“Some scientists claim that hydrogen, because it is so plentiful, is the basic building block of the universe. I dispute that. I say there is more stupidity than hydrogen, and that is the basic building block of the universe.” — Frank Zappa
My favorite blog lately? Why Was I Banned?, a hilarious compilation of screengrabs from the “Account Suspensions and Bans” forum at Xbox.com. It’s a concept ripe for Tumblrization: Cull the official forums for the most pathetic complaints by the most egregious offenders, and cheer as Xbox moderators bring down that banhammer once again. The site is a refreshingly transparent look at people getting justly rebuked for their bad behavior. And after my experiences in random matches, it's entirely welcome.
Here's the thing: The game that put me off playing with pubbies on Xbox Live wasn’t GTA IV, Modern Warfare 2 or Halo: Reach. It wasn’t an M-rated military shooter or an open-world crime drama. It was Ghostbusters: The Video Game.
One multiplayer mode in Ghostbusters has you and three fellow ‘Busters working together to trap ghosts for fun and profit. Ghosts of various types will spawn around the map, and your team earns cash and experience points for each successful capture. Figuring coordinating with my teammates would be polite, I busted out my little-used headset.
I wish I hadn’t. (Be warned: Bigoted and graphic language ahead.)
Thanks to two particularly uninhibited proto-humans on my team, the first ten minutes of the match were devoted to the relentless badgering of the fourth player—a soft-voiced child who’d had the temerity to admit to being nine years old. “The f*** are you doing on here, little f****t?” they cajoled. “Shouldn’t you be sucking on your momma’s t**?” This, between exhortations to chase down pudgy floating ghosts, or “those fat little n*****s.”
Hope the kid knew how to use the mute function. I didn’t.
I don’t know that I was particularly shocked by the mindless cruelty I was hearing. This was, after all, a public match on Xbox Live—a service not known for its erudite, respectful clientele. Revolting and dismaying as they are, rampant racism, sexism, and homophobia are all par for the course in any given random match. Still, when my genteel request that my teammates “tone it down” netted me three separate private voice messages informing me I was a “p***y,” “f****t,” and/or “f***ing c***,” that was that. I was done with pubbies forever.
I “reported” the jerks, of course, but thanks to the inscrutability of Live’s feedback feature, I had no idea if my comments made the slightest impact. I can’t imagine I was the first to complain about these guys. For all I knew, they’d be able to keep spewing their noxious crap indefinitely. Generally, I’m not the vindictive type. But something in me really, really wanted to see these idiots get taken down. Hard.
And that's why I'm glad Why Was I Banned? exists. The thread about the blog here on the site (thanks, lostlobster!) collects some of the choicest morsels. Modders confused by how their green-skinned avatars and profiles advertising custom lobbies could’ve possibly warranted lifetime bans. A videogame savant baffled by his gamerscore being reset after he unlocked 1,764 achievements in one day. One particularly morbid player who didn’t understand why a profile talking about “painting a house with baby blood” merited a suspension.
The moderators, for their part, are endlessly entertaining in the matter-of-fact tone they often adopt in their responses to these glaring violations of policy and sense. Consider the entry that inspired Why Was I Banned?: the poor parent who inquired about his child’s ban only to receive a one-line response—“Your son was exposing himself on camera in Uno.” In Uno. Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up.
Then there’s Why Was I Banned’s spiritual sister, Fat, Ugly or Slutty?, whose title neatly captures the three categories females daring to reveal their gender on Xbox Live can expect random creepsters to dump them into. (You know, because women who game are obviously at least one of those things.) In case you thought unprovoked misogyny and sexual harassment of all stripes might finally be dying out in this new century of gaming, Fat, Ugly or Slutty? provides a sobering (and, thankfully, often funny) counterpoint. Be aware, though—the stuff on that blog isn’t just NSFW, it’s also a psycho-sexual Pandora’s Box you might regret opening.
The only thing sadder than the fact that sites like Why Was I Banned? or Fat, Ugly or Slutty? need to exist—and yes, they very much do need to exist, especially the latter site—is the fact that they have such a surplus of material to work with. Although the sites’ authors are handy with a bon mot, they could really just post screenshots without comment and still be just as effective. The powerful thing about these blogs is the way they satirize the darker aspects of online gaming by simply holding up a mirror to it. The stupidity speaks for itself. Too often, game content already does enough damage to our reputation as upstanding citizens. We don't need idiotic player behavior reinforcing that stereotype. And reading these entries feels in some way like fighting back on behalf of decent gamers everywhere.
Satire always has an argument at its core. I think the argument here is pretty clear: Act like a jerk, and you deserve the humiliation that’s coming to you. In this era of bailouts and bonuses for Wall Street miscreants, I can understand the appeal. Unlike a credit default swap, it’s easy to understand why an abusive comment in a multiplayer match is a bad thing. And unlike the TARP legislation, there’s no need for debate about the proper response to the problems created by cheaters, scammers, and hateful players on Xbox Live. If you break the rules, you have to pay the price. Simple as that.
Yet something still bothers me about the act of enjoying someone else’s humiliation or pain, as deserved as it might be. As I chuckle at the latest screencap of some loser justifying his clearly racist gamertag or sending an uninvited come-on to a female avatar, I feel a tinge of guilt. I don’t want to be laughing at someone else getting punished. I want them to not do the things that merit the punishment in the first place. I want for there to be no need for these blogs to exist. And maybe that’s the real imperative behind the satire in these sites: Please, players, behave so well that you put us out of business.