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Why has online gaming become so antisocial?

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Remember the early days of online console multiplayer? When it was all brand new, and exciting, and felt a bit impossible, like our Xboxes were plugged into an extra-dimensional pool of pure magic at the wall, and communicating to each other via little psychic pixies who lived inside their cases? Remember how utterly goddamn thrilling that was, and how excited we were to clip on our mics, brave their aggressive plastic squeeze on our poor, bruised temples, and leap in for yet another night of fun, adventure, and chatting shit at each other, whoever and wheresoever we might be?

Yeah, we’ve kind of stopped doing that, haven’t we?

It’s been that way for a while, but I really noticed it when playing Grand Theft Auto Online the other night. Slowly, steadily, like the imperceptible but inexorable growth of a stalactite, or the progressive coating of a cave floor with bat shit, we’ve gradually turned away from that initial joy, allowing the fun of interacting with each other through games to become just another tertiary element to be ignored next to the game itself.

Why did I suddenly notice it the other night, after years of watching online socialising gradually erode around me? I think maybe because I was playing GTA, and having finished the campaign just before Christmas, after putting around 100 hours into the main story, the juxtaposition between the offline and online versions of Los Santos was stunning. And not in a good way. After more than four solid days-worth of play-time in Grand Theft Auto V’s living, reactive, dynamic city and countryside, the insertion of real, living people made it feel suddenly empty and sterile.

Okay, my initial hopes for the fun, anarchic, communal lunacy promised by the concept of a shared Los Santos were immediately deflated, when my first interaction with another player comprised being silently, anonymously stabbed while I browsed a shop. But things didn’t improve from that point on. I ran around. I drove around. I did stuff. I did missions. I did most of those missions alone or with people not on my server, after waiting 10 minutes for the lobby to populate. I sent mission invitations to everyone in my city, multiple times, and got no response.

I did get one guy to meet up for a quick arm-wrestle, but when I won, and he joined me in my car afterwards--myself foolishly thinking that this little bonding moment was to be the start of a grand, cross-city adventure--he promptly, silently and anonymously, shot me and stole my car before I could even apply foot to accelerator. Yes, I chased him down and ran him over upon respawn, but that’s not really the point.

The thing is, Rockstar seems to have designed GTA Online for precisely the opposite of this kind of unspeaking, slightly misanthropic, lone-wolf experience. There’s a shared San Andreas, with all the potential for ramped-up, amplified tomfoolery and creative, player-driven escapades that a 16-person server affords. There are player apartments. There are multiple hang-out spots. Player-created missions appearing in the game actively encourage experimental, communal play.

And I know that GTA Online is capable of great things in that respect. I appeared on our sister-site CVG’s GTA V o’ Clock show a couple of weeks ago. We had a full server, a few semi-organised game modes, and a whole bnch of self-imposed stunts and challenges to complete or fail spectacularly. And you know what? It was by far the best time I’ve ever had with GTA Online. In real-world conditions though? Anonymous, lone killers all the way.

It’s not just GTA that has this problem. Every multiplayer game I’ve jumped into over the last year or so has been the same. Battlefield, that bastion of organised, co-operative, tactical combat? 90% of players are devoid of either mic or plan, running wildly around like disorganised mercs, hired for the same cause but working independently from each other. Even Batman: Arkham Origins, a multiplayer game which utterly demands tight co-operation, seems to be played the same way. In the couple of weeks I dabbled with it, I had precisely one good game, with a couple of chatty American guys who actually seemed to value the game’s most important mechanic. Communication.

We’re losing more than just efficient squad tactics as we become less talkative online. When I mentioned interacting through games at the start of this article, I wasn’t just talking about the mechanics of setting up a cross-fire. Games are a great medium for human interaction of any kind. In fact any kind of multiplayer game, video or not, exists pretty much for that purpose. I have a couple of friends who moved to the US  a few years ago. We rapidly realised that we were crap at staying in touch via e-mail, so we all installed World of WarCraft and met up there once a week. It gave us a focal activity, which made sure that we met up regularly, but the game itself remained secondary to us simply hanging out. It was a chat-room with gameplay, basically.

On a slightly different note, back in the heyday of Call of Duty 4, boozy weekend lobbies were a regular fixture amongst the staff and readers of a site I worked prior to GamesRadar. Some players I knew in person, many I didn’t, and plenty I’d never met before. But we were always a tight unit by the end of the night. We’d fill up our lobby, then take our team touring the world, taking on the best and worst it had to offer in increasingly silly, increasingly raucous Domination matches. I added a fair few people to my friends list from the opposition along the way too. It was a hoot.

But those sort of shared experiences and game-driven meetings seem increasingly rare these days. When I fire up a game’s online mode, I never expect to see more than a couple of people with mics, and I’m rarely surprised. Maybe part of the problem comes from the fact that today's XP-heavy online games rarely ever offer group rewards. Think about the badges and trinkets you get thrown after a match. All skewed towards individual achievements, no? Even in team-based games, lone-wolf behaviour is almost exclusively rewarded. How about more squad rewards for co-operative actions more significant than accidental assists? 

Maybe the problem is also that we became complacent about online multiplayer after the initial excitement wore off. And then perhaps we began to get cynical. Like any online interaction, gaming has its fair share of issues. And through repeated complaining and lampooning in editorial and on forums, those problems eventually became clichés. And the problem with something becoming a cliché or a stereotype is that that process then allows us to more easily discard it off-hand, wholesale, without considering the bigger, more nuanced picture.

We hear someone playing crap music over their mic, or aggressively ordering their team around, and we instantly think “Oh yeah, online multiplayer is crap, isn’t it? Headset off”. We get one bad apple and we write off the whole thing, because “that’s just what online multiplayer is like”. We constantly refer to ourselves as “the gaming community”, but in my experience over the last year or so, we’re cutting ourselves off from being that more and more. Someone being a dick in a lobby? Mute them. It’s that easy. But how about we deal with the undesirables on a case-by-case basis, rather than bulldozing a house because of the roach problem? Sometimes it is good to talk to strangers. 

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51 comments

  • mentalityljs - February 20, 2014 4:36 p.m.

    With the exception of L4D and very few other titles, I personally don't care much for MP. Like others have said, people are douchebags, trolls are everywhere, and hackers cause more strokes per year than a poor diet. However, I do know a lot of people who purchase games for the sole purpose of playing MP, never playing through the campaign. I suppose it's possible their reluctance stems from having attempted to play through campaigns plagued by shitty AI and game mechanics. Makes sense. So, perhaps certain online communities share a common consensus of choosing MP over campaigns as a way of offering themselves more of a unique experience by playing against real people. If that's the case, then who really needs a headset? And furthermore, who needs communication?
  • Doctalen - February 20, 2014 3:41 p.m.

    Q: Why has online gaming become so antisocial A: Because people are assholes
  • LovingLife139 - February 20, 2014 12:40 p.m.

    I used to wear a mic while online, and had tons of fun with my friends online playing Left 4 Dead & Left 4 Dead 2, in particular. My problem was when my friends would go offline or wouldn't be on at all and I'd get strangers who would either a) be in parties with those who were already their friends, so I'd be consequently forgotten about and not considered part of the team, or b) harass me for being a woman. I can't tell you how many times I was harassed for my gender. It usually consisted of insults or intimate "requests", and it gets old quickly. I'm just there to play a game. I don't give a crap if someone is a man or woman. My concern is whether you're a good teammate or not. I sold my mic years ago (I think in 2010) and haven't looked back. I also mute all mics in all games, because even without a mic people would see my name on my gamercard and find that I was a woman and harass me through their own mics. It would literally happen at least once per day that I would try to play online, and after trying so many times, I'm just done with it. I rarely play online anymore due to this. So, for those of you who get mad at people who don't have mics, just remember that there's probably a reason. I used to have tons of fun online with my friends. I was the hyper joker type of a gamer friend and thrived on making my friends laugh, etc. After being harassed so much, though, that energy dies off and leaves nothing but a bitter taste for online play. :/
  • talleyXIV - February 19, 2014 7:04 p.m.

    GTA Online depresses me. Most of my friends don't have it or have gone next gen so I just join lobbies, ask if anyone is there, talk to myself, sigh. At least in Call of Duty you'll run into loud assholes, in GTA you have all these silent dicks killing you over and over gain.
  • sickjester - February 19, 2014 6:27 a.m.

    For me the biggest factor in the lack of chat in online games is the party function. When I started playing on the Xbox 360 the party function did not exist and players used to chat freely and openly in games. This used to draw people into the conversation and before you knew it you had cooperation and then friendship. All of the people on my friends list were added during the heady days of Rainbow Six Vegas and COD4! Usually what would happen is a group of players would come in chat away make you laugh and you would slowly start to be drawn into the conversation! I have honestly lost count of the amount of times that would happen. Now what happens are that people start parties and then chat away. This is fine if you are in the party but for meeting new people it just does not work. I honestly think the biggest mistake that Microsoft made during the 360 generation was the introduction of parties.
  • DEMONTHESE2211 - February 19, 2014 8:29 a.m.

    Very true, I remember when you could meet a lot of new people fairly easily on xbox live. The banter between games in Halo 3 and COD 4 lobbies was where I met a lot of the people who would become my friends. Then when party chat came along, it was convenient sure, but it pretty rabidly killed off in game chat. I like the inclusion of party chat for what it does but I do think it has taken away something from online play.
  • Rub3z - February 22, 2014 12:59 a.m.

    Good point, that. The problem is cliquishness, or a tribalism sort of mindset. You get set in with the people you know and are familiar to you, party up, and then throw yourselves into the hodge-podge. Once this kind of sets in that your most raucous times you have are in groups or parties of people you feel comfortable with, going through the effort of forging connections with others becomes more and more implausible or seems strange. Because then the mindset sinks in... it was said best by one of the devs of the game Planetary Annihilation during a stream that they would do to showcase development of the game. When one of the users in chat inquired about voicechat functionality for the game, he made this gem of a quote: "There are two groups of people who use voice chat: your friends who you play with, and the rest are just... random assholes on the internet." That illustrated perfectly the mindset that seems to have permeated online play. It's not just trolls and screaming kids and other idiots who blast annoying music through the mic. It's microcosmic tribalism, plain and simple.
  • CitizenWolfie - February 19, 2014 3:47 a.m.

    Anyway in the spirit of this article, if anyone's willing to help out a noob Battlefield 4 (PS4 & UK) player to learn the ropes, add me - CitizenWolfie
  • CitizenWolfie - February 19, 2014 3:31 a.m.

    Totally agree with this article. My best memories of online multiplayer are from being in parties with my two friends from school (one of which I'd not spoken to for almost ten years) and having some amazing matches on Modern Warfare 2 and Black Ops. It never really got better than that for me. Nowadays I very rarely even bother to touch multiplayer. Even on my PS4 Battlefield - I've spent more time in the campaign mode. I guess I'm just bored of playing the same deathmatches or "capture X" modes over and over. Even GTAV Online, as stated in the article, feels like a more open ended way to shoot each other. That's not GTA for me - it's having the freedom to do what I want. What I like best about being online now are games like LittleBigPlanet or Nintendo's Miiverse. People creating and sharing and leaving positive messages and helpful hints about games they like. I'm more comfortable about sharing a Wind Waker selfie with some random stranger who finds my message in a bottle than getting shanked and teabagged by some douchey 12 year old who's never even heard of Doom or Timesplitters.
  • v10l3nt_sa1nt - February 19, 2014 3:16 a.m.

    This article is pretty accurate, it's the main reason I don't play video games much anymore :( I used to system link games like halo 3 with my high school buddies every weekend, and by the time halo reach came out we had all finished high school and had xbox live and when we weren't playing online together I'd just play with strangers and most people would use headsets and at least try to communicate in objective gametypes, my personal favourite was invasion and big team capture the flag Nowadays It doesn't matter what I play online NOBODY uses their headset, it's frustrating, everyone's just in it for personal gain, leveling up and unlocking achievements and trophys, trust me, nobody and I mean NOBODY is going to bother looking at what achievements or trophys you've unlocked if they can't even be bothered to turn their mic on to talk to you Sorry for the rant, I just more people would use their headsets, just have fun guys, that's what it's all about. :)
  • john-kemery - February 19, 2014 1:04 a.m.

    Maybe its the games I play Online, but I don't see a lot of the hate and anti-social behavior. Playing games like Starcraft 2 and Warthunder and the new Loadout people tend to be quite chatty and willing to give you a hand in learn the ropes. L4D did turn into silence after about a year as everyone knew what they were supposed to be doing and if you didn't you were left behind. Had a month free of Xbox Live and played Halo 3, it had a lot of the anti-social behavior along with the COD games on console and PC. I think FPS games bring out the worst in people and especially with COD and BF they want to grind to get the equipment, so aren't bothered in teamwork unless theres an achievement. We need to return to the days of UT and Q3 were everybody had all the weapons from the start and just had fun.
  • v10l3nt_sa1nt - February 19, 2014 1:57 a.m.

    Ahhh Arena shooters Gone are the good old days where you could win matches by memorising spawn locations and controlling power weapons Words cant express how much I hate xp shooters with lvl ups, loadouts and streaks
  • drevas - February 18, 2014 7:42 p.m.

    The problem is that too often it just isn't just one Jerk " aggressively ordering their team around", or worse. I've been playing a lot of World of Tanks. The community in that Game is almost living proof of the concept of Dual Personalities. During the week it is an incredibly friendly environment that displays the best of what online gaming was supposed to be. Jerks seem to be at a minimum. The Weekends are a whole different matter. It's like a full Moon for Werewolves. Every unfriendly, Race-baiting, Homophobic, Sexist Jerk, and self-appointed Patton wannabe comes out of the woodwork and kills what is usually a good experience in just about every other round. Maybe, online Gaming is never going to be able to replicate the wonder and promise of the early years. Maybe the coarseness and lack of civility that permeates so much of our online interactions makes it impossible. I hope I'm wrong, I like Single-Player Gaming, but I like to play with other people too...when I can find enough of them that don't have to be Jerks about it.
  • MassSaber - February 19, 2014 3:44 p.m.

    Agree with everything said here With WoT i'm assuming it cos of it's F2P status that u get a lot of people jumping in to give it a try for days with not intention of PTO or supporting the team in any way. Like you said there some good apples too we had a guy yesterday Team killing our artillery our tanks ganged up on him pushed him into the centre of the map were he was quickly detected shot, we went to win proving there is some chance we bring some civility into online gaming
  • Eightboll812 - February 18, 2014 6:51 p.m.

    Another thought... Games that put ridiculous online trophies don't really help at all. You get people there just for those trophies, not for the social aspect. They never plug in a mic, because they just want their "win 5 online matches" trophy or whatever. So if devs really care about the quality of our online interactions, and they must have online trophies (cuz they think online trophies are cool...) then how about some simple trophies like "Use your mic for 5 hours (total) during online play." Easy enough to get and it fosters the interaction that has been lost. Just a thought.
  • Eightboll812 - February 18, 2014 6:10 p.m.

    Well, I had to lol at the GTAV online experience. Isn't that the point of the game? So people would behave more cooperatively when it's other people they are interacting with. It may not have been fun to experience it, but you managed to make it an entertaining read. As for your point, what you describe is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Often I don't turn on my mic, because anytime I do, I'm the only one with a mic. Even with 31 teammates in BF4. So a lot of time I just don't bother anymore. And when people go form private audio sessions, they further the isolation for others, and continue the dissolution of cooperative multiplayer. How can I join a private group of mic users if they aren't open to adding new friends?
  • footlongjohn - February 18, 2014 5:56 p.m.

    I agree, I don't add new people to my friends list very often as I used to for A. Not to many chatty people B. The one's that do talk tend to be ignorant, racist, rude, lol my favorite pot/religious advocate or a child....., but just are down right disgusting people. people that are anti-social, social anxiety...etc should feel more in courage to use a mic. I mean who want's to start talking and instantly get ridiculed for how they talk or if they sound like this race. and I do know there is a mute button for this reason but after you mute a whole room what's the point.
  • homestar99 - February 18, 2014 5:08 p.m.

    When I saw this I instantly thought GTA Online. Everyone is silent, nobody will join a mission with you, any interaction outside missions is a swift gun barrel pointing at my head. Nobody even takes it seriously, 99.9% of the players I meet don't wear pants and wear animal masks. The easiest way to progress is to work with friends and your crew. The problem is that everyone in my crew won't join me and I'm in the most populated crew in the game (At time of writing: Payne Killers). In order to make it work Rockstar needs to make players unkillable in any mode except the deathmatch modes. Killing others is pointless. I know this article isn't just about GTA Online but I needed to get that off my chest.
  • Rub3z - February 22, 2014 1:09 a.m.

    Dude, joining those crews that aren't player made just guarantees nobody in your crew will... er... "crew up" with you. I have plenty of fun in one of my friends' own player-made crews. Just invite your friends into it, and if they go through with it, you can have them invite their other friends in a whole friends-of-friends chain thing. In this way, you're guaranteed to meet more people who are friends of your friends to join up and go do crew stuff together. Worked pretty well for my crew.
  • homestar99 - February 23, 2014 12:22 a.m.

    I have the PS3 version and most of my friends have the 360 version. It limits my options. I mostly go solo because, as you can imagine, internet connection on Hawaii has latency issues that do that glitchy thing where people teleport 20 feet in random directions and then I get kicked for having connection issues thousands of miles from any actual player. I'm the only person in my circle of friends who made a crew which I still need to tweak a little. I wish I could use your theory but I'm basically limited to players that own the PS3 version and live in Hawaii. The few mainland players I connect to make the game fun. Now that I think about it, do you have the PS3 version and if so will you give me your crew name so I can join it?

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