The Fallout of Legends
It is an unfortunate truth that online games are known for their hostile communities and “toxicity”. Many players starting a new game are greeted with multiple vulgarities and racial or sexual slurs by their teammates. Though such behavior is looked down on and discouraged, the players of any online game will inevitably be exposed to it. Even in games targeted towards children, such as Minecraft, struggle with inflammatory actions and hate speech. In some of the harsher communities, players are regularly exposed to death threats, told to kill themselves, or other wishes to serious harm. Toxic behavior extends past words. Many games additionally struggle with “griefers”, players who take it upon themselves to hassle teammates by performing actions against them. This isn’t to say that there are no actions taken to prevent toxicity in games. A common deterrent is to ban the accounts of players found to commonly engage in said activities for increasing lengths of time. However, no company has been fully successful in eliminating the toxicity from a community. Therefore, this paper aims to understand toxicity and other immoral behavior in online games and in particular, League of Legends(League). League is the most popular online game in the world, reporting 100 million monthly players according to Forbes (Tassi). With a released punishment rate of 5% (Grayson), there are at least millions of individuals engaging in inflammatory behavior, a true pandemic.
(League of Legends Chat screenshots (“League of Legends Home))
The most common form of toxicity comes in the form of chat, a text based player-to-player communication. Brendan Maher describes this online communication as “a largely consequence-free environment inhabited mostly by anonymous and competitive young me,” (Maher). Players often become jaded and cynical, with many preferring to mute every other member of the game before they even get a chance to speak. Having experienced countless incidents of toxicity personally, I started to wonder if there was even a point to trying to change the community. In fact, I was once banned for toxicity after getting into a heated debate with my teammate in ranked. Toxic behavior is a slippery slope to fall into. Often, players will engage in toxic activities unconsciously, as was in my case. Riot, developers of League of Legends, have come out with stats showing that 87% of players reported for toxicity are “net neutral to positive” and simply having a bad day (Yin-poole).
However, this still leaves 13% of cases to be caused by chronically toxic players. What, then, is the cause of the abnormally harsh community? Bartholomew Klick writes, “League of Legend’s toxicity is in a very big way a result of a system intrinsic to the game itself—the fact that once a match begins, every player must remain in the game for its entirety or else risk losing their account and any rewards and items they’ve accumulated” (Klick). Although this is a system that is logical based on the concept that one player leaving will ruin the game for at least his 4 teammates and potentially all 9 other players, it forces players that may not mesh well to attempt cooperation for 20+ minutes of game time. A similar system is used in Dota 2, another MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena) and known toxic community. This is to say that the community is a product of the game itself and a consequence of the design choices. In fact, Klick argues that Riot Games is to blame for toxicity, stating “In this case, a patriarchal assumption—that men should just be able to deal stoically with abuse—is causing tangible harm to the gamers” (Klick). In League, even casual players are forced to deal with those who see the game as a more serious activity and who feel entitled to harass others who do not perform to their expectations. Blizzard’s Overwatch is struggles far less with toxicity in casual play due to the ability to leave the game whenever a player wants to, swapping in with another.
Toxicity is built into League in more ways than one. The structure of the game is designed to be antagonistic, with players forced to rely on their randomly assigned teammates in tense situations. Before playing the game, players have to decide upon which positions they are going to play and which champion out of 120 they will be. There are 5 positions of varying popularity, Mid-lane being the most popular. In the popular “blind pick” que, there is no preset role guarantee, often leading to arguments about who gets the popular roles and champions and who has to play a different one. From experience, the player who calls their lane first in chat has the “right” to play that role. This doesn’t stop toxic players from harassing the first caller, leading to toxicity before the game even begins. A common threat to hear is “fine, double [position] then”, meaning that the toxic player is willing to hinder the team unless they get their way. In the context of League of Legends, double [position] is almost a guaranteed loss because it puts your team at a disadvantage elsewhere on the map without gaining a significant advantage in the doubled up lane. This builds up resentment and forces a sour decision for the team, but usually the player who called first will abdicate for the toxic one.
(League of Legends Map (“League of Legends Map”))
Then, the game begins. At first, players stick to their assigned lanes and interact only with their enemy counterpart. Arguments from the pre-game will temper themselves for a time due to the lack of tensions. Then, teammates start to interact again when the “jungler” is strong enough to attempt a kill on one of the enemy lanes. These interventions are called “ganks”, attempts to kill an enemy by their lane opponent with the help of the enemy jungler. If a gank doesn’t work out, frustrations rise and players may begin to accuse each other of misplaying. Even should the gank work only one player can get the “kill” while the other is stuck with an “assist” and a potential feeling of being stolen from. While uncommon, this is enough to trigger toxic behavior from a player. “Things don't really go smoothly in League, though—that's the whole point. People have to start dying eventually” (LeJacq). The game inherently builds mistrust because everything hinges on teammates doing things right and watching them fail builds up negative energy. There are countless ways for this energy to grow and manifest, from a refusal to communicate to more openly toxic insults. By the end of the game, tensions have been running so high and for so long that it is easy for even the calmest players to let a jab out at their team when defeat is eminent. “For many players, asking, ‘What went wrong?’ can easily translate to: ‘Who can I blame for this disaster of a game?’” (LeJacq).
(Post Game disaster (“Riot, You Need to Factor Pre and Post-match Chat into Toxicity and Punishments. Here Is Why”))
John Suler defines the Online Disinhibition Effect as “a shift to a constellation within self-structure, involving clusters of affect and cognition that differ from the in-person constellation,” (Suler, 321). He believes that this effect is a cause of “toxic disinhibition”, or toxicity, and is in turn caused by the various barriers erected online. One major barrier is the absence of face-to-face ques, causing a person to imagine based on their preconceived expectations (322). Players who are toxic themselves are therefore inclined to perceive others in the same way and react to them with hostility. This can lead to a spiraling situation where players become so accustomed to toxicity that they begin to assume all messages as toxic. Furthermore, players can struggle separating fantasy and social elements online, known as dissociative imagination (323). As stated before, League is a game that players invest heavily in and therefore find it harder to contextualize the importance of a match. Though there is nothing physically at stake, players at high ranks feel especially like there is value to the outcome of a match and experience strong emotional attachment to it. Anonymity further amplifies dissociative imagination and can cause players to compartmentalize aspects of their “real” personality (323). In an experiment to combat toxicity, Riot confronted employees found to be toxic with their chat history and reported that “pretty much everyone was appalled by their own behavior” (Summers). It is a fair conclusion to draw that in a social situation under normal circumstances those employees would not have acted as they did. The feeling of invisibility, the emotion of the game, and the multitude of barriers between players are undeniable motivators for toxic behavior.
Toxicity extends beyond chat functions. Another common form of toxicity is known as “elo-boosting”, the act of lending your account to a higher ranked player so that they can play ranked games and increase the “boosted” account’s matchmaking rating (mmr) and win ranked rewards such as cosmetics. Boosting is considered toxic behavior because the enemy team is forced to play against a player who much higher in skill level, leading to inherently unfair matches. Elo-boosting has become so common and popular that there are businesses around it, such as elo-boost.net, lolboost.net, and dozens more. These businesses and players thrive on a community of players willing to pay real money for an in game ranking they did not earn. The obvious question is why? What drives these players to spend money on a boost? The answer is the concept of elo-hell, described as “ELO (mmr) gets so low that you're only paired with terrible people and you'll never win to get your ELO back up to the level you believe you should be” (“What is ELO Hell”). Players who believe themselves to be in elo-hell do so when seeing the high rates of leavers and “feeders” (both additional forms of toxic players), defined respectively as players who leave the game or repeatedly give the enemy team multiple kills. Both aspects lead to a game near unwinnable due to the difference in available in-game resources. Therefore, being stuck in elo-hell means being stuck with unwinnable games and a cycle that’s inescapable without serious intervention. This mentality of not belonging to the rank the system placed you in is the core of why players pay for boosts.
(Picture of Lol-eloboosting.com app and site (“ELO Boosting”))
According to Edmund Burke, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” In the case of Riot and toxicity in League, this is precisely the case. Posted on their message boards is a notice that “We’re going to temporarily put the Tribunal in maintenance mode while we upgrade the overall system to ensure players who deserve punishments receive them much faster than they currently do” (Lyte). However, underneath the body of this message is its posted date, three years ago. As of this moment, the Tribunal is still down for maintenance. The Tribunal is a system that let community members view the chat logs of players reported for toxicity and vote whether or not to punish them. Although far from the perfect solution to toxicity, “Jeffrey Lin, lead designer of social systems at Riot Games, stated 98 percent of the community’s verdicts were in line with those of Riot Games administrators” (Pittman). With far more “staff” to judge cases, the Tribunal was the good man doing his part to stop the triumph of evil. When the good man was taken down for maintenance, toxic players realized that they could be reasonably assured that they would go punishment free. Yet, it would be unfair to insinuate that there is no action taken towards combating toxicity. Riot implemented an AI system that they say can ban a player within 15 minutes of the game they were reported to be toxic in using a tier system in which first time offenders are silenced for 10 games, the number increasing with offenses or intensity. The company claims that the system has “Several million cases of suspected abusive behavior have been reviewed, with 92 percent of convicted players not reoffending” (Pittman), a truly impressive statistic. However, many players beg to differ. According to Polygon, “people just stopped reporting seeing that it doesn’t change anything at all.” Therefore, while the new system may be just as or even more effective than the old Tribunal, the feeling among players is that it is not. In this sense, League suffers from the Bystander Effect, defined as “presence of others discourages an individual from intervening in an emergency situation” (Sommers). Adapted, in this case, to meaning the belief that the system won’t work and the other players will report the toxic one causing players to hit “play again” without filing a report.
Even with all the harassment and general unpleasantness of some players, I find League of Legends to be one of my favorite games to play. Often I feel myself slipping down the path of “I’m rarely toxic, they’ll never see this one game” or “he started it but I’m going to finish it”. There is a very real disconnect from the name in the chat box and the person on the other side of it because face to face I wouldn’t begin to think of the things I wish I could type out. Emotions run hot when victory hinges on the split second decisions of a teammate and blame is forged all too easily. The space that League brings players to, the one that makes it such a great game, is the same one that causes its community to be known as excessively toxic. In this space, dismissive and detrimental behavior is alluring which is why understanding toxicity is so important. Through logical thoughts and consideration, the community of not just League, but all games can improve and make the space they love a space for everyone.
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