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Last Updated:  Wednesday, 19 March, 2003, 01:01 GMT
Melting pot of online gaming
As online gaming continues to grow apace, with estimates the market will be worth $28bn by 2004, BBC News Online's Darren Waters looks at the community that is growing around Microsoft's broadband system, Xbox Live.

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For years, the stereotype of a video gamer as an anti-social loner sat in his or her bedroom mesmerised by a TV screen was not that short of the mark.

Frankly, most gamers I have met in the light of day do not possess a wealth of social skills.

But online gaming, putting thousands of gamers across the world in touch with one another, is beginning to make a lie of that stereotype.

For owners of Microsoft's games console, the use of a voice communicator gives gamers around the world the opportunity to speak to one another; or not, as the case may be.

Banter and insults

Talking to complete strangers, separated by thousands of miles, enormous landmasses and oceans, does tend to imbue a certain amount of awe and inhibition in people.

The first time you enter a game and hear accents from the US, France, Italy or Canada does seem remarkable.

Some games are filled with Trappist monks who barely utter a word to each other, aside from the odd grunt or heavy breathing when the microphone is too close to someone's mouth.

Xbox headset
Trash talking: exchanging earthy comments and insults
Clan: a collection of gamers who plays as a group
Ready up: choose all your options and get ready to play
Noob: a newcomer to a game
Lag: speed connection problems which result in slowdown or delay in a game
Gamertag: your Xbox id, or name that is used
Thankfully, the most common scenario is a game filled with people willing to chat, banter, exchange pleasantries and insults.

The language used by online gamers can be bewildering, however, with a strange variety of terms.

Some people have turned trash talking into an art form, almost all of which cannot be repeated here.

Younger gamers are the worst offenders and anyone whose verbal assaults get out of hand can be muted or booted off the game by the host, the person who initiated the game.

You can be kicked off a game for a variety of reasons, from sheer whim to acting as a punishment to cheaters.

"Kick him, kick him, kick him," is the tribal chant of those gamers tired of another's childish antics.

But such power to remove someone from a game is often abused, especially because Xbox Live seems to have reinforced national stereotypes for many people.

One British gamer I came across "booted" any Americans who joined his games, while a US gamer hosting a site would remove anyone French, citing their lack of support for the war in Iraq.

Clearly, global politics also reaches down into the gaming world.

Other gamers are equally harsh on children, while noobs or newbies, those who are new to a particular game, often come in for a lot of flak.

"Shoot the noob" is the hobby of choice for many veteran gamers.

Melting pot

It is a safe bet that if you enter a game filled with non-English speakers it will not be too long before someone pleads for everyone to "speak English please".

But that is not to say that Xbox Live is a despotic tyranny, far from it.

Since meeting a group of Italians online, I have been able to practice my rusty language skills and make some good friends.

There are also reports of friends and families living in different countries using Xbox Live as an alternative to telephoning.

Speaking to people via Xbox Live is free and a big saving on international calls.

I came across two online friends of mine recently, who live in different cities, chatting to each other over Xbox Live while watching football on television.

When I asked about a quick race around the Mugello circuit they seemed almost indignant.

You can also get the strangest insights into other people's lives.

During one midday session of a game I heard one gamer in the United States talking to his young daughter, saying: "Honey, go and wake up mommy and tell her she has to get up for work."

Inevitably, there are also reports of match-making online.

"I have had the privilege of having been graced by an angel through Live," wrote Ico on one of the Xbox Live forums.

"It was the golden gate to my soulmate," he added.

It almost comes as a relief when you can simply play a game and get on with the real business of saving the world and winning a race.

Xbox Live launched in Europe on 14 March. Sony trials its broadband gaming system for PlayStation 2 in Europe at the end of March. Some games for the Sony system will support voice communication.

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