Hell is other players

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Part of the reason games make such an interesting topic is because they are so multi-faceted. You can talk about a game as an abstract design, as an individual experience, as a part of a broader culture, as an economic product, as a technical showpiece and many other things besides.

Sometimes it’s not about a game at all; it’s about the people.

I’ve been playing a bit of online multiplayer lately (Halo 3, but never mind that), and there’s an obvious element of playing against other humans that elevates the challenge of the game above a single-player experience. I’m not too sociable by nature, at least online – I don’t often plug in my microphone and I rarely befriend random strangers – but lately I’ve started playing matches with a few regulars: a motley bunch of players, including a father (I’ll call him Robert) and son who seem to play together most nights. They’re good people, especially by the standards of online gaming; I suppose playing with your family in the room helps to keep the Internet Fuckwad instinct at bay.

Playing against regulars has noticeably improved my experience with the game, although I couldn’t put my finger on exactly why. There’s a naturally heightened sense of teamwork and familiarity while playing, but there’s also a greater satisfaction in victory, or commiseration in defeat. I feel the pull to return to the game more strongly, because I know a team-mate might be there to help out. This must be similar to the quality that can make an MMO so addictive: the sense of belonging and responsibility that comes with membership of a guild.

Some of the best and most memorable experiences you can have in games are really about the people you play them with. Unfortunately, so are the very worst.

Last night I was playing online with a few members of our ad-hoc clan, including Robert, whose player name includes his year of birth: 1965. One of our random opponents noticed this, along with Robert’s older-sounding voice, and started taunting him savagely about his age. He said truly nasty stuff; I won’t repeat it here. Suffice to say it was the worst barrage I’d heard directed at anyone in an online game – and you know that’s saying a lot.

But it wasn’t the worst Robert had heard, as he told us afterwards.

“It really gets me down when people have a go at me about my age. I’ve been called all kinds of things: paedophile, rock spider, pervert. I just want to play a few games with my kid, but some people treat me like I’m a sex offender.”

Jean-Paul Sartre said “hell is other people”. Well, the internet appears to be the Ninth Circle; online games its innermost ring. Almost anybody with a quality that sets them apart from the perceived majority will suffer verbal abuse. It’s not even enough to be straight, white and male; you also have to be in your late teenage years or twenties, with an unremarkable voice and player name, and possessing above-average skills and experience with the game. Even then you’re likely to cop it from time to time; someone will always find a reason to call you out.

Trash talk has its place – but all too often it’s personal, hurtful and just plain wearying.

It’s a downward spiral. Most people play games for fun; since being verbally abused is no fun, hateful trash talk can discourage the victim from playing the game. But when the abused retreat from the playing field, all that’s left are the abusers.

That’s why I’m certain there is a much higher proportion of females playing competitive online games (particularly shooters) than it seems from the overwhelming predominance of male voices you hear in such games. Any time I do hear a woman talking in an online shooter, almost invariably there’s a guy hassling her. Sometimes he’s trying to chat her up; sometimes he’s passing judgement on her because of her gender; occasionally he’s simply shouting insults. At best, someone will say “Hey, a girl!” If you knew that was the quality of conversation you were likely to get in a game, wouldn’t you hesitate to turn on the microphone?

So when we’re talking about inclusivity in games, remember that it’s not an isolated issue. It’s not “just a game”. It’s an influence on a culture that is currently often toxic. And this culture is hurting games’ place in wider society.

But not as much as it’s hurting some of the players.


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Fraser Allison

Fraser comes from a long line of tinkerers and troublemakers, and the apple didn't fall far from the tree. He's an internet addict and a friend to animals. In 2010, he completed an honours thesis entitled "The prosthetic imagination: immersion in Mirror's Edge", which you can view here. You can follow Fraser on Twitter, or hang out at his house and play Top Spin, whatever.

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9 comments

  1. I once played a game of L4D with a Canadian girl and two guys (can’t remember where from). They dropped out before the end of the first stage and for the rest of the game, the two of us had a great and interesting chat about what it is like for her to be a female gamer online. She said she always got a lot of slack for playing any character other than Zoey, and that that really frustrated her.

    Trash-talking is a huge problem with online playing, I believe. It isn’t just annoying, it is an epidemic that really just shows how vulgar and discrimatory our society still is. As one blog I read once put it (a post at Borderhouse, I think it was), if you really want to experience how bad it is, change your armour colour ot pink in Halo 3 for a single match.

    Trash-talking is why I hardly ever play public matchmaking. I love multiplayer, and I love playing cooperative games (because I am not very competitive) like L4D and ODST Firefight with people I know because of the sense of belonging and responsibility and teamwork you mentioned.

    I go out of my way to mute and negative-review all bad players. I don’t know if it really makes a difference, but it is the best I can do.

    A major problem, though, is tha the game developers promote this kind of gloating, derogative attitude. Just look at all the videos before the Reach Beta came out, explaining how your new ranking (Steel, Silver, Gold, and Onyx or something like that) shows “how much more awesomeyou are than everyone else” and “here are some tips for the Beta before i come in and smoke yo’ asses”. The game companies seem to be tailoring to the loudest common denominator (and the most derogative) instead of the silent, not teenage-caucasian-who-got-their-mum-to-buy-the-game-for-them majority who just want to meet fun people and have a fun time.

    On a side note, I am pretty sure you are on my friend’s list on Live. If ever you have a spare slot in a game with generally polite people just playing for fun, and I’m just chilling on my dashboard, give me a shout :) .

  2. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Alex Raymond, RedKingsDream. RedKingsDream said: New post: Hell is other players (http://bit.ly/aZQMGL) [...]

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  4. I am indeed, Brendan, and I’ll keep an eye on your status.

    I don’t know, though, I think trash talking has a place in head-to-head competition. Saying “I’m going to beat you!” is a legitimate declaration of confidence and a worthy extension of the drama of the conflict – but only in situations where both sides are aggressively competitive. The rugby haka is an example of “good”, dramatic trash talk. “I’m gonna smoke yo’ asses” is perhaps not as eloquent, but is okay by me in the right context.

    Xbox Live’s four zones (Family, Recreation, Underground and Pro) are useful here, as they theoretically put together competitors with broadly equivalent perspectives. Two Underground players talking themselves up is expected and appropriate; a Pro player dissing a Family player is not. In practice the zones are not much use, because anyone can be matched up with anyone else, and most trash-talkers neither know nor care which zone their opponent is from. You never really know enough about a random online opponent for it to be appropriate, anyway; it’s not like playing against your mates at home.

    The most important rule is that trash talk should be positive. Think of Muhammad Ali saying “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, the hands can’t hit what the eyes can’t see” – his great lines were not about denigrating his opponents but talking himself up. Even the Bungie guy you quoted was bragging about his own skills, rather than insulting others.

    But most of the trash talk in online shooters is closer to griefing; the goal usually seems to be to upset and humiliate the victim as much as possible. There are a lot of folk who trash talk by shouting hurtful, hateful personal slurs at their opponents, which usually have nothing to do with the game anyway. That’s baffling and disgusting to me; like you, I always file a complaint when I come across it, which is sadly about once every couple of hours of play. Fingers crossed it actually does some good.

    Going back to Halo for a second, do you think ODST is worth getting? After hearing a lot about it, I’m mainly interested in the Firefight mode; I haven’t seen it being sold sufficiently cheaply yet to pick it up.

  5. That is a good point about positive trash-talk. I hadn’t really thought about it in this way before. I find the gloating of many players on Live annoying, but a lot of it is not necassarily sinister or hateful or, indeed, not targetted at any other player at all, and I guess that is okay. Still, the hateful, homophobic, sexist, racist, and oppressive trash-talk is certainly not cool.

    The Reach Beta seems to be doing some interesting things in trying to let you filter players looking for ‘fun’ or ‘competition’ and what not; though, from one night of playing, I am not quite sure yet how you as a player are actually judged. At the end of the day, I guess if you are playing with people who are playing for the same reason as you, things are more likely to turn out okay.

    I really enjoyed ODST, personally. Some people think it is too similar to Halo 3, and some people think it is too different, but I really enjoyed it as a new experience which was still ‘Halo-ish’ but also something fresh. The single-player campaign isn’t too long, but it stays pretty interesting throughout. I enjoyed seeing what happened on Earth after Master Chief left in Halo 2 (note, though, that I am a sucker for Halo’s fiction). And firefight is really fun. It has no public matchmaking, so you need to have friends to play it with. It’s essentially Gears of War 2′s Horde Mode, but that isn’t a bad thing. It can get pretty tense and the spontaneous team work can be a blast.

    And after one night in the Reach Beta, I can strongly recommend it for that, as well. :)

    As an aside, I found this article through Justin Keverne’s retweeting, and it is pretty appropriate to this post: http://www.alwaysblack.com/blackbox/bownigger.html

  6. [...] Alison at Red Kings Dream writes about multiplayer online Halo, relating a particular first-hand experience with ageism suffered by a friend: “It really [...]

  7. [...] Alison at Red Kings Dream writes about multiplayer online Halo, relating a particular first-hand experience with ageism suffered by a friend: “It really [...]

  8. I totally agree with your article. Some of the stuff I hear. . . wow. As a huge Halo fan, though, usually the first thing I do is go into the menu and hit ‘mute all’. Do I miss out on some (rare) opportunities for teamwork? Probably.

    But I’m not someone who really ever would want to socialize with random people. I’ve had a few (count them on one hand) positive experiences. But not enough to ever bother getting my mic out anymore.

    That said, I have noticed a difference between multiplayer games on the Xbox (where a mic comes in the box) and the PS3 (where you’d have to run out and buy one). I play Battlefield: Bad Company 2 on the PS3 *a lot*. Easily the majority of people playing that game are helpful–or at least scold you because you’re not being terribly helpful to the team–rather than the rampant griefers on the 360.

    I can’t remember where, but I read an article somewhere not too long ago that (unscientifically) raised the same point. Because people have to buy the mic on the PS3, the people who have it are generally interested in a better online experience–not griefing.

  9. I totally agree with your article. Some of the stuff I hear. . . wow. As a huge Halo fan, though, usually the first thing I do is go into the menu and hit ‘mute all’. Do I miss out on some (rare) opportunities for teamwork? Probably.

    But I’m not someone who really ever would want to socialize with random people. I’ve had a few (count them on one hand) positive experiences. But not enough to ever bother getting my mic out anymore.

    That said, I have noticed a difference between multiplayer games on the Xbox (where a mic comes in the box) and the PS3 (where you’d have to run out and buy one). I play Battlefield: Bad Company 2 on the PS3 *a lot*. Easily the majority of people playing that game are helpful–or at least scold you because you’re not being terribly helpful to the team–rather than the rampant griefers on the 360.

    I can’t remember where, but I read an article somewhere not too long ago that (unscientifically) raised the same point. Because people have to buy the mic on the PS3, the people who have it are generally interested in a better online experience–not griefing.

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