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.