Friday, March 04, 2005

on gaming, internet anonymity, and the frangible mind

Or: You just had a near-life experience

[It occurs to me that some of you might be people who Have A Life and have therefore not spent enough time Fucking Around On The Computer to have been exposed to the sort of virtual rudeness I mentioned peripherally in the last post. Hopefully this post will provide some context. Since this post is a bit *cough*windbag*cough* wordy here's a handy link to the 'printer friendly' version of this page, which isn't all smooshed up. When you're done just refresh the page to get back to your usual settings.]

I basically got through college by destressing each night in online Quake games, and near the end of my tenure at Tektronix I'd taken up the game again... I'd ask if someone on the opposing team would please change their name to that of my manager, and I'd spend an hour or so mercilessly hunting the little fucker down. Keep in mind that this is the point of the game (so I wasn't raining on anyone's parade), and the opponent was always a volunteer who was usually only too happy to accommodate me once they knew the story.

After awhile I'd connect and see half of the opposing team immediately change their name to 'Dennis'. New people were always asking why everyone was named Dennis, and the Denni would just tell them "change your name to Dennis and you'll find out". Ahhh, good times... it was virtual Fight Club. Once the game was underway I used packet-filtering software to strip out *all* comments, and didn't send any of my own... other than the agreed-upon combat, I wasn't there for the social aspect, and the trash-talking didn't do my stress levels any good.

After I left Tek and started being a full-time chronic pain patient, I spent a couple of months playing 'Dark Age of Camelot' (somewhat ineffectually at times, since I was all hopped up on pain pills), and saw the other side of online gaming. There the emphasis was on community, and the people I hung out with were virtual representations of the type of people I like to know in the real world: courteous, honorable, generous, funny, and willing to take the metaphorical bullet (in this case more likely a sword or dragon fire) for you because they know from experience that you'll do the same for them.

These people really helped me through a very tough time when reality didn't have much appeal for me and I am grateful to them for it... the experience might have been 'virtual', but the kindness and camaraderie were real enough. This sort of environment brought out the best in almost everyone, and the few times some idiot did appear they'd be added to everyone's 'ignore' lists so fast they'd have to start over with a new character if they wanted to interact with anyone.

Both of those gaming experiences involved what essentially amounts to intentionally induced short-term psychosis, a willful breaking of the brain that turns dots on a computer monitor into a window on another world. They also both gained some added dimension from the essentially anonymous nature of the medium... the ease with which both the trash-talking and the friendliness were dispensed might have been uncharacteristic of the people involved had they been meeting in person.

This isn't just a gaming issue... I see spam and virii and spyware as just an extension of the type of rudeness displayed by people who feel that their anonymity gives them free license to suck. Mailing-lists and forums and IRC (and now wikis and blog-comments) have all found ways to manage the inevitable appearance of psychos. (If you're in a group and you can't figure out who the psycho is, please check to make sure it isn't you.)

The bad stories are the ones that really stick. While I look back fondly on my DAoC experience, stories like Ian Shanahan's 'Bow, Nigger', in which he shares an experience he had with an online bigot, still hit me pretty hard and dredge up the frustration I've felt when trying to deal with the Tyranny Of The Stupid. Whether you are into gaming or not, Ian's piece is an important read for a world that grows increasingly more dependent on mediated contact with other people... his story has relevance to the game of life.

I wish Julian Dibbell's 'A rape in cyberspace', first published in The Village Voice in December 1993, was more outdated than it is, but sadly much of what he writes is still topical. It is also still one of the most well-written articles I have ever read.

If you read Julian's article, think about this: today's online gaming experience (I use the term 'gaming' pretty loosely here... the immensely popular Second Life and Sims Online aren't really games per se but they are still relevant in terms of social interaction) often takes place in a richly immersive highly contextual 3D environment. As with a good movie, this makes willing suspension of disbelief much easier, and the extent to which you can get drawn into the game (socially, culturally, and emotionally) is a surprise to almost everyone the first time they 'snap out of it' and look around their room and wonder where they are and where the last five hours went.

With that in mind, note that Julian's online experience, hailing as it does from the days predating massive public awareness of the internet, takes place in a text-based world. And the social issues, the personal involvement, the emotional investment of the players, all of these were strongly engaging *then*. Julian's descriptions of other people or monsters in the game are very visual but his actual experience was simply reading text on a screen.

I should add that the absolute best-looking game I have ever played is still Infocom's Zork, a series of text-based games that I first played on an Atari 800 (with a tape-drive) in 1982. The sparse descriptions of the environment were just enough to fire up the imagination, and the puzzles were just tricky enough to give you plenty of time for the mental imagery to solidify. The images were so strong that even recently I've seen (for instance) a real dam and thought 'that looks just like Flood Control Dam #3', part of the first Zork game that required some tricky problem-solving.