Regardless of what you think about Justin Carter's current situation in jail, and regardless of whether or not he was serious, one thing is clear: the comments he made on Facebook, where he said he would "shoot up a school full of kids and eat their still, beating hearts" are messed up.
This isn't the first time we've seen trash talk and its reception get out of hand. In fact, there are a number of cases in the last year that come to mind. Here's a situation that is eerily similar to Carter's: Josh Pillault, a Runescape player, is facing up to ten years in jail after telling another player he would attack his high school. The allegedly not-serious threat came after Pillault was repeatedly antagonized by said fellow player.
There's more. Earlier this year, Microsoft's E3 conference came under scrutiny due to the "playful" (but unscripted!) banter where a Killer Instinct producer told an Xbox Live community manager to just "let it happen" and that it would "be over soon." Some felt uncomfortable watching the conference, as the exchange could be said to evoke the thought of rape.
Before that, top-level Call of Duty players made headlines after a video compilation of ridiculous rage moments during a championship emerged. The players defended the trash talk by saying that it helped them play better—which is absurd, but hey. That's what they claimed.
There are probably countless other incidents not mentioned here, but you don't have to look far to see evidence of gaming's arguable problem with trash talking. Xbox Live users are famed for being potty mouths, and League of Legends regularly makes the rounds as Riot finds the best practices to deal with toxic community members. You might say trash talk is unavoidable, as gaming is often a competitive activity. Things can get heated between players. Adrenaline gets going, but your body is stationary—making trash talk oh-so-easy to engage in as an outlet.
I'm certainly not going to pretend I don't trash talk, but I do believe banter can be playful. At the very least, trash talk shouldn't involve threats to kill people who aren't even in the match or game. That's stupid.
Which is not to say that trash talk against other players is any prettier. The problem is that when you've only got moments to say something, chances are you're going to focus on surface-level stuff: appearances/weight, gender, race—which means it's superbly easy for the trash talk to be homophobic, racist, or sexist. That's no good—and already, the frenzied way that trash talk happens tends to be unbecoming and nonsensical, nevermind lazy and bigoted.
But it's that need for immediacy that makes it difficult to judge trash talk in the first place. Is it that the person genuinely holds awful beliefs? It could just as easily be that what you say in moments of anger or rage isn't representative of your typical demeanor; just an honest mistake. It could be that you're just saying what you think will hurt the most, so naturally you'll go for the ugly stuff. It could be that you're just parroting stuff you've heard others say.
At the very least, trash talk shouldn't involve threats to kill people who aren't even in the match or game.
I'm sure you have your share of people who trash talk because the veil of anonymity makes it easy for them to get away with it. And for those who seek the high of an epic burn against another person, I can't help but draw a comparison to rap battles—where the entire point is to diss the other person. Dissing becomes an art form, and rappers are expected to keep their cool against opponents regardless of what was said.
Still, the danger, as I see it, is that regardless of why it's happening, and regardless of what type of person you "really" are, if you're engaging in trash talk, it's likely that you'll err into dangerous, uncomfortable territory. You'll say stuff you don't mean. You'll say stuff that'll get you into trouble. I can't be the only one that's becoming self-aware about what they say during games thanks to all these recent incidents, right?
The thing is, trying to figure out how to "fix" trash talk might be a lost cause. Aside from stuff that's obviously bigoted or more of a threat than just banter, how do you figure out what's acceptable to say, what doesn't cross the line? Boundaries are different for every person. You can't know, and when things go sour, I'm going to guess that many of you didn't really mean it. Why risk it?
It's almost like the real problem with trash talk is that no words are necessary: we could just be classy and let our skills speak for themselves.
The Multiplayer is a weekly column that looks at how people crash into each other while playing games. It runs every Monday at 6PM ET.