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Trolls, Communities, and Psychology
by Adam Saltsman on 06/01/13 04:02:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Simon Parkin, I think, did an interview with Jenova Chen about the game design of thatgamecompany’s all-of-the-awards-winning JOURNEY last year. In it, Jenova was talking about a particular game design problem, an issue between players that was breaking the mood of the game. Initially JOURNEY allowed players to collide with one another, rather than unrealistically pass through each other like ghosts. This made a lot of sense, but led to one unanticipated and unwanted scenario, in which during an especially emotional part of the game, players would grief other players by shoving them into an abyss. This, in spite of everything about the game’s aesthetic and mood and message and everything else.

He goes on to explain that he understands WHY players do this; it’s not that they’re inherently evil, or malicious. His theory (at the time, at least) was that players in a new game took on aspects of infant and child psychology. Like a child, new to the world, players are learning everything over again, and learning fast, and ultimately derive pleasure and meaning and validation from interaction. From experimenting, and seeing the results. And so their griefing of other players is not necessarily done out of meanness, but more out of a sense of exploration, a way of finding their footing in an uncertain new universe.

Griefing and trolling, I think, share a lot of these motivations. The term troll originates from patent disputes, but has been broadly applied to internet griefing, much of which takes the form of sexist or racist attacks in the comments section, forums, etc of popular websites. I mean, you guys know what trolls are. What I’m getting to is that there is an attitude about trolls that doesn’t make sense to me, even though it seems reasonable, and I wanted to talk about it a bit.

The attitude in question is this: “just ignore it.” Whether “…and it will go away” is implied seems to depend somewhat on who is stating the opinion and how optimistic they are. And on the surface this is extremely reasonable advice. Trolling is forever. There is no imaginable set of circumstances that could somehow stop trolling from being one of the main things people do with the internet. Not only that, it’s a pretty obvious application of free speech, etc etc. Trolling is democracy. Not only can we NOT stop it, but it’d be un-American to even try.


My beefs with this attitude come in a few different forms. One is that anytime anyone is discussing some particularly egregious trolling activity, there is guaranteed to be at least someone saying “UGH why do we have to CONSTANTLY TALK ABOUT THINGS. You can’t stop trolling. Just ignore it. Don’t talk about things anymore please.” This weirds me out big time because you are basically saying “Trolls, continue talking. Rational people, please stop talking.” Which, I mean, if the trolls are going to keep talking forever no matter what, then the least we can do is at least try to inject SOME rational debate into the discussion. I agree that debating the trolls directly is pointless, but having an intelligent conversation about the topic is the last thing I think we should discourage, especially since we’re guaranteed such a high troll noise level anyways.

For anyone out there who is in the implied “…and it will go away” camp, if you’re not convinced already that this is hopeless, I can help you. This is hopeless. If a puppy is crapping all over the house, and you ignore it, you will have a house full of crap forever. Can you stop puppies from crapping? Of course not! But you also don’t have to live in a house full of puppy poop forever. So, you shame them. And eventually they stop pooping in your house.

This is an important thing to keep in mind because trolls, like all other humans, are mostly intrinsically motivated. I think there is this idea that if the polite internet users just pretend they can’t hear the trolls, that somehow the trolls will take the bait and just stop trolling. This is absurd. Trolls know that people read the comments. Trolls know that sometimes they strike a chord. Trolls are kind of only trolling for their peers, too. Trolling is at least as much about being able to show your friends the worst thing you typed ever, as much as it is getting a rise out of some prudish pedestrian. (This is at least partially why direct “discussion” with trolls is absurd, and an enormous, heart-breaking waste of time, and often is the true goal of an eighth-dan uber-troll.)

And honestly, if your house is full of puppy poop up to your knees, you need to be an effing Tibetan monk who has achieved enlightenment at least four times to really, genuinely, ignore that mess. So I think it’s worth actually calling the practically of ignoring trolls into question, period. But that’s probably a whole other argument.

Anyways, there’s no stopping trolling. But I don’t see why or how that has to equate to A) yielding them the floor any place they decide to show up drunken and ranting, and B) constantly yielding them the floor anyplace they show up is MORE likely to encourage this sort of behavior, rather than discourage it. Neither encouragement nor discouragement is guaranteed, of course, but if I had to bet on or hope for one of these outcomes, I’m in the discouragement camp for sure.

Again, ignoring something that will never go away sounds like solid advice, at first, but I feel like it doesn’t really hold up when you’re talking about communities and people and human psychology. I like rational conversation, and I like a house blissfully free of puppy poop. So, in the future, I will continue to engage in online discussions, whether the topics are initially introduced by trolls or not, and will try to do my part to shame them when they poop in my house.

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Aaron San Filippo
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Good advice, I think.

The other thing I think game developers in particular need to realize: Someone criticizing your game, even harshly, is not the same as trolling. Time and again I've seen people dismiss the negative feedback on their game on Greenlight or Reddit or Kongregate etc. as "trolling."

We've found that if people take the time to critique our game, they probably have at least a passing interest in it, even if it's not obvious. Some commenters who had harsh things to say are now some of our biggest fans and supporters, because we choose to engage, thank them for the feedback, and just not get emotional about it.

Adam Saltsman
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yea i was tweeting about something similar the other day... it's really hard to draw black and white lines between all criticism and all trolling, but suffice it to say that these things are all true:

1 - you can get positive comments that are trolling
2 - you can get positive comments that are criticism
3 - you can get negative comments that are trolling
4 - you can get negative comments that are criticism

and then on top of that you can have genuine either mistakes or misunderstandings or just crossed perspectives, in which someone might INTEND to be offering criticism but kind of fail to execute on that and then the effect of their post is actually to troll. criticizing well is hard, AND taking criticism can be very hard for people too.

learning to do both of those things better is really important in the long run i think! but so is not being afraid to call out trolling when we find it, or help people elevate themselves (IF they're interested of course) from trolling TO genuine criticism (this is like a tiny but potentially vocal and influential minority)

Richard Black
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Unfortunately that's often times the opposite. A fanboy syndrome where you hope your favorite flavor of whatever is immune to criticism and any voice at all pointing out a flaw will somehow whip away the curtain and reveal your fresh new favorite thing may be slightly less shiny than you believe.

I've see it a lot in mmo development unfortunately and I think it's uniformly bad for games. You have to have critics to point out your flaws so you can fix them. Ignoring flaws does no one a service and leaves you ripe to be taken advantage of. Trolls or fanboys are more often than not opposite ends of the same spectrum who both get too much attention and both move on too quickly for you to take seriously.

Christian Nutt
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I saw another theory re: Journey which makes more sense to me, in that if you give people a system they will test all the limits of it. If you make interaction limited (as in Journey) they will still test the limits, and one of those limits is... seeing what you can do to the other player, even if it's shoving them off the cliff.

Now, I guess a branch point comes (let's oversimplify this into 2, but there have to be more than that) whether the player is a griefer or not, and thus uses this knew knowledge to attack other players or does not.

Jannis Froese
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The problem is that the word trolling is getting too broad to paint anything black or white. Of course we should talk about the guys that push other players off a cliff.
If you take a typical troll in a comment section however, he is often just seeking attention (at least that's my theory). The best way to deal with that troll is to delete his comment (remove the dog poop, in your analogy) and ignore him. Unless of course he brings up an interesting point, which happens. Then ignore that he was trolling, and have that discussion anyway.
Similarly, talking about griefers in minecraft seems pointless. Just ban them and move on.

It really depends on the situation.

Shawn McMahon
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Most of the people who think it's wrong to delete the comments of trolls think this because they know their comments will be among the deleted.

Patrick Coursey
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You bring up some excellent points in this post! Trollish behavior isn't an all-powerful force that designers and community managers have no control over. You're right that you can't stop all of it, but ceding your entire community over will have long-term negative consequences to both your game and player-base.

We often see certain forums lock a thread when it begins to be trolled too hard, or is too contentious. I think this is the wrong way (though it is the most efficient) to resolve the situation. Punishing the people who are legitimately contributing at the same time as the disruptive people becomes a win for the troll. They have shut down the fun / progress of a group, which is the ultimate goal. I think that devising systems that reward positive contributors or players can incentivize better behavior long-term.

Anonymity on the Internet or in games is a second contributing factor, and one that is more difficult to deal with. As much as some wish to have everyone's real name attached to their online persona, this goes against the spirit of the Internet as a place for free speech. If there was some piece of identification that wasn't connected to the real world which stayed with a user throughout the experience (be it game or forum), I wonder if that would help.

Lastly, just to correct one factual error, I believe that the word "trolling" was originally taken from fishing sports, not patents. The analogy refers to forum users who drop an incendiary remark into the community (the bait) hoping to catch some users up in an argument. Then, from the Internet, it began to be applied to real world behaviors.

Ara Shirinian
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Trolling is a culture. Like all other cultures, it can die or thrive or live in some kind of equilibrium. I think you're right Adam, it is a huge mistake to assume that because it is now, it will not only be so forever but also be something that cannot be changed. But changing culture is a big problem because it requires a huge proportion of people to put effort toward that change on a regular basis. But that is no excuse from championing the values you respect.

Besides the examples you and Christian mentioned for player psychology, there is at least one more. Players who aren't adequately stimulated, OR do not feel that they have adequate agency in the game (by their own skill or otherwise) as is will be especially motivated to seek to push the interaction boundaries. This is one reason why backwards driving trolling happens in racing games. The player doesn't feel like they can exert enough agency upon the world by playing the racing game by skill, so they decide to play the smashing game instead, to maximize effect with minimum skill, and the backwards driving game is the pinnacle of that business. Of course most games now stop you from doing that effectively, so players have adapted and now do things like let you pass them so that they can maximally smash you in the next corner.

Alex Covic
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Trolling to me does have a lot to do with child psychology. To me, they are

a) lonely
b) bored (always a sign of lesser minds)
c) desperate for attention

I have no proof for this. I am not a doctor, nor a psycho-therapist. It's just my observation.

I am all for 'policing' forums/comments (even here!), but it takes manpower and money. Not every company can throw resources at this (minor) problem?

"Trolling" in-game is known to me as "griefing"*. This is a different beast, in my opinion. While the above characteristics may apply too, I know of game developers, who love to 'grief' in multiplayer games. They consciously destroy some poor kids game experience, while they have a blast themselves, exploiting the game mechanics. This is a special case, of course. But there are many more (different) special cases in games? How to make people 'play nice' together, is something I would like to know the answer to. Tell me, if you found it, folks.


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Boredom is the sign of an idle mine and idle minds can lead to trolling.

Ara Shirinian
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Alex, I think the only way to make people play nice is in a multiplayer situation where a host can control who is kicked from the game, and that this same host wields this corruptible power in a fair way that values the kind of culture we want to promote in competitive games.

Actually, this is happening right now in GT5, although you have to find the good hosts who are probably a small fraction of all hosts online at any given time. Good hosts set up "clean" racing rooms that follow a particular etiquette, and kick players who are obviously trolling/griefing/abusing everybody else. Whenever there is a dispute (because contact easily happens by accident), after the race the accused is asked to respond to the complaints. Uncommunicative players get kicked. Abusive responses are also met with a kick, but just as often the accused apologizes, or explains circumstances beyond their control, and everybody is reasonably happy. It's quite a beautiful thing at its best.

Luis Blondet
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Why are they called "trolls"? It seems to me that the appropriate mythological creature to name agitators after would be "imp"; a small, petty demon that gets off on provoking a reaction through taunts.

Glenn Sturgeon
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Maybe because they seem to have a natural health restoration? They never seem to just die off.)

Lisa Brown
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I always assumed that "troll" was not originally referring to the mythological creature, but rather the fishing term, for "baiting someone along."

Ben Lewis-Evans
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The Simon Parkin interview you mention is this one (
an). Personally as human factors psychologist I disagree with specifics of the Child Psychologist quoted in that article says (i.e that players are becoming kids again and somehow loosing their morals) but the spirit is I think on the right track.

As Christian already mentioned, exploration is not limited to children and therefore a regression to childhood activity explanation is not really needed (as cute as it is). Rather, all that was happening when the Journey team added in collisions (the linked article suggests this was added later in development due to a design decision to allow players to help each other by pushing each other around) is that players were testing the limits of their capabilities. Given that interaction is already *very* limited in Journey (which is in part why it is so successful in creating positive play) it is unsurprising that when given the option some players used this 'negatively'. So it is a case of "give someone a mechanic, and they will use it".

But anyway, that is still in the spirit of what you say in terms of 'griefers' in this specific case maybe not being mean or malicious.

In terms of forum/comment trolls I personally think the best way to deal with them is structural. So things like making it hard to post unpleasant/insulting stuff in the first place. This is tricky of course, but moderation can be one way to deal with this (if time consuming). If there isn't enough capability for this then banning/removing trolling posts as soon as possible is still, I think, a good option. This is effectively a combination of a structural approach with a punishment.

However, what might also be interesting is looking at ways to encourage and reward good commenting. Karma systems are one such way, but perhaps there are others. There are also a host of other psychological techniques that can be used to encourage pro-social behaviour such as getting people to make commitments or using framing methods, etc. Stuff like what the LoL guys at Riot are doing.

Also, as someone with a behaviourist background I do disagree with how you use the term "intrinsically motivated" here. You talk about trolls knowing that people read comments, that trolls show comments to their friends, that trolls know they strike cords. This, to me, suggests they are in fact extrinsically motivated (actually, they are probably both - extrinsically and intrinsically motivated). I mean, the only way they know they are striking cords (even if everyone is ignoring them) is that they did get a reaction at some point. As such, I do think that ignoring them could be effective. The problem is that ignoring them is only effective if *everyone* does it and commits to it. Something which is unlikely to occur. This means that effectively a variable reinforcement schedule gets set-up where Trolls know that if they try long enough they will get the external response they are after. It is just a matter of times. Unfortunately such variable schedules of reinforcement are very strongly motivating. So, yeah, if not everyone is ignoring them, they won't go away. Plus, as you suggest the "ignore them they will go away" tactic does have the problem that it may lead to companies giving up trying other, perhaps more effective, approaches to fix the issue.

Paul Laroquod
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*sigh* Trolling did not originate from patent disputes. It is pretty astounding that in an age where history is at the tip of our fingers, people just invent or blindly accept pseudo-historical factoids for publications that they intend to be taken seriously. If anyone should be obsessive about getting stuff like this right, it's a website for game devs.

Carlos Sousa
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Would you be kind enough for sharing with us your some source/reference then?

Thank you in advance,

Stacey Kaminski
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@Carlos Sousa - Since I had the exact same thought as the post you're replying to, I'm happy to give you some sources. While I am generally loathe to use Wikipedia as a citation, this seems a reasonably well-sourced writeup:

The short answer is that it is from the fishing term, most likely via the military. The first internet related usage I could find was on Usenet in 1990. The New York Times (who presumably has better fact-checkers than me) put it in the late 1980s: The first known use of "patent troll" was 1993, though the currently accepted use of the term didn't arise until 2001. See If those sources don't satisfy, quick searches for "patent troll etymology" and "internet troll etymology" would probably sate one's appetite for sources.

Richard Carpenter
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Two things: by saying "ignore the trolls", people aren't suggesting that the reasonable folk stop conversing. They (we) are suggesting the people simply ignore what the troll just said. A troll's primary motivation is eliciting a negative response. If there is no response, there is no reason for them to live. If, try as he might, a puppy can't get the relief of voiding his bowels, unless he is outdoors, then you can bet he won't even bother trying to go on the carpet.

Secondly, griefing in a game, as you illustrated, is *absolutely* a malicious act. A respectful player who mistakenly causes another player to plunge into such an abyss immediately recognizes it as something they should not have done and takes steps to avoid doing it in the future. This is not something that is done a second time or more out of a sense of experimentation, generally speaking.

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