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Tilt as a gaming term is associated with frustration, rage, and deterioration of gameplay ability. Surveys with students and interviews with coaches offered insight on what tilt is, its triggers and responses, and how the school club spaces impacts student social-emotional management. 

Social Emotional Learning and Tilt

by Minerva Wu, Je Seok Lee, and Dr. Constance Steinkuehler

Connected Learning Lab and Games+Learning+Society Center

Esports can be a toxic space for social interaction; under the anonymity of the internet, intolerant and hateful speech and behavior on the part of players can poison the gaming experience. Yet from initial conversations with students and teachers, researchers evaluating the NASEF program noticed the potential for social-emotional learning (SEL) and growth through the program. Social-emotional skills are part of a host of twenty-first century skills such as “self-awareness”, “self-management”, “social awareness”, “relationship skills”, and “responsible decision making” (CASEL).

Tilt as a gaming term is associated with frustration, rage, and deterioration of gameplay ability--an emotional state where these social-emotional skills are tested. Managing tilt already  resonates with players, as they may be motivated to address tilt given its negative impact on peers and play.

While usually used in a gaming context, “[Tilt] is just a general frustration with something that isn't going your way. And if you're losing and constantly losing and getting beat by somebody who is just button mashing, you can lose your cool at that time, and we've had some of that happen.” (2019 GM interview 7) 

What is Tilt? 

Tilt as a term originated from pinball, where frustrated players would hit the machine; the pinball machine would flash “tilt” and the game would end. The construct of tilt was adopted by the poker community as an explanation for why poker players would continue to play and even make increasingly poor decisions despite heavy losses. In physical sports, being “on tilt” is associated with gambling and poor money management rather than actual play. As adapted to esports, tilt is primarily associated with frustration and rage while playing, but can be used more broadly as an emotional reaction to in-game events that cause a deterioration in gameplay.

Recognizing Tilt

Survey work asked NASEF students to reflect on their year in regards to areas such as their emotional regulation, self-management, grit and perseverance.  Emotional regulation was the only area reported as lower at the end of the year--supporting interview data from the year before though, indicated that students often became more self-aware of their emotional states through the program; the reported decrease in emotional regulation may simply reflect that they were more cognizant of their tilt (2018 survey). A pre-post survey the next year indicated students improved in their self-regulation, persistence, and tilt-resilience.  Overall, survey results showed that the program had a positive impact on students’ attitudes, comparable to the impact of participating in activity outside of the league. 

“You can feel upset at your teammates, you could feel defeated. You can have anxiety or any kind of emotion, positive or negative and mindfulness will help you become aware of that.” (2019 GM interview 9)

Causing Tilt

Tilt can affect people in different ways, and players will express their frustration differently. While pop culture might portray reactions to tilt as screaming hurtful things or smashing the keyboard in rage, this only accounts for 22% of the reactions surveyed students reported: 32% of students simply left the game or took a break once they recognized they were tilted, and 25% of the students tried something more productive such as “calming [themself] down while focusing on the game” or “trying to figure out what went wrong.” Eighteen percent of players simply did nothing; interviews with coaches illustrates what this sneaker side of tilt might look like:  

“The number one thing is that they get quiet. They stop talking, their posture changes, they sigh more. They start making more mistakes that they don't normally do in the game, things like playing away from the team, using their resources at the wrong time.The culture here at our school, the students don't, they don't really start flaming each other so I don't have to worry about that, but most of the time they internalize their frustration, and that affects their gameplay.” (2019 GM interview 3)

What triggered players’ tilt also affected how they responded. Other people -- team members, opponents, or just people in general-- accounted for 60% of reasons players got tilted. When faced with toxic people, trolling teammates, or poor communication, players had a mixed reaction to other people but primarily used positive strategies and reactions, followed by leaving or doing nothing. However when their own mistakes or performance (accounting for another 19% of reasons to be tilted) was the problem, players are equally likely to employ negative, raging techniques or leave. Meanwhile, when the problem was related to the game (bugs, certain game mechanics) or losing, players were most likely to just leave. 

In other words, it seems that players tend to be their own worst critics, and are taking their frustrations with themselves out in negative, even hurtful ways, while reserving the best of their patience and self-control for dealing with other people. While most frustrations were with other people, the negative responses were unevenly associated with frustration due to their own mistakes. Even when dealing with an unfeeling game, players are more objective and can employ a better strategy and walk away before coming back refreshed. 

Changing Tilt

When asked, 67% of students and 100% of staff believed it was possible to change how easily someone gets tilted. Believing that tilt was something that could be changed amplified positive responses, while believing it could not be changed amplified negative responses. 

While the school environment may serve to temper the worst of tilt, coaches and general managers have already started to discuss tilt-management in their clubs. Strategies might include changing their attitude going into the game to specific goals instead of focusing on just winning. 

“I think it's just a mentality focus. Like I said, they didn't need to learn how to take a break and just not keep [going]. It's not about the grind at that point. It's about mental health and making sure that you know how to overcome it. Instead of playing another game, maybe watch the whole replay of your game and see what you could do differently.” (2019 GM interview 2)

While being part of the club and having the support of the community and mentorship of a teacher is already beneficial for student’s social emotional learning, there is always room for more growth. Team communication and collaboration skills could help assuage student frustrations with their fellow players. Learning to reframe players’ own goals and more productively respond to their own performance provides teachable moments that can help both in and out of game. By understanding tilt in esports spaces, we hope to understand and possibly ameliorate some of the toxicity online. 

Find out more about our research at the Connected Learning Lab. 

Wu, M., Lee, J.S., and Steinkuehler, C. (2021) Understanding Tile in Esports: A Study on Young League of Legends Players. In CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI '21). ACM. 9 pages.