How Multiplayer Video Games Are Like the Army, Team Sports, and Real-Life Rock Bands


First, let me thank you all for inviting me to participate in the initial Gaming Club. Second, as the newcomer—or perhaps the interloper—to N’Gai and Stephen’s much-practiced pas de deux, thank you for allowing me to write last in each round.

Reading the previous entries, I was a bit disappointed by the futile pursuit of this notion called “best.” As with film, the idea that a year’s work in a medium as varied as video games should be reduced to anointing one product superior to all the rest is a bit silly. And as with film and its seemingly interminable awards season, the idea seems mostly to provoke rather than illuminate.

And it’s too bad, because Stephen shouldn’t have to so vigorously defend his selection of a free Web game like Desktop Tower Defense as his Game of the Year in the face of what he refers to as the “truly grand, big-budget” titles. He had more fun playing DTD than anything else, and how can anyone argue? Just call it Favorite Game of the Year or Game I Most Enjoyed Playing or even Game I Was Most Impressed By, and all this kerfuffle about the hallowed Game of the Year title would seem as pointless as arguing over whether vanilla or chocolate is “better.”

The two new games that impressed me the most were Mass Effect and BioShock, and for similar reasons. Both games provided a fabulous entertainment experience. More important was that each game reflected a seriousness and depth of ambition that went beyond their formidable execution.

That may sound like I’m damning BioShock and Mass Effect with faint praise—that I’m giving them credit for at least falling short of the loftiest goals. But it’s not meant that way.

Of course, neither game is perfect. What is? But in their emphasis on character and story, coupled with entertaining hand-eye mechanics, Mass Effect and BioShock were each a major step forward.

And no, this isn’t about making games more like movies or turning games into one big cutscene. I agree completely with N’Gai’s thought that “[t]he function of a game is not to tell a story, but rather to simulate an experience in which narrative elements are merely a single element.” But of all those various elements, the one that has long been weakest in games has been stories and characters. And that was certainly as true of the text-based adventures of yesteryear as it has been recently. (As someone who played almost every Infocom game, I can tell you they were mostly about problem-solving rather than narrative depth.)

Each in their own way—Mass Effect earnestly, BioShock with its philosophical twist—emphasize the importance, not the primacy, of characters and story in entertainment. And they do so in ways I had not experienced before, both visually and in their writing.

The device underpinning BioShock is a dramatic sleight of hand akin to the much-worn “And it was all a dream” line common to freshman-year fiction seminars and introductory screenwriting courses. It’s hackneyed in those older media, but it is also a cliché for a reason, which is that it challenges the consumer to think about why any fictional experience, however presented, should have any bearing at all on one’s real life or state of mind.

Of course, writers of filmed and written fiction, if they are successful, soon learn that their customers don’t usually enjoy being teased that way. Both the consumers and creators of noninteractive fiction usually agree that, for as long as you are reading that book or watching that play or viewing that film, the narrative is real in that moment. That creates dramatic empathy.

Like a story that ends with “And it was all a dream,” BioShock yanks the rug out from under the player with a point that’s clever at least the first time you see it. And as with most clever points, hearing it once is usually enough.

Thinking about the twist in BioShock—and the huff that some folks have gotten into over it—brought to mind something Hilmar Petursson, chief executive of the Icelandic game company CCP, told me recently. He was referring specifically to online games, but it illuminates an important component of single-player games as well.

“There are basically two schools of thought for operating an online community,” he said. “There is the theme-park approach and the sandbox approach. … Most games are like Disneyland, for instance, which is a carefully constructed experience where you stand in line to be entertained. [My company focuses] on the sandbox approach where people can decide what they want to do in that particular sandbox, and we very much emphasize and support that kind of emergent behavior.”

In the end, of course, most games are a combination of both elements. What gets some people (like Jonathan Blow) so agitated, and what BioShock rubs in, is when it turns out that what you thought was a sandbox turns out to be a theme park.

So what? I happen to like roller coasters. Every spring before school lets out for the summer, a friend of mine and I go to Great Adventure early in the morning and try to get on as many of the big rides as we can. Each time a ride ends, I end up in exactly the same place as I started (hopefully). Does that mean I fell for a psychological trick? Were those two hours in line waiting for 30 seconds on Kingda Ka (the most intense roller coaster around) a waste because I was not enhancing my emotional and intellectual life? Get over it.

These are questions that come up for most single-player games. Did I really achieve anything? Was there a point? Am I just hypnotized by flashing lights?

Multiplayer games don’t have to work themselves into or through the same creative knots. The great beauty of multiplayer games—and the reason I find them vastly more interesting than single-player games—is that the other players are indisputably real, whether they are actually next to you in the living room or are being presented from thousands of miles away by a digital avatar.

That is what N’Gai discovered with Rock Band. The vital part of his experience was not merely playing the songs, but playing the songs together with his Westside buddies in Manny Being Manny. (Great name, by the way, and I can say that even as a Yankees fan.)

That powerful sense of camaraderie is relatively new for many gamers, especially those weaned on consoles. Going all the way back to the days of the arcade, the basic mode of most games has been mano-a-mano competition, whether through a high score list (see Desktop Tower Defense nee Space Invaders) or real-time battles like Madden or a Halo death match. After all, isn’t it a reflection of traditional gamer culture that Stephen and N’Gai call their exchanges Vs. Mode rather than Co-Op Mode?

Young men have long experienced the psychological bonds of camaraderie in other contexts, like team sports, the military, and real-life rock bands. When I ask acquaintances in the military why they re-enlist, I often hear the same answers one hears in interviews with retired athletes: What keeps them coming back is not defeating the enemy as much as the bond with the other guys on their own team—in the locker room, in the barracks, in the rock ’n’ roll tour van. That is the same experience one has as part of an online gaming guild or clan.

Competition will always be part of gaming’s foundation, but the opportunities for growth, both creatively and financially, may lie in collaboration, especially as gaming’s audience expands beyond caffeine-infused young men. After all, what is by far the most popular game among schoolgirls? The Sims. I have watched girls play The Sims many times and they almost always do it the same way. Rather than bragging about how “my house is bigger than yours” or “my family is happier than yours,” they instead share the virtual home and family they have created on their own, sit down together and collaboratively build a new master bedroom or create a new member of the family. After an hour or two they take a break and gab about what they built together.

And that is precisely what online multiplayer games are all about: building something together with friends. Sure, the basic play patterns in a massively multiplayer game like World of Warcraft can end up fairly repetitive, in much the same way that every half-inning in baseball has three outs. Objectively, there is no “point” in running around a diamond-shaped path in the dirt or killing the next demon in WOW; the point is doing or watching something, however arbitrary, collaboratively with other people.

Rather than World of Warcraft, I’ve spent the most time this year playing the online science-fiction game Eve, precisely because it is built to give its players maximum agency in determining their own story lines. For my personal taste, the best games are not single-player experiences, no matter how meticulously constructed, but are more akin to Mr. Petursson’s sandbox—parameters within which the players, whether in competition or collaboration, create their own experiences.

In that sense, I think of the great game designers not as akin to great authors or playwrights but as akin to other, well, game designers—the James Naismiths, the Abner Doubledays (OK, so he didn’t really invent baseball), the Charles Darrows (now we’ll hear from the Lizzie Phillips partisans). And that is not faint praise at all.