Officially speaking, my job with Culture Clash, the column I’ve written for the International Game Developers Association for nine years now, is to talk about how gaming culture relates to, is perceived by, and can influence the “rest” of culture. Beyond that I have a pretty free hand it terms of selecting topics. Of course, back in 2003 when I started, there were a lot more differences between “gamer culture” and just “culture.”
Still, the culture of gaming does exist, and as terms and phrases come to define aspects of it, I occasionally like to pause and consider what some of the constructs of gaming mean to me. Here we’re doing “social gaming” – or, rather, what “social gaming” would mean if they’d asked me to define it.
Which they did not.
By Matthew Sakey
Originally published by the International Game Developers Association
So I enjoyed Mass Effect 3 quite a bit. Even the ending didn’t bother me much. Indeed, I enjoyed the whole Mass Effect trilogy, beginning to end. It had its share of flaws, but as a contribution to the literary value of the medium, it’s unsurpassed. Mass Effect is also a good example of how play can spawn strange metagames completely unplanned by the developers and often more engrossing than the experience that spawned them.
My friend Pete and I were playing Mass Effect 3 at the same time. We’d both followed reasonably similar paths through its predecessors, but even so subtle differences add up. Pete and I stood on the threshold of Mass Effect 3 with profoundly different horizons to look toward.
And since it’s the 21st century we texted back and forth constantly as we played.
ME: Finished ME2 for the character import! Grunt, Jack and Samara were casualties. Martin Sheen is NOT happy with me.
PETE: Your new nickname is “The Finisher.”
ME: I much prefer my old nickname, “Lord of Cinder.”
PETE: That was never your nickname. downloading the DLC now! ME3 baby! See you at the finish line, Finisher!
It went on like this for days.
ME: The Protheans are Jamaican. Who knew?!
PETE: That guy is insufferable.
ME: Sort of a harsh wakeup call about rosy-colored glasses
PETE: Just because it’s extinct doesn’t mean it’s not a jackass.
ME: Reapers make a terrifying sound. Like if Satan had a fog horn.
PETE: They do. The mission on Tuchanka… holy crap, that was a tough call
ME: ? ? I’m there now don’t tell
PETE: It was brutal.
ME: Mordin, NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO
(I actually texted him several of these. “Miranda NOOOOOO,” “Zaeed NOOOOOO,” “My fish NOOOOOO,” etc. Kind of an ongoing theme in my game, the death of everyone and everything I held dear).
As much fun as I had playing Mass Effect 3, I looked forward to the texts more. I don’t generally do a lot of texting with my phone, and the whole back-and-forth was a weird, wonderful combination of uber geekery, bro-teasing, status updates, requests for assistance, and spoilerized howls of outrage or misery. And then when Pete and I finally got together, despite having basically talked through one another’s entire game, we still had plenty more to discuss.
This is a kind of unnoticed “social gaming.” A shared game experience that involves no mechanisms or even intent from the game itself. If you’re of a certain age, you surely remember the social part of gaming – it was once the most important aspect of play. Personally, I’m thinking about junior high school in the mid-eighties, when athletics-deficient boys spent every moment in the hallway (and plenty in class) discussing Second Quest locations in Zelda, arguing about priority of Ridley or Kraid in Metroid, and fondly paging through Nintendo Power to see what would come next in the then still-sugarplum world of video games.
Technology has, of course, changed this; but mostly for the better – Steam and the like make it easy (possibly too easy) to connect and discuss. So much of playing a game is unquantifiable without its external social aspect: honestly I don’t think I’d enjoy games much at all if I didn’t have friends to share in discussion of them. Though I consider myself almost exclusively a single-player player, that’s one multiplayer aspect I couldn’t do without.
Meanwhile, some games are beginning to experiment with integrating certain aspects of such experiences into their own worlds. Dark Souls recently got ported to the PC, with a subtle and fascinating effect on its gameplay: the reviled Games for Windows Live handles the multiplayer aspects of Dark Souls on PC, and that platform results in an inherently different experience. Summoning and invasions go on as usual, but unlike on the 360 or PS3, where the control tools and game itself were able to sharply impede player to player communication, through GFWL it’s omnipresent, and markedly different.
Rather than helping someone and never seeing them again, I often get messages of thanks from strangers, I get commentary on my playstyle, I get offers to return a favor I just bestowed. I’ve gone from a handful of friends on the Live service to about 60, all because when Capra Demon kicks your ass on a console it’s more trouble than it’s worth to key in “hey, nice try!” while on the PC it’s a cinch. And I’ve played the game with some of those people for hours, rather than the minutes that used to comprise a Souls partnership. Amazingly, this hasn’t changed the tenor of the game much.
One of the things that fascinates me about gameplay is what it means and how it evolved. We see ample evidence that “play” is as crucial a cognitive and behavioral element as dreaming to a healthy mind. The constructs that spring up around formalized play are just as intriguing, if perhaps less strictly necessary as a daily requirement. As a certain kind of gamer, the kind marketing people describe as “Core,” I am a little turned off by what the phrase “social gaming” has come to mean. Not because I oppose it or the people who play it, but because it’s not my kind of gaming, and as such, like anyone, I always maintain a little irrational fear that what I want and love will be totally supplanted. But it is irrational, and I don’t give the fear much thought – preferring instead to remain amazed by the games we all build around the games we play. Pete and I texting back and forth during Mass Effect 3 was a game we played. Talking about NES in seventh grade, the same thing. Finding new ways to play the relentlessly brutal and bleak Dark Souls; once more, a game within a game. We think therefore we are; we are therefore we play; we play therefore we… invent more ways to play. That’s entertainment!
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