I didn’t let COVID-19 knock me down. I kept working, kept writing, lost a little weight, improved my bike riding a bit, did just enough club racing to confirm that I haven’t forgotten how to thump on the locals, practiced my scales on the guitar. Ah, but the hits kept coming, the world just kept kicking me when I was down, culminating in my broken leg two weeks ago. The last time I felt this personally defeated was when my cubicle-mate loaded up an Atari VCS emulator and beat me five hundred times in a row (we kept track) in Slot Racer. This is the worst. I have some options. They gave me a bottle of oxycodone for post-surgery use but at the end of that bottle is Dilaudid. So instead I’ve just elected to be puritanically miserable most of the time.
Next week I can probably lift a few weights again, assuming I can get down into the basement and back out without falling to my death. In the meantime I’ve been wasting time by playing Fortnite, the lowest-common-denominator video game in North America that isn’t played on an iPhone. I started with “Solos” and won a bunch of times. My son and I went on to play “Duos” and won a bunch of times, then he refused to play any more because he’d rather play Call of Duty or ride his bike. So I started playing “Squads”, which works like so: 100 players are dropped on a “the battle island”, in 25 squads of 4 players each, and they figure out creative ways to kill each other until only one squad is left.
This is a story about how I led a band of children to victory, and how one of those children was physically beaten until they sobbed in the process.
Start with this information: Most multi-player online games have one group of servers for computer users and another, entirely separate, group for the walled garden of XBox and Playstation users. There are many compelling reasons for this, the two most important ones being
0. There’s far more cheating on PCs, which are far more open to modification than the game consoles are;
1. The demographics are very different. By and large, adults use computers and children use game consoles.
Epic Games, the publisher of Fortnite, doesn’t make that distinction. Instead, they enforce an odd communication restriction: in squad games, the voice chat is limited to console users by default. Computer users can only be part of chat if they are “friends” with all the console users. This is no problem when it’s me and my son on our gaming PCs “squadding up” with Bark’s son on his XBox, but when I’m playing in a squad with randomly assigned matches, I frequently am the only PC user in a four-person group. So I can hear what the kids are saying, and they can all hear each other, but they can’t hear me.
From a gameplay perspective, it’s not much of a problem. I can mark targets and warn my squadmates about enemies using the mouse. Most kids understand that I’m a PC user and can’t voice chat with them. They’ll talk to me and I’ll respond by using the “mark target” feature. Simple enough. It doesn’t stop my squads from doing very well on average, rarely finishing below 10th place and usually in the top 5. In fact, the combination of an adult (me!) with three younger players works very well. Their reflexes are much faster than mine, so they do better than I do in actual combat — but I am pretty good at guiding a squad all the way to victory and thinking strategically.
The interesting and frustrating aspect of this is that, while my son and I have proper gaming headsets by Sennheiser with built-in microphones, the console players just use the microphones built-in to their game controllers, which pick up their voices but also pick up all the noises around them. So to play in a squad with three XBox users is to be bombarded with everything that’s happening in their houses at the time.
Sometimes it’s hilarious — the trope of the teenaged boy trying to put off his girlfriend long enough to finish a video game is, apparently, based strongly in reality. I’ve heard adults buying joints from the local weed man in the background of games. I’ve heard parents screwing faintly in the next room. I’ve listened to all the Auto-Tune rap music you could ever want to hear, laughed at UberEats drivers arguing about cold food.
Sometimes it’s heartbreaking. I hear how adults outside my little bubble of middle-class respectability talk to children. I’ve heard how children talk to each other when they aren’t educated by a polymath-obsessive father. And I occasionally hear things that want to make me put the headphones down and just cry for a minute, because having a microphone placed in the world of America’s children brings me near-constant reminders that they are not nearly as safe, or as cherished, as I’d like to believe they are.
This was the situation yesterday. My squad started the game by dropping in at the town of “Lazy Lake” and engaging in a pair of simultaneous running battles against two other squads that had dropped in nearby. The team was me, a loud-mouthed rural-sounding “tween”, a teenager with a Black accent, and a kid who sounded like he was nine or ten. He had the soft speech impediment with which I’m familiar from my son’s BMX races — the inability to pronounce the hard “r” or hard “l”, so you sound like Elmer Fudd, “hunting wabbits”. This is increasingly common among the poor for some reason; I suspect it has something to do with the mechanics of picking up speech ad hoc, rather than being specifically taught elocution the way I was as a child. From the beginning of the game, the kid was pleading with a parent or much older sibling to be permitted to continue on the XBox.
“Pwease let me finish!” he would yell, and some older voice would respond with a harsh rejoinder.
“Fuck off with that bullshit,” the man yelled about a minute into the match, “I got shit I wanna watch.” This is actually par for the course in Fortnite squad games, so I didn’t give it much thought. And the kid could play — when the teenager ran out of our rifle coverage and got knocked down, this soft-voiced child killed two opponents on his own while I went in for the risky revival move. That let us mop up the first enemy squad in short order. The second squad retreated just as we came under fire from another angle. As a wedge we moved in and made four fast kills, bringing us up to nine kills total with four of them mine.
Around this time, the horn sounded to let us know that 25 of the original 100 players remained. We headed up a long mountain road in a loose-ranging pack towards “Stark Industries”, the place where we expected the final battle to take place. Just before we would have reached a plateau overlooking Stark Industries, I heard the kid scream “PLEASE DON”T WHUP ME!”.
For the next minute and a half, I heard slapping and banging noises, punctuated by an adult grunting in almost sexual-sounding effort while the child screamed, first with relatively articulate pleas to stop, then with wordless terror, then finally with hyperventilating and defeated sobs. There was literally nothing I could do; not only could I not speak a word to my team, Fortnite keeps me from having any idea about who my squadmates are in real life. The kid could have been in the house next to me, or in Montana. Epic Games has an 800 number, but what could I tell them when I called?
“Damn, he getting his ass beat,” the teenager said. Without any further discussion, we formed a perimeter around the immobile avatar of our teammate, building steel structures to protect him and fanning out to lay down suppressive fire on a squad coming up the hill behind us. I took a chance on a long-lead sniper shot at a running opponent. The bullet took a lazy contour directly to the head of the avatar, who then disappeared in a shower of dropped items.
Over 200 meters!
Our group chat went silent for a few terrifying seconds. Then we heard sobs, then we saw our teammate’s avatar start running up towards Stark Industries.
“Sowwy…” he said, trying to catch his breath, “I was bad. I’m okay now. We… sob have to get to Stark Industwies.” When we got there, the kid constructed a whirlwind tower of wooden beams behind an opponent, dropped behind him, and took his head off with a shotgun, causing the dead players to drop Iron Man’s Uni-Beam, the most powerful weapon in the game.
“Guys… guys… I’M IRON MAN!” There were nine players left, and this little kid went on a tear, narrating as he did so. “Guys, guys, we need a higher wate of fi-we over heah… I’m sneaking up behind them…” I knocked down a member of the final enemy squad, “shook” them to make the positions of their teammates appear on the map, then unceremoniously headshot the prone victim with a beam rifle. There were two floating red diamonds on the screen; the kid wiped them both out in ten seconds, causing the screen to freeze and
to appear. “FUCK YEAH!” the teenager yelled, causing the XBox microphone output to buzz and crack painfully in the Focal Elear headphones I use for gaming when I don’t need a microphone myself.
“That’s what’s up, bitches! Shout out to WorldChallenge31!” the rural kid agreed, tactfully including your silent author in the victory.
“I can’t be-weive we won… can’t be-wieve it!” The pure joy in the child’s voice seemed equal to the pain he’d screamed out just five minutes previously, though I knew even as I had the thought that I was just trying to get the sick taste out of my throat by thinking it. Then the voice chat cut off. I would never hear those three voices again; Fortnite would assign me different partners next time. And I realized too late that I didn’t know which one of the three usernames on my screen belonged to the child who had been abused.
RETURN TO LOBBY
I wondered for a moment about a child, no older than my son, who could take a physical beating and return to win a videogame. I am a bit of a subject matter expert in the art of enduring physical pain. I can recognize that quality in others, as well. It’s something you earn over time. Something I have at the age of forty-eight, gritting my teeth and stifling a cry when my ankle twists in its cast. It’s something this child has at the age of ten or eleven. He’s earned it, the same way I have. The difference was that I signed on my own dotted line to break my neck and my legs and everything else. In his case, an adult signed the waiver on his behalf, perhaps with the ragged “X” of the proudly illiterate, the way I’d seen it done at rural BMX tracks when I was younger.
For a long time I sat there with my laptop open, staring at the “END GAME” prompt. My leg was killing me and I could really use the distraction of another fifteen minutes on the Battle Island, surrounded by all the ridiculous weapons and avatars and animations. But I didn’t have a moment’s worth of stomach to hear another child in pain or sorrow. I slapped the Lenovo shut, hobbled on my crutches to the fridge, grabbed a can of soda. Fell back down into the chair. Poured it into a glass and held it high.
“To us,” I said. “To the win. And to your eighteenth birthday, whoever you are, wherever you might be. To the day you can’t be hurt any more.” I said it like it was real, like he could hear me, like there is ever going to be a day where no one could hurt him, or hurt you, or hurt me.