How Identity Politics Nearly Destroyed, But Then United a Small, Online Community
This is a story about video games, but it’s more than that. It’s also a story about friendship, racism, homophobia, loyalty, and how you learn the truth about your friends.
But it started with video games. Three years ago, Bungie, Inc. released a game called Destiny. It’s a fairly hard-to-define game, a sprawling first person shooter game with a hard sci-fi backstory. It’s an online cooperative game, wherein you join up with other players for missions and raids, but also for activities where you play against other groups of players. Despite playing video games on and off for the last 30+ years, it was my first online game. And after two months of it, I basically quit. I didn’t know anyone else who liked to play it, and I was anxious about online gaming with strangers (which is ironic in retrospect when you consider how many friends I’ve made through online writing). But eventually, a Pajiba reader and Facebook friend persuaded me to join his clan (in the Destiny world, likeminded groups of players can join together into formalized collectives called clans). And that’s how I dipped my toe into online gaming.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that it changed my life in a lot of ways. It turns out that this particular clan was filled with people who I almost instantly connected with. They were funny and smart and interesting, with common interests in movies and TV and comic books and sports. What started out as a casual gaming experience became … a form of socializing. For me, it became something bigger. I was a relatively new father with a wife who worked nights. I had little to no social life, and so my nights frequently consist of me coming home from work, playing with my son, feeding him dinner, and putting him to bed. And then, it’s just me by myself with books or TV or video games. But suddenly, I didn’t feel like such a shut-in. Suddenly, I could play video games and socialize with people, shooting the shit while we also saved the universe.
What’s more, the guys in that clan became my friends. Real, actual friends. Sure, we were scattered across the world, from Boston to Nebraska, Texas to DC, California to hell, Australia. We were housing managers and logistics coordinators, chemists and oceanographers. A guy who works for REI and a guy who works for the CIA (I think. He works at the Pentagon. He might be a government assassin for all I know.) But it was diverse, enjoyable company. We joked and made fun of each other, we celebrated each others’ personal triumphs and commiserated each others’ losses. Whether it was the birth of a child or the death of a parent, that clan was there for each other. We became friends. It felt like a family.
And then, in not-particularly-coincidental timing, it started to fall apart at the beginning of the year.
It started one night, when it was just me and one other guy from our group, Bill (all names have been changed). He was relatively new — newer than me, anyway (a lot of these guys have been gaming together for years). We were playing Destiny’s PvP (Player versus Player) activity, “The Crucible,” wherein you’re matched up against other players, sometimes with various objectives, but ultimately to try to kill each other off. Things were not going well for Bill. He was of probably average skill, but tonight was not his night. Finally, after being killed ten or eleven times, it happened. Some straw broke the back of some camel, and he shouted out:
I felt as if all the air had been sucked out of my basement TV room. I was stunned, but only for a moment. I immediately barked back:
TK: Whoa, whoa WHOA. What did you just say?
Bill: Sorry man, I just —
TK: No, man, there’s no “I just”. What the fuck was that?
Bill: I didn’t mean it that way…
TK:: What the fuck other way is there?
Bill: When I say it, I mean, you know, stupid people. I was actually talking about myself because I fucked up.
TK: Bill. You’re a smart guy. You know a lot of words. Find a better goddamn word.
Bill: OK, OK. Look, I’m sorry if you got offended.
There it was. “I’m sorry if you got offended”. No acknowledgement that he’d said some racist shit, just that he’d been busted saying some racist shit. I finished off the match we were playing and signed off.
A couple days later, after I’d cooled off a little, things came to a head in our Band chat (we use an app called Band — similar to Slack — to chat and goof off with each other during the day). Someone posted a meme that was uncharacteristically homophobic. The chat became uncomfortably quiet, and then I asked if we could perhaps refrain from posting homophobic or racist shit in our chat. It started an argument about “just joking” and “not taking everything so seriously,” and “how come some jokes are OK and others aren’t?”. Sides were chosen. And this wonderful little group of friends that I’d been with for almost three years felt like it was starting to fracture.
I took a break, going almost two weeks without playing or joining our chat. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know where my friends stood. I was angry and hurt. I remember saying “someone has to take a stand on this. We’re either OK with this kind of talk, or we’re not. There can be no middle ground on this for me.” And I thought … this might be it. This might not be important enough to them. I mean, all they want is to play fucking video games. They joined this group to get away from politics, from conflict. Just like I did. But it was a new world now, and that world had invaded our place. It was a microcosm of every family fight, every divided friendship that post-Trump America had created. It felt like it had become too real, too much like the very world we were trying to escape. Maybe we should accept that the “real” world is always going to play a part in our lives, even when we’re banding together with Hunters and Titans to save the galaxy from an evil God of the Hive. Part of me realized that maybe this was our problem in the first place — maybe we shouldn’t be trying to escape.
This is a story about video games. But it’s also a story about all of us. It’s a story about how easily we fracture apart, and how the differences between us seem sharper, more painful than they did a year ago. It’s a story about how voices of anger and prejudice have gotten louder over the years. It’s a story about the end of friendships. This is a story that isn’t uncommon — it’s easy to say that video game communities are a pit of vitriol and bitterness. It’s what’s dominated the headlines when it comes to these communities — GamerGate being the chief perpetrator. But of course, it’s not just video game communities — it’s the world around us, where anger and racism and hatred seems to be on the rise with every passing day.
Eventually the guys who were the de facto leadership, the originators of the clan, got tired of my silence and reached out to me. The answer they gave me was everything I needed: “We get it. We want to fix it, but we’re not sure how. Let us figure it out. Don’t go.”
So I didn’t go. They figured it out, collectively. And they changed things. They created a code of conduct, and everyone in the clan — everyone — had to acknowledge it. A line on hate speech of any kind was drawn hard in the sand. It was time for people to learn the difference between “that’s what she said” jokes, and misogyny, racism, homophobia. In the face of the ugliness of the outside world, they had the choice to put blinders on. But they chose righteousness. I was proud of them, proud of us.
It made us stronger. It made us better, and cemented our friendships. For better or worse, Bill ended up getting kicked out — his temperament and attitude just never found a place after that, he had another ugly night (I wasn’t around for it), and the next day he was asked to leave. The tension was gone, and it felt like we were having more fun than ever. But it also made us freer. Talk of politics, previously mostly ignored, became a little more common. Not because of commonality of belief (though there is that), but because I think we realized that we didn’t need to hide anything about ourselves.
This was a story about video games. But it’s also a story about finding hope in the darkness. Ask any of the Pajiba writers, and they’ll tell you that when we talk about the current state of affairs, I’m losing hope. So much so that I can barely write about it anymore. I tried to give myself a boost earlier in the year, but it always felt like we were losing more battles than we were winning. But then I realized something — this band of strangers, this band of brothers? They can give me hope, too. Even a community as seemingly silly and lighthearted as ours can take a stand on something. Communities like this can do amazing things — hell, this week alone, Destiny players raised over a million dollars for kids with cancer (in only seven days, no less). So while this story may not seem like a big deal, it plays a part in the larger world. It makes me realize that every day, people are taking stands like this, both small and large. It becomes a question of numbers and momentum. The road to progress lost both numbers and momentum last year, but we’re still traveling on it. Still pushing forward. And maybe if enough of us take these little stands, it’ll keep going and we’ll finally get somewhere where we don’t feel like we’re taking steps backwards.
Oh, and if you’re looking for a good Destiny clan? Hit me up. I know a solid group of guys.
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