"Kids' Informal Learning with Digital Media: An Ethnographic Investigation of Innovative Knowledge Cultures" is a three-year collaborative project funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Carried out by researchers at the University of Southern California and University of California, Berkeley, the digital youth project explores how kids use digital media in their everyday lives. Read more
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He is sitting in front of a television screen. He is wearing t-shirt and jeans. Headset on, hands tightly clutched on a game controller. But there is something terribly wrong here. He looks enraged. He swears profusely. At one point, he gets up, starts jumping up and down. He is gesticulating in an unorthodox manner. Look at him: he just threw gamepad on the floor. He screams savagely. He kicks his chair. He punches the television.
You have probably seen him before.
He is the “angry gamer”.
In the last few months I have been doing participant observation on Xbox Live, a multiplayer gaming and content delivery system created and operated by Microsoft Corporation. Xbox Live was released for the Xbox video game console in November 2002. An updated version – specifically designed for the Xbox 360 – was launched in November 2005. As I write this, Xbox Live is available in 37 countries. According to Microsoft, more than six million players around the world are actively using this service. I am one of them.
Technically speaking, Xbox Live is flawless. Simply put, it is the most efficient, easy to use, and inclusive multiplayer gaming system available for any console. Players from all over the world meet online to play, talk, and share. Yes, talk. Among its many features, Xbox Live supports voice chat through a headset: players can communicate with each other during, before and after a session. Technology is amazing. Technology, however, can also be troubling when people abuse it. The abuse is conventionally known as “trash-talk”. While the vast majority of Xbox Live are generally polite and respectful, some exhibit aggressive, offensive, and hateful language during gameplay. They taunt and insult each other: foul language is usually related to the player’s game-play skill level (or lack of), but racial, ethnic or sexual slurs are equally popular. “Trash-talking” (also known as “smack talk”) is very common on Xbox Live. However, its origins are non-digital: it has been used in traditional sports for centuries and it took the center stage during the final game of the World Cup, when an Italian player, Davide Materazzi, provoked football legend Zinedine Zidane.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Xbox users, like Materazzi, are very good at “trash-talking”. Before the advent of voice support, players were forced to temporarily interrupt playing in order to type out their insults on the keyboard. With Xbox Live and other systems that support voice chat, players can share invectives without pausing. The result is a seamless integration of playing and cursing. One of the implications is that players once shrouded in anonymity may now inadvertently reveal their age range by virtue of the pitch of their voice, thus allowing older gamers to detect the children among them, and eventually avoid playing with them in the future. A second implication – actually, a corollary – is that many kids seem to have access to mature rated games – in fact, most first-person shooter are rated for adults only.
What is trash-talk, exactly? The phenomenon was first discussed by the game press. Shortly after the introduction of Xbox Live, IGN – one of the most popular videogame websites – published a feature ironically titled “Xbox Live Etiquette” noting that
“In our experience so far on Xbox Live, we’ve noticed most people are still in the polite stage, offering advice and information about how all of this works. Little things like holding down the white button to speak to teammates in Ghost Recon and using the black button to limit communications to teammates only in MechAssault are certainly helpful, but the real fun comes when it’s time to degrade and humiliate right in your opponent’s ear” (IGN, 2002).
Five years later, the situation has indeed degraded. Although smack-talk has not caused moral panics yet, it has definitely transcended the gaming sphere. In February 2005, Net Family’s Annie Collier published a letter written by a “mother from Missouri”, Mary, outraged by the verbal abuses that usually take place on Xbox Live:
“I was sitting in the room with my teenage son while he was playing a video game on Xbox Live. I was absolutely horrified to hear the language that was being used over a voice communicator by other players. When I told my son to leave that particular game, the game punished him for leaving by lowering his game ranking. When I contacted Microsoft about the matter, they told me that there was a feedback option that reports these acts. So, I played the games and used the feedback option myself. After playing many of the same people after leaving the feedback, nothing changed. Microsoft seemingly has no plans to stop verbal abuse from one player to another while they continue to market the service to youth. My concern is that many parents have this service in their household and don't even know what is being said to their children because the Xbox Live Communicator that is used has an earpiece so that only the player can hear what is being said. I will admit that I might expect an occasional vulgarity, but what I heard was enough to make a fleet of sailors blush. I had no idea and I am certain that many of your readers don't either. As for our household, the service is being discontinued. Even though I am just one customer, I think that it is time for services like this to know that people are paying attention to what goes on with their services.” (February 4, 2005).
Ironically, the accident happened while Mary’s son was playing a non violent videogame, i.e. Top Spin, a tennis simulation. In the aforementioned article, IGN provided a tongue-in-check – and yet surprisingly accurate – taxonomy of “trash talkers”: “Filth and Flarner” (the most common type, “These are the ones who unleash nonstop barrages of your favorite curse words in rare combinations and surprisingly potent sequences”); “Strong and Silent”, those are “much more reserved in their trash talking because they often need to focus their attention on the task at hand and a good verbal jab just has to wait for its proper time”; “Motor Mouth” (who “talk nonstop” and are “always coming up with new ways to say basically the same thing. Often the Motor Mouth believes there is a higher level of trash-talking that just hasn’t been reached yet because of a lack of effort”) and, finally, the “Annoying Bastard” (“Anybody that uses voice-masking while on Xbox Live”).
Although “trash-talk” is a widespread communicative practice on Xbox Live, it is not the only one or the most prevalent, as Talmadge Wright, Eric Boria and Paul Breidenbach (2002) have suggested. In an essay titled “Creative Player Actions in FPS Online Video Games. Playing Counter-Strike” the researcher describes various textual chats and non-verbal expressions, identifying 39 possible coded talk categories which fit into five general categories “that appeared to exhibit the greatest frequency of use among players”: 1) creative game talk, 2) game conflict talk, 3) insult/distancing talk, 4), performance talk and 5) game technical/external talk. The researchers noted that “the most frequent type of discourse was talk related to game performance or conflict, such as accusations of game cheating. Moreover, they linked “trash talking” to the Insult/Distancing Talk category which includes “taunting talk/trash talk/ritual insults, annoyance talk, explicit gendered, racialized or homophobic talk (the status of game player, not just exclamations and responses) and pissed off talk/exclamations/surprise”.
Others, like Martin R. Gibbs, Kevin Hew and Greg Wadley (2004) have taken a more technical approach, suggesting that “trash talking” could be considered the unavoidable result of interface design. In “Social Translucence of the Xbox Live Voice Channel”, they write that although users expected voice to be an advance over text-based communication, in practice they found it problematic, which, in turn, led to usability and sociability issues of the Xbox Live system as a whole. In a previous study titled “Computer Supported Cooperative Play, “Third Places” and Online Videogames”, Greg Wadley, Martin Gibbs, Kevin Hew and Connor Graham (2003) examined the impact of voice communication in online console games. While the users that they interviewed expressed enthusiasm over the idea of using such device, many did not use it because they felt intimidated by “smack talk”. Consider the following passage:
“Users felt that voice communication would be useful in team-based games, multiplayer role-playing and in competition with friends. Ironically, the voice headset was not used much by any users in our study. Reasons cited in included: (a) inappropriateness to the game being played; (b) not wanting to participate in what one group called the “spam” of taunts, trash talk and chatter unrelated to game play; (c) unfamiliarity with the headset; (d) lack of control over who was being addressed; (e) problems identifying who was talking” (2003: 240, emphasis added)
Today, trash-talking has become an customary part of online gaming. Gamers even celebrate it with “instructional videos” such as this. The message is clear: trash-talking is here to stay. The least you can do is doing it well. Trash-talking is not necessarily verbal, but can be performed with the game itself. An example is the “I am alive and you are dead” dance, inaugurated by Gears of War. This "ritual" is performed when the rest of a player’s team is dead by taking cover and rapidly crouching, making the player’s character grunt. This is meant to taunt teammates instead of the opposing team’s players, by showing that they are superior to the rest of the team. A variation of this is “teabagging”, in which a player kills his opponent and then rapidly crouches repeatedly, over the player’s face to simulate the inserting of his scrotum into the dead player’s mouth. Teabagging is prevalent in Halo 2 matches on Xbox Live.
Trash-talking has become such a common activity that some companies have introduced dedicated accessories to facilitate it. One is aptly titled “Smack Talk”, produced by Digital innovations. “Smack Talk” enables the players to pre-record their own sound bites, funny movie clips or famous speeches recorded from any source. The device connects in-line between the players’ controller and headset with 5 flash memory buttons to allow the user to select the appropriate bite when communication during online gaming. A similar device is the equally unambiguously titled “TrashTalk” (Datel), which performs the same tasks (the inevitable video review is available here.
Again, this is not a new phenomenon. However, one cannot certainly blame Microsoft for the situation. On the contrary, the company is trying to supervise the community, discouraging spiteful manners and offering a series of tools meant to reduce possible annoyances – for instance, players can disable others gamers’ voices and report mistreatment or harassment. In a sense, the Xbox Live system has been specifically designed to discourage detestable behavior. Each player is identified by a GamerTag, the universal name for a player’s username on Microsoft’s Xbox Live, a form of identification that displays his “credentials”, such as his reputation, which, in turn, is affected by the player’s behavior during matches. There are several websites which allow users of Gamertags to upload photos and information about themselves. Additionally, users can evaluate the other players’ behavior, exclude them from their sessions and prompt Microsoft to expel those who deliberately ruin and disrupt the gaming experience. Since each player is identified by a specific Gamertag, he or she can be easily located, contacted from within Live, and, eventually, banned, both by the players and by the administrators.
Nonetheless, insolence and blatant offensiveness is more common than ever on Xbox Live. Several players that I have interviewed admit using crude language during online play, although not with the intention of offending other gamers: “Swearing is just part of the game”, a thirteen year old kid from San Bruno told me. Interestingly, this situation is more frequent for specific game genres such as the first-person shooter (FPS) such, e.g. Halo or Call of Duty. Some argue that the brutal and ruthless nature of the game itself encourages rudeness. In fact, the first-person shooter is the most intense, graphic and explicit genre: in these games, players go around shooting each other in virtual scenarios that range from World War Two battlefields to sci-fi spaceships. If gameplay can be considered a language, the FPS has a very limited vocabulary. The interaction with other players is mostly limited to shooting – alternative forms of negotiation with the Other are not contemplated. The kind of language you hear during a game of Halo, Battlefield or Call of Duty evokes the crass vulgarity one can find in movies depicting military lives, such as Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. This should not surprise, considering the close links between military culture and the videogame industry [note 1]. However, the focus of this short article is not the military-entertainment complex. What I would like to discuss, instead, is the figure of the “Angry Gamer”, a player of videogames that expresses his frustration in vocally and physically obnoxious manners.
It would be easy to think of the “Angry Gamer” as the inevitable outcome of smack talk practices on Xbox Live. However, the picture is more complicated than that. Still, the clues are hardly unintelligible. I would like to underline that my findings are consistent with the conclusions of a recent survey conducted by Jason Rockwood under the supervision of Dmitri Williams at the University of Illinois Department of Speech Communication during the summer of 2006. Titled ‘Gaymer survey’ [http://www.jasonrockwood.com/results.html]. The research attracted over 10,000 respondents from 30 countries. The results show that players online are extremely homophobic. It is unfortunately well known that one of the most recurrent comments used in online play is “gay”, used with derogatory, offensive purposes. Failing to achieve a specific goal in the game, such as killing the adversaries in a swift way, often prompts other players to yell “gay!”. You miss the target: “That’s so gay!”. You get “pwned” – “Angry Halo 2 Player” ; “another “Angry Gamer 2”; the alleged hidden-camera version which feature particularly ebullient fans of Microsoft’s Halo 2. Other examples include “Angry Gamer: Counter-Strike” or the “Nerds gone crazy” series [episode one is available here,]. [In all cases, viewer discretion is recommended. These videos contain profanities and aggressive behavior].
After watching these videos, one might conclude that online games are turning kids into sociopaths. The level of inhuman hostility displayed by some of these youngsters brings to mind the possessed Linda Blair in William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. Fortunately, such fears – however understandable – are unfounded. Let’s take a closer look at one of the videos, [“angry halo 2 player”]. The first question we might ask ourselves is: why would anybody film himself while insulting other players during a videogame session? The answer is simply: to provoke, to get attention, to inflame. This video, like many others on YouTube, are clearly staged. It deliberately portrays the young gamer as a seriously troubled character, one of the most elementary strategies used to raise awareness. Furthermore, although these videos seem to have a self-congratulatory intent, the goals of the authors are often, if not always, undermined and frustrated by the community of viewers. The vast majority of users’ comments, in fact, are sarcastic and disapproving.
As with most YouTube textual remarks, they range from the inane to the stirring – with a distinct prevalence of the former category, although misspelled words and grammatical oddities abound. Most commentators address the “protagonist” as a “n00b” (l33t speak for rookie and/or incompetent). Other recurrent epithets are “loser”, “sad”, “insane”, “lunatic”, “retard”, “idiot”, “freakin psychopath (funny though)”, and, point in case “fag”. There seems to be a general agreement that “Angry Gamer” “sucks”, both as a gamer and as a human being. Most commentators “laugh out loud” at his performance, while others try to identify the “best bits” (“I love it when it gets to 2’30”; “1’47” is his absolute best”). In any case, they have an audience.
It comes as no surprise, then, that the “Angry Kids” of the world are trying to elevate their rudeness to a new form of art. They outperform each other by upping the ante in vulgarity and vile speech. Their model is the now legendary “German Angry Kid that caused a major political outcry in Germany when it was “discovered” by the mass media – interestingly, Germany has one of the most rigorous regulations regarding the sale and distribution of videogames in the world. Moreover, the local political parties insist that there is a direct link between violent videogame and anti-social behavior [link to videoludica]. The “Angry Kid” is simultaneously derided and lauded, dismissed and emulated. He has directly inspired the character of Doug, also known as “fps_doug”, one of the unlikely heroes of “Pure Pwnage” (pronounced “pure ownage”), an Internet-distributed mockumentary series from ROFLMAO Productions that has gained a cult status among gamers. This fictional series purports to chronicle the life and adventures of Jeremy (played by Jarett Cale), a Canadian self-proclaimed “pro gamer”. Originating in 2004, thirteen episodes of the series have been released to date. The creators of the show estimated their current viewer base to be well over three million. Doug (played by Joel Gardiner) spends most of his time playing FPS games such as Counter-Strike: Source, defeating his opponents by skillfully “getting the headshot”. He has serious anger management issues, and can appear to be a psychopath, obsessed with FPS games to the point that he goes out training and practicing real headshots in real life, though with imaginary weapons. Doug’s triumphant catchphrase, “BOOM! HEADSHOT!”, has become a popular exclamation among FPS players and has been displayed on many online message boards. (source: “Wikipedia).
Unlike Doug, however, the “Angry Kids” on YouTube not only exhibit questionable gaming abilities but seem to lack the most primitive acting skills. Their frantic performances (many commentators describe them as “Tourette-like”) are clearly staged, that is, while possibly not scripted – dialogues are limited to fault language and the obsessive repetition of insults – they are consciously produced to ignite a controversy. They all display the same conventions – the fixed camera is located sideways or behind the player in order to capture both the user’s reactions and the action on the screen; the setting is usually a bedroom or a dorm room; finally, although poorly edited, many videos are actually a combination of several situations. The narrative arc consists in a crescendo of vulgarity and hostility, apparently caused by the player’s inability to cope with game-induced frustration. In most cases, the player does not look directly into the camera – there are some exceptions (consider, for instance, “Angry Gamer 2”, shot by a camera operator – as I write this video has been watched more than 70000 times and features almost 700 comments). Some videos use effects such as slow-motion, subtitles and intermissions (ex.: Angry Gamer), although nobody has yet ventured into parallel editing so far. The “Angry Gamer” videos are often collected by such sites as KillingSomeTime.com or the Halo2Forums. Again, most comments are sarcastic, while the most dutiful critics summarize the meaty bits for impatient viewers. One commentator who calls himself “Nuxunumo” provides a useful summary of “Angry Gamer Halo 2”:
Judo Chop - (00:42)
Energy Sword death yell - (1:01)
Abnormal reaction to death - (1:16)
Stress Squeeze - (1:30)
TV “Push” - (1:38)
Cell Phone (I’M BUSY! CALL BACK LATER!) - (1:42)
Notice his Halo 2 poster - (2:03)
TV Kick - (2:23)
Axe “Smack” - (2:29)
“FUCK, FUCK, FUCK, FUCK, FUCK THIS GAME!” - (2:35)
TV pick up and dancing, kneeing TV, and swinging controller as if it were a weapon - (2:50)
A few thoughts
My examination of the “Angry Gamer” videos has just begun. Thus, the following comments are not, in any way, conclusive. I will try, however, to answer the most pressing question: is the “Angry Gamer” real or Memorex? Is he a menace to society or are we dealing with something relegated to the margins of the mediated space? In other words, should the parents be worried? The answer is yes and no. Yes, the Angry Gamer is very real. I occasionally meet him online. He is rude, racist, and obnoxious. At the same time, the answer is no, what we see on YouTube is a caricature, a parody. The typical “Angry Gamer” video is a staged performance that, as juvenile as it looks, it is not more harmful than any other form of mediated violence. These clips – that mostly feature white male kids and teenagers – are dramatic performances of masculinity characterized by a strong element of theatricality. “Trash-talk”, kicking, and screaming are linguistic and paralinguistic devices that heighten, amplify, and accentuate the gaming experience.
It is as if the players – whose onscreen performance is entirely symbolic, intangible – were relinquishing their sedentary condition by performing a hyperactive, frenzied spectacle, a physical emulation of the ethereal actions of their virtual counterparts. Swearing, shouting, and destroying “real” objects enhance and extend the experience of the game so that players can carry the drama of the game a little over the boundary of the magic circle, right into their physical space, when they have to close the gap between heightened excitement of the game and the boring shallowness of their bedrooms, the exotic places they visit during their digital escapes and the generic spaces they inhabit. Playing videogame is an exercise in negotiation between the nihilistic impulses of the alter-ego and the demands of the super-ego. In a multiplayer game, the apparently omnipotent macho has to confront other identities that are often more skilled than he is. Thus, being “pwned” means coming to terms with the player’s insecurities: when fragged, the powerful warrior who carries phallic super-weapons suddenly disappears. The verdict is clear: “You failed”. The screen turns black and the timid teenager who holds the controller sees himself reflected in the television mirror, hence the desire to smash it. The magic has gone and the experience has an anticlimactic ending.
The “Angry Gamer” videos reconstruct this narrative for other players. They become collective rituals that enable the players and the public to re-live – and eventually exorcize – the drama of the game and the trauma of failure. The actor wishes to share the anxiety of competition in a ludic space and, in order to do so, he “exaggerate” the performance, raising the stakes of mistakes. These videos are obscene in nature because they transform a pleasurable activity such as playing into a grotesque distortion for purealy scopophilic purposes – the pornography of gaming. Even to a naïve viewer, the vast majority of such extreme performances appear to be “fake”, as many users have noted in their comments. Although offensive and hateful speech is unfortunately very frequent on Xbox Live and other online games, these YouTube videos do not represent their visual complement. Rather, they are theatrical performances of the most immature kind. The “Angry Gamer” is the videogame equivalent of the football hooligan. He is unruly and destructive: the videogame is simply a pretest to abuse others. He is a spoilsport equipped with a console, a headset, and a digital camera.
IGN (2002) “Xbox Live Etiquette”, IGN.com, available online (last access: March 29, 2007).
Gibbs, M., Hewl, K., Wadley1, G, (2004) Social Translucence of the Xbox Live Voice Channel, Lecture Notes in Computer Science, vol. 3166, Berlin/Heidelberg: Springer, pp. 377-385
Collier, A. (2005) “A mom writes: Trash talk in online games”, Netfamilynews, available online (last access: April 01, 2007).
1: This link has been explored, among the others, by Ed Halter in his highly readable and instructive book From Sun Tzu to Xbox. War and Videogames, Thunder’s Mouth Press, New York, 2005. See also Timothy Lenoir’s seminal essay “Programming Theaters of War: Gamemakers as Soldiers,” in Robert Latham, ed., Bombs and Bandwidth: The Emerging Relationship between IT and Security, New York: New Press, 2003, pp. 175-198.