On Nov. 9, to the delight of men across New York, the sequel to Halo, the popular Xbox video game, wherein players battle in lush violence to save the universe from an evil alien race called the Covenant arrived in stores. And for those men’s wives and girlfriends, it was a day of infamy, indeed. “When I got home that day, I called him,” said Jen Deppe, a 23-year-old freelance graphic designer who lives on the Upper West Side, referring to her 28-year-old boyfriend, who works in private equity. “And from the time he bought it to the time I called him-five hours-he’d been playing it the entire time.”
It’s not that Ms. Deppe hasn’t given Halo a fighting chance. “I played the first one,” she said. “There are weird aliens and they wave their arms above their head when you shoot them and then they run around. It just doesn’t make sense. There’s no story, there’s no plot, there’s no background-it’s just ‘save your troop from alien invaders.’ I don’t understand how someone could sit there for eight straight hours and play a video game.”
Halo 2 sold 2.4 million copies on Nov. 9, raking in $125 million that hallowed- Halo’d!-day. The first-day sales for the game’s guidebook gave Random House its biggest hit since Bill Clinton’s My Life. “The Master Chief is a powerful versatile warrior, but he’s not invincible,” the book warns. “To help him survive against a tide of Covenant foes, you’ll need to learn and utilize every conceivable skill.” Most fans rhapsodize about Halo’s realistic graphics and maneuverability, the sense that they’re actually inside the TV. And we’re not just talking about kids here: We’re talking men with long work weeks and live-in girlfriends. In the name of Halo, women have found themselves banished from their living rooms, dispatched to the bedroom alone, their sleep disrupted by desperate cries of “Die, motherfucker!”, their beloveds off fighting cartoon aliens. Halo’s evil Covenant may as well have been killing men across all five boroughs. Women, helplessly ungeeky and uncoordinated, longing for fresh-air strolls in Central Park or even just for The O.C., found themselves, like their football-hating female forebears, unceremoniously Halo-widowed.
Killing and Shooting
“Whatever happened to basketball?” said Alison Griffin, 27, an assistant editor at Teen Vogue. “I’m convinced Xbox will be the downfall of modern society. I think it sucks out the will to live a normal life.” Ms. Griffin lives in Astoria with her 29-year-old boyfriend, Brandon Koehl, who works in the human-resources department at CBS and plays the online version of Halo with his friend Chris Campana, 33, a marketing-services manager at Linkshare. This involves both men wearing a headset and mike, and can mean screaming at friends in Ohio or teenagers across the country.
“It’s so dorky,” said Ms. Griffin, “the most ridiculous form of male bonding I’ve ever witnessed. They just all sit in their own homes in front of the TV with these headsets on, like they’re operators. They turn the volume up, so you can hear them talking to each other. They have teams, and they find other teams to play-kids who play all day, 14-year-olds. They trash-talk with them …. I’m like, ‘Can we do something? Like walk the dog?'”
Mr. Koehl’s obsession has necessitated the purchase of a second TV for the household. “It’s sick. There shouldn’t be that much TV in such a small space,” Ms. Griffin said. But “it’s annoying when he’s hogging the television. For Brandon, it’s winding-down action before bed-like a bedtime story. And then it’s usually me screaming at him, ‘Turn it off and come to bed!'”
Mr. Koehl refused to speak with The Observer. Mr. Campana, his Halo playmate, was less abashed. When Halo 2 came out, he bragged, he took a personal day off from work. “Nov. 9, absolutely!” he said, as if it were emblazoned somewhere on his innards. Mr. Campana lives with his girlfriend, Danielle Bufalini, 26, in a studio in Murray Hill-also with two TV’s, one for the Xbox-and is constantly bargaining with her for more game time. “I say, ‘Hey, let me do this now and I promise I won’t play this weekend,'” he said.
Ms. Bufalini, who works at the shopping Web site DailyCandy, is actually one of the few ladies who occasionally indulge in a little Halo. But, she admitted, “it gets on my nerves.”
It’s not that all women reflexively hate video games, of course; many fondly remember Super Mario Brothers and Ms. Pac-Man, or the thrill of clobbering their brother at Tecmo Bowl. But it’s inescapable that men just like to play with gadgets more; it’s something about the thumbs. Xbox, its controllers fancy enough for a thumb-sized Olympics, and Halo-a difficult game that requires death-defying thumbery, bloodlust, and a talent for not getting sick as you spin around and shoot up the screen-is the sci-fi-inclined, lifelong video gamers’ wet dream.
“The game starts with this music-this Gregorian chant,” said Partha Chattoraj, 35, a lawyer who lives in the East Village, trying to explain the sophistication of the Halo enterprise. He remembers being excited about Halo 2 for more than five months. He’d considered camping outside EB Games, on East Fourth Street with his friend the night before its release, but had to work late. “Humanity is in its last gasp,” he said, continuing his rhapsody. “There’s a sense that the Covenant are about to be victorious. It’s a survival game, but the objective is to survive and save humanity.”
“It’s killing and shooting-that’s all it is,” scoffed his fiancée, Kathy Palmer, 33, who manages Watchcraft, a Queens-based watch company, and shares Mr. Chattoraj’s one-bedroom apartment. “Its like you’re ‘saving the world’ … but you’re always blowing things up.”
Ms. Palmer, who’s pregnant, needs her sleep, but the Xbox is in the bedroom, so Mr. Chattoraj-who, both agree, is kind about turning the thing off when Ms. Palmer requests-hasn’t been able to play much at all lately. He might have been better off keeping his Xbox in the living room, but he can’t: too much damage had been done to his plasma-screen TV in there-from playing video games. Mr. Chattoraj bought an LCD TV, for the bedroom. (Note to Halo addicts: No plasma TV’s for you- the device is damaged by repeated Halo sessions.) So most nights, if Mr. Chattoraj is able to sneak in an hour of Halo in between planning for his wedding and working, it’s when Ms. Palmer is away on business, or hanging out in the living room with friends (he also brought it along once on a Cape Cod vacation). “I’m like, ‘Can you lower that?'” Ms. Palmer said.
But from the male perspective, the appeal of Halo is obvious. The options are limitless: You can play a narrative, movie-like game alone or with a partner in which you fight for the universe; or play with friends, in which you all just shoot each other; or play online, where you shoot friends and teenagers across the country. It’s a way of keeping in touch with long-lost pals, a gamer’s dream, a teenager’s paradise! It’s also the overworked New York male’s refuge.
“He works so much,” Ms. Deppe said of her Halo-addicted boyfriend. “I let him have his fun when he can.” Ms. Deppe said it’s when he plays with his friends-and she comes along for the day-that she begins to feel like a useless appendage, surrounded by chortling man-boys. “When he’s alone, it doesn’t bother me; he plays video games and I paint,” she said. “But when he’s with his friends and they play together, I think, ‘Why am I here?’ They make weird faces; their mouths start to hang open a little bit; their heads sort of go back and forth.”
Truth be told, most women-even those most audibly annoyed-are good-natured about their partner’s Halo fetish; and most men, some slightly embarrassed by their obsession, expressed concern over whether they were driving their girlfriends totally mad. The Halo habit is comic, but there’s something curious about New Yorkers, who pride themselves on living here for the city’s abundance of out-and-about pleasures, wanting to stay inside in front of the TV, knocked out and drugged up on the sedentary finger-clicking that defines the modern video-game experience. But how different is it from the woman who, say, loses sunny Saturdays to a marathon of Buffy the Vampire Slayer?
“It’s akin to reading a book. It really is-you do it for the same reasons,” argued Alexis DeLaRosa, 30, a freelance graphic designer, actor and screenwriter who lives in Williamsburg. His girlfriend has played Halo, and he argues, as others do, that Halo can be a very sociable game (you can hook Xboxes together and up to 16 people can play at once; Halo parties are not uncommon). “And it is like movies and novels were to other generations-some people just take it too far. There are times, when I get a brand-new game, where I lock myself up for an entire week.”
Mr. Chattoraj, the attorney, described how he used to gorge on Halo when his fiancée went out of town for business. “I would start playing on a Friday night and play until 8:30 the next morning,” he said. “It feels like you were out partying. You think, ‘What have I done? I didn’t sleep-I feel sick.’ I’ve actually thrown up from motion sickness because I get too close to the TV-not uncommon with first-person shooter games, because things are moving around and you’re ducking and jumping, but you’re really just sitting in one place. Kathy had a friend over-they were in the living room, and I was in the bedroom-and the friend was leaving. She poked her head in, and I had total tongue sweat. As soon as she left, I ran into the bathroom and projectile-vomited.”
Ms. Palmer told a similar story: “Look, you just got sick,” she laughingly remembered telling Mr. Chattoraj. “Did you have fun? Are you gonna keep playing?”
Part of what keeps these guys playing the game to the point of nausea is simply that it’s hard; it actually requires skill, a weird kind of unlearnable skill. (Many a male noted sympathetically that girls simply don’t have the studied hand-eye coordination that they do.) In Halo, you see the neck of your rocket launcher or battle rifle or plasma pistol; beyond that, your vision extends to the entire board, or world, or ship. When you play against three other people, the screen divides into four dizzying boxes, but the agile can keep an eye on other screens while maneuvering themselves around the board. Sometimes they shoot you from behind, and the controller vibrates to alert you of this. You can spin entirely around in Halo; you can get lost on the boards. You can jump in cars and flying things and get out of them, too. You can kick the shit out of your opponent-with your hands!-or you can throw grenades at them. You can stand off in the distance and watch your friends kill each other, like you’re watching a movie-only you’re in the movie!
Mr. Chattoraj, a former comp-lit grad student, had another theory. “Guys are just different from women in this way,” he said. “We need another activity to focus on. We don’t just hang out to be together. We’re there to watch the game, or play with car engines; you have real conversations, but there’s a divided-attention thing. Still, Halo’s different, because it’s so absorbing that you really are just playing the game.”
Andrew Clute, 25, an emergency medical technician in Park Slope, seemed to corroborate this. When reached at 5 p.m. on a recent Thursday, he and his friend Marty Roberts, 27, had just “beaten” Halo 2. “We’ve been playing it quite a bit,” Mr. Clute said. He recently moved to Brooklyn, and few of his friends live there, which leaves him ample Halo time. “I’ve had it two weeks now and I’ve beat it five times,” he said. “If I have nothing to do, I could conceivably play all day. Me and Marty will be at a bar and we’ll say, ‘Hey, we got beer at home-and Halo’s there, too.'”
Mr. Clute’s girlfriend lives in California, and he said he would never ditch her for Halo. On the other hand, “maybe she’d just play the video games with me,” he said. “But then she’d want to have sex or something, and that would get in the way.” He laughed at himself.
In the background, one could hear piercing cries, something to the effect of “Why won’t you just die?” Mr. Roberts, who’s finishing his dissertation in psychology at Hofstra University, was still playing.