Requiem for a Tiny Internet

Jean-Francois Fourtou Untitled (série Marrakech), 2007.

League of Legends is an excellent multiplayer experience. Unfortunately, you do have to play it with a lot of other people.

My daughter was recently asked by her teacher to interview my grandfather for her seventh grade class. The teacher was interested in getting some insight into the rapidly disappearing GI Generation, those that served during World War II. One of the questions that my daughter asked my grandfather was what he liked most about living through the 1940s and 1950s. His response: “I liked that the population was smaller.”

I was really taken by this response, as I grew up at the very edge of the metropolitan Denver area in the 1980s and returning there now, I am always struck by how crazily busy my little suburb has grown. It really isn't “at the very edge” now -- at all. The US population has grown to its current size of over 310 million people, but it was only about half that size in the decades that my grandfather was in his 20s and 30s. I imagine that, to him, the whole US looks a heck of a lot more crazily busy than my little suburb now looks to me.

While I never was a small town boy (and neither was he), I can appreciate having lived in a “little” big city growing up, one where I knew where everything was and frequented places where I knew people and they knew me. Or at least we all functioned within a space where everyone kind of knew enough about “Denver culture” to seem somewhat familiar, to know what Denverites are “supposed to be like.” A “small population size” in this sense (and judging from some of my grandfather's follow up to his initial statement, he seemed to have meant this too) seems to correlate somewhat with some general attitudes about who you share a space with and some level of comfort in how you interact with them.

I have been playing League of Legends a lot over the holiday, but I had played a lot of games against bots for several weeks before diving into PvP. After all, I haven't played much multiplayer in the last decade or so, and I never really played a lot of online competitive multiplayer one way or the other in the past. I wasn't eager to get trounced on my first outing against real players, so I have tried learning the basics by co-oping a bit against the AI. But now I've jumped in with both feet.

I liked when the internet was smaller.

Now, don't get me wrong, the internet was never exactly a “nice” social space. The anonymity that it provides has always allowed for people to behave badly. Heck, I have been one of those badly behaved people on a number of occasions.

However, the last few weeks haven't been a reminder of that general internet aggressiveness to me. I am seeing some behaviors that I have never seen before, but I am also dealing with a game with a much, much grander population than anything that I've played before.

Most of my online gaming experience took place in the late 1990s and early 2000s, mostly in co-op environments. I've crawled many a dungeon with a small party in Diablo (1996) and in Asheron's Call (1999). More recently I teamed up with my super powered pals in City of Heroes (2004). That is not to say that I haven't done a little PvP in these games, but I honestly can't recall really playing any outright competitive multiplayer since the release of the LucasArts game, Outlaws (1997). Seriously.

I mostly remember silence in Outlaws games. Who had time to type trash talk (yeah, no voice chat in those old FPSes) while trying to frag an opposing gunslinger? Nevertheless, both co-op and competitive gaming have always been able to bring out a nastier side of people, and I engaged in some “wars of words” with other players in many of these spaces at one time or another. Maybe someone was camping a spawn point and not letting your group in. Maybe someone was hogging all the loot in a group and needed to chill out a bit. Whatever.

Being irritated by the intrusion of players outside your allegiance or clan (or whatever title was appropriate to describe a social group in whichever game you were playing) was not outside the norm. Trash talking an opponent in PvP. Sure, I get that. Death match or DotA clone, most competitive online twitch matches tend to play out a lot like sports, and, well, that's the nature of that kind of game. Gain an advantage with a little psychological warfare. Fair enough.

And League of Legends has that. Name calling and more general insults can fly pretty thick in some matches between two teams. What sets the enormously large player base of League of Legends apart for me from the smaller scale worlds of the earlier days of or Asheron's Call is the crap that people talk to their own teammates.

Now, I understand that a game like League of Legends is different than the ones that I am accustomed to, but I am accustomed to being on a team. It is different, though, in the sense that players frequently pair off to fight in lanes together, so one has to lean heavily on one's laning partner to succeed. Last hits get gold and gold can't be shared among teammates and gold is necessary to each individual to power themselves up. Someone hogging all the gold hurts you pretty badly. I get all that. But wow, just wow.

Weaker players in games that I played five to ten years ago tended to be protected by the group, advised by the group, for the sake of the team's success and, perhaps, just to be kind of decent to someone else. Advice does sometimes come when a player is having trouble in League of Legends, but the fact that the games go so quickly and draw together complete strangers from a huge player base so often contributes to folks just simply telling one another why they suck or why they are doing it wrong. Other players don't really stick up much for an ostracized player either (and I'm guilty of this as well), busy as we are just trying to hold up our end of the team's general success.

I imagine, based on what I used to see in games, that in a game like this seeing a player struggling would result in someone friending that player and then teaming up with them for a few matches to shepherd them through their newbie growing pains. I'm sure that such people still exist; it's just harder to see them in the vast crowds that now occupy gaming spaces.

Maybe this observation is not all that enlightening to League of Legends players or any competitive game out there right now. Maybe everybody dog piles on strangers that they are playing alongside in Call of Duty or whatever other game, and I have just been outside of the loop for too long. Like I said, this isn't my usual gaming scene. However, I do have to say that observing from the distance of a decade or so, the difference between team play in a gigantic internet population as opposed to the more rarified spaces that I used to play in, back when it was mostly tech geeks and a handful of others populating online fantasy worlds (Asheron's Call was estimated to have had about 90,000-120,000 subscribers at its peak, while League of Legends is reported to have over 32 million registrations) is really, really stark. And at least I think I may have needed the distance to see it.

Players are no longer intrigued when a foreign player arrives in a game, asking them about their country of origin. Instead they yell, “ENGLISH.” Players have names like “LongDickDaddy” and “ahugepackage” and they don't even have a sense of humor about it. Okay, okay, now I'm just sounding like an old guy: “Back in my day...”

But, honestly, kids, back in my day the world was just a bit smaller. It really was.

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