At 28, I thought I’d never have another formative moment in playing video games. But I have, and this is that story.
While video games have always been an extremely important part of my life, at times, they’ve fallen by the wayside, as I’m sure they do for many people. During college (and by college I mean Art School – there is a heavy distinction between the two) the only two games I played were trying to find and consume as many drugs as possible, and to try and have sex. I was better at one than the other.
When I was much younger, between owning a Sega Genesis and when I became deeply engrossed in late 90’s Playstation JRPG’s, most of my time was spent with Magic: The Gathering and Warhammer 40,000. I would mow lawns obsessively to be able to afford a few boosters, or a blister pack of a diecast 40k miniature that I would subsequently paint very poorly.
My best friend and I, no older than ten, would hang out at a handful of hobby shops around Kansas City. The holy grail being Battlezone. Complete with carpeted tables for miniatures and card games, weekly tournaments, and a massive LAN network. Aside from the posters of bikini-clad “fantasy babes”, we were mostly drawn in by the mystique of the LAN network, which was enclosed by black particle board walls, black curtains for doors. From within that black box screamed a neverending hail of AK47 fire from CounterStrike 1.6. That cacophony often perforated by somebody yelling “FUCK!”, which would be immediately met with an employee’s “WATCH YOUR MOUTH, THERE ARE KIDS HERE!”. We were the kids in question.
My Mom was relatively strict about what games I could play growing up (which in retrospect I’m thankful for) so I was never allowed inside of that black box to bath in its perfume of Cheetos, Mountain Dew, and body odor. It frustrated me because I knew there was something special going on in there – that there was a camaraderie I was missing. As my dad had an old Apple, I had never played a game online, but the stories I would build in my head of how it must feel to play alongside other people were so vivid I can recall them today. What sort of tactical maneuvers were they performing? Did they whisper “going in, cover me” into their headsets? The desire to feel that experience became all-consuming.
Fast forward a few years and through some middleschool miracle I came to own an Xbox. That Xbox was plugged into our modem. Inside that Xbox was MechAssault, the “very first” online console game. And on my head was a headset. That headset had a microphone. I can’t accurately relay the excitement I felt when I successfully logged in and began a match with real human beings, all around the country. It felt like magic. My parents crowded around to see me play against real people.
And then reality came crashing down around me. There were no call signs. No strategy. A complete lack of role-playing. The only thing that came through my headset were voices that sounded much older than mine. They called me “faggot” a lot. Even though I didn’t know what it meant, it sounded mean. I remember tearing up and leaving the game.
Since that pivotal moment in my youth, online multiplayer has always been a means to an end for me.
There have been a handful of online multiplayer games I’ve really loved, and still love. I still play Battlefield 1 a few times a week and some of my favorite gaming memories were in Battlefield 2142. But the first rule of online gaming as most know, is that you immediately turn off the in-game chat and mute everybody. Behind the veil of anonymity people can become slur-shouting sociopaths.
My first ten hours with PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS were much the same. I had only played solo and was greeted with a solid 60 seconds of people screaming the worst things they can think of in the lobby; again due to the lack of accountability. You’re never going to see those other 99 people again. On a whim one night I decided to try “duo”, which is essentially the same Battle Royale experience but you’re automatically teamed up with another player.
The first thing I heard was a voice saying “Hey! How are you doing tonight?”
I paused. I genuinely didn’t know what to make of it at first, but clicked on my mic and responded politely. We eventually settled into a nice conversation before the round started. Once it did, we began engaging with game tactically, developing our own language and cadence as we went. We moved slowly and with surgical execution.
A: “Movement at 165, two of em”
B: “Red brick two-story? Copy that.”
A: “Taking position, fire on my mark”
A: “3, 2, 1, firing.”
The twelve-year-old inside of me was immediately overjoyed. All I ever wanted to do was play soldier. Just like my friends and I would, running around the yard as kids, but in a computer game. That match of PUBG dismantled the snide disdain I’d built up inside me regarding online multiplayer over the past decade and a half. We lost the round, of course, but traded Steam names and play together every now and then. Through the same process I’ve made a lot of “friends” that want to play soldier also, and goddamn does it feel good.
I can’t help but think that there is something very specific about the attitudinal environment of PUBG that promotes that sort of discourse. I think a lot of it is due to the dire circumstances in which it places you. Because there is no margin for error, no respawns, you have to “play soldier” to survive. Mostly though, I think it’s due to the game’s intimacy. You’re not one out of 32 people, with BongSniper420 at the top the leaderboards. It’s just you and your new friend, and friends don’t yell slurs at each other, they help each other succeed.