I've got a confession to make and it involves the story of how I first got into games journalism, so buckle in for what's bound to be an exciting and passionate story of one man and his inability to stop taking games seriously.

Once upon a time, when I was at university and first got into journalism, I went to do work experience with the PC Format Magazine team for a week in between exams. Staying in a little Japanese B&B, my days were spent writing and making coffee until around 6pm, when work finished for the day.

Quake 4 was the game of choice for that particular office and every night the editorial team would sit down and begin a round or two of deathmatch before going home. Picture the scene; a collection of professional journalists and me, a geeky guy with very little experience of working in an office and a desperate need to impress my peers.

The first game began and the pre-round chat was typed out despite all of us being sat within touching distance.
"I'm going to win today!" Someone said.
"You wish." Came the reply, "Pwnage is mine!"

Now, I'm not entirely surely why, but I started typing some messages myself, eager to show them that I too had a competitive attitude. I threw out a simple remark, a staple of my own pop-culture smack-talk;
"I'm gonna make you all my bitches, John Romero-style!"

There was a pause while everyone read what I'd said and then one of the section editors just turned to me and, taking off his headphones, said "What?" with an incredulous, shocked look on his face. I blushed and clammed up, living through the rest of the week in silence.

So, you see that I have a problem. Like many other people, I have an issue with smack-talk and sometimes use it inappropriately. Thankfully it isn't something that's become a problem at bit-tech yet because our competitive gaming is mainly restricted to everybody getting together to watch me lose at poker, but I live in constant fear of the time when my foul mouth will rear its ugly head.

When will be the first time that I turn and uncontrollably tell Tim or Richard that I will soon rip out their tongues to use as a bridle, so that I may ride them towards a humiliating defeat under my hands in a game of The Hidden?

The thing that's worst about smack-talk though is that it's hard to tell when it's ok to use until you've tried and failed, as I did at PCF. I used to play a lot of Tony Hawk's Underground 2 and Amped 2 on the Xbox, for example, and in those days verbal abuse was almost an attached mini-game with its own undefined rules of one-upmanship. In other similar settings though with similarly geeky people, smack-talk is considered rude and vulgar and my girlfriend would never be able to safely threaten me to the extent she did in our old THUG 2 tournaments, when she used words that I didn't know the meaning of to reduce me to a gibbering wreck which she could safely mould to fit her plans.

She'll probably beat me for saying that.

Without meaning to draw a massive divide in gaming attitudes, part of me feels that it's to do with the distinction between PC and console gaming. When I think back over all my gaming experiences, it's the console gaming that has somehow always seemed the most violent and verbose. Don't get me wrong, I've gone nose-to-screen and screamed until I fell over when I couldn't defeat the Aztec Wind Boss in Serious Sam: The Second Encounter and I've put several CS:S-playing twelve year olds into therapy with my insults, but somehow it's console gaming that always stays in my mind as encouraging explicit language out of me the most.

I don't think it's anything to do with the consoles themselves though and, despite what some fanboys would insist, gaming on a console isn't massively different from gaming on a PC in terms of what games are available. That comment alone is probably going to incite a fair amount of insults, I imagine.

Instead, I think it's to do with the way that the games are played. If you compare a PC multiplayer game to a console multiplayer game example then you see that most of the time these people aren't in direct contact in a PC game, yet on a console game they're usually jostling for room on the couch. Who gets the top half of the screen, who gets the one controller that your friends haven't broken and who plays who first, all are common enough arguments for the usual console gamer.

So, the obvious way to try and combat smack-talk and keep it in its place would be for console games to be scaled down and PC games to come back to the forefront. It'd be nice, but realistically it isn't going to happen. Console gaming has come too far and PC gaming culture has become entangled with it in what we linguists might call a stylistic merger so that, even if console gaming was destroyed then smack-talk would still thrive through PC gamers, mostly because of the popularity of gaming headsets and games like CS:S.

The fact is that smack-talk has become an integral part of gaming culture, with the yelling and cursing being as much a part of any event as the games themselves. It's happened for a good reason too – there's something oh-so-satisfying about yelling at somebody that you will soon impale their entire family on your boomstick and do wrong things to them with their teams flag, even if that somebody you yell at is a tiny pre-schooler.

Not that I've ever done that. Ahem.

While personally I find the linguistic trends of smack-talk and leetspeak interesting, I can't help but worry that their continued development may help alienate or isolate the hardcore gaming community from the more casual gamers and the non-gamers, unless some form of diglossic situation develops. It's probably over the top, but I keep picturing a world where gamers and hax0rs communicate only in ways that 'normal' people can't understand and slowly evolve/devolve into new lifeforms the likes of which the world has ever seen!

As I said, probably over the top, but in a world where we leetspeak popping up in parts of the Oxford English Dictionary, it may not be that over the top after all.

So, how best to combat the expansion of leetspeak and smack-talk and to stop gamers worldwide looking like morons?

There isn't really an easy answer and, though it's tempting to hope that as PC and console gaming grow closer together that the idiotic and foul language we've all become unfortunately accustomed to may die down, it's actually more likely that it'll increase and that fanboyism will become rampant.

The only real solution is willpower and tact, to try and hold back and stop ourselves from becoming the type of foul-mouthed people that Jack Thompson insists are likely to eat babies, rather than the more adorable reality of our activities.

It's the saddest fact of all that gamers need to worry about things like this, that if we don't control our image as a community then we will end up being persecuted and blamed for everything that goes wrong in society, but that is the grim reality of our situation whether you recognise it or not. Unfortunately, not everyone helps to control the image of the gaming community and the larger events often force smack-talk to become a forgotten issue.

The truth is though that the effect of smack-talk is massive and every time a concerned mother mentions to her friend that her thirteen year old son swears at his computer games too much, it does us all a little bit of harm. There are tactics to tackle this on a smaller level, such as getting non-gamers involved and illustrating the positive benefits of computer games, but first we need to establish an awareness of how the smaller problems, like smack-talk, affect gamers as a whole.

Without this awareness gamers may soon end up facing yet more legal and social opposition. It isn't unforeseeable that one day soon games and gamers may have a radically different place in society and more gamers find their cussing lands them a place in a gaming clinic, whether they like it or not.

So, next time you feel like dishing out a bit of smack-talk I hope you'll remember this column and try and, before you let yourself slip, think about if it's really the right time and place for it and what the consequences might be if it isn't. There are times when you can be sure it's ok to let loose, but there are also times to keep a lid on it and if you learn the difference now then you won't end up shooting yourself in the foot like I did.
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October 14 2021 | 15:04