It didn't turn out the way I'd hoped, and after a few hours of playing Halo 3, I remembered something I'd forgotten: I hate playing Halo. More specifically, I hate playing it with other people online. I always liked the campaign mode well enough; that's like a traditional videogame with levels, computer opponents and a plot. But the multiplayer game is what has made Halo popular, and that's really only available online. Online is where the real action is.
For the uninitiated: Multiplayer Halo is played by 2 to 16 players, represented by space marines who look a bit like Robocop, shooting at each other until one person or one team wins. There are variations on this theme, but basically that's it. That's how tens of thousands of people will be spending hundreds of thousands of hours for the next few years. All those people sitting raptly in front of their TVs with controllers in hand -- I should feel right at home with them, but I don't. Online anonymity gives players license to be as obnoxious as they're capable of. Where else are people able to be openly racist without fear of reprisal? The Internet, sure, but Internet forums tend to have moderators, and there's a difference between reading words in all caps online and hearing a voice from an Xbox headset in your ear. That sort of thing is uncool, but I try not to let it bother me.
Nevertheless it inspired me to coin the greatest gamer handle ever: "Splatticus Finch." The name implies that I'm a well-read, decent, moral person and informs the few dozen women who play Halo that I'm great father material -- but also that I can sniper-shoot someone down like a dog if necessary. Splat.
Unfortunately I'm not a moral paragon like my namesake -- even worse, I'm not very good at virtual shooting. After the Columbine incident, people were asking if playing games like Doom trained people to kill. Well, only a few people asked that; every sane person knew the idea was asinine. I knew that too, but I secretly hoped that videogames really had turned me into an expert assassin. But they didn't, and they didn't even make me good at Halo -- which is probably the reason I don't enjoy it as much as other games.
Yet my own inadequacies don't take away from the fact that Halo is a genuine social phenomenon. The best way I know to put it in context is to say that it's bigger than Fight Club. Chuck Palahniuk's novel (and the movie version) engendered a large amount of sociological commentary, and my original intent in this column was to try to do the same thing for Halo 3. The problem is that I expected to like Halo 3, but I didn't. Instead, it made me miserable. And when I get miserable, I get jaded.
So here's what I think the popularity of Halo 3 means in a larger social context: nothing. That is, it means that tens of thousands of people have nothing better to do.
Face it: Most of sociology is bunk, and there's no such thing as a zeitgeist. It's a big, wide world, but there are more people in it than things to do, so lots of people gravitate to the same thing, for no other reason than that they can't find a better alternative. That's it: There is no larger significance. When people find something they like more than Halo, they'll do that instead.
Humans are by now connected by cable modems and satellites instead of physical proximity; I can hear the voices of people in Europe, Australia and Asia coming from my TV. When I started playing videogames, in the days of the Nintendo Entertainment System, it was just something my friends and I did in our living rooms, or rather in our parents' living rooms. I want very much to be young again.