My game of choice was usually World of Warcraft, a game where players make and control a character in a vast digital world, played with others in real-time.
But, back to the wedding. There were rumors that an online wedding was happening for a couple that had met through the video game. They were going to have their characters get “married” to mirror their real life arrangement. My friends and I thought this was both bizarre and funny.
We gathered a bunch of people and found the location of the wedding. When we approached the ceremony, we kept our distance on the far hillside. As we plotted our attack, a part of me couldn’t stop laughing because I knew this would go down in the books as one of my most savage acts in online gaming.
This wasn’t a fair or noble fight—it was slaughter. We had our war gear on, while the wedding attendants wore cloth armor: tuxedos and dresses. The charge looked like something out of the movie Lord of The Rings: all of us on horseback, shining in our armor, weapons drawn, and running in as our prey scattered like ants. Flashes of red and green would spark across my screen as we fired spells at them, and the game’s cartoonish sounds of death rang in my headphones. Some of the victims tried to escape, only to be pummeled by an enormous axe or a raging fireball.
Other attendants just stood there, probably shaking their head and cursing us behind their keyboards. What makes this worse is that once we killed their characters, we didn’t leave. We stood around, waiting for them to come back to life, only to attack again. And again. In the game we call this “camping” or “griefing.” We danced on their character’s bodies, laughed on voice chat, and then resumed our day as normal. The objective was to have no survivors. What was once a field of flowers honoring a ceremony of love ended as a field of pixelated bodies.
Back then I justified the act by telling myself that it was just a video game and no feelings could possibly be hurt. But I remember reflecting on it a few weeks later once I saw the backlash from online forums, and then I genuinely felt horrible. What really gave me pause is not the attack itself, but my mindset behind it. Why did I possess a desire to hurt rather than help? I thought about how easy it has become to demonstrate our frustrations, insecurities, and fears online by taking it out on strangers and felt ashamed that I got caught up in that feeling.
I don’t play the game anymore, but many years of outlandish trolling taught me how to detect and deflect the kind of trolling we see today. Except now, my trolls aren’t 15-year-olds in video games, they are people that try to take down my creative work. If you do work that matters, you’ve probably faced this too. The way a bird watcher understands the patterns and behaviors of birds, many years of online gaming taught me how to defend myself from the most malignant creatures on the web: trolls.
Understand the Troll
To defeat the enemy, we must understand them first. There are two fundamental reasons why a troll trolls:
- They’re bored: Trolls lack stimulation “IRL” (in real life), for good or ill, so they seek it online where it’s readily available and easily acquired. A troll’s behavior reflects a deep insecurity so having someone respond to their words gives life meaning, regardless of how pathetic that may sound. I raided that wedding because I wanted to be noticed and talked about. Random people cursing me out through private messages or the general chatroom invigorated me. I was so bored with my real life, and even my virtual character’s life, that I learned to find joy in harming others. If a troll had something better to do, like work or a hobby, they wouldn’t have time to troll. The next time you find yourself posting a negative comment think about why you’re doing it.
- They want attention: All a troll wants is you to turn the spotlight onto them. They want you to repost their comment to your followers. They want you to write a blog post or status about them. They will use anything and everything to get it. They will criticize you, post inflammatory comments, or write remarks just to make you wonder how someone could be so dumb. The problem is that you will feel compelled to respond to “set things right.” Even if you respond in a cheerful or positive way, you’re still feeding the troll.
Don’t Feed The Trolls
The reason we respond to negative comments is the same reason a troll does what they do: ego. When someone unknown comes at us, it’s part of our human nature to defend ourselves. A part of us doesn’t want to stay silent, because we think silence means surrendering, and surrendering means losing. That’s just a bad philosophy.
After years of dealing with this kind of behavior, both in a virtual reality and in the comment sections of an article, the harsh reality is this: You will never beat a troll. You will never change a troll’s mind. You may delude yourself into thinking that you proved them wrong, however, never in my years of dealing with trolls have I seen a troll lay down his or her arms and say, “You know what, you’re right. I was so wrong.”
Indeed, blowing off steam after dealing with a troll is our first reaction. It’s like driving: someone cuts you off, you feel disrespected, so you drive up next to the person’s window so you can see what they look like, or you flash some hand gestures to let them know that they aren’t getting away with it. What makes this practice of not responding to trolls so difficult is that many of us are naturally inclined to react to our impulses. It’s so much easier to respond than it is to hold back.
When I trolled other gamers with words—harsh words—many times they would ignore me. Because hindsight is 20/20, I remember being bothered by that. “Why won’t they defend themselves? Entertain me!” The ones who ignored me, and even better, put me on their “Ignore List” so that they couldn’t receive my messages, were the ones who understood this principle.
Here’s a few ways that I use to handle trolls:
So a troll is attacking you. Ask yourself: If I respond to this troll, what will likely be the outcome? This requires us to pause and take a breath. We need to be mindful of what we’re telling ourselves after reading something that attacks our ego. What are we feeling and why? Are we angry because the troll’s comment contains validity? Have you seen this scenario before in other settings? These small shifts in our perception should influence us to not feed the trolls, to realize that any attempt to change a troll’s mind is an exercise of futility.
Talk to a friend
Sometimes we need to vent. No meditation or deep breathing exercises—just straight-up getting it off our chests. One time I shared a very vulnerable story on my blog and a reader attacked me from all corners. It felt like I was in group therapy, admitting my mistakes and what I learned, and someone stood up and shamed me for it. I wanted to delete the post, but after talking it over with a friend, he made me realize that deleting the post would be the same as feeding the troll. It would show them that I was affected. But the most important lesson was this: deleting the post would remove value from those who appreciated and resonated with the story. Focusing on one troll ruins the fun for those who actually matter.
Practice your principles
If you don’t have principles on how to deal with trolls, now is the time. The reason why abiding to principles is so helpful is because they tell us how to act. “Do this, not this.” It focuses on the long-term outcome, whereas acting on our impulses creates many possible—and unfavorable—results. If there is one thing I learned both in psychology and philosophy, it’s this: No one can hurt you. It is what we tell ourselves about the specific event or person that creates the feeling. So if we’re telling ourselves, “How dare this person say this to me,” we’re creating feelings of entitlement and anger. In the words of Marcus Aurelius, “It can ruin your life only if it ruins your character. Otherwise it cannot harm you — inside or out.”
The 30 percent rule
In James Altucher’s book, Choose Yourself, he shares a story about responding to critics that wondered why he always used half-naked women for his blog post photos. The woman in the picture responded to the post, sharing her story and insight. Altucher said, “I’ve seen it in action repeatedly: no matter who you are, no matter what you do, no matter who your audience is: 30 percent will love it, 30 percent will hate it, and 30 percent won’t care. Stick with the people who love you and don’t spend a single second on the rest. Life will be better that way.” File those trolls under the proper 30 percent and move on.
So did that couple ever get married? My best guess is that they did. Meanwhile, I spent hours on a video game, tormenting strangers, ultimately getting nothing done. It’s like smoking a cigarette for the first time in a long time: heart beats a little quicker, head gets lighter, a kind of euphoria lingers, but before you even realize it, the feeling is gone. At the end of it all, I did nothing but harm my mind and body.
The people at the wedding may have suffered an hour or so of frustration, sure, but they didn’t even acknowledge us. At the end of the day, they accomplished their goal, and all troll-Paul did was add negativity into the world as well as hurt himself. Two people got married and were happy, and one person was still just as lonely and sad.
As we become more vulnerable online, the chances of being trolled increases. The more you ship and put yourself out there, the more likely you will come across people who despise or don’t understand your work. Because technology is maturing faster than we are, trolls will always exist and will feel compelled to sabotage you and your work. Why? Because they have nothing better to do. It unmans them to see you pursuing an artistic and worthy endeavor.
Is a world without trolls possible? Highly unlikely. So we must stop asking the impossible. Instead, we can follow the one principle that safeguards our creativity and productivity, and keeps the troll at bay. Whatever you do: Don’t feed the trolls.
How about you?
How do you handle the trolls in your life?