How to End Video Games' Bullying Problem: Change the Games

Might the macho, unfeeling heroes of the most popular games be encouraging players' abusive, sexist, and racist behavior towards one another?
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Master Chief, the star of Halo 4 (AP Photo/Microsoft/343 Industries)

The claim that video games cause young boys to be violent or abusive has been largely discredited. But it speaks the truth loudly when reversed: Video games are where boys go to be horrible.

Tales of emotional abuse between players in online games are so common as to be cliché at this point. The Internet is filled with stories of young men sending disgusting and violent threats, both verbally and though private messaging systems, mostly targeted at girls. Sexual harassment is common.

As just one example: A 2013 study from Ohio University found that when a female player in Halo 3 greeted other players with an innocuous phrase like “hi everyone”—with no other information—she faced replies like “shut up you whore.” A rallying cry of “alright team let’s do this” earned the response, “slut.”

The problem has become so dire it has prompted corporate response. Microsoft even created a new type of system for reporting player harassment and behavior for the Xbox One console, released late last year.

Many observers have said that this sort of behavior is inherent in virtual competitive environments, where players are for the most part anonymous. Others say boys will be boys. But might the characters in the games themselves, and by extension those who make them, also be encouraging bullying?

That’s the question Rosalind Wiseman, best known for her book Queen Bees and Wannabees (the basis for Mean Girls), and actor Ashly Burch, of the successful gaming-focused web series “Hey Ash Whatcha Playin,’” have been investigating. The idea that game makers have a responsibility for abusive player behavior is a controversial one, but Wiseman and Burch say that a few less-than-drastic changes on designers’ part could help make gaming a friendlier place.

Rosalind started looking into the topic while working on her recent book on raising boys, Masterminds and Wingmen. To help research, she teamed up with Burch, who had temporarily quit video games a few years ago due to harassment from other players.

At a talk at the annual Game Developer’s Conference in March, Wiseman and Burch showed the results of some research they conducted, asking 200 school-aged boys about what they believe to be the most desirable traits for a man.

It’s typical stuff—boys want to be seen as strong, with good verbal skills. Smart but not too smart, athletic at the right sports, able to spend some money. They don’t get emotional, they’re not nerdy, and they’re certainly not sappy. 

In a separate survey of more than 1,000 boys, Wiseman and Burch asked about video-game habits. Overwhelmingly, the boys chose Master Chief, the hero of Microsoft’s blockbuster Halo series, as their favorite character.

Why? He’s a “badass," according to the kids, “an amalgamation of all the things boys want to be,” Burch says. “They want to be cool and save the day.”

The problem with that, Burch says, is that Master Chief is emotionless, a point she emphasized at GDC by showing footage of a climactic scene in which Master Chief sounded like a robot.

The highest-grossing games feature similarly unfeeling men at their center: BioShock Infinite, Call of Duty, and Grand Theft Auto V. Hints of vulnerability are few and far between. (Tellingly, the one game in which the protagonist regularly revealed their pain and fear of failure had a woman in the spotlight: Tomb Raider.)

These heroes' coldness isn't necessarily the source of any bad behavior, but Wiseman argues when boys lack other solid role models, game characters’ emotional distance can serve as an example to follow. That in turn allows boys to default to hurtful expression online: racism, homophobia and misogyny. If feelings aren’t cool, you’re not worried about hurting them, right?

Although Wiseman admits there isn't yet research that shows empathy in media characters can influence behavior, one 2007 study published in the journal Developmental Psychology showed promise. Researchers at the University of Michigan and VU University Amsterdam found boys who identified with violent characters were more likely to be violent in real life. They also pinpointed the possibility of the reverse being true: "Future research should also investigate the role of empathy in violent video game effects."

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Patrick Stafford is a journalist based in Melbourne, Australia. He has written about entertainment, business, and religion for Polygon, Edge, and Christianity Today.

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