Over the past few months, I’ve been addicted to the first person shooter, Medal of Honor: Allied Assault for PC, and more specifically its excellent online multiplayer mode. Usually these games are passing fads for me -- I play them for a month and never pick them up again (ex. Everquest). But I’m something of a military buff, and I have a soft spot for the World War II setting, so I’ve kept with it. I play regularly on the same server and even -- horror of horrors -- joined a competitive clan.

I never gave much thought to who the people I play the game with are, though. To me, they’re just anonymous handles attached to Axis or Allied avatars. After chatting with a few of them for some weeks, I’ve imagined their voices -- not unlike how I imagine voices for characters in books -- and have developed rudimentary online relationships with them. But they’re fictional -- they’re not real. Just as most online relationships tend to be (at least for me). Because you’re dealing with abstractions of human personality -- make believe identities that may or may not mesh with the reality of the person you’re interacting with.

That all changed this weekend when my clanmates urged me to download a freeware program called TeamSpeak, which allows players to communicate via voice while they play. This makes it much easier to discuss tactics -- and explains how some of the people I’ve played against seem to be coordinating with each other without accessing the in-game chat options. It makes sense, but I was a little nervous about it. I like to keep my online relationships at arms length -- I rarely meet people online. Hearing their voices -- actually talking to them in real time -- crosses a boundary I’m not comfortable crossing. I had my reality for the people I was playing with, and I was not interested in having it broken.

But alas, it was. Once I got TeamSpeak running, I learned just who my online buddies are -- and they’re not at all like me. From what I gather, they’re in two categories -- angry teenage boys and middle aged good ol’ boys. And both categories are about as far from me as you can get -- liberal, mid-Atlantic ex-punk rocker turned professional. I grew up working class -- and no doubt would have been one of the angry teenage boys if these games had existed when I was an angry teenage boy -- but I’ve changed so much that I’m no longer entirely comfortable with the people I grew up with, not that I ever really was. And I’m very rarely angry.

One of the teenage boys -- who I played with for weeks -- irritates me. He’s cocky and nasty and when things don’t go his way he describes them as “gay” (which to me is akin to calling someone the “n” word). There’s an edge to his voice that reminds me of the recordings I’ve heard of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the Columbine killers. And this kid knows his military tactics. If someone were to assault a high school, he’d be a good candidate.

“Get to the rallying point!” he cried to his friend, another teenager.

“I can’t,” his friend replied, voice cracking. “The rallying point has been compromised!”

Another time, he issued a combat order: “Skritch (that’s his friend), I need you to take their left flank. I repeat -- I need you to flank them!”

“Roger!” replied Skritch.

Unfortunately, the attack plan was short-lived. “Fuck it!” the kid shouted. “My dad says it’s time to stop. Damn it -- that’s so gay.”

“Yeah,” Skritch replied. “That is gay.”

Pantaliamon and I couldn’t stop laughing. But part of me was creeped out by it too, especially given that the kid is always online whenever I am -- regardless of when I decide to play.

The rest of the players -- the older ones -- treat the teenagers as equals, which I suppose is cool, but it’s very strange to hear the interplay between forty year old guys and fifteen year old boys. They themselves seem like an affable bunch of guys, but I just can’t relate to them. Listening to them chatter about playing is like listening to truck drivers on a CB radio -- interesting from a sociological perspective, but what the hell do you say to them? I can’t help thinking that all these guys voted for George W. Bush, and think the war on Iraq is a good thing.

It’s strange being a liberal as well as a gamer. Most other gamers -- particularly in first person shooter games -- are conservatives. Despite my enjoyment of games of bloodlust, I’m more or less a pacifist in real life. I know this is a contradiction in my character, but I play the games to de-stress, and because of my interest in military strategy and tactics (another contradiction I’m sure), not necessarily for the simulated violence. I’m sure a lot of these guys are military buffs too, but I feel as uncomfortable being in their company as I am in the company of religious fundamentalists. Because I know that if they knew who I really was, they would hate me, just as the people I see on Fox News clearly hate people with my beliefs. I am an atheist and a leftist -- and to many people in America, maybe even most of America, I am the enemy.

Tonight, when I login for my hour or so of mayhem, I plan on keeping TeamSpeak off. Perhaps the illusion will return, and I’ll be able to enjoy playing again. But somehow I doubt it. Now that I’m aware of this strange party line discussion going on in the background, I’m unsure whether even my potent imagination is capable of resetting things back to the way they used to be.