By James Dominic Flores
Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Connor McGregor, legends of their respective sports have something in common with most of those that play online games: They are well-versed in the art of trash talk.
Beyond what appears to non-gamers as foolish bravado, science shows that trash talk has a purpose, both for the talker and the target.
Trash talk serves as a sparkplug. It motivates both the doer and receiver to feel, think, and act in a certain way. This is evident in competitive scenarios, whether it is in a loud, cramped, computer shop or under the strong lights of a basketball arena with thousands of spectators watching.
Trash talkers want to send a message to their opponents that they are better at playing the game. People want to feel validated, and one of the easiest ways to do so is by comparing themselves to others, thus, comparing yourself with someone who in your perception is performing worse than you is an easy way to feel good about one’s self.
It is this drive for superiority that enables trash talkers to fan their competitive flames. Meanwhile, the recipient of the trash talk is pressured to react, whether it means that they choose to play better to prove the trash talker wrong, or they let their emotions get the best of them and “tilt” them into making bad decisions and performing worse than usual.
Online gaming has provided another layer for trash talking that is unique to its initial use -- anonymity. Just as the average person struggles with online trolls, it is the veil of anonymity that makes trash talking less about competitive spirit and more of a toxic way of reinforcing one’s ego. This coupled with the lack of, or light punishments that one may receive in game does little to deter this toxic behavior.
Games with a low barrier for entry, and are generally free to play such as Dota 2, Valorant, and Mobile Legends: Bang Bang have systems to report toxicity such as banning an account from play for a certain period of time or punishing you by queuing up your games with players of similar toxicity scores, affecting game quality and experience. However, since the barrier is so low, certain players simply bypass this by creating a fresh new account.
Despite this, many players still find joy and positive experiences in online games. While trash talk is likely to stay wherever there is competition, there are ways to help protect our mental well-being while enjoying these games.
Players can start by remembering that anonymous players are not the best judges of your own personal strengths and weaknesses. Since they cannot empathize with you, they are likely also to not understand who you are as a whole.
Gamers can also take advantage of the mute system to block out messages from toxic players both in and out of the game.
Lastly, if a player feels tilted and performing worse due to this then it is always advisable to take a short break and breathe; games are experienced best when players enjoy what they are doing and a little break to reorient one’s self to why they enjoy the said game will help improve one’s mood and mindset.
About the author: James Dominic Flores is Program Chair of the College of Arts and Sciences at San Sebastian College, specializing in psychology. He is also a competitive gamer specializing in fighting games.