Through the thin walls of a small semi-detached house tucked away in a quiet cul-de-sac in the heart of England, the peace is disturbed by two boys next door screaming abuse down their Xbox Live headsets at whoever cares to listen.
One lad is 14 and his brother is 12. They’re playing Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, a videogame that has an ‘18’ classification stamped on it due to its "strong bloody violence and strong language". The age rating didn’t stop their parents buying it for them though, nor did it stop them from playing Modern Warfare 3, Black Ops and Modern Warfare. This means that the two boys were screaming abuse down their headsets at adults long before the older one’s balls dropped.
Now, they’re mouthy kids at the best of times. Consequently, with a headset and a world full of faceless gamers who can’t answer back by putting a fist right in their cheeky mouths, they’ve discovered that trashtalking, a form of boast or insult commonly heard in competitive situations, is a great way to let off steam after a day at school.
This nightly racket from the neighbours, only counteracted by turning my own videogames up so loud that I drown out their high-pitched screams of “In your face bitch!” and much worse, serves as a regular reminder of the days when online gaming on Xbox and PlayStation consoles used to be much more of a fun, socially enjoyable experience.
I remember fondly the days of playing Ghost Recon during the Xbox Live beta phase, a peaceful time when the immature masses hadn’t yet swamped the online lobbies with their childish jibes and irritating voices. Fast-forward to today and it’s apparent that there are so many people who have had enough of the insults that there’s barely any communication online at all now.
Being able to talk and play such strategically in-depth games with other gamers in the centre of the living room wasn’t just a novelty at the birth of online gaming on consoles; it was the first time that many people had united under one front through their love of videogames and it brought with it an intimacy that many enjoyed.
The twilight years of both Xbox Live and PSN were great for socially-focused, competitive gaming. In the early days of Xbox Live, you’d bump into the same people night after night who were embracing this new world of online gaming. At this stage, it was a fairly tight-knit community and it wasn’t long before relationships were forged and people who had never met each other on the street started meeting online regularly.
Groups of gamers formed clans and created websites to recruit like-minded players and build a base for their strategies; it was like one big family. Clans knew each other well, arranged meet-ups and participated in ladders and tournaments.
I became captain of AlphaSiege UK, which was among the best times I’ve ever had as a gamer due to the social interactivity between our team and other clans. Though we’d get the occasional idiot trash-talking, or stumble across a clan full of kids who simply wanted to cheat their way through matches, these instances were few and far between; it was a joy to be online with both familiar faces and a world of strangers that wanted to chat together about football, random interests and their videogame experiences.
The online lobbies were full of people who enjoyed friendly banter, shared tactics and showcased their knowledge of videogames. Most people wore a headset and most people chatted away in the lobby before getting down the competitive side of gaming. In the first couple of years of online gaming on console, it was an inviting environment for anyone who embraced it.
Take a look right now. Search Google for Xbox Live and PlayStation clans and you’ll find a mass of redundant links. Most teams have disbanded, given up. The real-world clan tournaments dried up (I’m not talking about corporate-sponsored events and teams that get paid to play). Ladder and leaderboard sites have closed or had to change tact and offer cash for rewards to tempt greedy lone individuals. LAN parties vanished into the ether and team work was abandoned. So, what was to blame?
There were two franchises that were prominent in changing the face of online gaming and communication over Xbox Live and PSN – Halo and Call Of Duty. Aggressive marketing campaigns made these two series the talk of the playground. The gates were opened to under-age and rude teenage gamers who could easily persuade their parents to pick up a copy of a Mature-rated game. They then invaded the online servers like a plague, and still do.
The rise of these multi-million pound franchises coincided with the death of many clans, ladder and tournament sites and real-world team competitions. Across the entire gaming community, communication online dipped dramatically to where we are right now – in an era where you’re likely to play in silence with other strangers because people just don’t bother to talk anymore.
The tide started to turn with the release of Halo 2 in 2004. I loved this game and the clan scene was still going strong, but then…it happened. Anti-English, anti-European, anti-American, anti-jew, homophobia, racism and ‘mom’ jokes became part of the nightly experience. One American kid would hear an English accent and that person would then get every stereotypical comment thrown at them, from being a “tea-drinking faggot," to a “crumpet-eating limey with bad teeth." The U.K. lot would give as good as they got (and there were some idiots in the U.K. too who also got a kick out of a verbal assault on others) but the abuse was largely from American teenagers. U.S-based kids* sucked the interesting chat and intelligent conversation out of online lobbies almost overnight.
I put up with it for a while and so did many other gamers from all corners of the globe, but there came a point where we would just mute most people who had their mics turned on because the abuse became so frequent. Online lobby conversation was quickly replaced with Party Chat sessions where only people we knew were invited.
Immature attitudes from kids crossed over into other online shooters too, with Call Of Duty being the worse. Every single Call Of Duty game has been swamped with annoying toe-rags that have sought to ruin the experience for others just so they can reel off their latest gay jibe, or stereotypical remark based on the country or accent an opponent is from. The amount of times I’ve heard the word “nigger” online is quite shocking, and it’s clear that a massive chunk of the gaming community just doesn’t want to listen to it anymore, despite there being ways of reporting people.
As a result of muting and not even bothering to use a headset, gone are the days when gamers actually speak to each other online, sensibly. Since day one there has always been annoying individuals with headsets and mics but at one point they were in a minority. Now, there’s so many of them that game lobbies of the most competitive titles out there are now as silent as a graveyard.
If you played Gran Tusismo 5 online you've likely experienced your fair share of hate speak while playing with strangers from around the world. One of our editors has plenty of first-hand experience playing with his brother online and competing against random people from around the world. They frequently play with guys from South American countries and while their Spanish and Portuguese aren't so great, our editor and his brother can pick up English words like "faggot," racial slurs, and other homophobic comments. Like those competitive first-person shooters, this racing game once had players who, while they were quite competitive and offered plenty of trash talk, were at least fairly respectful and tried not to alienate anyone. Today if you check out lobbies, you'll find the occasional room name that clearly designates some people--usually gay or black people--are told they are not welcome to join. Trash talking is to be expected, but labeling your online room "no faggots" is beyond childish; it's pathetic.
Now, unless I already know the people I play with, my headset remains on my desk and I don’t bother to attempt to communicate any more. Neither do many others. The online servers may be busier than ever, but teamwork has disappeared. Team deathmatches are no longer about shouting out enemy positions to help out your team, or joining up in pairs to work together to infiltrate a certain section. There are rare times where this communication and thought for the overall goal does exist - especially if you’re in a group of friends that you know - but generally people now play for selfish reasons only: XP, rewards, Trophies, Achievements and kill count.
The disappointing fact is, kids – many of whom are too young to have been playing these games in the first place - ruined online chat and teamplay for good on Xbox and PlayStation consoles. I’ve got my fingers crossed that Sony takes a leaf out of Microsoft’s book for PS4 and introduces Party Chat because Xbox 360 gaming friends who had enough of the abuse a long time ago have been using this feature to enjoy a peaceful night’s gaming. Is that too much to ask for?
*Though I’ve highlighted American teenagers as being the main issue behind the death of online gaming chat, it’s worth pointing out that there is a proportionately larger amount of Americans online than Europeans, which is why this is probably the case. I’ve met many polite and friendly U.S.gamers who have been just as annoyed as I’ve been with the influx of loud-mouths and I've met plenty of irritating gamers from other countries too.