Once upon a time, if you wanted to play a game with a friend, all you needed was a TV, a game console and an extra controller. Anyone who has played multiplayer games frequently in their youth can remember some fond memories of getting together with a group of friends for a rousing round of Goldeneye, Mario Party, or Hello Kitty Island Adventure. Though in some cases, finding someone to play with when you were in the mood wasn’t as easy. Perhaps your siblings are averse to going near anything resembling a controller, or all your friends just aren’t in the mood. Either that, or you couldn’t talk your parents into taking you to the arcade.
Fast forward to now, online gaming is the standard for multiplayer games. If you want an opponent at anytime of the day, you can get one, whether it’s at 4:00 in the morning or during standard work hours. No more having to share the screen with your screen-looking buddies, no more having to call up your friends for a 4 player game of Halo and no more arguing over which game to play. Heck, you can even player with 32, 64 or even 1000 other people. Yeah, online gaming is so awesome.
It’s certainly not a new thing in this day and age. Many years ago, I was excited to play a game online for the first time, which was Counter-Strike for me. However, the more I played it and the more other games I’ve played online, the more the magic wore off for me. I still enjoy it, to be sure, but I still see several problems with it.
One is the fact that there is no responsibility for anyone to control his or her behavior. In real life, if you acted like a gigantic prick, consequences would include getting beaten up, being socially ostracized and suddenly finding yourself without anyone to game with. Plus, the reputation follows you around and can be hard to shake off even if you clean up your act.
Not so online. Everyday, I hear the horror stories of online gaming: some 10 year old spouting off racial slurs in a high pitched voice, the over-competitive jerk who yells after every death, gloats after every kill and calls you cheap for using certain weapons, and of course, the guy who uses cheats in order to track you down across and spins around shooting a pistol, getting headshots with each gunshot.
Seen it a million times, but it still rings true.
There’s no real risk to this kind of behavior either. Even if you are kicked or banned from the server, you can always find another one and continue your antics there. Even if your name is ostracized from every corner of the Internet, you can just get a new screename and start over. Aside from the occasional psycho who actually does find out where you live and kills you, there is no significant consequence to being a jerk online. In some cases, it can also bring out the worst in other people as well and start a chain reaction of flames and anger. In others, it can turn people off from playing online altogether.
Online gaming also has a dehumanizing factor to it, both for you and your opponents. Rather than a living, breathing person behind the avatars of other players, it merely feels like they are obstacles, much like other cars on the road. Sure, there is voice chat, friend lists and sometimes even video chat, but none of those things really add any human element to the game. It makes it that much easier to get angry at someone in an online game than in an offline game, since the person you’re yelling at feels like less of a person. Not only that, but you can even end up saying horrible things that, chances are, you wouldn’t ever say to someone in real life.
Online games are often touted outlets that encourage and create social interactions. However, in my opinion, they are anything but that. I could be playing in a 64 player game with many avatars walking around, yet still feel more alone than when I’m hanging out with a friend. Chances are, among those players, I won’t even talk to or see half of them ever again and maybe only one or two players I might actually become friends with.
Even those friendships are mostly temporary, since, in all honesty, all you can really do with them is play online games. You can’t invite your clanmates or Xbox Live party out to a bar for a round of drinks or grab a bite to eat with them, or anything else you would normally do with a group of friends. Even if your gaming group consists of people you know from real life, you’ve already met the person through another way and just happened to share a common interest. The exception to this would be if the gamers lived in a more heavily populated area and discovered that they live in the same town. You’d be much more likely to find a fellow gamer nearby if you lived in New York than if you lived in an extremely rural part of the country.
There is also an emerging category of games known as “social games”, including Farmville and Mafia Wars. In the case of Mafia Wars, it does even less than normal online games to encourage social interaction. The idea of the game is that you try to recruit your Facebook friends into your Mafia in order to make it stronger and give you a better chance in fights. You can also return the favor by helping out your friends as well. However, this is about the only way you interact with other players. There is no real sense of social interaction between players, other than initially adding them to your Mafia, so you could just friend a bunch of random people who play Mafia Wars in order to build up your Mafia. In fact, the game’s design encourages it if you want any chance at all in a fight. I spent a good solid hour removing all the friends from my Facebook friend list whom I only accepted to build my Mafia.
Video games have been around long enough to have a good amount of history. I’m willing to bet that my children, and quite possibly my grandchildren will still be able to play and enjoy Super Mario Bros. Heck, I’ll probably end up booting up Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past as an old man and it will be as awesome then as it was when I first got it. As long as a method of playing it exists, these games can be enjoyed by future generations to come.
Nothing's worse than a game you can't play anymore.
In order to play online games, one needs a server (or several, depending upon the title). On many console titles, and some PC titles, support for online games doesn’t last forever. After a period of time, the developer will eventually pull the plug, effectively ending any online support. With more and more games relying on online multiplayer these days, this will mean that games will become smaller fractions of their former selves, unable to be enjoyed the way it was meant to. With MMOs or any other game where all of the gameplay is online-based, this usually makes the game lost forever, and instead provides either an unusable disc or takes up space on Steam. Even on games with third party servers, players in most cases will eventually lose interest and the server browser will show a barren “no servers found” message.
Of course, online gaming does have its positive qualities as well. For one, it makes multiplayer on the PC much more viable for multiple genres. Although LAN gaming does exist and is a lot of fun, the setup for one makes it impractical for a regular basis. You not only have to provide your own computer, but also several Ethernet cables, a method to link the computers all together, a place for the computers to sit and plenty of room. Not quite as easy as turning on the console, throwing a controller to your pal and sitting down.
Another is the number of types of people you can meet and play against. In real life, your multiplayer gaming was generally limited to the people in your area that are into the same games you are. The range of opponents and allies you had depended upon the amount of people that lived near you. With online gaming, you would be able to meet different kinds of players with different strategies, allowing you to become even better. Even with offline games, the Internet has allowed players to learn more about the games they play.
Online gaming is here to stay. There is plenty of room for it to evolve and much more potential for it in the future. That said, I believe that developers shouldn’t completely ignore local multiplayer. Both kinds of games provide different experiences which are both positive. However, when I have friends over, I know what kind of games I’d rather have.