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Why you have to be mad? An in depth look at the causes of toxicity in League of Legends

Updated on January 16, 2015

An Introduction to the Problem

Earlier this year, I was incredibly excited when Smosh Games released their honest trailer for League of Legends. However after watching it, I was disheartened to discover that even amongst those who do not consider themselves a part of our community, League of Legends maintains a reputation as a game filled with arseholes. Even when compared with its competitors DOTA2 and Smite, League of Legends is still considered by the many to be the game in which an unsuspecting player would most likely encounter toxic behaviour. But why is this the case? Are League of Legends players simply toxic by definition? Or is there something about this particular game environment which promotes toxicity?

League of Legends, a MOBA in which two teams of five fight to destroy the opposing team's nexus, is not only the most popular game in the world, but the most toxic.
League of Legends, a MOBA in which two teams of five fight to destroy the opposing team's nexus, is not only the most popular game in the world, but the most toxic.

Innate Toxicity?

To make a case against LOL players being inherently toxic, I'd argue that there is simply too many to make a claim that we are all naturally arseholes. 27 million people play this game everyday, with 67 million every month. To put that in context, I live in New Zealand, a country with a population of 4.5 million. This means that everyday 6 times the population of New Zealand logs on and plays LOL. To make a case that this many people are inherently toxic is controversial at best and ridiculous at worst.


However there is evidence that LOL players may be dispositioned towards toxicity due to their age and sex. The average LOL player is 19 years of age, with 60 percent of all players falling within the range of 16 to 20. Having all been to highschool, we know of teenagers eptitude for arseholery, but current research shows that there may be a scientific basis for our opinion of the teenaged species. A study by the University College London Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience showed that the area of the brain associated with higher level thinking, empathy and guilt (in particular the medial prefrontal cortex) is significantly less active in teenagers when compared to adults. Researchers believe that this is because during puberty the brain is rewired, subsequently becoming less emotionally intelligent. In a nutshell, this means that teenagers are less sensitive to the feelings of others than adults or even younger children.


And this is doubly so for males. As our friends the Sirens reminded us, 90% of LOL players are male, and there is evidence to suggest that young men are even less empathetic than their female counterparts. In a study by the British Festival of Science, young girls were significantly more adept at recognising emotions than boys. Teenagers, and male teenagers in particular, are not only consistently less empathetic in studies, but they are also our favourite game's target audience. In fact the game's demographic may go a long way to explaining the toxic nature of its community; emotionally stunted teenaged males.

The Problem of Anonymity

However, I don't believe that simply being a male teenager can be the sole contributing factor for toxicity. Not only does this interpretation have a very negative view of the individual, but it also fails to take into account other important factors. One of the most common explanations for toxicity is anonymity. The common belief in research is that when people are put into a situation where their identity is masked, they undergo a process called deindividualisation; they no longer associate themselves as an individual and thus their behaviour does not need to comply with social norms. This has been proven in many experiments, a famous example being performed by TV hypnotist Derren Brown, where a room of people given anonymity with masks were given control over one man's life and consistently chose to take cruel and selfish actions towards him. With their identity shrouded and seemingly immune from punishment, online gamers feel liberated to disobey societal rules.

However, other studies have also proven that, despite anonymity, when put in virtual environments with strong external messages on how to behave, people would abide by socially acceptable behavioural standards. And League, despite harsh criticism of its tribunal system, does put effort in maintaining strong anti toxicity messages. In truth, the exact extent of anonymity's contribution to toxic environments is not fully understood. Instead it can be said that anonymity exacerbates an already adversarial environment.

Just an average day in League of Legends

Other Explanations

Anecdotal evidence gives support to a different theory. League of Legends is a victim of what can be called “Youtube Comment Section Syndrome”. A billion people use Youtube each month, and yet the comments section is a seething cesspool of hate. The problem cannot be that one seventh of the population of Earth are natural arseholes (although that point is a contentious one) but because the negativity of the few outshines the neutrality of the many. It's also important to note that for many, LOL is a competitive sport and aggression is a natural part of competition. It is not thought of as "toxic" when football players trash talk, so why is it such a big deal in esports? Sure, some players' unrelenting criticism is a negative presence in soloqueue, but is it really so different than the way sports fans react to their favourite team underperforming? Maybe it's time to accept that LOL isn't a game, it's an esport, and competitiveness and aggression are not only natural, but perhaps even healthy?

Conclusion

But I've strayed away from my original question, are LOL players innately dicks, or does the game environment catalyse dickishness? Although the demographic of LOL is a particularly unempathetic one, I find it difficult to reconcile blaming toxic behaviour on human nature with a positive view of humanity. But I also don't see a strong case for factors like anonymity to have caused toxicity by themselves. Toxicity in the LOL community is almost a self fulfilling prophecy at this point. We believe our community is too far gone, and that gives us free rein to be toxic ourselves. If we truly want our game environment to change then maybe it is up to us, the players, to change it.

Sources

Goudarzi, S. (2006). Study: Teenage Brain Lacks Empathy. Retrieved from http://www.nbcnews.com/id/14738243/ns/technology_and_science-science/t/study-teenage-brain-lacks-empathy/#.VK3Ok-OUfd2

Highfield, R., & Fleming, N. (2005). Don't take it out on Kevin the teenager, his brain is being rewired. Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/science-news/3343057/Dont-take-it-out-on-Kevin-the-teenager-his-brain-is-being-rewired.html

League of Legends Player's Age Survey. (2013). Retrieved from https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1-fMwua7-y9SqfTCZro0ez19E8MkY-ddfTDQk1EFovxY/viewanalytics?usp=form_confirm

Blount, R., Chavez, A., Lopez, E., Murphey, C., & Torres, C. (n.d.). Psychology of Anonymity. Retrieved from http://cs.stanford.edu/people/eroberts/cs181/projects/2010-11/FreeSpeechInOnlineGames/background/psychology/index.html

The Honest Trailer mentioned in my introduction.

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