Gaming’s Hidden Toxicity

What is Salt-Mining?

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Fabio Gironi is a journalist, philosopher, and translator. He is interested in internet and videogame culture, and their implicit (and explicit) politics and epistemology. He is currently a Humboldt postdoctoral fellow at the University of Potsdam, Germany.

At the 2018 Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, Todd Howard, executive producer at Bethesda Game Studios, revealed to an ecstatic audience the new instalment of the popular videogame franchise Fallout, titled Fallout 76. Nothing much was new here regarding the game’s core principles: rather, what captured the attention of news outlets and gaming fans alike was the announcement that, unlike previous titles, Fallout 76 would only be playable online. Fans’ reactions were, to put it mildly, polarized: some enthusiastically welcomed the new direction of the franchise, while others expressed their concern that making Fallout 76 online-only would open the door to toxic player behaviour.

Unfortunately, this concern was well-founded as there is a sizeable minority of people who play videogames solely to upset others. This phenomenon, known as “griefing”, is arguably less recognizable than other forms of online harassment that proliferate in internet cultures. However, like harassment linked to misogyny, homophobia, and racism, griefing raises questions about the ethics of virtual engagement and it is sustained by an ideology with a clear but inexplicit political character. This article discusses this phenomenon and demonstrates how online gaming promotes this less recognizable but equally insidious form of toxicity.

Griefing and Salt-Mining?

“Griefer/griefing” and “salt-miner/salt-mining” are terms used to describe adversarial interactions between players in a competitive “Player versus Player” (PvP) environment. The term griefer is mostly employed by those who are the griefers’ victims while salt-miner (more often the verbal form “salt-mining”) is a term appropriated by the griefers themselves. It derives from the adjective “salty”, referring to a person who reacts angrily to a provocation, shedding salty tears of frustration. Salt-mining, then, indicates the activity of “harvesting salt” by making others upset, angry, and frustrated by disrupting their gameplay. This can be obtained by killing their avatar, destroying their base, stealing their items, or by repeatedly targeting the same player in a conflict-based game. Players who either don’t engage in multiplayer activities at all or, when they do, tend to favour cooperation over conflict are ridiculed by salt-miners using the derogatory term “carebears”.

The disruption of the “carebears’” gaming experience is not prompted by the rules of the game — such as targeting an enemy team in order to win — but is done purely in order to elicit an annoyed or, better, angry reaction. While most kinds of salt-mining therefore take place in games that offer a rich range of player interaction, it can also be found in competitive games where the scope of the game is simply to defeat other players. In this case the phenomenon of griefing will be more nuanced since not all PvP interaction is necessarily griefing, and the griefer will exploit game mechanics in order to mess with other players in the most aggravating way. “Salt” is the sought-after result, and indeed a victim who does not complain about being griefed is a far less desirable target than the “salty” one who responds with anger. Griefing is then a gaming-specific form of online trolling, i.e. intervening in online discussions not with the aim of contributing to the conversation, but to upset other participants through inflammatory statements and provoke a strong reaction. Likewise, salt-miners are not seeking in-game “virtual” achievements (winning the game, getting the loot, completing a task) but covet the real-life “reward” of upsetting the flesh-and-blood person behind the in-game avatar. In Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOs), trolling has evolved into a complex and multifaceted phenomenon, since the in-game interaction with other people affords much wider and insidious harassment opportunities than those offered by a comment thread or a Twitter exchange.

I’m just shooting your pixels bro, y u so salty?

When the interaction between griefers and victims shifts to verbal channels of communication, the motivations, ideology, and thought processes of the griefers become clearer. The way in which griefers justify their actions falls with interesting regularity into one of two explanatory patterns. They will ironically point out how the irritated player is unable to tell the difference between a game and real-life (“they’re just pixels” is a common phrase used to dismiss emotional responses as overreactions). Alternatively, they will sneer at their victims arguing that these complaints betray a lack of resolve and that one should become stronger after having been taught a lesson. Hence the now memetic mantra “Git Gud”, ubiquitous in gaming discussions: if you lose, it is your fault for not being good enough at the game. Both arguments assume that there is nothing objectionable about the activity of salt-mining, that “carebears” are at fault and unable to cope with online gaming, and that enduring humiliation leads to self-improvement. Indeed, the hostility received from other gamers reinforces the salt-miners’ self-understanding as both more skilled gamers and more well-adjusted and successful individuals, capable of separating in- and out-of-game activities, and better suited to overcome obstacles as compared to their weak-willed victims.

A tension between these two convictions should be noted: on the one hand, to give too much weight to the events taking place in a videogame is derided as a sign of poor mental health on the “carebear’s” part; on the other, the failure to let a virtual interaction serve as a useful life lesson (according to the questionable principle that those who bully you are also giving you the chance to better yourself) is taken to be a sign of actual psychological weakness and inability to survive the real world. The plausibility of a direct link between virtual and real worlds is exploited when expedient, and derided when not.

Real or Virtual Harm?

The first kind of defence salt-miners use relies on the idea that virtual actions cannot be assessed according to real-life codes of conduct, so that no such action justifies a real reaction. What happens in-game ultimately means nothing: “are you crying over pixels dude? lol” is an example of a common response I observed during my time as a moderator and user of gaming-related social media, in particular subreddits and Discord servers. However, moral accountability in virtual environments is far from implausible. There is indeed a sizeable body of research defending the legitimacy of personal investment in avatars and virtual possessions arguing that virtual actions have genuine moral qualities, and therefore that their moral evaluation is possible.

Moreover, without the existence of an emotional investment in one’s virtual possessions and actions, salt-mining would not exist: once again, the objective is not virtual destruction per se (which is made possible by hundreds of games and could be perpetrated against NPCs) but to elicit real annoyance. The salt-miner, then, aims for an angry reaction while believing that such a reaction is unjustified, a belief that fuels a sense of superior understanding of gaming and of life itself. The ideal victim is one who reacts with frustration — the salty victim — and will be targeted again and again, both for the perpetrator’s pleasure and to “teach a lesson”.

In a gaming world where MMOs are becoming ever more pervasive, a widespread discussion on “virtual ethics” is overdue. Where do we draw the line between consequence-free trolling and harassment? From the standpoint of our emotional well-being is there really a genuine qualitative difference between real-life harassment or bullying and the same phenomenon happening in a virtual environment? Or should we seriously consider the possibility of morally evaluating actions in virtual environments, such that in-game harassment could be objectively considered as ethically undesirable as its real-world counterpart? Just as our society has only recently acquired the conceptual tools to consider “cyberstalking” and “cyberbulling” real and punishable acts, the scepticism towards considering virtual “crimes” as virtually punishable as real harms derives from our still inadequate comprehension of the phenomenon and the technology that makes it possible.

Carebears vs. Lobsters

There is a second and more insidious assumption underlying salt-mining, a politically charged one. Unlike other and better-known forms of toxicity present in gaming, often characterizable as the expression of bigoted or reactionary views which create an environment of “cultural inaccessibility” for minorities, salt-mining is supported by a subtler ideology, not immediately identifiable with standard political categories.

Salt-miners, by and large, subscribe to the same caricatural Hobbseian/Nietszchean picture of an antagonistic society where only strong and self-reliant individuals prevail, the same worldview weaponized today by a “public intellectual” like Jordan Peterson (but by no means exclusive to him). It is common for griefers to rebut their victims’ complaints by noting how their disruption should be interpreted as an occasion for growth (often explicitly relying on the psychologically dubious dichotomy between a “growth” and a “fixed” mindset), or to draw parallels between the virtual world they inhabit and a natural environment where “apex predators” prey on the weaker members of the flock, beyond good and evil.

In this context, a very laden vocabulary is routinely employed: salty victims are “triggered snowflakes” unequipped to enter the competitive arena of PvP gaming. Pampered by “entitlement culture”, “carebears” should stay in their “safe spaces” (single-player games), since they lack strength of character and are not ready to take responsibility for their lack of skill — leading to their in-game demise and their (hilarious) overreactions. Just like trolls, salt miners therefore conceive of themselves as more enlightened, more internet-wise, and more intelligent than their “easily triggered” victims. Once again, an unacknowledged contradiction emerges: griefers are adamant that nothing about their own psychology can be inferred by their in-game disruptive acts (although research suggests it can) but are certain that frustrated reactions to these actions do offer a clear insight into the victim’s personality.

The griefer’s actions are supposed to be a litmus test of another player’s character: the “correct” reaction to have is one of humble and light-hearted acknowledgment of inferiority, taking one’s virtual demise as an occasion to learn and be better next time — to git gud. Indeed, thanking the griefer for having shown one’s weaknesses is considered appropriate. Conversely, a frustrated and angry reaction is derided as that of a “sperg” — a common ableist slur, shorthand for “asperger”. This term is used to criticize anyone who appears to take their virtual actions and possessions too seriously and therefore has an unhealthy relationship with games. From the griefer’s standpoint, virtual environments are simply an unregulated stage whereupon individuals subscribing to this macho ideology of toughness, dominance, and strength are given the (relative) power to enforce their will on others, a made-up world which nonetheless mirrors the natural order of things, where “alpha gamers” prey upon the herd of helpless “carebears.”

Again, the real/virtual distinction is bent at will. The structural similarity between the griefer’s mockery of their salty victims — which often takes a vicious tone belittling real-world harassment and the well-studied phenomenon of victim-blaming — is denied or ridiculed by griefers due to the virtual nature of the encounters. “PvP is rape? lol” is a common comeback, exploiting the implausible equivalence between real life sexual assault and in-game griefing in order to obscure the structural similarity of the motivation behind the act. Indeed, research indicates that the driving impulses behind griefing are pleasure (of disrupting another player’s experience) the imposition of power, and the exercise of control over the virtual environment.

But the political nature of the griefer’s ideology is blurred by the fact that their proponents do not necessarily identify with a precise political stance. This is one of the most distinguishing features of “alt-right” exponents (from high-profile ones like Milo Yiannopoulos to more niche personalities like Count Dankula) presenting themselves as defending a kind of ground-level common sense against the political correctness hysteria of so-called “social-justice warriors” or “SJWs.” Salt-miners can even present themselves as anti-homophobic, anti-racist, or even explicitly left-leaning, while acting in clear accordance with principles belonging to the traditionalist right. These principles are generally variations on the theme of the survival of the fittest, where salty players in-game are seen as the same kind of easily offendable and thin-skinned “entitled snowflakes” or “cucks” locked in their “echo chambers” and in need of trigger warnings, lest their “fragile egos and feelings” should be hurt. The demand to freely mine salt in MMOs is the gaming equivalent of the free speech demanded by representatives of alt-right groups or pick-up artists (different species of the same genus of trolls) where freedom of self-expression is invoked to justify the implicit promotion of hate speech and harassment.

Why should we care?

The Peterson-esque belief in a world of natural hierarchies — where winners establish dominance while the losers, weak and easily offended, are ultimately responsible for their misfortunes — is rampant within the gaming community. This conviction causes patterns of toxic behaviour that are not captured by existing ethical guidelines concerned with hate speech or hacking. The pervasiveness of this mindset flies under the radar of much of mainstream gaming press, which often sees it as simply healthy banter and competition. Gaming is not a niche subculture anymore, but a multi-billion-dollar business and a major cultural phenomenon, which involves over a billion people across the world. The gaming industry is well aware of the griefing problem but — rare exceptions aside — little has been done to seriously appraise and tackle it. We can speculate that this is due to at least two reasons.

First, in order to avoid alienating a significant slice of paying customers, game developers treat the griefing problem as a somewhat impersonal phenomenon, something that just inevitably “happens” without placing the blame on a specific pattern of behaviour. So even when game design decisions are made in order to minimize the possibility of griefing, these do not question the motivations or ethical implications of the phenomenon, lest griefers might feel profiled and targeted and decide to stop playing the game. Additionally, it is hard to promote ethical accountability in an industry where the rhetoric of “every man for himself” and “be a lone wolf in a cut-throat world” functions as the tagline and the selling point for dozens of very profitable open-world survival or battle-royale videogames, in which the very scope is to prevail over other players.

Secondly, because — unlike well-recognized and stigmatized forms of harassment like homophobia, racism, or sexism — the discourse around griefing still lacks the conceptual resources to question the morality of virtual interactions. Our understanding of the ethics of virtual environments is still in its infancy, such that the idea that virtual harm can have real consequences still falls outside our present Overton window of debate around gaming.

However, a wider analysis of griefing and its ideology in the gaming community is both overdue and necessary. Young gamers should not be taught that the world can be neatly divided into helpless snowflakes who never learned to handle adversities and straight-backed “bros” entitled to whatever they please. The values underpinning in-game griefing are no different from those promoted by some of the most odious ideologies and political stances in our society. That their effects take place within the make-believe virtual environment of videogames should not obscure the fact that real individuals are provoking them, in accordance with the ideal that the weak are bound to be crushed by the strong.

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