You press play. A homemade logo or two pop up — maybe a clan or a made-up studio. You notice the name of the player — lots of X's, maybe a 420 reference, and the rest seems incomprehensible. That's when the top 40 song begins. Then it happens: a man dies. Cause of death? Headshot, intentionally timed to connect when the bass dropped (if the song happens to be dubstep.) We're watching an earnest kill montage video of a popular shooter, likely from an MLG hopeful.
You might wonder what the 'deal' with these videos are. I feel as if people outside competitive first person shooter culture watch these videos with a sense of amusement, thinking it's cute that earnest boys want to glorify their silly in-game exploits. This would explain the rise of parody videos making fun of the sincere montages: most famously, we have a series of simulator montages — Train Simulator, Woodcutter Simulator — that are ‘enhanced' with frenetic editing, obnoxious music and crazy (if not unnecessary) effects.
On the surface, they're meant to be parodies that mock the real videos. The parody videos reveal a deeper truth though: a sense of elitism that looks down on the culture that would create the unironic montage video. A culture that I fear is highly misunderstood. Let's talk about that competitive culture a bit.
Who do you picture when you try to imagine someone who'd make a real dubstep kill montage? Three possibilities, I think:
- A collar-popping-bro with a creed as sophisticated as YOLO.
- A thuggish young man, likely a minority, who loves hip hop so much they not only dress like their favourite rap stars, they feel a need to subject everyone in the multiplayer lobby to their favourite diss or conquest song.
- A young, annoying prepubescent boy that's way too young to be playing a game like Call of Duty/Halo/etc in the first place. Not that that stops them from trying to prove they can play and talk like the big boys.
What the bro and the hip hop aficionado have in common is that they represent the ‘plebeian' player, the lowest common denominator. They are likely playing on a console. Their entertainment isn't complex (some might accuse it of being stupid), they listen to all the popular songs on the radio-you know, the ones with inexplicable horn sounds inserted at random — they have a constantly-evolving slang arising from the streets or trending hashtags, and despite their socioeconomic status (as if elitism can exist without considering class!) they are the brute force behind the rise and proliferation of the shooter genre.
And yet these things aren't enough to ward off all the resentment some of us might feel when we consider how much power these folks command. They are, after all, the secret behind the crazy success of titles like Call of Duty, and through that, they end up dictating a lot of the industry and who it panders to. If the ‘real gamer' has a stereotype though, it doesn't look at all like the horde of players we imagine is playing popular shooters — and we sense that. The popular kids are invading the secret fort.
What of the little boy? Well, he wants to become just like either of the two stereotypes I initially presented. That would be the ‘cool' thing to do.
They're also all guys. This is important. The culture that creates videos like this is a boys club where the means of empowerment come through proving oneself in 1 vs 1 battles watched by onlookers who spectate either in-game or later in YouTube videos. Almost all situations culminate in this important showdown — the lobby smack talk, a leaderboard fiend who has to defend his rank or K/D ratio, or testing if the results of a previous match are a fluke. Walk the walk, boy.
A 1 vs 1 in Call of Duty is the modern equivalent of jousting, only with none of the public recognition. When we make fun of the montage video, it's an emasculating thing — because to the creator, it's like a testament to prowess and virility, as manifested in a digital age.
It's a very public thing, too. I'm not just talking about the eventual videos of victories or documenting the 1 vs 1. If noted figures fall, it's not uncommon for the victor to hurry to send a message to all friends on Xbox Live announcing the triumph. They tend to read/sound a bit like this (yes, all caps):
MESSAGE TO ALL FRIENDS. I, [INSERT NAME HERE/CLAN] HAVE DEFEATED THE [INSERT NAME HERE/CLAN.] THEY'RE GARBAGE. TRY HARD BAD KIDS. THEY AIN'T SHIT. DON'T GET INTIMIDATED BY THEIR STATS.
Alternatively, the defeat message will probably say something about using modded controllers, hacks, or anything that might discredit a clean win.
Underneath all this is the ‘true' competitive scene, the lucky few that have the skills to be a part of Major League Gaming (the leading community for competitive gaming) — along with, hopefully, fame and riches. This is the ultimate aspiration within the scene that takes montage videos seriously. They'll get a GameBattles account, a place where skirmishes against others can be centralized thanks to tournaments ("the closest thing to Pro-Circuit competition") and internal ladders (which, if you note, has not a single woman on it in the upper echelons.)
Even if you never take things seriously enough to ‘go all the way' with GameBattles, it's not uncommon to have informal structure mimicking that scene. I can't count the number of pseudo ‘clans' my friends and I participated in, with ranks, titles, leaders, training sessions, recruitment efforts and so on. If you were ‘for real' you'd be expected to change your gamertag to something clan-related: the group I rolled with were The Saints, so it would be something like "Saint Santana" or "Saint Blaze", etc.
There is a leader, along with those who would command in his place were he absent. There is an internal list of who would participate in a team battle. If playing outside serious matches, groups will be formed depending on skill — think J.V team versus varsity team. The better players were expected to teach the worse players how to ‘handle' better during practices. And if we saw someone good in a match? Start the evangelisation, especially if they don't have a clan tag or a clan-related gamertag.
Not quite ‘for fun,' not quite inconsequential. Either way, the influence of the MLG scene can't be understated, both in shaping how the multiplayer is developed, and how many players socialize on shooters.
What's fascinating to me about this is the ‘real' GameBattles has essentially gamified masculinity by awarding points on matches. "It is based on a mathematical formula that calculates the difference between the individuals in the match," the website boasts. There is a better man here, and we've got the maths to prove it.
To make this truly modern, the ranks are updated in real-time. Immediate proof of your capabilities. And then these achievements are further embellished when a player cuts to all the juicy bits in a montage video. Or, alternatively, to cover up how bad a player might be — you don't see all the deaths or the time it actually took to put together even a short montage video.
The culture is more complex than most people realise — most of this is coming from someone who never fully participated, despite being constantly surrounded by it all. When I see a montage video, I see much more than the dubstep and the silly drug references... not that that makes it any less funny at times, I admit.