Playing Halo 2 online is an exercise in humility. I logged all my hours with the original Halo on a friend’s Xbox, playing with two or three or (on a couple of occasions) eight other folks. In that admittedly small pond, I was the big fish—moving gracefully through maps I knew like the back of my hand, handling weapons with ease, weaving, dodging, racking up the kills. But one time somebody brought their cousin along, a college kid, and I was relegated to the status of cannon fodder at his hands just like everybody else. I’m sure it mostly had to do with the sheer number of hours you can devote to Xbox playing if you’re still in college, but it was also the fact that one’s video game skills start deteriorating at around age 22, at a slow but steady pace.

The online world of Halo 2 is chock full of people’s kid cousins. Surprisingly few of them are literally kids. Sure, every once in a while your team will get smeared by a band of fourteen-year-olds whose trash-talk is downright comical because their voices haven’t changed yet, but more often than that you’re up against college-age guys, give or take a few years. Most of them are way better at the game than I will ever be. I know—or can at least guess—their ages because the use of headsets means you can often hear your opponents talking during and after the game. If you set aside the fact that almost no women play the game (I haven’t encountered any), there’s surprising diversity among the players. It’s always a trip when you realize the other team has Irish accents, or British ones, or they’re communicating in Spanish, or (much more often) in Korean.

The best way to play Halo 2 is with a team of friends—ideally real-life friends, or, in a pinch, people you’ve come across in the course of other games and that you know are good players, good sports, and good communicators. That way voices you hear from your own are friendly and civil. And seventy-five percent of the time, that’s the case with your opponents too. Twenty percent of the time you find yourself squaring off against people who are jerks in one way or another, which is annoying but tolerable. But five percent of the time it’s much worse: usually it’s just one guy on the other team, but sometimes it’s all of them. They will slander, in the worst imaginable language, gays, blacks, or Jews. They will toss around the word “rape” as a casual verb. And they’ll do it all when they know you can hear them—a deliberate assault on your ears. (They can and do get banned for that stuff, but the process takes time.) Most of the guys who do this sort of thing are probably not evil, just immature—using the freedom of virtual contact to say forbidden things just because they can. But for you, who will never see or hear from them again after that one game, they are evil. And in those games, the stakes go up. You’re not just playing to win, you’re playing because the other guys are completely, unambiguously bad, and defeating them would be, in its own miniscule way, a little piece of justice in this broken world. So you play your heart out in those games, and you try more than ever to win.

And most of the time you still lose, because they play the game waaay more than you do, and they’re younger to boot. But once in a while you do win, and it feels very good indeed. (For an extended description of such an encounter by a guy known as always_black, see this piece—well worth a read, if you can forgive the self-appointed “New Games Journalism” tag.)

Anyway, as a certified old-fogey gamer (and there are many like me), one thing I will certainly not be doing is competing in the Major League Gaming Halo 2 tournament here in Washington at the end of the month. But will I stop by to spectate, as an exercise in cultural anthropology? You bet.