After a viral clip showed a female streamer playing Halo Infinite getting berated by her own teammates and told the game isn’t “for” her, the developers of said game have publicly disagreed.
When quote-tweeting a photo of several women at a competitive Halo event, posted in the hours following streamer GrenadeQueen’s viral twitter clip, Halo studio 343 Industries head of design wrote, “Halo is for everyone,” seemingly as a direct response to the viral players claim that the game was not for women like GrenadeQueen.
Similar videos of women being harassed regardless of how well they play have gone viral before, and this, unfortunately, likely won’t be the last time a woman is shamed while playing online simply for being a woman.
First-person shooters, particularly those on the Xbox network (formerly Xbox Live), have a long reputation of being toxic cesspits filled with assholes who are just waiting to ruin your day. This reputation is well-earned. The genre is historically marketed to teenage boys and has predicated itself on the idea that it is a masculine act to play a video game where you wear big armor and shoot a gun.
While playing with former Kotaku writer Gita Jackson, they said Halo will be the social space that dominates the coming next quarantine wave. Where the gentle comfort of Animal Crossing provided a place for people to socialize gently, Halo allows us to shoot the shit and partake in the joy of blowing things up with our friends—we need that right now amid collapsing infrastructure and state inaction.
Halo is well designed to produce a sense of community and offers dozens of opportunities for shitposting. The soldiers wear their big silly armor and have their fun little ragdoll models when they die. The ability to throw fusion coils becomes the foundation for some truly funny shenanigans. The idea of beating a robot man with a flaming skull so you can hold it long enough for a gravely man to say, “Victory,” at you is objectively funny.
This sense of community can even extend to the game’s normally hyper-competitive Ranked mode. In a recent match, I found that my entire team had quit before the game even started—leaving me in a 1v3 scenario. Upon realizing this, I calmly walked into the middle of the map and began nodding at the enemy team. They did not open fire and started taking turns capturing my flag, while one of their teammates would sit near me and rhythmically crouch in my direction as I did the same—that was, until it came time for the final capture. For the final capture, the flag carrier stopped beside me and did not move until I did. So, I led a procession directly into their base—becoming their honorary fourth team member in the final moments of an incredibly strange game.
This is a happy story where I connected with three strangers through nothing but head bobbing and rhythmic crouching. It highlights the potential of Halo as a space for asynchronous connection and joy—but it was built on the system breaking.
Competitive game modes, including Halo’s casually competitive Quick Play playlist, are built around the social pressure of good performance. You are expected to be good at violence and to do it at every opportunity—you are reminded of this every time you see the scoreboard, which displays your contributions to both teams.
Some games, like Pokémon Unite have attempted to assuage this problem by disabling active scoreboard tracking, allowing players to engage with the game’s systems without policing their behavior through the scoreboard. However, this is a band-aid on a more fundamental truth of competitive design. There are a set of social standards for play and communication that can only be learned through failure, and some people are not afforded the grace of social failure.
Even those who know the rules face a conditional belonging. The recent clip from streamer GrenadeQueen reminds us of that. Even a good player’s place in the system can be compromised by the tenor of her voice. This doubled pressure turns Halo, and other games like it, into deeply alienating spaces, which face players with internalized and externalized policing.
If Halo is to become, as Jackson predicts, a primary social space for the next lockdown, then it has to reckon with the reality of its design. 343’s own head of design claimed that Halo is “for everyone,” which is true insofar as everyone can adhere to the social values and systems presented by the game though, at times, at the expense of their own dignity. Conditional belonging is not good enough for the future we are walking into.
I say all of this as someone with a deep love of competitive video games, casual and ranked alike. But this love has been consistently compromised by design which incentivizes intra-team competition as much as it does competition with your opponents—and the complete lack of a casual social space where players can meet new people without the pretense of competition. Halo’s sandboxes are messy and fun, players should be given the opportunity to explore them without needing to organize a group for custom game modes.
Combating harassment is not only the job of community managers and reporting tools, although they are an essential part of the experience, but also of designers who shape the gameplay systems which act as the foundation for bad actors to lash out at fellow players.