The Wonderful, Terrible State Of Modern Multiplayer Video Games

“You are not alone!” The words burst through the confetti, and then my Persona 4 characters received a health and SP boost. For a second, I felt a sense of community, I was reminded of a collective struggle that all Persona 4 players experience — a struggle that we don’t have to bear alone.

I smiled the first time I used the mechanic, where you send out a SOS signal that other people on the PlayStation Network can respond to. Having someone answer the call is heart-warming because it fits with the theme of the game: rely on others as a source of power! Friendship forever!

But mostly I felt awe as I considered the clever ways video games try to bring us together; the ways that a game can make me forget, however briefly, that I might be sitting alone in a dark room. It’s an amazing thing for media to accomplish, no?

I see things like this everywhere in games. Things that keep us connecting with each other, bonding, and happy to see each other. The most obvious example is of course multiplayer — competing against other people, or cooperating with them to achieve something.

Sometimes multiplayer has creative implementations: games like Hybrid, DUST 514, and MAG have ongoing conflicts that players can influence with each individual battle. Brink, despite its shortcomings, was intriguing in how it tried to fuse single player, co-op and multiplayer with an overarching narrative. What these games have in common is that they encourage camaraderie around factions in games, and where you’re a part of something bigger. That’s inspiring.

While we’d be hard pressed to find franchises that don’t try to include competitive multiplayer nowadays, it’s not the only way developers enable connectivity. Dark Souls, for instance, allows players to leave messages for one another that might help you out somehow, or perhaps will try to trick you. The implication here is the polar opposite of Persona 4’s: the world is so harsh that even other players might be part of your strife (though Dark Souls players assure me it’s nothing malicious.)

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Then there’s more social-networky ideas, like the curious Miiverse — which allows you to form communities around games where you can talk with others and share art drawn on the Wii U’s tablet. It’s constructive and friendly. I imagine that Nintendo’s iron fist will keep it that way.

These are all examples of ways that games enrich our games by connecting us to one another — and that delights me. Where most people groan that multiplayer or social elements are being added to a franchise, I become excited at the idea that a developer might be trying something new. Who would have thought that Persona 4 would be better by bringing actual people into the mix? I think fans would have pushed back on the idea, even though it turned out to be a neat mechanic.

But where I see fertile ground for fascinating concepts, others see a deterioration of The Way Things Used To Be. Or more alarmingly how video games enable us to stay connected — but stay alone.

I’m talking about the modern (supposed) issue of isolation — the reality where we hang out with people but remain glued to our phones, where we talk to people all day long without uttering a single word, where we endlessly seek validation from strangers on the internet. A reality where at best we are social but not present, and at worst use our friends as a means of attaining a better farm in Farmville 2. The prime suspects: computers, cell phones and video games. Technology, really.

What we lost along the way, video game wise, can be traced back to the days of arcades. A place where you stood shoulder to shoulder to an opponent, and the hype of a crowd amassed behind you. While that community stays alive and passionate, particularly through the avid consumption of fighting games, anyone can see that most arcades are a shadow of their former selves.

I’m talking about the modern (supposed) issue of isolation.

Though the decline of the arcade happened due to a variety of factors, one of the most readily apparent ones is the proliferation of home consoles. Playing games socially became more intimate, relegated to the couch — but still largely necessitating someone’s physical presence. This, too, is slowly becoming less popular as some games refuse to include local multiplayer altogether.

I recall listening to a panel at Indiecade this summer where Hokra creator Ramiro Corbetta identified Hokra as a much-needed hark back to the times when games “brought people together in a common space”, and everyone “[got] drunk and [hugged] each other”, ultimately bemoaning how this romantic ideal had been forgotten in the wake of modern multiplayer games that don’t bring us together in the same ways.

My impression is that many people feel similarly to Ramiro — not to pick on him though, because it’s not like he’s being inflammatory or anything. The concerns are reasonable, to a degree. Looking at them on a more general level, they comply with the fears that we’re forgetting what it’s like to connect with one another like we used to. When I look at things like Johann Sebastian Joust, or, heck, Sportsfriends, it’s clear to me that we’re reaching back to something we had more of in the past.

Personally, I don’t have attachment to these types of experiences, though I can recognise their appeal and what we phase out when we are more likely to buy Call of Duty over an indie game that focuses on local co-op/multiplayer play. For me arcades never existed as bustling spaces. And as much as I loved, say, playing Smash Bros with my college dormmates, sharing a couch with a house full of people is as equally joyful as it is annoying.

That’s part of the charm though — what most of current multiplayer strips away is what the technology and software which mitigates our lives strip away. No longer must we continually deal with the messy, tiresome aspects of having a flesh-and-blood, in-your-face person that you have to actually pay attention to. More: that you have to be mindful of.

These messy elements can be useful though. Board games for example take advantage of the nuanced interactions that come with having a person in front of you — and things that video games are only starting to play with, if at all.

I also recognise that the ways games make us engage with each other raises important questions about what it means to be social, and that these ideas might be changing. I’m fascinated in this way about the wider ecology in which games participate and perhaps affect or enable the way we behave.

But I also recognise these concerns about technology with the caveats that they come with, I recognise threatened nostalgia, and how this evokes fear-mongering about what society is becoming. You’ve heard, right? We’re reading less, we can’t pay attention, familial units are being destroyed, and we don’t talk — really talk — to each other. On and on.

Today I read an article that literally contained the sentence “There are four clear threats to the modern family and possibly civilisation at large; cell phones, video games, the internet and junk food.” We’re not only forgetting what makes us an engaged citizen of society, but elements of what make us human. All because these tech toys don’t require us to interact with one another in person. Something like that. Supposedly.

You’ve heard, right? We’re reading less, we can’t pay attention, familial units are being destroyed, and we don’t talk-really talk-to each other.

It’s not difficult to find ‘evidence’ of all of this either. I think for example of Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone, where he argues that traditional social lives are declining and this results in less civic engagement. I think of Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows, where he argues that the internet is changing our brains for the worse.

The idea that all things are deteriorating is seductive, but perhaps misleading. It’s also easy to find criticisms of either work, with Putnam ignoring that similar claims were made about radio when that was gaining prominence (according to Wikipedia), and Carr falling into the perpetual trap of claiming that things are becoming worse simply because they’re changing.

I mean, you can look at historical records of what people thought about writing, and how it would destroy everything we knew simply because we didn’t have to memorise everything anymore. Writing! Where in the world would we be without writing, what would have happened if we listened to the people who thought we should stick to being an oral culture simply because That’s How It Should Be?

Funny how things are somehow perpetually getting worse. For like, hundreds of years. Damn technology!!! I wonder how much is overstated about how isolated we’re becoming, and I question that there’s some sacrosanct element to physically playing games with each other.

It’s cliche, but truly: only time can tell who ends up being vindicated in the end. But if history is any indicator, the odds are that we’ll gain worthwhile stuff from the ways most games seek to bring us together even if it doesn’t work the way it used to. And despite how it might seem that many games only facilitate inferior, hollow bonds, I genuinely believe that we see plenty of experiments that make exploring digital connections desirable.

For all the clamouring about how we’re no longer physically playing games with one another, I wonder what the positives are about the way multiplayer and social games manifest themselves.

Are more people engaged with one another now that it only takes an internet connection and not sharp social skills? Are we interacting with one another in more complex or interesting ways? And if not, how can we adapt what we have to capture the nuance that things like board games do; how can we improve? What does being social mean in games, how is it changing? I mean like, beyond the idea that everything is becoming horrible forever.

But if history is any indicator, the odds are that we’ll gain worthwhile stuff from the ways most games seek to bring us together even if it doesn’t work the way it used to.

I think it’s just as important to ask what we are gaining as it is to look at what we’re losing, though I fear that it’s easier to focus on the negatives.

Even so, I’m still grateful that people still believe in the power of the couch, of the arcade, of the board game: these are all valuable things that we shouldn’t lose! I just don’t think they should be the ultimate ideal, I don’t think that the ways games connect us now is inherently worse simply because it’s different.

All I can do is appreciate the ways games try to bring us together. They sometimes miss the mark in how they do it, sure, and it’s not all like how it used to be, no. Now we have things like guilds and clans and Steam groups instead of (or in conjunction with) arcade acquaintances or friends on a couch. I’m grateful for that.

I don’t engage with the people I meet in these digital spaces like I would someone I know in real life. Maybe that’s tragic, but then again we can still make close friends if not love interests through these low-bandwidth communication channels. And while most games don’t come with the messy elements of dealing with someone in-person, the way they use social elements can still be complicated and interesting — in different ways.

Maybe I’m cynical about what it is that we’re leaving behind. But I’m absolutely captivated about where we’re going, and how games seek to bring us together — even if it means that yes, I’m still technically sitting in a dark room by myself; alone.

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