Everything You Never Wanted to Know about Trolls: An Interdisplinary Exploration of the Who's, What's, and Why's of Trolling in Online Games

Chrissy Cook

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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Within the world of online gaming, trolling has become a regular menace. While gamers try to connect and socialize with one another, or even simply play the game, there are other gamers – trolls – on the prowl for an entirely different kind of good time, one in which they are enjoying themselves at the expense of everyone else (Chapters 2 and 3). Although trolling is common, and mass-media has latched onto it as a hot topic, it is only recently that the academic community has begun to take a serious look at how trolling occurs in and affects the gaming community at large. However, a lot of this literature is either descriptive in nature (see Thacker & Griffiths, 2012), or jumps ahead to prevention (see Cheng et al., 2017) without taking a deeper look at more than a single underlying motivation at a time. In short, there is a complex and prolific phenomenon happening online, but the research on it is only emerging.
This dissertation’s goal is to take a deeper look at trolling as a phenomenon, beyond what has been done so far. More specifically, I aim to figure out a) what trolling is, b) why people do it, and c) who helps and who hinders trolling in online games. To do this, I took four different perspectives: the troll’s (Chapter 2), the researcher’s (Chapter 3), the victim’s (Chapter 4), and the bystander’s (Chapter 5). The purpose of Chapter 2 is to give the troll’s perspective on trolling, something that researchers had yet to do at the time. To do this, I interviewed 22 people who said that they had a history of trolling in online games. More specifically, I asked them about times they witnessed, were victims of, or perpetrated trolling, as well as what they thought about how the gaming community dealt with and felt about trolls and trolling. My goal with these interviews was threefold: I wanted to figure out a) what trolls consider trolling, b) what motivates them to do it, and c) the role of everyone else in game when it comes to encouraging or discouraging more trolling. What I found was that although trolling was almost universally considered a negative part of online gaming culture, and all the trolls in our group of participants started as victims of trolls before becoming trolls themselves, the online community neither encourages nor discourages it, making it an asocial activity.
The next chapter allowed me to look at an archive of trolling incidents to find patterns in the way that different people involved in real-life trolling incidents communicate with one another. This public online archive consisted of 10,000 reported incidents of trolling in the popular online game League of Legends, and it included game data like player statistics, as well as everything all the players involved said during the game. Once the data was properly cleaned and prepared, myself and my co-author, Dr. Rianne Conijn, analysed the chat logs in two different ways: structural topic modelling (STM), and a traditional dictionary-based content analysis. In this way, we were able to see what characterized all the different actors – the troll, their victim(s), and the bystanders – and what was similar when it came to their messages. All this information was then compared to what existed already in literature used to describe trolls and trolling and complement what I had learned about trolls from Chapter 2. The key finding was that trolls and their teammates actually share a lot of the negative speech patterns (e.g., profanity, negative emotional content) normally associated with only trolls. Practically, this means that we have to be extremely careful as researchers when labelling trolls for the purpose of study, as we could very easily be falsely labelling victims.
After speaking to trolls and looking at trolling interactions broadly, Chapter 4 focuses intently on the victim and their personal experience in a trolling simulation, taking into account their cultural background and values. It is also the first study to directly compare and contrast two different types of trolling: verbal (flaming) and behavioural (ostracism). They are both really common online occurrences, so the participants could easily relate, but they are extremely different in how they are executed, with flaming being vicious insults and ostracism being totally ignoring a person. Our participants were either Dutch, Pakistani, or Taiwanese, so that we could also look at how people from vastly different cultural backgrounds would react to – behaviourally and emotionally – the different kinds of trolling in the study. We simulated a trolling experience by putting our participants in a virtual game of catch with two computerized co-players, who they were led to believe were real people of either the same nationality or a minority member (e.g., a Moroccan immigrant in the Netherlands), who I had programmed to either troll them or silently watch the trolling happen. We found that there are indeed cultural differences when it comes to reactions, as well as differences between reactions to the two trolling types, but the core take-away is that future trolling interventions have to take into account the cultures of the target population as well as the specific type of trolling they are trying to fix or prevent in order to be effective.
In the penultimate chapter, I shift the focus one last time to bystanders by putting participants in a game of League of Legends with two confederates who would troll one another throughout the game. This study’s goal was to see what motivated gamers to report trolls to an authority figure (the game developer) using the game’s built-in reporting functions, as the results of Chapter 2’s study suggested that this was an effective trolling deterrent. It is also, according to the results of the same study, the least-used recourse by bystanders faced with trolls in the proverbial wild. We found that how warm and friendly the troll was perceived to be and how competent the victim was perceived to be were what determined whether the participant reported our fake troll or not. A more competent victim and a less warm troll lead to more reports.
To conclude, there is still a lot more to learn about trolls and trolling, but the field is farther along now than when this project started in 2015. There is a broad definition developed that encompasses most of the descriptive literature on trolling in games thus far. We also now know that there is the indication of a trolling cycle that requires further exploration. This is particularly important to know when it comes to the world of game development, as knowing the cycle exists allows for multiple points of intervention in order to protect their customers. Finally, this dissertation has shown the complexity of not just trolls – who are often portrayed in the media as one-dimensional antagonists – but also of everyone else involved in trolling interactions. Trolls, victims, and bystanders are all multi-faceted humans, and trolling, like all interactions, is an intricate social dance that deserves to be studied in even further depth in the future than what I have done here.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Tilburg University
  • Schaafsma, Juliëtte, Promotor
  • Antheunis, Marjolijn, Promotor
  • Kramer, N.C., Member PhD commission, External person
  • Detenber, B.H., Member PhD commission, External person
  • Vandenbosch, H., Member PhD commission, External person
  • Hartmann, T., Promotor, External person
  • Swerts, Marc, Member PhD commission
Award date22 Jan 2021
Place of PublicationS.l.
Publication statusPublished - 2021


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