One of the most popular genres of video games are first-person shooters, like the Halo and Call of Duty series.
Millions of players compete against each other in virtual warfare, online. Amidst the violence, an unusual sub-culture has emerged.
One of the most popular genres of video games are first-person shooters, war games such as the Halo and Call of Duty franchises. Thousands of players compete against each other in virtual combat online. Amidst the violence, an unusual sub-culture has developed. We sent Ben Bradford to the virtual field of battle, and he embedded in an elite unit, the Peen Kings.
In a high-rise office building in New York City, Russian special forces are raking machine gun fire at us. (Sounds of fire). I’m crouched behind a desk watching the Peen Kings return fire, holding a gun that I refuse to use—journalistic ethics and all that. One Russian goes down. (Soldier is hit). The Russians have a bomb, and the unit has to stop them from setting it off.
Reckless: There’s the bomb.
We go after it. (Search and Destroy music.) Two members of the team, called Reckless and Marksman, take off running, and I follow. Out the window and along the side of the building.
Reckless: Matt break the window for me. (Sound of a smoke grenade through the window.)
A bullet pulls down Reckless mid-stride and just like that he’s gone. (Shot.)
Reckless: Snipers! [Expletive].
Then, Marksman, too. Exposed and suddenly alone, I dash for cover, while the sole remaining Peen King, Mouth of War, protects me with sniper fire from inside the office building. He methodically takes down two of the enemy.
Reckless: You’ve got two left.
Then, I’m hit. (Shot and heartbeat.) I don’t know from where. Thankfully, Mouth finds my assailant before he finds me.
Mouth: …I got him.
The Russians have one man left. And then– (Shots)
Reckless: Oh! With the headshot!
None. The battle took only a minute. But the next round begins immediately, only this time we’re the Russians. (Search and Destroy music).
This is Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, a 2 and a half year old first person shooter. An average game lasts 10 minutes, then we’ll spend a minute in a lobby with the opposing team while another level loads.
Offline, the Peen Kings are friends from Malden, Massachusetts—Tony, 20 years old, his brother Matt and their friend Daniel—both 17. They’ve allowed me to follow them in the game, and ask questions. In-between bursts of fire, I asked how many games they’ve played.
Tony (Reckless): We get some in—we get like 10 in every day.
The game records that all three have spent between 50 and 100 days playing. But the friends spend far more time chatting and bantering than strategizing.
Daniel (Mouth of War): We’ve played more than 20 games today.
Tony: I haven’t no way.
Daniel: Yes we have!
Tony and Daniel say the camaraderie essential to their experience.
Tony: Yeah I mean it’s fun. I don’t really play shooting games by myself, I just like playing with my friends.
Daniel: Yeah I can’t play by myself.
University of Alabama Professor Matt Payne says these online games allow players to connect with friends or strangers, and work together. That’s their appeal.
Payne: The reason why gamers play together is not simply to win, but it’s so they can be with one another, so they can accomplish things together, so they can do things together that they couldn’t do apart.
Payne admires the exploration and teamwork first-person shooters encourage. But go online, and you’re certain to experience far less friendly communication. Like from this guy. He’s just finished a game, and he has some words for his opponents.
Daddy Oakes: You all know you suck, right? Nail sucks. Homebird really sucks. Bus Patrol, I know you could have done better, but—hey Homebird, [expletive] you.
Payne says the anonymity of the Internet plus the game’s competitiveness fosters taunts, gloating, and personal attacks.
Payne: You have all of these gamers who are there to dominate. Part of that domination escapes the gameplay round and it gets expressed and manifests through language.
They shoot you, then they make fun of you. In all kinds of creatively insulting ways. If your killer crouches up and down on your corpse—that’s called teabagging. It means they “pwned” you, another gamer word. Teabagging may be in good fun…but the most odious mannerism is the use of the n-word. You hear that word everywhere. Tony and Daniel don’t see a problem with it.
Tony: You could be [expletive] yellow, you could be purple, you’ll still be called a [expletive]. You could just be out of friggin, like the Klan, and you’ll still be called a [expletive].
Daniel: Yeah, it’s just a word, it’s what we call each other.
In the real world, it’s a forbidden word for most people. In the virtual world, it’s as common as hello or goodbye. But then again, in a virtual world where slaughter is routine, perhaps the word is not so remarkable. Psychologist Brad Bushman of Ohio State University sees a connection between what he calls two taboo behaviors.
Bushman: I think taboo behaviors are contagious. … And engaging in one taboo behavior greatly increases the likelihood that you’ll engage in other taboo behaviors.
Studies by Bushman and others suggest violent games also raise players’ aggression—though that does not mean people turn into killers.
Bushman: In first person shooter games you have the same visual perspective as the killer, so you see the world through the killer’s eyes. You’re the one who pulls the trigger.
Scott Rigby studies the psychology behind games. He disputes that the nature of the games causes negative behavior.
Rigby: I enjoy headshots as a gamer, and I’m also a guy who catches bugs and takes them outside because I don’t want to kill them, so how do you reconcile those two things?
Rigby sees the competition and teamwork required by shooters as a psychological positive. But, he agrees the realistic, graphic violence—exploding heads and bloody corpses—can be desensitizing. His solution is to tone down the blood and guts while leaving the gameplay intact.
Back in an Afghani scrapyard, I’m hiding out with the Peen Kings (gunfire and explosions) and ask Tony what he thinks. He considers while a grenade explodes.
Tony: That’s completely retarded. I’ve never in this game went around and shotgunned someone and said that’s really cool, you know what I’m going to go and shotgun someone in real life.
The Kings don’t spend a lot of time considering the issues of violence or language. For them. the game is their hobby, and they’re just online to compete together, and to hang out, talk about sports, friends, girls, and of course to make fun of each other. (Sounds of battle slowly overwhelmed by a falling nuclear missile.)
Tony: Obviously I didn’t mean that way you [expletive] idiot.
From deep inside the game, I’m Ben Bradford, Columbia Radio News.
Daniel: You’re an idiot because you don’t know how to put your words together.
Tony: You’re an idiot for confusing my words together.