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The Virtual Life – Quietly Killing With Strangers In Counter-Strike And Overwatch

by Javy Gwaltney on Jun 21, 2017 at 03:00 PM

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There's this map in Counter-Strike called CS_Office. You might have played it. If you haven't, it takes place at, get this, an office covered in snow. The level looks like this:

Terrorists hold a group of hostages in the back of the office while Counter-Terrorists move from the parking lot on the other side of the map to either kill the terrorists or rescue hostages. I've played all the variations of CS_Office, ever since its earliest version with CS 1.0. I've developed pretty much the same strategy over the years when playing as one of the counter-terrorists, taking a left from the parking lot and going into the warehouse adjacent to the office and peeking out of the window with a sniper rifle or assault rifle, eye trained on the second-floor hallway. Almost always, a terrorist (usually a newbie or some gung-ho shotgunner) will peek his whole body at the end of the hall and with a pull of the trigger his head whips back. The corpse drops, a bloody spray on the wall, and the match is off to a roaring start.

Every multiplayer game has its own language between players. I'm not talking about the acronyms and specific phrases people will shout over microphones to alert allies of danger. I mean protocol and story that's told moment by moment, how players understand each others' actions without actually saying words to one another. One of my favorite things about all those years I spent playing Counter-Strike was the silent communication that would unfold, with my teammates making their own calls and knee-jerk judgments based on having played through this scenario over a hundred times. Sometimes when I sniped, I'd have a bodyguard standing over me or another sniper at my side. When we'd storm the office as a group, teams would often split a juncture, with two people taking the left half of a building while the other two infiltrate the right. All of this without language. Just procedure learned through repetition.

For a while I stopped playing multiplayer games. Mostly because it seemed like this language lessened in the years that followed the release of Left 4 Dead and other co-op centric games, where people would SCREAM at you for not having a mic and refuse to play until you activated yours. I've never been someone who loves to talk online, especially with strangers, so this trend (as well as college and some other events) caused me to drop off of multiplayer games almost entirely. This silent language of procedure was one of the most compelling game-centric things I'd come across, and a big reason for my fascination with multiplayer games, so without it the joy of playing with other people diminished quite a bit.

And then Overwatch happened.

I've played a number of multiplayer games since Counter-Strike, of course. But they're usually of the deathmatch variety, kill or be killed, nothing that has to be understood beyond the obvious. No tactics needed. Even the multiplayer modes of Titanfall 2, my favorite shooter in the past decade, are accommodating for lone wolfs and have no standard procedure of their own since every mode is basically Deathmatch with a twist. Overwatch is different because it is an explicitly team-based game where communication and teamwork are key to victory. Of course, for a lot of people that means the ideal team should have everyone with microphones and in constant vocal communication. However, the game has also developed a community where non-vocal play is often legitimate and acceptable, so that that silent, compelling language of procedure returns.

My Overwatch favorites are Mei, Soldier 76, Tracer, Roadhog, Ana, and It's a solid spread of attackers, defenders, and even a healer thrown in for good measure. During a match, I often wait for everyone to fill out the team before I make my selection so I can be something approximate to whatever we need. If anyone talks during the game (unless I'm playing with friends, which is rare), I mute them. Most people don't talk in Quick Play anyway. From there, I move in correspondence to my role. If I'm Ana, I'm trailing behind whoever is tanking, peppering them with healing darts once they charge into the fray. If I'm Roadhog, I'm chaining weaker characters to try and get them off the battlefield quickly before they can use their special abilities to cause a ruckus. During good matches (which shockingly tend to be most of them) my teammates, all strangers, are doing the same.

The focus on roles in Overwatch, a combination of the loose class system of Team Fortress and the character rosters of MOBAs, makes playing competently together in silence an easy thing to do because it all hinges on the players understanding procedure and the strengths and weaknesses of roles and the best way to respond tactically off the cuff in certain situations, like how Tracer might use her rewind power to escape being blown off a ledge by a Lucio.

There's something deeply satisfying and even peaceful about playing Overwatch silently and doing it well, being part of a multi-part machine where all the parts are moving in harmony because the rules and procedures of the game are so well understood by everyone involved. This experience is, to me, just so much more satisfying than having some jerk who has made it their life goal to assert their superiority in a first-person shooter scream about how the person playing Mercy or Ana isn't doing their job because one person didn't get healed or resurrected.

Games are often their own form of social interaction. Some people enjoy having conversations that span hours during MMO raids with guildmates. Others enjoy barking tactical lingo over microphones during Rainbow Six Siege. For me though, I love my online interactions in games to be brief and communicated in the specific language of whatever I'm playing and it's reassuring to see games still making a space for that kind of communication to happen.

For more on Overwatch be sure to check out our ranking of the characters' costumes as well as Reiner's opinion on why the game should continue to incentivize competitive play.