Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Jerks and Xbox Live

I've made passing reference to some of my friends to the common perception of players on Xbox Live. (I mention Xbox specifically because I have one and am closer to the source; I still don't have a Gold membership and don't plan on getting one. I'm sure that PSN isn't much better.) A common refrain is "When you log onto Xbox Live, you immediately lose ten years of maturity."

While I confess that comment isn't exactly fair, it's hard not to be competitive in multiplayer games. The added incentive is that restrictions on quantity and quality of speech are almost non-existent, and rarely enforced where they do exist, on top of the anonymity of the online environment. I'm sure almost everyone has wanted to call someone a jerk or some other, more derisive term, but refrained because they were in the same room. (As an aside, this reminds me of a joke a friend of mine from college told me some years back: I believe it was called something on the order of "The Asshole Proximity Theory". Said theory states that people are bigger assholes the farther you are away from them. As in, regarding someone in the same room you might whisper "This guy's an asshole." Across town, you might state it louder. Now say a politician shows up on the television: "THIS GUY'S AN ASSHOLE!!!!!" But I digress.)

You'll see quite a few horrid comments leveled at the fans of two games in particular: Halo and Madden. Now, I don't really play sports games, so I can't speak personally of the quality of the Madden series, but enough of my acquaintances have played it and I've observed enough of it to know that it's a well-designed and implemented game. One with a vast audience, and which is easily accessible to most players.

I have played Halo, on the other hand, and while I do know some people who dislike the game (often on very reasonable grounds), I admire the series, and in particular how well-balanced it is. Generally, the game is fair, and has a very shallow learning curve for new players. You can pick the game up and go with a minimum of training or adjustment. As a consequence, you get quite a bit of strategic depth. (I won't go so far as to relate the game to chess, but I've mentioned before how overcomplicating a game's system limits potential winning strategies by virtue of one solution being optimal or close to it, and the rest being dominated away as a result.) Halo rewards many players with many options and many paths to success.

So what do these games have in common? Strong design, and a wide audience because of it. The consequence comes from that audience size itself. I submit that the reason most online Halo or Madden players are jerks is that the bar for entry to these games is set quite low (and I believe rightly so, but that's another argument), so you get a wide swath of players representing a larger cross-section of the general population than most games.

Let's face it -- we all know people whose gaming prowess consists solely of these "triple-A" titles, and who lack a breadth of appreciation for the medium as a whole. It's a lot like a person who watches sitcom television shows and nothing else. There is nothing inherently wrong with this attitude, but there's the small matter of a sense of scale. You'll find people of this ilk who will chastise more "legitimate" gamers about how the games they play "suck", or claim superiority as a "better gamer" because they can beat you at Halo. Leigh Alexander of the excellent Sexy Videogameland analyzed this very topic in short form recently, and she makes a valid point -- but while the kind of stereotypical player I just alluded to is certainly obnoxious, it's also not fair to say he doesn't understand games or his choices aren't worthy because they're common.

Even more so in (what I believe is) the more common case, where our player isn't a jerk with a superiority complex, but simply prefers more accessible games, perhaps because gaming is a minor hobby. Let's face facts -- not everyone has the kind of free time or money to play dozens of games, to sink eighty hours into Chrono Trigger, or to figure out what the hell is going on in Metal Gear Solid 2. We certainly wouldn't want to be chewed out for occasionally watching the Super Bowl or something like that. You know, the "no true Scotsman" ploy? The vitriol can go both ways.

I certainly play some esoteric games, but I refuse to stand idly and "hate on" Halo or Madden because they're popular, or because some jerks like to play them. You have to give Bungie and (shudder) EA some credit for designing excellent titles. As a consequence, I also find that I can extend some respect for the "hardcore casual" segment of the marketplace. It's probably contentious to call them that, but it's an apt description -- Halo is by no means a "casual game", but people who play it exclusively can't fairly be called connoisseurs of the medium.

And that's okay.

To the sophisticates of the gaming world, give the casual Halo and Madden player a break. To the casual, "stereotypical" player, go right ahead and keep on enjoying games for what they are, as long as you can respect those of us who delve more deeply into the medium. And can we all stop being so nasty?

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