A Practical Guide To Video Game Trash Talk

Smash 4

Trash talking is divisive among gamers. If you go too far, you run the risk of sending your friend home crying and never again playing another round of Mario Party against them. Or, if you're conflict-averse, a few unsavoury words over Madden could make you think worse of your good buddy. Some stand by trash talk as a healthy, expressive way of gaming. For others, it's toxic.

When I play local multiplayer games, I talk trash. I trash talk randoms I encounter in Smash Bros. rooms at cons. I trash talk colleagues when we're playing games I have no experience with. In my living room, I trash talk friends throughout round upon round of random indie game.

Trash talking can wrap plot and drama around an otherwise average gaming session. As long as everyone's down, on equal ground, generally good-spirited and follows the rules, I'm an advocate. Otherwise — and this happens a lot — trash talking can end in bad vibes and hurt feelings.

Yes, there are rules, a sort of tacitly-understood The Art of War for saying shit while you play video games. Not everyone knows how to do it. And so, some tips are in order.

Soul Calibur

What is trash talking

Boasting about your skills, intimidating or making fun of a competitor in an effort to up the ante, joke around or demoralize them. Examples include "My low-tier fave will stomp you," "Yeah, you would pick a cheap character like that" and the classic, "Get fucked." Trash talking also encompasses the lighter, "Come at me" and "You know, crosshairs are for aiming."

Why would you do that?

Like I said — trash talking is not for everyone. Some might find it…. uncivilized. Toxicity and abusive behaviour are already pretty rife in multiplayer gaming communities. And I'm not going to advocate for giving shit to your friends unless they really deserve it.

My defence for this mode of gaming — when done respectfully — is purely personal. Between me and another consenting and on-par gamer, every outcry, diss or bruised ego, and every bout of vain heroics and over-the-top gloating increases my investment in a match. It throws my gameplay decisions into sharp focus. It makes my wins, and my friends', all the sweeter.

It canonises hype moments, so months or years later, we can joke about that time you thought you could be beat me in Street Fighter or that time you stole three Mario Party stars from me and laughed for an hour and so on. Throughout history, from the Iliad to today's wrestling matches, fighters have woven stories around their deeds. In no world am I Achilles or Sasha Banks, but I am someone who thinks fighting is more meaningful when it's attached to mythology.

When to trash talk

Trash talking is best in in-person social situations with several people around to check you and your opponents' manners. Local multiplayer games are basically the only acceptable context for this. Ideally, you're hanging around in a living room and passing the controller from friend to friend.

Often, you'll encounter harsh or boastful words at gaming tournaments or public areas where many people are playing competitive games. If you're in the same tier of play, neck-and-neck in competition, it can work, but it's riskier when you don't know your competitor.

Trash talking strangers online is bad in my opinion. It's just bad. It's nearly impossible to do it without tripping over the line between "good-natured" and "harassment." You have no history of friendship with this person, and, in all likelihood, you will have no future friendship.

Spewing insults to randos over voice chat is the equivalent of punching somebody who is standing behind a thick, black curtain. You don't know how they will feel about it and they won't see it coming. It could ruin their day. So I recommend not doing it.

Tekken

Who to trash talk

Friends or family you have longstanding competition with, and a lot of love for, are the most common recipients and proponents of trash talking. Childhood friends, siblings or anyone you've competed against for years and years have probably put up with your crap for long enough anyway.

With that said, it's not about them being stuck with you. It's about the fact that, probably, your relationship dynamics extend to, say, zapping each other in Mario Kart or blocking each other out in Soul Calibur.

(In my experience, it is a bad idea to trash talk significant others while you are playing video games with them, especially if you are better than them at said game. In an interview for this story, my boyfriend went on the record saying, "Yeah it has made me feel bad and made me want to play certain games with you less." Kudos to those who can restrain themselves.)

With anybody else, including acquaintances and strangers, maybe don't go into a match with shit-talking guns blazing. It's bad sportsmanship. Assume that a stranger or acquaintance you're playing in a competitive video games does not appreciate hearing why they suck and you're great. After a few matches, you'll be able to feel out each other's comfort levels.

Most important is that your opponent is on the same skill level as you. If you're bragging about how good you are at Tekken to somebody who has never played Tekken, you are a jerk. I am the first to admit that it can be difficult to assess someone's skill or level of confidence. But trash talking is only fair, and also, only fun, if you're on even footing.

How to trash talk

Now that we know when and who to trash talk, let's talk about the how. This is easier to explain in specific instances. If you, like me, are gonna do it, it's best to follow the rules:

  • In the character select screen of a fighting game, if your opponent picks a low-tier or goofy character, you can make fun of that character or forecast how the game will go
  • While waiting for a match to cue, you can hype your performance
  • Cheer for yourself. If you do something clutch, you can point it out
  • Intersperse boasts or jabs with praise and compliments, so you're not just dumping on your opponent
  • If your opponent leaves an opening for you or makes a mistake, you can say something about it — unless it's a truly dire and embarrassing mistake, in which case, it might be good to keep your mouth shut
  • If your opponent is using a move that is widely considered over-powered, you can point it out
  • Taunts exist in games for a reason. Sometimes, a quick taunt can speak for you
  • Keep the trash talking between character selection and the final fight — there's no drama after there's a winner and, anyway, it doesn't necessarily give your opponent an opportunity to redeem themselves
  • Be witty! Anybody can be rude

How not to trash talk

Personal attacks are bad. I hear these types of insults all the time. It's weak and a reflection of your own bad trash talking skills if you insult somebody's weight, race, religion, family, economic background, gender or mental health. It's shitty and uncreative to tell your opponent that you "raped" them.

Don't trash talk people you don't know. And have mercy — if your opponent is bad at the game you're playing, or having a bad day, you could make them pretty upset.


For me, trash talking can be a more honest way of competing: We both want to win, so let's talk about it, loudly, in each other's faces. I'm mad if you get a hit on me. I'm happy if I spike you into the abyss. Fist-pumping is how I express that.

You might express it differently. That's fine. Trash talking is not widely accepted because it often appears (or simply is) antisocial. If done properly, it is not; but in any case, it is on trash talkers to level with their more mild-mannered gaming peers.


Comments

    Oh to only have this comments section restricted to Kotaku's female populace for just one day, perhaps.

    Trash talk during local multiplayer versus online is night and day, you can't really talk about the two in the same light. I'm a different person watching sport at home to what I am in public, for instance. There's a cross-over element with playing video games there you don't factor in when you are actually playing a competitive sport as well.

    Trash talking in a setting that's actually competitive is just bad sportsmanship, plain and simple.

      I mean sure, if you want to pretend it hasn't been central to competitive situations since people started competing.

      Its legitimacy in multiple sports might be another factor to ignore.

        I was talking about all sports champ. Bad sportsmanship has existed since the dawn of competition (I don't know why you would assume from my previous comment that I didn't think that was the case). And yes, it has become commonplace in many sports - some sports just have more competitors that exhibit bad sportsmanship....but it's still bad sportsmanship. Its continued existence doesn't alter its character.

          I'm talking about trash talking, not bad sportsmanship.

          It's like those who believe that not touching your opponents gloves in combat sports is bad sportsmanship.
          In reality it's more complex than many will admit.

            If a player trash talks, that player is a bad sport. If said player also happens to win, that just makes the player a bad winner.

            Just because trash talking has existed for some time does not mean it is accepted.

              It's readily accepted, often part of a sports culture.
              Hockey, Cricket, Boxing, MMA, (most combat sports) Football, Rugby, Baseball and so on.

              We have even seen a clear focus on trash talking at fighting Esports events, encouraged by organisers and lauded here.

              Look, I agree, where it's frowned upon it is an unsportsmanlike display and that those who set out to harm are simply bad people.
              But I will not pretend it doesn't have its complexities in the realities of the sports I have enjoyed both as participant and spectator, nor will I pretend that it's not without its place.

              To even entertain the idea you would need to include nearly every sportsman in history.

    The line between trash talk and abuse is poorly defined, and moves constantly, and lot of people, especially younger people, don't understand the difference. A lot of them subscribe to John Gabriel's Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory.

    A range of factors can effect that line. Friends can get away with a lot more than some 12 yo punk I've never met. Recent events can change harmless banter into rage inducing attacks - as salt levels rise, tolerance lowers. And sometimes people just aren't in the mood.

    Some of it's hilarious; some of it's lame; and some of it is just abuse. All three are an inevitable part of online gaming.

    One of my favourites was from years ago, when I still played WoW - "I just screwed you so hard that your grandkids are going to look like me". Still makes me giggle.

    Oh man, couch smack talk from my SSX, Nightfire, Red Faction and Time Splitters days; I want it back so bad.

    Meh... the need to assert yourself by talking shit and putting down others. Lame.

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