By now it's sadly common experience, hearing racist, homophobic, even anti-Semitic slurs during online games. Often it's for no apparent reason other than as a term of abuse used against competitors, that packs more of a punch than your standard four-letter word. But a couple months back, I had a different experience, and I'm sure it's no more uncommon for others, too. In a game of Castle Crashers — cooperative multiplayer — this guy I was playing with completely proffered some rather ugly opinions of African-Americans, and needlessly heaped racial slurs on the foes we were battling.
First off, the guy knew I was a weekend editor at Kotaku. Secondly, I'm not black. But what troubled me most was not his behaviour but my reaction to it. It was worse than being told a racist joke at a party under the assumption you'd laugh along because you're white. I continued to play a game with the guy, quite passively letting the comment go lest I be the one to make things too awkward. And I beat myself up about it later for not calling this guy out on the spot, or at minimum, quitting the game.
Turns out, according to a couple psychologists I spoke to, that would have been the wrong reaction.
"Ignore it completely," was one of two suggestions of Dr. Stuart Twemlow, professor of psychiatry at the Menninger Department of Psychiatry in Houston. The other was a more subtle call-out of the remark — interpret it and ask if the guy's doing it to get an advantage. Since this is cooperative multiplayer, maybe something like "Does that help you play this game better?"
Because in a perverse way, that's what you're dealing with here. Psychologists call this behaviour "paradoxing," and it's a classic attempt to gain the upper hand, to become dominant in certain settings. Competitively, it's to frustrate and anger you and take you out of your game. Cooperatively, it's to establish aggression and therefore take the decision-making and the leadership. As I recall, this guy had played Castle Crashers a lot longer than I had, and was taking it somewhat seriously.
"When you act very unexpectedly, and when that person is caught up in what you're doing, they lose their orientation," Twemlow said. "And in that little window, you can control their mind. It's an intervention to unseat you," Twemlow said, even in a cooperative environment, where the intent is more to establish control of how the game proceeds. "And one advantage they have is the anonymity of being online. It's so open and yet a person feels anonymous enough to say the most outrageous things, practically to your face.
"And the reason for doing that is because it exposes your weakness. It means you really want to win." Twemlow said. "And that means you're not a good player, because an expert player would never say that winning is the be all and end all."
Not every situation needs psychological hand-holding. It's not uncommon to see some ad-hoc self-policing, or a collectively expressed rebuke — booting, often backed or preceded by their own swear words — when the worst offenders start ruining a multiplayer match. Strength in numbers there. This is more about dealing with a sociopath in a one-on-one setting.
"You're not going to change the way this person thinks, so getting into a confrontation is not going to work," said Sue Barnes, associate director of the Lab for Social Computing at Rochester Institute of Technology, who studies online behaviour and social media.
So the key for anyone provoked by this kind of baiting would not be so much in the reaction as in the preparation. Know that it's coming, and because, in my case, this was cooperative multiplayer where I was invited by the same person who ended up spewing the invective, my guard was down. But I'd be naive to think ugly language is new enough to be called a trend in online play. If anything, it's getting worse, and we should expect to see it all the time, especially among those we truly don't know. Part of the shock, the experts said, is that you feel because you share an interest in the game you know the person better than you actually do. He's still no different from any other stranger in public of whom you have no expectations, and would gladly avoid.
If you do feel compelled to speak up — especially if you're a person of colour, or the actual object of hate speech's intent — Barnes suggests another query. She notes that much of the racism and bigoted language, especially as expressed by much younger gamers, isn't the product of a very self-aware person. And they'd be insecure about having a mirror held up to their behaviour. "So, you could try asking, 'What if I told you I was black?' "
It's a valid question even if you're not. And the person might get so caught up in wondering why you had said that, if you aren't, that you've paradoxed him out of his offensive state.