Trash-talking gone too far is marring online video-game worlds

I've got a friend; we'll call him James (not his real name). James is around 30, a professional man with a solid career. He is both intelligent and educated, two things that, as we all know, don't always go hand in hand. Despite our age difference, we share a passion for competition and winning, an appreciation for the brilliance of Blazing Saddles and, as athletes, a wealth of common experiences from the field, the court and the locker room.

Where we diverge is that, while I am of the generation that might have played a little pinball in college and then marveled at Atari and Pac-Man before eventually turning our backs on that (kids') stuff, James grew up with ever-more-sophisticated electronic games and never stopped playing. It's as though the games grew into adulthood along with the players. James still plays, probably as much--if not more--as he did in college.

Since we're friends, I don't question the dozens of hours each month that he devotes to pretending to kill people on some faraway planet. And, for his part, he has stopped asking me why, every time he sees me at a sporting event, I have a book with me. (It's not the same book; that would be weird. It's whatever book I happen to be reading at the moment.)

James mostly plays Halo, a wildly popular game that, thanks to the wonders of technology, allows teams of people from (conceivably) all over the world to play against one another online. Players have hand controls for the games and wear headsets that allow them to speak to their teammates and opponents. There is even a strictly maintained hierarchy so that the better players will be pitted against one another, with consistent success leading to advancement. James is a brigadier with a stellar rank of 47, which puts him on par with guys who haven't left their moms' basements in the past six years.

However, James' enjoyment of the online competition is being severely tempered by a phenomenon that started as a trickle, but is now a torrent.

(Caution: If you're offended by language, please stop reading this now. While I am not a fan of these words, and I don't speak them myself, I am not going to tiptoe around them by using fill-in-the-blank dashes to keep from offending anyone.)

James first noticed it about a year ago. While some online gamers would use common guy cusswords and phrases to intimidate their opponents (or even to chastise a "teammate" who was playing selfishly or badly), occasionally, somebody would let slip something outside of the bounds of guy-ness.

"I was playing one day and, all of a sudden, somebody yells, 'Kill that nigger!' I said, 'What did you say?!' The person says, 'It's just an expression.' Well, it's not just an expression."

James, whose father is black and mother is white, is upset with the racial slurs, but there is so much more.

"Sometimes, you'll be playing, and it's a group thing. Every other word is 'fag' or 'faggot.' And you can tell by the sound of the voices that these people are teenagers or even younger. And as the game gets more intense, they try to out-nigger or out-faggot each other. Sometimes, I'll stop the game and ask them, 'What the hell's wrong with you? Why do you talk like that?'"

To its credit, Microsoft's Xbox 360 (the only format on which Halo can be played) actually provides a mechanism through which players can police the game. There is a Communication category, with sub-categories Trash Talk, Language and Disruption. But James says that very few people take the time to do anything about it, either because they're lazy, or they don't want to be looked upon as a snitch, or perhaps they see nothing wrong with those words.

James and I both played basketball in college, and like millions of others, we have the shared experience of having learned the game on the unforgiving playground. It's a very structured environment where people choose teams and play 3-on-3 or 5-on-5, with the winners staying on the court and the losers going to the end of the line and sometimes waiting an hour to get back on.

There were many unwritten, but universally understood, rules of conduct. A good player could lose and immediately be picked up by the next team getting on the court. Call your own fouls, but never call an offensive foul. Trash-talk was acceptable, but it had strict boundaries.

"That's what gets me," says James. "On the playground, these clowns wouldn't be talking like that. They wouldn't even get to the '-ger' syllable. They'd say 'nig-,' and they'd have a fist in their face."

But with Halo, these kids can say all that stuff and hide behind the anonymity of the Internet.

James has written to Microsoft's legal department, but he hasn't heard back from them. He's hoping that a friend of his might hack into the system so they can track some of these knuckleheads down. He'd love to knock on a door one day, and have some 13-year-old answer the door, asking, "Who are you?"

"Oh, I'm that 'nigger fag' you were trying to shoot yesterday online."