“Actual game experience may change during online play.”

If you’re playing videogames on Microsoft’s Xbox Live online gaming service, you should be quite familiar with the caveat that comes with every game rating. I signed on for a multiplayer game of Halo 2 recently. While waiting in the lobby, someone said, “I hope that fucker isn’t playing again.” I don’t think he was talking about me, since I only scored one kill in the previous game. But that’s the language I’ve come to expect in Halo 2. After all, it’s a mature-rated single-player game, and it’s even more mature – or shall we say, immature – in multiplayer mode.

Profanity, racism and sexism are just a few of the things you and your kids can run into as a matter of routine in online bouts of Halo 2 or Ghost Recon 3: Advanced Warfighter. As Microsoft hopes to break Xbox Live’s six-million-subscriber mark by June 2007, the biggest obstacle they face may be the bad behavior of other online players who can ruin the experience for the rest of us.

Josh Smith, a blogger, decided to conduct his own survey last December. He played for 33.9 hours on Xbox Live with the original Xbox. He recorded 641 instances of profanity during that time. The most common curse was “fuck.” The word accounted for 43 percent of the instances and occurred about eight times an hour. That was followed by “shit,” at 19 percent of the time, and something he dubbed “racial” at nine percent. The study confirmed what many people observe when they sign on to the online service for the first time.

“The days the skies turn black on Live have to be when the kids are on it,” said Josh Sattler, a 29-year-old student at the Full Sail videogame school in Winter Park, Fla. “The most foul-mouthed and out of control group of individuals on Live has to be unsupervised children.”

That doesn’t stop Sattler from spending hours at a time playing Ghost Recon. But it does diminish his joy for the game. Of course, with the ability to disguise voices on Xbox Live, there is no guarantee that it’s kids doing the dirty talk. Should he accept dealing with profanity as a cost of entry into the virtual life? Would it take a crackdown worthy of the Chinese government to clear the air for everyone?

Bad behavior on the internet is part of modern life. The angst of the modern videogame age isn’t so much about a game that doesn’t work. It’s about suffering a dropped internet connection or hearing 12-year-olds using profanity-laced “trash talk.” Gloating is a tradition in competition. But due to the anonymity the internet provides, the online environment can devolve into a Lord of the Flies-type environment. The etiquette that prevails with in-person conversations no longer applies because there are no more consequences for bad behavior. Kids can experiment with the freedom of saying anything they’d like out of earshot of their parents.

As if the barrage of profanity isn’t enough, it’s even more jarring when you find someone cheating. In Halo 2, common examples include “standby cheats” that interfere with a network connection to disrupt game play, using hacked maps or game files, and manipulating matchmaking to boost a player’s rank on the leaderboards.

But Microsoft contends that it can keep law and order in its online world. From the very start of the service in 2002, the company was able to use its authentication procedures to eject about two percent of the Xbox Live players who used “modded” Xboxes. Microsoft also stated that the use of a common identity, or “gamertag,” meant that users weren’t truly anonymous.

And with the launch of the Xbox 360 in November, the company was able to take more steps toward policing behavior. It created four “gamer zones,” or subsets of the online world governed under different rules. Under the “family” zone, there is no tolerance for cursing. The top dogs can’t spend their time whipping the “recreational” zone players; instead, they fight it out among their peers in the “professional” zone. And the “underground” zone is where the rules are more lax.

Taking a cue from eBay, the service now has a feedback system where gamers can rate their rivals. Each player carries a reputation with him. By clicking on someone’s gamertag, it’s easy to file a complaint about someone. If the complaints pile up, Microsoft can remove the gamer from the service, said Aaron Greenberg, marketing manager for Xbox Live. Just by looking at the number of stars listed next to someone’s gamertag, another player can see what kind of reputation that player has.

Greenberg says Microsoft has banned tens of thousands of players for bad behavior. Most of the complaints stem from Halo 2 games, but that’s because it’s the most popular game played on Live. The offenses include multiple transgressions on etiquette violations for foul language in the family zone, racism and cheating. The company will also force players with “inappropriate gamertags” to change their names or face ejection.

“For racism, we have a zero tolerance policy,” he said. “It’s like having someone over to your house. It’s our house, and if someone is offending the guests, we will ask them to leave.”

Of course, with new ways to monitor your friends such as inspecting gamertag descriptions, there are new ways to misbehave. One gamer said he was playing Rumble Roses XX on his Xbox 360. One of his friends looked at his gamertag, snapped a screen shot that showed what he was playing and emailed it to the player’s girlfriend. Greenberg notes that most players don’t realize that they can hide from prying “friends” by appearing offline.

Greenberg says that most of the problems are diminishing with the Xbox 360’s version of Xbox Live. The bigger problems are with the service for the original Xbox.

Still, with two million Xbox 360 users and growing, the service is hard to monitor. With the addition of Xbox Live Silver (free for online communication), the percentage of online-enabled Xbox 360 consoles is at 60 percent. Dealing with that influx of people isn’t an easy task, and it takes a NASA-like control to keep it all going.

Microsoft’s time has to be preoccupied with the complexities of keeping the service up and running 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year in 24 countries. Sometimes, that isn’t a given.

Majita Biljeskovic, a 22-year-old electrical engineering student at Northern Illinois University, wrote in an e-mail that he loves Xbox Live except for “DISCONNECTIONS!” Last fall, he spent six hours a day trying to become the best FIFA soccer game player in the U.S. But his internet connection dropped him five times in 100 games. He says he lost a month’s worth of achievement points, causing him to drop in the rankings.

“Three months of giving up lifting weights, going out with friends at night at college and fitness goes down the drain with five disconnections,” he said.

Players get penalized for disconnections, mainly because it’s a strategy that losers pull whenever they’re about to lose a match. Greenberg says that many disconnections are the fault of third-party internet service providers or broadband suppliers. Microsoft has no control over them, but it strives to hit an uptime target of 99.9 percent of the time for its part of the service.

“We regularly meet and exceed that,” he said.

Microsoft continues to modify Xbox Live to provide a better overall experience. One upgrade in spring made it easier to download more than one thing at the same time. Another upgrade will come in the fall. But just as with the real world, life in the virtual world is far from perfect.

Dean Takahashi is author of The Xbox 360 Uncloaked.

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