Seven deadly sins: Slaves to the game

Once the violent world of video games seeped into our friendships, there was no going back.

Published December 12, 1998 11:02AM (EST)

I exploded Stephen's spaceship moments from arrival on the Desert
Planet with a smuggled load of fresh water. I used the antimatter bomb I
had purchased from a shady ex-Federation weapons scientist, and just before
he entered the glow of the atmosphere his whole vessel turned a dull orange
and flew apart in a swirl of white pixels. This was revenge for his
betraying our carefully hammered-out agreement to divide the interstellar
black-market in unrefined dilithium, and revenge was indeed sweet.

This game is our latest obsession, our most current technique for
escaping the consequences and the ethical relevance of day-to-day life. We
cross into the world of this game, as we have crossed into the world of so
many others, and we shed the kind, thoughtful, honor-coded,
categorical-imperative-driven and secular-Christian virtue that our
parents, schools and neighbors have worked so hard to inculcate in us. This particular game came from the Web, and it takes place in the
underbelly of the squeaky-clean "Star Trek" universe, a universe of
smugglers, arms dealers and unpredictable idealists. The temporal and
spatial anomalies, the inter-species romances and the chance to save
backwater civilizations that are so much a part of the Enterprise's
experience are few and far between here. Instead we accumulate
practically unimaginable wealth; we hone our cutthroat bargaining and business
skills; and (as I have described) we blow each other up.

Entertainment like this really has no boundaries. We take a
deliberate step by crossing into it, but once we've cast off the restraint
that held us at a distance from its playful space, the way back into the
responsible everyday world is no longer clear. The game seeps into the
time that we pretend to work, and eat, and plan, and socialize. When we
were playing 3-D battle chess I learned to dream about it, anticipating
Stephen's countermoves and planning openings for the next day. At parties
we would move through living rooms according to the laws governing knights:
two steps forward and one to the right, finding ourselves in who-knew-which
tangle of kids discussing the impeachment, or the new DeLillo book, or
where they were when they heard Jerry died, or -- if the kids were younger -- Cobain.
When I destroyed the water-smuggling ship, Stephen lost not only the
black-market price of the goods, the depreciated value of his vehicle and
the life of a scrupulously crafted avatar, but also the chance to be taken
seriously when we bicker about who's a faster driver, about who obeys the
traffic laws a little too exactly.

"Yo, what took you so long, asshole? 'Boy Meets World' in 30
seconds." This is the problem: an everyday afternoon TV schedule that you
had better not be late for. Stephen was not angry, but he can't pass up a chance to criticize. At first I could think of no defense:

"Why don't you shut up? Where's the popcorn?"

"Popcorn? Why don't you fucking get home in time to make your own?"

Then I remembered the great coup I had won above the surface of
the Desert Planet and I cashed in on it to terrific effect.

"Get home in time? Listen, at least I don't explode for no obvious
reason two seconds before pulling into the driveway."

At this point my roommate's impatience ceased to be a personal
affront and became just one of a long list of pitiable qualities, a
reminder of my strategic superiority. I was no longer threatened by his
competent fashion sense (in contrast to my own) or his bottomless
fund of insults and obscenity. Stephen's very impulsiveness became a
reassurance that the hyperspace shipping routes were safe for my own
trans-galactic monopoly, that in our squabbles of one-upmanship I would
always have a rejoinder.

But risks and reassurances like these are nothing compared to our
first experiments in joyful mutual destruction, such as when we used to
play Marathon. When we were freshmen, a guy named Ian knew how to download
games from a site in California. He came over to the apartment every
couple of days to help us get set up: first Marion, who he had a crush on,
and then Louisa, her roommate, and then Stephen and Leo and me. The girls
soon lost interest (both in Ian and in the game) but Stephen and Leo and I
became enthralled. As few as one or as many as 10 people could enter a
simulated maze inhabited by homicidal aliens equipped with machine guns and
disintegrator rays. We were at a delicate age, prey to the contingencies
of early college love-affairs and responsible for the first time for the
serious organization and delineation of our own lives: work and play,
friendship and desire, rivalry and hatred. Play was through the school's
ethernet system, so everyone could sit at a computer in his own room,
ganging up on the aliens.

"I've got napalm! Look out, Leo. Oh shit, now you've got it all
over yourself." I made some of the first discoveries in the world of the game Marathon -- including the notoriously powerful napalm launcher -- but never quite learned to control many of them.

"Yo, what the fuck are you doing. Look, I'm dying."

When a character had absorbed too many bullets, fragments of
shrapnel or disintegrator hits, the animation on his screen would grow
surreal, suffuse with red and finally go blank. If he wanted to get back
in the game he had to log back on. And the other players had to approve
the log-on if a game was already in progress.

"Yo, let me sign on, dude." Victim of my clumsiness, Leo was now dead.

"No way, Leo. Look, I'm about to win." Ian's competitive streak
was graceless and explicit. After a while we stopped inviting him over.

"Yo, don't be an asshole," Leo pleaded.

"Hold on, I'm about to waste these guys. PLOW!"

"Dude, you gotta let me on. You come over my house, use my
roommate's computer, now you won't let me in the game."

"Why are you such a pussy, Leo?"

It didn't take long for the aliens themselves to become a
distraction in the increasingly serious business of annihilating one
another. Stephen and Leo battled every night, refusing to play in the same
room, bellowing at one another through two sets of open doors. Then they rehashed the previous night's duel at lunch. By this time Stephen had found
out that Leo'd slept with Jessica who worked at the bookstore, and although
Stephen had no right to be jealous or protective (since she'd shot him down
simply and politely and never spoken to him again), the game was not
exactly all in fun.

"By the way, Leo, I found the atomic land mine again, so tonight I'm
going to make you cry."

"Dude, shut the fuck up," replied Leo, bored.

"No, I mean it. I'm gonna booby trap the second level where you'll
never find it. If you don't stay the fuck off of the second level you're
gonna be toast."

"Just shut up. You're so full of shit your eyes are turning brown."

This particular game did not seem to encourage moderate, tasteful
speech. In fact, I've never heard such loud, prolonged obscenity outside
of Leo's telephone calls with his family. In any case, after a while the
calls home were just another game. Instead of napalm he could ask about
his brother's torturous junior-high love life, about his mother's tedious
job. After a certain amount of abuse his family members would hang up on
him: kick him out of the game.

But as Jessica who worked in the bookstore disappeared from our
lives again, our interest in Marathon faded. Plus we found some kids from
Villanova who could kill all of us (working as a team) in less than
90 seconds every time we played. I was never much good at the game,
and when we met the 'Nova kids I had started doing the reading for my
philosophy class again, so there was less time for practice, but Leo
especially was at the top of his form, killing Stephen and me predictably
every time. He had learned how to speed up the aliens, and could take on
as many as six at once. Leo was the "goddamned KING of fucking Marathon,"
the cyber-athlete we all tried to be.

The guys from 'Nova blew him up with a recoilless rifle in less
than a minute, and he walked out of his room stunned and ashamed. I never
even fired a shot. That was the end of Marathon for us.

The end of the rest of the story is the water-smuggling debacle,
and the present search for a new game. After a while one wins not only a
great victory in a given game, but even bragging rights to the whole
territory of that game. Out of Stephen's disgusting mouth it is not
unusual to hear, "Yeah, but I'll make you my little bitch in Battle Chess!"
In some obscure way this is good and proper, but it makes the search for
new games constant and insatiable. For Chanukah I just bought him a
remaindered copy of Myst, and also he found something called Moto-Racer
pre-installed on his new computer. He's been having some trouble with job
applications and his thesis, and he's been a little down on himself. Right
now he's in his room, shouting again and again, "I SUCK AT MOTO-RACER," and
giggling when Marion tells him to shut up. I worry about this, but I also
suspect that he's trying to hustle me.

By Isaac Zaur

Isaac Zaur is a senior at Haverford College.

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