–William Golding, Lord of the Flies
I used to tell people, “You want to witness the worst in humanity? Get online and play a multiplayer FPS on Xbox Live.” See that guy over there? He’s going to call me an “f” word, rhymes with “maggot.” Some other dude will call a totally different dude an “n” word, rhymes with “chigger.” Fuck this, fuck that, slap a bitch, sexism, racism, misogyny, misanthropy.
Not to mention all the mentions of genitals. Suck it, sucker, slap it, lick it, knocker, and so on, and so forth.
Plus griefers, hackers, cheaters, glitchers, and their surly ilk.
I thought, this is the online version of Lord of the Flies, a clearing house for humanity’s worst instincts. Piggy may not get crushed beneath a boulder online, but he damn sure gets teamkilled.
But then it happened: a match of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare that changed all that: A match that showed me how cynical my thinking had become, and how wrong it was.
Not “wrong” in the sense that it never happens – anybody who has ever played Halo against other human beings online has bore witness to the most miscreant attitudes known to man.
But “wrong” in the sense that it allows noise to wash out the signal. Such a narrow view favors the bad but fails to consider the good. A cynic might regard the mutant chaos and ugly inclinations of multiplayer gaming while neglecting to highlight the positive – the ways that a game can encourage the best in its players rather than merely showcasing the worst.
Or, put more succinctly, the cynic – me, you, anybody – fails to understand …
The “Pip” Factor.
– William Golding, Lord of the Flies
The game? Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.
We were getting stomped. Mashed. Teabagged. Bent over a barrel. Smacked around like sock monkeys.
In the desert sands of – Fallujah? Baghdad? Beirut? Tatooine? – my teammates and I couldn’t get a foothold. Every time that we turned a corner, there stood our enemy, an OpFor motherfucker with an angry AK-47. The gun chattered. Bullets stitched across digital bodies, the screen went red, our hearts thumped the drumbeats of our dooms, and the sand-swept ground of the Crossfire map claimed yet another Marine corpse.
The game mocked us constantly: “Enemy UAV is airborne!”
Bullets. Explosions. Death.
It didn’t help that we were like scattering cats, each with a cherry bomb up its ass. One soldier ran that way; another crawled this way. Nobody moved together; nobody could seem to remember the layout of this map that they’ve probably played a half-a-hundred times. It was chaos. With each death, morale tumbled lower and lower, and before too long we knew the inescapable end. The teeth of our egos would be placed against the dusty bullet-chipped curb, tongues tasting salt and sand and shame, and the enemy’s boot would come crashing down on the backs of our skulls.
We were going to lose. Again. Curb-stomped like little bitches.
But then –
A leader – not just a soldier, but our general – rose from the madness.
I’ll call him Pip.
-William Golding, Lord of the Flies
He sounded like a prepubescent Harry Potter, his voice high, sharp, chirpy. Not a crack, not a waver that indicated any hint of adolescence.
He sounded like Oliver Twist: “Please, sir, can I have some more?”
Or, as the name I’ve given him suggests, Pip from South Park, the little English boy with the bright blonde hair and the little cap.
I don’t know where he came from. Was he there all along, just biding his time, his crisp European patience worn down like a nibbled biscuit? Or did the teams get rebalanced somewhere, Pip appearing as if out of thin air, drawn to our match and answering the call for a hero?
Pip came to us without pretension, without a rallying cry. He simply said, “Meet me on the north side of the road,” then explained which building he was in and told us to watch for snipers coming out of the West. (Crossfire, the map that staged the battle, is essentially a landscape of dusty desert buildings with a zig-zaggy road in the middle.)
He was plain. Forthright. Downright declarative, like an admonishment from the Terminator: “Come with me if you want to live.”
His words were easy to ignore. We’re American Marines. Oo-rah or whatever. We’re not going to listen to some little cor, blimey, bloody ‘ell 12-year-old, right?
Except, we weren’t really Marines.
And we were getting our genitals punted up through our soft palates.
I listened. I followed. Two others on our team did the same while the rest ignored Pip’s instructions, running around like idiots with buckets on their heads, playing a game of grab-ass as they died again and again. Those of us who showed up found Pip – looking quite unlike the ankle-biting squirt you’d expect, what with our avatars all being tough-and-burly soldiers – and when we met his mark, he gave us our orders like it was the new normal, like this was how things had to be.
Pip told us to follow him. He told us that we were going to take out the sniper nest. He explained exactly where the snipers were, and which of us was to handle whom.
We stormed the nest. Snipers were stationed exactly where Pip had said. They didn’t hear us coming. No flashbang was necessary, just the mean, hungry teeth of our machine guns.
We lost that match. But our numbers were up. Our kills had seen a boost in the last minutes of the game. Pip had shown us the way.
– William Golding, Lord of the Flies
In Lord of the Flies, Piggy has the voice of reason, but the body of a toad. That is why his pleas and warnings are ignored (well, and he’s also a bit whiny). The other characters in Flies drop a boulder on his head even though he has the conch – the conch of wisdom, the conch of “I have the floor” – and there he dies, his head smashed alongside the shell.
I do not know what Pip looked like. Fat or thin, blonde or raven-haired, tall and reedy or squat like a diseased tree stump. I know that here, in the online space, his looks didn’t matter. I do know what he sounded like. Despite a voice indicating that he hadn’t yet known the touch of a woman, he was calm, assertive, and utterly certain of his plan.
I know that he was our leader. And just then, I realized that this was one of the great benefits of the online space, of the multiplayer experience. Some of the leaders of the next generation were going to be born here – and it was in this place that these leaders would find their voices.
I realized this because suddenly I put words to how I felt: “I would follow this kid anywhere. I wish he would be my boss. I wish he would be the mayor of my town. Were he leaping headlong into the belching maw of Hell itself, I’d follow him beyond those ragged teeth because I know that he’d not lead us astray.”
It’s easy to dismiss players like Pip as being merely good at the game. But that’s not what was going on. Pip was a critical thinker. He was an excellent communicator. He spoke to us as individual players and advanced our team strategy. He wasn’t just a skilled button-pusher. He wasn’t just a monkey. He was a leader.
Further, it’s easy for someone, anyone, to dismiss gamers (online gamers in particular) as being a surly brood of racist, sexist dick-hats. Those kinds of players exist, of course, but painting them all with one big brush misses those who are not just good gamers but good people and good leaders, too. Such dismissal fails to see that in the online space lurks what may be our next president (or, at least, the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom).
– William Golding, Lord of the Flies
It was the turn of the tide.
The Crossfire map – hereby known as “The Rise of Pip” in my mind – was our D-Day, our Beaches of Normandy moment. I mean, sure, it was our watered-down online version of D-Day, largely devoid of any actual heroism, but, in that moment, it felt like we Marines had accomplished something.
The rest of the team realized what we had here: a leader with a plan. Soon, everybody fell in line, if not because they succumbed to a sense of reason and purpose, but because they too wanted a hand in victory. Nobody wanted to be the last asshole running around in circles, pawing at his pee-soaked pants as another sniper bullet peeled his scalp.
Yes, we lost that match.
But we played another ten or so after that.
And we won every goddamn one of them.
So, to you, Pip, if you’re still out there: hurrah, I say, and oo-rah. When you’re old enough to imbibe alcohol, I’ll raise a frosty glass of Old Speckled Hen in your honor, and we shall sing songs at the pub of your glory. Hold the conch and sound its trumpeting warble proudly, my boy.
Chuck Wendig is a novelist, screenwriter, and freelance penmonkey. He’s written for the pen-and-paper RPG industry for over 10 years, and is the developer for Hunter: The Vigil. He is represented by Stacia Decker of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. His website and blog is Terribleminds.