Thursday, February 18, 2016

Silent Protagonist: Why I Banned Gaming Headsets in my Home

The voice comes from a child. Can’t be much older than 8 or 9. The words chosen imply a parent or older sibling has been less than diligent in watching their words around this kid. Maybe.

Maybe it’s not that at all. Maybe this kid is just a gamer who has spent too much time listening to what other gamers say on their headsets.



In the end, it doesn’t matter. The result is the same. My daughter looks at me, I nod, she turns the volume all the way down and moves like the stealthy Siren she plays to turn on our playlist of alternate gaming songs. We’re playing Borderlands 2, so the list includes some Cage the Elephant, The Heavy (of course), Phantom Planet, Muse, and Metric. The list also includes some NAS. Contradictory? Not at all.


I’m not offended by the language. If we were playing TowerFall Ascension or Smash Bros, I could easily out curse this child. I am no saint. So no, it’s not the language. I’m offended by the ignorance.

A few years ago I was the Artist in Residency at an animal sanctuary in Costa Rica. Within the first week, the guys in their early 20s pegged me for a gamer. During the hottest, most unworkable hours of the day, I’d slip into the office and take a look at their rigs. My first attempt to watch them play was cut shorter than I had hoped. Online co-op. No headsets. Nevertheless, the vernacular of too many hours absorbing the negativity of other players came shining through. I won’t repeat exactly what was said, but I will say that it included violent threats including rape and several homophobic remarks. To say I was disappointed would be an understatement.

Even gamers living Costa Rica’s “Pura Vida” can’t escape it. Damn. He sees my smile fade and tries to make things better. “I’m not like that in real life. It’s just a game. I would never do anything like that. You get that, right?” If the words are meaningless to you, why do you need to inflict them on someone else? Why do you use them? You are eliciting a response. You are using hate to get someone to feel or think or respond the way you want when you behave like that over a mic. It had become so much a part of the gaming experience for these men that they continued the behavior with or without the headset. It’s the worst type of manipulative ignorance, and these guys didn’t even register that they were participating in it.

It doesn’t have to be like this. I have frequent, vivid dreams about gaming with a team of strangers communicating over a simple headphone and microphone setup. Someone asks for cover. I respond that my Phaselock is at the ready if they need help. The game is the thing. We work together in harmony to take down Terramorphous. I don’t even bother to collect any of the valuable loot; I just restock my ammo and wait as the rest of the team runs around like kids in an unattended GameStop.

When I wake, I mourn the loss of the dream. Hope dictates that I turn on the console and get back in there. What if things changed while I was sleeping? Sound is up. I start a game and leave it open for online players. The first person to join insists upon duping guns. Booted. Play or don’t play. I don’t have time for that nonsense. The second to join is on a headset. He can see I’m not. His Psycho and my Siren make short work of the path to Tiny Tina’s. He asks if I have DLC. I type back a reply, “Yeah. I’ve got all my maps.” He transports us to Tina’s DLC and moments later, another player joins. Assassin. Perfect for this campaign. I’m optimistic. Then she speaks. I freeze. My heart pleads with my current companion to just be cool. He’s not. He laughs first. Then it’s the standard “Get your girlfriend off the mic.” I rush a group of skeletons to try to keep them focused. I Phaselock one just as it nears the Assassin and I toss a singularity grenade toward the group approaching the Psycho. She starts in at him about how she’s no one’s girlfriend. He starts in with the ignorant name calling. He’s down just as my Phaselock is ready for another go. I’d rather not save him. I’d rather go back to the dream world. I back out to the main menu and start anew, offline.

This is why I don’t own a headset. This isn’t going to happen to my daughters. They get enough of that crap at school. Gaming is a way to relax and get away from the world for a bit. The archaic sexism streaming through online play isn’t welcome. There’s effort being made by a small group of stubborn, pure-hearted players to stop this type of behavior, but we need more people to step up and recognize that it needs to stop now. Studios are recognizing this, too. Recently, Riot has been applauded for their efforts to reward LoL (League of Legends) players who keep pristine records. Those penalized for negative behavior do not receive the sudden and surprising rewards Riot is doling out. I think it’s brilliant. I also think they shouldn’t have to come up with incentives to keep people decent.

Let’s all just take a moment to be a little more aware of the way we treat people. Are we perpetuating nonsense that we don’t even believe in? It can start and stop with us. Please help me make the dream a reality. I’d really love to own a headset.

I wrote this article for LordoftheLaserSword.com during Spring of 2015 after I spoke as a panelist at Salt Lake Comic Con's Fan X in January 2015 with some of the writers for the site. I posted it here after they took their site down. 

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