The social contract, in its purest form, is simple: We agree to stay out of each other’s way as much as possible. That goes for riding the subway, shopping for groceries, and anything else that brings us within arm’s distance of another soul. But this goes doubly—nay, quadruply—when it comes to navigating a room where someone else is playing a video game.
It’s true: Few things are more frustrating than someone just callously walking in front of your screen. Sure, it’s not the end of the world if it’s a role-playing game. But come on, this is Earth 2020. Everything is bad. A pandemic is ravaging the planet. America is on the brink of its final election—ever. The laws of chance are officially governed by a mordant sense of humor. So if someone’s going to cross your field of vision, you know it’ll happen precisely when you’re struggling against a grueling boss (“Argh, I had her that time!”) or threading the needle on a precise platforming sequence (“Argh, I had it that time!”).
But the matter at hand is a two-way street. Yes, this person has stepped between you and Cloud’s razor-sharp buster sword and equally sharp jawline—but you, the player, also crowd the space between the interloper and where they need to go. So consider the following a set of etiquette guidelines for both parties. It’s all just part of the social contract.
Look: The path of least resistance is to simply ask. Chances are, whomever is behind the controller will tell you. It’s also just the polite thing to do, and they’ll no doubt appreciate it.
But asking up front isn’t a catch-all solution. With intense games, even the tiniest offhand comment can be a distraction. (No one wants to deal with external stimuli of any sort while also trying to deal with one of Doom Eternal’s frustrating marauders.) So glance at the screen. If things are busy—to the point where even someone who doesn’t play games can recognize, Wow, that’s a lot—exercise a minute or two of patience. Unless we’re talking about Resogun or Sayonara Wild Hearts, there’s a good chance that whatever they’re playing will have some sort of momentary downtime in 60 seconds, tops.
During that lull, you’re largely in the clear to cross. If the player is mired in inventory management, looking at post-game stats, or even reading some dialogue, you needn’t worry yourself over etiquette. Feel free to cross. There are certain gameplay instances where you’re in the clear, too: if a player is safely in cover while playing a shooter, or if they’re playing a turn-based game. And it’s always, in all circumstances, fine to walk in front of the screen when someone’s playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons.
But let’s say something pressing is on-screen. And let’s say there’s something equally pressing IRL: Maybe your pet or child is putting their paws in something messy, or delivery just buzzed the door, or you need to get to the fridge for a refill. Just make it quick. It’s not like walking in a crosswalk, where going as slow as possible is both hilarious (makes drivers mad) and good for the environment (makes drivers so mad they want to sell their car and convert to public transit).
Above all, don’t stop on a dime and stand in front of the television. Even if the player is scrolling through menus or watching a cutscene—in other words, nothing’s really going on—that’s just rude. You wouldn’t want someone blocking your view of the television while you’re watching the latest Mission: Impossible, would you?
As mentioned, this situation isn’t just in the hands of the crosser. You’re responsible, too. If someone’s clearly trying to cross in front of the screen—and is being nice enough to not, y’know, stroll forth with abandon—take some initiative. Can you pause? Or at least offer to? When will it be okay for them to cross? You needn’t get specific. A simple “one sec!” will suffice. Even the barest acknowledgement is more of a courtesy than straight-up ignoring someone. (Be sure to thank them for their patience, too.)
Then there’s the Switch quandary. The Switch, as you well know, staked its claim on seamless portability. Sure, Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild looks infinitely better on the big screen than it does in your hands. But you don’t need a 55-inch screen to scale cliffs and liberate Divine Beasts. Ask yourself: How long have you commandeered the TV? Has it been more than an hour? Two? If so, you’ve also created a stop sign in your home’s traffic flow for just as long. Think of how that might affect your space and consider switching gameplay over to handheld mode.
There are certain situations where you have no right to complain. Genuine emergencies, of course, take precedence over anything going on in a video game. And if you’re playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons, don’t sweat things for a second. That game sure doesn’t.