Trust is the goopy bonding agent in the petri dish that is an online gaming team. Toss a bunch of strangers in a Call of Duty, DOTA 2, or Overwatch queue and you’ll find that the team that’s communicative or empathetic or just plain likes each other pulls through more often than not. Trust isn’t something you can see, though. If a team is doing things right, all trust looks like is winning and laughing and bullshitting around. I never think about trust until it’s broken.
Trust depends on feeling that the person you know shares your values, whether that it’s right to flank the left of the objective and launch a coordinated attacks or that treating everyone with dignity is the only way to be decent.
The other day, during an Overwatch match, I learned that someone I’d been playing with for a few weeks wasn’t the kind of guy I thought he was. We’d played a dozen or so matches together and, in-game and out, forged a bond. I didn’t know much about him, of course, but I had a sense that we cared about the same stuff in this game and, a little, outside of it. Then he made lot of racial comments even after I asked him to stop, and that bond shattered. The trust was gone, and I realized I could no longer rely on him.
It’s weird: Offline, spending an hour or two of your free time with someone every day means you’re practically best friends. You know them, you know how they go about things, and if they act in a way that offends you or inconveniences you, you feel a little betrayed. Online, without the formalities of “Where did you go to school” and “What do you do,” it’s harder to notice trust sowing its seeds and sprouting. But it does, if only through coordinating attacks on an objective in a video game and not superficial facts about ourselves. Which makes it all the more surprising when that sort of trust is broken.
I’d been playing Overwatch with a guy I’ll call Danny for a few weeks—not all the time, but pretty often. Over the last year and a half, I’d been collecting what I thought were competent, communicative, and trustworthy players to queue up with in Competitive mode. Danny was one of them.
Everyone has their own checklist of qualities they look for in someone they friend-request through an online game. I like players who are open to switching roles if our team composition isn’t working. I also like players who call out when enemies are approaching teammates, compliment each other on great plays, and consider ways to help the team work like one coherent organism.
So, for example, if I’m matched with someone whose Reinhardt shielded our Mercy against the lion’s share of deadly ultimate attacks, I’ll be impressed, sure; but if they communicated respectfully with the team, switched heroes when necessary and weren’t a complete asshole, I’ll consider sending them a friend request and queueing up with them again. And now that Battle.net’s mobile app is basically my new texting service, I’m not opposed to letting players I really trust insinuate themselves into my non-Overwatch hours. Each of those decisions I make is weighed by a calculus of trust: Do I feel comfortable around this person? Do they exert themselves? Are they consistent? Will they respect my boundaries? Are they, for the most part, in a good mood?
These things matter from a gameplay standpoint as well as from an emotional one: My games with Danny weren’t a few off-the-cuff pick-up games, but matches in Overwatch’s competitive mode, where egoes (and quantifiable skill rankings) are on the line. Losing means plunging into the dark, embarrassing depths of ranked Overwatch, a dishonor that everybody who encounters you in-game can see. If you’re like me and take your Overwatch ranking as seriously as your weight, you’ve got to trust the randos you queue up with regularly enough.
I can’t remember what led me to accept Danny’s friend request aside from how flexible he was as a player. Danny liked to chatter throughout matches—mostly to tell the team what he was doing, so we could accommodate, and make jokes we’d all riff off. He sounded pretty young, maybe a college student. In-game, he’d pull his weight, switching between tanks and DPS heroes. Not the best player, but certainly one I felt I had a lot in common with, Danny was a pleasant presence on Overwatch and, a few times, offline in Battle.net conversations about anime or whatever.
One of the most demoralizing encounters I’d witnessed in Overwatch was what assured me that I could trust Danny. I’d introduced him to other buddies I’d met over Overwatch, and he introduced me to his; one of whom said he was a queer man. One night, a stranger on our team was furious that we had barely put a dent in the enemy’s defense. He blamed Danny’s friend, and Danny’s friend blamed him. That’s when the stranger proceeded to emit strings of hate speech, calling Danny’s friend every manner of derogatory term. Well-acknowledged among Overwatch devotees is how getting mad at other players is a surefire way to lose your head and, as a result, the game. We lost. Danny’s friend logged off, clearly upset, and for a long time, Danny was silent over voice chat while he consoled his buddy over Discord. That’s a decent thing to do, I thought.
I had completed and won eight of my ten placement matches for Overwatch’s latest competitive season last week and logged off exhausted, but ecstatic at my 100 percent win rate. A few days later, I logged back on to continue in my path of carnage. I was feeling good, and after queueing up with Danny and three other buddies, was bound to be feeling great with a 10/10 win rate and, if I was lucky, a higher ranking than last season. We queued up for our first match, shot the shit, and waited.
Danny was more talkative than usual, trolling a little in the lobby and pretending to pick heroes who would have been laughably unsuited to this map. We were enjoying ourselves. On our way to the point, the team was flush with momentum. Our tanks stood out in front, shielding our squishier gun-toting heroes from harm’s way. Flankers slid to the sides of the map, picking off enemies and carving out a forward path. Our healer dutifully monitored everyone’s health. And then, out of nowhere, with no context, Danny said something about how he was a cool guy, because he’s met a black person.
“What?” we all said in unison. “That sounded kind of racist,” a buddy said. Danny apologized. We were thrown, losing the objective, but tried to group up and get back on track. Then, Danny said something like that again, just for shock value and with no context: “Guys, I’ve seen a black person!!!!”. It sounded really bad. Completely losing my focus, I played poorly. We lost the game. Later, my friends would admit that it had tripped them up, too. Why was this guy being so gross?
Queueing up for my last placement match, I was quiet. There was tension. We weren’t sure what to think of Danny anymore. “U got all silent. U ok?” a friend we’ll call Cameron asked me over text chat. I didn’t respond and, instead, dedicated myself to moving past this feeling of uncertainty. I really wanted to win that last match. And I really didn’t want Danny to be a bad guy. “UGH i suck i’m sorry,” Danny typed into chat. “Plz no racial comments…..,” I responded. The silence continued into our second game. Again, struggling to maintain a coherent, stalwart defense against our enemies, our team was scrambling to pick off opponents helter skelter.
“I’m sorry,” Danny blurted out over team voice chat. “Yeah,” I said. A new vocal barrier had arisen and, with it there, communicating my strategy to my teammates was difficult. I lost track of Danny, no longer caring where he was or how I could help him. He made another racial comment, this time worse. We lost that game, too. None of us can remember exactly what he said—we were caught between shock and focus—but he certainly kept saying it and it was certainly messed up.
Watching my skill ranking calculate after my final placement match, the meter stopped just about where I had ended the last season. Days later, I would remove Danny from my friends list. I didn’t realize I had trusted him until then because, for the weeks we played together, playing with him, and online friends like Cameron, simply felt like being a churning gear in a churning machine. I didn’t realize that it was trust that prompted me to communicate my plans with teammates. Or that trust was what allowed me to care about my teammates’ health meters or enabled me to make the risky plays that wiped our enemies. It wasn’t a trust founded on late-night phone conversations or secrets confided; it was the belief that that this guy was someone I could rely on.
“Lesson learned,” Cameron would later say about Danny. He pointed out that, together, we’d surely reach the next ranking by the end of the season. “I honestly believe we will. We are forging our team.” Last night, Cameron, with whom I’ve been queueing up with for months, made three comments about my being less capable at Overwatch because I’m a woman after I’d told him to stop. Moments later, I earned “Play of the Game” with a quad kill as Roadhog and logged off.