Halo – It’s the New Golf

Next Tuesday night, all the chips are down. The BBC Halo team will face Edge magazine in an evening 8-on-8 game series.

This all started with a challenge a couple of weeks ago:

Sure enough, we found a willing partner. Edge has picked up the gauntlet:

The team is getting psyched, and Edge’s Twitter feed, normally a reliable source of news about upcoming developments in gaming, has started ringing with smacktalk.

Small Beginnings

The BBC Halo team has become something special here in W12. It started small and casual, around Si Lumb and Ron Bullen, software engineers from the Television Platforms (TVP) team. TVP are the guys who make the stuff behind the BBC’s red button interactive TV service work (among many other things) so they’ve all got big TVs on their desks and a couple of Xboxes lurking around.

It seemed a shame letting all that processing and display power go to waste during lunch hours. So a couple of us had some pick-up matches at lunchtime one week. Though we kept the TVs muted and our voices low, it was inevitable that others noticed the flashing screens at one end of the open-plan office and came down to check it out. The group started to grow. I joined them, the only journalist in the bunch. Lunchtime matches became more frequent and more serious.

That was two years ago. We play during lunch hours and occasionally over a couple of beers after work. Now we have 12 players, split across London and Manchester offices.

It’s the New Golf

Win or lose, I always find the mental effort of playing a first-person shooter game really invogorating.

It’s not really about killing and fighting. Many people are put off by the unfortunate macho atmosphere FPS players tend to construct, and by the occasionally gory visuals (though Halo is not so bad on that particular count). But if you look past that, you’ll see a mental challenge that demands great application and intelligence.

For me, FPS games are exercises in empathy and competitive geometry.

It’s about knowing a 3D environment inside out, as an active, real place. It’s being able to use this knowledge to predict where your opponents will move, where they’ll hide, where they’ll be at a disadvantage. Playing well means simultaneously holding in your mind your own actions, the actions of your teammates, and your intelligence about your opponents. It’s spinning a pattern, extremely quickly, out of tiny fragments of information: a muzzle flash here, a half-glimpsed blue armored figure there, grenades arcing through the air over there. It’s learning to take this pattern, analyze it very quickly, and use it to guide your movement and fire in a constant dance of position, vector and motion.

For the team members, it’s incredible for work morale. It gives us a chance to stay in touch with the guys in Manchester beyond work-related emails. (And anyone who’s spent a lot of time with guys knows that you don’t really need to talk about substantive issues to get to know each other better. The occasional shout of “lookout behind you!” or a friendly rocket to the face is plenty of communication.)

Edge Online

This will be our second match against an external challenger. We met our first just a couple of months after we started playing – a team of engineers from Panasonic.

It was an unmitigated disaster, with 18 losses and one draw over the course of the night. (It didn’t hurt Panasonic that many of their team members were also members of a pro gaming clan.)

But of course, we’ve been playing for over a year and a half since then. That’s a lot of lunch times.

Game will be on the evening of Tuesday, 8th June. I’m keen to see how the Edge guys play.

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