Between the exploding pickup truck and my exploding head I remembered something very important: I hate online gaming.
I had been lazily exploring the first few hours of Grand Theft Auto V online, where characters level up through a series of tasks and heists, and a random player had found me in the open-world map of Los Santos and ambushed me while I was climbing into a pickup truck.
Sure, all’s fair in love and Grand Theft Auto, a ridiculously violent game in a ridiculous, fictionalized Los Angeles where bullets and lives are cheap. But in my stoned state, I was taking my sweet time getting around. I hadn’t even procured ammo for my weapons (and therefore been able to defend myself) when some snot-nosed 14-year-old shot a rocket at my vehicle. Or so I assumed — I could hear adolescent laughter bubble up through my TV’s speakers from the other players wearing their dorky gaming headsets.
I respawned in a different part of the map and he found me again. And again. And again. This player, whose avatar had leveled up far beyond mine and who seemed hell-bent on cleaning the map of shaky GTAV-online newbies like myself, kept finding me and blowing me up. (“Griefing,” it’s called in online circles, and what an incredibly repetitive, fish-in-a-barrel activity it is.)
I could have persevered and gained strength. I could have tried to communicate and form an alliance with this fool. But I just gave up.
And the thing is, it wasn’t just annoyance I was feeling. It was fear.
Part of that had to do with the fact that one of my all-time treasured activities is smoking pot and playing video games (lately: Sour Diesel or Green Crack, both of which suit me fine for gaming). So I was definitely blazed when all this was happening, when the confusion of an ambushing player felt immediate and suffocating, and when I felt like I had no time to react.
Really, that’s a thing? Cannabis-infused coffee. Machine-rolled marijuana cigarettes. Joint-peddling vending machines. A THC-infused, ladies-only lube. A food truck selling only infused edibles. The massage of your life, via a marijuana-infused lotion. Yes, really, these are all real things.
I’ve always had a general disdain for playing video games with people who aren’t in the room with me. The rise of online multiplayer games is The Future, we’re told. From MMOs (Massively Multiplayer Online games) like World of Warcraft to the Call of Duty series or most sports games, playing with friends — or random strangers from around the world — is about as effortless as turning on your PlayStation, Xbox or PC and watching the title screen swim into view.
But even though I’m a committed, lifelong gamer who embraces pretty much any technological leap to come down the pike, my dirty secret is that I usually avoid any online/multiplayer entanglements. Social gaming — in which flesh-and-blood people interact around video games, often at bars or festivals or special events — is great. But playing Titanfall or Call of Duty or Red Dead Redemption online is like hanging out with a bunch of testosterone-fueled children I’d never want to be around in real life.
And the games themselves can be lame. Every first- or third-person shooter these days (and many linear games to boot) feels the need to tack on an online multiplayer experience. Some are just boring, like God of War: Ascension. Some seem intimidatingly complex. But in some games, like Halo, the lion’s share of the experience is pretty much built on this functionality. And that’s why games of that ilk — with poorly-sketched single-player campaigns, or an overwhelming emphasis on online play — appeal to me about as much as inviting a rabid squirrel into my house.
There’s academic research that shows the relative anonymity of online gaming can lead to bad behavior, and that group discipline and feelings of inclusion and worth can combat it, which runs parallel to a lot of larger online trends. Why else would people care so much about Warcraft’s endless quests, or GTAV’s countless, customized crews? You make a name for yourself and it’s only natural that you’d want to defend it. And certainly, there are ways to combat griefing and remove the stakes, however low and imagined they may be, from playing in a sandbox with a gang of violent, overcaffeinated kids.
My feelings about it are in the same vein as generally-stoned paranoia, which I sometimes get, where I imagine someone random walking up to me in public and calling me out for being high. My basic reaction? “Dude, I can’t handle it! Leave me alone! AUUUGGGHHHH!!!” Is it a sick mind or a playful one doing the tormenting? A child or an adult? Someone from across town or across the globe?
Doesn’t matter. I’m out! I have virtual “stranger danger,” as my buddy Sam Gault once said, and being high only intensifies it.
Really, most of the time I can find ways to deal with it. In many open world or MMO games, players can change settings to allow themselves to roam freely without fear of being mowed down by a random player. In fact, in Journey — one of my all-time favorite games — other players are not only anonymous, they’re few and far between. You can choose to help or ignore each other, but you can’t appreciably hinder another’s progress.
Still, even virtual representations of my personality feel vulnerable when I’m high. Smoking pot before gaming opens up not only my little-kid wonder, but also elements of my little-kid fear. When it comes down to it, it’s a mixture of that and the irritation I feel toward gamers who have the singular goal of mocking and impeding other players. And it has real(ish) results: When you die in GTAV, for example, you lose not only your momentum and location on the map, you’re docked virtual cash for “hospital bills” — cash you’ve earned through hours of play. If time is money, it’s akin to highway robbery.
Comedian Max Silvestri may have put it best when he said, “I can’t get into multiplayer. It’s just like children calling you gay all the time.” (Kumail Nanjiani — who hosts the video game-focused Indoor Kids podcast — responds in the sketch with, “What’s the matter, can’t take the heat?”)
It’s not just about immaturity or cheap taunts. It’s about living in a virtual society, a digital analog of an organic world, in which “freedom” becomes a game-breaking cheat. There are precious few things in the real world over which I have the illusion of control, but when I’m gaming — when I’ve ingested my sacrament and entered my digital sanctuary — I’ve learned over and over again that I enjoy it best in solitude.