Disturbing moans of ecstasy and anguish reverberate throughout campus. The slightly overweight crowd is squeezed into a tight room: bodies press up against one another and fingers tickle the rock-hard joysticks. At the last second, my partner lets out a gasp of relief: “Ohhhhhh.” Victory.
No doubt, the concentration required to play Super Smash Bros. on Nintendo 64 can be taxing (get your mind out of the gutter Princeton). For the unenlightened, Super Smash Bros. is a video game from the late 1990s that took nerds’ favorite virtual friends and put them all into one game, giving players the chance to “duke it out” as one of eight poorly-animated characters.
There really is a character for everyone: the silly and lovable find themselves at home with the dopey dinosaur Yoshi, the more serious prefer the no-nonsense Star Fox, the cutesy generally opt for Kirby, the noobs, Samus, and so on.
I first started playing smash, or, “smashing,” as virgins (the chief smash demographic) call it, my senior year of high school. After finishing college apps, my work ethic dissipated and I began to slide in the classroom, but in the senior common room, I made amish-protestant-Jews-with-tiger-moms look like slackers.
Each day, more and more seniors flocked to the commons to relax and game. Students would often wait as long as an hour for a single turn. As smash began to take over the culture of my high school, an honor code, not dissimilar to the one at Princeton, emerged.
In the game, there are certain items that appear at random for use by anyone on the course. Picture Star Fox and Mario engaged in hand-to-hand combat on a spacecraft, when suddenly a baseball bat appears that either player can grab to gain an advantage.
Most items are helpful, but won’t determine the outcome of a match. There are, however, a few items that all but guarantee victory. Grabbing a hammer, for instance, turns your character into an unstoppable death machine, while finding a heart completely heals your avatar.
Unaware that we could turn off hammers and hearts, the senior class at large deemed them “dishonorable.” If a player accidentally picked up a hammer or heart, he could “redeem his honor” by romantically sacrificing his own life.
Soon the honor system exploded. Rules became outrageously detailed and even a ranking system developed. The top seven players were “emperors” of the game who “oversaw” the hundred or so remaining competitors, classified as either “viceroys,” or in the most hopeless cases, “peasants.” Strangely, some players became almost as concerned with the honor system, chivalry and rankings as they were with the actual play.
Reflecting on this bizarre phenomenon is a little embarrassing. Video games don’t need me ranting about honor to make them any nerdier. In the words of my friend James: “They’re a waste of time and they always leave you unsatisfied.” Well so are my interactions with girls, and I still pursue them (the key difference being that I can turn on video games).
The Smash Code may seem like a unique phenomenon, but in reality some form of honor pervades many multiplayer video games. Consider that FIFA players offer Facebook apologies, while their Halo counterparts avoid “screen peeking.” Still, the question remains: why abide by these unwritten rules at all?
In these honor systems, there aren’t any tangible punishments. No, your fellow players can’t arrest you or expel you. The only conceivable penalty is self-inflicted: you feel shame for wronging a fellow player, nothing more.
For most Princetonians, the notion of honor rarely extends beyond a simple pledge hastily scribbled at the top of exams. Honor is not something we think about on a daily basis here. It lacks the buzzword appeal of phrases like “hook-up culture” or “grade deflation.”
The honor pledge that we’ve written so many times was started by a group of students in 1893 to prevent dubious behavior from their colleagues. Like the Smash Code, it was predicated on not taking unfair advantages and not tolerating those who do. In practice, the code seems to be effective. Not only have I never cheated (my sub-par GPA is proof), but I’ve never even heard of anyone else cheating.
Still, I worry that an honor code whose only concern is student behavior within the classroom insufficiently defines honor. At least in the eyes of my fellow smashers, honor required more than a mere adherence to the rules; there was a chivalric gentility that the most honorable players practiced. We never pouted in defeat and they never gloated in victory.
The Smash Code, unlike the Princeton Honor Code, was not designed solely to facilitate fair play. Rather, the chivalric codes of Smash and FIFA organically sprang up in video games in the same way codes of conduct have grown in countless noteworthy organizations. Knighthood began with jousting, Boy Scouts with camping, and Smash with gaming. Quickly, though, they all became about much more than their actual sports. Arthur’s men took on the vows of knighthood, the Scouts made pledges, and smashers began offering bows.
Unfortunately, the highly individualistic culture that we’ve all grown up in regards these types of chivalric codes as anachronistic. Worse yet, the world outside the orange gates often encourages the use of hammers and hearts in their various forms: whether it’s embezzling, abusing natural resources, or simply cutting the sandwich line, some members of “generation me” are a bit too comfortable prioritizing themselves.
I understand that with regard to chivalry, it’s easy to toss up our hands, say it’s not a big deal, and join the discourteous. So, why hold doors open, walk on the outside of the sidewalk, or offer a jacket, when the relative gains and losses are seemingly so small? But for my friends who have lost understanding of the power of the chivalric gesture, I ask that you attempt these small changes and see if you can’t find some merit in them.
Now a college student who regretfully left his Nintendo 64 at home, I reflect on the time I spent with my fellow comrades-in-arms glued to the faulty flickering television in our cramped commons making tiny 2-D figures brawl. And all the while, we were pretending that our Honor Code meant something, and, like members of the Round Table, we tossed our lives aside in the name of something bigger. Only now do I appreciate that the biggest difference between Smash and real life is that in the real world we can’t turn off the hammers, so maybe we should use our hearts.