Anxiety caused by the fear of missing out (FOMO) is a real thing: it’s when you worry that no matter what you’re doing at that moment, you could be doing something better somewhere else. Typically, FOMO is discussed in the context of social media, as social media feeds into the fear of missing out. We can constantly check in on what’s happening with our friends and family — and having this ability makes it easy to wonder if you’d be having a better time doing something else.
You might experience something similar to FOMO while playing games online, since most platforms tell you what your friends are playing at any given moment. That makes it easy to doubt whether what you’re thinking of playing is as cool as you think it is. I know I’ve started playing a game because a Steam pop-up told me a friend was playing it, at least.
But more often than not, I have a nagging fear of missing out while playing a co-op game solo. I can never shake the feeling that whatever fun I’m having at the moment would be dwarfed by the fun I could be having if I was playing the game with some friends. That’s probably a fair fear, to be honest — friends make everything better.
But beyond the desire for camaraderie and connection, I fear that there’s something in the melody of the design that only sings when other people play with you — people who can react in ways AI teammates simply can’t. I’ve been playing Fuse recently — that third-person co-op shooter that used to look more cartoony — in preparation for tomorrow’s review. Due to internet problems at home, I haven’t been able to team up with anyone to play the game. Not yet, anyway.
I fear that there’s something in the melody of the design that only sings when other people play with you.
Co-op games are often built with design elements that encourage coordination, and that’s why I’ve experienced a whole lot of FOMO while playing Fuse. Am I missing out? I keep thinking about Borderlands: I played through the entirety of the first game on my own. Then I played it with friends, and realised that it’s much better if you have everyone fulfil roles during enemy encounters — like having someone aggro the enemy while someone else whittles down that enemy’s armour, all while someone else resupplies the team.
It was such a radically better experience to play with other people, I’d go so far as to say Borderlands is not a franchise you should play on your own — not if you want to experience the high of a brutally efficient human team. Sure, co-op games will often let you play on your own, but that doesn’t mean you should take the option. I would urge anyone playing Journey to play online, for example, because much of the game is about communication and friendship. You can only see what Journey is truly about if you play online at least once.
The option to play on your own, while appreciated, can sometimes feel antithetical to a developer’s intentions if a game puts enough emphasis on the multiplayer/co-op elements. These games are the worst for FOMO. Everything about Diablo 3, for example — from the always online requirement, to updates that give you bonuses when you play with other people — make Diablo feel like a game that Blizzard wants people to play with each other. And yet I ended up playing through most of it on my own. Did I get the full experience?
Then we have games where the design makes it impossible to play unless you’re playing with other people. SimCity, DUST 514, MAG come to mind, although there’s plenty of others. The online-only requirement with these games can be annoying at times, but it’s a hassle I know about going in. And if nothing else, there’s never any FOMO: I know that I’m playing the game the way it was ‘meant’ to be played — and hopefully, by extension, having the best possible experience.
My only hope while playing co-op or multiplayer games solo is that I don’t get too caught up on an experience I can’t actually have at the moment. That would be the worst: I’d end up missing out on the game I can actually play, while fantasizing about an experience I can’t have.
The Multiplayer is a weekly column that looks at how people crash into each other while playing games.