Future Tense: Nexus Netiquette

Alex Castle

Not too long ago, I was sitting with a group of friends, schmoozing about computer games and our experiences with Starcraft II.

There’s a decision point in the single-player game where you have to choose whether to go with Tosh or abandon him and go with Nova. That’s the place where I got stuck and stopped playing. Why? Because I’ve been writing the script for the next Starcraft Ghost Academy manga, which deals with the backstory of both these characters. (No spoilers here, but I know why they hate each other so much. Neither of them are villains, it’s deeper than that.) But having written about their training at the Ghost Academy, I’ve fallen so in love with these characters that I cannot choose one over the other. Eventually, I will, but not without considerable regret about the path not taken.

In the meantime, I’ve been playing the custom maps on battle.net. Some are from Blizzard, some have been written by talented enthusiasts. One of my favorite 4v4 maps is a seductive little exercise called Nexus Wars. Imagine two parallel lanes accessing a base at each end. You play on a team of four, defending one of the bases. Your goal is to destroy the opposing base by sending warriors down your lane. You and a teammate play one lane, your other two teammates play the other lane—but you can all help each other, of course. This is a game where teamwork is essential.

You control an SCV and place buildings strategically to defend your base and access your lane of attack. You get income at timed intervals. The more structures you place, the more income you get. The installations automatically generate units at timed intervals, marines, roaches, zealots, mauraders, stalkers, queens, thors, hydralisks, colossi—depending on the structures, whatever you can afford to build. As the various units are generated they proceed across the lane toward the other base, attacking whatever opposing units they come in contact with. Your team wins by generating an overwhelming army of units to counter the army of units headed your way. There’s a lot of back and forth pushing, because every unit has a strength as well as a weakness. You need to counter ground and air units appropriately. In addition, every player has one nuke to use if the other side threatens to overrun your buildings.

Nexus Wars is fairly easy to learn. And while it looks like it’s a game of strategy, it’s actually a game of logistics. The team that better understands the strengths and weaknesses of the various units will always have the advantage. While most games are over in thirty minutes or less, if you get well-matched players who know what they’re doing, a game can go a lot longer. At the forty minute mark, all units increase to 300% damage to prevent stalemates, but even with that deadline in play, I was once in a game that lasted longer than an hour.

Eventually our discussion went from strategy and tactics to specific experiences. And that’s when it got especially interesting. Nexus Wars—like all of the team-player maps—is at its most fun when the members of each team actually behave like a team. It stops being fun when one or more players start acting like bullies, whether they’re on your side or the other. All of the multi-player games on battle.net have a chat mode for players to interact, plan strategies, give advice, bemoan the occasional lag—and sometimes behave very badly.

Bullying has been in the news a lot lately—particularly cyber-bullying. In some of the most horrific situations, cyber-bullying has even pushed teens to suicide.

One of my friends is adamant that bullying is the wrong word. “It’s not bullying—it’s abuse. If an adult did it to another adult, it would be abuse. If the act were done face-to-face, it would be abuse. But when we call it bullying, we’re diminishing the criminal aspect of it as well as the emotional damage it produces. It’s abuse, let’s be clear about that.”

I can’t say that there’s a lot of online bullying in the Blizzard games, but it happens often enough to be noticeable and objectionable. I play Starcraft II in the evening, usually three or four games in a session. I would guess that I see players behaving badly at least two or three times a week. Mostly it’s petty, but occasionally it’s ugly. Friends of mine have reported similar experiences.

Online abuse isn’t uncommon, but sometimes it’s vicious and malicious, whether it’s on battle.net, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube comments, DelphiForums, or anywhere else. There’s no way to know who’s on the other side of the screen—whether it’s a socially inept youngling or an adult with anger-management issues or simply a miserable old curmudgeon who’s fossilized into a self-righteous pain in the patoot—but it’s clear that the presumed anonymity of the internet creates an illusion of safety for sociopathic impulses. The result is abusive behavior. The online world is a place where people can express their dark side without regard for the effect they have on others, without fear of immediate consequences.

So what do you do when you run into an online abuser?

In a discussion forum a patient presentation of facts and logic and research is always an appropriate response, certainly better than name-calling, but in a real-time game that’s not an option.

One game I remember, a player started calling people on the other team coarse epithets based on race, religion, and presumption of sexual orientation. I was so disgusted, I quit the game. And so did a couple of other players. That player ruined the game for everybody, including himself.

The thing about multi-player games is that at their best they teach the importance of teamwork and social skills. Unfortunately, at their worst they also provide a place where the mannerless can indulge in asocial behavior. It’s a collision of the good, the bad, and the ucking fugly. Like a Clint Eastwood western, good people get abused when the sociopaths run amok. Except online, there’s no Clint Eastwood to clean up the town.

One of my friends summed up the dilemma thusly, “We’re the good guys, we’re supposed to be the smart ones. Surely, we should be able to figure out a good way to deal with this kind of crap, something more than just quitting the game.”

My buddy Peskydang (short for ‘that pesky Dan Goodman’) recently shared a tactic that he sometimes uses. He said that he hates hearing people say, ‘that’s so gay.’ It contributes to the cultural conversation that being gay is weak and that gay people are objects of ridicule. The language contributes to bullying. He also hates ‘lame’ and ‘retarded’ as epithets for similar reasons. Those words stigmatize the physically and mentally disabled. And he doesn’t like the term ‘noob’ either. Everybody was a beginner once, and most of us have benefited from the help and advice of more experienced users.

He went on to say that he’d seen ‘that’s gay’ or ‘you’re a fag’ in various battle.net games enough times that it started to get to him. One day, he decided to respond, “I’m asking you politely. Please don’t use the word ‘gay’ like that.”

The first time he did that, one of his teammates patiently explained to him that he should get used to it, the language has changed, and it’s like saying ‘lame’ or ‘retard.’ Peskydang replied, “I’m gay and I find it offensive.” The response: “Too bad. Gay means lame. Deal with it.” Pesky did. He said, “If that’s how you feel, then I can’t be your teammate,” and he quit the game. Later, however, after he thought about it, he decided that was an insufficient response. He decided that he needed to make his point more dramatically.

A few nights later, it happened again. He asked a teammate not to say “that’s so gay.” This time the response was even angrier. His so-called teammate typed, “Let me explain to you how the world works. Being gay is wrong. Normal people don’t like you.” So Pesky salvaged (removed) all his buildings from the map, targeted a nuke onto that teammate’s base, paused the game—and quit. When the other player unpaused the game, the first thing that he’d see would be nuke going off over his base. A nuclear blast is one of the most dramatic ways to express yourself. (In real life as well as in games.) Pesky’s departure in such a manner would almost certainly guarantee a quick and bloody defeat for the author of the abusive language.

Pesky shared this with the group and several of us acknowledged the eloquence of the tactic. “It’s a very dramatic way to say, ‘screw you.’ But what does it accomplish?”

Peskydang said, “Well, to be honest, I don’t think it’s going to change anyone’s mind, let alone their behavior, but at the very least I can keep that person from winning the game and demonstrate to him that there’s an in-game cost to abusive behavior.”

“But isn’t this unfair to the other players on your team?”

“Maybe so,” Pesky agreed. “But there are kids out there being abused by online jerks everyday. And it’ll continue as long as the rest of us allow the jerks to get away with it. The silence of other players is a kind of complicity. I say it’s time to take a stand that online abuse is unacceptable. When it occurs, we should stop the game dead in its tracks. I don’t have the authority to kick a jackass off battle.net, but I do have the personal authority to deny him access to my skills as a player.” (For the record, Pesky is a strong player. He wins a lot more than he loses because he manages his resources well.)

After thinking about it for a bit—I do think Pesky has a point. There’s no excuse for abuse. If we’re the good guys, we shouldn’t be silent. If the internet is a safe place for bullies to anonymously abuse others, then it has to be an equally safe place for the rest of us to confront those abusers and say, “Stop that. You cannot treat other people like that. If you continue doing that, I will not be your teammate. This game is over.”

Maybe one or two confrontations won’t change the behavior of an abuser—but if a person is consistently confronted and denied the opportunity to misbehave in a game designed for teamwork and cooperation, then maybe eventually he will get the message that the game is there for everyone. And everyone is entitled to be treated with respect. Everyone.

Maybe I’m being idealistic and maybe it’s impossible to get sociopaths to control themselves—but maybe another way is possible too. Maybe if we can figure out ways to make our online interactions a little more respectful, then maybe someday we could do that in the much larger game we call the real world.

What do you think?

—————

David Gerrold is a Hugo and Nebula award-winning author. He has written more than 50 books, including "The Man Who Folded Himself" and "When HARLIE Was One," as well as hundreds of short stories and articles. His autobiographical story "The Martian Child" was the basis of the 2007 movie starring John Cusack and Amanda Peet. He has also written for television, including episodes of Star Trek, Babylon 5, Twilight Zone, and Land Of The Lost. He is best known for creating tribbles, sleestaks, and Chtorrans. In his spare time, he redesigns his website, www.gerrold.com

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