Video games are designed to scratch an itch. The great games manage to scratch two or three. I’m talking about existential itches, buried so deep they form the jangling core of human desire — for power, for achievement, for wealth, for recognition, for connection with fellow travelers.
On a bleak Thursday afternoon, the early dark gathering outside, I pulled my chair up close to my television to play a video game — Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare — with Charlotte Hornets center Roy Hibbert. I normally keep my gaming to weekend afternoons or the insomniac hours before dawn. That’s when the world slows down; stilled by the century-old structure of the five-day work week and the biological imperative for sleep. But this week has not been like the others. Escaping into a Hobbesian virtual world ruled by incessant but satisfyingly scratchy meritocratic violence in the middle of a workday has never felt so right.
In Infinite Warfare’s militarized future, the nation-states of Earth have colonized the solar system. The “pale blue dot” described by Carl Sagan, the planet where “everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives,” is a bespoiled husk, dependent on its colonies for food and resources. Some of the colonists came to find their obligations to serve as clerks in Earth’s general store onerous — no taxation without representation, or something — and seceded. The story’s heavy: Admiral Salen Kotch, a scar-faced space war criminal, is played with cartoonish bombast by Kit Harington.
Hibbert, it turns out, has a shockingly filthy drop shot. I consider the move to be unseemly at best and cheating at worst. It involves having your character, upon encountering an enemy, drop into a prone position from a dead sprint, spraying bullets. The move stretches the credulity of Call of Duty’s inner reality to the breaking point. I mean, a person would need to have the strongest core ever to pull off that move in real life.
“I got tired of getting killed by [drop shotters] so I decided to join them,” Hibbert tells me over the phone before we start playing. “I drop shot basically whenever I play.”
If you think of video games as an extremely intimate form of wish fulfillment, rather than just mind-shriveling hours of life-wasting empty calories, then the way a person plays — the types and genders of characters he or she chooses, the clothes that person dresses those avatars in, the way that person moves characters through the game world — is revealing.
In real life, Roy Hibbert is a plodding, earthbound 7-foot-2 center best known for his ability to stay more-or-less upright while contesting shots; the bedrock and backstop of a team’s defense. That’s when he’s healthy. Currently, Hibbert is nursing a sore knee that kept him on the bench for most of the Hornets’ best-in-franchise-history 6–1 start. “I’ll play in the next game,” he tells me, “but I’m on a minutes restriction.” (Hibbert did return to log 13 minutes each in the Hornets’ next two games, both losses.)
In Call of Duty, meanwhile, Hibbert is a quicksilver gunslinger, not beholden to knees or traditional conceptions of time, a creature of pure offense on the hunt for his own numbers.
“When I play Call of Duty,” Hibbert tells me, a note of seriousness creeping into his otherwise jovial, slightly stoner-ish voice, “I am like a lone wolf. And I play fast.” Hibbert kits his character out in the “merc” rig, the game’s most heavy-duty, damage-resistant armor. The game gives players a certain amount of “slots” that can be filled with weapons and upgrades in order to customize a character.
On the advice of retired e-sports pro Matthew “Nadeshot” Haag, Hibbert eschews grenades and secondary weapons in favor of perks that increase speed, maneuverability, and stealthiness and primary weapon attachments that allow him to run and gun. Hibbert is friendly with various figures in the competitive Call of Duty scene. “I have profound respect for those guys,” Hibbert says. “This is a job for them.” He also uses a custom Xbox controller produced by Scuf Gaming, which outfits many console-based e-sports pros.
“Matthew, he’s one of the best Call of Duty players in the world, he told me, ‘How many kills do you get with grenades? Probably not that many. How many do you get with your secondary weapon? Probably not that many.’ So, I use one gun, no scope. For attachments, I use quickdraw [faster aiming], laser sight [increased stability when firing from the hip], suppressor [don’t show up on the minimap when shooting your gun], and a foregrip [reduced recoil]. Then I have three perks: ghost, because I don’t want to show up on the map; scavenger, because I go through ammo very quickly; and then gung-ho, which allows me to shoot while I’m running and spraying. Because I like to move fast.”
Hibbert selects the “Kill Confirmed” playlist. In this game type, teams compete to collect dog tags which are dropped when an enemy player is killed. We find ourselves in a map modeled on a futuristic Japanese city, clean gray streets wrapping around sleek shopping malls; a golden statue of a cat with one paw raised sits beatifically in the middle or thereabouts. Hibbert bitches just like other gamers do when they die in a way that they feel is unfair. I ask Hibbert if he ever gets recognized playing online.
“Oh yeah. I’ll read you my messages … ‘Roy Hibbert.’ Another guy: ‘Let’s play, dog. Send me an invite. If you ever want to run CoD hit me up.’ Sometimes I tweet out when I’m playing. That’s fun. But, usually I appear offline. When I’m playing [publicly], the bottom of my screen just keeps popping up with messages. Which throws me off sometimes, you know?”
The itches that Call of Duty scratches are obvious. There are the dark impulses, maybe fossilized remnants of our hunter-gatherer antecedents lurking in our lizard brains: the lust to dominate; the desire to win; the buzz, like spiritual caffeine, derived from feeling powerful; the need to destroy one’s enemies; the cathartic power of venting hatred through violence. But, there’s also a few positive ones: the feeling of being part of a team; the satisfaction of connecting with other human beings over novel shared experiences.
Back in the day, before I was gainfully employed, when I was definitely playing way too many video games, I used to take screenshots of angry messages other gamers would send me, relishing the thought that somewhere out there in the world, there was a person who I had, in some small way, hurt. I often wonder what the world will be like when virtual realms become more satisfying than the real world. Games are, by definition, controllable. Who doesn’t want a world that they can control?
“I don’t go out and, like, party on road trips,” Hibbert tells me, when I ask if he takes his console on the road. “I go and eat dinner with some friends. Then I go back to the room. For my birthday two years ago, my beautiful wife got me a Verizon MiFi hotspot. In hotels, even if there’s Wi-Fi, there’s usually a firewall. So my wife got me the MiFi dedicated just for gaming.”
“Doesn’t that get expensive?” I ask.
“She’ll call me and be like ‘We’re getting overage charges. You’re playing too much. Can you settle down a little bit?’”
Hibbert and I finish our first two games, both losses, near the bottom of the respective leaderboards, but, just barely, with positive kill-death ratios — the catchall first-person-shooter stat, comparable to points-per-game in basketball.
“What’s your K/D?” I ask. “Like, career Call of Duty K/D and Infinite Warfare [K/D]?”
“Let me check what it is right now,” he says, and I can hear him toggling through menu screens over my headphones. “I’ve actually been playing off and on today. I don’t really care about K/D, but I always try to go positive. Do you know where to go find it? Barracks or Quartermaster?” I’ve only been playing the game for a day, and have no idea what screen the stat lives on. Hibbert gives up looking. “I don’t know. It’s 1-something. I could be wrong. Some days I can go 20–6; others, not so much. Some days I have great games, others I don’t. I’ll have to get back to you on that.”
I ask Hibbert if he plays any games besides Call of Duty. He mentions getting back into Destiny, Bungie’s RPG-inflected first-person looter-shooter, this summer. And, during his season with the Lakers, Hibbert, former Syracuse wide receiver Tommy “Rice” Moss, and Larry Nance Jr. (“Shout-out to him; he’s going to be a hell of a Laker.”) would play Rainbow Six Siege.
But Hibbert always comes back to Call of Duty.
“After meeting the people who made the game,” he tells me, “I just feel like I’m cheating on it if I play something else.”
We play a few more games, some up and some down, and then Hibbert has to go. I wish him good luck and log off. It’s full dark now, and the outside world floods back in. I check my Twitch stream and realize that, though I was broadcasting, I forgot to set preferences to “automatically archive.” That’s why this piece has no accompanying video. Just one more shitty thing capping off a devastatingly shitty week. I turn my console back on.
“Everyone has a bad run. Everyone has a rage quit from time to time,” Hibbert said to me earlier. “That’s just how it goes.”