The online gaming community seems to be getting more and more angry. Maybe it's the credit crunch. Even a year ago I would only come across one or two violently aggressive and racist morons during a typical hour-long session of Call of Duty 4. Now, however, things almost anything can set them off.
In the UK, if you sound vaguely posh or southern, then you are the immediate recipient of vitriolic hatred from northern players with an extraordinary amount of pent-up anger and God forbid you might be foreign.
I did some filming for a gaming show called Gameswipe with the very funny Charlie Brooker. I went online and assumed a series of personas in order to see, in a very unscientific sort of way, what would happen. It's all about time with regards to whom you get. In the morning, it tends to be angry English northerners; then, around 4pm, the Americans start to play and you get a completely different mentality, although a similar attitude.
I went on first as Billy-Bob, a rather dumb hillbilly from Mississippi. The moment I started talking I got a wall of abuse from two roofers from Manchester. This ranged from my hailing from a fat, obese nation, to how happy they were that the twin towers had been hit. They finished off with a barrage of abuse about "nigger presidents" and how it was now a "Black House not a White House".
This Obama abuse is a very common phenomenon whenever Brits play Americans online. I played on three different maps with three different groups of people and every time the abuse came thick and fast and of a very consistent nature: "fat", "terror", "blacks", "fat", "terror", "blacks". The sheer anger in their voices was what frightened the most. It's the video-game equivalent of road rage: you get behind a microphone and you're anonymous and broadcasting to strangers who can't reach you, so you say whatever you want. The worrying thing is that you can hear that this is what they truly feel; it's not for show.
Next up I tried another approach. I donned the persona of Luis, an amiable Mexican fellow who was keen to practise his English. "Hello everybody. I am from Mexico City." That was enough. I was interrupted by a Scouser: "Fuck off, you foreign bastard. Go fuck a donkey." However hard Luis tried to make friends, nobody was having it.
I wondered whether Luis might have more luck with Americans? I waited until 4pm and went online again, this time encountering Yanks.
"Hello, United States people," said Luis brightly. "I want to thank you all for your hospitality in your wonderful country." The Americans answered as though in sync: "Fuck off, wetback. Go home, you scrounging bastard. You bring us swine flu and nothing else. How much do you earn a year? A dollar?" It was immediate and as vitriolic as the English stuff. I couldn't resist riling them a little bit. I announced, with some pride and seeming ignorance of their anger, that I was in the process of building a huge tunnel under the border that would accommodate up to a thousand "tourists" a day. They went totally mental at this news and I was faced with threats of nuclear holocaust and total extermination of the country.
It was an interesting experiment, although a rather worrying one. I can't help wondering just how many people secretly harbour these views while putting across their politically correct façade to the world? The most worrying aspect is that my kids are going to be playing these games very soon. I dread to think about the kind of stuff they're going to encounter.