A recent article in a major UK newspaper discussed two recent and public incidents of net-based rage, and its impact on two game designers, David Vonderhaar of COD: Black Ops, and Fez developer Phil Fish. Regardless of the causes of the incidents, these guys were the subject of quite some internet unpleasantness. And yes, CoD is well known for being a less pleasant cyberspace to inhabit than many others, and Fish engaged in quite some nerd-baiting, but our own devs are far from exempt from this sort of treatment. Blizzard Lead Systems Designer Greg "Ghostcrawler" Street tweeted recently that it was not uncommon for him to receive death threats.
Videoplace and meatspace
But why does it happen? Why does rage perpetuate online? Part of this is explained by dissociation. The Guardian's article cites a 2004 study on the disinhibition caused by the creation of an alternate reality in a parallel but separate world. Back in 1991 a psychologist named Krueger performed a study on what he called Videoplace, arguing that while telecommunication was a linear affair between two places, virtual communication created a distinct and separate reality. He illustrates this as follows:
And as various studies have indicated, this separation leads people to behave differently. When there is little or no fear of recrimination, and the entities players are faced with are little more than bundles of pixels, it's easy to shout and scream and rail. Would people do it to your face? That's another matter. And no doubt, in the comments, someone will assert that they would threaten Ghostcrawler in person, in response to the latest changes to frost mage mastery. It's easy to say so, when the community you're talking to has no way to verify the veracity of your statement.
Turkle (1990) talks about the notion of multiple identity, not in a problematic sense, but in as much as people exist in several different worlds and societies, and often behave differently within them. You might behave differently around your grandmother or your children to how you behave at a bar with your friends, and just the same, you might behave differently in WoW to how you behave in a real-life situation where you had to undertake tasks with four or nine or twenty-four strangers.
I've hopefully managed to convince you that the concept of separation has at least something to do with the problem, but why does separation lead people to act differently? I touched on this earlier, when I mentioned the lack of consequences for bad behavior. WoW, Twitter, Facebook, forums, comment threads, they're all virtual worlds, where it is hard to track someone down, where usernames are as easily generated as they are forgotten, where identity is fluid and shifting. There are changes coming, though, to consequences, as laws are brought in and arrests are made, but there is still the attitude of "it's the internet, what are you going to do about it?"
This lack of consequences, coupled with the separation from reality, makes people bold. Not that the same people wouldn't behave that way in reality, but it's different online. I've been playing a lot on US servers lately, and one thing I've seen people do is remain quiet the entire dungeon, then vomit a tirade of abuse into the instance chat, and immediately leave the group. This behavior illustrates neatly how online interaction means there are fewer consequences -- these players know that the likelihood of anyone hunting them to their home server and taking them to task for their actions is very slim.
Compare this to reality, where you can't simply drop group and disappear into anonymity, where you have to address your anger not to a little goblin shaman, but to a blue-eyed Englishwoman, and the consequences are drastically more onerous. Not that I'd act, necessarily, but simply that you have to remain in the same reality and observe the reaction to your remarks makes a difference to your willingness to say them. Millar (2008) wrote a study on how people behave in their cars and how the separation of a steel cage makes drivers bolder and more aggressive, and this is much the same. You wouldn't walk how you drive, it's too personal, too face-to-face.
What's the solution?
This is the really tricky question. Accountability is key, and looking at WoW specifically, the pre-LFD days are widely hailed as superior thanks to the fact that you had to be grouped with people from your server. There was accountability, people remembered you. People became famous, or more regularly, infamous. And yes, there were downsides, but it was far harder to disappear in a puff of smoke when things weren't going your way and you lost your rag in a group.
The impact of WoW's support system is too invisible, in my opinion, thanks to Blizzard's fears of people abusing it. It might be good if you got a message saying that, thanks to your actions, this bot was banned, or this obnoxious player suspended for 24 hours so that people were aware not only that something was being done in response to their reports, but also to remind miscreants that there are consequences for their actions.
Blizzard tried something new and scary to combat the separation element -- using RealID to put players' real names on forums. This was met with an outcry, and they backed down. People don't want their worlds to collide, they don't want the consequences of their videoplace identities to haunt them in the meatspace. Would the internet be a better place if the two were inextricably linked? It would certainly make for far greater accountability, but there's a scary side too -- the erosion of what the internet is about for some: freedom of expression, freedom of exploration, freedom to be a paladin or a priest or a jerk. Is the loss of the latter worth the contribution to the former? What would you do?