January is always a funny month on Steam: it is inevitably flooded with players who’ve bought or received new games during the Christmas sale and are settling into these titles, with new game modes and achievements to chase after. A lot of January gamers are atypical to Steam’s regular crowd and, for the most part, stop participating in multiplayer before February rolls around.
A few weeks ago, as I settled into an exceptionally crowded Team Fortress 2 lobby, someone named CHUCK_1954 joined my team (BLU). It appeared he had never set foot in a 24/7 Badwater Basin server—he spawned as Engineer (default loadout and hatless) and was repeatedly whispering “is my microphone working?” with a cigarette-scarred voice that hinted at unease and insecurity. Within the first few minutes of action, I heard the fear in his voice snowball, turning into panic and then despair. Before we made it to the first payload checkpoint, he was crouched down three feet outside of spawn, blocked in a corner by his own level 1 Dispenser, trapped and vulnerable. He stayed there, spinning aimlessly, for the rest of the match.
Because I was spawning directly in front of him, I had no choice but to look straight at him every time I left the BLU base (roughly once a minute). I’ve seen people freeze or give up in videogames many times, and it’s a sad thing, but as another Engineer there’s nothing you can do about it. At that moment, though, I found it impossible to stop thinking about CHUCK_1954. Even when I was just heading out to construct my own buildings, I knew he was still staring directly at me. Over the course of the next hour, I watched as his despair turned into resentment and then contempt. I felt it all directed toward me and my loadout.
I was completely unable to focus on my gameplay, instead feeling hyper-aware of my Vintage Lugermorph, my tastefully tacky Industrial Festivizer, my well-versedness in sentry placements that I have optimized across hundreds of TF2 sessions. My ultra-rare #31 Golden Wrench. Surely this
newbie oldbie was noticing all of these things and judging me for them, stereotyping me, resenting me—or so I imagined.
I thought about how even though Team Fortress 2 had been designed as a casual free-to-play title, it’s been shamelessly co-opted by hardcore gaming culture as an e-sport for young, rich gamers with powerful computers. I thought about my beloved donation-based server that I’ve visited for years, in which the player cap is 32 and often very crowded and no one will try to put brony porn over your personalized meme spray. They preach the gospel of TF2 egalitarianism, that Badwater Basin payload is approachable for people of all ages, experience levels, socioeconomic statuses, genders, and races; that it is non-judgmental and receptive. As such, the server is populated largely by students, kids, and neckbeards; there is a much higher ratio of teenagers to mature gamers than at many other servers, and you never see the ultra-competitive, 6v6-playing, unusuals-only e-sports stereotype.
I realized with horror that despite the message of all-inclusivity posted on the server’s welcome screen, despite the purported unimportance of gameplay experience, despite the sizeable population of college students, truly mature players were few and far between. And in the large and constantly rotating roster of server admins, I could only ever remember two being over the age of 23.
I thought about how that must feel: to be a retired, washed-up old man entering for the first time a videogame that by all accounts seems unable to accommodate his reflexes. What could I do to help him? If I were him, I thought, I would want as little attention to be drawn to my despair as possible—I would not want anyone to look at me or notice me. And so I tried to very deliberately avoid helping him each time a Spy waltzed up to sap his level 1 buildings, but I could feel his hostility just the same. Trying to ignore it only made it worse. I thought about what the admins could or should have done to help him. Would a simple “Right click to rotate your buildings” message have helped, or would it embarrass him? Should I tell him after the match how awful I was at PC games for the first few months of my practicing and encourage him to stick with it, or would that come off as massively condescending? If I asked him to articulate his experience to me so I could just listen, would he be at all interested in telling me about it? Perhaps more importantly, what could Valve do to make its games more accessible to a broader range of ages? Is having console gamepad support enough, or would it require a serious restructuring of FPS control schemes?
I logged off of Steam and promptly broke down crying. Team Fortress 2, a beloved casual game that has helped me through many dark moments in over six years of playing, suddenly felt deeply suspect. Knowing fully well that one hour of perhaps self-importantly believing myself to be the deserving target of a geriatrically-charged anger is nothing, is largely my own psychological projection, is a drop in the bucket, is the tip of the iceberg in online player relations, I was shaken by it all the same.
The question is, of course, so much bigger than one game—it’s a question of enormous systemic failure. But just the same, I want to know—how can we play videogames in good conscience, when YouTube strategy guides are not enough? How do we create a space that is accessible not just to everybody, but to saggy, deteriorating, wrinkled bodies? And while I recognize that there is an element of spectatorship to my experience in this instance, it is precisely this feeling of not being able to engage, not knowing how to engage, that mitigates the hope for change.