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Redefining Interactivity pt 5: Come Play With Me

May 17, 2011

A girlfriend of ours, a member of our old casual World of Warcraft guild, Indecisive, asked if anyone she knows still plays WoW. I commented, telling her why my wife and I had drifted away. Shortly afterward, one of her other friends commented, more or less refuting my explanation. I replied. He replied. I replied once more. The conversation ended. Probably an unspoken agreement to disagree. Fair enough.

But it got me thinking that I haven’t really talked about another facet of gaming which sometimes gets overlooked, perhaps because it is so ubiquitous that we take it for granted. Being as old as I am, I of course remember a time when online gaming didn’t exist, and there wasn’t anything even remotely like it, unless you were athletic.

Well, except one other kind of game, which is in fact where I learned the word ‘gaming’ to begin with. But I’ll get to that in a few minutes. What we need first is an explanation of the act of playing games with others, and why we do it.


tl;dr Version: Singing ‘Me and Julio’ down by the schoolyard.

‘Splain, Lucy Version: Yeah, I know, double-ewe-tee-eff, right? What do Paul Simon and gaming have in common? Honestly, I have no idea. However, whenever I hear that song, I think of the music video he made sometime in the Eighties, where you see the black kids playing basketball and having a great time, and that to me is as simple as it gets. Great little pop tune about hanging out and playing with your friends in the old neighbourhood. This is what games, and even sports, is really all about.

Forget professional athletes. Forget professional anything. It’s just you and your mates, making up games and teams and rules and boundaries and seeing who can play the game best. Sure, there’s a competitive element, but if they’re really friends, or if they have any good manners at all, it’s never about being better than the rest of the kids; it’s about being ONE of the kids, and learning the skills together. Humans are competitive creatures, yes, but they’re also social creatures.

Boring Version: We’re social because, when we first began evolving into the species we are, we learned very quickly that we were much smaller, squishier and tastier than a lot of other critters. We needed the safety of numbers to stay off the menu of some canny sabretooth or angry mastodon. We also needed those numbers so that we could figure out how to hunt and eat sabretooths and mastodons. And over time, we also came to be dependent upon others on a more emotional level. It’s probably all tied together, but through our shared survival, we learned to depend on one another, and to feel lonely and worried when we weren’t with our pack. Good survival trait, really.

Okay, Lee, what about the games? Well, have you ever noticed how virtually every classic, pre-Twentieth Century game seems to be tied up with the concepts of either moving men and resources around a board, or aiming projectiles and walking or running after them? Think about that for a minute. Golf, cricket, baseball, basketball, soccer, rugby, American football, tennis, snooker, volleyball… the list goes on. All projectile games. Strategy and communication are a major factor in some of these games, but the main point is, make the ball go that way, and then catch up to it. Wanna know what that sounds like to me? Hunting. A prehistoric survival skill. You throw something, and then chase after whatever it hits and eat it.

Now, you can learn how to throw things fast and accurate and often, with practice, and without any help from anyone. However, you can’t test whether you’re doing it well unless you have an audience. Remember what I said the other day about spectator sports being more interesting if there is more than one player on the field? Well, it also puts us on our A game, making us try harder to do better and really impress everyone. We can’t all travel to the Serengeti and throw spears at lions to prove our prowess as hunters, but we can sure as heck roof a softball and run four bases to the cheers of our friends and team mates.

In this way, we perpetuate the skills that allowed us to evolve into successful organisms. We play games like this from an early age, and in so doing, exercise those parts of our brain that judge coordination, balance, direction, distance and trajectory. We practice these things without any prompting, even when we’re alone. Have you ever caught yourself tossing a balled up letter into a waste basket? Were you doing it to show off for an audience, or were you simply doing it to see if you could make the shot?

Something I haven’t covered yet is Tabletop Gaming. The classic examples of this are Board Games (Chess, Checkers, Cluedo, Crokinole, Chutes and Ladders, etc…) and Games of Chance, as we euphemistically refer to Cards (Poker, Black Jack, Bacarat, Bridge, etc…), Craps and Roulette. These are all rule-based competitive games that mostly involve a certain amount of strategy and a certain amount of probability, in varying ratios depending on the nature of the game. Board Games tend closer to the former; Cards and dice, the latter.

Modern Tabletop Gaming has introduced newer, more sophisticated games that involve imperialism and resource management (Settlers of Catan… uh, are there any other games like Settlers?), parlour games (Pictionary, Balderdash, Apples to Apples, etc…), and in the case of ‘paper’ RPGs, dice sets and probability tables, and varying amounts of storytelling and improvisational acting.

These last have been referred to for years as Roleplaying Games (RPGs), and were fairly successful, particularly with teenagers and young adults, before the ubiquitousness of home computer video games eclipsed them. Tabletop RPGs are still made and sold, but their marketshare has dwindled, with the established brands (Wizards of the Coast, White Wolf, West End Games, etc…) having staked out so much of what little marketshare there is left, that licensed IPs (Farscape, Dresden Files, Doctor Who, etc…) are virtually the only published games that show any real signs of breaking through at this point.

That’s probably a gross exaggeration, and I haven’t read any sales figures lately, but that’s the impression I get from the sidelines, almost a decade after my last serious attempt to break into the Tabletop RPG market myself.

Overall, tabletop gaming isn’t dead; far from it. However, there is a great deal more news coverage on the video game industry than we see from the paper-and-dice games of my youth.

Okay, Lee, all of this may or may not be true, but what in the world does it have to do with today?

Modern Social Games: Well, think about it. Humans are hard-wired for making games out of tasks they want to perfect their skills at; they are hard-wired for living and playing in social groups; and they compete to hone skills and receive recognition for their skill level from peers and judges. The only thing that’s different about classic and modern gaming is that the skills they are honing aren’t abstractions of survival skills. These days, either they are more intellectually-based pursuits, like puzzle games, or are more concretely survival-oriented, like shooter games.

Where these games intersect socially is that we now play games in groups, both in classic tabletop games, and more significantly, in semi-anonymous internet-based games. We have managed to take our social gaming from the kitchen table to an instantaneous worldwide playing field; Your Warrior lives in Houston, your Rogue lives in Ottawa, your Priest lives near Sydney, your Warlock sits at the computer behind you, and the server is housed somewhere near Los Angeles.

Social Civ Games: All of this is old news to just about anyone who spends more than ten minutes online reading their email these days. Even people who have never played an MMORPG have probably joined Facebook by now, and if you’re on Facebook, you know about Flash games, even if you’ve been avoiding them like the plague. The peculiar thing about Flash games is that the social element is almost non-existent, except where it becomes necessary to ask friends to help you achieve specific goals in a non-live fashion. Virtually no actual interaction between you and your ‘neighbours’ (basically fellow players who are also on your list of friends in Facebook, and have allied themselves to you in a given game) happens, save the occasional bit of clicking to help one another get resources, fight common foes, or build complicated constructs of higher value, depending on the nature of the game.

I’m an active player of a couple, with accounts in a few others I’ve tried and either abandoned or postponed, but by no means have I played all of them. Most of them are really just cleverly retooled imitations of the Age of Empires/Sid Meier’s Civilization-type strategy games, with an increasingly sophisticated series of social gaming aspects worked into the warp and weft of the venerable SimCity concept. Some are Flash-based RPGs, and a few are more like playing themed variations on Fantasy Football, all lists and charts and stats, and little in the way of illustrations or animations.

However, in none of these games do I ever get the same feeling of social integration I get from playing MMOs. For one thing, even those Flash games that have a standard MMO-type chat box (essentially an Instant Messenger built right into the gaming interface, so you can interact verbally with other players in real time) feel a little cumbersome and distracting. While playing one sci-fi strategy game with a chat window, I found myself ignoring it and wishing I knew how to turn it off, but that may have been because I was deliberately playing the game solo to see whether it suited me, and knew I would find none of my friends to chat with while I played. The obvious point is to start talking to whomever is there and make new friends, and it certainly would make some of those games more enjoyable, but I think in most cases, it diverts too far from their established formulae.

Co-Op Mode Games: A variation on the social gaming concept are the current crop of first person action games that allow for team playing in a limited online capacity. Games like Call of Duty: Black Ops and Team Fortress spring to mind as successful modern combat video games integrated with the team sports aspect of traditional meatspace gaming. Players form teams and work towards various objectives while calling out signals and commands to one another over headsets, leaving hands free to work the controls. I don’t feel qualified to go into too much detail about these games, simply because I don’t play them. It’s not my bag, baby! I’m a lover, not a fighter.

One game whose co-op mode has really sparked my imagination is the newly-released Portal 2, where you and one other player work together to complete test chambers (ie overcome obstacles and solve physics-based puzzles) that are designed to be impossible for one tester (such as Chell) to complete on their own. I havent’ completed Co-Op mode with my wife yet, but my immediate impression was that Valve is just this >< much closer to realizing a truely immersive (and successful) MMO Adventure Game than anyone has ever been before (sorry, Cyan Worlds; I was a cave-dweller, too, but let’s face it, there just wasn’t enough to do, let alone do together).

Massively Multiplayer Online Games: What? Are you kidding me? You don’t need me to explain MMOs, do you?

For the record, I’ve played Myst Online: Uru Live, Lord of the Rings Online, Homeworld (briefly), some other space strategy game I gave up on quickly and forgot the name of, Guild Wars, Age of Conan, Rifts (beta only), and lots and LOTS of World of Warcraft (from the launch of Burning Legion to midway through Wrath of the Lich King, just before the Lich King himself became accessible, but some time after I had gotten fed up with endlessly grinding rep and making mandatory Crusader’s Coliseum runs to get gear good enough to raid in). My wife started with ‘Vanilla’ WoW, and our buddy Mike was in Beta, and I basically learned the game from them and Katie. I still haven’t seen Cataclysm, to this day. *shrug*.

I’ve also sat through lengthy sessions of watching my buddy Derrick playing Dark Ages of Camelot and City of Heroes, and watched my wife briefly dabble with Everquest II after she gave up on the idea of going back to her beloved Asheron’s Call. For the record, I’m eagerly awaiting the release of Ragnar Tornquist’s The Secret World.

While I’m still rather strongly anti-violent, I have learned to grasp my preferred role in these games, which is essentially to help keep my friends alive, either by taking the most hits (tanking), or healing. I’ve dabbled a little with damage-based classes, but find they don’t suit my tastes (except in farming mode; BearCat FTW!). I invariably default to tanking as a playstyle, though (apparently even when healing; Bubble Tank FTW!).

I will say that I’ve rarely experienced more engrossing gameplay than when immersed in a fully-realised virtual world with friends, whatever the narrative value. That said, the better the story, even if largely ’emergent’ in nature, the more interested I am in playing it. I never really want to play a game for either the gameplay or social gaming aspects alone. I need to feel like it has some personal meaning before I can become invested in it.

This is probably why I actually enjoyed questing in LotRO more than my wife did. I probably wouldn’t have stuck with WoW as long as I had if I hadn’t been playing with the Late Night Crew, who somehow managed to make the endless instance runs feel like an integral part of the greater story of my main (character), Aggedor the Tauren Druid tank. When the gang splintered apart for other servers, Aggedor kind of went into retirement, and is probably still sitting in an inn somewhere in the Borean Tundra, waiting patiently for Degra, Darkmistres and Vandas to return for him.

So you see, the thing about MMOs as a form of emergent interactive storytelling is that it’s only as compelling as your depth of involvement and interaction with other players is. But when it’s done just right, you feel like you’ve made friends for life, which is extraordinary for a mere video game.

Okay, I think that covers most of what I can possibly say on this topic. I think it also goes on record as being my longest entry to date. Ah well; we’ll see what gets cut if/when it goes to second draft. thanks for reading. Comments welcome.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. tsa permalink
    May 17, 2011 2:49 pm

    Nice post Lee, but what I miss a bit is your conclusion. But maybe you gave it at the beginning when you talked about the kids playing basketball. Or you come back to it in a next post.

    • May 17, 2011 9:28 pm

      While it’s not my personal holy grail, I think it would have been disingenuous to exclude some observations about social gaming in an article series that claims to be about interactivity. However, I’m not sure I have a conclusive statement to make about social gaming in general. It sorta just is, and stands as a meaningful alternative to what I’ve been talking about. I just haven’t made the connections between the two palpable yet, probably because I don’t see them yet. Maybe that’s what happened to that conclusion you were looking for, tsa. But anyway, thanks for commenting. I’ll take it into advisement when it comes time to edit.

  2. May 17, 2011 10:17 pm

    I’ll admit that the only “social game” I play these days is Echo Bazaar, and even then, I treat it as more of a solo endeavour than anything else. I was introduced to tabletop comparatively late in life, and while I’ve enjoyed it, I’m not currently in any kind of regular group, which is too bad.

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