’re garbage, get better, or you’re intentionally feeding, kill yourself.” What’s notable about players being toxic is that often in the moment, they don’t realize they are being toxic until afterwards. It is either considered retaliatory and therefore defensive, or immensely obvious advice, and justified. When asked about flaming and griefing in the game, it was often described by my interviewees as a “waste of time”. However, seeing someone doing something innovative, when in a mindset focused on winning, had them believe their teammate was “trolling or throwing”. Paralleling the views that doing something “fun” in ranked modes with throwing, suggests that there is a strict way of building one’s hero and performing in a game. Whatever deviates from the standard is best left for casual modes where winning doesn’t matter, because winning nets more overall utils than having fun.
Status aspirations are tightly linked to social distress (Snodgrass et al., 2016), which is why retaliatory flaming is very easy to fall into, as it is not only a counter to the immediate challenge to one’s skill, but the quickest outlet for frustration. Because players like to assume they are at least average at the game, many instances of flaming that suggest the contrary seem off-base and there is a prominent desire to prove the opposite. In other situations, social status in the game is directly linked to the amount of enjoyment and eustress one experiences in real life. When Justin plays Maplestory 2, he enjoys being “the guy”, the person who can help new players, have them thank him, as they admire his rare equipment that no one else has. As reasons for playing video games is strongly related to “something to talk about and improving avatar’s abilities”, associated with rivalries and admiration (Stopfer, Braun, Mueller, Egloff, 2015), relating back to toxicity, to maintain these levels of admiration from others, the elite in his game actively supress and hide information from newer players. Being the perpetrators of misinformation, they prevent others from being able to be “the guy”, and actively flame players who try to join their parties if they have not maximized their build potential. Where in Maplestory 2, a player’s self-worth is focused on their efficient builds and displayable loot, DotA 2’s version of being “the guy” is the one shot-calling and criticizing, as that inflates their sense of self-worth regardless of the scoreboard, but creates rivalries and discontent rather than admiration. What this means is that flaming grants them eustress at the expense of causing someone else distress. Therefore with toxicity as the action of situating someone else into a position of incompetence, by forcibly removing them from their pre-conceived space of knowledge and expertise, the jarring experience triggers reciprocal toxic behaviours back.
Conclusion and Limitations:
This work explored the reasoning behind why a player instigated hostiles between teammates. Based on the idea that interactions either made one feel incompetent, or letdown expectations one had about others, and thus were detrimental to the social status of one’s own abilities by being on the losing team, toxicity is a self-defence mechanism used to protect a player’s self worth. As an interviewee stated, “When I make a mistake and someone’s like ‘Hey, good job idiot,’ I have to flame that guy. He’s intentionally making me feel bad.” The ultimate goal from being toxic is to not feel bad, by making others experience that distress instead. Unfortunately, this work could not cover exactly what was said and qualified as toxic chat. Comments about skill were frequent, but there were also the cases of racial and homophobic slurs that did not fit into the framework of superiority and hostilities due to failure to uphold expectations. Toxicity and racial tensions existed in an unexplored space where a single Spanish, Russian or non-English word was considered flaming or “bad manner” (BM), regardless of context. Why did “team asco” set off more players than “bad team”? Additionally, comments taken out of context may not seem to have any adverse connotations, but because of a high sensitivity to criticism in game and high level of toxicity one expected to encounter, a purposefully timed “Well Played!” can have acutely negative implications. Compliments and positive phrases used after a clear failure in game are passive-aggressive and sarcastic, leading to the expectations that most “positive” messages are just thinly layered flame. In addition, toxicity manifested itself differently in different genres of games. As Justin moved away from DotA 2’s player versus player format (PVP) to the player versus environment game (PVE) of Maplestory 2, he found he still enjoyed the social aspect of having his expertise recognized. As someone who played in the closed beta of the game, he was far ahead of many new players when the game fully released. Toxicity in this game, he described, was “elite” players scorning those who did not have the best loot to clear dungeons or raid bosses efficiently. There was also an issue of these elite players spreading misinformation to these lower level players to ensure their supremacy in the game. Caught between being elite and being new at the game, due to the information that would make him elite not yet translated from the Korean version of the game, Justin feels that it is an innate unfairness that he cannot control. In this situation, the distribution of eustress and distress is as follows: Being rebuked and accused of inexperience in the game due to a weaker build or loot results in distress. Having the knowledge and expertise to turn someone away for their inefficiencies denotes superiority, leading to eustress.
Finally, the topic of anonymity online appeared in some interviews, but was not fully explored with how it may facilitate toxicity as interactions between players are dehumanized and made impersonal. Ultimately, this work shows that the potential for flaming and toxicity exists as soon as the players enter the game, and it is rarely about criticizing a teammate for doing poorly, but rather, criticizing a teammate doing poorly because of how that translates and affects the player’s beliefs about themselves.
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