Boys' Nights In

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Author: Ed Cohen

Seated on a couch in the room of his dorm’s assistant rector, Keenan Hall sophomore John McDermott makes an observation that, taken out of context, might be disturbing. “Definitely the most satisfying kill,” he says, “is when you walk up behind someone and hit them in the back of the head.”

The business major, known as J-Mac around the dorm, announces this without taking his eyes from the 27-inch television opposite the couch or stilling his thumbs on the video game controller he clutches with both hands. Next to him, eyes and thumbs identically occupied, sits the assistant rector, Justin Kay, a third-year law student.

It’s just after midnight on a Sunday night, and McDermott, Kay and sophomore Adam Cummins, sitting cross-legged on the floor, are all playing the phenomenally popular Microsoft Xbox video game Halo. Simultaneously. And not just them. Down the hall in rooms 425 and 426, five of their friends frantically thumb controllers and gaze determinedly at their own sizeable television sets.

The University’s local-area network, normally used to connect students’ computers to the Internet, makes it possible for up to 16 people to blast away at each other simultaneously by linking together game consoles in as many as four separate dorm rooms. This configuration is not unheard of in Keenan or elsewhere on campus, and the resulting eight-on-eight games are, in the words of J-Mac, “pretty cool.”

Group-play video gaming has become commonplace on campus in the past few years, at least in the men’s residence halls. But it’s only part of a wider trend. Male students are spending increasing amounts of their time engaged in gaming or gambling of one form or another. By some students’ estimates, more than 90 percent of male undergrads regularly play video or computer games, fantasy sports, or old-fashioned cards-and-chips poker, which is enjoying renewed popularity.

So far compulsive gambling doesn’t appear to be a major problem on campus. Nor is gaming or gambling seriously eating into activities parents and administrators might view as more virtuous, like studying, physical exercise or service work. But administrators eye the trend with concern. The University’s Division of Student Affairs has yet to launch any sort of program that addresses the phenomenon. But William W. Kirk ‘84, ’91J.D., associate vice president for residence life, says, "I think it’s just a matter of time. We will have issues with it. I don’t know how serious those will be."

If problems do develop, they’re bound to start in the male student population. That’s because gaming and gambling are more common among males, students and administrators say.

Senior Melissa Harris recalls a discussion in a class sophomore year in which the professor asked class members to raise their hands if they knew what Halo was. “Every guy’s hand went up and not a single girl’s.” She adds, “I can’t think of a single girl I know who has a game system at school.”

People who haven’t played video games since the days of Mario Brothers or Pac-Man would likely be amazed by the refinements. The goal in Halo, subtitled “Combat Evolved,” may be little more than to kill and not be killed, but the degree of interactivity is startling.

Halo is what’s known as a first-person shooter game, meaning what you see on screen is supposed to be what you would see through your helmet visor if you were actually moving across the rocky terrain, maze of corridors or whatever other environment the machine has conjured. (The game’s name refers to a planetary ring on which the action takes place.) The object is to find and kill enemy soldiers before they kill you.

Characters, if they can be called that, resemble the faceless imperial storm troopers of the Star Wars movies. Little green inverted triangles appear above the heads of your teammates’ characters, so you don’t accidentally shoot them. The violence is constant, but there’s little gore beyond a blood stain that appears on the ground beneath a fallen combatant.

As in classic cartoons or the Terminator movies, after you’ve been killed you quickly “respawn” somewhere else. The first team to reach 50 net kills—your homicides minus the number of times you’ve been killed—wins. During the four-on-four competition in Keenan, games would usually be over in five or six minutes. Then the players would start a new game.

Alone or one-on-one, students play many other video games, especially the NCAA and John Madden series of football simulations. What’s amazing about group Halo—now eclipsed by Halo 2—is how the linked-up Xboxes create a multi-perspective reality.

Most students have only one TV in their rooms, so the Xbox splits the screen into as many as four smaller screens to accommodate the number of controllers plugged into the game console. Here’s where the multiple perspectives come in: Imagine you see a figure moving around off in the distance. That figure is another player—possibly someone playing in another dorm room—searching for someone to shoot. And the figure that player is seeing moving off in the distance is . . . you. Both of you also may see a pair of figures off to the side of your screens going at it with rifles and grenades. Those are two other players, and what they see off to the side may be one or both of you.

It’s truly a virtual world, but it also spills over into the material world. As the action intensifies on-screen, students will yell taunts and insults down the hall to players in other rooms. The trash talk Sunday night at Keenan included calls of “Eat it, Wally” and “Thor’s afraid” along with plenty of predictably vulgar guy-talk.

Sophomore Tom “Cumo” Flowers says the fun of multiplayer Halo is “You can play with your friends.”

“Not only can you play with them,” puts in Travis “Thor” Leitko, working a controller next to Flowers, “you can kill them.”

***

On a different day across campus in Siegfried Hall, senior aerospace engineering major Will Secor finds time between classes and his job at the Office of Information Technologies to boot up his laptop and demonstrate for a visitor the online version of the venerable video game Final Fantasy.

Final Fantasy is a role-playing game or RPG. Instead of trying to amass the highest body count, players assume roles in a predetermined scenario. An analogy might be the Choose Your Own Adventure series of children’s books, that let readers decide which course of action a character should take at various points in the story. The reader would then flip to a page to see how that decision played out.

The back story of Final Fantasy XI involves a Lord of the Rings-style world threatened by ugly, turtle-like creatures wielding broadswords. To compete online you have to buy the computer game (about $30, as Secor recalls) and pay a subscription of $13 a month. This entitles you to unlimited play.

Players get to choose their character’s form from among several races of beings, name the character (Secor calls his Squanto, after the Patuxet Indian who traveled to England and back before the Pilgrims), and customize its appearance. Players then maneuver their characters, usually on foot, through any of several worlds covering many simulated square miles. Along the way they have to solve problems and triumph in battles.

“It’s not just fighting and killing,” says Secor. “There are tons of puzzles to solve, and half of it is figuring out what to do and when to do it.”

The game also teaches economics. Secor says characters have to find raw materials and then fabricate marketable items like pieces of armor. The goods are then posted for sale in a virtual marketplace. If the item you want to unload is already available in abundance, you have to either wait, possibly for days, until the market firms or else cut your price. Players use a virtual currency called gil to buy equipment they’ll need on their journeys.

As players solve puzzles and win battles, they gain experience points, which are necessary to advance to the next level. Here the puzzles and challenges are designed to take longer to overcome. Final Fantasy XI has 75 levels, Secor says, and after eight months of playing online he was at Level 32.

A major difference between multiplayer Halo and an online game like Final Fantasy XI is how many people can play at once. With Halo and using Notre Dame’s networking system, it’s 16. With Final Fantasy, it’s tens of thousands. The game site is said to have more than 1 million subscribers.

Checking a screen at the site, Secor learns that about 3,700 players are logged in at the moment. As the aerospace engineering major commands stubby Squanto to pause on a cobblestone street, a menagerie of figures marches by. Floating in air above their heads are names like Rouju, Crubaju and Austen. The figures represent other players currently online who could be on the other side of campus or on another continent.

Another difference in this type of game play is that players don’t merely move their characters around in the virtual world, indifferent to one another. As one character encounters another, the humans back at their keyboards can type messages back and forth, Instant Messenger-style, offering greetings or advice. There’s even a universal translator to enable communication between players (the real people) who speak different languages.

This version of Final Fantasy “forces you to interact with people you don’t know and might not get along with, and cooperate to solve the problem,” says Secor, who plans to stay at Notre Dame a fifth year next year to complete a second major in industrial design.

Another Internet-based form of gaming popular among students is fantasy sports. With this diversion, players assemble imaginary teams of real-world athletes from the ranks of current college and pro football, basketball and other sports teams. Points are awarded for how many hits, strikeouts, touchdowns or whatever one’s players amass during their actual games. The better your players do statistically, the more points they earn for your fantasy team.

Various websites will update your team’s points based on stats from the most recent games. Many sites offer a free version and charge only for more sophisticated play. The pay version of fantasy NBA basketball at SportingNews.com costs $20 per team for the season.

Probably the most appealing aspect of fantasy sports is managing your roster—buying, selling, cutting, signing and trading players. Watching a real-world sporting event with a fantasy sports player can be disorienting. Instead of caring who wins, the fantasy player may focus entirely on the statistics being compiled by an athlete the person “owns.”

Participants usually have the option of joining an existing league of strangers or setting up their own league among friends. Some leagues offer cash prizes. In self-made leagues, it’s common for participants to chip in $10 or $20 apiece with the pot going to the league champion. Many sites provide message boards where owners exchange comments of admiration (“Sweet pickup”) or playful ridicule (“You’re nuts signing that guy—he sucks”) or rant about politics or beer or girlfriends or whatever.

Senior Kevin Bott says he participated in three fantasy football leagues simultaneously this past fall, all of them free through the web portal Yahoo. The other “owners” in his leagues, he says, were all friends of his. Some were from his Wilmington, Delaware, hometown. This is a common scenario in the world of fantasy sports—longtime but separated friends using the competition as a way to keep in touch.

The newest game-playing craze on campus is also one of the oldest and doesn’t require a computer or video game console. It’s a card game called Texas Hold ‘Em. In this variation of poker, each player is dealt two cards face down. Several rounds of calling, folding or raising ensue. Eventually five cards have been dealt face-up on the table. Players try to make the best five-card hand out of their two concealed cards and these five community cards.

Students and hall staff all credit the surge in popularity of Texas Hold ’Em to ESPN’s telecasts of the high-stakes World Series of Poker tournaments the past two years. But low stakes appear to be the rule at Notre Dame. One hall staffer says the most he’s heard of anyone losing at one time in a dorm game is $20 or $30.

Joe Hettler, assistant managing editor of The Observer, says he and a group of his Zahm Hall friends last year began playing Texas Hold ‘Em three to five times a week. They still play regularly now that they’ve moved into apartments off campus.

“We never really played freshman or sophomore year, but we got real serious last year,” he says, adding, “We play more for fun than anything. We’re all good friends. It’s not like we’re trying to take each other’s money.”

The way the Zahm buddies’ games are organized, each player puts up $5 to purchase a quantity of chips. Hands continue to be played until one player has accumulated all the chips. That player wins the pot of all the entry fees, less $5 for the last player to be eliminated.

Bryan Logan, a regular with the group, says this means the most anyone can lose is $5 in a night. “Even if you play seven times a week the most you can only lose is $35 a week.”

More worrying to campus administrators than poker games among friends is the advent of online gambling, in which students use credit cards to wager, usually against strangers. Keenan’s assistant rector Kay notes that some competitors in the big-stakes TV matches say they play mostly online and will take part in four or five hands simultaneously to sharpen their skills.

Kirk, associate vice president for residence life, worries about the example that sets, especially considering how popular the telecasts have become with high school students. “Those are students we are going to be seeing in a couple of years.”

Kirk notes that Father Malloy earlier this year was appointed chair of an NCAA task force looking at ways to stop varsity athletes from betting on sports, which is a whole other issue. In the broader student body, it appears that compulsive gaming or gambling hasn’t reached the point where students are seeking professional help.

Susan Steibe-Pasalich, director of the University Counseling Center, which deals with issues like eating disorders, says, “Either it hasn’t been around long enough for us to see . . . or students don’t see [the activities] as problems and aren’t coming to us with them.”

For some administrators the greater concern is the time gaming and gambling are taking away from other activities. They’re surely taking time away from sleep. Hettler says that last year in Zahm, Texas Hold ‘Em games with eight or nine players would sometimes last from 10 p.m. till 4 a.m. Prime time for group Halo playing in Keenan was said to be 10 till 3, but "sometimes [on the weekends] it doesn’t start till 2 or 3 in the morning," says resident Kevin Osborne. The reason for the later start? Parietals, the curfew for women to be out of the men’s halls and vice versa. It’s 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights; midnight the rest of the week.

“When the girls go home,” says Osborne, “there’s nothing better to do.”

Most students say they don’t see gaming and gambling affecting academic performance. Some say they know of someone who has missed a class because he was finishing a game. “But these are the same people who wouldn’t go to a class because it was snowing,” says senior Hans Biebl, who lives off campus.

Students insist they can sense when the amount of time they’re spending on gaming is getting out of hand.

“I think a lot of us have had it happen where we played all day and then you know you have to cut back,” says Tom Flowers of Keenan. Game playing also is said to decline steeply in the days leading up to final exams.

Secor says he will play Final Fantasy XI about eight to 10 hours a week during breaks but only about three hours a week during the school year. “It has become a time-sink for me but hasn’t taken over my life.”

Bott estimates he didn’t spend more than 15 to 30 minutes a week this past season managing his three fantasy football teams.

But how can ND students afford to spend long hours perfecting their poker gambits or battling marauding turtles at an academically challenging institution?

Senior Drew Updike, who was president of Zahm Hall last year and now lives off campus, says, “If you’re not involved in other groups or clubs, putting on a play or something, you’ve got time.”

“And if you don’t have a job,” adds Biebl.

Tarnowski, a member of the former Zahm poker group, says, “You’re always going to have downtime. We just fill our downtime with poker.”

Students also argue that gaming fosters interaction. McDermott, the Keenan resident who savors blindside assassinations, says playing Halo helped him get to know a lot of people last year when he was a freshman.

But administrators worry about students holing up in their rooms or never leaving the dorm except to go to class. Father James Lewis, O.Carm., rector of Carroll Hall, says students in his remote residence hall have proposed having video game tournaments. He says he doesn’t oppose the idea necessarily but is concerned about how much time students devote to game play.

“It’s a great way to release tension and maybe meet other people,” the priest says, “but on the other hand it’s a way of shutting down social interaction and limiting your presence in the life of the dorm and involvement in other activities.”

Kay, the Halo-playing assistant rector, counters, “Like anything else, it’s moderation. As long as it’s not consuming their lives, as long as it’s just an aspect of their life, there’s nothing wrong with it.” The law student says he wouldn’t be playing Halo if he weren’t assistant rector. He says he does so because it helps “bond with the guys.”

Therein lies a final issue. Students generally agree that if gaming and gambling have negatively affected any one aspect of campus life, it’s male-female relations. Mike Varley, another sophomore in Keenan, says that as a pre-med major he doesn’t have a lot of time for Halo or other video gaming. But he sees how it affects others’ lives.

“Girls absolutely hate gaming,” he says, and the reason is obvious. “They get invited over here and then have to watch us sit and play games for four hours.”


Ed Cohen is an associate editor of this magazine.

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