Essay: Social gaming for the anti-social

This is a quandary about the future of video games, but it also has a lot to do with text messages, phone calls, headsets and millennials. 

The backlash to the “Facebook Age” cries out for more human connection, more “real” interactions with those in our social circles. However, the needle seems to be moving in the other direction.

Take a poignant joke from last week’s episode of NBC’s “Community.” Two characters in their early 20s, Troy and Annie, are mortified that their friend Britta (late 20s) actually calls Annie’s phone. Troy exclaims, "She was born in the '80s! She still uses her phone as a phone!"

That’s what it has come to, hasn’t it? There was a relatively brief period where the written word was for information, while hearing someone’s voice was required to establish a sincere, emotional connection. The joke used to be that breaking up with someone over email was a faux pas, but now if it’s a well-written email, it’s almost regarded as better than a distracted cell phone conversation in which one party will undoubtedly assure the other that they “have full bars.”

Voice communication, while effective, is to some extent culturally dead or dormant (who can predict these things?). Either way, the prevailing method of social interaction now relies on something that was very recently deemed impersonal. I don’t think the advent of emoticons have all of a sudden advanced text communication to the point of being any more emotionally effective than it was when texts were purely informational.

In the world of gaming, where does this leave us? In case you haven’t already been bludgeoned with a frying pan made of articles like this telling you that everything is becoming more tied to social media: well, everything is becoming more tied to social media. At least for the foreseeable future, the grand antisocial pastime of sitting in a darkened room clutching a controller is going to become an activity of both forced and complicit socialization.

This paradigm leaves the “anti-social” (or anti-vocal) with their gaming headsets collecting dust amongst the wires behind the television. If you’ve never particularly enjoyed phone conversations, or are part of a generation that doesn’t use them for day-to-day interactions, the idea of trying to have one with someone in the same multiplayer lobby doesn’t seem all that appealing. The basic model is to verbally talk to your friends or opponents while you play the game. Have you ever tried to type out a message beyond a “gg” (for “good game”) to someone on Xbox Live using your controller? It takes weeks.

The real problem is that the design of most of these games is to replicate the experience of being in the same room as someone playing the same game. Designers of games, hardware and networks aren’t on the whole thinking about how to make the multiplayer experience something that is intrinsically engaging, rather than a simulation of the social experience of having someone on your couch.

Not everyone is blind to the evolving gaming zeitgeist. The one sector that has consistently shown it might be onto something is mobile and downloadable game development. Perhaps out of logistical necessity of being played on the phone or bandwidth limitations, the opportunity to constantly chat with other players simply isn’t a part of these games.

So is it a coincidence that the big hits of mobile gaming take a very guarded, or non-existent stab at the Xbox Live/PSN model of socialization? It’s interesting that the only thing “social” about the industry’s gold standard, “Angry Birds,” is that everyone seems to like talking about it. Current hits like “Draw Something” and “Words With Friends” feature very thought-out parameters for social interactions. You play your turn, and then at some point, someone plays their turn back to you. You can talk (via text) of course, but the interaction isn’t all that different than sending complicated text messages back to one another. Maybe “Draw Something” or the myriad games on Facebook, which work on the same principles of eliminating the visceral live interactions don’t have it exactly right, at least not in terms of what could be useful for console gaming.

I’d be remiss in not mentioning the PC, which offers something of a hybrid-level of socialization between the almost exclusively text (mobile) and exclusively voice (console). A huge chunk of MMO players are millennials, and they seem to have little trouble interacting online. The trick is that in an MMO or other online PC game, interaction has a purpose. Joining a guild gives a player a significant advantage. It provides a network of support with the game itself, a living hive mind of a strategy guide available without ever leaving the game’s universe.

When I talked to “World of Warcraft” designer Greg Street about the game’s shortcomings, he seemed to concede that “WoW” didn’t do an effective job in keeping up with the trends of linking social media technology to the game. Maybe he needs to say that because his industry is currently obsessed with making everything social, but successful MMOs like “WoW” seem to work because they are already a social network unto themselves.

The PC games that have prevailed over the last decade seem to have an implicit social aspect woven into the fabric of the game design, since PCs were networked long before our consoles or phones ever were. In other words, perhaps having a account isn’t any different than having a LinkedIn profile.

Video games, regardless of genre or platform, are about obstacles. Some games may push the boundaries of this statement, but ultimately the code that makes up a game contains a series of obstacles for the player to overcome. If the socialization of a game doesn’t ultimately do service to the experience of conquering the obstacle, whether it's making it easier, harder or just more fun, then why is it there? Is it just because that’s what’s expected if you’re going to release a game in 2012?

I like “traditional” games a lot more than the “Draw Somethings" of the world. The irony is that I find  more comfort in the social aspect of “Draw Something” than I do any of the Xbox Live-supported games on my shelf. Nothing is added to my enjoyment of the console titles by other players talking to me during the game and playing in a completely different way with which I’m comfortable. “Draw Something” lets me socialize on my terms. The game is designed so that it’d be less fun against a computer, not the other way around.

Even though I was born in the '80s, I don’t really use my phone like a phone. I just ordered new business cards, and on the back it lists my cell phone, Twitter account and email address. Next to them, respectively, are the words “Good, Better and Best.”

The resistance to every game being socialized is probably futile, but until the norm for socialized console games is something more than an awkward phone conversation, I’ll be waiting patiently for someone to email me when it happens.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad