Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy (2003) – By LucasArts, Raven Software
(video credit: Michal Kuban)

It’s late at night and you’ve been chomping on some generic corn chips and store-brand soda, you got off work 5 hours ago and it’s the weekend. A lot of your friends are into games that you find a little too stressful like Operation Flashpoint or Starcraft 1v1s, you think those games are fun but only when you don’t take them seriously. You love star wars though, and when you found a cheap copy of Jedi Academy at the local game store it seemed like a fun buy. Once you made your way through the singleplayer campaign and got a feel for the combat, you dived into some multiplayer.

Sometimes you just wanna unwind, and dueling servers have a calm vibe where you can catch up with your pals while flexing new technique. Who wants to play something that just feels like work right after getting off a shift at the local grocery store? Not you! It’s time to jump in and catch some hang time.

A lot of games these days have a tendency to be riddled with toxic trashtalking and non-stop machismo posturing, it’s a time honored tradition with roots going as far back as Doom or Quake, but Jedi games always represented a spirit that called back to Obi Wan’s famous line in A New Hope about lightsabers: An elegant weapon for a more civilized age

Who doesn’t love a good match-up of fast paced rockets and laser guns shooting in every direction? But here, the pace is much calmer, it’s more analogous to a fencing match than a full-on football game. The goal here isn’t to dominate or humiliate your opponent, nor to pack every square inch of gameplay with non-stop adrenaline. No, you’re here to chill and take it easy with some good ol’ 1v1 swordfighting. It’s what set Jedi Academy apart from the contemporary arena shooters online gaming was notorious for at the time, to show your opponents respect and to gain new skills in the process, to share knowledge.

Need to grab a sandwich or grab a nice fresh cola from the fridge? Shut off your saber and sit on the sidelines, observe the match as you sip your drink, analyzing every move. If anything, it’s a dynamic more akin to a ballroom instead of a bar brawl- when you felt up for re-joining the fray you’d simply tap in and see if you could throw the latest winner off their balance. It’s a way of gaming that is sadly somewhat lost on modern titles due to the way that matchmaking incentivizes against or outright restricts idle time between the core matches, leaving players with very little wiggle room to define their own experience beyond jumping around to taunt opponents through a forcefield in the pre-game.

The thing Jedi Academy was particularly good at was the pacing- you could utilize any quiet moment to take a few steps back without disengaging from combat to type out a few tips to your opponent. The goal here was to have fun, to grow together and keep the matches increasingly challenging in a way a mentor teaches their student to gain greater skill. A mutual exchange of knowledge in order to drive the quality of the community up.

Maybe you weren’t very good at the game, or maybe you got matched up against someone who keeps making a lot of mistakes in their footwork. It’s hard not to feel like you’re sitting in a dojo, stretching your wings to gain the respect of your peers instead of to be the best there ever was. Even if you had no interest in playing, the option was always there to simply sit on the sidelines and treat the game like a virtual chatroom.

It’s unsurprising to see such an uptick in toxicity when games no longer give us any room to breathe, to be ourselves, and to show mutual appreciation for each other. These things have largely been offloaded onto tournament commentary, social media, or youtube analysis videos with play-by-play instruction on how to get better at the gameplay, and while these are exceptionally useful and valid ways of increasing community participation, it’s a one-way street. You can’t have a discussion or receive immediate instruction tailored to you in the way that you could in these late night sessions, at most you can fire off the occasional tweet at a skilled player to get some tips or discuss it in discord outside the game itself. Value judgements get thrown onto game forums, and people start to get angry, to demand nerfs of anything they feel is unfair instead of trying to understand it.

There are most certainly games that exist today where this mutual exchange still exists, titles like Absolver or RUST still provide a lot of free-form space to engage in practice and instruction, but they’re growing increasingly rare as server-based gameplay gives way to the ever-shifting landscape that is matchmaking driven by tournament bracket systems. Plenty of guides, plenty of places to vent, but how often do you feel joyful comradery with other players who are on the enemy team, let alone your own? How could you when there’s no opportunity to get to know them? They’re just another faceless random gamer tag with abstract definitions of skill attached to them like Bronze, Gold, or Platinum.

Games are work now, there’s no way around it and that’s partially by design in an effort to appeal to the ever-growing cash cow that is esports hustle. Now it’s all about the Meta or the ‘right’ way to play the game instead of pleasantly experimenting in every day play, to do so for the sake of fun and learning. It’s not all that dire, there’s plenty of room left for casual gaming nowadays, but it does make you wonder if we’re not too far off from a day where all play is commodified.

The years go by, your friends move on and so do you, now you get off your 9-5 office grind just to start up a new one. Our rhetoric and approach towards multiplayer gaming is now identifiably rooted in the sluggish rat race once found only in highly coordinated MMORPG raids. Now, more than ever, we need serene spaces of meditation mixed with challenging thoughtful gameplay, an act that brings us together instead of pushing us apart.

How can we ever expect to get along in cooperation if we never learn to compete in good faith as a method of growth? It’s important to remember why we came here in the first place: to have fun.

Emily Rose is an indie developer who writes for and resides in the pacific northwest. She’s often seen in the local VR arcade and developer community participating in pushing the medium’s horizons. You can find her on twitter @caravanmalice