I have been digesting the fascinating blog post by Whitney Phillips over at Ethnography Matters about her ethnography of trolling. Phillips studied trolling communities like 4chan’s /b/ board, the Internet Hate Machine (Anonymous), and Facebook troll groups; from her observations, she called trolls “agents of cultural digestion”, those who “scavenge and repurpose mainstream content” and mimic the voices of dominant cultural figures and institutions. By doing so, trolling is a critique of dominant culture through parody. (This is a sadly brief summary of her argument — go read her post for more fascinating details!)
Trolling is not a particularly new topic of study for digital ethnographers — it was often studied right alongside the practice of “flaming” in the early days. However, it still remains a contentious practice, and is increasingly difficult to define as the practice itself evolves. I think most people have a general idea of what a troll is (someone who instigates arguments or presents an over-the-top opinion designed to raise the hackles of others), but the precise meaning of trolling can vary from community to community. Trolling in gaming communities may take different forms from text-based or social media communities, but overall I think Phillips’s analysis applies to games too — trolling is essentially a critique through grotesque pantomime of dominant culture.
For instance, in my ethnographic work from World of Warcraft, I often encountered so-called “trade chat trolls”. These are popular (although often hated) personalities whose names are known by large swaths of the playing population because they were always present in public chat channels, either starting arguments or antagonizing other players.
Why troll in World of Warcraft or any similar multiplayer online game? “Don’t they have enough to keep them occupied?” asked one of my interviewees from my ethnographic work. It’s hard to ask about motivation — first of all, anonymity makes it difficult to keep track of trolls, and second of all, the trolls themselves are likely to troll you with their answers. I sometimes tried to ask the trolls why they did what they did; the only responses I ever got that seemed legitimate were “boredom” and “trolling is a fine art”. Whitney Phillips’s analysis certainly aligns with the latter, and suggests that trolls have their own motivations for their behavior that are both intimately connected to and operating outside of the marked rules of the game.
My colleague Ben Friedline and I worked on this problem a little bit back in 2008 by trying to fit trolls into a classification schema of language styles and power in World of Warcraft. We did a survey where we asked players how they viewed power in the game community — answers were, as expected, that powerful players had both impressive in-game items like armor and weapons that could only be obtained by killing difficult bosses, as well as a lot of knowledge about how the game worked. These powerful players demonstrated their power by lecturing noobs about the “right” way to play the game and by engaging in very technical discussions in public chat channels.
However, trade chat trolls were also brought up consistently in our survey when we asked “who is a powerful person on your server?”. When we looked them up, the trolls had none of the characteristics of other powerful players — they were almost always low-level characters with underpowered or silly-looking armor (one was always wielding a fish for a weapon, for example). This certainly goes against the expected norms of powerful players being experienced and knowledgeable about the game as well as having high skill level and impressive gear.* (Again, this is a simplified view — read the chapter for more details.)
Some of our participants mentioned that these trolls had “bully power”; even though they did not have any game-valued sources of power like good gear or knowledge, they still spoke like powerful players — namely, they lectured players for being “noobs” and took over chat channels in the same ways that hardcore powerful players did, except they gave the wrong information or purposefully brought up contentious topics. Ben and I eventually came to a similar conclusion as Whitney Phillips — we suggested that WoW trolls were an active parody of power in this game community. They were trying to use the same language styles as other players to purport false knowledge or disrupt the play of others without having the game resources like gear or levels to support their assertions. They were mimicking the hardcore players but without the obvious signs of being a hardcore player themselves, and snatched for themselves their own type of power through troll-style commentary. In many ways, trolling the game’s players was a form of play itself — a social game within a game.
Players often express the wish for trolling to be eliminated somehow. However, if we follow Phillips’s conclusions about trolling as an art form, it stands to reason that in any player community where there are ideologies and cultural constructs, you will inevitably have trolls arise to critique these norms and play with their implications. Do you agree or disagree with Phillips’s analysis? What kinds of other approaches to trolling have you experienced?
The The trouble with trolls by Lauren Collister, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.