Toxicity, Racism and Sexism in Rocket League

Guys! We did it! We got Rocket League into the top ten most toxic video games in a recent table produced by media outlet, 3D Aim Trainer!

Of course, there are questions to be raised about 3D Aim Trainer’s decision to farm subreddits for data on in-game toxicity – surely that just proves the toxicity of video game subreddits rather than the video games themselves? – but one thing remains certain: Rocket League cannot deny that it has a toxicity problem.

At this point in time, it’s easy enough to reel off some standard explanation for this being “just the way things are now,” shrug your shoulders and then load up the game without a second thought. But have we perhaps used this as a way for excusing ourselves from really coming to terms with the more shadowy side of Rocket League?

Rather than simply brushing the issue under the carpet, then, let’s take a little deeper look at toxicity in modern gaming.

Don’t You Know that You’re Toxic?

‘Toxicity,’ as a term, covers a whole multitude of sins. There is whole gamut of different toxicities that run from the relatively innocent – getting tilted after being demoed – to the insidious – racism, homophobia, bullying.

In fact, part of the issue with dealing with toxicity comes from the fact that it escalates: it can often start off innocuously enough before veering off wildly into entirely unacceptable behaviour. It is a process that is prompted by gaming but which subsequently leads gamers to air their insecurities and intolerances to the wider world.

Toxicity, then, seems to be a vehicle for abuse and discrimination. You start off angry about something in-game, and before you know it, you feel justified in spewing bile and hatred.

So whilst it may be easy to shrug off toxicity – maybe it is simply an intrinsic aspect of human nature – the eventual endpoint that this toxicity reaches should raise questions about how gaming communities are responding to the various intolerances that are brought to light when people get tilted.

The fact of the matter is: if Rocket League (and its community) wants to deal with toxicity, then it should be dealing with issues like racism, homophobia and sexism. If it does this, then it will ameliorate some of the more dangerous displays of toxicity that we see in-game.

Structural Toxicity

As the Black Lives Matter protests continue to roil themselves across the globe, issues of structural racism – that is, the underlying mechanisms that allow racism to continue within our society – are being brought into the conversation in an important way.

Racism, so the protesters are making clear, isn’t simply about people saying overtly racist things. It involves the systems within society that lead to minority groups facing disproportionate levels of police violence or incarceration, or to them being at the back of the queue when it comes to job prospects or their education.

The point here is that overt racism – the things that we think of as people being racist – is often precipitated by societal undercurrents which then spill over. One way of preventing this overt racism, then, is by responding to its root causes; causes that are often a little more subtle.

This means that responding to racism in Rocket League chats isn’t simply about blocking, muting or banning (although they are important). It is Psyonix performing an audit of their ban system to highlight areas where they can do better. It is about the community thinking about the implicitly problematic aspects of the way the game functions that can promote the structural inequalities that lead to over racism in-game.

If you want less toxicity in Rocket League, make it clear that the Rocket League community doesn’t tolerate structural intolerance and is doing everything it can to weed out the problem at its root.

Open for Play

To date, there has only been one woman RCLS pro player: Karma. If that doesn’t strike you as unusual, it should.

In an interview with Dignitas last year, Karma said:

I don’t like being constantly pointed out the fact that I’m female, although I’m proud of it, I just want to be a cool gamer nerd playing with other gamer nerds. My motto has always been be too good at what you’re doing to be ignored. If you get to that point, you’re going to be successful, whether you’re male or female.

Of course, this is a laudable attitude. But it doesn’t change the fact that the odds are stacked against women looking to make it in the game.

Why might this be the case? No doubt everyone has their pet theory. But however you want to angle it, the inhospitability of the Rocket League experience must come into play. In a sphere where misogyny and sexism are rife, it can hardly be surprising that there has only been one woman who has made it to become an RLCS pro player.

Which brings us back to where we began: it’s easy to look on toxicity as a sort of inevitability which isn’t really that much of a problem. But where there is toxicity, there is a sinister undercurrent of intolerance where racism, homophobia and sexism are never far away.

So as you go through life in the Rocket League lobbies, continue to report and mute, keep making the Rocket League experience as hospitable as you can. But don’t forget that the game requires more and better. And keep pushing back against those unacknowledged intolerances that give way to larger-scale problems.


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