The word ‘toxic’ appears to have gone viral, at least in the competitive games community. It’s unsurprising, really, as it provides a lovely, pithy way of describing a certain kind of player or even person, to their backs at any rate.
As far as I can tell, Riot coined the term for PR purposes, as a way of defining the typical player who is not… socially considerate when talking to their community. In that role, it’s a fantastic tool, highly expressive and intuitive as to what it means. Of course, so are the words ‘fun’ and ‘game’ and don’t we all know the trouble that’s got us into, eh?
As much as I love Riot, this is one thing I can find serious issue with in their MO. It appears the company has collectively drunk the koolaid of believing that this PR jargon they made up is an actual thing, not just a neat way of describing a stupidly complex phenomenon. What’s made worse is that every definition of toxicity I’ve seen from them is different but for one fact: they all have a negative impact on consumer retention. We can fluff that up and call it damaging game experience and so on, but when it boils down to it, this is not about game design any more. It’s about audience selection and making wads of cash money. This isn’t inherently evil, of course, but it’s certainly not unambiguously good either.
So let’s get this straight. There is no such thing as a ‘toxic player’, at least not in the sense of actual flesh and blood players. It’s alright to use the term in pure hypotheticals and label a certain kind of action group toxic and consequently a hypothetical player who embodies that group a toxic player, but that’s not how the real world works, folks.
The worst outcome of this misuse is that people, actual people, are diagnosing themselves as toxic in fits of hypochondriac glee. Unsurprising given the peculiarly western tendency to syndromise any kind of problem, but distressing none the less. Personally, I am terrified of this development. There is no kind of psychological treatment in which repressing and punishing antisocial urges has anything but a styming effect on personal development and enjoyment for the individual being targeted.
Now I hear toxic being bandied around on unrelated podcasts, in design articles, interviews with devs, even potential research briefs. It’s a catchy, catchall meme. It’s also a delicious label to stick to someone you don’t like, a perfect tool to brand ‘the other’. It’s one of those inconspicuous little words that can worm its way into the consciousness of a populace and create divisions, excuses for unethical behavior and justifications for the unjustifiable. The sort of word that is one of many engraved in each paving stone on the road to hell.
Toxic, put simply, is toxic.
I stress that I’m certainly not saying that there’s no such thing as a player whose play is detrimental to the fun of other players, nor that a developer shouldn’t talk about this or even design things to prevent or mitigate that. Riot, for the most part, is doing the right thing- implementing systems in their game which gently encourage players to play in a way that is tolerable to other players. The problem is mostly in the discussion and the misappropriation of the term.
The most dangerous result of this is the idea that a certain kind of play is inherently ‘wrong’. This is… it’s just plain disturbing. Play, at its core, is a process of experimentation and discovery. Play exists to push boundaries and explore what is normally not acceptable in ‘real life’. It also serves to train and develop, to instill contentment or joy and create wonder. Fundamentally, though, human beings, in fact all animals which play, play in order to do what would otherwise not be possible. To enforce a moral rhetoric upon this is almost always damaging to the player, because that concept is antithetical to the core purpose of play.
I’m not talking about something that’s nice and fluffy here. As much as the activity of play can be about exploring love and trust it is also about exploring betrayal and anger. It’s a careful balancing act, but one that is fundamentally necessary for human mental health and self development. In the end all those people calling you a noob faggot have a largely positive outcome on you as a human being, hard to believe as that may be at the time. What it doesn’t help is the developer’s profits, because you’ll probably drop the first few games where you’re exposed to that sort of antagonistic play. When these two collide we arrive at the problematic concept of toxicity. The utopian idea that all players can live in harmony and sing around the campfire at night. Like all utopian concepts it is enticing, dangerous and utterly wrong.
If I hold this to be true, I also have to hold that it is reasonable to create exclusive communities of play, where entry requires certain rules to be accepted and adhered to by all players, that is after all the essence of a game. The important distinction between a ‘toxic’ player and one who infiltrates such a community and then breaks the rules is that the latter is simply a rulebreaker, and can be expelled as such. A toxic player, on the other hand, implies someone whose play, while acceptable within the rules, is filthy and unclean. There is a double standard there- you’re welcome to come and play however you like, but good players only play like this. If you don’t, you’re a bad player and everyone is allowed to judge you.
That’s a far cry from a simple, professional: These are the rules, to maintain the game as it is intended to be played, the rules must be adhered to. If you don’t, you’ll be removed from the game. No hard feelings, that’s just how it has to work. If it’s in the rules, the players are free to exploit it however they so choose. The responsible party for toxic outcomes is not the player, it is the designer.
So I simply ask that we should be careful with the word. It’s not entirely without merit, but it’s powerful and dangerous. It shouldn’t be thrown around to label everyone and their kid brother. Nor should it be used in formal discussion unless clearly and meticulously defined and justified.
As a kind of postscript, I will say that Riot seems these days to have shifted their attention from toxic players to toxic environments. Unfortunately, the earlier discussions have created the implicit assumption that the former creates the latter, where Lyte’s recent analysis at the GDC shows that is clearly not the case. I applaud them for bringing that salient little fact to our collective notice. Notice it.