Can thirtysomethings survive on Xbox Live?

The art of play.
Sept. 7 2005 11:46 AM

The Gaming Graybeards

Can two thirtysomethings survive on Xbox Live?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.
Click image to expand.

Seth: Chris, I'm fresh off our initial foray into the Xbox Live universe, and I am feeling so many new feelings. Here are the moments I enjoyed most:

1) I liked how—just so we could log on and play the shoot'em-up game Halo 2—I had to spend 10 minutes downloading ancillary programs, including something called the "Killtacular Map Pack."

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2) I liked how, when we finally started, I was killed within eight seconds. Then I came back to life in another part of the game … and was again killed within eight seconds. I don't think I ever survived longer than 20 seconds. At one point I accidentally detonated something (maybe a plasma grenade) right next to myself. In that instance, I committed suicide before other players had a chance to kill me.

3) I liked when I got in the driver's seat of the "Warthog" assault vehicle and one of our remote Xbox Live teammates quickly hopped onboard and manned the turret gun, as though he expected me to drive us somewhere useful. I instead drove off a cliff and killed us both. Boy, was he surprised!

How was it for you? Notice I've left out the part where we squared off in a head-to-head match. I'll let you describe that.

Chris: I believe I defeated you 7 to 0, meaning I killed you seven times and you killed me zero. That left me falsely confident when we entered our next team match, which we lost 50-11. We started with two other teammates, but they quit halfway through, presumably despondent over being paired with two aging, 30-year-old newbies.

Let me back up a bit, for the uninitiated. Xbox Live is the online gaming universe that's an extension ofthe Xbox console. Certain Xbox games are "Live enabled," which means you can log on and play against people from all over the world and/or download additional content. Players join the Live community by purchasing a kit that retails for about $70 and includes a free game or two, a 12-month subscription, and the "Xbox Live Communicator," a headset that allows you to hear the other players and talk to them. (That's right, when you play Xbox Live, you dress up like a telemarketer.)

Xbox Live has been around since late 2002, and at this point there isn't a decent multiplayer game—racing games, first-person shooters, fighting games, even Madden—that isn't Live enabled. Xbox Live reached 2 million members in July, just a year after Microsoft announced it had reached the 1-million subscriber benchmark faster than HBO, America Online, or TiVo.

At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, I think Xbox Live is as culturally significant as all three. It's being adopted more quickly than critical darling TiVo, which started up in 1997 and only this year hit 3 million users. Xbox Live is changing the nature of console gaming in terms of game design, game play, and business model. We chose to play Halo 2 first because it's the most popular Live game and has become an obsession largely on the strength of the twitchy, adrenaline-filled chaos of its Live mode. According to Bungie, the game's developer, nearly 500,000 people play Halo 2 on Live every day.

Seth, I know I liked playing Halo 2 online more than you did. On Xbox Live, Halo 2 is usually played in short, 12-minute bursts as you run around a series of changing maps, picking up weapons (from pistols to swords to rocket launchers) and killing the other players with them. I'm terrible at it, but the brief nature of each minigame (each one ends with a stat-filled "Postgame Carnage Report") provides the optimist in me with an irresistible chance for redemption. For years, the trend in console gaming has been to create games with longer and more open-ended plots. On Live at least, Halo 2 upends that with short, repetitive minigames that are reminiscent of the quarter-plugging addictions of my youth.

But there are some things that trouble me about it. All the hand-wringing about the "Hot Coffee" mod for Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is nonsense, but if I were a parent I would worry about letting my child play Xbox Live. Players are not sorted by age—typically we'd be grouped with a 9-year-old, a 16-year-old, some twentysomethings, and 30-year-olds like us. The chatter among players that came over my headset during gameplay and the Postgame Carnage Reportswas usually vulgar, frequently homophobic, and sometimes racist.

I'm sounding like a much bigger prude than I am. But this anecdote illustrates one element of what makes me uncomfortable: I sent a "friend request" to a player who was particularly generous with advice. I immediately felt creepy upon realizing that I, a 30-year-old man, had just asked a 14-year-old boy to "be my friend." On the Internet, no one knows you're a dog. But it's also true that no one knows you're not a pedophile.

Seth: You're not a pedophile?

Yeah, I felt a little oogy when I was talking to a 9-year-old and I asked him, without thinking, where he lived. But mostly, I felt like I was the one who needed my innocence protected: All these little tweenie twerps, with their squeaky voices, kept calling me "dumb ass" as they were killing me. I'd chosen the screen name "sethdawg4000" because I thought it was archly funny in its utter screen-name-ness. After I got addressed as "homo-dawg" several times I came to regret the decision.

You're right that there's a lot of raunchy banter going on. I'm amazed Microsoft has not yet been called on this. If a few easily shocked parents sat in on a game of Halo 2, Congress would shortly be holding hearings.

Really, though, Xbox Live is just an online simulacrum of a middle-school cafeteria. The crudeness is coming from the kids, not being inflicted on them. If anything, the over-25s we met were an excellent influence. They tended to be polite and mellow and demonstrated good sportsmanship—like saying "good game" after they'd eviscerated me with various weapons.

For me, the two sociologically interesting things in this experience have been:

1) I'm right at the fulcrum point of gaming popularity. Almost everyone five years older than me doesn't really "get" video games and has little interest in playing them. Almost everyone five years younger than me can't imagine life without an Xbox (or PS2 or whatever).

As for me, I completely understand the appeal of these games—it's just that I suck at them and I'll never get any better. Having a job and/or girlfriend means not having the endless hours required to learn all the maps, determine which weapons work best in which situations, and so forth. There's also been some sort of evolutionary mutation that causes young people's thumbs to work better than mine. I simply cannot move my thumbs fast enough or accurately enough. I try to aim my plasma rifle and the thing is waving all over the place. Meanwhile, UrDeadHaHa147 has calmly sniped me 30 times from some hidden roost.

How are their thumbs so nimble and precise? It must be a genetic advance. In coming decades, I expect children will communicate complex thoughts using only thumb gestures. By the 22nd century, we will elect a thumb president. This is the path we're on.

2) People used to be all concerned about kids playing video games, and how isolating that is, and shouldn't they be outside playing kickball and stuff. But here we see these kids from all over the world interacting with each other for hours on end (if only to call each other homo). Is there some sort of counter- Bowling Alone argument to be made in favor of Xbox Live? I see your Bowling Alone and raise you a Disemboweling Together.

Chris: For me, Xbox Live recreates the feel of the arcade, where you'd gather around to watch the best players do battle. While playing Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six 3 (in a cooperative mode against computer-controlled "Venezuelan terrorists" in Hawaiian shirts), I enjoyed the feature that put you in the eyes of the other players after you die. Watching through the eyes of a more experienced player, I started to figure out how to play the game. My 14-year-old "friend" (see above) told me that playing Rainbow Six in Live mode is a better way to learn than the in-game tutorial, because you have a guide who knows what he is doing. I started to think of that kid as our Virgil.

I almost typed "or she" in my mention of guides, but we didn't encounter a single woman (or young girl). At least one who turned on her headset.

Seth: Yup, Xbox Live is definitely lacking in feminine energy. Though I think I managed to bring a bit of womanliness to the battlefield.

Part of the problem was our selection of games. All shoot'em ups. I must admit that after awhile I get tired of shooting stuff. I was thinking it might be nice to play a fishing game or something, where we could just chat over our communicator headsets for a couple hours, interrupted by the occasional face-off with a trout. We'd be on couches miles apart, but it would feel like a day together on the lake. Toss me a Coors from the cooler!

I don't think I'll play Xbox Live too often, now that our touristic exploration is done. Mostly this is because I'm bad, and no one likes to lose all the time. Partly it's that I've yet to find any games I really enjoy. (I like the tennis game Top Spin, but I suck at that, too. When I played it on Xbox Live, my opponent hit every single serve for an ace and smacked every single one of my serves for a return winner.)

But partly it's because I feel like everyone else is cheating—"modding" their characters to be stronger and better-equipped. There was a lot of chatter about this when we were playing online. One kid said he'd seen a guy in Halo 2 who'd rigged his gun to somehow fire vehicles out of its barrel. You're in a firefight with him and he sends a truck hurtling toward you. (Conversely, it felt like someone had modded my character to be especially frail and had limited my weapons options to "butter knife.")

I know Microsoft tries hard to crack down on cheating, but it's a real issue. We were both convinced we'd encountered it several times. I believe you called one opponent the Rafael Palmeiro of Halo 2. (I pictured him shaking a robotic, metal finger during some sort of galactic parliamentary hearing.)

Will you be playing more Xbox Live now that we've gotten a taste? And will you cheat?

Chris: I have a confession to make. I've already been cheating on you. Late at night, after we stopped playing, I would sneak back to Xbox Live and spend the evenings with him. But don't worry; those encounters were brief and meaningless. It was nothing like when I was with you.

I think I will keep playing Xbox Live, though I already played a little before we started our adventures together. I won't cheat, and to be honest I didn't encounter as many cheaters as I expected. Just players who were much, much better than us. We're such bad players that it was hard for me to know whether an opponent got that rocket launcher right away because he cheated or because he has memorized the map. In this video, a player shows how his opponent modded his machine to make himself invincible. For all I know, I played against this guy and thought nothing of it. Bungie calls cheating a "growing epidemic," and both Bungie and Microsoft claim to take the problem seriously. But they also claim to take racist taunts seriously.

Part of the problem is Halo 2's pitiful feedback mechanism. Players have to tattle on their opponents, and then either Bungie or Xbox Live decides when there's enough complaining to ban someone temporarily or permanently. The two things that would improve the experience most for me are 1) instituting a more transparent, eBay-style ratings system that would give you some hint of which players are jerks and bullies; and 2) creating a "senior circuit" that lets graybeards like us match up against players our own age. Halo 2 uses an algorithm that tries to sort players by experience and ability, but some idiots go through the tedious exercise of "leveling down"—throwing a series of games in the style of the Chicago Black Sox—so they can get their jollies by annihilating lesser players. And even when it works, it's not quite what I'm looking for. It's not just that I want to play against players who are as bad as me. I want to talk to people who are like me, not preteens and high-schoolers.

The miserable social environment on Xbox Live is partly a product of that weird generational melting pot. And it's my fault, too. That 9-year-old kid you mentioned earlier complained to us, in his thick southern accent, that "a lot of people boot me"—that is, kick him out of their Rainbow Six games—"because I'm young and they make fun of my voice." I felt bad for him. Shortly thereafter, I started to find him annoyingly voluble and warned him to settle down. He turned off his mike. What was I saying about bullies?

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

Chris Suellentrop is the deputy editor for blogs at Yahoo News and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He has reviewed video games for Slate, Rolling Stone, and NewYorker.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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