Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Why do we 'troll'?

Hello readers of Ravs! My name is Noctua. I normally write blog posts for Gamers Decrypted but today I'm guest writing for my friend Rav. Once again I find myself typing away in the middle of the night when all decent people are fast asleep in their beds.

Having always taken a great interest in human behaviour and interaction I was intrigued by the world of gaming since I first came in contact with it. My fascination with online gaming and the communities that dwell there was striking from the start and it's what I tend to write about. My thoughts tonight are revolving around a story a in game acquaintance of mine from SWTOR, let's call him "Tristin", told me recently. Long story short Tristin thought he had made a new friendship in game. He seemed very happy about this new friendship. Soon enough some very personal information Tristin had told this other player in confidence ended up in a forum somewhere for all the world to read. The person he had befriended wasn't the person he had thought at all, it was someone having created a fake in game account for the sole purpose of trolling Tristin.

This made me think about the notion trolling. What is trolling? Why do we do it?

In urban dictionary its described as “the art of being a prick on the internet”. The idea is to convince your credulous victim that you truly believe in what you are saying (no matter how outrageous). Trolling can be a relatively innocent thing depending on how and to what degree it is being used. It's the knack of deliberately and secretly pissing people off with the intent to provoke an emotional knee jerk reaction from unsuspecting bystanders. Because hey, it's the internet. Why not? Make sure to use your sarcasm. A sign that your trolling is successful is your victim screaming in all-caps at you.
“Internet 'trolling' is the anti-social act of causing interpersonal conflict and shock-value controversy online. Named for the wicked troll creatures of children's tales, trolling is purposely sowing hatred, bigotry, racism, misogyny, or just simple bickering.” -AboutTech, Netiquette

In online gaming trolling is something one has to get used to. Sooner or later you will be exposed to it. Some of it is quite innocent and harmless, but not all. The line where trolling becomes a means of tormenting others in a damaging way is very thin.

So why do we 'troll'?

I think to answer this it might help to have a look at “The Online Disinhibition Effect”. This is a paper written by John Suler where he discusses six features of online society which can elicit us to act differently than in the real world.
“Everyday users on the Internet—as well as clinicians and researchers1–7—have noted how people say and do things in cyberspace that they wouldn’t ordinarily say and do in the face-to-face world. They loosen up, feel less restrained, and express themselves more openly. So pervasive is the phenomenon that a term has surfaced for it: the online disinhibition effect.” -The Online Disinhibition Effect, John Suler 2004

Four out of the six features presented in this paper we can use to better understand why people 'troll' online communities:

DISSOCIATIVE ANONYMITY – The feeling that my actions online are not mine at all but that of my online persona. This gives us a sense of distance from our own actions as we feel that they are not truly ours to begin with.

INVISIBILITY – Different from anonymity, 'invisibility' refers to the fact that our physical self is not observed by anyone. What we look like or if we show emotion on our face will not be seen. This gives us the confidence to do and say things we normally would not.

DISSOCIATIVE IMAGINATION - The conscious or unconscious feeling that the imaginary characters we create exist in a different space, a make-believe dimension, which is separated from the demands and responsibilities of the real world. This “fake” world doesn't really exist and therefore our actions in it doesn't matter as much.

MINIMIZATION OF STATUS AND AUTHORITY – In online gaming, especially console gaming, this feature can be emphasised. We can choose to verbally abuse someone without much fear of consequences because of the lack or limitations of any authority.

These factors combine to create a 'disinhibited' behaviour when we interact with others online. For this reason we witness rude language, harsh criticisms, anger, hatred, even threats and other behaviour which we wouldn't exhibit in the real world. Interestingly enough the paper by John Suler goes on to explain that this disinhibition works in two seemingly opposing directions. It does not only encourage us to act in a toxic, anti-social manner.
"Sometimes it prompts people to share very personal things about themselves. They reveal secret emotions, fears and wishes. They show unusual acts of kindness and generosity, sometimes going out of their way to help others.” -The Online Disinhibition Effect, John Suler 2004

This is a notion I have discussed previously in my blog post “Hiding behind a mask”. The idea is that the anonymity and dis inhibition we experience online can trigger us to become more honest with one an other. This is presumably what Tristin experienced when he shared personal information with the person he met in game. He thought this person was doing the same but unfortunately for Tristin in this case he was simply being 'trolled'.

One could see both of these seemingly opposing types of behaviours as a way for us to explore our own personality in a safe environment where consequences for our actions are minimal. Through acting out on the 'disinhibation' we experience we attempt to better understand and develop ourselves. This in order to resolve interpersonal problems or survey new emotional and experiential dimensions to our own identities.

In this light one could see how a person with less developed emotional maturity and personal insight might be prone to so called 'trolling' of the kind that can be destructive to others.

What experiences of trolling have you had? Where does the line between innocent and harmful trolling go? Let me know what you think in the comments below!

This is a guest post by my friend Noctua, who recently started blogging. Did you like this post? Make sure to visit her blog Gamers Decrypted and give her a warm welcome to the gamer blogging community.


  1. Very good article and very descriptive. Only time I've been trolled was in PVP when the PVPers' there said to go back to my PVE World. Which I did, in all honesty. I try to treat people how I want to be treated. I recently blogged about a new player that needed helped and got insults and hurtful comments thrown at them. I helped changed their mind that not all players ingame are like that. I offered them help, and they were thankful for it. The Toxicity that sadly Tristian got was not a good on any offense. Sadly these are the same people that believe internet bullying does not harm anyone, and it's for fun. If only they read the news more, and seen how some bullying, trolling etc can harm someone and well some have even taken their life. These are the type of people I try to avoid, hence why even online I'm so closed off. I got a lot of trolling done offline and away from the internet that I do not wish it to be apart of my online world as a daily thing.

  2. Great post Noctua! I feel so sorry for people that troll and are unnecessarily mean to others. It can make people feel really bad. When I first jumped into the world of online gaming, I thought everyone was my friend, which was a big mistake. I try to ignore/block as much as possible, but you still have to see something bad before you can ignore/block, so you're still vulnerable to new trolls/accounts.

  3. I think that also living in a culture (US, at least for me) where "just being honest" is often confused for permission to word go from brain to mouth without a filter also contributes. It's easier online because of the anonymity and lack of consequences (mostly) but even offline, that kind of attitude is still "valued" at a slightly muted level.

  4. In Lineage 2, a PVP game, from time to time there always appeared some high level that would go to lower level zones just to kill people there. Some of them were quite infamous and happy to be permared (meaning anyone could try to kill them and they had a chance to drop their gear).

    Then there was some times where someone would just kill newbies because they were bored or something. There was one time where a clan mate of mine got sniped by a high level archer just outside town. When my clan leader came and we found her she jusitfied it as saying "Nothing personal. It is just a game." or something to these words. Of course my clan leader couldn't accept that so she challenged the perpetrator to a one-on-one duel and they settled it that way. Anyway, I suppose for a lot of those trolls that is how they justify their behavior "It is just a game."

  5. In discussions of trolls, I always refer back to the quote on my own blog from Robert E Howard, in the 1933 Conan short story "The Tower of the Elephant": "Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing." The lack of consequences is the primary driver behind "being a prick on the internet." These people are pricks in real life, too; that is, in their heart of hearts. But in meatspace, they are likely to be censured or punished for their words and actions. In cyberspace they feel free to be the pricks they really are.

    By the same token, I feel those that are extra helpful online are actually better people in real life, because there is little consequence for being altruistic in cyberspace.

  6. Back in 2001 or so, I was getting involved with my first proper online community, a fan forum. One day a new poster appeared there to tell us that he was the brother of X, a pretty well-known character on the forums, and that he had to bring us the sad news that X had committed suicide. I didn't really know X aside from his forum persona, but I was still profoundly saddened by this news. I remember actually sitting in my room and shedding tears for an internet stranger I had never even met, just because the thought of him having committed suicide was just so depressing. Of course, a few days later it turned out that this "brother" was just a troll account that X had created to feign his own death for laughs and attention.

    I think that was my first major lesson in how many shameless liars/trolls there are on the internet.

    1. What a terrible story. Though I have to wonder if it was a twisted cry for help on some level. Don't get me wrong, the guy was clearly a prick, but the pathology behind that is profound.

  7. Very good piece. I share it in my social media. Thanks!

  8. I think the example given, with "Tristan," is clearly a sad tale and the guy who took enjoyment from that probably has behavioural issues in real life as well as online!

    In the interests of discussing the other side of the coin, I'd say that most of the trolling I have witnessed (as a pvp'er primarily in games that I play) falls on the side of banter rather than maliciously sharing personal information to harm or humiliate as with Tristan. I'd say that the percentage of people who take it 'too far' is almost identical to the percentage of people who are 'too sensitive."

    For the avoidance of doubt, I don't troll in games, but when people troll me I tend to chuckle and engage in the banter, or ignore it if it is low quality trolling (i.e. just insulting, not the kind of conversational arms-race that is designed to see who will crack first and react....)

  9. I've been trying very hard to come up with an example of trolling like Shintar did, but I keep failing. I guess encounters with trolls don't make enough of an impression these days for my brain to register. Maybe the thing I dislike most about the 'trolling culture' on the internet, other than it being hurtful to the Tristans of society, is that I don't believe what I'm reading anymore. If someone writes something in chat, I tend to read it twice to make sure it's not just someone trying to make some lame joke. Perhaps this contributes to why I prefer playing together with guildmates and friends instead of random strangers in MMOs.

  10. I haven't had SWTOR general chat on since 2012 except in rare moments, for example to fill a Ops PUG. It's a shame because I know there are players who need help learning the game or who are reaching out to find friends and I'd like to offer them a hand but it's not worth the toll on my nerves to watch the insults, hate and general stupidity scroll by. It is my belief, though I have no research, that many people troll because they lack a feeling of power or control in their lives and they are attempting to assert some effect on others in order to validate their own sense of self. And I'm not even talking about the kind of sociopath who deliberately sets out to expose, shame or humiliate his victim outside of game. That is in a class of its own and belongs in the legal system.
    And I couldn't agree more with Pixelkaffe's observation regarding the inadequacy of "just being honest" as an excuse for being needlessly disrespectful or unkind to others. And to the trolls who tell me to lighten up because it's just a game, I would challenge them to ask themselves what they are lacking in their own lives and how they can give voice to their fears, insecurities and inadequacies in a more meaningful way, without acting out on bystanders. Of course their response would likely be to appeal to the troll trifecta for insulting a woman and call me a fat ugly slut.

  11. Sorry for late response, I've been struggling to be able to comment! Thank you all for reading and contributing with your stories I loved hearing them. And ofc extra big thanks to Rav!

    There are indeed extremly offencive trolls out there. I think the only way to truly protect oneself is like Mylex says, have really thick skin. And to never trust new people online quickly. My heart goes out to people like Tristin, but I can't help but thinking if he'd given the process of getting to know this oher person more time then the troller would've gotten bored. I said this to him as well, in the most sensitive way I could. It may sound harsh but my only ambition in saying this to him and here right now is to help the victims of these types of trolls. Don't trust people online. Have fun, kick of your shoes and goof off together in game but dont trust them with private information and dont trust them to be completely honest with who they are. If you can be ok with the fact that people will be a mix of honest and dishonest then you can enjoy MMOs more having accepted that.

    Sometimes pricks are just pricks and there's nothing really that Shintar for an example could have done differently really. I'm sorry to hear that story btw.


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