Grand Theft Troll? Anonymity Encourages Bad Behavior in Online Computer Games
January 9, 2014

Grand Theft Troll? Anonymity Encourages Bad Behavior in Online Computer Games

Flaming. Trolling. Griefing. Cheating. Most players of massive multi-player online games, such as GTA Online, have been victims of activities like these. New research published in the journal Behaviour & Information Technology investigates the drivers and group dynamics of these kind of behaviors.

A study of the habits of people who play massive multi-player online games (MMOGs) shows that anonymous users are more likely to cheat, but their behavior is significantly tempered by the culture and dynamics of the group of players, suggesting that other forms of online bad behavior - such as flaming and trolling - can be modified by the attitudes and behaviors of other group members.

Researchers at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, and Shanghai Jiao Tong University, China, investigated the gaming habits of over 900 teenagers (13-18 years old) and found that the frequency of gaming with online strangers (anonymous gaming) significantly predicts the frequency of cheating. They also observed significant gender differences:

  • Male gamers cheated more frequently than female gamers.
  • Female gamers are more likely to cheat as a consequence of group identification than male gamers.

More significantly, however, the researchers conclude that:

"Deviant behaviors online, such as game cheating, are largely influenced by the online social groups people feel they belong to. An online group, despite its fluid, unstable and imaginary nature, is powerful in constructing and changing its members' attitudes and views on behaviours. Hence, a behavior that is perceived as problematic and deviant can be reconstructed with a different interpretation."

The study by Vivian Hsueh-Hua Chen and Yuehua Wu, published in the current issue of the journal Behaviour & Information Technology (published by Taylor & Francis), is the first of its kind to deliver empirical evidence that the sociological phenomenon known as SIDE (Social Identity Model of Deindividuation Effects) has a role in online behavior.

The SIDE theory, first put forward by Reicher et al in 1995, argues that anonymity does not necessarily lead to the loss of self-awareness or weakened internalized behavior controls, as had previously been thought. Instead, anonymity increases the importance of social/group identity, and hence leads to greater conformity within a group. In other words, when people play games under anonymous conditions, they are more likely to follow the behaviors they believe other players are exhibiting.

While this study has important lessons for those who are concerned about bad behavior elsewhere in cyberspace (in chatrooms and public social networking spaces, for instance), its findings are also of considerable importance for the companies that develop MMOGs and other social games, because persistent cheating and other bad behavior among players of MMOGs can result in financial losses - in terms of both loss of subscribers and loss of company reputation.

Chen and Wu's findings are the result of a 2009 survey of online gaming behaviours among 941 teenagers (mean age 16) who reported playing MMOGs for, on average, 14 hours per week. They also conducted six follow-up focus group sessions among participants who were experienced gamers and very familiar with game cheating. Their data were subjected to rigorous statistical analysis, and the published report also makes detailed reference to an extensive review of literature on the topic.

In addition to the headline findings, the authors note that academics who are interested in studying deviant or anti-social behaviors may find that online video gaming is a good testing ground for their theories, because:

  • The online gaming community is easily accessible and highly dynamic
  • Participants can be observed continuously without intrusion 
  • Gamers are typically willing to report and explain their behaviors in video games they play, especially if the researcher is part of the gaming community.

However, they also note that their findings are based on a self-reporting survey, and it is possible that some over-reporting of cheating may have occurred because cheating is highly regarded in some gaming circles.