Picture the scene: You’re hunkered down in a foxhole – a ramshackle affair, held up by dirt and logs. Americans line the fox hole, hunched over like rats in a cage. But their attentions turn to the skies – Aircraft on the horizon. The craft dip their noses towards your position and begin to strafe you with intense gun fire. You huddle down hard – almost compressing yourself into a small cube. The crackles of gunfire cease and you notice your colleagues are dead or dying. More soldiers show up to relieve them like a conveyor belt, a production line. They dig in along with their dead friends and wait for the inevitable onslaught from the treeline ahead. Smoke billows from the woodlands, like a ghostly miasma let out into the world, but instead merely being used to cover the advancing troops. Shadowy figures clutching rifles emerge like skeletons.
This is it, you think to yourself, This is my final day on earth.
Suddenly, though, one of your teammates pipes up over the comms. He’s streaming Hitler speeches from his computer to his microphone. In the text chat, he types “Muslims are all barbaric.” His cronies alongside him titter like hyenas.
The reality comes washing back to you in waves. You’re not immersed in a terrifying battle for survival – you’re just playing a video game with toxic teammates. This time, the game is Hell Let Loose. A fantastic combined arms war simulator by developers Black Matter. The game itself? It’s one of the best online shooters I’ve ever played. Merging elements of Real Time Strategy and First-Person Shooters together in huge maps – players take on the role of two armies in huge 100 player battlefields that feel realistic, alive and often horrifying. Hidden within the games intricate depth is a game about human drama and stories. It’s a truly brilliant experience, particularly with good teammates.
The problem, then, comes from the platform. From the medium. Steam, of all the big gaming platforms has the biggest problem with moderating its user base. Valve often leave the heavy moderating lifting to its algorithm’s, resolutely refusing to put a human touch on player toxicity which arguably only adds to Steams’ woefully nasty open sewer of a community. Most of the platforms suffer their own problem with trolling, abuse, racism and really, there’s no one shining beacon that stands out among them but Steam’s refusal to moderate its own service let alone the community lets the rot run wild.
There’s another side to all of this, too. Because Hell Let Loose is a wargame, and because of the kind of people attracted to such a thing, there’s this seedy under layer of racism where you find yourself squinting at your teammates with wry suspicion. You’ll often have to work out whether the player with a German soldier for a display picture and a suspiciously militaristic name is just a harmless history buff or an unapologetic Nazi. A rose-tinted nostalgia for the glory days of the Reich. Often, in my experience, it’s almost always a miserably toxic Nazi. You could try to use some moderation tools Steam has available to you – they do have a player reporting feature for example, but it’s convoluted. Most reports, in my experience, never go anywhere. It’s more of an empty platitude for players like myself who are often portrayed as “weak” for wanting to enjoy their downtime in a toxicity-free environment – for having the gall to oppose their mindless nihilism.
To answer that, I’ve spent more time playing on the walled gardens of the PlayStation 4 – which is fine, for a while. You can block and mute problem players, abusiveness is at least looked into (eventually) and you can generally have some control over which players you’d like to encounter less of. But the platforms offered by Sony and Microsoft are still walled gardens. The most polished, highly produced titles exist there, sure, but sometimes you want something that doesn’t fit the boundaries, that experiments a little, and I feel like Steam offers that in spades. Hell Let Loose, for example, is a shining example of that spirit. An indie title, experimental in nature, finding its niche in Steam’s open air marketplace is obviously wonderful. But it feels like a deal with the devil. You have to compromise in player quality if you want to enjoy that experimentation.
I grew up on PC games – I can’t tell you how much of Half-Life I played as a teenager. It’s online modding community was a melting pot of wild experimentalism. It gave birth to some of the biggest games ever – Team Fortress, Counter Strike – both started life as wild indie projects using Half-Life’s Source engine. I was there at ground zero of that experimentation playing mods like Sven Co-op and it was a wonderful thing to be a part of – to witness that creativity being fostered. It’s spirit lives on, in some weird way, with Steam’s early access programs. Small teams of indie developers can leverage Early Access in a really beneficial way to create something exciting and fresh that you wouldn’t see on Sony or Microsoft’s platforms.
But even back then, PC gaming and the internet on the whole had this toxicity problem baked into it’s very core. Trolling, sexism, homophobia, racism – these were things you simply accepted, regardless of your own personal revulsion to it. It was just too prevalent to tackle all of it at once. It would be impossible – the targets were overwhelming. When you take this into account, it’s easy to see how Steam has retained a lot of that baggage. The rot was simply too deep to begin with. I grew up on this incredible, experimental platform and watching the people gate keep the communities with trolling and nihilism isn’t the way I thought it would pan out.
It’s worse when Steam watches and does nothing.
It feels childish to preach to people’s kinder sides. It’s exhausting to try to appeal to people to be better, online. But as someone who has gone through multiple era’s of online gaming, seen trends in abuse come and go, it’s time we started being better. More players should hold racist, toxic players to account, and platforms should take reports of this behaviour seriously. If gaming has a diversity problem, we can start here: Make our gaming lobbies toxicity free. Make them positive, inviting spaces where we have fun. If that sounds naive to you – you’re part of the problem.