Sunday, May 18, 2014

In Defense of Personal Gaming

I'm not an extrovert.

So it's fascinating to try to imagine being one -- being certain that the only right way to experience life, including playing computer games, is with other people around. That's radically different from my own appreciation for being able to concentrate deeply on system-building, which is virtually impossible to do well with other people around demanding one's attention.

This came to mind recently from seeing two very well-written blog entries at Gamasutra promoting local multiplayer on consoles: "Play As Intended: A Case For Preferring Local Multiplayer" by Sjors Houkes, and "Couch-op is the best-op" by Auston Montville.

These authors feel that games, including computer games, are by their very nature inherently social. If you're playing alone, you're playing wrong. You're failing to get the optimal experience of play. Developers who make games that can't be shared on one board or screen are failing their players.

This means that the best way to play games is together in a room with other people, with everyone sharing the same screen. For computer games, that means the correct way to play games is using some game console, with multiple controllers plugged in, and probably in split-screen mode (or at least separate screen areas, as in Rock Band). It means that developers ought to be designing their games so that this mode of play is the primary mode, or even the only mode.

This excludes linking separate PCs on a local network. It definitely excludes online multiplayer. And single-player games are right out.

In short, if you're not playing with other people in the same room looking at the same interface, then you are Doing It Wrong.

This is really two arguments:

  1. Social games are fun.
  2. Social games are inherently more fun than personal games.

I don't think many people would object in a serious way to the first of those opinions. Social games can be great fun. There's nothing like playing with other people -- in both positive and negative ways. It is a Good Thing that there are lots of such games, computer and otherwise.

It's that second assertion that's questionable -- that must be questioned. All "real" games necessarily privilege social interactions? Really?

Declaring this as though it's a self-evident fact, that any play experience designed without social interaction is defective, that the only right way to play is sitting next to other people... that's a very, very different kind of claim. An assertion that more personally-focused games are by their very nature less fun, less game-like, less worth making, than social games, is one that requires some serious supporting evidence behind it. Otherwise it risks missing the opportunity to create enjoyable entertainment experiences for many people.

The claim that "games are inherently social" is not new. It can be heard from some experienced gamers to thoughtful game developers like Raph Koster (as in his "Designing For Everywhere" presentation). For various reasons, they say games are activities that are incomplete without the participation of other people.

I disagree. I think it's completely possible and desirable to value both social and personal play. And I think that because I think I can see how each kind of play provides access to a part of expressing life as a human being that the other doesn't.

Being with other people, giving to others and receiving from them, is an important part of fully experiencing life as a human being. So is having the opportunity to think and feel deeply without interruption, to understand, to imagine, to reflect on your own personal experiences as an individual human being.

As games are reflections of human life, they would be as diminished by being purely social as they would be by being purely personal.

We experience a game as fun when it effectively rewards what we're good at and value about ourselves. Not everybody is good at personal interaction. Not everybody is good at focused introspection. Each of us is usually better at one of those than the other, and value it more in ourselves than the other. But both have value. Both are things that can be rewarded and enjoyed through play.

So why describe only one of these as though it's the Only True Way of experiencing the human condition, the only Correct Way of having fun in a game?

Encouraging the development of social games is proper. I'm for that. It can be enormously entertaining to compete against or cooperate with other players, especially if they're right there with you and everyone is looking at the same board or screen. I fully support the development of more social games, including more games that are designed to be played with other people right there in the room with you and where everyone is sharing the same window on the gameworld, even if that's usually more fun for extroverts than for introverts like me.

But it can also be fun to understand and manipulate systems, to concentrate deeply on the structure of a system in order to grasp its fundamental patterns and principles, and then to interact dynamically with such systems to see how they respond to different stimuli. That is a kind of play experience you cannot have when part of your attention must be diverted to interacting with people in real time. Focused awareness, perception, analysis, and planning are personal activities that constitute a fundamental form of human expression unlike any other. Systems-focus, like other human capabilities with real-world utility, can be enjoyed through play, even if that's usually more fun for introverts than extroverts.

Why try to exclude either of these forms of expressive play?

How does trying to deny the validity of either social or personal fun produce more games that are more satisfying to more people?

I fully endorse the creation of more computer games that get people having fun together in a room, even though I'll never be an extrovert.

Why shouldn't extroverts likewise support the development of some games designed to satisfy our equally human need to individually comprehend and creatively engage with deep dynamic systems?

Extroverts are awesome. Introverts need gaming love, too.