Playing games online is like visiting the local playground. If all the kids in the playground don’t talk, it means a playground filled with individuals doing their own thing. They might be interacting, waiting in line for the slide, chucking sand on each other digging like dogs in the sandpit, taking it in turns to push the roundabout, but essentially they’re playing alone. It’s only when they start to communicate with each other that their simple games evolve into complex, multifaceted experiences.
Okay, so there are some differences. For one thing, you don’t often go over the park to find strangers shouting foul-mouthed abuse at kids. Nor do you have to suffer the sound of Jay Z being blasted directly into your ear canal, that kind of fun is restricted to getting on a bus at school chucking out time. But the situation mirrors that of voice chat in online gaming.
Over the park, children make new friends and lose them in a matter of minutes. They start out cautiously, afraid of rejection. But once the introductions are over, names and ages swapped, they behave like they’ve been friends since birth and create games that sometimes have nothing to do with what the equipment was designed for. And then, half an hour later, it’s home time and they never meet again. Is this not a familiar story? You go online to play whatever, you don’t know anyone you’re playing with and when the game’s over they disappear into the ether.
Granted, sometimes (a hell of a lot of times if you’re playing AAA FPS games) you jump into a game and the whole thing is ruined by some gobby idiot shouting, singing, insulting people and taking Darwin’s Theory of Evolution into question – it’s survival of the fittest, not survival of the ones that can drag their knuckles through the dirt the longest. There’s something about 1st person shooters that brings out the racist, homophobic, sexist moron in certain sections of the online community. Maybe that’s a reflection on soldiering as a whole or maybe it’s a shining example of what too much testosterone can do to people. Whatever. It happens. But it’s not the whole story. Far from it, it’s simply one slice of the pie.
Some of the best online gaming experiences I've had have been so enjoyable precisely because we all had our headsets on. Let’s take arcade racer Blur as an example. Just like many FPS games, talkers in Blur can be an obnoxious bunch. They swear just as vehemently at you in Blur as they do in Bad Company 2 if you do something perceived as wrong or idiotic. One evening I joined a game and, from the moment the race started, one irate American player was reigning down abuse on every other racer on the track. We couldn’t race, we didn’t know the tracks, we didn’t know how to use the power-ups – in short, we were a disgrace to gaming. Only he knew how to play the game properly.
In a team based FPS game this would be hell. One guy on your team spends the entire game telling you that you’re rubbish. This would spoil it for anyone, but in Blur there are no teams, just a bunch of individuals coming together to have fun. So after maybe thirty seconds of this tirade, somebody else spoke. I think they told him to calm down. Whatever they said, it opened the floodgates and soon everyone was on the guy’s case. It ended up being a game where nineteen complete strangers teamed up to terrorize this one individual. We rammed him, we shot him, we dropped mines in front of him – we made it a mission to ruin the game entirely for him. Three minutes later he left the game and never came back. It felt like total revenge for every game any of us had played that had been ruined by human white noise. You could hear it in people’s voices; there was a level of ecstasy in the banter, like enslaved men waking up to the first day of freedom. After that, the talking continued: friendly banter, laughter-tinged swearing, even congratulatory remarks. The races weren’t memorable, the other players I’ve never heard from again, but I do remember that for an evening, even though I was alone at home, I was surrounded by new friends and having a whale of a time. Much more so than when I’ve played Blur without a headset.
Admittedly, I can’t speak for the PC community, I can only vouch for the console gamer, but the experiences in FPS games are the same. I would never claim that console based FPS matches aren’t plagued by voice spamming, but I’ll stand up and say that I always leave my mic on to play these games because I have made many an online friend directly because of it. In fact, playing Battlefield 1942 and wearing my headset was how I came to be a member of a clan. After an evening’s play with two guys who were already members; an evening of tactical talk and social natter, they invited me to join. I’m very glad they did. It would never have happened otherwise – I’m not the type to accept random invites to join one nor trawl through forums looking for good ones. The majority of online friends I’ve made have come through open mic gaming where two or three complete strangers keep up the talk, making each other aware of the tactical issues each is facing, and finishing the game by sending a friend request out over Xbox Live.
At other times, without the mic I would never have survived a game as long as I have. Playing Zombie Mode in Call Of Duty: World At War for the first time would have been much more of a challenge if I didn’t have a friendly Scouser talking me through the game. Without him, I would probably have left after twenty minutes (I did exactly that the next day when a 12-year-old told me in words bracketed by expletives just how bad I was). Together we played for an hour and a half, reaching far further into the game than I would have done if I had no headset on. This was well over a year ago and I still remember it today.
Now I know the arguments against talking in-game, and I’ve had my fair share of fury-inducing experiences, but we don’t have to stand for it. If everyone turned their microphones on then the chances are that we, the statistical 35-year-old, mature majority, can put a stop to it. Instead of getting irate and hurling abuse back at these disruptive individuals, why not try to get them onside? So you’re playing Bad Company 2 and you’ve been dropped into a four-man team in which one player is talking utter rubbish and getting in the way. Before you leave the game or mute the offender, why not try something different? Engage with them. “Hey MrNoiseMouth1980,” you might say, “I see you’re an engineer. I’m going to get in that tank and set myself up near the front line. Jump in with me, I’ll need someone to mop up any flankers and fix me up when the armour’s weakened.”
You don’t have to make it sound as crap as that, but the point is that instead of getting angry and hating on them this way, you’re attempting to include them in the game. What you’re doing is asking them to be a team player. Remember when you were a kid and you were standing there waiting to be picked for the lunchtime football match? This is exactly like that. You ask someone to be on your team and they’ll try a lot harder to be a team player than if they’re told to join your team because the teacher (or, in this case, the server) said they had to.
It might not work. It might end up with you getting even more abuse. But what if it does work? You’ll feel good about it, they’ll feel good about it and maybe, just maybe, the next time they’re playing the game they’ll do the same. And if that happens then online gaming will change for the better. Otherwise, aren’t we condemning in-game voice chat to the same dark recesses of the Internet that Chat Roulette stalks?
A last note, sometimes voice chat is worth having on for the random stuff you hear. There’s something heart warming about hearing GangstaStabBitch’s mum telling him his tea’s ready just after he’s delivered a five minute speech about how he’s going to come round to your house to redesign your face with a lump hammer.