The National Endowment for the Humanities recently announced a $29,403 grant to study the “toxic rhetoric” of gamers. The study is titled Notoriously Toxic: Understanding the Language and Costs of Hate and Harassment in Online Games.

The title is interesting because it has the implication that gamers are “Notoriously Toxic”, whatever that is supposed to mean. Toxic has recently joined the ranks of words like fascist, Nazi, and terrorist to describe absolutely anything someone disagrees with. Gamers may be notorious for harassment if you only pay attention to corrupt news outlets, but so far none of the critics of video games and gamers have shown any study demonstrating that gamers as a group are any worse than the general population.

Anyone can visit a moderately popular music video on YouTube and see the comment section filled with all sorts of hate filled arguments over trivial nonsense, racial slurs, trolling and in some cases actual death threats. Does this prove music fans as a group are also notoriously toxic? This type of argument is the only one I’ve seen so far that tries to prove that gamers are horrible harassers: a few awful comments are cherry-picked, and the vast quantity of positive discussion within the gaming community is ignored.

Yes, there are horrible individuals who say horrible things in every online community, but I’ve not yet seen evidence that gamers are worse than any other group. That might actually make a more interesting study, a direct comparison of gamers to other groups to see if there is actually an above average amount of harassment in the gaming community. In the absence of any such study I have only my own experience to go on. My experience tells me that it’s roughly the same across the internet, and non-gamers are responsible for just as much hate and harassment.

The researchers conducting this study have no interest in the possibility that gamers might be decent people; they start with the foregone conclusion that gamers as a group are completely terrible. The purpose of the study is simply to “understand and describe the toxic rhetoric” used by gamers. I’m a little skeptical that a study that starts with biased assumptions about gamers will actually do a fair job of understanding or describing anything said by gamers.

I suppose there is a possibility that this study will actually be legitimate science. Who knows, maybe picking an outrageous title is a way to improve the chances of getting a grant. I can imagine it works on the same principle that makes click-bait articles so popular. I’m sure they put “Notoriously Toxic” in the title to capture the imagination of NEH bureaucrats. There might be some interesting results from this if they actually do a proper study. However, I think its far more likely that this will be the latest in a long line of bogus studies that set out to demonstrate the evils of video games by “proving” that there are antisocial behaviors commonly found in gamers.

If the study does turn out to be garbage, I wouldn’t worry about it too much. Studies like this one have a poor track record of actually convincing anyone who doesn’t already support their conclusion. The studies used by Jack Thompson when he was arguing that video games lead to violent behavior have been widely discredited. You can expect the same for this study if it turns out to be of the same ilk. The study will be scrutinized, and any issues with the methodology of the study will be widely propagated throughout the Internet.

The bigger issues isn’t that the study itself exists, but that its being funded by taxpayer money. Should the government really be in the business of funding biased research which has as its goal the demonization of a particular group? I don’t think so, and I’m sure there are a lot of gamers out there who feel the same way. It looks like video games are going to be turned into a political battle once again.

Max Michael

Senior Writer

I’m a technology reporter located near the Innovation District of Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario.

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