Part of the reason games make such an interesting topic is because they are so multifaceted. 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 ware 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.
Republished with permission.
Fraser Allison is currently writing a thesis at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology on how video game mechanics create meaning for players. He writes about this, and many other game issues, at redkingsdream.com.