Thursday, September 26, 2013

I Miss My Friends

All of this playing Madden and other online games has really got me missing my friends. It's not as though I miss them as people, I see them all fairly often. However, what I do miss is playing together. I love people watching me play, playing with others, and watching others play. But I love those things when we're all in the same room. Playing online has really taken that away and the new console generation is not going to help.

Let's look at games as being inherently social and talk about what changed.

Few people would argue that "games", in a broad sense of the word, are supposed to be social. We play with others, that's what we do as children, it's how many of us grow up. Lacking that, we use our imaginations to develop an "other" that we play with. Without getting too abstract that "other" is usually some imaginary force that must simultaneously be constructed and acted by the player.

More concretely, we play games together. We might practice in relative solitude but we play games together. Games can function to teach us mechanisms of social interaction and plenty of other things. However, modern video games have become anti-social as they proclaim to be doing the opposite.

Back in the olden days of video games there was no home consoles, if you wanted to play you did it in a room full of people called an arcade. Outside of those, video games were available in locations that were more likely than not to have plenty of other people in them, mainly bars and other social halls. I've been to relatively few bars that still have arcade cabinets and every year it feels like the arcade industry is smaller and smaller.

These early game venues had few options other than to be social. Sure, people could and did play in their own little worlds. If you didn't want to talk to people you didn't have to. But my argument is that the environment itself was conducive to attending, or interacting, with others. A big room full of people in which you are playing games is precisely that, a room with people.

Then home consoles happened. Convenience and novelty won and and suddenly we didn't have to leave the comfort and safety of home in order to enjoy video games. This was the first major move away from one type of mass social consumption and towards another. By removing video games from our social halls and putting them into our homes we changed the value structure. We no longer needed to keep shoving in quarters to play, we could do it our pace and within a certain kind of budget.

But being at home did not end social gaming. Instead of playing with people we didn't know we primarily only played with people that we did. A generation of siblings spent countless hours in front of their TVs battling it out. Being at home also allowed for parents to play with their kids in new and exciting ways. Back then, video games were relatively simple affairs, just a few buttons which could only produce a limited number of outcomes. Not to say parents today cannot keep up but things certainly used to be easier.

The early game industry also had other advantages over the modern one. In the beginning, market share was essentially dominated by one console or another. The main benefit of this was at that everyone one was playing on the same hardware, something almost unheard of today. Though there were competitors, the early days were dominated by one company at at time until the emergence of the modern console wars which I would argue began as Sega vs. Nintendo until the entrance of Sony and later Microsoft, and now Valve.

Playing at home would remain mainly unchanged for several years following. Though technological improvements would change the look and feel of gaming, the social aspects remained mainly the same. If you wanted to play with another person you did it in your home with them sitting nearby. Early games make this very clear with the ever present question for the second player to press start. The name of this blog is an homage to conversation and multiparty play.

The internet broke that. Strangely, connecting us with millions of other users made us stop connecting with the users immediately around us. Gone were the days of the Xbox system link and local mutliplayer. I don't mean to say that local play was gone forever but the concentration on it quickly faded. Though a few games still emphasize group play most modern games prize online multiplayer.

I have plenty of personal issues with online play. Many of these relate to the hostile environment that is not only created but nurtured by anonymity. However, aside from those issues, consider that many online features have come to replace local ones. That connecting, or saying horrific things to, strangers has reduced and replaced connecting with people around is something of a shame and a disappointment.

I've spent a lot of time trying to love Madden, that's not a big secret. However, I have the most fun playing Madden with other people on the couch with me. The trash talking is friendly and playing against a person right there with me is definitely one of the great joys. A lot of my friends don't known the same systems or have the ability to buy games in the same way I do so playing locally is something I always prized.

So when I say I miss my friends I mean that I miss the people who used to sit on my couch and play games with me. The people that we traded for random people on the internet who say cruel things  and no sportsmanship. I miss RockBand and cooperative multiplayer and taking those friends as guests online and playing against the world.

Social does not mean Facebook or Twitter. It doesn't mean youtube videos and comments section. It doesn't mean guilds or clans. Those things are great ways to interact with people. The internet has massively expanded the community that we interact with. Those things are important. They're very important to the survival and continuance of video games.

However, it's important to remember what it means and feels like to play with another person right by you. My best memories of playing both Borderlands are when I was playing with another person. My favorite Madden Moments occurred when I was with someone else. It's important to remember what play with another person is like because video games, by definition, are an act of human-machine interaction. It's important because we learn play as being between humans. And it's important because if we fully submit ourselves to narratives that are hand picked and delivered to us we may forget to appreciate the narratives that emerge among and between players.

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