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?

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."

It’s tempting to ignore boys' online behavior as inconsequential, but Wiseman points out that today’s abusive teenagers turn into tomorrow’s men. And those men are just as bad. After all, with the average age of male gamers over 30, many abusive players are likely to be adults.

That’s why Wiseman and Burch say game makers should feel obligated, as creators of the most popular entertainment medium for boys, to inject some emotional nuance into their work.

Making cooperation a part of gameplay is an easy way to do that. Many games already require players to use teamwork to win, but Burch and Wiseman say more can be done. Football matches require players to shake hand after every match—what if there was a digital equivalent?

More studios, aware of the impact abusive players can have on their reputation, are attempting to curb this type of behavior. Riot Games, maker of the multiplayer strategy game League of Legends, which has more than 55 million users, has poured huge amounts of money into finding solutions to encourage sportsmanship.

Jeffrey Lin, head of social systems at Riot Games, suggests early efforts have worked. Taking away chat functionality from players who receive multiple negative reports can reverse bad behavior, for example.

Cooperation and politeness are the norm in many e-sports already. Starting a game of the real-time strategy title StarCraft begins more often than not with a customary message of “GLHF”: Good luck, have fun.

Creating heroes who actually display emotion, fear, and even moments in which they have no idea what the hell they’re doing can be a relief for young men, Wiseman says. A key idea of her most recent book is that boys have rich emotional lives, and don’t really want to be constrained by the old, repressive stereotypes of masculinity.

“The boys I know don’t want stoic dads,” she says. “They want courageous, strong dads, but they want them to admit moments of weakness and fear.”

Pop culture has already started reflecting that idea on TV and in film, where strong-silent types have given way to more fully human leading males. Think of Daniel Craig’s wounded take on James Bond, or Robert Downey Jr.’s PTSD-affected Iron Man, both of whom have real, warm relationships with others.

Gaming hasn’t caught up, but there are signs it could. Telltale's The Walking Dead, one of the most critically acclaimed game series of 2013, featured a black man as the protagonist—a rarity in games—who regularly was forced to make harrowing decisions and confront his own shortcomings. Does he reveal the truth about his past as a convicted murderer to his new companions—or risk them finding out on their own with dire consequences?

It's the player's choice, but for the most part, Lee is a benevolent character, taking an orphaned girl under his stewardship and often putting himself in danger to protect her.

Of course, this characterization isn't available in multiplayer environments, which is where most abuse takes place. Burch says this is why it's so important to reinforce cooperation between players: Why couldn't we show an animation of players in a first-person shooter patting each other on the back after a game, she asks?

Some in the games industry aren’t convinced. In March, an audience member at Wiseman and Burch’s developers talk posed a question that exemplified the very problem they’re trying to fix: Wouldn’t their suggestions essentially make Master Chief “into a girl”?

Wiseman responded calmly to the sexist assumptions embedded in the question:  “What Ashly and I are asking you to do is create heroes that allow children to look at themselves and say, ‘I can be Master Chief—male or female—but I can also ask for help, and admit how important the relationships are in my life.’”