Psychology of Anonymity

To better understand the problems surrounding freedom of speech in online gaming, it is helpful to first understand the psychology of anonymity and its role in relation to the speech in online games. In most game lobbies you enter today, you are greeted with profanities, obscenities, and caricatures, but would these same individuals be saying the same things in a real room that isn’t hidden behind the curtain of the virtual world? The answer is almost certainly a “no”.

On one side, there have been numerous studies done proving that with anonymity, human nature tends to be cruel and self-centered. One such study placed female college students in a space in which their identities were shielded and they were allowed to administer [fake] electrical surges to patients coming in. The study showed that over time, the electrical surges grew in duration especially towards patients who the female college students didn’t like. Just like these female college students became more cruel in their shrouded identity, so do many online gamers. Under the assumption that there can be no consequence, many gamers choose to be much more cruel with their online personas then they would ever be face to face with others.

But, on the other, new studies have been released to say that anonymity doesn’t necessarily mean negative results will ensue. In one recent study, the effect of the online environment was taken into account. More specifically, they looked at how a player reacts towards codes of conduct inherent in one virtual environment over another. They found that, in virtual spaces where “strong, external messages on how to behave” were present, players found it in themselves to abide by those environmental cues. Even though they were shielded from identification, they were still compliant and willing to respect the virtual environment they were in.

The impact of anonymity, although present in the online realm, is not yet fully understood. Many psychologists will argue that individuals faced with anonymity online undergo “deindividuation”, meaning that they no longer associate themselves as individuals to the extent where their actions and speech will no longer even adhere to social norms.  Although this is a trend that is seen among many gamers, the studies suggesting that the gaming environment is just as important as the players’ anonymity in determining their behavior indicates that anonymity is not the sole reason for negative issues that arise in online gaming speech and actions. These latter studies imply that the issue may actually lie with the environments and social cues established amongst a group of gamers and that anonymity is not the problem, but  serves to exacerbate the existing problems that arise from competitive human nature.

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