Monday, March 9, 2009

Beers, Gears, and Sports Camaraderie

This past weekend, Scott and I had a chance to play Gears of War together. I know, we are a little late to the game, but we want to have a foundation before we approach its well acclaimed sequel. After grabbing some 'cold ones' and some strategic couch placement, we proceeded to unleash a world of hurt on the locust armies. Though we've yet to finish the game, there is a sensation from playing that I cannot shake. The entire experience felt like a combination of watching and playing the Superbowl.

More than any game that comes to mind, even sports games, Gears of War evokes a sense of team camaraderie, along with all the baggage that comes with masculine sports culture. Many of the game elements, visually, mechanically, and audible, support a design theme that intentionally evokes the passionate, and often ridiculous, behavior of sporting events.

Let's take a look at the most obvious, and ridiculed, aspect of the Gears of Wars cast: the guys are enormous. Their immense girth is just as unsettling as the locust army. The army Marcus and his teammates wear are equally imposing. Brighten up their COG regalia with splashes of color, and these men would fit well into any football team's defensive line. The average locust soldier, with their comparable size, could easily be imagined as the offensive team, and this is exactly how they are treated.

Dialogue in Gears of War is largely made up of insults, and self-congratulatory exclamations. Marcus frequently announces a successful 'active reload' with a gruff "sweet" or "nice," and taunts nearby locusts with "bring it" or "eat boot." Dom raucously joins these bits of running commentary with "in your face," " shit yeah" or "sup bitches?" None of these comments sound out of the ordinary, particularly when coupled with Augustus Cole's declaration of "that one's for the highlight real" or "the train is a smooth ride." Cole Train, as he calls himself, is voiced by Lester Speight of Office Linebacker fame, and like his in-game character, is also an ex-football player.

Marcus, Dom, Cole, and Baird's taunts and insults are just as frequently directed towards each other as they are towards their enemies. This creates relationships between these characters that are more similar to popular depictions of teammates than soldiers (though the two no doubt intertwine). Rank is seldom an issue, civilians are treated with indifference at best, and emotions are treated with a "get in the game" mentality, usually resulting in any remotely touching scene being quickly followed by "sup bitches." In popular depictions of masculinized sporting culture, this behavior is not out of character whatsoever.

As I am sure many of you know, even pick up games with family members or friends can become rife with otherwise inappropriate banter. This behavior is not restricted to real life events. Fantasy football leagues often encourage friendly player antagonism, and any Xbox Live participant has likely heard enough epithets to last them a lifetime. This highlights where the game succeeds. Gears of War creates the sensation of team based camaraderie, partly with clever game design that encourages cooperative behavior, but also by mimicking a sports culture gamers may rarely experience first hand, but are none the less familiar with.

Perhaps this is something to be concerned about. The encouragement of such behavior within gamer culture may just exacerbate what many consider to be a consistent problem with multiplayer experiences. Likewise, some may consider this game to be the ultimate trivialization of warfare. Both of these questions are interesting, and no doubt other writers have touched upon these very subjects, which are best reserved for another time and place.

It is not surprising that playing Gears with Scott is like watching the Superbowl. Backing up your team mate when separated, landing a grenade down a distant hole, and clashing with enemies along fortified lines all feel reminiscent of a sporting event. The art and dialogue support these elements in turn, by drawing upon pop-culture norms. Though I have never been a fan of masculinized sports culture, the sensation is appealing, partly because I know its a bounded simulation. Does this explain some of Gears of Wars success? Did Cliff Bleszinski play football in high school or did he envy the star quarterback? Maybe this is Cliff's way to make his brother, a sports blogger, proud. I can't be sure, but as I see it, the themes are undeniable.


  1. As to your last paragraph, does he need to make anyone proud with such? From what I've seen of all-male environments, this is quite common behavior. It is a form of intimacy that is not afforded in many other forms, so to make a game about war, especially one that professes to deeper emotional and intellectual impact, this might be the go-to method of providing that in a 'natural' environment. This is what the assumed player-base will know, and it won't make them roll their eyes.

    As you say, they can just knock back a beer and join in on the banter.

  2. @ Denis

    Yea, I agree this behavior is quite common, and you see it in competitive multiplayer gaming. The insults and whatnot that go on during a Smash Bros. game are very similar to a "manly" hang-out. It's interesting they put this behavior directly into Gears. I wonder if I would have had a similar experience if I were playing the game along or if it would have just been awkward.

  3. Absolutely agree with the post so let me go on a slight tangent (my forte, of course) and extend on this post by speaking about the multiplayer.

    As you've no doubt read a few times I am a completionist and because of this I played Gears of War for eight months to get the 'Seriously...' Achievement. Now that my repetition is out of the way, this camaraderie that you speak of transfers into the online experience as well, though seemingly only when you play the game with friends. I have always maintained that Gears multi is more enjoyable to me than other games and the 4-v-4 (and 5-v-5 in the sequel) team based play definitely continues on the camaraderie you mention in the post. Banter between friends occurs all the time as does firing insults off towards the opposing team with every shotgun blast. Do something stupid and die and you will receive a couple of insults for being so stupid, but at the end of the day it is all in good fun.

    Unfortunately, play it against randoms (as I had to for the Achievement) and instead of a fun game with humourous banter between each other you instead get a community more interested in ruining your experience than they are in winning the match. Glitches get used, real insults are thrown and everything else that you'd expect happens within the first 30 seconds of entering a lobby. Not sure if you read my post on the online play of the game but that covers it in more detail. Put simply though, it's the type of community that enforces the stereotype that some associate with online gaming and it REALLY is disappointing. Anyway great post and I am glad you two were able to play the game 'properly' - via co-op.

  4. @ Steven

    I did read your post actually, and that behavior must somewhat be influenced by the game itself. The characters in Gears, I would think, encourages ridicule. While that might work amongst friends, its atrocious and overly competitive amongst strangers. Kind of like in real life.

  5. I'd agree with you if the insults were still relatively tame but the crap that comes out of these player's mouths is disgusting. Racism and Sexism are common, as are anything else verbal that would usually get on one's nerves and whom would find offence; combine it with the blatant cheating or attempts to ruin the games and it's just one of the worst games to play online period. People complain about Halo and yes, it does occur in there too, but nowhere near to the extent of Gears.

    It's not camaraderie in the public matches of Gears of War, it's pure and absolute filth which, again, is seriously disappointing.