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Multiplayer Gaming - Playing Together vs Playing in Parallel

In looking at the interactions found in common video games, let's begin with the most commonly known online multiplayer gaming system - the first person shooting game.

In my introduction, I touched on how games affect our social behaviour.  This is a fascinating element of the dynamics of play.  The space and time in which a game exists, delineated as it is by the rules of the game (and sometimes referred to as "The Magic Circle") allows us to interact in a structured environment, free from the trappings of social norms and behaviours.

This always leads me to wonder whether modern games really capitalise on inter-player interactions in a multiplayer environment.  All too often, it seems that multiplayer gaming is simply single player gaming played in parallel with others.

Of course, the line between single and multiplayer gaming is indistinct.  Callois surmised that, in a way, all games involve multiple players, however abstract the form of some of those "players" might be.  In games of solitaire, coin flips, or even balance, one attempts to better one's own score, the score of a rival, or seeks to tame the nature of their own body, or even to cheat luck.  To have a play scenario, say Salen and Zimmerman, one must have opposition to one's goals.  Though it may take some abstraction to personify that opposition, it is possible to define all games as being played against something or someone.

In looking at the interactions found in common video games, let's begin with the most commonly known online multiplayer gaming system - the first person shooting game.  For the most part, the multiplayer aspect of this game works in a similar fashion to the single player game - the aim of the player is to hunt down and eliminate members of an opposing force.  That he or she has is part of a team is largely treated as inconsequential.  Individual scores are still granted, and the overall team score is simply a sum of the score of the individuals.  The overwork of one team member is not directly affected by the underwork of another.


Where inter-player interaction is promoted, it is often done by applying single-player goals to such behaviours.  Thus, the medic looking to heal his teammates is not seeking further interaction with his fellow players, but has simply switched focus from eliminating one in-game character to aiding another.  There is little need for communication, and the interaction is still very shallow.

Video games are not alone in comitting us to shallow inter-person interaction.  Many of the "classic" board games are merely a game of simple chance played in parallel with others.  One's success or failure at Snakes & Ladders does not depend on having a second, third or fourth player, yet we would not likely play the game alone.

In digital games, however, the possibilities for inter-player interaction are huge.  In the hugely popular World Of Warcraft, the core gameplay varies little from a single-player game of similar format - though some players play "support" roles, their general behaviour in this role would not be significantly changed were the other characters replaced by an AI.  Where World Of Warcraft players come together, it is more often in the planning & organisation stages of play.  This is facilitated by an in-game text chat function - or, more commonly, by some kind of external voice-chat system.  In this way, the deepest and most complex interactions in World of Warcraft might be inspired by the game, but they take place outside of the game's main play mechanic.

One can't help but be curious as to whether this plays a part in the stereotypical social behaviours of players of online multiplayer gaming.  Since our interaction with other players is so very shallow, perhaps this is why our moral compass is engaged less and less, to the point of behaving in socially unacceptable manners.

Is there a way we could harness complex inter-player interactions in a play environment?

Some board games, and many major card games, promote, support and at times even rely upon some very complex inter-player interactions.  Poker, for instance, relies on deceiving and seeing through the deceptions of your opponents.  Murder mystery nights rely on similar mechanics.  This art of subterfuge and counter-subterfuge pushes players to learn more about each other, and to study each other's behaviours in a very deep manner.  In short - such games put people at odds with one another, but bring them closer together as a result.

In a more abstract example, consider fine art or high-art media as a gameplay scenario.  As artists push the boundaries of our comprehension of imagery, we fight to makes sense of and interpret their work.  This can result in rauccous debate over interpretation and understanding.  Abstract as it may be, the goal of this "game" of art (to reach a full and mutual understanding of an interpretive piece) works to put us at odds with one another, but still brings us closer together.

The most saddening shortfall of digital games in this sense are the new wave of so-called "social media games".  As social media outlets such as facebook and twitter seek to promote communication and inter-person interaction, these games actually work to simplify the interactions we have with each other through their play mechanics.

It would seem that there is room for digital interactive media and games to offer more depth for inter-player experiences, if designers are prepared to look carefully at how such interaction is promoted by the play mechanics at their heart of their work.  We should consider the intent of the player, and carefully look at how we promote exploitation of inter-player dynamics.  By delving deeper into topics rarely touched on in video games (such as interpretation and deception) we could perhaps see games as a way to learn more about people, and exploit the social possibilities of gaming's "Magic Circle" for our own ends.

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