THE STRIKE ZONE
Sometimes Sports, Sometimes Sportsmanship
By Sean Comerford
Board of Directors
After a stultifying day at work, I often look forward to sitting down at my computer to enjoy some video games. Games are big business these days, but even long before they were ever taken seriously by the mainstream, they have been a go-to release for me, particularly as a kid who was interested in sports but not particularly athletically inclined or talented. Despite my own enjoyment of many games with a competitive or team element, there is usually someone not enjoying themselves, and that person will let the other players know it—often with abusive, racist, and shocking language. In short, the same tendencies towards awful behavior that coaches, parents, and players seek to fight in the “real” world of sport occur online as well.
While unsurprising that some people will choose to behave badly in any venue available to them, the nature of online, networked gaming specifically worries me for a few reasons. First, much of the social pressure to behave is removed when online thanks to anonymity. Some participants will see this as license to act horribly towards their teammates or opponents despite any culture or accepted practices of the game, such as typing “GG” (good game) into the chat, win or lose. Second, bad behavior online is often viewed as having little to no consequences, as opposed to acting like a jerk at a Little League game, where a bully’s actions may result in punishment or retribution. Finally, although video games do come with a rating system to gauge age-appropriateness, even appropriately aged individuals can act in ways that are not acceptable to anyone. This includes abuse directed towards children or young adults, who already struggle with self-esteem issues and bullying online. Even as a grown adult, I find this behavior to be incredibly off-putting; it easily gets under my skin, leaving me angry or stressed out after playing a game, which is exactly the opposite of how I want to feel after using some of my leisure time.
So what can be done?
Some good first steps are technical. Most games have reputation management systems through which players can report others for abusive behavior. These "trolls" suffer restricted privileges in the game or can be banned entirely depending on the frequency and/or severity of their negative actions. Of course, these sorts of remedies miss much of the abuse, as they rely on action taken by the game developers and let toxic players off the hook if they are—for whatever reason—not reported even though they have acted terribly. Players can also act themselves by “muting” other players so they don’t hear their voices or read their chats, but this can unfortunately directly harm the competition of the game, as most online games require team coordination and strategy.
A brand-new game that I just played addresses the issue of toxicity by having players read through and indicate that they have understood a three-point “code of conduct” before unlocking the ability to play online with others. This is a nice approach, but of course, anyone truly determined to be awful can ignore the prompts and continue to make other people miserable.
Ultimately, as in other activities, education is imperative. The more that can be done to raise awareness among the participants in any activity that their bad behavior has a negative effect on others, detracting from everyone’s enjoyment and character-building, the better off everyone will be. Organizations like OSIP can help inform the public about their responsibility to uphold good sportsmanship, whether online or off.
There was a large chunk of my early high school years spent in front of a television with my Nintendo 64 powered up for too many consecutive hours while my friends and I became almost numb to what it took to play each game, regardless of what it was. Eyes were glazed over; thumbs and other fingers were calloused; and bodies were thankfully still young enough not to feel the effects of being in the same position for too long, so long as the stimulation in our brains was at maximum speed.
Out of all the games we played, the one that dominated the first two years of high school for us was GoldenEye 007.
This game was revolutionary for the industry. I'm not sure I would say it was ahead of its time, but the impact it had on how future games were developed and produced was outmatched only by the staying power it had to capture people and bring them back to the game years later, regardless that graphics had advanced significantly beyond mere polygons.
Beyond the ability to bring friends together for hours of entertainment, the single-player mode was equally as enthralling, and not just for the regular game-play. There was something else that fueled our fire: cheats.
Cheats were not negative in this sense. Normally, in dealing with sportsmanship, we hear the word "cheat" and we renounce it. However, in this case, cheats were unlockable modes that altered the coding in the game purely for entertainment purposes. They included Paintball Mode (where every gunshot produced a paintball splatter), Fast/Slow Animation (where the non-playable characters would move at different speeds), and All Guns (which unlocked all the guns for you to use in each level).
Cheats were unlocked via a time trial. So if you finished a level on a certain difficulty setting under a specific time, you would unlock that cheat. And there were two cheats that probably drove most players crazy in trying to unlock them: Invisibility and Invincibility.
Invisibility required you to complete the Archives level on the hardest difficulty level in under 1 minute 20 seconds, whereas Invincibility required you to complete the Facility level on the hardest difficulty level in under 2 minutes 5 seconds. To say my friends and I discussed and debated and tested everything under the sun regarding how to achieve these feats is an understatement. In fact, I'm quite surprised we didn't have laboratories set up with white boards and corresponding diagrams to help show the amount of brain power we used for this. However, in hindsight, it definitely makes me wish we had done this and provided significant evidence of doing this in order to earn some sort of advanced college credit while still in high school...seriously, we should have written multiple dissertations.
So much of my free time would be spent trying to beat each level under the required times. I'd restart levels immediately if I screwed up. I'd yell at the television if I missed it by one second. I would cripple with anxiety in my gut as I waited to see if I had finally achieved my goal, only to crumple in disappointment each time I would be significantly short. I imagine many of my teachers would have wished I spent more time doing other things...seriously, can you imagine where I would be if I used all those hours practicing music or taking extra swings in the batting cage?
The point here, however, is that this leisurely recreational activity that took so many hours proved a very important point: there was no need for significant competition with another person to ensure entertainment.
In Alfie Kohn's book "No Contest," which presents various arguments against competition, one section is dedicated to the idea that competition is needed to ensure entertainment. In other words, how can we have fun without competing? And is fun only had if we win? When I read this section, my experiences with GoldenEye came to mind immediately because it checked every box:
Ultimately, although Kohn's book is clearly to the extreme side against competition, one wonders if the objective is more so to get the reader to meet the extremist in the middle and compromise on some of the ideas regarding competition. That's where I find myself: understanding that competition needs to be viewed in an almost omniscient point of view, rather than being so invested in it that it is easy to lose sight of reality.
Oh, how easy it is to forget this while so invested in GoldenEye! But the lesson is easily learned: there are infinite ways to find entertainment without the vicious requirement of cutthroat competition.
Baseball player, umpire, coach, fan; professional musician; founder, President & CEO of The OSIP Foundation, Inc.