Investigating Online Multiplayer Gamer Psychology

These days nearly every game is multiplayer. Singleplayer is increasingly the game mode of the past.

Multiplayer has changed in and of itself over the past few years as well. Multiplayer used to mean sitting on a sofa, or the floor, with your best friend on a video games console cooperatively doing the story or a competitive arena-style duel. These days the word multiplayer is more associated with the internet, with xbox live and MMORPGs.

With the rise of online multiplayer has come a new mindset, and that’s what I want to investigate with this blog. There’s all sort of online mutliplayer games these days. There’s the famous online multiplayer games such as Battlefield 4 or Call of Duty: Ghosts. There’s hundreds of MMOs, from Guild Wars 2 to Star Trek Online. There’s also more indie games with online modes like Mount & Blade: Warband.gta_online

You’d probably struggle to think of a modern video game without an online multiplayer mode; even the recently released GTA V has gone into online mutliplayer in a big way when previous versions only dabbled in multiplayer modes.

The thing is, is that playing online with other people is entirely different experience, not only to playing solo, but to playing with other people in the flesh. How this affects the way we think about gaming and changes how we act is a fascinating topic to delve into, and that’s what I’ll do here.

Online Multiplayer

step in WvW, get ready to get punched in the face

That’s a quote from a post on the Guild Wars 2 forums this week, and its the inspiration for this post. World versus world is typical of the online multilayer gaming genre; players grouped together and left to fight it out for dominance. That’s how many games play out, even singleplayer games where you are in a group of NPCs and fight against another group of NPCs. Yet, somehow the level of player violence associated with online multiplayer is greater than any other game mode.

'tea-bagging in Halo online'
‘tea-bagging’ in Halo online

Its infamous the kind of abuse you get over xbox live games. ‘Tea-bagging’ is a term spawned right out of online games, where players kneel repeatedly on the corpse of a recently killed enemy. It’s also infamous how many ‘your mom’ slurs you encounter over online games. Its not all too dissimilar to the hatred you see on the Guild Wars 2 world versus world forums directed at standard pve players who occasionally pop in to wvw. You also see it in those players who, and this is true of many online multiplayer games, go out of their way to humiliatingly kill players who have gone away from the keyboard – when we all need to leave the game for a moment sometimes; with singleplayer and local multiplayer modes free of this viciousness.

What causes it? – warning academic psychology crops up in here

First off I want to explain something. Although its pretty clear that players are more violent towards each other when playing online, I do not believe that this has any link to violence in real life. I don’t believe that the most violent ‘tea-bagging’ troll of Call of Duty is likely to become the next school shooter. If anything, Freud’s theories tell us that playing violent video games makes us less violent in real life. Freud’s idea was that we naturally build up anger, which can explode in a violent eruption if not regularly let out in controlled bursts – for instance through gaming on violent video games. So, in a round about way, perhaps playing online games has a positive effect on people’s real life actions.


Keyboard Warriors
Keyboard Warriors

Anonymity is a big part of online multiplayer violence. The ‘keyboard warrior effect’ if you like. Its the idea that nobody knows who you are behind your keyboard, so you can act how you like without consequence. Of course, this is not entirely true. ‘Keyboard warriors’ who attack the regime in China find themselves traced and arrested, symbolising the fact that we are not always an anonymous behind a keyboard as we believe that we are.

However, the fact is that we believe that we are anonymous – and therefore invincible from behind our keyboard. Online gamers can make a lurid joke about somebody’s mother over voice chat because they know that the person they said it to cannot do anything physical in response, when they might not of made such a joke if physically sitting next to somebody for fear of physical reprisal.

This is why local multiplayer does not experience such violence as online multiplayer. Aside from the fact that you are likely to know the person you are playing against better if you are sitting next to them on your sofa, you are also keeping your actions in check for what is socially acceptable because of the social proximity.

Mob Mentality & Otherness

Mob Mentality?
Mob Mentality?

Interestingly, and there has been much psychological work in to this, humans generally follow what the group they are a part of is doing. Give a group of people the freedom of choice to do anything and it becomes increasingly violent – there’s many good examples of this. It comes back to the fear of reprisals. In a group you have less fear, you are a group that outnumbers the others most likely. But also, there is the very real fear of rejection from the group. You see mob mentality in the zergs of Guild Wars 2, players following the leader around precisely and mimicking their actions.

Humans are sociable animals and we naturally form in to group in any situation. With online games these groups are fairly arbitrarily decided, and yet we still conform to the group norm in a bid to gain acceptance. The further trouble with this is that online games, by arbitrarily dividing players in to groups and pitting them against each other causes ‘otherness’ between people who, to all purposes, are no different at all. Online games encourage the player to consider the player as an ‘other’ that deserves to be violently defeated. We have no qualms in ‘tea-bagging’ one of the ‘others’ because they aren’t one of ‘us’. But then, when you sit and look at it impartially, there really is no ‘us’ and ‘them’, as is shown by the lack of ‘otherness’ as a phenomenon in other modes of gameplay such as local multiplayer.


This post has been pretty long and pretty intense, but I hope you’ve stayed with me because its a fascinating topic to look in to.

All in all, online multiplayer is a more violent mode of gaming than singleplayer or multiplayer – but this does not make online gamers psychotic mass killers. What it does provide is a fascinating insight into the human mind, that when presented with certain conditions such as anonymity and/or a ‘mob’ mentality we are capable of actions which we might otherwise not carry out. What we real seem to fear deep down is physical reprisal for our actions. Online gaming takes away the fear of physical reprisals, making it something of a wild west for players to act however violently and luridly they wish.

Digital Salad –


4 thoughts on “Investigating Online Multiplayer Gamer Psychology

  1. C. T. Murphy November 6, 2013 / 12:03 am

    I enjoyed this post.

    I do agree. I think another aspect that is alluded to mob mentality in general, is culture. Whether we consider ourselves truly autonomous and free beings or not, cultures and sub-cultures have such a powerful impact on defining, and by defining, limiting our perceivable choices. Especially when you are in the moment with emotions riding high, it is especially easy to follow the crowd that has its immature and despicable mentality created and reinforced by a perpetuated culture of vitriol. Anonymity just heightens it even further!

  2. Digital Salad November 6, 2013 / 9:44 am

    Thanks for the comment and I’m glad you liked it.

    That’s a good point about mob mentality and its link to culture. That’s definitely an influencing factor on player’s attitudes in online multiplayer modes. Do you think that online multiplayer has allowed player violence (for want of a better word) to increase on those game modes then?

    I wanted to delve into each bit even further and maybe uncover more aspects like that, but it would’ve been an incredibly long post then :P!

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