I play online games quite a bit, over Steam. Mostly it’s L4D2, or TF2. L4D2 I tend to play only with my close friends – people I know in real life. The larger servers on TF2 mean that I’m often playing with strangers. Sometimes I stack a team with my friends, sometimes I don’t.
I also use my microphone. A lot. I like talking – sometimes to tell people what’s happening in the game, or to ask questions, sometimes just to dick around. However, sadly, I have a very obviously non-adult-male voice, as do the two women I game with most frequently.
The first thing that happens is that people try to guess whether we’re female, or young boys. We’re different, you see. The norm in online gaming, they believe, is to be a post-pubescent male. After establishing that we’re female, the other players seem to split three ways.
1. People who don’t care either way, and just continue playing. These are my favourites. They’re the people I’m mostly likely to accept friend requests from. People who enjoy the game, like having a chat and a bit of fun, and who enjoyed playing with me, but aren’t going to get weird about it. They’re well-adjusted and mature, and tend to be people like myself and my friends – adults who are unwinding with a bit of fun.
2. Young men who get kind of… obsessive. They’re fascinated with the concept that women are on the internet, and you can tell, over the course of a few rounds, that they’re beginning to imagine themselves in love with us. They are lonely, and they are a bit sad, and I feel kind of sorry for them. I won’t accept their friend requests, though – that way lies madness, and angry steam messages because you were logged on and they tried to talk to you and you were AFK and they assumed you were ignoring them. No thanks.
3. Men who have a seething hatred for all womankind, and choose to express it using incredibly violent, vitriolic, sexist language. People who will tell you how much they hate you, simply because of those two X chromosomes you’re carrying around.
This post is about that third group.
Last week, Heather told me about a particularly negative gaming experience she’d had, in which men on a TF2 server hurled huge piles of abuse at her, including the phrase “Speak when you’re spoken to, bitch.” That’s a particularly violent example of the kinds of things one hears as a female gamer, but jesus, it made me pretty angry to hear about it.
The issue here is not that gamers like this are making TF2 a less woman-friendly place, and therefore cutting off their nose to spite their face. I mean, sure, that’s an issue, but that’s kind of a male-centric one.
My issue with this is that the men who talk like this are the most fucking gutless idiots on the face of the earth. They are the worst kind of internet tough guy.
Can you imagine these young men, late teens, early 20s, in a real-world situation, using that kind of language? I’m a teacher, and while I’ve copped some abusive language, I’ve never heard anything quite like that. Imagine them using that in the workplace, to a superior, or even to just a colleague. Imagine them trying to tell a female student in a tutorial, or a lecturer, to speak when she’s spoken to. Imagine them saying that to their mother.
We have social rules that clearly state that behaviour is inappropriate. They know it – there’s no way they can’t. And I know a lot of you are thinking, well, what do you expect, it’s the internet, people behave badly there.
No. There is no excuse for that kind of behaviour. The internet is becoming an increasingly important means of communication – young people are doing most of their socialisation on it. Hell, I do most of my socialisation on it. It’s where I get my news, where I plan my social events, where I unwind with my friends at the end of the day. Imagine if Heather and I were on the bus, having a conversation, and a guy behind us started telling us to speak when we were spoken to, or that old chestnut, to make him a sandwich.
I would call the cops. If someone was harassing me like that in public, I would get the five-oh on them. That behaviour is completely inappropriate, and it’s not okay on the internet either.
The shitty thing is, though, my opinion doesn’t matter. Douches like that guy have managed to transform the internet, and online gaming, into male space. Women are told to show tits or GTFO, as though the whole internet is one of those “exclusive” but seedy men’s establishments where women are only allowed in if they’re taking their clothes off. ‘Fraid not, guys.
But if you are a lady and you encounter behaviour like this (and you will), even your actions are limited. If you go off at them, you’re a raging bitch feminazi lesbian who needs a good dicking to sort her out. If you leave the server to find one where you can play without being subjected to verbal violence, you’re a whiny crybaby. There’s only one way to make them happy, and that’s to giggle, to get sexually suggestive (in a non-threatening way) and tell them you’ll make them that sandwich, while wearing a french maid’s outfit. This is because by making it male space, they also get to redefine people’s reactions to their awful behaviour in ways that fit their skewed worldviews. And in turn, it makes women feel as though we’re playing those roles. Leaving a server feels like losing. Getting angry can feel like losing. Either of these actions are, of course, totally justified. No one should stay somewhere they feel uncomfortable or unsafe. And no one should be made to feel bad for defending themselves.
Strangely enough, I, and all the women I know, don’t really feel like stroking the egos and confirming the world views of a bunch of pathetic, angry losers who have, for some unknown reason, complete and total rage for my entire gender. Because that’s what it is, at the end of the day. It’s not just because it’s acceptable behaviour on the internet – it’s because for some reason, they want to treat women with that level of contempt and disrespect. You only do it on the internet if it’s how you want to act in real life.
What the fuck is that about? People will say things like “oh, they’re just mad because they can’t get girlfriends” or “they’re lonely basementdwelling losers” and so on, but the truth is, some of these guys have jobs and girlfriends and friends and lives and yet they completely and totally hate women.
Remember that guy I used to know, the one who ended up being the worst person in the entire world? He was a guy whose complete hatred of women developed over time. I figured it was largely a joke, but then, no. He spent a lot of time at the bodybuilding forums, and you want to see some misogyny? Go there. It is mindblowing how much they hate women. Now, not hating women is a pretty key element for any person I’m friends with. I need all my friends to be people who have decent gender politics. I don’t think this is completely unfair. And I don’t hate men – I love them. I don’t think all men are dreadful people. Hell, until I started using the internet, I hadn’t really experienced that level of total hatred for women. I don’t know why some men can hate women that much. I know I don’t want to be around women who hate men that much, either. That’s a lot of hate to be carrying around with you all the time.
The internet is normalising this kind of behaviour. It’s not normal. If it’s not appropriate to say it in real life, it’s not appropriate to say it on the internet.
Finn showed me this video. Have a look at it. It’s supposed to be a comedy, but while you watch it, consider the fact that during my hundreds of hours of online gaming, I’ve had most of those things said to me (the female version, anyway). I’ve had random strangers threaten to rape me. I’m not particularly afraid because, well, they don’t know where I live, but I want you all to seriously think about what kind of person actually says these things to another human being, actually attempts to verbally intimidate them and silence them and make them feel bad about themselves simply because of a factor like gender. Think about if you’d tolerate that kind of behaviour in your workplace, at your uni, in your home.
Now; do me a favour. If you’re a guy, and you’re gaming, and you witness behaviour like this, speak up, even if you don’t know the people involved. If someone does something dreadful like this, make your opinion known. Tell them it’s not okay. Help reduce the shitty misogynist culture of gaming; it’s the right thing to do. Ladies: I’m sorry that this happens. I hope you keep playing, because fuck, these games can be so much fun. If you feel like you can speak up, speak up. There are good guys on the internet – I know, I game with them all the time. Or, you know, you could just ask for a sandwich for yourself.
I’m writing up something that has nothing to do with this; but I always get it done at about 2am, so for the time being, here’s a few low/no-budget community-based games I’ve been fiddling with over the past week:
Blood Bowl is a fantasy sports board game from the early 90’s published by Games Workshop; and the very first miniatures game I invested money and sweat equity in. Of course, I’m way too mature to play with dolls now (ohgodIwanttobuythemallandpaintthemandlovethemtheywillbeallforme), but it’s still a great game to play with friends when you’ve got a half-day free. Sadly, what with work and stuff, that’s not all that often. So these guys hit on a solution: knock up a java client that copies the game, and put the team data on a python database, on the same site that hosts the matchmaking and forum. It’s fiddly, in the way that java applications always manage to seem more fiddly than they actually are; but once you get over that, a game is much quicker than its analog bretheren, and you don’t have to worry about losing cards or checking the rules on Hypnotic gaze every few minutes. Perhaps most interestingly, the game has continued to develop since GW discontinued it, and the current ruleset is largely unsupported by the original publisher. Mmmm… open-source development.
A community mod for Half Life 2 with a strong team-play focus. It’s free, as long as you have HL2 installed, and 900 megs of bandwidth to download the sucka. The things that interested me were: a) The polish on this thing, considering it’s all volunteer work from a seemingly very diffuse team, b) the commander position (similar to Savage, another free game from a small studio) which tasks one player with managing the field of battle, RTS style, and giving orders to the rest of the team, who are down in the weeds in FPS mode; c) The squad system, which breaks up teams further for the commander’s convenience, and sets up multiple leadership positions within each team – with in-game effects. It’s not as visually beautiful as TF or L4D, but it’s an impressive piece of work for a nonprofit mod, nonetheless.
Yeah, Percy, I did go and have a look. I haven’t actually tagged in to a game yet; but this is the old skool LARP favourite of Mafia adapted to the phpBB format. Again, community-organised, iterative, experimental, and they’re developing communal behavioural norms as they go. I intend to actually get into one of the lower-intensity games this week.
and lastly, off the theme, a medium budget game from Stardock Studios (who are better known for their 4x), an interesting realisation of an interesting concept:
Want to see if you could have won the 2008 US presidential election? Yes, we can. For the amount of intellectual energy expended on modern politics, it’s a little odd that it’s barely had an impact on video games. Brutal combat in the 41st millenium is just easier to grasp, I guess. Interestingly, after Obama (who’s OMG b0rk3n), I found it easier to win with Palin than Biden or McCain, so read into that what you will. Only the demo is free; but it’s worth a play, nonetheless.
I promise, I’ll talk about politics, or unionism, or some other big boy topics soon. But I haven’t finished (or, to be honest, properly started) any of those posts yet, and one reason is a game you may remember from my previous post – Left 4 Dead.
Yeah, I know. DISCIPLINE! However, game design is also a field in which I profess a passing interest, so I thought – well, I might as well write about it. But I’m not exactly the first to do so. Of 2008’s offerings, L4D pops up in just about every Game of the Year thread there is; and every self-proclaimed expert and their sobriety-challenged blog-buddy has passed judgement on exactly what makes it so special. So, instead of pretending that all thoughts spring unsullied from my pristine forebrain, I thought it might be a good idea to filter out the stuff worth reading, say why, and give it some credit.
So, given that my audience of 5 (6 on a good day!) is probably pretty clued in on what the game is; and how it works, I’ll cut straight to the point. What’s interesting and why?
Here’s what I’m interested in:
- Co-operative Play, for its own sake, and because it borrows from MMORPGs in a way I find intriguing.
- Pop Culture, because it doesn’t actually tell a story, or build a world – it appropriates them from the zeitgeist.
Co-operate or die
I’ve been playing first-person shooters for some time now, but the first one I spent any serious multi-player time with was Team Fortress Classic, followed shortly by Counter-Strike. Prior to those, I had the Dooms and the Quakes, and a handful of generic titles I can barely recall, but I didn’t have a connection to play over. So my experience of online gaming has always involved team-based play. However, just being on the same team doesn’t mean you’re actually co-operating. That’s why L4D is interesting and different. So here’s some bare-bones, appallingly generalised history to help explain why:
Historically, most of the first true multiplayer arcade games were co-operative. 1942, Gauntlet, Marble Madness – the big hits of the early 80’s were either single-player or co-op – if they were competitive, it was by alternating turns and comparing scores. With the technological limitation of a single screen, unsophisticated pixel graphics and controls in close quarters, head-to-head competition was an ugly problem. Sports (like Pong, and the countless iterations of tennis clones, as well as early boxing and car racing games) were the earliest head-to-head games, because there was no need to hide information from the opponent built in – both sides could have access to the same input, have symetrical goals and still compete. By the mid-80’s, fighting games had put some muscle behind competitive multiplayer modes; but team-based beat-em-ups and shoot-em-ups remained far more sophisticated and popular – because, IMHO, arcade technology suggested teamwork. Double Dragon beat Street Fighter hands-down.
The early 90’s saw this change, for a couple of reasons. One was the phenomenal success – in the West – of Street Fighter II. Why that happened is an essay in itself; but it involved some brilliant branding, marketing, and distribution by Japanese publisher Capcom, as much as anything integral to the game. However, it did rewire a new generation of gamers to see gaming as an essentially competitive sport.
In 1993, the previously niche market of networked PC gaming exploded into prominence with Doom. Essentially, this conquered the single-screen problem, and pushed players apart. Competitive gaming, strongly established outside the sports genre by SFII, was the hawtness. The supposed elitism and fixation on “skill” of the largely mythical hacker subculture was mirrored by the bona fide gaming public – largely teenage boys.
Communication in real time via these early connections was nearly impossible; and limits on processing power meant that managing multiple player sprites on top of AI sprites was a pretty big ask. Deathmatches were basically the order of the day. Other emerging genres with multiplayer capacity – RTS and turn-based strategy, chiefly – drew heavily from board gaming, where competition was virtually mandatory to achieve any kind of useful gaming tension.
Team-work re-emerged in a serious way via Counter-Strike in 1999. There had been “team deathmatches”, and even team CTF prior to this, but no game that did much more than grouped targets into “good and bad”; no asymmetrical objectives, and no games slow-paced enough for real-time communication via text to work properly.
However, insofar as co-operative FPS gaming goes, CS has been the last word for some time. Team Fortress and its derivatives certainly had some claim to innovation; but real progress was being made in a related area from about 2000 onwards – MMORPGs. Ultima Online, Everquest, Ragnarok Online, and finally, the juggernaut that is World of Warcraft. UO and Everquest both evolved towards the co-operative “raiding” model successfully finally codified and utilised by WoW. PvE was born – multiple humans fighting an asymmetrical computer opponent.
Where in CS, you could essentially abandon your team, set up in a safe position and snipe your way to victory; or achieve a level of skill that would allow you to simply blast your way to victory against the entire opposing team, MMORPGs utilised (Conciously, in the case of WoW) the social psych advancements being driven by the business world, and built rewards for altruistic behaviour into the gameplay basics. A healer needs a tank and a tank needs a healer, and both need a high-DPS character to get the problem solved. It’s teamwork, stupid – in a way that FPSes (TFC included) just were not. MMORPGs showed that, with sufficient anti-griefing safeguards, a team could be designed to be greater than the sum of its parts, and be a challenging and fun experience for players.
L4D’s leap is to take that divergent evolution, and reintegrate it with the FPS genre. Returning (interestingly) to the non-class based symmetrical ability formula of older FPSes, it uses the mechanics of rushing horde, and the disabling effect of the various super infected powers to make team-play not merely handy, or useful, but absolutely vital to completion. Moreover, the oppressive atmosphere, and last-humans-alive tropes of the zombie genre give a chilling psychological impact to seperation from the group, as well as the obvious mechanical drawbacks. The addition of the AI director reduces the predictability of levels, and requires continuous communication throughout the game – which is now possible via voice communication, thanks to technological advance.
So, what’s worth reading? Don’t worry; most of these are pretty short – I tend to skip the long stuff.
Wired has a broad view, with one of the more thoughtful reviews.
The human interaction in L4D creates procedural narrative, which is a fancy way of saying that the story is what you and your team-mates do; not what the cut-scenes tell you.
Complete focus on the co-op mechanic, to the exclusion of all other complexity – is what makes the game work.
Story by mashup
The other neat thing about L4D is that it doesn’t tell its own story. As explained in L4D’s own blog, the intro movie is not so much an intro story as a tutorial; there are no cutscenes, and no explanation is ever made of the apocalypse that has engulfed the globe. Yet, there’s really no confusion about what’s going on, because you already know the story. Valve takes as read that you, the player, have a working knowledge of Night of the Living Dead, Day of the Dead, 28 Days Later, Army of Darkness, Reanimator, and/or The Last Man on Earth; and are capable of filling in the immense blanks yourself.
Instead of building a world, it taps into an archetype that you already know, and sets its world directly into that. The stereotypical characters (young woman, office worker/black man, grizzled vet, tough guy), the carefully constructed visual and audio clues that mimic the movies you’ve seen, and the movie-poster conceit of the loading screen. The only specificity in the zombie tropes used are mechanical – it’s an infection, not a resurrection, and they’re fast zombies, not the slow kind. The invention of the special zombies is about the only original content in there; which makes them all the more shocking the first time you run into each of them.
Just like WWII games get to use Nazis as a shorthand for unfathomable evil and the senselessness of war, L4D consciously taps into the zombie trope to set up its themes – isolation, co-operation, time pressure, and apocalypse, without wasting time on the details.
So, yeah. L4D – not just fun, also interesting.