Digital Media PhD Student
Kenneth is a doctoral student in the Digital Media PhD program. In his series “Kenneth on Games” he writes about his passion for games and game design.
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds is well known for having a toxic community, but the specific nature of its toxicity shows a different direction than what we would see in most other online games. These players have found new and inventive ways to express their negative behavior rather than falling back to the more traditional forms of toxicity. I see PUBG as a strong example that toxicity is learned and not innate, and that toxicity is a result of game design.
Methods of Expression
One of the oldest forms of toxicity that is curiously absent in PUBG is teabagging. If a game has corpses and crouching, conventional wisdom says that players will teabag each other. As soon as I implemented crouching in my senior project game, players teabagged each other.
But no one teabags in PUBG. This isn’t a question of honor, but of practicality. Teabagging prevents you from looting, and the longer you have to stand on top of someone’s corpse, the more vulnerable you are. Even though the players would love to disrespect each other, the game systems implicitly discourage this specific form of toxicity. This is the first indicator that toxicity is not a static quality, but rather something that emerges from a game’s systems.
Instead, PUBG players found another outlet to express their toxicity, stream honking. This was a technique long in the making, with a history going back and forth between streamers, wrongly banned players, and the developers themselves, which finally tipped over when honking was added. No one could have predicted that players would drive at streamers and hold down their horns to annoy them.
Stream sniping happens in other games, but not to the same extent that it has in PUBG, and it has almost never evolved to the point of stream honking. Again, just like with teabagging, this is the result of game mechanics and dynamics. Auditory awareness. The “spotting” gameplay pattern over a large map. The fact that players in fast-moving cars are rather difficult to hit, and that there is no dedicated anti-vehicle weapon. Even the lobby system, which lowers the drawbacks of stream honking since dying doesn’t matter.
If these stars hadn’t aligned, stream honking never would have emerged. In Halo 5, no one uses stream honking, but plenty of people use teabagging. In PUBG, no one uses teabagging, but plenty (maybe just a few) people use stream honking.
We can observe this pattern reoccurring throughout various other games. The term “tryhard” is often used as an insult in League of Legends, Dota 2, Rocket League, most online games. But is there a game where “tryhard” could never possibly be an insult? Yes: pro wrestling. It is absolutely impossible for a pro wrestler to try too hard. If a player in LoL, Hearthstone, or football entered the stage with a theme song and a cheerleader crew, they would be called a tryhard, but it would be perfectly fine in pro wrestling.
I have previously written about “tryharding” and how games can be designed in such a way that presents tryharding in a positive light, rather than a negative one. Game design can be used to direct the flow of toxicity, and if a designer has the opportunity to choose whether to allow or disallow toxicity, why would they not just choose to disallow it?
The Nature of Toxicity
Toxicity is not just a sign that a player is a terrible person. Terrible people might be more inclined towards toxicity, but I believe that there is a stronger causal relationship. Toxicity happens when a game has a fundamental problem in its core design and players can’t properly express their anger over it.
From this perspective, toxicity is not necessarily a problem with the players. Certainly, they share some blame for being nasty people. But designers need to observe why players are being toxic, and where the sources of those frustrations are coming from. Sometimes, it comes from a PR controversy, as was the case with stream sniping/honking. Other times, it comes from bad game design.
With teabagging, the bad game design comes from the immediate release of tension as soon as the enemy dies. The player, still pumped with adrenaline from the fight, has no outlet to express themselves. There is nothing for them to do after the enemy dies, so they teabag.
But in PUBG, death does not drop the player’s sense of tension down a cliff. Looting is also a risk, especially if the player does not know if there are others nearby. Through this pattern, players release their tension slowly, expressed through carefully scoping out the area and moving to loot. This process demands enough of the player’s attention that they forget to teabag.
In narrative terms, when we look at graphs like the three act structure, after the climax there is a resolution/denouement which serves this same purpose. Imagine if there was no resolution, if Lord of the Rings ended at the exact moment that the Ring fell into Mount Doom. Instead of a smooth story arc, it’s just unsatisfying and abrupt. This is commonly understood to be a bad way to design a narrative. So why do we design our combat encounters this way?
Sometimes, this is a desired effect, like in Dark Souls when the tension immediately rushes out as soon as a boss dies. This was used in an especially dramatic context at the end of the Ringed City DLC. But more often, there is at least some kind of cutscene or dying monologue that helps bridge the gap between high tension and low tension.
And sometimes, toxicity can be fun. Although teabagging is still first and foremost a rude gesture, it has almost become a form of nonverbal communication where teammates will teabag to acknowledge each other after a noteworthy play. Banter can be enjoyable up to a point.
In a way, toxicity is like a house rule. It is something that players decide upon which was not specified by the designer. But just like toxicity, house rules are an indicator that the game design is not up to par. If average ordinary people can find a way to play the game which is better than what the designers were paid to come up with, something has gone terribly wrong. The people who came up with the house rules are not the ones to blame: it is the designers.
The problem lies in the fact that the players are choosing to do something outside the scope of the designer’s systems. It means that the designer’s systems are not interesting enough to keep players fully engaged. When people say that toxic behavior makes a game more fun, I see it as a sign that the designers didn’t make the game fun enough in the first place. These nuances can seep through the tiniest holes of a game, down to the ability to honk a car horn.