Diving into the more unfortunate side of competitive gaming: racial and sexual intolerance.
I used to play Call of Duty. I was once part of a generation that revered the franchise in the infancy of its success, one of 13 million lifetime who had purchased the first Modern Warfare at some point and played it thoroughly. It became an unhealthy addiction, almost that of an MMO, where I’d cycle through sequences in my head during and after class to see where I could improve, and in what areas to be careful. I could recite a weapon’s effectiveness, its frailties, and the strengths and weaknesses of each map. I knew the game inside-and-out.
Admittedly, I also fell into the culture of Call of Duty and by extension first-person shooters: one of extreme competition. The height of a match was at its end, but the verbal haranguing began just as we entered a game lobby. “Your mother” jokes were a particular favourite, even if we had no hint of someone’s parental or familial situation. It was the satisfaction of demonizing someone anonymously that we thought gave us a competitive edge. Like saying “Syke!” but then punching the person in the face.
This was a common exchange: A random someone pops on Xbox Live to expel some anger, plays enraged and likely plays horribly, gets blamed by teammates or blames teammates for a loss, and then proceeds to shout regrettable things. The conversation elevates to verbal mudslinging, one of the warring sides blurts out a racist remark, and from there all races are subject to insult.
It was institutionalized; a reflex to losing. I thought it abhorrent–like two groups of childhood friends arguing whether the KKK or Nazis were better–but I never did anything to shut it down. Nor did any other player because they knew any attempt to defuel the hostility was futile. People had their opinions, and however much we disagreed or hated them for having outdated views, ignorant people will always scream louder.
Eventually, after hearing it so much, I was able to tune it out. I heard racism but it didn’t bother me. The fact that I remained unaffected by people spouting blatantly hurtful nonsense for some time sickens me to this day, even when I understood it as wrong and baseless. There was no reason to blame Mexicans or other minorities for bad play, and players who did so disturbingly found solace in racism. They may have been racist beforehand, or realized their mistake and quickly corrected it. But with how wide the prejudice had spread, arid comments were usually no accident.
Intolerance was, and apparently still is, a portent in Call of Duty‘s decadelong history. I haven’t played multiplayer Call of Duty in a while, but from regularly watching YouTube videos, it remains a mainstay in pregame and postgame banter. During, too, if one person is lagging down a team. But why? Does the first-person shooter culture perpetuate that sort of atmosphere? Has an evil fraction of the player base expanded so far that someone with a prejudice exists in every game?
Hateful words are passively said in conversation, normally after a death that seemingly defies the game’s limits. Words that carry devastating histories: nigger, faggot, rape. Hearing those was a constant reminder of the worst of humanity, from the times of established slavery and gay bashing and the increasingly violent culture we live in today. White kids calling other white kids a defenseless term; ostensibly young children (with exceedingly high voices, certainly under the age of 17) exclaiming “You got raped, son!” and “Oh, this faggot is glitching. What a bitch.” without realizing the hurtfulness of their words.
In its defense, Call of Duty is far from the only platform in which rampant intolerance is found. It’s systematic in a culture that is inherently violent; two sides simulating warfare will always bring out emotion. And the worst in people. That’s no excuse however, because Call of Duty and other FPS games are in fact games, digital creations that bare a meager resemblance to how real warfare operates. A battlefield doesn’t have invisible walls or boundaries or two neatly arranged sides with superpowers fighting with the same exact cavalry.
I originally attributed racism and general intolerance in those games as an evolution of language. How certain folks (mainly teenagers) today will say “That’s gay!” without ever implying homophobia. It’s the only barely logical reason I could muster to justify some language in one targeted genre.
When I was a teen, to not say insults in conversation casually was cause for ridicule. You were seen as an outsider–the last thing anyone in high school wants to be labelled as–so we coalesced into a culture that many of us found reprehensible. It’s likely in that time some developed habits or ideologies beyond high school, or the majority of those who play first-person shooters are in fact high school students. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to gather a framework of the Call of Duty player base because so many adults blindly buy the game for their kids.
Playing Call of Duty 4 a year before graduation, it was no different. We had a stable list of “friends” that we could tolerate, others I just muted. Those toxic players had static behaviour (refusing to coordinate, ripping into “friend”-ly teammates ruthlessly, etc.) but they were apparently friends of friends. I played endlessly into the night with these people, absorbing racist and sexist and homophobic remarks with no remorse. It was just a part of the game.
Luckily, I left Modern Warfare 2 after barely touching World at War, escaping a self-perpetuating society that cultivated outdated ideologies but with modern militaries. It was deeply sobering to finally be free of that, after falling into the Call of Duty trap for what felt like eons. And gone too were the expressions of teenage angst through unnecessary derogatory remarks.
Intolerance will continue to be a hot topic in multiplayer discussions going forward. For console gaming, Microsoft has implemented a system called “Smart Match” for Xbox One. Essentially, based on feedback, it will match players based on skill, reputation, and degree of language used. Thus for Xbox One embracers, the racists and sexists and homophobes can scream insidious remarks at each other. Sony has yet to report on a similar system for PlayStation 4.
Sadly, this is the best online communications can do. It may not be until technology excels so far as to monitor communications in real time before intolerance is eradicated in online gaming. At least Call of Duty on Xbox One will be free of it mostly, though. A step in the right direction.
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