TF2_Group.jpg [The Game Anthropologist chronicles Michael Walbridge's ventures into gaming communities as he reports on their inhabitants and culture. This time round, he takes a look at Valve's seminal Team Fortress 2.]

Darn FPS Kids And Their Language

It is no doubt or secret that the first person shooter genre and its communities are highly steeped in the competitive spirit. If playground basketball has its ball hogs, FPS has its kill hogs. The team, for all its necessity, can shove off. This usually isn’t considered a problem, though; it’s what we expect, right? We’re shooting at each other. FPS servers are, after all, playgrounds. A player being the Kobe Bryant of the team is the least of your worries.

In concrete life, when an adult goes to observe children in their element, the children do not act the same. Social science research is often rife with hand-wringing—“how can we study people scientifically when the object of study changes simply because of its being studied?” More than one researcher has lamented. Plunk down a random adult in the back of a high school classroom and the kids act differently. In the digital realm, though, kids don’t care that you are there.

Those who look for scapegoats blame the games. Those of us who play games have a better memory of our childhood; young males, adolescents, children are depicting animalistic humanity and lack of development while online and on Xbox Live because they’re just that: kids. While research and artistry can show us much, we don’t have to look far to see it for ourselves.

All Grown Up

In Team Fortress 2, a game which has been sold to at least 2 million people, showboating, kill-whoring, and brazen, crass insults are a rare sight (on non-modded servers with standard maps, anyway). This is puzzling for many reasons. Not only is it an FPS, it’s a quality, competitive one that is only available from Steam. (Counter Strike kids are different from Halo kids, but not in the way you would hope—many of them are hopelessly vulgar.)

Each character has a taunt for each weapon; that’s 27 animated taunts available, including the verbal ones your character automatically utters upon killing. Not to mention the fact that any time someone kills you 3 times in a row a big “NEMESIS” gets planted next to that person’s name.

When you die, the game zooms in on the person who killed you. Big fists appear over him so you can tell who keeps shoving you back to observing your teammates. Failing to get revenge? Here’s the third shot of your ass being handed to you by some kid from Iowa. But the kid says nothing. Rarely does.

To this day, I can only recall one or two times where immaturity affected gameplay. Unlike some of the communities I will profile, TF 2’s PC community (the console versions don’t have Steam or typing chat to assist in organizing and communicating, and the PC version sold better) is one I’m undoubtedly personally invested in; I’ve spent a good amount of time on all the classes, and I haven’t only played in just one or two servers.

Team Fortress 2 seems like it’s just another innovative, 9X%-review-scoring shooter, but it is an anomaly. It is a gratuitously violent game with your instruments of play being guns, explosives, and sharp and blunt objects and the target nothing but other players controlled by human beings. Yet its atmosphere can be as congenial as a puzzler. And the players are often, wouldn’t you know it, polite and helpful.

Some of the most famous and watched videos of TF 2 gameplay are tutorial videos on how to do well, not self-aggrandizing sets of sniper shots.

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Exactly why most teammates are polite, patient, and helpful in a game that is violent and wildly popular is not easily answered, but I have some good ideas. The players seem older, and this may be because of its predecessor, Team Fortress Classic, which predates TF 2 by 10 years. Someone who is 24 may remember TFC, but someone who is 15 will not. I’m not saying it’s devoid of teenagers—but there are a lot more people in their 20s and there are a lot more women on voice chat online as well, signs of a more mature audience and community.

Perhaps it is because of the medic class. Instead of the archetypical female priest or paladin (every World of Warcraft player has met one), the women more often play medic. This is a class that goes around healing characters in a genre of health pickups. Every winning team needs one. If your enemy has a medic and you don’t, bragging is thrown out the window. The medic heals almost anyone fully within 5 seconds, and everyone within 10. Oh, and maybe it’s the critical hits. No one earns those—they just come out of nowhere. And there’s really nothing a scout can do against an engineer’s fully-leveled sentry gun.

Back to that medic who just shouted I healed zee man who vill keel you--you’re dead, and you wonder where your medic is to heal you. So you tab or comma and realize there are NO medics on your team. It’s still difficult to get people to play as a medic, but someone usually switches within half a minute.

Also, when the other team wins, the enemy team gets free critical hits and 15 seconds to butcher your weaponless team. They still get points and if a third kill occurs at this time, there will still be a big fat “NEMESIS” attached to an opponent’s name.

We’re Not Kidding About The “Team” Part

The characters in Team Fortress 2 are personal avatars repeated. To see a demoman who is black, Scottish, and wears an eye patch is to see both a character and a representation. He is a character because he has personality—we know there is a hilarious story to him and not just because he has spoken of it. He is a representation because we can see 4 of him on the battle at the same time, and he is a class without a real name; he’s a demoman, and that’s it.

Nameless as they are, I’m going to suggest, that we love these characters. Each and every one of them represents our varied styles of desires to do violence. When we choose one, we are choosing a superhero suit that we can’t take off and can’t escape, unless, of course, we die and then switch classes.

And we often will switch classes. Even the most steeply curved distribution in a player’s stats will have at least one other class with a lot of space, because Team Fortress 2 gives us no choice but to be a team. Sometimes a sniper isn’t going to work.

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The only conditions of winning and losing are as a team, and the potential for each class is best seen from a holistic perspective. You can do poorly and the most you hear is “we have too many spies” or “that’s not a good spot for your sticky bombs” or “you uber’d me too early”--gentle, irritable counsel from your elders in gaming. In a game that takes place in America with an all Euro-American cast and all-American violence comes a group-centered ethic and comraderie. Are we in an Eastern culture? It’s video games, after all.

No, you’re in the army now, pyro (soldier; whatever your class). Follow orders, take responsible leadership, make yourself useful, and learn what it truly means to be part of a team and forget yourself. This is what we’ve been missing, and why those of us dedicated to TF 2 can’t take ourselves away.