Addressing Toxic Video Gaming Environments

Dr. Delaney Ruston – This weekend my husband and I got to go snowshoeing, and we were on a mountain near a summit sitting and eating when two people about our age came down the mountain. We talked with them for a few minutes about the trail, and they walked on. They were very smiley. I whispered to my husband, “Do you think they’re married?” And, he answered very matter of factly, “No.”  And then I asked, “Why do you say that?” He replied, “They are having too much fun.” 

So then I kindly shouted to the couple who were still in earshot, “Just wondering, are you guys married?” And they said, “No,” and I said, “That’s what my husband guessed — he said you were having too much fun to be married.” At that point, we all started laughing. 

My husband was joking, but as usual, a joke is most funny when there is truth in it. Committed relationships are a lot of work, and ours is no exception. And that gets me to the stress related to parenting screen time issues, including today’s TTT  topic — video gaming. 

One example was when my son Chase was in middle school, oh, how he wanted Call of Duty. We didn’t have it, and several of his friends did. We did lots of talking and found ways he could have friends over and still have a good time — but of course, there was conflict and stress around all of that. 

With COVID, time spent on video gaming has understandably risen markedly.  There are indeed positives around video gaming like socializing, having fun, and so on.

Yet, there are risks and challenges with today’s video games and gaming communities. Today, I want to just focus on gaming environments to specifically discuss the hurtful, sexist, toxic communication that can happen in gaming spaces. For this TTT, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ed Spector, a psychologist who has spent more than a decade helping teens struggling with problematic gaming. 

I started my conversation with Ed about Discord, a platform for people to talk or write to each other in real-time. Like a Facebook page or group, a person can start a group, called a “server,” and the person that starts such a group is called an “administrator.” A server is often based on a specific game, but it does not have to be. The server administrator can choose to restrict the group or to keep it open. 

In the past, Discord was mainly for gamers. It allows gamers to communicate in real-time during gameplay, which can be useful because not all games have built-in voice connections. Recently Discord has started to morph into a more general social media platform, not just for gamers. 

I asked Ed what are some of the challenges of kids being on Discord?

“I see some kids as young as 12 that are running a Discord server with 1000 people on it. They love that they’re responsible and that they can be powerful. But problems inevitably come up when you are dealing with 1000 personalities on Discord. They might have to deal with someone who’s racist or homophobic. There are many ways that inappropriateness happens on these servers.”

Ed spoke about the games that are more prone to “toxicity”:

“Certain games are profoundly toxic; the culture of that game is very, very dark. People say horrible things to each other, they’re very critical. Probably the most toxic game right now that I’m encountering with my clients is League of Legends. If you’re playing and you do something wrong, there’s a pretty high chance of someone actually saying to you, ‘you’re worthless, you should go kill yourself.” And, there’s a decent chance someone’s going to say that to you within the first 10 minutes.”

It is so challenging for parents to know what to do about these types of games. Many families have had to compromise what they would have insisted upon in the past regarding the kind of game they would allow now with COVID. Even if a family does not permit mature-rated games for their child, it does not mean that their child won’t see the game anyway. 

Ed describes this issue in a hypothetical situation:

“A bunch of friends is having a great time playing the new Call of Duty game. Do you let your kid join? That’s a very difficult line to draw because if you hold your principles, your kid is alone.  And during the pandemic, he’s really alone. He can’t hang out with his friends because they’re all playing the new game, and you’re stuck having to make this really challenging decision.”  

You’ll see kids hang out on the Discord server, listening to their friends play the game and trying to have a conversation with them to be social with them, but they can’t play the game because their parents will not let them. They’ll watch YouTube videos or Twitch streams of the game so that they can understand what the other kids are discussing. And, I don’t know that there’s a distinction between watching other people play the game and playing the game themselves. We don’t yet have research to suggest that. We do know that whether you’re pressing the buttons or not, you’re exposed to the images.”

What happens is most parents feel so powerless. The community does not adhere to the same set of standards, and so they’re stuck with the painful choice of either holding their line or isolating their kid.”


First, be aware that when kids are on games with people much older than them, their risk of more harsh interactions goes up. 

Families often require that their kids not wear headphones when they are game playing so as to have a sense of the interactions that are taking place. One mom recently told me how doing this has led to more conversations about her son’s friends and their friendships —  and it has been a good thing. 

Discuss strategies for creating better gaming environments

  • We want to ask our kids whether they are an administrator (or moderator) of a server or are their friends. 
  • If they are creating their own server, do they only invite their friends/ people they know-which is, of course, ideal? 
  • Are they playing games where it allows one to silence strangers? The other teams? 
  • Do they play games in which all the voices get turned off entirely? 
  • When people are rude, mean, how often do you see people do nothing? 
  • How often do people get banned? 
  • How often are people kicked out of the group? 
  • How often do you get drawn into a  conflict? How has that gone?

(Today, we’re not covering the topic of how one knows if someone is who they say they are, but of course, this is an important discussion topic.)

Do High-Quality Co-Viewing (For some good eye-rolling, mention this term to your teen!) 

Before bringing up concerns you have around the video communities, I highly recommend starting by co-viewing and ideally playing games when possible with your kids or teens and point out some positives about the gaming, such as the visuals, the excitement of the game, their quickness, etc.

Then from there, at another time, when not playing, try and see if they will reflect on the game.

Recently I asked Douglas Gentile, Ph.D., a prolific researcher on video gaming, about studies that have looked at the effectiveness of different parenting conversation approaches. 

Gentile explained that the best outcomes happen when parents do “high-quality co-viewing” and explained that “high quality” is all about leading with questions that encourage kids to do complex critical thinking about the games. Gentile suggested questions such as these:

  • How do you feel while playing, and then how do you feel after you stop?  
  • Can you tell how the game designers have set it up to manipulate certain types of feelings?
  • If people treated each other like this in real life, what do you think would really happen? 
  • How are certain groups (e.g., women, men, minorities) portrayed, and what might the effects of that be on gamers?

He went on to explain that, “When you do high-quality active mediation (especially when paired with co-viewing), it seems to mitigate all the negative effects of media and enhances the positive ones.”  

This is not to say that we, parents, can’t also express our views as well. Ed Spector tells parents, 

“I think there’s real importance in you saying ‘As a woman, this game is really offensive to me.’ Or, ‘As a guy who is non-violent, this is a problem because they punch each other the minute there’s a conflict.’’

Doug Gentile weighed in on this as well, stating: “I agree that it’s entirely fair to express your own opinions. This is part of how a family shares its values. Yet, kids can easily learn to tune out parents’ opinions when what we really want is for them to form their own opinions in a thoughtful way.  This, of course, changes with the age of the child. Younger children can’t really do the critical thinking for themselves yet, so sharing our opinions is a good start. Older children can, and we can help to guide them to think about what matters, not just accept what the games/media place in front of them uncritically.”

Talk about the latest news

Last week, Twitch, the live streaming platform for gamers, announced it would be cracking down on people who do things like sexually harass others or act hatefully. How this plays out on Twitch is that a person has a streaming account, say they then stream themselves playing a video game, at times the viewers might start saying and posting hateful and threatening things in a real-time text chat. 

Twitch also plans to ban comments that have to do with a person’s physical appearance as well as prohibit the sending of unsolicited links to nudity.  

Will these changes happen? Will Twitch go far enough to really decrease the toxicity that can be on the site? 

Other ideas to get the conversation started:

  1. What do you think about Discord?
  2. Do you administer a group or have friends who do that? 
  3. Who have you played video games with that has been really positive? 
  4. What have been harder environments? 
  5. What are some times when there was conflict or toxic behaviors, and how did you handle them?
  6. What do you think about Twitch’s new policies?
  7. How much should we depend on companies to self-police vs. calling on federal or state organizations to set the policies?