Trolls, Communities, and Psychology
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Simon Parkin, I think, did an interview with Jenova Chen about the game design of thatgamecompany’s all-of-the-awards-winning JOURNEY last year. In it, Jenova was talking about a particular game design problem, an issue between players that was breaking the mood of the game. Initially JOURNEY allowed players to collide with one another, rather than unrealistically pass through each other like ghosts. This made a lot of sense, but led to one unanticipated and unwanted scenario, in which during an especially emotional part of the game, players would grief other players by shoving them into an abyss. This, in spite of everything about the game’s aesthetic and mood and message and everything else.
He goes on to explain that he understands WHY players do this; it’s not that they’re inherently evil, or malicious. His theory (at the time, at least) was that players in a new game took on aspects of infant and child psychology. Like a child, new to the world, players are learning everything over again, and learning fast, and ultimately derive pleasure and meaning and validation from interaction. From experimenting, and seeing the results. And so their griefing of other players is not necessarily done out of meanness, but more out of a sense of exploration, a way of finding their footing in an uncertain new universe.
Griefing and trolling, I think, share a lot of these motivations. The term troll originates from patent disputes, but has been broadly applied to internet griefing, much of which takes the form of sexist or racist attacks in the comments section, forums, etc of popular websites. I mean, you guys know what trolls are. What I’m getting to is that there is an attitude about trolls that doesn’t make sense to me, even though it seems reasonable, and I wanted to talk about it a bit.
The attitude in question is this: “just ignore it.” Whether “…and it will go away” is implied seems to depend somewhat on who is stating the opinion and how optimistic they are. And on the surface this is extremely reasonable advice. Trolling is forever. There is no imaginable set of circumstances that could somehow stop trolling from being one of the main things people do with the internet. Not only that, it’s a pretty obvious application of free speech, etc etc. Trolling is democracy. Not only can we NOT stop it, but it’d be un-American to even try.
My beefs with this attitude come in a few different forms. One is that anytime anyone is discussing some particularly egregious trolling activity, there is guaranteed to be at least someone saying “UGH why do we have to CONSTANTLY TALK ABOUT THINGS. You can’t stop trolling. Just ignore it. Don’t talk about things anymore please.” This weirds me out big time because you are basically saying “Trolls, continue talking. Rational people, please stop talking.” Which, I mean, if the trolls are going to keep talking forever no matter what, then the least we can do is at least try to inject SOME rational debate into the discussion. I agree that debating the trolls directly is pointless, but having an intelligent conversation about the topic is the last thing I think we should discourage, especially since we’re guaranteed such a high troll noise level anyways.
For anyone out there who is in the implied “…and it will go away” camp, if you’re not convinced already that this is hopeless, I can help you. This is hopeless. If a puppy is crapping all over the house, and you ignore it, you will have a house full of crap forever. Can you stop puppies from crapping? Of course not! But you also don’t have to live in a house full of puppy poop forever. So, you shame them. And eventually they stop pooping in your house.
This is an important thing to keep in mind because trolls, like all other humans, are mostly intrinsically motivated. I think there is this idea that if the polite internet users just pretend they can’t hear the trolls, that somehow the trolls will take the bait and just stop trolling. This is absurd. Trolls know that people read the comments. Trolls know that sometimes they strike a chord. Trolls are kind of only trolling for their peers, too. Trolling is at least as much about being able to show your friends the worst thing you typed ever, as much as it is getting a rise out of some prudish pedestrian. (This is at least partially why direct “discussion” with trolls is absurd, and an enormous, heart-breaking waste of time, and often is the true goal of an eighth-dan uber-troll.)
And honestly, if your house is full of puppy poop up to your knees, you need to be an effing Tibetan monk who has achieved enlightenment at least four times to really, genuinely, ignore that mess. So I think it’s worth actually calling the practically of ignoring trolls into question, period. But that’s probably a whole other argument.
Anyways, there’s no stopping trolling. But I don’t see why or how that has to equate to A) yielding them the floor any place they decide to show up drunken and ranting, and B) constantly yielding them the floor anyplace they show up is MORE likely to encourage this sort of behavior, rather than discourage it. Neither encouragement nor discouragement is guaranteed, of course, but if I had to bet on or hope for one of these outcomes, I’m in the discouragement camp for sure.
Again, ignoring something that will never go away sounds like solid advice, at first, but I feel like it doesn’t really hold up when you’re talking about communities and people and human psychology. I like rational conversation, and I like a house blissfully free of puppy poop. So, in the future, I will continue to engage in online discussions, whether the topics are initially introduced by trolls or not, and will try to do my part to shame them when they poop in my house.