"What a bunch of f*gs," I heard one of my male friends exclaim, with emphasis, at the television during a particularly stressful game of Skyrim.
"F********gs," another repeated, intensifying the emphasis.
Immediately, they both started laughing. I looked quizzically at them, feeling shocked and confused and wondering where the hell that came from.
These were otherwise great guys, and right now, they were guffawing at their use of the word "f*g" and thinking absolutely nothing of the deeply homophobic meaning behind it.
This wasn't the only time I'd heard men shout angry, discriminatory slurs at another video game player. But it still surprises me every single time I hear it.
In my experience of having a brother, a boyfriend and dozens of wonderful male friends, I've witnessed video game anger take deep, shocking turns that, for some reason, seem to specifically marginalize oppressed social groups.
In fact, if you search YouTube for videos of "nerd rage," you'll find hundreds of frightening recordings of dudes freaking the f*ck out while playing video games and venomously referring to their opponents as everything from "f*g," to "c*nt," to "n*gger" to "retarded."
"It's those 'G' and 'T' sounds," a 24-year-old player who preferred to remain anonymous told me about why he loves using racist and sexist slurs in video games. "They're very aggressive."
“Literally, if my girlfriend cheated on me, I wouldn’t be as mad as I am when I play FIFA," said Kevin, 24, confirming the level of aggression needed.
James Ivory, Ph.D., a faculty member of Gamer Lab, a division of Virginia Tech that studies the social impact of video games, cited three main things about online game environments that can encourage people to be uncivil and insulting: the relative anonymity, the lack of real face-to-face interaction and -- perhaps the most important -- the element of competition.
He told Elite Daily,
You can probably think of other scenarios, like playing a basketball game together or playing a board game, where otherwise polite people sometimes get a little bit out of line with just a little bit of competition. Now imagine that [polite person] is a stranger who doesn't have to answer for the things they say. [He or she] might get a little out of hand.
Interestingly, Dr. Ivory found that players actually respond better to men who act in this aggressive manner -- perhaps another incentive to behave in this discriminatory way.
Using homophobic, sexist and racist language can certainly foster those kinds of beliefs in real life -- a recent study actually suggests that men who are bad at video games are more likely to be hostile toward women -- but for the most part, Dr. Ivory said that using offensive language constitutes a "relatively healthy" interaction:
You do have people airing behaviors that they know they can't really socially get away with, and without them intending to, it can create a real toxic environment. A lot of the sexism, and racism and homophobia and other marginalizing things that happen in real life aren't just because of deliberate behavior but because of accidental ways we create unhealthy environment.
According to Dr. Ivory, this accidental creation of an unhealthy environment becomes exacerbated with video games because of a player's need to "deliberately cause problems" -- in other words, to purposely get a reaction out of an opponent and get that person fired up.
Chris Ferguson, Ph.D, a psychology professor who also studies the social impact of video games, told Elite Daily that offensive language is nothing more than "smack talk," which he describes as "the equivalent of a gorilla beating its chest" in order for a man to show dominance while engaging in a competitive, bonding activity:
When males are involved in a competitive activity, they very often engage in this kind of smack talk, which sounds insulting to the casual observer, but in many ways, it's actually a way of bonding. So through smack talk, males may sort of belittle each other. They may use what we would think of as inappropriate language, like sexist or racist types of comments, that start to cross those types of lines.
Context matters the most, said Dr. Ferguson. Male players who employ specifically homophobic, racist, sexist and other offensive slurs while playing video games don’t do it to actually be offensive, but, as Dr. Ivory suggested earlier, as a way to get a reaction out of someone.
"There's a good-natured element to it," Dr. Ferguson said. "It's not really meant to actually hurt someone else's feelings."
Dr. Ferguson acknowledged that there's certainly a difference between innocent smack talk and more aggressive, harmful smack talk. It can be "tricky" to tell the difference.
Innocent smack talk might involve insults going "back and forth" and mixed with "lots of laughter" that, overall, seem light-hearted.
Contrarily, aggressive forms of smack talk occur when the language appears to be one-directional -- if there's one person throwing most of the insults and another person taking most of them.
"[Aggressive smack talk] may even accelerate if a person says, 'This is going too far,'" Dr. Ferguson added. "An aggressive person would actually increase the attacks because they realize they've hit a weak spot, so they go in for the kill a little bit more."
No matter how innocent, however, it's possible that smack talk can foster discriminatory beliefs in real life, especially when you don’t know how someone is going to take it.
Dr. Ferguson said,
If you’re playing with people, and maybe one of them is gay, and you don’t know, and you’re using homophobic slurs, you may actually hurt someone’s feelings, even if that’s not your intent.
Both Dr. Ivory and Dr. Ferguson agreed that the concerns about the effects of video games are generally overstated, with poorly done studies that try to grasp for proof that video games influence our behavior.
But that's not the point.
"Whether or not [offensive slurs] have a direct effect [on real life beliefs] is beside the point," Dr. Ferguson said. "They're there. And the community wants something different."
Dr. Ferguson said that players are starting to realize that discriminatory statements can easily be misinterpreted as mean-spirited even if they weren't meant to be, and moderators are starting to punish players for verbal abuse -- all steps in the right direction.