All around the world, men--and almost exclusively men--are meeting in basements and rec rooms to kill each other. They do it in carefully chosen pairs and in 16-person free-for-alls. They do it for prizes, for laughs and for virtual honor. They shoot each other in the heads with rocket launchers and blow midriffs to pieces with mysterious weapons called "plasma grenades" and "brute shots." Their only demands are a TV, an Xbox videogame console and a target; their only real casualties are the alarming number of self-described "Xbox widows" left in their wake. The players cut across all age and financial demographics, but what they share is an obsession with meeting in the combat fantasy game Halo.
Halo, and its recently released sequel Halo 2, may technically just be a bunch of carefully arranged ones and zeros, no different in theory than Pong or an Internet porn site, but the games have spawned a uniquely demented level of devotion among gamers. Local Hastings and Wal-Marts report not being able to keep reserves of Halo 2 on the shelves for more than a few minutes. Kenny Rudy, videogame wrangler at Hastings on Boise Avenue, even reports that his store had been forced to buy copies at other retail outlets, at retail price, just to meet their own demand. Likewise, they have spent recent weeks deflecting a steady barrage of bribes from people striving to obtain their Halo 2 promotional items.
"They're pretty weird," Rudy says of the intense Halo-philes. It's hard to disagree. All these men gathering en masse, staring blankly forward and fiddling with their fingers and thumbs--I can't help but think of inappropriate analogies about group-based gratification. Rather than the traditional "circle," this new phenomenon is the "Halo jerk." I try this affront out on Rudy, and he is surprisingly receptive.
"Yeah, that's probably what I'd call it too," he replies with half the horror for which I was hoping. But jerky or not, Halo is here to stay. If I plan to live, labor and recreate with human men through the next few decades of the Last Days, then it might help to have the game on my cultural repertoire. So for the week of November 12 to 19, with a borrowed Xbox and only a few hours of killing experience under my belt, I set out to get Halo-fied.
Before trying my hand at killing anyone among my friends and co-workers, I knew my best recourse was to seek guidance from the most seasoned virtual sages. I needed to look no further than a group of four 14- and 15-year-olds from Les Bois Junior High. Their Xbox screen names, each chosen for maximum intimidation: Demigod, Purple Cobra, Rommel and The Automator--although spellings varied depending on how much of their English homework time had been spent playing Halo. Their qualifications: well over 100 combined hours of Halo 2 combat, out of the 240 hours since the game had been released on November 9 (that's over 24 percent of the time total, for those of you looking to include the stat in preemptive obituaries for Western Civilization).
The sermon occurred in a four-TV, four-Xbox circle at Rampage Gaming on Broadway Avenue. For those not in the know about Rampage, simply recall the sparsest, gloomiest addict-hovel in Trainspotting and then add a few computers and a projection TV. The two-room structure contains no white light, natural or otherwise, just blackened windows and fluorescent tubes that radiate an emerald colored light titled "gamer green." I forgot, unfortunately, to ask the pallid desk clerk if the lights were this color before so many unwashed teens started living there, paying rent by $5-per-hour increments.
My teachers were your everyday type of American youth--the kind who have regular occasion to say things like, "God! We really need some shotguns," and "I need to take vengeance on the minions!" They laughed at death, they laughed harder at writhing, acrobatic death and howled like monkeys when their own death inadvertently caused someone else to die. But mostly, they just talked trash--about each other, about the adults who vainly try to engage them through video games ("My dad's a total 'camper.' He just sits at the gun turret waiting for me, but I usually kill him first."), and especially about newbies like me.
"You're pretty crappy," Purple Cobra said suddenly and without irony after several hours of intense dueling. "Every once in a while you kill someone by accident, but then you stand around gloating and get killed." I reminded him that his name sounds like the title of a Chippendale routine that would be illegal in Boise. He killed me with a magic spork called an "energy sword" while I was thinking up the insult. This was some seriously tough love, but I knew that somewhere in it lurked advice that would help me to inflict similar injuries on my loved ones.
"Just hunker down," Purple Cobra said, not taking his eyes from the screen and preparing to kill me once again. "Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst."
"Um, I think you're mistaking this for real combat," I replied.
"Oh, this is real combat," immediately shot back Demigod, "for the teenage mind."
So, with my weapons set on "hunker" and my mind set on "teenage," I headed off to the adult equivalent of the Friday night Halo-jerk: the Saturday morning "Wake and Halo." Family, housecleaning, hygiene and other secondary distractions are put on hold for thousands of identical events every week, as males loyally plug in their indoctrination stations. This party was just three: myself, a 25-year-old male model going by the screen name of Mr. Eel, and a 36-year-old executive director of BW titled CC Rider.
To notice a difference between the banter of the adults and the teens took an alert ear and a caffeinated brain. The dialogue was the same --"I love this sword!" "I blew up when I crashed into your flaming corpse!"--the trash talking the same, but the adults, well, we flinched. We said "ow" when being blown up. We (particularly CC) cried "Uh-oh," when an explosion occurred within earshot. We intoned cryptic faux-military warnings like "Someone's got a line on me" or "Somebody's got my number." The kids, on the other hand, just laughed. And there was no doubt that the careless cacklers were also the more effective killers.
Three hours and 300 deaths later, I emerged from Halo exhausted and convinced that the gamers who are able to manage both a Halo-life and a "real" life must be time-management wizards of unparalleled vision. Then I phoned my girlfriend and ordered her to invent a god and then thank "It" that her boyfriend is not a gamer. Then I called my dad and thanked him for refusing to buy me a videogame system in my youth. Then, finally, I called Demigod and told him that when the draft is inevitably reinstated in the coming years, he and his hooting, heartless ilk will either be America's best chance at survival or our road to total annihilation
"Oh yeah," he replied, "We're so ready."