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It was a startling and bizarre thing to see early in the morning. I was checking my guild’s website while enjoying my first coffee of the day. On the front page, a young man had shared a casual rape joke. Such things are strictly against our rules, and I quickly removed the link. It was strange because this young man was the last person I expected to do something like this.

He was only 18 years old, but he’d always struck me as thoughtful and sensitive. I approached him about what he had posted just to see if I could figure out why he would do such a thing. He was rather embarrassed about it all. He told me he understood why it was upsetting. I asked him why he would do this then, and he answered that he did it “to fit in.”

“Most guilds don’t care about this stuff. Usually this is how you talk to be accepted as one of the guys,” he explained.

Pro-Social Aspects of Gaming

It’s not all bad news. For adolescents these days, a lot of social growth can happen online, and gaming is often a part of that development. Gaming can offer a positive virtual space where people can work together, challenge each other, and just be themselves.

It doesn’t look much like football, but at its core, League of Legends promotes the same values as any sport. | Photo via Pixelkin
It doesn’t look much like football, but at its core, League of Legends promotes the same values as any sport. Photo:Pixelkin

There are a lot of positive aspects to socializing through online games. For people who form gaming guilds or teams, online games are a source of teamwork and camaraderie similar to traditional sports. Since young people are forming these teams themselves, video games also tend be less exclusive than sports programs found in schools. People can limit what they share online, which is a big help to kids who might be shy or feel socially awkward — or kids who are still defining who they want to be. Young people who are interested in something as geeky as video games can enjoy talking about it online in a game or forum without the fear of judgment from peers, teachers, or parents.

Despite all of these benefits, socializing in games can present issues, as well. The anonymous space offered by online gaming removes people from social pressures, but sometimes that freedom is used to be mean or bigoted. New social pressures are created — especially for young men — to outdo each other in crassness or just plain being mean.

The Pressure to Fit In

Pressure to be unpleasant in order to conform to a group can happen with any gender, but I have personally seen it most often among boys and men. There’s a social pressure to be louder, meaner, tougher, and “more alpha” than anyone else in the PvP match or over TeamSpeak. A little bit of this is normal and healthy. Some boasting or taunting is to be expected. There have been times, however, when I’ve seen players display very ugly behavior that seemed out of character for them.

Young men can be so anxious to fit in with a toxic environment that they perpetuate that toxicity, despite being decent people otherwise.

The Case for Adult Supervision

I grew up when online gaming was in its infancy. I sometimes imagine what it would be like to grow up with online gaming as it exists today. I wonder how I would process trying to have fun in an environment that can be extremely misogynistic and homophobic. I think about how playing in a community where slurs like “faggot” or the n-word can be thrown around would impact me if I were younger. It’s a contest to be inappropriate, but it comes at a cost. Would I have given in to the social pressures, or would I have pushed back against them?

World of Warcraft is one game that puts a lot of emphasis on guilds. | Photo via Pixelkin
World of Warcraft is one game that puts a lot of emphasis on guilds. | Photo via Pixelkin

You can see plenty of the same bad behavior in person that you see online in games today. And letting kids deal with bad behavior on their own is not always bad. Kids need some space away from adults to figure themselves out, and it’s best that kids learn some social lessons on their own.

Yet I cannot imagine how much tougher it would be to navigate these issues without any support from adults, as is too often the case within the gaming world. When I was growing up, I never felt that my parents or other adults who could help me were too far away. Whether they’re gaming or in the real world, young people need an adult’s wisdom to make sense of it all. However, gaming environments are often completely devoid of supervision. Young players can forget who they are in a space that feels removed from their parents and any sense of social responsibility.

Too frequently I have spoken with parents who tell me that they steer clear of their kids’ gaming. Parents, teachers, and other concerned adults should know that even if they are not directly involved in a game, their influence can definitely have a positive impact. If we teach kids to make wise choices, the kids usually can find their own way.

Adolescence is a time for exploring ourselves and how we relate to others, even within gaming. As we mature we learn what makes us unique, but also what makes us similar and important to each other. For many, gaming is a sizable component of learning who we are. Nobody does a good job of this alone. We depend on parents, friends, teachers, and mentors to give us perspective and to show us the things we cannot see on our own. The details of growing up may have changed since my time, but the lessons about kindness, confidence, and generosity remain the same. Being a part of a young person’s online life—including their online gaming—prevents them from ever forgetting who they are and guides their choices. Kids rely on responsible adults to have those conversations that will help them be as good a person online as they are offline.

It takes some perspective to remember who we are sometimes, and young people rely on parents, teachers, and mentors to provide that perspective. This dialog will never happen, however, while parents and other concerned adults avoid gaming communities and remain ignorant of the social realities of gaming.

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