Sunday, July 16, 2017

SubSpace: Arcade Asteroids & Angst

SubSpace is a game about little spaceships going pew pew pew.  It was released in 1997, and is still running -- you can even find it on Steam!

SubSpace holds a special place in my memory. It was my first experience spending a long time in an online community with chat features, in which I grew to know many of the other aliases very well -- their personalities, their playstyles, and their hangups.  I imagine it might have served a purpose for me similar to what Minecraft does for many of today's youth: a mostly unmoderated digital playground where you encounter both jerks and nice people.  For SubSpace, more of the former.

I played it for years -- I gave advice, I trash talked, I helped new players out, I made friends, I hunted veterans down and blew up their little spaceships, I cried out victorious, I ran into walls, I crashed and burned.  And, once, I was mistaken for a racist.

Let me talk about the mechanics of SubSpace. Subspace is a 2-D asteroids style arcade multiplayer game. Back in the day, the default game mode was to spawn in a giant zone full of enemies.  In this game mode, you start out in a very low powered ship -- your bullets are crap, you can hardly turn, and you have absolutely none of the single use goodies such as Thor's Hammer (a projectile that flies through walls) or Repel (shove all enemies away).

To power yourself up and stand a chance of blowing up other ships, you have to run over a bunch of little green boxes all over the map until your gauges hit 100% and and you are flush with items.  This typically takes about 10 minutes on average, less if you're lucky, or more if you're unlucky. After death, you lose all of the power ups that you collected and start out from square one.

Being a low powered ship sucked. You wanted to get out of that state as quickly as possible, because some unscrupulous players would run around after they had powered up and blow up all of the low-power chips.

Of course,  they are punished for this heinous act – their "average kill bounty" statistic is reduced (brutal, right?).  Bounty is a number that slowly increases as you pick up powerups and blow up other ships, and has no upper limit.  A bounty of around 100 means you've been alive for maybe 5 or 10 minutes and are almost certainly powered up.

Today ships start at 0 bounty, but for a while in the early days ships actually started in "negative" bounty – something like -30.  Players developed their own… unique vocabulary to describe the various states of being in SubSpace, and this state of negative bounty was an especially common one, and had many words associated with it.  Low bounty ships were referred to as "negs" – shorthand for negative bounty.  The activity of murdering low bounty ships before they had powered up was referred to as "Negging."

And, in an instance of emergent language that never ceases to amaze me for its lack of sensitivity or foresight, the derogatory term attached to players who engaged frequently in this vile activity was... a "negger."

I loved SubSpace.  I loved the physics, and I love the precision of the gameplay, the tactile nature of the bouncing bullets and the amazing players who seemed to be able to get out of any situation simply by knowing which wall to bounce their ship off of and exactly when the fire off a repel. I joined squads, I played competitively, I designed maps for the game – and I adopted the vocabulary and conventions of the game without question.

There I was, minding my own business in the Chaos server (the giant free-for-all game mode), when some jerk decided to kill me before I powered up. I despised these "neg killers" as the scum of the earth, and personally thought it extremely important not to kill low-power ships.  I was a virtuous bounty hunter, only seeking out fights with equally powered or overpowered ships.

So naturally anyone who killed me while I was in a neg state was an ass. I called him out for neg killing using the accepted terminology... "negger."

I don't think my original assailant never responded. The person who did respond was someone currently on my randomly assigned team.  He said to my team...

Demo#1321 > Thrull is a racist

I was being accused of racism. I was shocked at first, but eventually reacted in the way that made the most sense to me at the time, in a game where 50% of the population wants to kill you and the other 50% wants to trash talk you so hard that you quit the game forever: I ignored him. I had developed, shall we say, thick skin.

He persisted.

Demo#1321 > Thrull why do you hate black people so much?
Thrull > what are you talking about?
Demo#1321 > what's your problem

The gears turned my head. Black people? Oh. Oh, right. Words that sound similar. However I never thought of that before?

I could fix this.  A simple explanation should do it, right?

Thrull > dude, a negger is someone who kills low bounty ships
Thrull > it's not a racial slur
Demo#1321 > yeah, sure.  racist

That didn't work.  Maybe he was really, really new and didn't know any of the terms yet?  This thought made me eager to prove myself to him -- prove that the community is not entirely full of racists, that not everyone is an asshole.  Maybe I could earn the game a new player!

Thrull > look, are you new?  let me help you out
Demo#1321 > go to hell

I had a brilliant idea. Obviously he must be a new player; he probably didn't know anything about how the game worked.  I would surprise him and show my goodwill by "attaching" to him -- basically a teleport allowed only between teammates.  I could then help him out and show him what a nice guy I was.  Problem solved!  Who cares if he gave permission or not?

So I attached.  He was at very low power, and in the middle of being chased down by another player -- a player committing the evil act I had called out before, a vile neg killer! What a perfect opportunity to illustrate his misunderstanding and show off my honorable nature.

It was close quarters combat, in a tunnel full of walls that cycled on and off randomly. I duked it out with the other player -- pew pew, kaboom -- and eventually came out victorious.

Unfortunately, there was a casualty. Thanks to a random wall cycling on, one of the bombs that I had fired had exploded a little prematurely, and my misguided charge, bouncing around wonton with no regard to his own safety, had blown up.

Oops.  Teamkill.

Demo#1321 > fuck you
Thrull > I'm really sorry, I was trying to help
Demo#1321 > you killed me because I'm black
Demo#1321 > racist
(Public channel) Demo#1321 > Thrull is a fucking racist

So far I had made things much worse. I was still convinced I can explain it to him, though, and I frantically began composing a full apology, a more detailed explanation, fully enunciating the history of bounty terminology and subspace culture.

In the middle of writing that paragraph of text into the chat bar, the game crashed.

I swore and logged back in quickly, immediately rewriting and firing off a shorter version of my lengthier explanation.

Thrull > look I'm really sorry you died but I was trying to help
Thrull > I'm not a racist, ask anyone, they'll tell you negging is a game thing and not a racist thing
Thrull > ships used to start out at negative bounty, negging means killing low bounty ships, and people that do it are called neggers
JohnRando > what are you talking about?

I blinked and looked at my team list.  Demo#1321 was nowhere to be found. He wasn't in the zone, or the server. He had quit the game.

I would never have a chance to fix the misunderstanding. Somewhere out there, someone would forever think that I was a racist.

Dejected, I explained to the random person in chat what I had been going on about.

Thrull > sorry, someone was calling me a racist for saying "negging"
Thrull > I was trying to explain it was a game term but he didn't get it
Thrull > I feel really bad
JohnRando > ha ha
JohnRando > hey, we were all black once

And that was that.  Demo#1321 did not return, and I felt genuinely terrible about this for a long time. Somewhere out there was someone who, because of my actions, got an incredibly negative impression of the community of this game. I hated myself for not being able to explain it and make him understand.

Was that even possible, though? How many times have I talked through someone online, unable to communicate with them because I can't see their body language, watch their expression change, hear the intonation of their voice?

What really started this mess, and what makes me think now that I was a complete idiot for not anticipating it, was using a word so close to a racial slur.  It was dumb to use it, and even dumber to try to convince someone else that it was legitimate. My perspective now suggests to me that only a community with a rich background of white privilege could come up with a term like "negger" and give it the validity of common vocabulary.  I was completely oblivious, yet complicit.  All I could think about was defending my status as an honorable player -- the idea that the term itself was a problem never even entered into my mind.

I continued to play the game for about four years after that, and I never saw that player again. I assume him and many others were driven away by the miasma of toxicity that you had to get through to actually find other players who didn't want to cuss you out and make you feel like crap. Something of a rite of passage, in that game. If you could take it, you could become one of us. It wasn't right; it was just the way things evolved in that particular game.

What eventually pulled me away from the game didn't have anything to do with the community. I had in fact developed strong bonds with several of the people who played, such strong bonds that a group of us moved to a new game together. That game was the first to 3D MMORPG… EverQuest.

Next time, the age of exploration returns in EverQuest: Like Father, Like Son.

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