A Mini-Sociology of Rocket Cars

Frustration is a natural part of doing ... well, anything, really. Especially when you're picking up something new, there's almost always a ramp-up period where you're really bad, followed by gradual progression. You know this. I know this.

It's kind of obvious to everyone who's ever played a sport, an instrument or tried anything even remotely skilled. There's room for natural talent to make things a little easier, of course, but even LeBron James went through a period (much earlier and much shorter than the rest of us) where basketball was something new he had to get good at.

There are various schools of thought on how to approach this: Some believe people should be allowed to develop at their own pace and just enjoy the activity; others believe that screaming things at children that would make drill sergeants blush is the best way to motivate and/or teach them. Personally, I think the right approach falls somewhere in the middle (though toward the non-crazy side), depending on age, experience and what the person in question wants.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that a not-insignificant number of people who play videogames online are absolutely terrifying human beings.

It's got "rocket" in the title

When I get the chance lately, I've been picking up and playing Rocket League, a game best described as "soccer with cars that have rockets in them." From a gameplay perspective, there's a decent amount of strategy involved that combines soccer with basketball. The single-player AI is pretty easy to defeat, though it does allow for a nice ramp-up of abilities and skills. Then there's the online portion.

Before this month, there were just random matches you could join (from 1x1 up to 4x4) and play against other people. Some of those people are clearly wizards, because they fly around and use the angles to pass and score from places that I would have trouble even mapping out on paper.

In this initial period, the random matches I joined (which is to say I didn't join any guilds or teams, just random online play, so there's some bias there) were mostly fun, occasional blowouts (in both directions) that often involved no more chatter than the preset options ("Great pass," "Nice shot," "Thanks," "Sorry," etc.).

Then, with an update this month, Rocket League rolled out rankings. Now you can play "competitively" in a division (stratified tiers to ensure that people of like ability play against one another) and receive an overall score of your skill level. And boy do a lot of people seem to think it's somehow indicative of their worth as human beings.

I play where everyone starts, in the unranked division. You start with 50 points and win/lose between 6-10 points per game you play, depending on the team outcome (important note). I currently bounce around the mid-to-upper part of this unranked tier, which is probably pretty accurate (I'm OK, but have moments where I screw up).

It gets worse

For the first few games I played, it was interesting watching the different skill levels (from brand new or just-out-of-single-player to pretty skilled players) interact with one another fairly frictionlessly. There'd be some frustrating boneheaded moves that might cost you a match, but it generally appeared to just be accepted as part of playing on a randomized team. When I played yesterday, though, things seemed to be getting ugly.

The first two matches went fine — a win, a loss. Then I got a string where I was teamed up with what one can uncharitably describe as spoiled babies.

In unranked play, the first one happened when I came out too far forward on defense and let a goal go by. Unquestionably my fault, which is why I shot off a "Sorry" to my teammates. "Fuck don't miss the fucking ball," was what I got in response.

We had another goal scored on us during the vagaries of play, as happens, because the other team was better than us. That's when my teammate got mad. "God you're terrible. You must be doing this on purpose."

Which isn't bad, as internet rantings go. It just caught me off-guard. He proceeded to score relatively soon after that to tie things up, and I flashed a "Nice shot!" to him. "fuck off, [gamertag]."

Um, OK.

In the very next match, we scored a quick goal to go up 2-1 when someone from the other team asked if they had removed a feature (he used more obscenities than my paraphrase). He then proceeded to rant about the "shit physics implementation" and how "he totally had it 100% locked-in."

Of course, given that he was typing all this while the game was still going, his team wound up giving up a few more goals, but his point definitely got made.

After an uneventful game following that, the last one involved a (clearly) new player whiffing on defense, and three players from both teams proceeded to disparage the player with accusations of "trolling" — losing on purpose — to the point where he just literally stopped playing. His car just remained motionless on the field.

It's easy to sit back and wonder about why they take it so seriously — "it's just a game" — but that's a simplistic answer. I have no problem with taking games seriously, and there's no reason to prevent people from getting (appropriately) upset when something bad happens.

Proportional response

It's that modifier, though. "Appropriately." I'm not going to take issue with obscenities (or grammar). This is objectively a bad way to play games. Because, of course, you can't earn points if you don't win. And regardless of how bad (or new) someone is to the game, it's almost always better to have an additional player on the field trying to help you win. It's bad strategy and tactics to just heap abuse on poor players — a fact the game understands, which is why one of the preset communication options is "No problem."

It all essentially comes down to treating other humans as humans. I'm not casting broad aspersions about gamers, teenagers or even teenage gamers. Just a note that digitizing all interactions seems to have the broad effect of dehumanizing interactions, unless specific tactics are employed.

I don't know how to educate these people — I'm just someone flying a car around in a videogame. But I made my attempt. After the reprimand for complimenting the guy on his shot, I decided to help the only way I could: I chased down an errant shot by the other team and knocked it in our goal in overtime.

My girlfriend says it was a little petulant — I disagree, but not too strenuously. I broadcasted a message after the shot: "No matter how bad your teammates are, it's better to have them then not."

Is the guy going to change his actions? Probably not. But at least there was some negative reinforcement (losing ranking points). Maybe next time he'll at least keep his frustrations to himself. That, in my books, counts as a win.