Nature and Nurture: How younger players learn and avoid toxic habits online

August 29, 2023

During the summertime, kids get a break from school and find themselves with plenty of free time. It’s not uncommon for young people to spend some of this extra time playing video games. While there are several benefits to gaming, there is the possibility that your child experiences some toxic behavior in this space. However, if kids know how to spot this toxicity, they can learn to avoid becoming bad actors themselves.

Most online gamers are good people. They support each other, seek opportunities to celebrate and deepen friendships, and never seek to start a fight.

Not all online gamers fit this mold, unfortunately. Between 1-5% of most players in any online game are intentionally sexist, racist, vulgar or otherwise toxic. (We’ll call these people “Harassers”.) But despite being a minority of players, these Harassers have an outsized impact. 77% of players encounter severe toxicity when they are playing.

It can be hard to square these two facts. How can nearly 80% of players be harmed by less than 5%?

One part of the answer is that the Harassers tend to play a lot. But even that’s not sufficient to explain such a massive discrepancy.

The other piece of the puzzle is the fact that Harassers influence the people around them in subtle ways, causing well-intentioned people to make mistakes and contribute to a toxic culture without even realizing. And when talking about impressionable players who might be influenced by Harassers, there’s no population more important to understand than children. So in this article, let’s talk through a few habits of younger players, how Harassers distort those behaviors into something problematic, and what parents and platforms can do to prevent this.

Vocabulary Exploration Through Games

One of the classic experiences of youth is pushing the boundaries. It’s not just a habit, either; it’s explicitly how people learn. Testing how much you can get away with, experimenting with looser interpretations of rules, and generally just trying stuff is a quintessential part of any social experience for children.

A common manifestation of this is that kids will want to try out new vocabulary they encounter. In most cases, children don’t know the implications of what they’re saying, but only that it pushes the envelope in some way. For instance, we once detected a young child singing foul language repeatedly while playing a game. It’s clear that, to this child, they were “bad words you’re not supposed to say”; and the child clearly lacked an understanding that one word was in fact worse than another. In the physical world, a child experimenting like this would likely be immediately corrected by a parent or guardian, but online, there may be fewer adults immediately present; and what’s more, if a Harasser catches someone exploring in this way, they might even encourage it (more on this in “Seeking Role Models” below).

What can be done to stop this?

Parents can and should certainly monitor the vocabulary their kids are using; but they should also keep in mind that kids will experiment with new words, and they learn them from all areas of life, not just games. So we recommend that parents be clear with kids when a word is not to be repeated, but avoid punishing this kind of exploration, as punishments tend to not prevent further exploration, but just drive the kids to explore online where their parents can’t hear or correct them.

Platforms already monitor for foul vocabulary making the rounds in text chat, and technology now exists to monitor for this kind of problematic language in voice chat as well. But similarly to how parents should approach the issue, platforms should differentiate between someone trying to cause trouble and a kid who is just experimenting. The former might need a punishment of some kind, but the latter primarily needs education - and titles like Apex Legends have found that simply explaining these kinds of mistakes reduces repeat offenses by 85%!

Seeking Role Models in Online Communities

Kids are also typically hungry for status. They want to show their stuff and be appreciated, and the way they pursue that is by finding someone who they admire and doing their best to emulate them.

As mentioned before, Harassers do tend to play a lot, so they’re usually pretty good at the game; but there are plenty of skilled players that don’t engage in toxic behavior, so this fact alone wouldn’t explain the negative impact Harassers have. The real reason has to do with the fact that most of these games are free-to-play and have a lower barrier to entry.

The thing is, free-to-play games can’t really ban you - they can cancel your account, but since the game is free, you just create a new one. But this means that “people creating new accounts” are a combination of players who are totally new to the game (and so not skilled at it yet), and known Harassers who are experienced at the game. Since games tend to match new players together, this means that kids are much more likely to find that the best player in their immediate community is a Harasser; and then to emulate the Harasser out of a misplaced respect for their skill at the game.

Parents are thus encouraged to play games with their kids; and to actually learn the game well enough to be able to play reasonably or understand what’s happening on-screen. Giving your kids access to other role models - yourself, slightly older kids you trust, school e-sports leagues, etc - decreases the odds that your child will feel the need to emulate a Harasser’s behavior if they want to “get good.”

Platforms should reflect carefully on their banning procedure. Especially for free-to-play games, temporary suspensions or other penalties like muting or something more creative tend to be much more effective than outright bans. 

Defining Identities On and Offline

Childhood, and especially the early teens, are an awkward time for many. Games offer a unique environment for someone looking to understand their own sense of identity - tools like customizable avatars, roleplay scenarios, and access to diverse social communities make games a great place to learn more about one’s self. (Gamers tend to be more diverse and inclusive than the general population.) The Trevor Project found that LGBTQ+ teens stuck at home during quarantine had much better mental health outcomes if they player online multiplayer titles that gave them an opportunity to affirm their identity.

This need for identity exploration can interact oddly with online toxicity, though. A 2012 study of women in online shooter games found that 80% reported facing significant toxicity…but that 75% of them also found the game to be an irreplaceable social experience. (Why? Most girls explained that in the ‘real world’, they felt pressured to be quiet or even meek, and that online games gave them a chance to be more boisterous or even explore being more direct or aggressive in a ‘safer’ way.) Harassers can do extra damage here, as well - one of the times children are most vulnerable is when they are experimenting with their own identity, and this is a fact unfortunately exploited by predators and extremist recruiters as well as more ‘typical’ bad apples.

Parents can counteract this best by just…showing their children that they really, truly, love and accept them for who they are, whoever that may be. Your child will still want to explore who they are, and games are still a powerful tool for that, but teaching them that they don’t need to hide this exploration means you’re setting yourself up as a resource and protector if that exploration begins to go wrong.

Platforms are, of course, working on solving this more directly by attempting to get Harassers, and especially predators or extremists, from their communities. On top of this, we strongly encourage platforms to take ownership over the social aspects of play, in order to moderate this behavior more effectively. Many games today don’t offer text or voice chat out of fear for the safety risks they introduce, but this hurts their engagement and doesn’t really solve the problem - players who desire to chat will simply use less-regulated third-party apps like Discord or Facebook Messenger instead.

Online Gaming can be a Force for Good

Games get an unfortunately bad reputation sometimes, but they provide a number of real benefits to children looking to define their own identities and widen their understanding of the world. (And, of course, they’re fun!) We encourage parents to keep these values in mind, but also to reflect on the advice we’ve given above so that they can position their children to play safely while still retaining those social benefits.

Written by

Mike Pappas

Mike Pappas is the CEO of Modulate, which builds voice technology to elevate the health and safety of online communities. Mike’s work at Modulate ranges from developing new partnerships platforms looking to protect their players, monitoring industry and regulatory trends, and reinforcing an internal and external culture of passion, respect, and personal growth. Outside of work, his passions include philosophizing, video games, and creating experimental cocktails.