Shannon - Ethnography


Once upon a time, a normal girl came downstairs to find her brother playing on the computer with growling and shooting sounds echoing out of the speakers. He needed to use the bathroom, and asked her to keep him alive while he scurried off, only to return to her asking to stay on a little longer.

It was called Zombie Mod Infection on Counter Strike, a game that essentially pits counter-terrorists (CTs) against terrorists (Ts). In ZM, one CT on a typically dark map turns into a zombie. CTs scatter and attempt to kill the zombie before he (or she, unlikely as it was) infects other CTs. You either killed all zombies, or everyone zombified. Variations of these multiplayer cooperation (coop) games compel users to work together and communicate.

Steam is the management system that promotes and keeps track of your games—multiplayer or single. It provides a separate chat function outside of any of its offered games, and a friends-list that depicts online friends and what games they own or play.

So much about this simple interaction over a period of 2-3 years changed my view on people in the global community. What I want to do now is look back and try to analyze what went on in all our heads.


I didn’t want to introduce the relationship concept so early, but since it propels the Why of why I involved myself, it needed priority in the discussion. At least for me, the online aspect of these games on Steam kept me returning.

I would never have stayed so interested for so long if it hadn’t been for the friends I made. I can say now without too much embarrassment about how “my friend lava told me this” or “Fish said I looked like crap last night” in face-to-face interactions with other friends. If someone’s close to me, they tend to know who I’m also close to, and if I’m close to someone online, real life friends will inevitably know about them, even with names like “anu” (short for Anubis), “fish,” “gingy,” “bone,” or “lava.”

I still declare Fish as one of my best friends, his in-game name when I first met him. To be exact, it was “SUICIDAL FISH,” and I met him as a junior in high school. I’m a senior in college now, and he’s still one of my best friends—the kicker being I’ve never met him since he lives in SF, California. That doesn’t detract from the friendship as much as people might think, although I started off feeling extremely self-conscious when mentioning him. I know his real name; in fact, I’m friends with him on Facebook, which I viewed as “real life,” while steam friends were “online,” but I’ll get into that in a bit.

Recently, for my birthday, Fish sent me earmuffs, because he knows I have a tendency to get cold. I sent him a cat pillow-pet in return (my in-game name when he met me was halleycat, in honor of my cat).


The physicality of the object didn’t solidify our friendship: the earmuffs resulted from the trust we both already have in the friendship. All this remained online, behind a screen, but he knows about my family, when I’m likely PMSing, and he’s even encountered some of my irl friends when we all played an online Pictionary game.

It’s actually relatively simple to understand how people become close online without ever meeting. It’s like meeting the same people in your class; you recognize each other and say “hey” when you meet, maybe choosing to hang out outside the classroom. In gaming metaphor, Steam represents the arena “outside the classroom,” while the “classrooms” are the servers you join with other returning players.

Besides, when you’re nervous and on edge in the dark (at least in ZM), waiting for those telling steps that a zombie’s near, you tend to forge a bond with the player next to you—if only to say: I got your back.

I still talk with a few other friends whom I met solely on the Internet while gaming, although I had never actually considered meeting them until recently. The concept originally shocked me, but that’s a mixing of “real life” and “online life” that doesn’t belong here. What relationships online do lead to is a conglomerated community of like-minded players.


I say “Our Forum,” because it remains my first and only in-depth experience with a gaming forum. The forums operated on a website that catered specifically to players of MysticDeath (MD) servers (ZM being one of them), owned by two guys named ChiSeen and MysticDeath (MD). I say “named” because that was how it worked online—you operated and lived online by your chosen name.

They both retained immense power in the community, translating it into something short of a dictatorship, or at least a perceived democracy with two rulers with ultimate say. They unbanned or banned permanently from forums or servers. They granted admin powers—certain perks in the servers—to paying players. They paid for the servers, and designed the gameplays. They were basically gods on MD.


That leads to the extremely fascinating aspect of online community: it literally becomes a whole other world. The hierarchy in real life doesn’t exist in here. Ranking doesn’t center on wealth, appearance, or personality—not to say that those don’t matter at all—but it follows new rules.

Mics and Voices

One thing I noticed in-game was that guys on mics seem more inclined towards popularity with the server than quiet players. Guys with “attractive voices” on mics made for even better combos. They make friends more easily, and players gravitate towards them—participating in the laughter, the jokes, and the plans.

Of course, the dirtiest, oldest, ugliest man could be on the other end, but what did that matter? When concepts of wealth and appearance no longer distinguish peers, new standards arise. The change reveals what we as humans desire. Mics imply a certain outgoingness and ease with others that translates into the type of social structure that we have in real life.

Admin Power

Of course, admins have to make the ranks of authority and popularity. Players inevitably gravitate towards admins, because who doesn’t want an authority with power to pull strings for you when you need or want it?

There were varying admin positions on our forums, but the basics were that you could buy admin for about $7.00 at that time for whichever particular server you wanted; be it Zombie Infection, Zombie Annihilation, Knife Arena, Pub, KZ, etc. Players could also purchase High Admin for admin in all servers, which obviously became more expensive. There were varying degrees of power within even these basic distinctions. If you were a veteran player/admin, you generated more respect, and more leeway in abuse or mistakes with ChiSeen and MD.

The problem with purchasing came from the fact that young or negligent admins could easily buy and abuse admin. Admins could clash with admins, with particular followers (aka. friends) and kiss-ups siding with one or the other. As fish put it, it “felt powerful!” He actually became a pretty respected high admin, and he definitely enjoyed his share of kiss-ups.

I could almost liken the admin power of MD and Chi to celebrity status. Fish recounted to me a time when MD joined a separate game outside his servers, and how Fish’s friends treated MD as an equal, rather than an admin.

for them he was just a regular player
remove him from his kingdomg
and we're all equals again
maybe he wanted that
like he wanted to be normal

Gaming Ability

Gaming ability also contributed to the renown of a player on forums. Typically, top 15 players in any particular server were known and admired by most other players on forums. Their popularity originated from the fact that they tended to play more often than others, and their ability also gained them recognition, to the point that others would vy for their


This deserves its own heading, because males dominate gaming communities. The rare girl triggers interesting reactions in guys, so that femaleness evolves into a standard all its own. She doesn’t have to be attractive the way she would irl to pull the same kind of attention.

ahaha my friend was playing cod
and the players on there
chat away
on their headsets
so then he's like
gf come here
so he gave his gf his headset
and she talked into it
he said the channel got instnatly quiet
then a brave soul squeaked out
"will you have sex with me?"

Each and every guy I ever met online acknowledges their weakness: pricks and nice guys alike. I have been told to “Stay in the kitchen” before, asked my bra size, and propositioned, but as MD said, “I don't believe you have been well introduced to the internet, that heaven of ass holes.” Regardless, as a girl online, players tend to treat her with more leeway and attention. A girl on her own gains popularity so long as players know she’s female.

When ChiSeen began beta selection for a new server, he confessed to enlisting all girls that signed up. He wanted attention for the server, to pull other players in, and being that most other players are male, he needed females to do that.


The ultimate mixing of that online community world with real life: Facebook, to me, represented “real life,” and Steam singularly “online.” I did not want friends from the two distinct spheres to mix, so it still seems amazing how it disappeared. People on those forums have met each other. Members meet up at festivals and shows, and even date one another! Fish recently admitted a dilemma with a girl he plays with in Left 4 Dead.

and i told her that i dont understand how people would like me when they never seen me
and chase said something about liking someone's personality here on the internet
and then she said
if i were close to her
we coulda been together

I previously could not understand that rationalization. Internet only offered acquaintances and light-hearted gaming friends. Yet I keep in touch—years later—with these friends. I actually contemplate meeting them now; I no longer see these “players” as otherworldly personas.

I always knew intellectually that online people were flesh and blood behind computer screens, but I never imagined translating that through the screen. Internet existed separately from actual life, right? In high school, I caught myself turning around at the sound of someone calling “Halley!” although that was only my game-name. I had become so accustomed to responding to it that it was literally a part of who I was. We evidently break established boundaries every day, sometimes unconciously.

It’s not technology that ultimately pushes us, but our investment in technology that does. It transforms itself into a mechanized version of the human that uses it, thereby allowing true relationships to occur. We embody our technology so thoroughly that we feel through it and form genuine bonds, surpassing what society considered limitations of a monitor.

By transforming standards of what we look for in friends, we open our minds to other views. Internet does not take into account appearance, and gaming less so: you need someone who understands how to support, lead, and execute—not someone following a specific aesthetic. Internet changes our perspectives and attitudes, and something as trivial as an online gaming forum opened my eyes to that revelation.