Trash-talking is divisive among gamers. If you go too far, you run the risk of sending your friend home crying and never again playing another round of Mario Party against them. Or, if you’re conflict-averse, a few unsavoury words over Madden could make you think worse of your good buddy. Some stand by trash talk as a healthy, expressive way of gaming. For others, it’s toxic.
When I play local multiplayer games, I talk trash. I trash-talk randoms I encounter in Smash Bros. rooms at cons. I trash-talk colleagues when we’re playing games I have no experience with. In my living room, I trash-talk friends throughout round upon round of random indie game. Trash-talking can wrap plot and drama around an otherwise average gaming session.
As long as everyone’s down, on equal ground, generally good-spirited and follows the rules — I’m an advocate. Otherwise — and this happens a lot — trash-talking can end in bad vibes and hurt feelings. Yes, there are rules, a sort of tacitly-understood The Art of War for saying shit while you play video games. Not everyone knows how to do it. And so, some tips are in order.
What is trash-talking
Boasting about your skills, intimidating or making fun of a competitor in an effort to up the ante, joke around or demoralise them. Examples include “My low-tier fave will stomp you,” “Yeah, you would pick a cheap character like that” and the classic, “Get fucked.” Trash-talking also encompasses the lighter, “Come at me” and "You know, crosshairs are for aiming."
Why would you do that?
Like I said — trash-talking is not for everyone. Some might find it…. uncivilised. Toxicity and abusive behaviour are already pretty rife in multiplayer gaming communities. And I’m not going to advocate for giving shit to your friends unless they really deserve it.
My defence for this mode of gaming — when done respectfully — is purely personal. Between me and another consenting and on-par gamer, every outcry, diss or bruised ego, and every bout of vain heroics and over-the-top gloating increases my investment in a match. It throws my gameplay decisions into sharp focus. It makes my wins, and my friends’, all the sweeter. It canonises hype moments, so months or years later, we can joke about that time you thought you could be beat me in Street Fighter or that time you stole three Mario Party stars from me and laughed for an hour and so on. Throughout history, from the Iliad to today’s wrestling matches, fighters have woven stories around their deeds. In no world am I Achilles or Sasha Banks, but I am someone who thinks fighting is more meaningful when it’s attached to mythology.
When to trash talk
Trash-talking is best in in-person social situations with several people around to check you and your opponents’ manners. Local multiplayer games are basically the only acceptable context for this. Ideally, you’re hanging around in a living room and passing the controller from friend to friend.
Often, you’ll encounter harsh or boastful words at gaming tournaments or public areas where many people are playing competitive games. If you’re in the same tier of play, neck-and-neck in competition, it can work, but it’s riskier when you don’t know your competitor.
Trash-talking strangers online is bad. It’s just bad. It’s nearly impossible to do it without tripping over the line between “good-natured” and “harassment.” You have no history of friendship with this person, and, in all likelihood, you will have no future friendship. Spewing insults to randos over voice-chat is the equivalent of punching somebody who is standing behind a thick, black curtain. You don’t know how they’ll feel about it and they won’t see it coming. It could ruin their day. So I recommend never doing it.
Who to trash-talk
Friends or family you have longstanding competition with, and a lot of love for, are the most common recipients and proponents of trash-talking. Childhood friends, siblings or anyone you’ve competed against for years and years have probably put up with your crap for long enough anyway. With that said, it’s not about them being stuck with you. It’s about the fact that, probably, your relationship dynamics extend to, say, zapping each other in Mario Kart or blocking out your cousin in Soul Calibur.
(In my experience, it is a bad idea to trash-talk significant others while you are playing video games with them, especially if you are better than them at said game. In an interview for this story, my boyfriend went on the record saying, “Yeah it has made me feel bad and made me want to play certain games with you less.” Kudos to those who can restrain themselves.)
For anybody else, including acquaintances and strangers, never go into a match with shit-talking guns blazing. It’s bad sportsmanship. Always assume that a stranger or acquaintance you’re playing in a competitive video games does not appreciate hearing why they suck and you’re great. After a few matches, you’ll be able to feel out each other’s comfort levels.
Most important is that your opponent is on the same skill level as you. If you’re bragging about how good you are at Tekken to somebody who has never played Tekken, you are a jerk. If you’re a seasoned Smash player who constantly reminds less seasoned Smash players that they are bad, you are also a jerk. I am the first to admit that it can be difficult to assess someone’s skill or level of confidence. But trash-talking is only fair, and also, only fun, if you’re on even footing.
How to trash-talk
Now that we know when and who to trash-talk, let’s talk about the how. This is easier to explain in specific instances. If you, like me, are gonna do it, it’s best to follow the rules:
- In the character select screen of a fighting game, if your opponent picks a low-tier or goofy character, you can make fun of that character or forecast how the game will go
- While waiting for a match to cue, you can hype your performance
- Cheer for yourself. If you do something clutch, you can point it out
- Intersperse boasts or jabs with praise and compliments, so you’re not just dumping on your opponent
- If your opponent leaves an opening for you or makes a mistake, you can say something about it—unless it’s a truly dire and embarrassing mistake, in which case, it might be good to keep your mouth shut
- If your opponent is using a move that is over-powered, you can point it out
- Taunts exist in games for a reason. Sometimes, a quick taunt can speak for you
- Keep the trash-talking between character selection and the final fight—there’s no drama after there’s a winner and, anyway, it doesn’t necessarily give your opponent an opportunity to redeem themselves
How not to trash-talk
Personal attacks are bad. I hear these types of insults all the time. It’s weak and a reflection of your own bad trash-talking skills if you insult somebody’s weight, race, religion, family, economic background, gender or mental health. It’s shitty and uncreative to tell your opponent that you “raped” them.
Don’t trash-talk people you don’t know. And have mercy. Don’t trash-talk people who are actually bad at the game you’re playing. Don’t trash-talk people who are having a bad day or are sad.
For me, trash-talking can be a more honest way of competing: We both want to win, so let’s talk about it, loudly, in each other’s faces. I’m mad if you get a hit on me. I’m happy if I spike you into the abyss. Fist-pumping is how I express that. You might express it differently. That’s fine. Trash-talking is not widely accepted because it often appears (or simply is) antisocial. If done properly, it is not; but in any case, it is my job as a trash-talker to level with my more mild-mannered gaming peers.