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Headsets and Headaches: Xbox Live's Redemption

I learned something today. It was a truth that sunk in slowly and reluctantly; that my years of conditioning fought until it could deny the obvious no more. I had long trained myself to believe precisely the opposite, but through little more than sheer luck and a sudden revelation, I discovered what should have seemed plain but that was hidden by my ingrained biases. 

The overabundance of headsets on Xbox Live isn’t actually a bad thing.

Hear me out. I know it may sound crazy at first. Before today I would have thought the same thing, but I now believe there is validity to the argument that Microsoft’s widespread dispersal of headsets with all their consoles may been a boon instead of a burden. 

The argument has long gone that gaming on Xbox Live is a chore. You slap on your cheap headset and have to suffer through countless arrogant morons spewing profanity and racial slurs while kicking your ass and making you wonder what’s wrong with the world. 

Let me be clear. All of that is still true. Dealing with the lowest common denominator on Xbox Live is still a cause of many migraines. There’s something about the aggression of online competition coupled with the relative anonymity of the online setting that seems to bring out the worst in people.

Most people.

It’s in this qualifying statement that we begin to see the upside to the proliferation of voice chat. It may not be often that you run into a normal, respectful, decent human being on Xbox Live, but it can be a great feeling when you do. You can make new friends online, have great conversations in addition to great battles, and bring a human element to the competition that is otherwise missing. 

This is technically true even of the idiots. They may be annoying, but at least they feel human. Don’t believe this is better? Try playing online on a PS3. If you run into one person that has a headset in hours and hours of play you’ll be lucky. The place is virtually silent. 

At first this feels like a blessing. No more little Timmy calling you horrible names and insulting your mother! Blissful quiet! 

But then you realize that with nobody at all ever talking, it doesn’t feel much different than playing against the computer. A very good computer, sure, but an opponent that lacks in personality nonetheless. I’ve spent many hours (though far fewer than most) on Xbox Live and it was only after playing a good number of hours of Mortal Kombat on the PS3 that the truth hit home. 

I’d rather deal with morons and feel like I’m playing against humans than fight an endless string of silent nobodies.

It even makes you appreciate the terrific tools Microsoft has provided you. If you don’t like someone on PSN, you’re pretty much screwed. (This is actually equally true if you like them, as, short of a friend request, you can’t upvote them or prefer them like you can on Xbox Live - something that is certainly missed on PSN, but sadly not needed nearly as often.) Microsoft, on the other hand, gives you an abundance of ways to rate good players and avoid the bad. There may be a lot of annoyances, but it’s almost always a snap to mute them, ban them, kick them, block them, or whatever else and focus on the decent humans that remain. 

It’s my theory that there are actually plenty of awesome people on Xbox Live, but most of them are like myself - reluctant to talk, preferring instead to leave their headset off so as to avoid the incessant annoyance of the idiots. But now I realize this is the wrong approach.

Leave your headset on. You’ll have to suffer the idiocy, sure, but if you avoid the human contact altogether you’ll also avoid the high points. You’ll never have a laugh with that cool person that saved your ass from the camper. You’ll never make a friend after a friendly battle with a well-matched opponent. You’ll never find that cool online friend you might have enjoyed sparring with again in the future. 

Today on Xbox Live, I played for hours with someone I had met online playing Mortal Kombat. We’re both decent but new and relatively unskilled. A good match for one another, in other words, and especially so online where there is a veritable army of people far better than us waiting to hand us our asses. We both enjoy the MK universe and hopping from character to character, enjoying the whole cast and having fun rather than zealously devoting ourselves to a single fighter in the name of pure victory. 

We sparred for hours, chatting about Mortal Kombat and its various characters, about its crazy universe and insane story, about that cool combo someone just pulled off, about other fighting games, and all sorts of stuff besides. 

In other words, it felt just like playing a friendly game with a pal, only it was a pal I had never met before and never would have without Xbox Live and that ubiquitous headset. This scenario is absolutely inconceivable on PSN. Nobody chats. Nobody makes friends. There is no interaction other than the faceless competition of opposing button presses. An endless string of battles against little more than ridiculous pseudonyms. 

Is it better than fighting against the computer? Sure, but it’s not as good as it could be. 

Decent people are out there. Hiding maybe, but they’re there. If you throw away the headset, you throw away even the possibility of finding them. If you’re tossing out even the possibility for decent human interaction with your multiplayer, wouldn’t you be better served sticking to single player? There’s more to competition than just the act of technically scoring a win against another human being. Without any sense of interaction or community, it all seems pointless. 

It’s a slim chance for sure, but I now know the chance is there and I’m a happier gamer for it.

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