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It's afternoon, and my roommates are playing Halo 2 on our new 50-inch plasma-screen TV. (Yes, my TV rocks way harder than yours! Ha!) I'm sitting at my desk, surfing the Web for porn. My door is closed. You may be wondering, gentle reader, how it is that I know Ed and Jesse are playing Halo 2 when I have a closed door and www.mcstories.com between them and me.
This is how: "Fuck fuck FUCK FUCK!" and "I've got the flag, you fucker!" and "Get down, GET DOWN! Fuck!"
We've got Xbox Live, you see, and Ed and Jesse are playing crazed Earth cybercommandos or freaked-out religious aliens on a holy rampage. When I open my door to watch them, Earth soldiers are battling the alien faithful for control of the planet. Everybody plays Xbox Live with a headset on so you can talk to your online teammates, and my friends are totally plugged in. Sadly, most of the talk that comes over the speakers appears to originate from racist, homophobic 12-year-olds. Favorite taunts heard on Xbox Live: "Faggot!" "Nigger!" "Jew!"
Ed, who happens to be a part-fag Jew, occasionally bursts a blood vessel and screams, "Goddamn gentiles!" Jesse, who hails from the peaceful prairies of Canada, is weirded out every time someone screams, "Nigger!" He keeps giving me that "What the hell is it with you white Americans?" look. Finally he can't take it anymore.
"Jihad! Jihad!" he yells, shooting the crap out of every human in sight. That'll teach those racist fuckers.
Another popular taunt in the world of Halo 2 is fondly known as "teabagging." When you kill a guy (because of course we're all guys, even when I play), you squat over his bleeding head as if you're dunking your big cybertesticles in his mouth. Then you say something like, "Oh yeah, you want it, don't you, fucker?" I know it sounds gross, but it's actually funny. Maybe you have to be there.
What kind of game creates a culture like this?
I don't mean that question to be naive. We all know Halo 2 is hardly the first video game to inspire kind, peace-loving dorks to engage in frenzied episodes of gutting and name-calling. The Halo games just happen to be the current state of the art. And so, because so many of us are addicted to this ridiculously popular game, it's worth retelling Halo's backstory to get a sense of what it means when a bunch of people animate the bodies of military men and call each other faggots and niggers.
The first Halo, which comes in both Xbox and PC versions, gets things rolling. It's 500 years in the future, and Earth's space colonies are being attacked by a coalition of religious-fanatic aliens calling themselves the Covenant. They decide Earth people are not godly and start killing everybody with cool weapons like plasma rifles and needle guns. In the single-player version, which I'm rather fond of, you play a souped-up soldier with mega-armor called Master Chief. Your job is to fight the aliens on a ring world (which looks really fucking cool, you faggots), running around in weird buildings and riding in awesome, bone-crunching vehicles. Halo 2 brings the battle to Earth, with more cool flying cars, more evil aliens, and more needle guns.
If you pause to think about Halo for a moment, it's hard to miss what I call "the Jar Jar effect." That's when aliens bear an uncanny resemblance to earthly racial stereotypes. Probably the Jar Jar effect originated with various Star Trek aliens, but Star Wars took it so far into offensive territory that even the most die-hard "it's only a movie, it doesn't mean anything" types had to admit that Jar Jar was clearly supposed to be Jamaican, the bureaucrat aliens were supposed to be Asian ("Ah so, Prime Minista!"), and the floating, large-nosed junk dealer who employs young Anakin was supposed to be a Jew. Anyway, the Jar Jar effect is fully loaded in Halo, with our Covenant aliens inspiring even my nice Baha'i boyfriend, Jesse, to scream, "Jihad!"
Halo isn't creating a culture of violence and racism; it's reflecting our already-existing culture in distilled and distorted fashion. And the Jar Jar effect doesn't automatically turn people into racists. Playing a game that depicts Muslims as evil aliens who are fun to kill may not affect the intolerance quotient in the United States at all.
Likewise, seeing Google ads everywhere isn't necessarily going to make you download the scary, privacy-invading Google toolbar. But those shiny ads might tempt you into trying it out. And Halo is way fucking cooler than Google ads. I'm just saying.
Annalee Newitz ( email@example.com) is a surly media nerd who played Halo on her laptop all day and is currently very twitchy. Her column also appears in Metro , Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.