There’s a man in our office, let’s call him Danny. Because his name is actually Danny.
Danny plays a lot of FIFA. He’s actually quite good at FIFA. Danny is also one of the gentlest human beings I’ve ever met. Softly spoken. Lovely. Nice. Cordial. These are words you would use to describe Danny in everyday life.
Here are some words you might use to describe Danny when he’s losing a game of FIFA: angry, homicidal, constantly on the brink of unspeakably violent acts. True fact: Danny has broken controllers whilst playing FIFA online. More than one.
Here is the truth that dare not speak its name: video games often make us feel a little violent.
At the very least they often make us a little angry — but not for the reasons we’re used to reading about in mainstream media. None of us have committed virtual acts of violence and thought, “hmmm, that seems like a great idea, I should try that in real life”. Video games are not ‘murder simulators’, they don’t train you for violence. Grand Theft Auto has never made me feel violent. Not even close. Games like Grand Theft Auto are more likely to make me feel relaxed. You hit the off-switch, dissolve into a new universe with a specific set of rules. You are in control. Active meditation. Video games as down time.
No, video games are more likely to make us feel violent in the way sports make us feel violent. A closely contested soccer match might end in fisticuffs; all it takes is a poorly timed tackle or one bad refereeing decision. When things get competitive tensions ramp up. Egos are at stake, bragging rights – all that macho bullshit. Same goes with online multiplayer games.
This is why there’s a high chance of logging on to, say, Call of Duty and getting verbally reamed for missing a couple of shots. Not fun. Not fun at all. A huge barrier to entry. No-one likes to be shouted at or abused.
Last week I replayed Journey on the PS4. One of the major goals of that game was the creation of an environment that facilitated constructive online communication. The kind of game where one could play with strangers and have that relationship feel rewarding and meaningful.
"I believe that very often it's not really the player that's an asshole,” said creator Jenova Chen, in an interview at Eurogamer. “It's the game designer that made them an asshole. If you spend every day killing one another how are you going to be a nice guy? All console games are about killing each other, or killing one another together... Don't you see? It's our games that make us assholes."
I love that quote. I love that reasoning. But I’ve always felt that Jenova Chen was only half right. Yes, games often transform us into assholes, but the killing part is largely meaningless. It doesn’t really matter whether we’re shooting each other in the face, kicking each other in the face, or kicking balls into goals – what we do in multiplayer games rarely matters. The thing that truly matters is the behaviour being encouraged. The behaviour being rewarded. What are we being rewarded for? How are we being rewarded?
Over the past month I’ve been spending a lot of time playing online multiplayer games. Two games specifically: Splatoon and Rocket League. As a married man with one child and a second on the way, I have little time to master the intricacies of either. With multiplayer games this usually acts as a deterrent.
Before marriage, before children, I used to play Halo seriously. I played Halo like people play League of Legends. I was constantly, actively trying to improve. I watched professional players and tried to imitate their strategies. I invested time (often money) trying to get better at Halo because – one – I am competitive by nature and — two – attaining mastery of something is inherently rewarding.
But here’s the thing: having a bad match in Halo against superior players sucked. It absolutely sucked. With Halo and other competitive games — be they MOBAs, shooters or sports – it is extremely disheartening to suck. You have less fun. You feel the pressure. You feel the angst of letting your team mates down. Often your team mates will let you know, quite enthusiastically, that you are shit. Those words sting to the point where you might consider quitting altogether.
Here’s what’s interesting about both Splatoon and Rocket League: it’s absolutely okay to suck.
Splatoon in particular.
One of Splatoon’s many masterstrokes is a shift of focus. ‘Killing’ enemy opponents isn’t the goal in Splatoon. The goal is to cover as much of the map as possible in your colour of paint. ‘Splatting’ your enemies is important, and helps with the whole coverage thing, but it doesn’t determine whether or not your team wins the game.
This shift does a couple of things. Most obviously it softens the nature of the game: you don’t win by damaging other players. But more importantly, it allows players who might not be as good at twitch shooting to still play an absolutely important role in winning. I see it all the time: low level players playing defence, using their rollers to zip around the map, avoiding enemy encounters – knowing their role essentially. “I’m not very good at shooting the other team,” they seem to say, “but I can totally paint the town red with this fat roller.”
It’s rewarding. Visually. It’s rewarding in numerical terms, in terms of the game itself, because you’re allowing other more skilled players to advance and gain ground closer to enemy territory. Splatoon manages to include players like me — who suck — without sacrificing higher level play. It’s perfect.
And games are short. They are super short. No-one’s anxiously fretting over their kill/death ratio, they’re itching to get onto the next game. Splatoon's little squid avatars pound the floor in frustration when they lose, but me? I’m smiling, I’m counting down the seconds till the next game starts. The rewards are different. The goal posts have shifted slightly, and I’m able to feel content and secure in the fact I’ve spent the last five minutes of my life getting my arse handed to me.
Rocket League plays the same trick in a slightly different way. It’s football. With cars. So you might expect to feel the same level of competitive angst as you do in a game like, say, FIFA. But somehow you don’t. Why?
I suspect there are a few reasons. Rocket League has a low barrier to entry. Unlike FIFA, which can require a firnickity amount of button presses to play the right passes at the right time, you can play Rocket League at a satisfactory base level within seconds. It truly is one of those rare games that’s easy to pick up, hard to master.
And there’s also a sense, like in Splatoon, that players can find a simple role to play and stick to it. You can patrol the back line, like a clumsy centre-half would in real-life soccer. You can poach at the other end like a physically diminutive striker. You can experiment, you can try different things.
Crucially, Rocket League is a game where the stakes feel a little lower. Like Splatoon, the games are short and feel a little trivial. If you lose this one? No biggie, move on to the next one. Players gain points, not just for scoring, but for making clearances, getting the first touch. There are multiple different ways to contribute and each of them feels significant.
Rocket League feels less about satisfying the competitive need to win win win and more like a goofy expression of participating in something completely outlandish. You are playing football with cars for Christ’s sake. It’s difficult to get riled up about that. Rocket League is such a rewarding good time in the actual moment. It’s difficult to see anyone getting railed for making a simple mistake. There’s a shared understanding: what we are currently doing is ridiculous. We all look stupid. We are colliding into one another constantly, missing the ball like complete buffoons and we’re all just trying our best to understand what the hell is going on here.
No-one’s gonna give you shit for missing an open goal.
And that is such a relief. It’s so freeing. Online multiplayer games where it’s okay to suck? Honestly, who saw that coming?
Not me. But I’m so glad they exist. Because as I get older and my ability to invest time and focus on one solitary game begins to diminish, I need games like Splatoon and Rocket League. They exist like a Pub League, or a social pick-up match at the park. Like indoor soccer at B-grade. Everyone is playing, everyone’s enjoying the experience. Even if you lose, even if you played terribly, everyone leaves happy. Everyone shakes hands at the end.
Everyone is having a good time.